Underneath the streets of Tasuil Beor lies a network of tunnels, which until recently had been the home of several gangs of the city’s homeless children. When they were driven out by fires set on the orders of one Clive Wespie (number one on Beor’s Most Wanted list) most ended up being taken in by the House of Many Tots (HMT for short), where they were fed, housed and educated.
Many died in the fires, and an almost equal number were killed by Wespie’s hired assassins. Some returned to the tunnels and set about clearing out the ash, soot and dead things that cluttered the dark spaces which had been their home. Wily Wilcox, former member of the Rat Bastards, was on one of his weekly forays to tell these lost ones that there was a place for them in the HMT. Down here, it was often damp, or cold, or fetid – or all three. It was times like this that he missed Goldie, who’d always had a way to make him smile – until she was murdered and hung in Market Square by Wespie’s men.
He felt a warm presence wrap around his ankles, so he reached down and scratched Lucky the Cat behind hisser ears. It had been a gift to Frannie Dusa, head of the HMT, from Tungjii Luck himmerself, going wherever it pleased. It was thanks to Lucky’s incessant howling that the street gangs had been awakened just before the fires began. Lucky purred loudly, and then chased a mouse down the left-most tunnel. It was pitch black that way, so Wily lit his torch with a simple fire spell (thanks to his HMT teacher Murgul and Basic Magic 101) and began the long descent.
He’d been meaning to visit the Misfits (as they called themselves) ever since the Burning Night. Not many kids knew about them. They lived on a path that was well-hidden (literally) and hard to navigate (if you were mostly human) – and strangely enough, located underneath the 2nd basement of Morbid Curiosities. They kept to themselves, mostly. Over a year ago, Wily had freed two of them that had been caught in a trap set to capture feral dogs. The traps had set by the three gangs – the Rat Bastards, the Shadows and the Death Poppets – after a pack had dragged away and eaten some of the little ones. The two – who watched him with wary eyes as he opened the cage – were unlike anyone he’d ever seen. They stayed inside the cage the entire time he’d explained about the dogs. When he finished, one mumbled something, scooped up the other, and bowed awkwardly to him before shambling away into the tunnels.
The next morning, the tunnels were littered with feral canine corpses – about 40 in all. On the wall where the trap had been, ‘thank you’ was written in more than 20 languages. That had been over two years ago. Wily ran into them again while wandering the tunnels, and shared some food with them. In time, he met the rest. To make communication easier with the non-humans, he taught them how to ‘hand speak.’ The Misfits worked for Ignatius Mordred, doing odd jobs and such, venturing out of the tunnels at night to deliver or receive packages or messages. That was understandable, since most people would be frightened to look at them, or worse, would try to hurt, capture or kill them. Many of the street kids never visited them after they’d met a few. But a few nights ago, Morbid Curiosities had been all but destroyed by freakish weather. Marduk had asked him to check up on the Misfits, so here he was.
He stopped in front of a wall marred by five gashes – in solid stone, no less. He slid one gash upwards, three down, and the last one counter-clockwise. He ran through the wall as it shimmered, into a suffocating darkness. He felt for the rungs, found them and began a short climb down. Water ran down the walls, to splash into the floor below, and through sewer grates. He stepped away when he reached the bottom rung. Crouching on the floor, he knew sudden panic as he felt insects crawling up his legs. He pulled the last rung out from the wall until it clicked, and was relieved to see the dimly lit passage revealed behind him.
As he drew closer to the Misfit’s den, he heard Mordred’s voice raised in anger, and stopped.
“You knew she’d been snooping around, and you said NOTHING! I should banish you all to the Nether for your ineptitude!”
“She wasn’t snooping, Master Mordred. She just hovered over your shop for a minute or two.” The speaker was Gentle Gabierla, whose voice was as beautiful as her appearance was unsettling.
“Didn’t say anything, didn’t do anything, didn’t take anything…” said Grinder of Bones in his sing-song patter, rocking back and forth.
“She did close her eyes…” whispered one of the Ghost twins.
“Only for a moment,” said the other twin. Probably Glinda, thought Wily, because she rarely began a conversation.
“No matter,” Mordred declared. “I have hired adventurers from The Old Priest & Rat Tavern to find the most dangerous artifacts that were swept up and scattered by Thornheart’s storm, and sent my new minions to search for the lesser ones. But for you I have a unique job. I have prepared a list of the sentient artifacts that have been lost. Find and return just one on this list, and I will let you all live. You have two weeks. Return with nothing, and you will face a most excruciating punishment. Those of you who are still alive, of course. Be warned: these items will not want to be found. Some of you will likely die in the performance of this task.” Then he paused.
“Should you manage to find one, do not dare to wear, or use, or listen to the artifact. What might appear beautiful or seem harmless is most certainly deadly.”
With that, Mordred handed the list to Gabierla, opened the trap door to Morbid Curiosities and left. Wily had never met Mordred, but he knew he didn’t like him. True, he’d never physically hurt any of the Misfits; they were all grateful to him for giving them a safe place to live, and the odd jobs he’d give them made them feel useful and needed.
“Now, there’s a right rat bastard!” squeaked a voice in his left ear.
Scared witless, his street smarts kicked in instantly. Wily reached up, grabbed a handful of something bony on his left shoulder and flung it from him. Only to find it caught by Lucky in midair just before it smashed against a wall. Lucky brought hisser catch to Wily, and deposited it just in front of him. It was…a rat? He wore a cape that shimmered, making him seemed cloaked in shadow, a gray shirt and a pair of trousers. A red bandanna was jauntily tied around his neck, and he brandished a cane.
“Now see ‘ere, you rapscallion, I…” began the rat, only to be flung in the air by Lucky, who then transformed into the little God of Luck himmerself and grabbed hold of his forepaws, leading him in a merry dance. Upon which, completing three circles, s/he promptly vanished in a fit of silent laughter. Wily couldn’t help but chuckle as the rat landed on his butt, but stopped when the rat said, “Wily Wilcox, I pree-zoom?”
“Who wants ta know?” asked Wily. Thanks to his teachers at the House of Many Tots, he knew how to speak properly, but listening to the rat brought out his old street lingo.
“Drattus Thaddeus Rattus, at’cher service,” said the rat formally, and bowed. “May I suggest we go see our Misfit friends an’ get a look at this list o’ Master Mordred’s?” Wily must have looked startled. “When ya travels unnergroun’ as much as I, yer boun’ ta run inta strange things, an’ few folks are as strange as they are, or as misunnerstood. Considerin’ alla the ‘ardships an’ pain they’ve ‘ad ta go through, they’re good’uns, they are, an’ iffen they aren’t quite, well, they try ta be, an thet’s good enuf fer me.”
“Why, thanks, little buddy,” burbled a high-pitched voice from behind them.
Drattus said, while turning to address the speaker, “Don’t mention…” and let out an ear-piercing scream/squeak. Behind them was a 7-foot owlbear-shaped, paper-thin and translucent green sheet of jelly with two dinner plate-sized eyeballs. Quickly regaining his composure, he pointed his cane at the creature, which collapsed into about 8 ounces of green goo, and then reshaped itself into a small humanoid figure.
“Very funny, Goo-man,” deadpanned Drattus. “A new skill, I see. Impressive!”
“Oh, the look on your face was priceless!” said Goo-man, doubled over in laughter, causing his face to bubble and pop. The stones beneath him began to liquefy.
“Here, Goo-goo, before you burn through the floor!” said a new voice. From the tunnel shadows emerged a gnoll – well, mostly a gnoll. She was more human than knoll, possessing humanoid facial features, arms and legs. Her fur, hair and teeth were completely hyena-like.
“Wily, Drattus, this here’s Gnasher, my girlfriend!” stated Goo-man, as he leaped into the metal bowl Gnasher held in her paws.
“I’m not his girlfriend,” she hissed through clenched fangs, “Now let’s go back to the Den, and talk with the others.”
As it turned out, The Misfit’s Den had, by some miracle, been spared from the massive destruction above. Glinda and Glenda had been visiting the Tasuil Beor Royal Crypt and talking with family members when they witnessed the tornado taking shape. They’d manifested inside the Den immediately, and those who had the strength placed around two dozen support beams on the ceiling, while those possessing magic had cast deflection spells on it, to bounce whatever force that touched it away from it altogether.
To call their basement home a ‘den’ is unkind. It is more like a miracle of nature, thanks to Greenfingers and Georg Stonespeaker (who went to the quarry in the sky last year.) The walls are inlaid with semi-precious stones, brightly colored, sweet-smelling funghi and pale flowers making pictures in round and square frames. Furniture is inlaid with beautiful many-hued woods. Light spills softly from wall sconces filed with glowing mosses.
Gabierla the Succubus sat at the main table, which varied in height in some places in order to accommodate the needs of smaller members. She’d had the misfortune to fall in love with the son of a witch doctor. One night her husband foolishly decided to kiss her while she slept; she awoke the next morning to find his lifeless husk lying next to her, and the smell of smoke in the house, which had been set on fire by the enraged early-rising mother-in-law. Grief stricken, Gabi did not to try to escape. Somehow, she survived, but with burns which scarred her forever more.
Glinda and Glenda hovered on one side, their incorporeal forms passing through the chairs. The twincesses had chosen to appear in formal attire, something they didn’t often do except when guests were present. Their heads always tilted at an almost imperceptible angle, the only remnant of their suicidal plunge from Beor Palace’s Tower of Tears. Gifted sorceresses in life, they had been pledged by the King to marry Soren Moltenscar the 5th – needless to say, they didn’t like the idea.
Greenfingers (or Greeny) was a mystery; his bark-like skin covered his entire body, which bore hundreds of scars and cut marks. He could make anything grow, or blossom; he had no mouth, but was liberated from his silence when Wily taught everyone hand-speech. They were good friends. Drattus leapt from the floor to a chair and then onto the table. As Wily sat next to Greeny, a dog sauntered in and curled up at his feet. A werehuman, in fact. The Misfits had adopted her a year ago. They named her Growler. By day she was a dog, and by night she turned into a human girl. She and Goo-man had been the ones caught in the trap that night.
“I don’t believe this!” exclaimed Drattus. “These ain’t jes’ arty-facts. These are the Sev’n Craftin’s of the Elder Gods! How’s it possible that Mordred collected one, much less all sev’n?”
“Drattus, what are they?” Wily asked.
“I can answer that, if I may,” replied Glinda. Drattus bowed. “I learned of them from the Librarian at the Mage College. I was doing some research for a paper on Magical Crafting when one of the books made a reference to them in a footnote. When I asked the Librarian for other material on the subject, she told me there wasn’t any, but she told me what she knew.”
She paused for a moment, having grown pale with the effort of speaking. Regaining some substance, she continued. “When Beor was very young, the dwarves created the art of magical crafting all on their own. Their first attempts were just mere fumblings, but as their skill improved, the Elder Gods took notice. Impressed by something new, something they had not thought of, they each decided to create an object of their own, imbuing it with a small bit of their own magic.” Again, Glinda paused.
“Bob, the Eldest God, gave his creation as a gift to the dwarf who invented magical crafting, Hamster Bragorbson. It was a golden hammer, light as a feather, which could temper anything – metal, gemstone or mineral. One day, he tossed the hammer to his son, who’d asked if he could use it. The son tripped – how, or why, no one knows – and the hammer landed on his head, crushing it beyond recognition. The smith went mad, and ended up killing half of his clan, destroying most of the village buildings in the process. Bob confronted Bragorbson, and demanded the hammer be returned. The smith threw the hammer at the Eldest god, which knocked him down.” Glinda paused a third time, panting.
“I’ll continue, Princess, iffen you don’ mind,” said Drattus, walking around the table. “It was then that Bob realized that ‘is own creation, imbued with ‘is own power, could – in someone else’s ‘ands – ‘urt ‘im. In ‘is anger, an’ fear, ‘e oblit’rated ‘amster. We dunno what ‘appened to the ‘ammer. It is believed the other Gods also gave their creations away. Ever’ now an’ then, ya hear o’ somethin’ un’splainable ‘appenin’ that could only be ‘splained by the presence of a God-ee-fact.”
“So, what’re we looking for?” asked Gnasher.
Drattus looked at the list. “In order, they are:
- 1.) O’Shawnessy’s Banana
- 2.) Bisso’s Beer Stein
- 3.) Jack Thunder’s Ring
- 4.) Yana’s Arrow
- 5.) Sangray’s Sword
- 6.) Tungjii’s Tunin’ Fork
- 7.) Thalassa’s Scale Flute
But there’s no dee-scriptions of any o’them, like what they’s made of, or if they glow or ‘um or whatsit.”
“Hey, hold it!” exclaimed Wily, “Why don’t we ask Tungjii ‘bout ‘is Tunin’ Fork?”
“Lil’ freak, can’t speak!” sang Grinder of Bones. Grinder was old. How old, none of the Misfits knew. He’d been born in the tunnels, and had lived in the tunnels all his life. His skin was as white as bleached bones – but decades of underground living had caused subterranean muck to cling to him like a black, wet second skin. He was so thin that when he moved, his own bones ground against other. No one knew his whole story. The Misfits had lived in their current ‘home’ for 3 years when one day he simply showed up. Goo-man thought Mordred was a little antsy around Grinder.
Greeny gesticulated. “That’s right,” said Wily, “why din’ I think o’that? We kin teach ‘im ‘and-speak!”
Lucky the Cat mewed, and Tungjii appeared in mid-air. Wily explained about hand-speaking. The godling’s eyes grew bigger, and held up hisser hand. S/he stretched hisser other hand into Wily’s head, and then withdrew it, smiling broadly and clapping both hands together in delight. Suddenly there were multiple floating Tungjiis, which kissed everyone in the room (including Lucky) and then merged into one huge many-armed Tungjii that grabbed each of them at once and danced with them in a circle.
The joyful antics stopped as quickly as they had started, with Tungjii sitting in the middle of the table.
“This is an unlooked for and wonderful gift, made possible by the Great Unbalancing. I have my Tuning Fork. As soon as Sangray’s witch unbound it, it returned to me. You cannot have it, and I will not allow that Thing to possess it.” Tungjii shook hisser head. “These items will bring misfortune or calamity in the hands of anyone other than their makers.”
“But, O most beautiful and handsome one,” said Glenda, “we must find at least one Godifact or else that Thing, ah, Mr. Mordred will kill us!”
“Oh! Flattery will get you far, you pretty ghostly thing you!” Tungjii signed, and winked. “The banana is not far, but it’s moving away as fast as it can, for a thing that can’t move!”
“You’re not making any sense,” observed Goo-man.
“Now, why did he put it at the top of the list, I wonder?” Tungjii asked everyone, and then answered for himmerself, “Because it’s the one he wants the most! The Goddess of Order owes me a favor,” s/he gestured, and disappeared.
A few seconds later, s/he reappeared carrying what looked to be an ordinary basket. “She sends you this basket, to put the banana in when you find it.” Several Misfits began to speak but were silenced by a wave of hisser hands, which then signed, “Before you ask, she doesn’t know where it is. She said you’ll figure it out, and warns you not to touch it. It holds two curses! The basket will seal its power, and its mischief. Once its magic starts, it can’t be stopped and the results, though sometimes funny, quickly turn catastrophic. Put it in the basket immediately, or some of you will surely die.”
“But…” said Gabierla.
“How do we…” signed Greenfingers.
“Banana basket, Magic’s casket, Can’t we ask it…” Grinder sang.
“I can’t tell you anything more. The Balance tips to Light, just a little. To risk more would be bad, very bad. You’ve all got the mark now! If the path is right, you’ll shiver with me tingles!” And with that, s/he vanished in a shower of several appleberry hand pies, 8 dire boar sausages, a jar of fertilizer, several bottles of food coloring (for Goo-man), a rind of cheese and a nethertrout (still alive.)
Chapter 3: Incidents, Accidents and Termagants
It was Drattus who explained to the Misfits and Wily about Tungjii’s mark, which would increase their physical and magical resistance, as well as help in unexpected ways. When he told them about Tungjii’s tingles, however, there was some confusion.
“What if we don’t have any ack-shule nethers?” asked Goo-man. “That’s me, Greeny, and the twincesses.”
Drattus confessed he wasn’t sure how it would work, but felt certain that they’d know somehow when the tingles happened. (He hoped that it didn’t first happen when they needed to be quiet, though. The first time it happened to him, it was something of a shock. He’d squeaked so loudly that it brought all the cats within a city block to his hiding place. It was only his best friend, Fr. Mike, who’d come to rescue him.)
Gnasher paced the room. “How the Nether are we going to find this…” she began, and paused. “Is it really a deadly banana? Do we even know what’s it made of? Can it be eaten? Or peeled?”
“I’ll bet it looks like an ordinary ‘nana, ‘cept it’s different,” offered Wily Wilcox, “an’ it prolly can’t be peeled. I bet it feels like a real ‘nana too, so it wouldn’t be made o’metal . . .”
“Yes,” signed Greeny, “Elven heartwood is soft but unyielding. It will not break when bent. It is very rare now, but not so when the world was young.”
“And it has a mind of its own,” reminded Glenda and Glinda, who kept staring at the faint, transparent heart-shaped glow on each other’s cheek, which was Tungjii’s mark.
“Well,” said Drattus, “We know it does’na want ta be found. Tonight, how about Glenda, Greeny & Goo-man comb Tasuil Beor’s streets and find out the rumors an’ gossip that are floating around. Grinder, do you know a way underground ta get ta the Waterfront?”
“Grinder knows, ways to go, out of sight, in the night, where water flows, and winds do blow!” replied the old man.
“Good. You, Growler, Gnasher ‘n Glinda go listen in the alleyways for the same.”
“Tomorrow mornin’, ‘ow ‘bout Wily, meself ‘n Gabi meet at the Old Priest ‘n Rat, ‘n see iffen we can suss out some clues. We’ll come back ‘ere in the afternoon.” Everyone agreed, and set about devouring the food so kindly left by the godling.
***** ***** *****
Goo-man looked at up the stars. He knew some of their names, and on the rare occasions when he’d been topside, he enjoyed reciting them, just to see if he still remembered. Mordred taught them to him, back when he thought Goo-man was an errant piece of some creature he called ‘The Great and Powerful Ooze.’ Goo-man didn’t know who that was, but he’d told his master that yes, he was once a part of Ooze, just so he could learn more about the world, and language. Especially language. Mordred had magically given him a voice, and taught him to speak.
He knew it made him different from the others like him. There’d been no language, no words to scream, only silent horror when they’d been tossed, the big and the small, from the Mage College into the river. Some dissolved, some found their way to the riverbanks and safety. Goo-man had been swept into the pipes and down into the sewers, when Growler (in her human form) had found him and taken him to Mordred.
When Mordred finally discovered Goo-man wasn’t part of the Ooze, he’d tossed him into the cellar, where he’d hitched a ride on Growler’s back and met his new family. He felt a jolt as his container, a small and partly broken flower vase, banged against Greeny’s trunk. “Hey, be careful! Your bark’s so tough it could break this thing!”
Greeny’s fingers slowly signed: “I heard something that set my leaves a-rustling.”
Glenda materialized in front of them, nodded to Greeny, and floated westward towards an alley between two residential buildings, not far from the Bazaar. The buildings were, thanks to their proximity to the famed commercial square, inhabited by merchants, craftsmen and artisans. Glenda glided halfway down the passage, which was partially lit by the light from an open window. That’s when they were hit by the ‘tingles.’
Several women sat at a small but exquisitely carved table. Their clothes were well-made yet simple, and they were quilting. Upon a side table was a crystal decanter of appleberry brandy, with four glasses in various states of fullness. The three Misfits fitted themselves around the window and listened.
“Honestly, Cissy,” chided Eva Apricon, deftly fitting with her dwarven fingers a bright purple gingham-checked diamond-shaped piece of fabric into place, “You might have had some Cinnamon Voodoo-doodles for us to nibble on!”
“Or a platter of fresh island fruits,” added Ana Murk, shifting her vast bulk in the enormous easy chair where she had descended much like a WInterflame pudding, arms dripping over the sides as she reached for a different colored thread. “I understand the whine-apples are all the rage!”
“They’re supposed to cry and complain – even when you’re eating them!” said Blair Hecks with a creepy giggle. She plunged her hand into her fabric basket, and pulled out a dull green square with unicorns prancing across it.
“How disgustingly vulgar!” deadpanned Cissy Nummy in her most imperious tone. The others looked up, first staring at their Orc hostess, and then at each other. Cissy continued: “I wonder if, as they look down one’s throat, they complain about the state of one’s teeth?” At that, all four women burst out laughing.
“I would have brought some fruits, except for the kerfuffle at the fruit stand!” declaimed Cissy.
“Oh, I heard about that!” Blair stated, “Blessed Bob, you were there? What really happened?”
“Weh-ell,” began the hostess, turning a one-syllable word into two, “It all began with an inedible banana. . .”
By the time Cissy had finished, the wine decanter was almost empty, and Cissy’s three guests were stunned speechless. A food fight where people actually died, although strangely enough, none of the deaths were directly caused by fruits. The Bazaar had been partially closed, merchants had lost customers and half a day’s sales. While the Royal Guards had ridden through Artist’s Row on their way to Produce Place, the sewers chose that moment to ‘burp’, sending foul water skyward and frightening the horses, who galloped through the artists’ stalls to avoid getting splashed and in the process destroyed more than half of the works on display.
“That’s one very bad banana,” Goo-man burbled.
“I. . . I think we should go,” Glenda whispered, with not a little bit of concern.
“Wait!” Greeny’s long arm-branch snaked in front of them both, signing quickly. “Something’s happening.”
“. . .think it’s best we all go now. That story has me spooked,” said Ana. The ample human woman stood, but brandy had made her tipsy, and she lost her balance. Her hand flew out to the tabletop to steady herself. That hand slammed into a basket full of needles. She withdrew her now bleeding hand and forearm, which she shook violently, sending needles flying in all directions. Some sailed through the window and stuck to Greeny. The Misfits took this as a sign, and fled.
Two needles punctured each of Cissy’s eyes. Her screaming added to Ana’s own, and she reached out blindly to steady herself, when she grabbed onto a picture that detached itself from the wall. Cissy threw it at the opposite wall where it hit a shelf and knocked off a lighted bronze candlestick, which fell onto Blair’s head, knocking her unconscious. Blair’s body fell into the side table, upsetting the decanter, which fell on the floor.
Eva, who had been watching the whole fiasco with a mixture of horror and giddiness, turned to leave. At the same time, the remaining apple-berry brandy from the fallen decanter had finished leaking onto the floor, almost extinguishing the lighted candle in the fallen brass candlestick. At the same moment that Eva was turning, a small mouse who had made its home under the side table ran for the exit, but her tail brushed the last flicker of the candleflame. It screamed, and with its tail blazing ran straight up the front of Eva’s dress.
Eva grabbed the fiery rodent and flung it out the window, where it fell down a grating that led to the community storeroom below Cissy Nummy’s domicile. And that would have been the end of this lunacy, except that a new tenant, Chans F. Rhewn, had a hobby that no one knew about. And he kept all his highly explosive supplies well-hidden in the storeroom.
By the time the smoke had cleared, and the divinely crafted banana’s influence waned, the citizens of Tasuil Beor awoke to three blocks that looked like a war zone.
***** ***** *****
The Wyvern’s Fish was one of the oldest taverns in Tasuil Beor’s Waterfront district. It was dockside, in the exact center of the district. It owed its longevity and success to several things, least of which were the facts that (a) service was fast, if a bit sharp-tongued but busty or burly; (b) food and drink were cheap but filling, if a bit undercooked or unpalatable; and (c) it was run by the Acolytes of Koai Wommi Rot, an order of medical monks whose anatomical knowledge and martial skills could literally pull apart any troublemakers. It also had a wagon that would cart drunken sailors back to their ships.
Gnasher pulled at the thick brown-foamed stout that sat uneasily in her thundermug (and in her stomach.) The hooded cloak she wore was scratchy, making her face itch. She and Growler were seated at a table at the tavern’s far end, near to the table at which sat their suspect, along with a man in the garb of one of the Acolytes.
Growler sat uneasily in her chair. Though she was in human form, the werehuman felt the position was most unnatural. She carefully covered the bowl in front of her with the long sleeve of her cloak, bowed her head down and lapped at the boo-yah-bees stoup. A fish eyeball bobbed to the surface, and she couldn’t help but allow a small whimper to escape her mouth. “Shhh!” whispered the ghostly Glinda gently, “You don’t have to eat that.” But Growler was hungry.
The woman they were following was Dr. Mia Lycion Cudling. Glinda had heard a crew of dockworkers talking about ‘a crazy dwarf’ who said she’d been manipulated by an invisible demon, that had hidden itself in her luggage and stopped her from boarding a ship to Retaw. Growler had spotted her instantly, as she wandered the waterfront in a daze, muttering to herself and occasionally smoothing her skirt. The aforementioned acolyte had bumped into her, and took her to the Wyvern’s Fish.
“Now, now,” said the Acolyte soothingly, “Tell me what happened.”
Dr. Cudling, under the monk’s calm gaze, regained a bit of her professional demeanor. “I’m a naval historian, on my way to Blackheart Bay. I was at the Bazaar today, to pick up some fresh fruit for Roderick Blackheart, because he’d asked me to, when some woman whose teeth were all broken began screaming at the fruit-seller. I remember finding a beautiful banana on the ground, which I picked up and almost dropped, because there was a tooth stuck in it. I remember thinking how odd that was, when…when…” Dr. Cudling paused for a moment, and breathed deeply. “When, as sure as you’re sitting there, Fr. Pendrake, the banana attacked me.”
Growler nudged Gnasher with her head, and the gnoll nodded.
“The banana attacked you,” repeated Fr. Pendrake. He was looking at her, Glinda noted, with keen interest. “How did it attack you?”
“It jumped from my bag into my blouse. In between my bosoms. Each and every time I got a hold of it, it slipped out of my hand and went back in. Then it started laughing at me, and I ran as fast as I could. When I reached the Waterfront, a cart was careening down the street, running over anyone in its way, and headed right for me! I stepped out of the way, and by Blessed Bob the Elder God, that demon-possessed fruit used its peel to launch itself into the air and onto that cart and it winked at me! Or…or I thought it did.”
Fr. Pendrake put an arm around her. “It’s all right, Dr. Cudling. We’ll take care of it. Would you like me to walk you to your ship? It leaves in a little while. Are you up to traveling?” The pair began to walk outside, and as Fr. Pendrake passed the Misfits, he winked at them.
“What the…?” said Gnasher, and turned to her companions, only to see them run out the door in pursuit. After paying the bill, and grabbing a doggie-bag of leftover crispy flies for Grinder (who was waiting underground for them), she managed to catch up to her friends. Hidden behind some crates, the trio watched as Fr. Pendrake led the naval historian aboard ‘The Lucky Lamprey.’ When he disembarked and waved goodbye to her, he began to whistle a very popular and very un-religious tune, and walked to within ten feet of their hiding place. As he extended a hand in greeting, he smiled.
“I’m Artie Pendrake. I believe you’ve met my companion.”
Gnasher bared her fangs, and Growler snarled – quite convincingly, considering she was in human form. Glenda simply smiled. Suddenly, on Artie’s left shoulder, a familiar figure appeared. “We meet again!” said Drattus T. Rattus.
***** ***** *****
“I’m afraid we scared the pants off your friends,” said Artie, who really was a priest – although back then he went by the name of Fr. Mike. “But they seemed better when Drattus here vouched for me.” The master forger had changed out of his monk disguise and wore his traveler’s clothes, which sported two leather pads on his shoulders for Drattus to sit on.
“I was a’feared Growler girl was gonna bite ‘is ‘ead off!” said Drattus.
“She jes’ don’ know ya well yet,” said Wily Wilcox to their new companion, “she’s really sweet once ya gets to know ‘er.” He kept walking south, towards Valridge proper. They’d left the Old Priest & Rat after Granny Ginny (in her gypsy getup) had told them about Market Day in Valridge. And before you could say “Puddly, piddly poof!” they were on their way.
“She’s certainly sweet on you, Wily!” kidded Gabierla, who wore a sand-colored veil. “She’s a good dog, Mr. Pendrake.”
“Call me Artie, young lady. If we’re going to face danger together, formalities just get in the way.”
Gabi blushed under her veil. “True enough,” she replied. “Why are we going to Valridge?”
Wily answered before Artie got the chance to think of a proper response. “I reckon it’s somethin’ the loony Doctor said, ‘n mebbe somethin’ the Godifact did, an’ mebbe even somethin’ ol’ Mordred said!”
“Well, well, well! Aren’t you the clever lil’ man!” remarked Drattus, who produced a mini-monocle from his very tiny vest and fixed his eye on Wily.
“I’m not lil’ I’m fourteen an’ I’ve got beard hairs!”
“Do not!” laughed Gabi, who pulled an imaginary beard under her chin.
Drattus leapt from Artie’s shoulder to Wily’s, and stared upwards. “Ah, dear lady, but e’s got six that I kin count!”
They were passed on the road by a few wagons laden with sacks and barrels, cages of netherchickens and an occasional cow. They were nearing the Valridge Farmer’s Market.
“So ‘splain yerself, Wily. Why Valridge?” Drattus asked.
“Mordred said the Godifacts can think, an’ they don’ wanna be found. The ‘nana jumped into a movin’ cart. An’ the doc said she was goin’ ta Retaw. The ‘nana wants to get away, so it wants to be carried by someone who’s traveling. And what better place than a town with a Market, where it can hide out and wait, sly as ya please, for another carrier.”
“What I don’t understand,” commented Gabi, “is why it didn’t stay with Dr. Cudling? She was going to Retaw, correct?”
“She was going by boat,” Artie answered.
“Of course!” exclaimed Drattus, “Thalassa!”
“You see,” explained Artie, “O’Shawnessy loved Thalassa, the Sea Goddess. But he used his sweet-tongued foolishness to have a dalliance with Sangray, Goddess of Chaos. When the goddesses found out about his unfaithfulness, they cursed him. He somehow put the curses in the banana. If the Godifact were carried on a ship, it would surely sink, and Thalassa would obtain it, and use its power against him.”
Passing the town’s famous archway – two bundles of wheat, bowing to meet at the top – they found themselves amidst the Market crowds, when suddenly the sounds of women screaming drowned out the merry noise of busy shoppers. “Look – up there!” cried Wily, pointing eastwards. There, scores of vegetables and fruits were flying back and forth about the crowd. “RRRRRRRR- aaaaaaaawk!” And then there was the matter of the giant netherchicken.
Those of you who have been keeping up with the Tales may recall Pertyloot. Last we knew, she was happily laying freakishly large eggs for the many menu items at Eggs R Us. Well, DeeDee Padd was at the Valridge Farmer’s market with her 15 foot tall pet, shopping for fresh produce for the café, when Pertyloot spotted something she just had to eat. She craned her tree trunk-sized neck, with which she gently shoved a farmer’s wife aside, and using the very tips of her beak grasped the morsel, flipped it in the air, opened her mouth wide and swallowed it.
O’Shawnessy’s banana, however, had other plans. In moments, it shot back through her throat and up into the sky, where – the annoyed netherchicken noticed – it dove into a large pile of skunk cabbages, waking them up. Pertyloot dove into the pile, throwing the cabbages into the air in search of her scrumptious but slippery prize. The skunk cabbages hissed and rolled away in several directions – and those that erupted onto the crowd left their trademark fragrance behind. She found the fruit, and it again left her guts and found another hiding place among the dozens of stalls.
DeeDee was beside herself. Her feathered and multi-armed pet could be single-minded when it came to food. People who lived in or around Valridge had come to know that Pertyloot was gentle, but now they were running from her as if she were a monster. This was bad, very bad. Stalls were being torn apart, and was that smoke over there?
“Miss Padd, is there anything you, or we can do to calm her down?” asked a familiar voice. She turned and saw Mr. Pendrake with Drattus on his shoulder, along with a boy and a woman wearing a veil from the Badlands tribes.
“I don’t know, Mr. Pendrake. She’s not usually like this, but you and Drattus know that.”
“We knows, Miss Dee, we knows. There’s God mischief here tho’, an’ it’d take a mir’cle ta ‘elp this.” Drattus twitched his whiskers. “Tungjii Luck, we could sure use ya now!”
Gabierla suddenly laughed, causing several distraught bystanders to give her puzzled looks. “I think he heard you,” she commented. The five watched as a winged Lucky the cat zipped around the netherchicken’s head. It didn’t see the banana’s next destination – a stall run by the Sidewinders, a tribe from the Badlands who were there for the first time, selling dates and a powerful fermented milk. It plunged into the dates. The merchants then packed everything up – milk, dates and the banana – and were gone in under 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, Lucky had led Pertyloot out of Valridge, where the figure of Bottom, the Giant chef (and member of the Gargantuan Players) attached a collar and leash to her. It didn’t take long for the Farmer’s Market to get back to the business of buying and selling (albeit amidst a hundred pounds of assorted and ‘slightly damaged’ fruits and vegetables.) Many women were quarreling with the merchants, trying to haggle a better price for the damaged goods. Wily made a mental note to study the martial properties of unhusked corn and leeks, as some women showed some mad offensive skills with them. Now that they knew the Godifact was headed to the Badlands, they left Valridge to return to the Misfits’ Lair. On their way, they accompanied DeeDee, Bottom and Pertyloot back to Eggs R Us, where they enjoyed a satisfying brunch (on the house.)
Chapter 4: The Best Laid Plans of Rats & Men (& Various & Sundry)
The four found the Lair seized with a case of the heebie-jeebies. Both groups, while on their way back to the Lair last night, had encountered some accidents, some minor and one almost major. Glenda had a narrow escape from a priest who just happened to have second sight, and would have banished her if Goo-man hadn’t formed himself into a dart that Greeny threw into the man’s foot. Greeny was still bleeding from where the needles had struck him, until Glenda had to cast a fire spell to cauterize the pinpricks. Greeny was deathly afraid of fire. Goo-man could melt through rock, but had no such effect on glass. When Greeny first grew faint from sap loss, he’d fallen against a wall, accidentally breaking the container Goo-man was in. He burnt through the street and fell into a sewage canal. He’d traveled almost a mile north when Glenda finally found him and he slipped himself into a chipped soup bowl she’d found in the muck.
Gnasher had wound up in a street fight with a group of drunken sailors. She’d killed four and chased the remaining two into the river, only to find out that they were dragged under water; a few moments later, their bodies floated to the surface. It was then when she discovered that she’d broken her hind left foot. Growler was in heat, and had frightened a mangy warhound who’d seen better days when she offered her human hind end for inspection. Glinda had no choice but to spell the two of them into silence and obedience, sapping the ghost’s life force. They made it to the tunnel entrance, and met with Grinder. His face bore a handprint that glowed redly in the darkness. He’d slung the dog and Growler over both shoulders and ran until they were home. Glinda got lost once, and managed to materialize just a few feet away from them, frightened more for them than for herself.
They were all gathered at the main table. Growler, in her dog form, was again curled at Wily’s feet. There ensued an uneasy silence, as each of them had been rattled by the events of the past twenty-four hours. Strangely enough, it was Grinder who spoke first.
“That fruit is powerful and cursed, of all its kind it is the worst; Lose it and our lives are lost, get it and whose will it cost?”
“Many more than ours, I’m afraid,” said Gabierla. “Artie, the banana’s power doesn’t seem to stop, even when it goes elsewhere. How can that be?”
“My best guess,” he answered, “is that it has to do with Thalassa’s curse on O’Shawnessy. The banana, once it does or reacts to something, causes things to happen in waves.”
“An’ Thalassa’s the Sea Goddess,” piped in Drattus, “which means the waves will get stronger the farther they go…”
“And to make things worse,” observed Glinda, “Everyone who’s caught in the wave, creates another wave…”
“I’m not good when it comes to magic,” Gnasher stated, “but that sounds like lots of waves, one on top of another.” She began to pace the room back and forth. “This is really, really bad…isn’t it?”
“Isn’t this a little strange?” Wily stood, and everyone turned to look at him. Two years ago, such scrutiny would have sent him running from the room. But time spent at the House of Many Tots had given him confidence. “Why would the God of Blarney and Tomfoolery create something that ‘urts an’ kills people?”
“He’s got a point,” signed Greeny, at the same time Goo-man burbled the exact same words.
“I’ll bet that’s the other curse,” mused Artie, “Sangray is the Goddess of Chaos, and her spitefulness at being deceived would have certainly darkened the banana as O’Shawnessy was crafting it.”
Growler howled, a full-throated and disturbing sound. She limped out of the room on four legs, and returned a minute later limping on two, wrapping a floor-length robe around her. “Sorry. Moonrise. Change came,” signed the werehuman. “Sangray not evil, not good. Is both. Blarney God want fun, laughter – so Sangray give him…?” Growler turned her head to Wily, and signed, “What is word?”
“The opposite. Yes, that makes sense. Good…” and he stopped mid-sentence.
“It okay,” signed Growler, who was blushing. “I am dog first. Good dog, smart dog!” Now it was Wily’s turn to blush, for on seeing her shapely human form, he thought she was really attractive.
Gnasher, who had been pacing all this time, sat down again and banged her fist on the table. “Look, I want to live as much as you do, but do we really want to put this into Mordred’s hands? How did he contain these Godifacts?”
Glinda floated across the table to have a silent conversation with her sister. As they talked, Drattus said, “We have the basket from Tungjii. We jes’ need a safe way ta git the rotten ‘nana in there. It’s headed somewhere in the Badlands. You know where, don’cha Gabi?”
“I think I do. The Nethergerbil Clan lives in Olden Pond, on the western edge of Dry Lake Dunes. It’s two days from here, if we travel quickly. I won’t be welcome, you know. My mother-in-law still lives.” Gentle Gabierla bowed her head, the burn scars showing red and raw in the room’s candlelight. “But without me, you will certainly get in trouble. I will go.”
“I do not want to go where water is scarce, but I will go,” signed Greeny.
“Badlands for us, I guess, ya ol’ fart!” said Drattus to Artie. “Go cut some dragon cheese, ya rat bastard!” Artie replied. They both doubled over in laughter, remembering the Lady Smaug. Gnasher shook her head, saying that they’d need her muscle and fighting skills.
“I’ve never been out of this city, except when I was thrown into the river, but that doesn’t really count. I’d like to go,” said Goo-man with great enthusiasm.
His enthusiasm was short-lived, however, when Glenda said, “No, Goo-goo, you’re coming with Glinda and I. You too, Grinder and Wily. Growler, you should go with the other group.”
“Why should we? I want to go with Growler!” said Wily.
“What have you two been doing?” burbled Goo-man.
“We performed a future-sending. And received the same vision. We need males to accompany us. And we have no reason,” said Glinda carefully, “to ask you to come with us, Goo-goo, no reason except that it feels right. We got the strangest…”
“Tungjii’s tingles!” exclaimed Drattus.
“You haven’t told us where you’re going yet,” chided Artie, “or why. Though I can guess.”
The twincesses looked at each other, and then to their fellow Misfits. “We’re going to meet some very important people, and change their minds.”
Chapter 5: The Not-Too-Badlands (or Pop Go the Beetles!)
It isn’t hard to figure out where the Badlands begin. On most maps, the exact distinction is unclear: in one area it will say “The Badlands” and cover one-third of the Southern landmass. However, those who travel there regularly – merchants, adventurers, bards, miners and the moderately insane – know that the demarcation between “The Goodlands” and “The Badlands” is clear and abrupt, as if a line had been drawn in the sand. I’m not being allegorical – there really IS a line. On one side, green life, humidity, clouds, health and vitality. On the other, bones, dry heat, painfully blue sky, death and feebleness.
It is said that there’s a legend about the Line, and how the Badlands came to be, known only to the Great and Powerful Ooze. (I’ve just told you only the Ooze knows, so don’t expect anything further from me. If and when it does tell me, you can be somewhat sure you’ll be the first to know.)
Greeny wrapped his cloak of moisture tightly around him. It had been made for him by Glinda. She’d meant to give it to him at Winterflame, but she insisted he take it before he left. She’d been a little jittery since the future-sending. He raised the collar, trying to protect his bark from the glaring sunlight and stifling heat. The land wasn’t devoid of plant growth, but here only the hardiest survived. He had tried to communicate with them, but their minds were scratchy and sleepy. Greeny swatted at the swarms of midges that had been plaguing him ever since they’d crossed The Line.
Gnasher was itchy. The sand kept getting under her hairs and onto her skin. She knew they were all inhaling sand with every breath – so where did it end up once inside them? She decided that she didn’t want to know, and scratched Growler under her chin. The werehuman had begun to pant during the last two miles, so Artie had stopped to rest near a large outcropping of mica-flecked rocks. Gnasher filled a clay bowl with water from her waterskin and placed it on the sand, where Growler happily began slurping.
“No!!!” shouted Gabierla. A sound like sticks rubbing together began, coming from all around them. “Everybody up onto the rocks way over there!” Gnasher grabbed Growler, and ran with the others to a large, flat rock about 3 feet above ground. A circle full of writhing beetles, hundreds of them, surrounded the bowl, and in seconds the water was gone. The ground began to tremble. “Do. Not. Move,” the succubus asserted. The beetles, lethargic from their consumption of water, slowly began to disperse.
Growler leapt after them, even though the trembling grew more pronounced. “Greeny, get her!” shouted Gabi anxiously. The plant man’s arm began to lengthen at an amazing pace, until its branches swept underneath the weredog, just as a blind cave worm the size of several cows erupted from the surface, swallowing the bowl, the majority of the beetles and most of the surrounding rocks. It hovered in the air for a few moments, while several skin flaps opened and closed as it breathed in deeply.
It barely noticed Drattus running as fast as his rodent legs could propel him, past the worm, a dripping paintbrush in his teeth, as he made a bright pink line across the worm’s bulk. The worm plunged downward as quickly as it had appeared, and was gone. “Drattus!!” shouted Gabierla. A tense minute passed, and a hot pink paintbrush poked its tip out from under the sand. Growler ran to the spot, and lifted the rat out with her teeth. Gobs of sand were spat everywhere, as he said, “Well, there, ‘ow’d I do, ole friend?”
Artie laughed, then shook his head. “Apart from scaring the rest of our party half to death, I’d say you scored a big victory there!”
Gnasher barked, sharply. “Gabi, what just happened? It was all so fast!”
Gabi sat, and dangled her legs in the sand, tracing designs with her boot heels. “The Badlands are like that. All sleepy and desolate one moment, then quicksilver and crowded in the next. Look,” she said, pointing to the rocks where some beetles had begun giving off what looked like steam clouds, “in a moment their eggs will have formed. Those beetles would never have gotten there if it weren’t for the force of the worm’s dive. The pockmarks in these rocks have something that reacts to the moisture the pop-beetles have drank, and it starts their eggs. When ready, the pop-beetles will die, their shells pop open and the eggs, now like pebbles, will be food for the wassocaries. Once the shells dissolve inside the birds, the larvae will be pooped out, and become the next generation.”
“That’s beautiful” signed Greeny. “Balanced in every way.”
“Yes,” Gabi nodded. She cupped her palms, folding them inward and pointed them downwards, the backs of her wrists touching. She slowly rolled the backs of her hands upwards, bringing the backs of her fingers together; the left and right elbows touched each other as the insides of each wrist came together again, palms cupped in the shape of an open flower. It meant nothing to the others, but Greeny recognized the sign of a devotee of the Balance.
She turned to Artie. “You have marked a worm. It was un-marked, then?”
The priest turned adventurer nodded. “As far as I could see, it was not. There was no time, you understand, to alert everyone and explain. Drattus & I had prepared a plan, should we encounter a worm. It is customary to mark an unknown worm, is it not?”
“Yes. The tribes keep count of them. They provide food and livelihood to many of us. Too many, and they become dangerous. Too few, and we must investigate to find out why, and halt our hunts until the population is back to normal.” She smiled broadly. “This will give you good favor with the tribes.”
Growler barked, and drew two words in the sand with her paw. “Smartie Artie” they read.
“It’s getting late,” said Gnasher.
“Iffen I ‘member, there should be a town not too far ahead. It’s called Olden Pond,” Drattus stated, “It’ll be good ta get out o’ the sun.”
Chapter 6: The Unexpected God
Before they left Grinder to his own devices, he gave them one of his cryptic statements: “Gods and time, they strangers are. Pride’s wounds bleed still. Love’s wounds will scar. Take care to discover which wound is which, for such divine knowledge will make you rich.” He kissed the air where the twincesses floated, then scuttled into the tunnels to await their return.
Glenda and Glinda floated through the walls and pipes to emerge in the lemony fresh scented corridor of the Hall of Forgotten Gods, located in the Temple of Comparative Religions, Astronomical Phenomena & Paranormal Experiences Research & Studies. There they waited for their friends Wily, Goo-man and Lucky the cat, who had joined them in the tunnels when they left home base. The twincesses went in full ghost mode, which is to say, complete invisibility. Ghosts were frowned upon by Temple staff, and one time they’d narrowly escaped being exorcised.
When Wily (with Goo-man safely bottled up on a leather cord ‘round his neck) and Lucky emerged from the Men’s Holy W.C., they walked to a far corner of the room (Well, the boy and the cat walked, to be precise.) Lucky suddenly stopped, and sat down to lick hisser paws. “What now?” Wily asked. “You’ve both been very quiet.”
“Turn and look at one of the statues,” chided Glinda, “Only you and Lucky can see and hear us. If you look as if you’re here to worship, no one will think you’re a little nuts.”
“Faff always tells me I’m a little nuts. Does it matter which statue?” he enquired with mischief in his voice.
“No, it doesn’t and you know that!” replied Glenda. “Glinda and I are going to the Hall of Popular Gods to see if Thalassa or Sangray is lurking about. After we’re gone, you and Lucky go to the Hall of Less Popular Gods and try to find O’Shawnessy.”
“Hold on – isn’t he with the Popular Gods?” said Goo-man, his voice muffled by the glass vial.
“Not since the banana’s been loose,” snickered Glenda, “and that should teach him that a loose banana is a lonely banana!”
“Mrrrrowr!” hissed Lucky, who turn hisser back to them.
“Iffen…I mean, if I find him, what do I tell him?” Wily looked at them.
Glinda uncharacteristically spoke first. “Tell him what’s happening. Ask him if he put the goddesses’ curses into the banana on purpose, and tell him we’re going to try speaking to them on his behalf.”
“And that we may need his help in that department,” added Glenda. The two held hands, and vanished.
Before he turned to leave, Wily took a good look at the statue he’d been staring at, but not really seeing. It was covered with dust, and about four feet tall. Someone long ago had draped a cloth over it. It must really suck to be a forgotten God, he thought. Wily hoped he or she had been asleep when moved to this Hall. On an impulse, he yanked the cloth off, setting a cloud of dust swirling into the air. He coughed, and wiped the dirt and dust from his eyes.
It was a statue of a boy, about his age, wearing raggedy clothes, a jaunty cap with three feathers jutting out at an angle, with a bulging pouch attached to a rope at his waist, and his hand outstretched. Below him was a dirt-clogged nameplate. He felt Lucky bump into him, holding the cloth in hisser teeth. Grabbing it, Wily spit on the nameplaten and rubbed it until it shone. It read: Bono Fortuno, the Unexpected God. In smaller print, it said: Patron of Orphans, Sailors and Poets.
He reminded Wily of one of the Rat Bastards, Moe Sajach, who died from an assassin’s blade on Burning Night while he was helping the youngest ones to safety. He died in Wily’s arms, smiling when Wily had told him he’d killed that bastard that skewered him. Damn it if I’m crying, he thought. Moe would surely tease him for weeks on end if he’d seen these tears.
“Meow,” chirruped Lucky. Wily felt warmth at his back and a hand on his shoulder. “Wily, ah…” burbled Goo-man, “I think maybe you should stand…or maybe kneel?” Wily stood up and began to turn around, as he heard someone yawn. He saw the newly awakened God, his hand still on his shoulder, stretch his other arm to the ceiling. Bono Fortuno then looked down at Lucky, and using Wily’s shoulder to steady himself, jumped off his pedestal and crouched next to Lucky, who was purring loudly and rubbing against him.
“Tears help clean your eyes so the soul can see clearly,” he told Wily, “so I am awakened by tears, and a memory of someone kind-hearted and brave, and something of a smartass. As the Forgotten are reshaped by those who bring them back, so I will be reshaped by you, boyo. And you, Tungjii!” Lucky placed his paw on Fortuno’s cheek.
“You mean they don’t know? Well no, I suppose they wouldn’t. Their pride did that, stopped me in my growth until I was forgotten. Stupid, stubborn Firstborns! Here, boyo, take this!”
The God threw what had been hidden in his right hand to Wily, who caught it and saw it was a shiny gold coin, with a question mark on one side and a four-leafed plant on the other. A chain appeared and attached itself to the coin. Wily put it around his neck, and was about to ask him something when Fortuno cut him off.
“No, it won’t hurt the Goo-man,” said the God, “In fact, it might do him some good. I rub off on people, or so they used to tell me. I must go and increase my following. When they notice my pedestal’s empty, they’ll move it into the next Hall. Now, show that coin to O’Shawnessy when you see him. What’s your name, boyo?”
“Wily,” he replied.
“A grand name, a name of good fortune! It suits you!” And Fortuno vanished.
Wily couldn’t help but walk a little taller and smile a little broader, as he and Lucky practically danced their way to the Hall of Lesser Gods.
Chapter 7: In Olden Pond (A Game of Champions)
Fawn Shrench shuffled the decks with her hands. The enchanted cards had been handed down, from generation to generation for over 3,000 years. The dice too, although they were a few hundred years younger. The cards had been hewn from an elven desert pine, a species long since vanished from the Badlands, and painted by an artist whose works once graced the homes of long-forgotten Kings and Queens. As a finishing touch, her ancestors had brought in the finest bards to give each one a hundred stories, and illusionists to imbue them with life.
The dice were made from the bones of a chimera. They were younger because they had been added later, or so the tribal legends tell. In the beginning, the Badlands folk were not happy with the game. It was too easy to play, they said. It needed something to balance the scales, so that the inexperienced had as much of a chance of winning as a veteran player. And so, the morphing dice were added. And my own role, she reminded herself, the “Nairn.”
The Nairn dealt the cards, rolled the dice, and wove the stories of the players together. She (Nairns were always female) renounced clan allegiance, and so was neutral. You could live your whole life, thought Fawn, and never see the same tale unfold. In the end, though, only one player would win. It is why, through the centuries, disputes and wars in the Badlands were resolved not by bloodshed, but by the game of Champions. The gnolls alone had the right to wage bloody war, but only amongst themselves – which was just as well, as they gave birth in litters and not one by one. For others, life was too precious to needlessly waste it, as the land itself had taught them.
She laid out the starting decks in order, face down. First the 12 Champions, the 6 Elementals, and then the 60 Troop cards. The 20 Event cards were kept by her side. The Game table began to glow as the cards were laid out. There were whispered conversations as the room full of Nethergerbil Clansmen placed bets on the players. Fawn turned her head and looked at the odd group who had come several hours ago to Olden Pond’s Drunken Direlizard Tavoon, asking to be taken to the Drowning Whirlpool.
***** ***** A few hours earlier ***** *****
Gabierla was grateful that she was unaffected by the heat. Having spent the first 16 years of her life growing up in the Badlands, her body had acclimatized itself. You either adapted to needing less water, or you died. What underground water there was, was carefully allocated. Each person got so much water every day, and no more. If your sick Grandma needed more water, the other family members went with less to give her more. If you had food-producing trees or plants, you would be given additional water, for which you would give an equal amount of food when the harvest came.
Gnasher with her gnoll fur and Growler with her dog pelt fared the worst. The werehuman was upset when Gabi told her that she couldn’t trim her fur, because the sun would burn her skin. The open, dry landscape had very few trees. It did have, however, stone houses that lined the desert trail every mile or so. The rocks had been brought from the Nethercaps, by boat and then by caravan. It had been a gesture of goodwill by King Asterisk Beorson, who wanted to improve trade relations with the Clans. The massive rock houses did provide much-needed shade, and the outside surfaces were often used for frying or baking – no fire required.
Drattus was enjoying the relative cool and humidity underneath Greeny’s cloak. The plant man’s feet had begun to darken as the hot sand was charring his bark. Artie Pendrake’s usually brisk pace had slowed considerably. It was several hours since they’d first crossed The Line when Gabierla saw what marked the direct path to Olden Pond. A fat slab of rock, about 1 meter across, with a fish skeleton inside it, lay partially covered in the sand. She noted the direction the head pointed.
“This way,” she indicated, “is the way to Olden Pond.”
“I don’t see any sign,” said Gnasher, “I see nothing except this old skeleton. Wait, is that…a fish?! You’re telling me a dead fish is the sign? Why wouldn’t you just put up a sign that said ‘Olden Pond this way?’ And why a fish?”
“Modern Badlands humor, and ancient Badlands wisdom,” answered Artie, “It’s okay, Gabierla, I’ve got this.” As they began walking toward what they hoped was a town with cold drinks and cool beds, Artie continued. “Long ago, before kingdoms and countries were established here, this whole area was prey to pirates, raiders and explorers. To some extent, it still is today. Back then these pillagers would return to their people and talk of the riches to be found in the Badlands – minerals and gems in the desert, fish and new animals in the ponds and forests – which would bring more pillagers. To confuse them, things were named as the opposite of what they were. For instance, the area in the South known for its excellent fishing might be called ‘The Dead Sea.’ If you wanted to decrease the chances of your village being found, you’d want a way for locals to find you, but not unwanted visitors.”
“I get it,” said Gnasher, and looked respectfully at Gabierla.
“We follow the examples of the creatures that thrive here,” replied the succubus. “I should say ‘they follow’ but I am still a Badlander in my heart.” In an hour or so, they spotted their goal: Olden Pond. There was a well-defined, if short Main Street. On one side was a General Store, a Town Hall, A Schoolhouse and Lady Basharn’s Flophouse; on the other was a Jail and Royal Guardsman Office, A Barber Shop/Beauty Salon, Artists’ Studio, Miners & Merchants Guild Offices, and the Drunken Direlizard Tavoon. Of course, that last location was the only place they were interested in.
Gabierla received guarded looks from some of the locals. They were a mix of many races, even some Repts with direlizard mounts. A few were outright hateful, and one actually spat at her. Gnasher leapt at the old man, catching him by the shoulder, baring her teeth and hissing at him. He ran between the buildings seeking a place to hide. Growler stopped at the alleyway and barked ferociously. “That’s okay, girl,” Gabi shouted, loud enough to be heard by anyone on Main Street, “That fish is just small fry, seems he threw himself back!” A susurrus went through the onlookers, a few of whom were following them in small groups of twos and threes.
The sign at the Drunken Direlizard was shaped like an upright playing card. It sported a picture of the creature, standing on its two hind feet, holding a beer stein overflowing with bitterberry ale, foaming and sloshing over its sides. A skippyloom nipped at his toes, causing the direlizard to lean dangerously over a cliff. Oblivious to his danger, it reached out with its free hand to catch a flairey flying away with a coin pouch that had been cut from the direlizard’s belt.
As soon as she placed her hand upon the door, a jolt knocked her backwards, and the sign’s painting came to life. “You are not wanted here, lifesucker, drinker of souls. Leave now, and your life will be spared,” intoned the direlizard, although the voice was that of an old woman. This time Greeny stepped forward. Gabi had never seen him look so furious. “I am thirsty, tired, and not in the mood for your baseless hatred of this good woman.” Gabi, translating his signing, was proud of him. “Oh, the rest of you can come in. She cannot. The door is warded with Chaos and Order, and she cannot pass.” The direlizard’s mouth curled up into a smirk.
Greeny then did something that none of the Misfits had ever heard him do: he laughed. “I am an apostle of the Balance, on business of its protection. By association, all who travel with me are initiates. This ward is cancelled.” With that, he performed the same hand gesture as Gabi had earlier. But as the hands unfurled upwards like an open flower, he curled the fingers of both branch-hands into fists. The door crumbled into sawdust.
As they entered, they heard a voice from the back shout, “By Blessed Bob’s Big Balls, Fawn, did I just lose another door? You owe me a week’s worth of water for that!” A large bald she-orc came from behind the bar and greeted them. “Hello and welcome to the Drunken Direlizard. I’m Chrissie Ibo. Well, well, if it isn’t Gabierla? Did the old Shrench wench back there try to stop you from entering? Your friends knew you were innocent. The Josso boys were always randy bastards, and Stephan was no exception. But ‘cause Fawn and his mam were best friends she couldn’t let it go. ‘Course you left after the clan judgement, and Fawn saw to it that life was hell for your friends, so most moved away.”
She took their orders, and started to return to the bar, when she said over her shoulder, “She can’t do anything now, though. She’s a Nairn. I’d wager you could get reinstated, if you asked the council.”
“Yup,” said a voice from another side of the room. It was Levi Ofworthy, one of the clan chiefs. “Be a simple matter of a spoken request, and a vote. Though you’d have to go elsewhere to feed.”
Gabi felt tears welling up, but she brushed them away. “As my friend said, we’re here on Balance business.” She told the people at the bar about O’Shawnessy’s Banana, and its curse. “We think it wants to disappear, permanently. And the only place we could think of for it to come to the Badlands is the Drowning Whirlpool. I don’t know where it is.”
Heads turned to the open doorway, where a bard stood, amazement shining from his face. He looked around the room, until he spotted Drattus. He strode over to him and kneeled so they were eye to eye. “Are you Drattus Thaddeus Rattus?” he asked. When he got a nod in reply, he reached his hand into his pants pocket and pulled out a gold coin. “A young man gave this to me, and asked if I would give it to you. When I said yes, I was standing in the Old Priest and Rat Tavern. No sooner did the coin touch my hand, but I find myself outside the…Drunken Direlizard, is it?”
“God business!” declaimed Drattus, “Pater, ‘ow do we allus seem ta gets involved wi’ God business? Whoa, shiny!” The coin landed in Drattus’ paw, almost tipping him off balance, only to shrink to fit his paw’s smaller size. “An’ yer name, sir?”
“Dave, Dave LaPlaid. It’s an honor to meet you!”
“Does ANYONE know how to get to the Drowning Whirlpool?” cried an anguished Gabierla.
The room fell silent. Even Dave, whose sixth sense was telling him that a tale and a tune would be born from this night. The only sounds to be heard were of drinks being quaffed and food being chewed.
“I know where it is,” said Fawn, “and I will take you there, on these conditions: First, that you win a game of Champions. Second, I will choose three other players. If one of them wins, he can name his prize, and you and your friends must honor it. None of them may ask for your prize as their own.”
***** ***** The Present ***** *****
Fawn had chosen Chrissie and Levi, and at last – to everyone’s surprise – she chose Dave. The four players were now seated, and they rolled for order to pull a Champion card. Levi pulled the Orc Barbarian Lord; Dave, the Human Thief; Gabi, the Elven Druid; and Chrissie, the Dwarven Paladin. The rest of the Champion cards, Fawn set face down, by herself.
Then the Elemental Cards were drawn: Levi pulled Water, so he placed his champion card on the islands area in the map. Dave pulled Darkness, and placed his card on the map, in the Shadow area. Gabi drew Light, and placed her champion card in the clouds. Chrissie drew Fire, and placed her card in the volcanic area. As soon as the last Champion was placed, the map was covered in dense fog. Only the areas one space away were visible.
Fawn took the Troop cards, and offered them to each player, who drew their six cards. Often the beginning cards could make or break a player. How the player uses the number and type of troops, the face strength values of the card number, and the modifiers of elemental affinity and terrain can show the differences between a skilled player and a novice. Unfortunately, the players won’t know what cards they have until they are played; and the randomness of the morphing dice can throw everything into chaos, with the best laid plans falling to pieces in one turn. The magic embedded in the gaming table allows each player to only see the game and map unfold from their point of view. If another player enters their territory, they will only know it if they have previously visited that area themselves. Once they unlock an area, they can place troops there at any time.
Fawn picked up the morphing dice, which disappeared as a waterball engulfed the Nairn’s hands; as she opened her hands, the water collapsed in a torrent of rain as the dice rolled into the Nairn’s bowl, but covered the dice, making the outcome invisible to all except Fawn. “Barbarian, your first move is action.”
Levi placed a troop card by his champion. As he was favored by Water, he began in an archipelago surrounded by islands. The troop card was an Efreet, a Fire spirit. It suffered a -3 penalty to all rolls while in Water. Of those seated at the table, only he and the Nairn could see the card at all. As she rolled Drattus’ turn, she saw Levi listening to the table telling him his story.
Several hours later, only Gabi and Dave were left. Dave wished he could forfeit the game to let Gabi win, even though he’d discovered he had a knack for playing it. Each of them faced a choice in this next turn. They each had one troop card left to play. Dave had five archers, a dozen goblin mercenaries and a Giant. Gabi had four fire mages, a priest, ten paladins and a wounded dragon. They were positioned on Earth, which gave him bonuses. It was Day, so Gabi had the advantage there.
Gabi wanted to scream. This was madness – playing a game when an ancient godifact was somewhere nearby, likely setting in motion one or more disasters. She was feeling faint from hunger. Which was funny, in a way, because the whole reason her forces of Light had gone to war was because a plague had decimated their food supplies. Wait a minute, she thought. Dave’s troops had been suffering a penalty every turn because their water supply had run out over 15 turns ago, and she had defeated Water. Wait…what if I tried? And her nethers began to tingle. A flash of light exploded over the bowl, and blocked the view of the dice.
“Druid, your next move is Action.”
Gabi took a deep breath. “I wish to meet the Thief.”
“One-on-one combat. A foolish move, but…”and Fawn was interrupted.
“Hold!” said Gabi, and small lightning bolts roiled above the dice bowl. “You misinterpret my words, Nairn. I wish to meet and talk with the Thief.”
Fawn laughed. “There is no such action. It is against the rules!” The tavoon erupted in conversation and animated discussions. “Silence!” shouted Fawn.
“Elder Ofworthy,” Gabi began, “Is there any rule which specifically forbids a parley with an opponent? And, respected Nairn, how is a parley not an action?”
Levi thought for several minutes, then banged his thundermug on the table. “By Blessed Bob the Elder God, there is none! I’ve never heard, in all my years, of anyone doing so. It seems like a foolish waste of a turn, but I’ll allow it, if the Nairn agrees.”
Fawn scowled, then sighed. “A parley, though words, is a kind of exercise, and therefore could be considered an action. I think. Very well, let us see if you get your parley.” The cloud grew opaque, and filled with a bluish light, as everyone saw the three dice float upwards, and morph into a 20-sided die, landing in the bowl. It rolled, and came to rest. Gabi had rolled a 20. The tavoon faded away, to be replaced by a vision of a battlefield, people by the two champions, their troops…and the patrons of the Drunken Direlizard! Never before had onlookers been included in the table’s illusions, and the patrons exchanged looks of wonder, and a few worried brows. The ground shook lightly as Dave’s Giant shifted from foot to foot.
The two adversaries crossed the field towards each other, their troops shouting both encouragements and words of caution. Dave, dressed head to foot in black leather and bristling with daggers and knives, bowed to Gabierla with a grand flourish. Gabi curtsied elegantly, and held out an olive branch to Dave, which he then grasped tightly.
“Thief, I brought my people to war because they go without enough food. A plague has decimated our fields, and our livestock. I am here today to end their hunger and pain, not to claim an empty victory over territory I do not want, or suffer defeat and lose all my subjects to slavery or death. Why do you wage war?”
“Druid, the waters of my lands are tainted, and my people suffer from thirst. I seek to end their thirst and pain. Darkness does not want your lands filled with light, just your water. My people are dying.”
“And If I offered you as much clean water as you need, in exchange for food for my people, until such time as your tainted water is purified and the plague on our food supply is ended, would you agree to this? We need not shed more blood, but cooperate to bring us both what we seek.”
“I would, yes. But what token do you give, that you shall honor this agreement?”
“Leave that to me, Bard. I mean, ahem, Thief.” Everyone, both living and illusory, blinked in astonishment as a rather handsome, well-muscled blond-haired human appeared between the two, holding two amulets. He gave one to each of them, and then began to applaud, with everyone joining in. Except Fawn, who walked right up to him and pinched him, and was mortified when he slapped her butt.
“Hello,” he said to all assembled. “You all know me. I’m Bob. I just had to be a part of the first innovation in this game in the 3,000 years since I invented it. Well played, young lady!” The tavoon began to appear again, the opposing armies fading out. Bob leaned in close to Gabi, and whispered, “Good luck with that pesky banana!” And vanished, to return to the Beginning Place (where a lover’s quarrel was soon to rock the Temple of C.R.A.P.P.E.R.S.)
As the gaming table powered down, Fawn stood up. “You didn’t win!” she screamed.
Chrissie, who towered over her, placed her large hand on her shoulder, and forced her to sit. “They both won. The Eldest God blessed them. You will show her the way to the Drowning Whirlpool, understand?”
Levi Ofworthy shook his opponents’ hands, and asked Dave, “What prize do you ask for, young man, seeing that you are the other winner?” Dave answered immediately. “I’d like to accompany these fine folk tomorrow, if that’s all right with them.”
“The more the merrier,” commented Artie, and added, “Tomorrow could be disastrous, I warn you.”
Chapter 8: Two Goddesses, Two Ghosts and One Thing In Common
The Hall of Popular Gods, although the smallest of the three sanctums of worship in the Temple of C.R.A.P.P.E.R.S., is almost always bustling with worshippers from all corners of Beor. This is where the devout would plead for favor, or rail against their chosen deity for ignoring them. Every four hours, CRAPPERS cleanup crews would patrol the hall, washing away any gore or guts (or both) from sacrificial altars, replacing candles that had burned into stubs and scraping the waxen puddles from the floor, collecting (and occasionally pocketing) coins and other trinkets or baubles that had been left as tributes to bring to the appropriate administrative office. Every deity had not just a high priest or priestess, but also their own administrator. Religious bureaucracy in Beor is legendary.
The statues here show just how posh an upgrade in status it is to be considered ‘Popular’ as opposed to ‘Less Popular.’ The materials used are precious and semi-precious stones and marble, as opposed to clay or granite. A deity is given its own private alcove, complete with several comfortable benches, incense burners, paintings or other artworks; and stained-glass panels that are backlit by an amazing, hidden system of mirrors that bring in daylight from above.
This was the first time the twincesses had ever been to this hall. Their father had been scandalously agnostic – which, when you come to think about it, was a rather ridiculous point of view in a town where you were just as likely to converse with a dracolich as you were to chat with a cheese seller.
They were whistled at by Jack Thunder, which was unsurprising considering his reputation. But because they were in invisible mode, the pair of crones who were lighting joss sticks at his feet thought the whistle was meant for them. They started licking his calves, only to be rewarded by a nasty electric shock. The god then disappeared. Glinda giggled, and Glenda smirked wickedly. It was to their surprise that they found the alcoves of Sangray and Thalassa were next to each other.
There were two people at Sangray’s shrine. I say ‘people’ because they were wrapped in voluminous cloaks that hid any signs of their sex, and whose hoods masked their faces. Their feet were bare and heavily calloused. Sangray’s shrine is unsettling. There are two firepots which shift positions randomly, at any time. This includes under benches, on top of people’s heads (even passersby) or even in mid-air. Also, bits and pieces of the ceiling are known to dislodge themselves and fall, only to float back up again as if nothing had ever happened. Benches have been known to mysteriously lose, or sprout, a leg or two. Or lose a foot or more in length. Needless to say, young children loved to visit her alcove. Neither Glenda nor her sister sensed any sign of the Goddess of Chaos.
Thalassa’s shrine had visitors packed five or six persons deep, although the area directly in front of them was clear. The reason why became apparent very quickly, as they saw the seaweed being pushed by shallow waves of seawater, seawater that was emanating from the painting in the alcove that depicted Blackwater Bay. The sounds of seagulls sang in the background as one burst from the painting out to the vaulted ceiling of the Hall. Thalassa floated in the water filling her area of worship, which slopes downwards in the shape of an inverted scallop shell, as a pair of winged doll-fins danced above her. The benches meant for worshippers were underwater.
Floating at a respectable distance was a young dwarf of about 68, wearing a staff uniform and sitting on a wooden raft. His face was worried as he kneeled in the raft’s center.
“Your most powerful and ever-changing liquid goddess, I beg you restore your shrine back to its original state, so that we mortals may give thanks for your watery wisdom and your salty…um…”
Glinda, both terrified and amused, floated next to him and whispered in his ear, “your salty sagacity.”
“Salty Sagacity.” The goddess was tracing her perfect finger along the whorls of a large shell. “Please, blessed bringer of the waters’ bountifulness, I could lose my position,” added the dwarf. Thalassa stood, and grew to at least 10 feet tall. As she did so, a choir of sirens sang, part of the water drained into cracks which appeared in the seashell-inlaid floor, and rest of the water rose to cover her shoulders like a floor-length cape. It looked amazing, as if she wore a waterfall. His raft fell with a ‘thwack!” and broke apart. She fixed her cold blue eyes on the dwarf, who was trembling. The Sea Goddess picked him up by his neck, and closely examined him, turning him front and back.
“Lose your position? Not unless I say so,” she commented as she put him down. “What’s your name, short stuff?”
“Bud Peeled, your Holy…”
“Brothers & Sisters, Bud, you are insufferable! Let me make this clear. I’m a Goddess. I do what I want, and right now I’m restless and in need of a distraction. You’re not it, so off you go!” A wave appeared under him, picked him up and sped along the floor and out through the Hall’s main door and back to the administrative offices.
The twincesses looked at each other. The crowd had dispersed, and with the exception of two hangers-on, Thalassa’s shrine was empty. “Now?” asked Glenda, and Glinda nodded. They materialized behind the Goddess, who had chosen that moment to turn around – only to find the ghostly sisters floating there. The twincesses hadn’t known what to expect, but most certainly not the soul-piercing scream she let out.
“G-g-g-hosts? I hate ghosts, and I hate it when you do things like that! I could kill you both RIGHT NOW, if you weren’t already DEAD!”
That was when the floor erupted, sending shell fragments and floor tiles everywhere, revealing the Goddess of Chaos, waves of distortion pouring forth from her every movement. She wore a suit of dark grey armor, and carried a double-bladed axe of fire and shadow. She looked disapprovingly at her sister goddess.
“By the bloody bile of Blessed Blodwin’s disgusting morning sickness, do you have to be such a drama queen?”
“Says my sister, Mistress of Dramatic Entrances?” the Deity responded, dripping with sarcasm. They exchanged scathing looks, and then ran to each other, embracing in a fit of ungodly girlish giggles.
Glenda looked at Glinda, who shrugged, saying, “Do they remind you of anyone, hmm?” She winked at her, whispering, “As a matter of fact – twintastic attack?” “You read my mind!”
They vanished, and then re-appeared: Glinda behind Sangray, and Glenda behind Thalassa. Using magic to amplify their voices, they shouted, “HEY!”, scaring the stray seagull off of the Hall rafters. It flew over them, and making certain it aimed its droppings onto their heads (they fell through them and plopped on the floor), and flew back into the painting in Thalassa’s alcove.
Sangray turned, and she would have successfully crushed Glinda’s throat, had Glinda been corporeal. Thalassa simply tried waving Glenda away. “You little piece of worthless ectoplasmic…,” began Sangray, but she stopped mid-sentence. “Wait a minute. I know you two from somewhere…who are, who were you?”
Glenda immediately clothed herself in royal finery, and Glinda followed her lead, flanking her. “The Suicide Princesses! Oh, I applaud your fortitude! Those Moltenscars are so unctuous! And your deaths threw several kingdoms in turmoil – I owe you one for that! Such delicious unrest that stirred up!”
“Actually, your…all right, I have to ask, as this is the first time,” explained Glinda, “that I’ve ever met goddesses – how should I address you?”
Sangray looked thoughtful for a moment or two. “Your most awesome and incredibly gorgeous and powerful Goddess of Chaos would be appropriate. Just kidding! I’m in a good mood right now, as I’ve felt some powerful chaos blundering about. Call me San-Chan, and call her,” she said, indicating her sister, “Thally. You know, like Sally but with a lithp.”
“Well, San-Chan, the chaos you’ve felt,” said Glenda, “is what we’re here about. It’s the banana’s fault, you see. We need you both to remove your curses.”
Thalassa shrugged her shoulders. “Neither I nor my sister have ever wasted a curse on a tropical fruit. That I can remember, that is.” Sangray again looked thoughtful. “What – we cursed a banana?”
“Not exactly,” Glinda said very carefully, watching Sangray’s eyes catch fire.
“I’m moving you all to someplace safe.” And with that divine pronouncement, they found themselves in The Beginning Place, which is, for those of you that are new to the Beorian Tales, a cosmic gathering room. A room without walls, or ceiling or visible floor. In the middle of the cosmos, and the known universes.
Glinda, nonplussed, continued, “You cursed its maker, who put them into a banana, one of the Seven Craftings.” Thalassa still appeared clueless.
“Thally, we all made one, remember? My sword, your flute…” the goddess of Chaos prompted. Memory stirred, and the Sea goddess exploded.
Chapter 9 – A Resolution, A Solution, and A Reconstitution
Divine beings, when unspeakably angry, tend to explode, and the results are never pretty. Luckily, they were in The Beginning Place, so no harm done. A few universes got displaced, and then were carefully moved back to where they belonged by the dark flareys (don’t ask about them, I don’t quite understand them – yet.) Thalassa coalesced from the roiling cloud of mist that she had become, and spat out one word: “O’Shawnessy!”
“It was done partly in anger, and partly in jest,” said Sangray. “Curses don’t work on a fellow god, so they’re more symbolic than anything.”
“But, sister, these ghost girls say he put the curses into something, which means that they did work!” Thalassa exclaimed. “How is that possible?”
Glenda decided that she’d had enough, and told them about the tornado at Morbid Curiosities, the loss of the Seven Godifacts, and the tragicomic incidents surrounding the banana. “You see, if you remove your curses, the banana becomes relatively harmless.”
“Not going to happen. Even if they did manage to stick,” stated Sangray.
“Especially if they managed to stick! It would serve him right!” declared Thalassa.
“The reason your curses stuck is very simple,” said Bob the Elder God, who manifested in a shower of falling stars, accompanied by Elryssa, the newest demi-goddess. “A deity is vulnerable when he or she is in love, and the hurt is given by the object of that love. It sounds ridiculous, but there it is. Same as with every living and undead thing. It’s a universal constant. Not even I have control over it.”
“That’s…the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.” Sangray shook her head, although Glinda though she looked more puzzled than pissed off. “Right, Thally?”
“He…loved me, and he loved Sangray?” asked Thalassa. “That’s not just crazy, that’s impossible!”
Laughter rang out in The Beginning Place, ringing clear and bell-like through the universes. When Elryssa stopped, she walked over to the two goddesses. “I speak from experience when I say that anything is possible where love is concerned,” lifting Thalassa’s chin with her palm, “and if I’m not mistaken, you both loved him as well, each in your own way.”
Glenda was starting to think that Gods weren’t all that different from mortals when a doorway of light appeared, and in floated a glass sphere of something green that resembled Goo-man, only much bigger (and bubbling like a thick stew.) She recoiled a bit when its eye stalks swiveled to look at her and Glinda. Elryssa, however, walked over and hugged it!
“Stop! Stop! Careful, I can break, you know!” said a voice that sounded in everyone’s head.
“Ooze, don’t ever change! You seem particularly perky today!” teased the demi-goddess.
“Thanks in no small part to your delightful chortling, which lit every single candle in each Temple Hall! The cleaning staff are in a tizzy trying to get rid of all the dust they’re just noticing. It’s good to see you too, my dear.” The Great and Powerful Ooze then floated over to Bob. “But you! You could at least warn me when there’s going to be a family gathering! There’s a young man out there wanting to find those two,” he said, floating close to the twincesses, “accompanied by an avatar of Tungjii, a bottle of some botched Mage College attempt at re-creating me of all things, and…something we haven’t seen in a very, very long time. Can he come in? He’s quite well-behaved.”
“They’re expected. Send them in, and you stay as well.”
“I can stay?!” Floating over to Elryssa, he pronounced, “Whatever you’re doing, Mrs. Ravinger, keep doing it!”
A few moments later Wily Wilcox entered, followed by Lucky The Cat, who changed into Tungjii Luck. He figured out who was who pretty quickly. “Did they remove the curses?” he said, with what he hoped was humility and not impatience.
“No,” replied Sangray, “They did not. And they will not, unless we get an apology!” She said ‘apology’ with such force that Wily grabbed hold of the Ooze, whose spherical container was rocking erratically.
“A long-overdue apology!” added Thalassa. “It’s obvious he was seduced by my sister’s wild and crazy ways. It’s me he truly loved.”
“How DARE you! How could he possibly fall for an eternally wet-behind-the-ears wench like you!”
As the sister goddesses traded insults, Elryssa asked Bob, “Were they like this as children?” To which the Ooze replied, “You have no idea…”
“Silence! And Be Still! O’Shawnessy, I summon you!”
And suddenly the four Misfits found themselves in the presence of five gods, and one demi-goddess. The God of Blarney and Mischief cut a fine figure, his muscular chest caressed by a vest of softest leather delicately burnished by the first King of Dragons, with pants to match. A wide-brimmed leather hat adorned with a clutch of phoenix feathers sat atop his head of shining red hair, which was tied in a ponytail that fell to his muscular waist. His face was fair, his green eyes sparkling and his smile had set many hearts afire with desire. But it was his wits and his voice that could make friends of enemies, and charm the pants off of men and women and those who are neither, or both.
He was a sorry sight at the moment, though. His shoulders slouched, and his head hung low. Glenda saw right through him, however. After seeing Sangray and Thalassa fighting in the same way she and Glinda used to, she’d gotten a keen insight into how some Gods or Goddesses might best be handled. She figured that Glinda had come to the same epiphany, but didn’t have the courage to speak out. So, throwing caution to the winds, she grabbed the cocksure God by his psychological balls. She gathered as much substance to her form as she could, put herself directly in front of him, and said with annoyance, “You’re not really fooling anyone, you know, so you can drop the act.”
Glinda held her breath. She was afraid Glenda had gone too far, when she saw Elryssa smile broadly, and nod. Wily’s mouth was open, Goo-man’s eyes were pressed against the bottle, Tungjii was quietly dancing a jig, the Elder God’s eyebrows were arched at an impossibly high angle, the Ooze’s sphere was unnaturally still and the goddesses, held still and struck mute by Bob’s command, were looking at Glenda with astonishment.
The effect of the ghost princess’ words was instantaneous. Gone was the slouch and the hanging head, as O’Shawnessy wrapped his divine aspect around himself, laughing sweetly and looking irresistible. “I have been wronged, cursed and cast into unpopularity! Surely, I am the one who deserves an apology! All I did was love two wondrous women, loveliest in all creation.”
His voice, sweet as honey, enticing as love’s first kiss, convincing as a solemn promise, was working its magic on those listening, when Tungjii’s mark flared on the Misfits, and all four felt the ‘tingles.’
“No tricks, Trickster. You lied to Sangray, and you lied to Thalassa! You told each of them that they were the only one, that you loved her and her alone!” cried Glenda. “How do I know? Because that’s exactly what my wretched fiancé Moltenscar told me and my sister! And it was a lie!”
“I never said that. I said only that I loved them, till the end of time and space and beyond. I did, and still do, and forever truly love both of them. It was their vanity that made them think I’d said it was one, and not the other. How else could both their curses hurt me? I couldn’t do anything without creating chaos instead of joy, pain instead of pleasure, and tears instead of laughter!”
“So,” Glenda railed, “You put the curses into the artifact, and gave it into the hands of mortals? You heartless bastard!”
“Hey,” cautioned Bob, “Watch it there!”
“You gave your curses to a living artifact! All it wants to do is hide – it hates itself. Why didn’t you talk to the goddesses, and ask them to remove the curses?”
“We’d never speak to him! I’d rather be immobilized for 20,000 years.” Sangray spat at her former paramour.
“I’d rather be on dry land for a million years than grace him with so much as a grunt.” Thalassa threw him an icy glare.
“You both lie. You love me, I know you do.” The God of Blarney looked at them, defiantly.
“You have no proof,” said Sangray.
“No, he doesn’t,” said Bob the Eldest God, “But Wily does. Young man, I believe you were given something to deliver?”
Wily had forgotten about Fortuno’s coin. “I’m not sure how, but I awoke a forgotten god today. He told me to give you this.” Reaching inside his shirt, he took the coin on a chain form around his neck, and handed it O’Shawnessy. As soon as the god’s hand touched the coin, it rose in the air, emitting three beams of golden light – one at Sangray, one at Thalassa and one at O’Shawnessy, who was the first to speak.
“There was a child? I’m…I’m a father?”
“Impossible! How? When?” said the Goddess of Chaos.
“And which of us is the mother?” asked the Goddess of the Seas.
The Ooze burbled, “All three of you are parents of this godling!”
“That’s impossible!” Thalassa cried.
“You know,” said Goo-man from inside Wily’s shirt, “for a pair of goddesses you sure say the word ‘impossible’ a lot.”
“The child was forming out here, when I decided it was better that all three of you knew nothing about him until the ridiculous fight between you ended. I regret having to do that to my grandson, because it condemned him to be forgotten for a time. But the harm caused to O’Shawnessy was grievous, and more grievous still when he made his artifact.” Bob paused, and turned to look at the Misfits.
“Who is this Ignatius Mordred, and how did he manage to contain the lost artifacts?”
“I know him,” said the Ooze, “and so do you. This is best discussed between us at another time.”
“Oh,” said the Elder God, his voice uncharacteristically muted. “Daughters, will you remove your curses?”
“Dad,” said O’Shawnessy, “I’m not cursed – I put them into the artifact.”
“Can’t you do anything to help?” begged Glinda.
A voice spoke inside Wily’s head. “Your son says to have them both hold that coin at the same time, and do the removal whatever-he-called-it.”
So, they held Fortuno’s coin while they chanted and the curses were removed – just in time, as it turned out. Sangray, Thalassa and O’Shawnessy were seen wandering the stars, Elryssa gave Bob a smooch and disappeared, to reappear on the road between Millston and Slainte, pushing her cart full of Ralph Ravinger’s vegetables. Before they went on their way, the Misfits were offered a single godly gift for helping to mend a divine misunderstanding. Before Wily could utter a single word, the twincesses asked for the same favor. As a result, for the first time since his creation, Goo-man walked through the Temple fearlessly, for now he could control his ability to melt through substances.
Chapter 10: The Ballad of the Big Bad Banana
(a work in progress, by Dave LaPlaid)
It was early in the morning and a very hot day
When the Eight of us set out to peel a problem away
A big bad banana to the Badlands had come
Bringing bad luck and death to some, to some
Bringing bad luck and death to some.
The ‘nana sought oblivion, a heart of gold had he
Wanting fun and trickeries, not disasters or disease
Cursed by two goddesses, both beautiful and cruel
He sought peace at Drowning Whirlpool, Whirlpool
He sought peace at Drowning Whirlpool
Round its edges gathered the Eight – Drattus, Gabi and Dave
Gnasher and Growler, Artie, the Nairn and Greeny the Brave
Not a thing did they see, yellow or slippery
That signaled the ‘nana was near, was near
That signaled the ‘nana was near
Then a dust-cloud sprang out from the sandy spiraling spout
Blinding Misfit eyes and above everyone’s shouts
Soared the Great Wyvern of the West Waterless Sea
The cursed fruit clutched purposefully, fully
The cursed fruit clutched purposefully
Down did it plunge suicidal, in a life in death leap
But the Misfits, they had a solemn promise to keep
It was then the Fates put a few pieces in play
That saved some and doomed some that day, that day
That saved some and doomed some that day
Seeing the feared object of her daughter-in-law’s dire quest
Fawn Schrench launched herself skyward, to be first the fruit to get
Smelling her intent, our Growler leapt in pursuit
As a cave worm clew smelled sweet fruit, sweet fruit
As a cave worm clew smelled sweet fruit
The Nairn snatched the naughty ‘nana, which slip-slided away
Greeny dived in the whirlpool, the fruit’s descent to belay
Legs turning to roots and arms branching out and up
To catch it in a leafy cup, a cup
To catch it in a leafy cup
Too late her in-law Gabi saw sink in the swirling sand
(And Growler, poor werehuman, jaws clenched on traitorous hand)
Grabbed she Tungjii’s basket to throw to Greeny’s aid
The fruit he caught and by it betrayed, betrayed
The fruit he caught and by it betrayed
One worm fought old Artie Pendrake, whose sword slashed to and fro
Gabi sucked the lives of two worms plus five in one go
Gnasher killed two, and I sang three cave worms to sleep
Greeny’s roots cracked and we did weep, did weep
Greeny’s roots cracked and we did weep
At the very moment back in Tasuil Beor
Shangray and Thalassa undid their curses and more
The God’s banana no longer Chaos’ tool
All was still except the Whirlpool, Whirlpool
All was still except the Whirlpool.
Greeny threw O’Shawnessy’s fruit, weakly o’er to the edge
It slipped back, and Drattus flew down the steep sloping ledge
And grabbed it, and slipped as he was turning around
And we watched as he too slid down, slid down
And we watched as he too slid down.
Then up from the sand, Growler’s jaw spat out Fawn’s hand
As both rat and banana were picked up and brought to land
Drattus spat out curses, the God Coin he did throw
In the eye it went then below, below
In the eye it went, and below.
The Eight, now the Six, returned in triumph to Olden Pond
With sad news of their losses, those who had journeyed beyond
The Nethergerbils thanked them for the cave worm meat
And we returned to their home sweet, home sweet
To the Misfits’ home sweet, home sweet.
Chapter 11: Reunion, Relief and Resolution
It was with a heavy heart that the Misfits returned to their home in the sewers, under Morbid Curiosities’ second basement. The loss of Greeny hit Gentle Gabierla especially hard. She was still uncertain whether her late mother-in-law had meant to grab the banana for fair or foul purposes. It didn’t matter now, as she was dead and the banana had been safely placed in Tungji’s basket. She blamed herself for Greeny’s death.
Drattus remarked that nothing bad had happened on the return trip, and they’d said goodbye to their diminutive friend, Artie and the Bard at the Old Priest and Rat Tavern. Granny Ginny had given them all big hugs, and followed them inside, where the owner had treated them to a grand feast.
The Misfits spent the next morning filling each other in on what happened. It was sheer luck that the twincesses had managed to meet so many deities and lift the curse. Now they could give Ignatius Mordred the Godifact and not worry about him doing anything evil with it. It was now just as O’Shawnessy had intended: a tropical fruit with a wild sense of humor. They handed the basket over to an impossibly astonished Mordred that very night. He carried it away at arm’s length, gingerly climbing the ladder before slamming the door closed.
Wily, now busy being briefed daily by Bono Fortuno, had the daunting task of convincing the young Ravinger to build a wishing well in the tavern – seems the God of Orphans, Sailors and Poets had decided they were better than shrines for getting donations. He was also busy scouting, with help from the Understudies, for a new home for his friends, as the Misfits had decided they no longer would be Mordred’s minions. The Understudies said they’d have plenty of things that required their unique abilities.
Grinder of Bones is missing, though. That’s another story.
Epilogue (The Beginning Place)
“What’s all this about, Ooze?”
“Oh, it’s always all about you, isn’t it? This time you’re right.”
“Why is this Ignatius Mordred collecting our artifacts? Who is he, and how is he doing it?”
“He’s amassing power. Probably for revenge. Definitely to cause trouble for the mortals. As for who, and how…”
The Great and Powerful Ooze floated over to where a swirl of light indicated the death of a solar system, being swallowed by…I think I’ll eschew frightening the children.
“Oh, come on, don’t go all mystic and burbling on ME!” said Bob the Elder God.
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“I’m dead serious. It’s the other you. The one you made me make you forget about.”
“You don’t have that power.”
“Oh, but I do. You gave me that power, and made me use it to make you forget that you did.”
The Elder God paused for a moment to consider. “If I did, you were a very good student.”
“Thank you, Bob. That means a lot to me.”
“Are you going to restore what you made me forget?”
“It was more than just you, you know. You had me make all the firstborn forget.”
“Just me for now.”
“What do you say?”
“You’re kidding me.”
“Your rules, you know. To make certain that you are the correct being requesting this. Otherwise, no can do.”
In several galaxies, millennia passed, while in some no time passed at all. Bob paced back and forth…or maybe up and down, it’s hard to tell in The Beginning Place.
“This is NOT a request.”
“Oh, but in this case, it is. It has to be.”
“You’re enjoying this! You’re being unreasonable!!”
“No. And no, just doing my job, as ordered. By you.”
Bob the elder God suddenly held a stick in his hand, oddly shaped. Grasping it in the middle, with a hand at a tapered end, he clicked on a planet, watching it sail through the cosmos, where it hit other planets that hit other planets. Intergalactic pool.
“Look, can you give me just a hint? A little one?”
“AH, yes. You did allow for that. Bob, there are countless billions of languages in your creations, all of which have one word that you have never had to say, ever.”
And then Bob smiled, and laughed. All the planets destroyed in his intergalactic pool shot were miraculously restored, the umpty quadrillion residents unaware of their deaths and resurrections.
“Restore to me the memories that thou hast made me forget. Please.”
The sphere holding the Ooze became too bright for even the Eldest God to look at. A single word erupted, barely contained in The Beginning Place.
“Trebor,” said the Ooze.
The light faded, and Bob opened his eyes.
“Does…does SHE know?” he asked, in a quiet voice.
“She bade me tell you this…” and the Ooze paused, considering the wisdom of delivering such a message.
If he could have shrugged, he would have. Instead he burbled out the message. “If you’re so high and mighty, husband, you deal with this mess!”