Paul met Ragnar on the road to the west, atop Bruce, his brown stallion.
“You’re not going to ride that thing all the way into the Green Hell, are you?” Ragnar asked, loping alongside him, the Wildling occasionally dropping to all fours as if it were more comfortable.
“Seems easy enough,” Paul said, nodding at the road. “The gate is straight ahead.”
Ragnar laughed. “The gate. We are not using the gate. The forest watches the gate closer than anywhere else. There are a few spots on the mountain peaks that are devoid of soil. We’ll go in through its blind spot, then make sure not to make any trouble that would draw its attention.”
“The forest’s…attention?” Paul asked.
“Superstitious wilding nonsense?” Paul asked.
“You came to me for help, remember?” Ragnar stood and pointed at the horseshoe shaped smudge of fire and smoke on the side of the mountain. “We’ll follow the road past that point, then go behind the fire, while the forest’s blinded. Once we’re inside the green hell, do not cut anything. You can step on twigs and branches, even snap things off with your bare hands if you’re feeling lucky, but the forest can feel it when you cut it. It’ll know you’re human.”
“I suppose it goes without saying that I shouldn’t start a fire, then?” Paul asked with a raised eyebrow.
“You learn quickly. If you want to blend in, act like an animal would, and the forest won’t pay any attention to you. At least not at first. That includes riding horses.”
“And wearing shoes, I suppose?” Paul asked, glancing down at the wildling trotting along beside him.
Ragnar gave him a wide smile. “Now you’re getting it.”
“You want me to rescue my wife…naked?”
“Your words, not mine.”
Paul considered. With the modest amount of Heartstones he’d purchased as a noble, his Endurance was high enough that he didn’t really need clothes to protect him from the elements, or shoes to stop sharp rocks.
Either the wolf was right, or he was fucking with him: One of those possibilities increased his chances of saving Lora, and the other didn’t lose him anything but his dignity.
“Alright, but the belt stays on.” Paul patted his weapon belt, wincing as his fractured wrist screamed in pain.
Paul hadn’t realized how much of a kick the Crownslayer crossbows had. They were absolutely not meant to be used by peasants. If Paul was a peasant, he’d have lost his arm. He’d stolen one from the vault underneath the police precinct, in case the kid was a royal in disguise.
It should have gone through his head and the ceiling beyond, but it got caught in his skull. That means the boy had bones that were at least as strong as steel.
Multiple sources had confirmed that the boy was harder to kill than he appeared. Even Brenda Bergstrom had been convinced to give her account of meeting him.
She slit his throat from ear to ear, and it looked like he died, but he was faking. The boy was fine in a matter of seconds!
I saw Kyle Denton lay a wicked blow to the base of Edward’s spine, with every ounce of his power. Ed should have spent the rest of his life as a vegetable, but he went all crazy and started biting Kyle instead. Watching two guys wrestle was pretty hot. Do you know if he has a girlfriend, detective?
“Agh,” Paul muttered, shaking his head. Sometimes his strong memory brought up shit he didn’t want to think about.
The point was the Edward impersonator had somehow enhanced his survivability. Paul didn’t know if it was illusion, or high Endurance, or what, so he had decided not to take any chances and shoot him in the brain with a bolt that couldn’t be stopped, then burn the body.
A half hour of silent contemplation later, Ragnar stopped him.
“Here’s where we leave the road,” he said, pointing to the treeline to the north.
“Alright,” Paul said, sliding off his horse one-handed.
“Take care Bruce.” Paul said, patting the horse, before leaning close.
“There are apples at home.”
Bruce perked up and began trotting the way they came, eager to get treats from the kids.
Paul unlaced his boots before kicking them off, starting on his trousers as he looked up at the dense forest ahead of him.
“Ugh, I’ll never understand why humans wear shoes. The smell is ungodly.” Ragnar said, his nose wrinkling up.
“Maybe we just don’t like stepping in shit filled with parasitic worms that burrow through the skin.” Paul said evenly as he started on his shirt, carefully sliding out of it while favoring his injured arm.
“Hey!” Ragnar gave an animalistic growl. “Parasitic worms build character! My mom had worms.”
“Nah, I’m kidding, we’re just smart enough not to step in shit.”
“To each their own,” Paul said, taking off his shirt.
Now Paul was wearing nothing but his belt with his sword, waterskin and a pouch full of dry crackers.
“Good enough,” Ragnar said, nodding before he loped into the woods. “Come along then.”
Maybe he wasn’t fucking with me.
The two of them climbed diagonally up the side of the mountain, behind the fire that smoldered on two days after it started.
After three hours of sweaty naked hiking and biting insects, they reached the top of the mountain chain, and Ragnar pulled him aside and began covering him in mud and leaves.
“The tricks I’ve told you so far are known to a few human rangers, but the ones I’m about to teach you belong to my tribe, and if you repeat them to anyone, I will hunt you down.”
“Alright,” Paul said. “I promise not to breathe a word of this, even to my own family.”
Ragnar studied him for a moment, weighing his honesty.
“When we enter the grass, thank it for welcoming the Vargson tribe, then proceed to think only of hunting, eating meat, or mating. There are things you shouldn’t think, but telling you what they are would be stupid. Just focus one those three things and try not to let your mind wander, okay?”
“The grass? Not the forest?”
“It seems to be an extention of the forest somehow. We don’t know exactly, the forest has existed long before the tribes.”
Ragnar rolled his shoulders and cautiously began down the opposite slope, making his way down the mountain until he came across the grass line, where the stony mountainside gave way to lush green blades.
“Thank you grass, for welcoming the Vargson tribe.” Ragnar said, then gently began padding down the side of the mountain.
Paul cast his gaze upward, to the school of skyfish meandering against the blue of the open air, a few miles away, then glanced back down to where Ragnar was dwindling into the distance and shrugged.
Worth a shot.
“Thank you, grass, for welcoming the Vargson tribe.” Paul said, then began to concentrate on thoughts of eating raw deer as he followed along behind Ragnar.
YOU ARE WELCOME.
A thought that was entirely not Paul touched on Paul’s mind briefly before moving away, sending tingles down the back of his neck. Paul got goosebumps, and for a brief instant wondered about what the voice had been before he wrenched his thoughts back to the proscribed menu.
Raw deer, hunting, mounting she-wolves, Paul chanted his mantra internally, keeping his focus razor sharp as he followed the wildling.
No one told me-
That the forest
Paul shook his head, padding along through the soft grass behind Ragnar.
The scrub gave way to a clearing after awhile, and Paul was finally able to make out the ruined city in the center of the bowl-shaped mountains, with perfectly symmetrical rivers flowing down on either side of the gate, down into the lush green forest studded with ancient ruins.
Paul could make out tiny brown and purple figures moving around in the distance, along the beach, and every so often he spotted movement through the thick canopy. The Garthspawn were down there, in the forest.
The forest itself was strange, like nothing he’d ever seen before. The entire thing seemed to be one interlaced piece of wood, with branches melting into other trunks, creating a solid latticework of canopy above him, while the bamboo intermingled seamlessly with the wood.
The forest was like nothing natural he’d ever seen. It had been designed by someone, but not for the benefit of people, giving it an odd, unrealistic feeling as they traveled through it.
They crept into the valley, the trees whispering to each other as they passed beneath them.
Paul felt the alien mind brush against his own, but ignored it.
Hungry. Chase prey. Mate.
The sensation passed a moment later, and Paul narrowed his eyes, following Ragnar in avoiding the gaze of naked brown women who seemed to patrol the area with bamboo spears.
He was going to get his woman back. No matter what.
“Alright, you haven’t seen anyone by the name of Paul Tucker yet, have you?” Garth asked upon getting back inside Grass’s range.
- NO HUMANS HAVE ENTERED THE BASIN.
“I wish you could tone it down,” Garth muttered, cradling his head. He’d gone off-road and invoked Forestwalk to jet ahead of Paul, hopefully cutting him and whatever posse he’d rounded up off at the gate.
“Alright.. Listen up, I want an ambush set up for Paul right here. I think a hundred or so Mrs. Banyans with grass skirts and spears would send the right message. Oh, and get Paul Tucker’s Garthspawn, I want to interview her about her man and see whether or not she could be good leverage.
LORA TUCKER HAS BEEN KIDNAPPED.
“What!?” Garth demanded, staring accusingly at the nearest tuft of grass just inside the gate.
SHE WAS TAKEN FROM THE CITY TWELVE MINUTES AGO BY A PARTICULARLY HORNY PIECE OF WALKING DIRT. BANYAN IS FOLLOWING IT.
There’s no such thing as horny dirt!
Garth started chuckling uncontrollably.
“Oh, you can bet your ass I want this guy on my team. Grass, Tell Mrs. Banyan to back off and show me the direction he’s heading.”
Mrs. Banyan phased out of a nearby trunk as Grass began downloading the information into Garth’s head.
“There’s something you should know.”
“Lora Tucker chose to stay here with her children.” she said, giving Garth a clipboard with the Garthspawn’s information.
“Reeaaallly?” Garth asked, going over the neatly typed pages.
Looks like she’s expecting a baby. A Garthspawn baby. I can use this.
“Thanks.” Garth said, handing it back.
Garth leaped up towards the steep, tree-studded stone abutting the gate, was caught by low hanging branches and tossed upward, into the branches of the next one.
In a matter of seconds, Garth was at the top of the mountain, sprinting along at inhuman speeds, aiming to cut off Mr. Tucker, Employee #1.
“Wait!” Lora cried, pushing herself off of his shoulder.
They were most of the way up the mountain, they had managed to lose the pursuit of strange, identical brown women, and were about to be home free, with nothing but a boring walk between them and being home again.
Why did she stop me?
“What is it?” Paul asked, looking at her. She seemed, guilty? Paul already knew it wasn’t her fault she’d been taken.
“We don’t really have a lot of spare time,” Ragnar said, glancing upward furtively.
“It’s okay,” Paul said placatingly, “I know it wasn’t your-”
“I chose to stay.” She interrupted him, her voice soft.
“I’m pregnant.” Lora said, holding her stomach gingerly.
Paul didn’t understand.
“Why would you stay here because of that?”
“A week ago…” Lora’s eye began to water, her voice wavering. “I noticed, that when I sing, it makes her happy…I can feel it. She’s like me…and we can’t keep her. Not there.”
The ground felt like it was falling out from under his feet, Paul’s breath caught in his throat and his knees seemed to lock up.
“We can…figure something out.”
“I don’t want to live in fear that one day she’ll be taken. I love you and you were the best thing that ever happened to me, but I’m not naïve enough to believe the same thing will happen to her.”
“There’s no life for either of you here,” Paul said. “There’s an expedition, thousands strong coming here tomorrow, and they’re going to burn this place to the ground if they have to. It’s not going to be about getting you back, it’s going to be about sending a message. Even if you did make it, they’d probably put you in prison. We might never see each other again either way. The only way we’ll make it is if we lay low and wait out the storm.”
“No.” Lora said, unconsciously clutching her stomach. “My daughter is going to be free. They have the power to make that happen.”
“Your children need their mother.” Paul said.
“I know,” She sobbed, “that’s why I asked them to bring them here.”
“What!?” Paul shouted. “You would bring them here? where they could – I-“ He clenched his fist in impotent rage.
“I need you too. I need my children.”
“I know.” Lora said, tears streaming down her face. “I know, I just…” She breathed in a ragged breath. “I can’t.”
“This is a real tearjerker, but I didn’t agree to do family counseling. Just knock her out and take her with us. Our window is closing fast.” Ragnar said, scanning the surroundings.
Paul saw an instant of fear in Lora’s eyes, and realized that deep down, under all that love and patience, there was one underlying fact that he couldn’t erase:
He’d bought her.
Paul took a deep breath, muscling through the swirling emotions.
“I’ve never forced you to do anything, and I never will. Please, come with us and I’ll do everything in my power to keep our daughter safe. I came this far for you. What’s a little thing like hiding one girl?”
Lora began sobbing wholeheartedly, sinking to her knees and burying her face in her hands. Paul knew the answer was no.
“Damn. Going through a rough patch there, buddy?” A familiar voice called from above them, making the hair on Paul’s neck stand up.
He couldn’t possibly still be alive.
“Family troubles can be hard,” The purple boy with green hair said, sauntering into view from behind a trunk. “Maybe…and this is just a thought…you might want to consider working for the guy whose agenda includes your daughter not being raped by strangers? I’m sure I could finagle a way for all of you to be together as a unit again.”
Paul stared at him, open mouthed. Is he…
“Yeah, I’m the real thing.” Garth said, picking up a twig and flicking it into the brush. “The bolt through the skull didn’t take. I would’ve found you sooner, but I had some whores to save. Long story.”
“Anyway, I’m looking for a few good men and women to be my hands and feet, and you’ve impressed me. How would you like a job?”
“You gonna say something?” Garth asked, green eyebrow raised.
Paul felt like his future was being sheared away by a powerful force, leaving without options.
“What did you need me to do?”
“Hey, I signed on to get your woman back to Santo Descanso, not join a revolution led by whatever the fuck that is,” Ragnar said, snarling at Garth, who seemed to take it in stride.
“Fastest way to get her back home, is to make home a place she can go back to.” Garth said, glancing at Lora, who was frozen with fear.
“But first things first.” Garth said with a grin, holding up a finger. “The expedition into the Green Hell is going to fail. And the scope of that failure and its ultimate body count could depend on you. Can I count on you to take on that responsibility?”
Paul glanced at Lora.
“If she’s gonna be here when they come, then yes.”
“Excellent. You’re going to be a most valued member of Garth Industries, LLC. Medical, dental, retirement plan, excellent pay, the works.”
“You’re…The…Garth?” Lora asked.
“One and the same. Older brother of that selfish cunt Jim Daniels, pioneer of the Phytomagus class, purveyor of Pot, conjurer of Cocaine, retailer of root beer, chocolate, and ice cream.”
A plant grew in his hand, a tiny weed rolling its own leaves into a cigar, which he then lit with a fire from his thumb.
Lora started to hyperventilate, staring at the mythic personification of evil.
“Calm down.” Garth said, blowing a ring of smoke at her.
“Okay,” she said, her eyes half lidded as the smoke rolled past her face.
Paul watched the exchange as icy fingers worked their way into his gut.
“Is that how you control them?”
“What this?” he asked, looking at the cigar in his hand. “Naw, this is a strong sedative I like to smoke. Grass is the one who controls the Garthspawn.”
I AM GRASS.
The forest around them shook violently for a moment.
The grass is Grass. Good to know. Paul thought, trying to figure out a way to burn the entire forest dow-
NOT A GOOD IDEA.
“I guess you could call him my firstborn,” The Father of Sin said, tucking the cigar in the corner of his mouth before making another. “He’s a bit rough around the edges, and not particularly bright. I never expected him to be sapient in the first place. Not like Ms. Banyan. I can’t take credit for her, she’s Beladia’s work.
Brown, identical women melted out of the nearby tree trunks, instantly surrounding them.
“Want one?” he asked, holding another cigar out. “I babied it down for you.”
“It’ll fix your wriiiist.” The ancient evil sorcerer said, waggling the lit cigar.
“I’ll take it.” Ragnar said, taking it and inhaling deeply. “Since I’m in this for the long haul apparently.”
“I absolve you of your debt.” Paul said. “You can’t help me with this.”
“Not how a blood-debt works,” Ragnar said. “You’re stuck with me until she-“ He pointed at Lora. “Is over there.” He pointed toward the city.
“Unless you wanna try fighting out?”
Paul scanned the thousands of spear-wielding brown naked women that surrounded them in the light of the rising moon, then glanced up at the thousands of Sky-fish swirling above them like a tornado, each one lethal enough to kill dozens of armed soldiers.
Maybe she is safe here, Paul found himself thinking.
“Damn,” Ragnar said, coughing. “This is some good shit.”