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Never trust that you’re smarter than the enemy. Always seek an overwhelming advantage.

  • Ignatius

 

5 Minutes Later (Lighthome Time) - Chisel - Broken Branch

“Are you sure Copycat came this way?” I ask.

Ladyfinger shrugs. “That’s what the spiders said.”

“Hmm.” I scowl in thought. “Do you trust them?”

“Nope.”

“Hmm…” I thought scowl harder.

Ladyfinger, Reed, and I are spying down on a battered gnomic village on a cracked, charred, branch. Our search for the fugitive orc has led us to the lonely end of Lighthome.

“What am I looking at?” asks Reed.

“I believe the Elves are trying to deport the gnomic population.” I say.

“Good.” huffs Ladyfinger. “Damn firebugs. Look what they’ve done to this poor tree.”

Dozens of elves and goblins have the village locked down. They’ve got the mean look and heavy iron wands of the Frost. The Defenders of the Great Tree are here in force to freeze ass. Where there’s smoke, there’s Frost.

The Gnomes are holed up in the village tavern. I guess they’re under siege, but they’re also drinking, blaring bagpipes, and fighting each other. They may not know they’re surrounded.

There’s a harpy at the tavern door trying to cool down the Frost. Says the gnomes can’t come out because it’s too quiet. Guess she’s the bar lawyer.

This is a weird scene. Gnomes notoriously wield the eternal flame, but I know for a fact they aren’t careless with it. That said, this particular situation doesn’t look good. This branch is burnt to shit. There’s a huge gyre of smoke below us. Of course, smoke usually rises. The Frost has a bigger problem than rebellious gnomes. I know dragon smog when I see it.

Ladyfinger is losing patience. “What are we waiting for? Either the orc’s in the bar or she isn’t. Let’s go find out.”

I frown. “I’d rather not walk into a situation this busy.”

Ladyfinger eyes me appraisingly. “Why not? Too many variables? Worried we might lose Copycat if a fight breaks out?“

“Not really.” I shrug. “I just don’t like meeting new people.”

Ladyfinger’s appraising look turns sour. I’ve failed to impress once again. “Would you like me to go in?”

“You can’t go in dressed like that.” I scoff. “You look like a Wreckworld killer.”

“I am a Wreckworld killer.”

“Exactly. Everybody hates you guys. You’ll start a riot.”

“Meh.” scoffs Ladyfinger. “Usually they just freeze in fear.”

I look down at the increasingly belligerent drunken gnomes and the arboreal magic thugs tooling up to kick their ass. “I don’t think this is a freeze in terror type of crowd. Looks more like a start blasting and sort shit out later type of party.”

“Well, what? Shall I go down naked?”

“No. Just wear what dryads normally wear.”

“Dryads normally walk around naked.”

This conversation is stressing me out. I look to Reed for support. He shrugs. “I’m fine with naked.”

I rub my aching temples. “Just… take off the helmet at least. It’s very distinctive.”

Ladyfinger frowns and handles her helmet, but doesn’t take it off.

After a moment, Reed stands with a groan and stretches a little. “I’ll go down. Check things out. Maybe get us a round. If things get violent, come help. I can only fight four people at once. Any more than that, and they start to get away.”

Ladyfinger watches him stride off with furrowed brow. “Is he a tough guy joking about being weak, or a weak guy joking about being tough?”

“It varies.” I say. “Depends on who we’re with.”

Reed saunters over to the Tavern and slips in with a casual nod to the Frost. They’re startled by his brazen breach of their cordon, but none react fast enough to stop him. Amatures. They should have been watching their backtrail.

“Um, excuse me?”

I spin around, heart hammering. There’s a young, wide eyed, tiefling behind me. He’s dressed as a Wreckworld wizard, hugging his spear to his chest. Where the hell did he come from? I ready a magic missile.

“I’m lost and scared and don’t know who I am!” he wails.

I pause. He seems more pathetic than dangerous.

“Relax, Chisel. It’s just a messenger.” Ladyfinger walks over to the nervous wizard, gently pushes his spear aside, and pulls a small scroll out of his messenger bag.

“Captain Ladyfinger,” she reads aloud. “The fugitive orc Copycat has been captured by Eater forces. We’ve paid them the ransom of 1000 battle magi, and allied with them for the war. Kill the Highgarden agents you are with and report back to Wreckworld.

“Huh.” She muses, as she carefully rerolls the scroll. “Probably should have read that silently.”

Dammit. I re-ready my magic missile. This is going to suck.

There’s a pop of hot ozone and another Wreckworld Wizard appears. His armor is burnt and torn. “What’s happening! Where am I?”

“Hold on a sec.” Ladyfinger says to me. She manhandles another scroll of the burnt guy. “Captain Ladyfinger, the fugitive orc Copycat has escaped again. The alliance with Highgarden is back on. Capture Copycat by any means necessary. We believe she is in Helhome.”

Ladyfinger shrugs. “Well, things change fast in the lower realms. I guess we’re going to Helhome. I’ve heard it’s frantic.” She underhands the scroll at me. “You’ll probably want to read that.”

The scroll plunks off my chest and hits the ground. I ain’t taking my eyes off her. So I’m the first to see another Battle Magi stroll out of the foliage behind her.

“Actually... “ he says. “The Eaters found her again. We should kill this guy.”

“Sounds good.” Ladyfinger flicks out her shortsword and beheads the third messenger. He disappears in a cloud of blood before his head even hits the ground.

I fire my magic missile too late and too wide. Ladyfinger doesn’t react to my misfire. She calmly wipes the gore from her blade. “Did you just miss with a magic missile?”

“Maybe.”

“I didn’t know that was possible. Don’t they hit whatever you’re thinking about?”

“Maybe I got distracted. What the fuck is going on?”

“That last guy was full of shit.” She slides her cleanish sword back in it’s sheath. “He wasn’t confused and scared. Probably one of the Battle Magi given to the Eaters.”

The young tiefling slowly keels over in a dead faint as me and the burnt mage share a skeptical look. “Maybe he was just confident.”

“Yeah.” adds the burnt mage. “Or pretending to be confident. Some people do that when they’re confused.”

Ladyfinger shakes her head. “He didn’t have a messenger bag.”

“Could have been a verbal message.”

“That’s ridiculous. Most Battle Magi don’t remember their name after a realm shift, how would he remember a message?”

“Maybe he really wanted to come to Lighthome.” I suggest.

“Yeah.” adds the burnt mage. “Maybe he wanted to kill an elf.”

“Enough!” snaps Ladyfinger. “Why are you giving me a hard time? That guy wanted to kill you!”

“Well excuse me, but I’m not thrilled to be travelling with a psycho who beheads people on a hunch.” I snark. “Don’t be getting any hunches about me!”

“Yeah!” adds the burnt mage.

Why are you guys yelling?” hisses another Wreckworld Wizard as he lurks into our clearing. “This is supposed to be a sneak attack!

Ladyfinger’s sword flickers and another wizard disappears.

“Ack! Again?” I’m aghast.

“Unbelievable.” The burnt mage shakes his head.

“What? What was I supposed to do?” Ladyfinger snaps testily.

“You should have asked him some questions!” I snap back.

“Why? He was obviously working the enemy! He said we should kill you!”

“That was the first guy! This guy just said something about a sneak attack!”

“I...” she pauses. “Maybe we should have asked a few questions.”

“Ya think? I'm pretty curious about that sneak attack.”

She shrugs. “I’m sure we’ll figure it out.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of.”

The burnt mage sighs. “Honestly, I’m not sure I’m on the right side here.”

Ladyfinger gives him a side eye. “Do you remember any spells?”

He shrugs helplessly. “I don’t remember anything.”

“Then you’re on nobody's side. Because you’re useless. Just sit down.”

“Oh thank goodness.” He sits somewhat cheerily. “It’s nice to have a plan.”

There’s a commotion down in the village. A platoon of Wreckworld Wizards have surrounded the Frost Magi surrounding the gnomic tavern. Lots of yelling and angry wand pointing. A smirking dark elf appears to be leading the Wreckworld killers. He demands they hand over the fugitive orc, Copycat. Laughs about getting paid twice for one job.

“Told you those guys were working for Eaters.” says Ladyfinger.

She’s probably right, but I’m still skeptical. “Not all dark elves are Eaters.”

“Dude, that’s Ignatius.”

Holy Fuck! That’s the Mad Poet? I’m stunned.

In the beginning, the Last Battle was a relatively minor dust up between a few guys from Helhome and a couple of the local Highgarden lads. We didn’t even call it the Last Battle back then. I don’t think we called it anything. Just one fight among thousands.

Then a drunk weirdo entered a salon on Darkhome and gave a spontaneous monologue about the cruelty of reincarnation. It struck a nerve. A rare intersection of nihilism, populism, and poetry. The next day, a thousand hungover dark elves found the will to travel to Highgarden. They managed to breach the Bridge, starting the apocalypse as we know it.

And now that same mother fucker is here. One of the most dangerous men in the nine realms, backed by a thousand battle magi, poised to bring Wreckworld into his apocalyptic forces.

And here I am. A guy who just missed with a magic missile, backed by a dryad who may kill me and a halfling who’s at the pub, tasked with stopping him.

This is not good.

Or maybe it is. Do I really need to find Copycat? Maybe I can just stop Ignatius from finding her. Possibly by beheading him.

I look at my highly murderous companion, who’s conveniently dressed the same as the enemy forces. I rub my hands together gleefully. This is gonna be good.

“Ladyfinger, be a dear and pop that guy’s head off.”

She sniffs. “Shouldn’t I ask him some questions first?”

“No need, he’s definitely an evil dude.”

“Maybe he’s just confident.”

“Yeah!” chirps the burnt mage.

I clutch my brow. Fuck’s sake. Fuck it, I’ll do it myself.

I pop out of our cover, gather my will, and unleash a cannonade of magic missiles. It’s a terrible barrage of light, force, and murderous intent.

As the glare dims and dust settles, I see dozens of wizards from both sides of the standoff staring at me. Fuck, I don’t think I hit any of them.

“How?” asks Ladyfinger.

“I dunno. I used to be good at that.”

Reed hussles up to our lookout. He slipped past both cordons in the confusion of my ineffective broadside.

“Copycat’s not there.” He wheezes, leaning on his glaive, too winded to finish his beer. “Thanks for the distraction. Wasn’t sure how I was getting out of there.”

“It wasn’t a distraction. That’s Ignatius, I’m trying to kill him.”

“What? Dang it, I just ran past that guy.” He tosses back his pint. “Okay, let’s head back.”

Ladyfinger gestures to the dozens of magi moving on us. “I thought you could only fight four guys at once?”

Reed shrugs. “I’ll just make Ignatius one of the four. Does he have Copycat?”

“No, she’s in Helhome.” says the burnt mage.

Reed gives him a leary look. “...alright.”

I look down at the mess of angry wizards. Heft my axe. Better not get fancy. “Okay, we pop in, kill Ignatius, get the fuck out of here.” I look at Ladyfinger. “You coming?”

“No. Let me know how it works out.” She melts into the great tree like the dryad she is.

“So glad we brought her.” I mumble, as Reed and I stride downbranch to our doom. Dang, this is a terrible idea. Wish I’d realized that sooner. I’d turn around if I thought they’d let us leave. But we don’t have time for the brew bag to work it’s magic, and I’m not a particularly fast runner. Looks like we’re leaving Lighthome the hard way. May as well take a few of these fuckers with us.

The door to the tavern bangs open, and a pile of gnomes pile out. I guess I made enough noise for them to join the party. Reed and I share a look. Could this be our salvation? It’s taking some attention off us.

“Iggy!” shouts a hairy gnome. “You vile sphincter spasm! How dare you come back here! But actually, I’m glad you did! Come here, lad!”

One of the Frost spins and draws iron on the gnomes. “Back in the bar old man! We’ll deal with you later!”

“Get bent popsicle! I ain’t stopping for a pile of bearshit!”

The Frost elf looks confused. “...what?”

With a roar, the gnome morphs into a kodiak bear, and snaps the head and torso off the Frost elf. Blood and severed limbs gush from his maw. The other gnomes howl and blast fire or turn into dire wolves to lay waste to any fucking fuck who made the fucking mistake of coming near this burnt ass fucking branch.

The Frost and the Wreckworld mercenaries respond predictably by blasting in all directions. Fire meets frost, fangs match fury. Blood soothes the burn scars of the mighty tree, as three groups of psychos water it with enough gore to put out any fire. Spells roil off the great bear as he chugs inexorably towards the smirking dark elf wreathed in razor sharp shadows. A metallic harpy soars over the battle, keening a soul grating wail that mocks honor or glory and foreshadows only pain, failure, and futility. It’s an unsettling accompaniment to an already ghastly scene.

Reed frowns at the carnage. “I don’t wanna fight anymore.”

“I agree. Let’s skip to step three and get the fuck out of here.”

We backpedal, but a pack of dire wolves have our scent and are tearing towards us. Small explosions light our position as magi take potshots in our general direction. Dang it, how the hell are we getting out of here?

A green hand grabs my ankle and pulls me into the tree. Blind and deaf, I shudder in horror as my lungs are clogged with pulp and my heart strives to pump sap. For a long moment, I pray for death, then I pop out the underside of the burnt branch. Holy shit! I hang over the gyre of dragon smog, clinging desperately to the charred bark. I now hate this fucking tree, but I’m not letting go.

“So!” chirps Ladyfinger. “How’d it go?” She’s lying languidly on the underside of the branch. An unsubtle fuck you to gravity.

Reed barfs noisily as he hangs next to me. Appears to be mostly tree sap. I agree with the sentiment. It’s peaceful down here, and I’m glad to be alive, but goddamn that was terrible.

“We’ve re-adjusted our priorities and now believe we should focus on retrieving Copycat.”

“Excellent.” Ladyfinger nods in approval. “So, we’re off to Helhome?”

“Soon.” I gaze thoughtfully into the smog. “Our competition has a lot more firepower than we do, and I don’t trust us to be smarter than them. So, fuck it. Dame Astra’s minted. Let’s deputize a dragon.”

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A note from Doctor Zero

Saga’s sacred text is sparkles sewn into bright cloth. It reads:

I like to go with the flow.

It gets me where I need to go.

Also, the Frost is after me. And mercenaries, and gnomes, and spiders, and dragons.

Hopefully the flow takes me away from them.


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Doctor Zero

Bio: Hi! I like reading and writing sci-fi and fantasy.

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