Am I the guy I am when I’m drunk?
- Excerpt from “The Path of The Longstrider”
1 Day Later (Lighthome Time) - Copycat - Lonely Branch
“So what’s in your secret enclave?” asks Presto.
Oak is leading us down a lonely branch. The Great Tree is usually thick with white branches, golden leaves, glittering bugs, and beautiful birds. A kaleidoscope of life driven by the sun and the breeze. Also, the occasional ravenous mammal or tavern selling fermented tree sap.
That said, our current path has no other branches in sight. The leaves are stunted and the bark stained with soot. It’s still beautiful, if a little ominous.
“The secret enclave contains a secret.” says Oak. “And gnomes. Mostly gnomes with a secret.”
“Cool.” chirps Presto. “What’s the secret?”
Oak shrugs. “It’s a staging area for an invasion of the lower realms. We’re gonna carve out a new homeland where time goes slower. Give our kids a chance to live without the apocalypse rushing at them.”
“Wow.” Presto frowns. “That’s… an idea.”
“What else can we do?” Oak snaps. “Pretend the end isn’t coming? Or abandon them to fight in Highgarden? Bye kids, I’m off to get my brains scrambled. Have fun figuring out the apocalypse on your own.”
Presto winces. “Feels like there’s childrearing options between fighting a hopeless war and starting a different one. Like, maybe, love and nurture those kids with whatever time we have? It’s obviously not perfect, but it’s better than taking them to fight hellaciously dangerous underworld monsters.”
“Hiding somewhere peaceful with our kids?” sneers Oak. “Great idea. Is that what you’re doing?”
Presto sighs. That shut him up.
After some more walking, we reach a particularly barren stretch. No leaves and charred bark. A slowly swirling gyre of smog below us. I’m starting to see why elves get so worked up about fire.
“Don’t try your featherfall trick out here.” warns Oak. “This is not a good spot to go over the edge. No one ever comes back.”
Cy stops walking. Clutches his brow.
Saga looks down into the smog. “What’s down there?”
“How the fuck should I know?” snaps Oak. “Were you listening to the no one comes back part?” He looks at Cy. “You heard me, right?”
“Shush. I need a moment.”
Cy mutters angrily to himself for a few minutes, then sighs and pulls out his mace.
“Alright. Let’s get this done.”
We trudge onto the burnt branch, Oak leading, Cy in the back. The scenery is crisped, but the walking is easy. It’s still beautiful, in a way, and we make good time.
Once we’re well past the safe drop zone, arrows start to whistle past us. Oddly, none of them come close. They fly in our general direction, but miss terribly.
“This is a variation on a theme.” muses Presto. “I wonder what it means?”
“It means our enemy got too predictable.” Cyan smiles. “I left him a surprise.”
The arrows stop, replaced by panicky yelps. I see a disturbance on our backtrail. It’s an invisible man outlined in bees. He appears to be having a bad time.
A ball of white hot fire forms in Cy’s hand. “Clear!” he yells as he lofts the fireball towards the invisible man. The bees scatter just before it explodes at the elf’s feet. He’s blown off the branch, spiralling down into the smog in several flaming chunks.
“Yeah, that felt good.” says Cy. “My only regret is he’ll never remember it.”
“Nice work.” says Presto. “That’s one problem solved.”
An arrow flies in from the other side. It slams into Oak’s back and drops him like a rock.
We scramble for cover, end up crouched behind a burnt stump. Again.
“This is getting ridiculous.” snaps Presto. “What’s going on with Oak?”
Saga checks him over. “He’s asleep.”
“Asleep?” Presto pulls the arrow out of Oak’s back and sniffs it. “Sleeping poison? Dang. Now we got dark elves after us?”
“Give us the orc and the rest of you can go.” yells a voice from down branch.
“Is that Ignatius? Dang." Cy turns to Presto. "Watch for shadows." Presto nods, peers around suspiciously.
Cyan conjures another ball of fire, yells down branch. “Iggy, is that you? I’ve missed your face. Stick your head out.”
“Aye Cyan, it’s me. We have a contract for the orc. Give her to us and the rest of you can go.”
“Okay, sounds good.” Cyan passes me the fireball. It’s warm and gooey, but I’m able to hold it. “We’re sending her over.”
“No! Disable her and walk away. Then we’ll come get her.”
“Okay.” Cy hits the stump with a loud clunk. “There, she’s out cold. Now we’re walking away.” He drums a little pitter-patter beat on the stump, gradually getting quieter.
“You think you’re funny, Cyan?”
“I can’t hear you, we’re too far away.”
“Well, can you hear my friend?”
Cyan and Presto look at each other. Shrug. “Uh, no?”
We wait for Iggy to say more. There is no more.
“Well, as threats go, that was underwhelming. Unless…” Cyan looks stricken. My fireball withers away. “Could she be here?”
“What? No!” Presto scoffs at the idea. But he looks around worriedly. “She can’t be here. Though it is awfully quiet…”
“Who are we talking about?” I ask.
“The Silence.” whispers Cy. He’s shaking.
“The Gnome Killer? Why would she be in Lighthome?” asks Saga. She looks at Presto. At our gnomic vests. At Oak and his supposed secret gnomic enclave. “Oh dear.”
“Right. Get ready to run.” Presto has his practice sword out. He’s scrawling another layer of sloppy runes on it. “I’ll hold her off.”
I ready my club. Like hell I’m leaving Presto behind. I look around for the Silence. Wonder what she looks like? I gather she’s pretty quiet.
A shadow streaks over head, silent and fast. Fuck! I didn’t even flinch until it was gone. Some kind of giant, white, bird. A small shape rolled off it, landing a couple hundred feet from us. It’s a wee gnome lass, with a ninja mask, sword, and fairy wand. She’s adorable.
I’m confused. Is the wee gnome lass The Silence? Surely it’s the giant bird. It would help if either of them made a sound.
The wee lass waves her fairy wand and hoses us down with a relentless barrage of magic missiles. I eat a couple and fall back. Ow.
The missiles let up as Presto gets in front of them - rune sword flashing, shedding missiles with bursts of electric sparks. He rushes her in a lightning fast dash, and she meets him halfway. They clash in a staccato blast of slashes and sparks. Separate. Clash again.
They zip around the burnt branch like homicidal hummingbirds. Like beans in a maraca. But, like, murder beans in the maraca of doom. I take a deep breath, heft my club, stride out. I’m about to get all cut up, but I think I can slam that little bitch out to nowhere.
Saga grabs my arm. “Presto told us to run!”
“No thanks.” I keep moving, dragging her behind me.
Her claws dig into my arm. “Cy’s in trouble!”
I look back. Cy’s kneeling. Shaking. There’s frost forming around him. He’s starting to fade out. Shit. He’s gonna crash out. Hard realm shift.
“Was he hit?”
“He’s having a panic attack.”
“Alright. We were told to run, let’s run. You grab Oak.” I walk over the Cy. Lift him to his feet. “Hey, big guy. Let’s get out of here, okay? Together. You come with me, alright?”
I half lead, half carry Cy from the fight, talking all the way. He’s still cold, but feels more real. Which makes him heavy as fuck, but can handle it. I’m a big girl, thank god.
I’m relieved that Cy is stabilizing as we leave the fight behind, but I’m uncomfortably aware that we’re evacuating towards dark elf bounty hunters. “Get Oak awake.” I snap.
Saga slaps and pinches him to no avail. Looks sheepish, then gives a shriek that hurts my soul. Oak sputters awake. “The fuck, woman?”
I give him a boot. “Bear up, ya little prick. Make yourself useful.” He morphs into a giant kodiak bear. I throw Cy on his back, check that he can hold on. Yep, that’s a death grip.
“Head to your enclave. Don’t stop for anything.” I pause. “Maul any elves you see, but keep moving.”
Oak chuffs and bolts off. I hustle back to the expeditious battle. Time to extract Presto.
I’m about halfway back when a giant owl snatches me off the branch. Fuck. Forgot about this guy. His talons are wicked strong, but my vest keeps him from shredding me. Beak comes down to pluck my head off, but I meet it with a couple heavy punches. Fuck you bird. He drops me. I plummet into the smog of no return.
Huh. Didn’t think that through.
I freefall long enough to regret everything, then Saga grabs me. Ow. Annnd we’re still falling. Possibly a little slower. Saga’s striving, but I’m a big girl, godammit.
“Let go. No point in both of us dying.”
“No thanks.” Saga gives a strained grin. “I’m really curious about what’s down here.”
We flutter plummet into the smog. I see bottom a second before we hit. Manage to land it and grab Saga when she bounces off my shoulders.
“My hero.” she says.
We’re in a giant burnt out stump. The wood is charred black and hard. There’s a huge pile of gold in the center of the hollow.
“Uh-oh.” says Saga.
“This is a good thing, right? We're looking for a dragon. To get info.”
Saga is slowly backing away from the gold. "We're in a pit of no return. I don't think this is the type of dragon who answers questions."
The gold shifts and slides as a humongous crimson dragon lazily rolls towards us. “What’s this? Breakfast in bed? Don’t mind if I… ACK!! JESUS!!” The dragon springs up. Gets in the classic I-could-pounce-or-run-away pose.
“What the fuck, Copycat! You’re coming to my home now? You’re a sore loser!”
I’m not sure what to say to that. I decide to ignore it. “I’m looking for a god named Tiger. Do you know where he is?”
The huge red dragon freezes. “what. the. fuck. oh my god. You don’t remember me. You have no idea what’s going on. AH-HA-HA-HA-HA!!!” The great beast rolls around laughing.
I’m mildly offended. “It’s coming back to me.”
“I hope it does. That will only make it funnier.” The dragon wipes his eyes. Sighs and turns to Saga. “Get her out of here.”
“I can’t lift her.” Saga squeaks.
Big Red shakes his head. “Yeah, she’s a pain in the ass. I got you.” He taps Saga with a claw and her feathers lengthen, take a metallic sheen. She exhales, flexes. Looks at me with determination.
She does not wait. Pounces on me and rockets to the sky.
“Wait! I had more questions!”
“No you didn’t! Let’s get the fuck out of here!”
We shoot up. Streak around the lonely branch. Snatch Presto from his gnomic stand-off.
“Oh hey.” says Presto. “Thanks. That wasn’t going well. Wow, Saga’s stronger than she looks.”