The next morning, having extricated himself from the grip of his two companions who remained in bed, he walked over to their collected belongings. Pulling a tattered map from his satchel, new bits of paper had been attached in places, the multitude of folds gave it a confusing layout. Singer could make a better read on it, apparently she’d been out hopping for a bit. Marcus hadn’t been able to find her, so he set about the task himself.
The map detailed a few of the inter-planar connections, broadly known as mist gates, that they’d been using to travel through the multiverse. It was a fairly large map, detailing mostly routes used for trade across the more connected worlds. It noted times, solar signs, local moon phases, weather markers, and a dozen other timing symbols he hadn’t grasped. Most of the gates had one of any number of conditions that had to be met before they would open. There were a few Singer herself hadn’t figured out, but she would always remark that for her it was part of the fun.
It also detailed some of the local geography around the gate, but you’d have to have other maps to get a more complete picture. There were a few attached papers, and other addendums they themselves had added in order to build this more complete picture. They were trying to stay away from known paths, but it had made traveling slow. It also meant a lot of camping in the doomed kingdom, which was one of the larger crossroad worlds, but it was full of monsters and some undead, so it was less popular, and its bridges less known.
The gates he’d found out, were naturally occurring on every world. Connecting single points, or cycling through possible points. They were consistent if you discovered one’s rules, but the patterns were impossible to predict across all of them. It was pretty wild. He surmised that was why there were so many legends of magic on Earth. This was the best map they could get their hands on, and even it only showed six worlds. They’d added two, that damnable volcano world with the dragons, and the one they currently occupied.
He curled and uncurled the fingers on his left hand rhythmically, the leather moved perfectly, his fingertips exposed, the glove sliding half way up his forearm. It had been a sore spot. They’d been evading pursuers for months. He stepped round the corner to check on Stripes, still fast asleep. She’d been a tough one to avoid herself. He’d been running almost since he got it. He looked back at the girls, and mused that it had its perks though.
Stripes was saying she got the pattern for a portal a half a day’s walk south, so they’d wanted to check it out. He guessed that’s where Singer had wandered off to this morning. That’s what he was thinking when he saw a figure dashing through the garden, the door slamming shut behind her. Singer’s face scrunched, a hint of anger. “I spotted a raiding party from Taldor, Lamia”
“Guess we shouldn’t be surprised there’s a gate to Taldor connecting to this forsaken place.” Running into less pleasant company was one of the risks they’d discussed.
“Tis so. Our party should avoid them. The risk too great” Singer hissed in response.
“They coming from the south gate you think?”
“I cannot say for certain. I thought east but, I am reticent to head into the unknown.” It was a possibility, one he’d hoped against.
“Were they headed this way?”
“Two scouts. Myself and Stripes should be able to-”
“I’d rather not do that unless we have to. I understand they’d be likely to check, then give pursuit. Can you cloak the garden it all, give it thorns or something?” The fox girl shook her head, her ears flattening, tail swishing enough to disturb her robe.
“I’ll wake the others, pack up the map and well wing it I guess.” She nodded moving about her task. First rousing Stripes who smiled reaching up to take cup his his face
“Morning babe” She yawned, then bit her lower lip, the corners of her lips rising just so.
“While I’d much rather be waking you up for a more fun reason.” he frowned. “I need you to get all the loot packed, as much of it as you can.” her brow narrowed, and her head tilted. “We’ll likely have company.” finally narrowing her eyes and growling. Next he went over to Tamwyn gently waking her. “Good morning. Are you fit to travel?”
She attempted to rise, but staggered. “Ye-Yes. There remains some pain but I’ll not be a burden.”
“I knew I shouldn’t have let you come with us yesterday.” he’d been hesitant, as she’d only just recovered from some other injuries.
“I will always be by your side when you head to trouble.”
“You’re so stubborn.” he scolded, his tone strained. “Can you pack up her armor?” spoke just loud enough that Stripes would hear.
Groaning in response “Yeah I guess, but that probably means even less loot.”
“We’ll hide it and come back and get it later. If we’re going to be running around all the time we can set up some caches every now and again.” It was in Marcus’s nature to poke and prod and examine new spaces, and he’d found a few spots where the original residents had either skipped repair work or kept for their own hiding stashes. “There’s a spot under the floorboard here, we’ll move that carpet and come back if we can.”
Shaking her head, she did as was asked but she grumbled the all the while. “You’re busting my balls here”
“Next time, I’ll try to be more gentle.” playfully chiding her. A few minutes of frantic packing later, and they were ready to move. He handed his pack and Singer’s own to her, carrying Tamwyn on his back. “So, our play is going to be to sit this out, jump them if they come in, and then make a break for that south gate.
Stripes and Singer gave each other a look, and he had a sneaking suspicion he was about to get out voted. He wondered if his doyen was in on it as well. “I mean, aren’t we headed to Forsythe? We should probably head back to Emboor, its a couple days run but we should be able to make it.’ Stripes said
“While I count as not enthused, is it not more direct?” Singer piled on. He could feel Tamwyn’s chin pressing into his shoulder as she approximated nodded her head.
“It is, but thats two days of running, and Lamia aren’t known for being slow. Past that can either of you sail much less make a boat? At least with the south gate it will close, cutting them off, and we can make a break for it.” Marcus sighed “I’m not excited to be running into the unknown either, but Singer, you seem certain that we can’t take one of their raiding parties no?” She nodded her head to confirm “And they’re a known problem. Dragon’s worse than either of them. I say we take the chance” Two pouting faces dipped in resignation. “I’ve got you girls right? What could possibly go wrong?”
Two Lamia slithered into the center of the small town, tongue’s flicking the air answered his question. They seemed to have picked up something. Singer watched them from the corner of a window. They sat in silence like this for some time, til Singer let out a curse. “They’ve started toward the tower, I think your scent leads them Marcus darling.”
They exited the back of the house they’d been staying it, it connected to a set of garden paths that most of the houses on this side of the village connected to, that lead down mountain a ways to the south west. Progress was slow, Marcus while fit from his recent stint of running was not in the kind of shape to carry Tamwyn. They’d made it to the forest at the bottom when a sound like a war cry, accompanying a rasping rattle sound cut the air.
“You two, fall back bit and flank me, so you can sneak up on them if they do catch up.”
“When.” The fox girl muttered bitterly, sliding into the foliage off the path.
True to the stories, he heard a strange sound behind him, followed by a pair of voices “Why the hurry manling? You have little to fear”
“Yes, yes, we only want to know you.”
Try as he might, he could feel his legs tightening with each step, his breathing more labored, and he could hear them gaining, slowing on a wider section of the path, he turned to his pursuers. “I uh.”
“Look how he tires sister, we do not want to wear him out so early, the day is yet so young.” The voices behind him belonged to two large women, their bottoms long snake coils, as thick as his waist, their torsos were like a human, mostly, a bit long in proportions. They were naked, their chests flat with muscle, Marcus allowed himself a minor disappointment. Each carried a long spear, one held a net she was idly twirling.
“Good, this one seems to know his fate” this one appearing younger, as far as Marcus could tell. Straight black hair streamed off her head past her shoulders, her bronze skin glinting with sweat. He looked into their eyes, and saw the tell tale effect of his artifact going to work, their hunger growing visibly, as their breathing grew more rapid, their pupils dilating.
“Perhaps we should take him now sister, so he’s to tired to run” The elder spoke, similar in skin and hair but thicker muscle adorned her frame, her spear bore a number of decorations, the net in her hand stilled. “I see you have brought us dinner as well. How thoughtful, we will need it for after.” A wicked smile revealed fangs “Come you will find our embrace tender enough”
“You mean my girl here, I’m afraid I can’t let you do that.”
“Leave me, run, I will-” Tamwyn stirred, but he held fast to her
“Do no such thing.” he cut her off
“A warrior?” The older lamia hissed “Or merely foolish” dragging the last word into a hiss.
“I shall have him fi-” the sound of brush being thrown aside, the crunch of a tree being pushed to the point of breaking and the blur of Stripes emerged from the foliage, a heavy metal fist slamming into the head of the Lamia, who crumpled, her face caved in.
“Yeah, I don’t fucking think so bitch” Stripes spat.
“How dare-” The remaining scout tried to scream but her voice quiet until it was silent, her limbs slowing as a gray mist surrounded her, Singer walking slowly out of the underbrush, her hands strumming on lyre that made no sound. Stripes turned to the younger, her movements to slow to strike or dodge, and caved in her head in a similar manner.
“No time to dawdle, their cry called to the rest of the raid, we should away” Singer urged, one hand putting her instrument back in her bag, the other pulling on Marcus. They quickly headed further down the path, coming to the spot where the gate had been appearing. Thankfully the path seemed to be clear. “I shall go first?”
“We’ll be close behind.” he assured her. After she stepped though, and did not come back he followed, Stripes coming in last. They found themselves in a place that managed to look familiar despite being Marcus knowing he’d never been here. He found Singer, close by, sniffing the air. “Think you know the place?”
“We stand on the plains of Hrot.” she spoke between sniffs, “Though I suspect far from known shores. Perhaps across the desert or sea?”
“Should mean we’re safe. But I’d still prefer some distance between us and that mist gate. Do you know anything about the Hrot past the city of Roppour?”
“Of that, I am afraid I know little. It has been passed from living memory, since the great wars that cursed their world. For Roppour, it is as though this part of its world exists not.”
Stripes already walking away called out “Can we talk later? More running now you think?” The lagging pair moved to catch up to her. They spent the rest of the day putting the portal behind them. First walking through grassy fields, before coming to a river, its deep blue water impossible to tell the depth so they turned to follow hoping to find a ford. The first hints of magenta creeping into the sky had begun as they found a way across. With any luck, their pursuers would be stymied and they could rest peacefully.