Aspen stared up at the ceiling. For some reason, prayers for healing and growth came easily to him, but things like this, where he had to ask for something not usually in a cleric’s repertoire, he struggled to find a graceful way to say it. After a long moment in which he opened and closed his mouth at least three times, and Rouge started making ‘go on’ motions, he began.
“So… Great Goddess Gina, I know that vengeance isn’t usually your area, but we require some assistance with a difficult problem. As you requested, we are searching for those bringing violence and hate to Bright. We can take care of judgement in the heat of battle, but what do we do with those on the periphery? Those who feed the violence through malice or inaction? Please, help us.”
Beside him, Lyrec muttered, “Amen,” and then flushed when everyone looked at him. He shrugged. “Habit,” he said, sheepishly.
Time passed with no response, and the faces of the members of his group were becoming crestfallen even as George started to grin, showing yellowed teeth. Then Aspen started to glow. His feet lifted from the ground, leaving him hovering in midair. He felt his arms rise from his sides without his urging, even as his clothes began fluttering in a growing wind. His hat flapped on his head, clinging on only with the desperation of habit.
“Oh, poop,” Rouge said in a voice filled with consternation.
The Goddess Gina has heard your prayer. As Her Champion, She grants you one of the following Skills to be used in pursuit of Her goals.
[Smite] Instant death for anyone who violates Gina’s Word. Use of this Skill reduces you to 1 HP, and if it is used on an innocent, it will fail, and they will have the opportunity to slay you instead.
[Compassion] Anyone you use this on will instantly relive the suffering of those they have harmed, and they will have the opportunity to change their ways. Be aware, however, that this Skill will fail on those who are truly evil. Can only be used once per target.
[Metamorphosis] When used, this Skill changes the target into a random type of half-breed. They must interact with at least one hundred other sentient beings (number varies depending on the severity of crimes committed), including at least ten percent being people who knew them in their previous form, before they will revert to their original race. Cannot be used on people who are already of mixed race.
You have thirty seconds to choose. 30… 29… 28…
Aspen instantly dismissed [Smite]. The chance that he would use the Skill on someone deemed ‘innocent’ by some very fuzzy rules was far too high, and besides, if they wanted people dead, well, they could do that without Gina’s help. He was torn, though, between the other two. He liked the sound of [Compassion], but unfortunately, he had a terrible suspicion that only those who were essentially good would truly be swayed by this. If they knew that the experience wasn’t repeatable, they could shake it off over time.
“Metamorphosis,” he said, as firmly as he could, adding, “Please?” rather belatedly.
The light around him strobed to brilliance, and for a moment he felt as if he was split in two. One part of him remained in his body as it was changed in some essential way. The other part hovered just outside, watching in fascination. Then he snapped back together with a nearly audible pop. The light, wind, and – thankfully – hovering all stopped, and he returned to the ground.
Shakily, he reached up to rub at his stinging eyes, and then paused, noticing something different about his hand. There, wrapping around the middle finger of his right hand, starting at the lower half of his fingernail and ending at the center of the back of his hand, was a metallic tattoo that looked as if it were made of liquid silver. At first, it was a butterfly, wings trembling in an unfelt breeze. Then, as he watched, it shifted into a tadpole, tail wriggling, then sprouted legs and grew into a frog. Next, a grub swirled into a cicada, followed by something that looked like a tadpole at first, but changed instead into a lizard with long, swaying fronds around its head.
By now, his companions were crowded around him, all staring at his shiny new mark.
“That’s awesome,” Lyrec sighed, leaning in closer.
“You’re going to need a glove or something,” Rouge said practically, shooting her friend a meaningful glance as she elbowed him out of the way.
“Truly, you are blessed by the Gods,” Vonn murmured, bowing his head with respect and perhaps a hint of fear.
Aspen cleared his throat, clenching his hand. Thank you, my capricious Goddess, he thought silently, and he would have sworn he felt a teasing hand tug at his hair. Turning back to George, who was pressed back against the cabinet as hard as he could from his awkward position, Aspen extended his hand.
George’s body twisted in on itself, flickering in strange cubic patterns. Aspen had to squint hard against a terribly disorienting feeling, and finally closed his eyes completely, suddenly dizzy. When he blinked them open, George’s massive frame had been replaced by a much smaller one.
The man was still balding and potbellied, but now the belly hung above a pair of bow-legs, and his still-recognizable face sat in the middle of a knobby chartreuse head crowned with what were easily the largest ears Aspen had ever seen. Whatever half-breed George had become, Aspen doubted there was any human involved, but goblin definitely played a very large part.
George struggled to his gnarled feet, his clothes dropping from him to land in a puddle with the ropes that had been serving as his bonds. He stood there, trembling, dirty off-white underclothes his only remaining covering.
“No!” His clawed hands scratched at his green skin, and a large oily yellow tear oozed down his face. He looked fearfully at the bedroom door. “They’ll kill me,” he whimpered. “I havta talk t’ ten of m’ friends.” He struggled to make himself understood around the unfamiliar pointed teeth and long tongue that filled his mouth. “Bu’ they’ll kill me ‘f they see me!”
Aspen glanced at his friends. Rouge looked both fascinated and appalled. Vonn looked grimly pleased. Lyrec just looked disgusted. Vonn stepped forward, closer to the shaking figure. He now towered over George, and the small man shrank away, clearly unused to being physically intimidated by anyone.
“Go,” Vonn almost hissed. “Find out what it is like when everyone around you hates you without reason. When you are attacked only for your birth. If you survive, remember.” Opening the door, he shoved the goblinoid into the street, where he looked around with a panicked expression before scuttling away.
Aspen lowered the hand he’d raised when Vonn yanked the door open, sighing softly. “Vonn,” he asked, “are you aware that if he speaks to anyone, they’ll come running here to see what he’s talking about?”
The elf’s eyes snapped back to Aspen, his face going blank, then flushing with dark color. “You’re right, my lord. I’m sorry. We’ll have to hurry.”
Lyrec groaned. “And we’re going to have to take that other guy with us. We haven’t gotten a chance to talk to him yet.”
Vonn looked down, shame-faced. “I did not think. I’m sorry.”
Rouge reached out and took the young man’s hand, holding it reassuringly and glaring at Aspen. “He just found out his family is probably dead, and it’s mostly that guy’s fault. Obviously he’s not thinking clearly.”
Aspen shook his head, one eyebrow going up. “I only asked a question. And, Vonn, don’t start ‘my lord’-ing me or I’ll have to actually get upset. I’m just Aspen.” He heaved out a sigh. “Now, let’s get out of here with our prize. No way to hide the fact that we’ve been here now, so we may as well try to make it look like a robbery, or maybe someone came to exact revenge on these two for something. I’m sure there are plenty of people who have reason to be angry with them.”
He looked over at Rouge. “Can you [Stealth] with someone else, yet?”
Quickly, she looked over the Skill description, then waggled her hand. “Maaaaybe? Not someone who’s conscious, for sure, but maybe while he’s out, if I can carry him. I mean, I can definitely carry him, weight-wise, but no matter how much you guys call him little, he’s still bigger than me.” She glared around a little, her lower lip pouting out.
Aspen resisted the urge to pat her on the head. His hand wouldn’t do him any good if it was severed and made into a glove. “We’ll figure something out.” He looked at the young elf. “Vonn, destroy this room. Quietly but thoroughly. Avoid the traps.”
Back to Lyrec. “Take everything in their storage chests and put them in your inventory. Take the chests themselves, if you can. There may be other things in them they we’ve dismissed as worthless but that may yet be useful.”
The calm topaz eyes assessed Rouge. “Let’s go look at our little friend. I have an idea.”
❦ ❦ ❦
Ten minutes later, Vonn slipped into [Camouflage] and cracked the door open, peering outside. “Nothing yet,” he whispered back to the other three.
Rouge, who was wearing a man slightly taller than herself in a sling improvised from a bedsheet and tied across her shoulders, grumbled, “This is stupid. Why don’t we just roll this guy up in a carpet and pretend we’re here to do some renovations while we’re at it?”
Aspen chuckled. “I didn’t see a lot of carpet in this house, little thief. Besides, this is more fun. All right, let’s-”
Suddenly, Rouge smacked herself in the face.
“Hold up, hold up! Wait! I have the perfect thing! Oh my gosh, why didn’t I…” Her voice trailed off as she gazed into space, fingers twitching. Her ‘cat who ate the canary’ grin crept over her face. “Oh yeah! Let’s try this.” She swirled her hands a few times, striking a pose reminiscent of something Aspen had seen Flu-flu do more than once.
“Moon… Magic… Substitution!” The girl whisper-yelled, and a moment later, a perfect replica of George stood in her place. “Oh my gosh!” The behemoth stared down at his thick-fingered hands in amazement, deep voice cracking as he spoke. “That is so cool!” He started giggling, which was so disturbing that all three of the men took a step back.
“And good ol’ what’s-his-name here counts as a stolen object, so…” the heavy face grimaced, “Well, bum-nugget. I had a boost of an hour to the Skill, but mentioning that I had it,” she scratched her head, voice dropping to a mutter as her eyes unfocused, “or maybe saying what it was?” She looked back down at them, shaking her head. “Anyway, it counted as the theft being discovered, so I’m back to fifteen minutes. Well, fourteen, now.”
Quickly, she shucked the sling, then picked up George’s friend, slinging him over her now-very-broad shoulder. “Poor guy,” she said, grinning cheekily and flashing George’s square yellow teeth, “had too much to drink and I’m taking him home. No one will suspect ‘Gippy’ of kidnapping his own buddy, right? Plus, if some crazy half-goblin starts running around claiming something’s wrong, no one will believe him because they just saw the good ol’ Gipster a minute ago. C’mon!”
Aspen was thinking fast, slotting this new skill into the plans that had been coming together in his mind. He shook his head sharply. Time for that later. “Go ahead, then, Rouge. Try not to be noticed, though, if you can. Vonn, reset the traps behind us. Lyrec, we’ll stay back with Vonn and try not to look like we’re with Rouge. Everyone, get your masks on.”
Rouge and Vonn wrinkled their noses simultaneously as they realized that the horrible stench had become familiar enough that they were starting to ignore it. They yanked up their face coverings. Aspen’s mask was still in place, and Lyrec, who couldn’t really tell what the big deal was about, just shrugged and put his on as well.
Rouge reached over and tugged at Vonn’s curls, moving them so the straps of the mask held them down, concealing his ears. Her shy smile would have been sweet if it hadn’t been on George’s face. She turned and began to walk away, whistling tunelessly and staggering a little, as if she’d also imbibed a bit more than she should.
Vonn slid his slim hand through the door, releasing the string that set the traps, and Aspen spared a moment to regret that they had ransacked the house. If he’d known Rouge could transform into George, he would have left it looking as it had when they entered so that goblinoid-George would be undermined even further if anyone listened to him. Aspen winced slightly, though. He had a suspicion that the real George’s initial reaction would be correct, anyway, and the transformed half-breed would be beaten at best, and likely even killed without getting a chance to tell his story.
The three males looked at each other, and then drew in a simultaneous buoying breath and followed the whistling.