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Chapter 2 (Draft)

So east they went.  Unfortunately, the goblins didn’t have a lot of information about the threat coming from Estervary.  All anyone knew was that the wizard who had for now bested his fellows in the Arcanum was moving westward, and had begun to enlist local warlords – such as Crackrock and his kobolds – to pacify lands not yet under his sway.  This was both bad and good news. On the one hand, his reach had moved westward more quickly than anyone had expected, and that was certainly bad.  On the other hand, the fact that he needed to use proxies like Crackrock to do his bidding meant that he had not yet gained enough strength to extend his dominion through his own power.  This was certainly good.

As luck would have it, not far from the Bonecrusher clan’s city was a cobblestone east-west road.  Originally designed to be wide enough for two carts to pass, over time stones on the edges had come loose or been stolen for construction. In its current state of repair, a single cart driven down the middle had no more than a foot of buffer on either side.  At some point in the past the trees within thirty or forty feet to either side had been cut to increase visibility and protect travelers from ambush.  Since then, shrubs, ferns, and even some small trees had slowly begun to creep back toward it.  Despite its shortcomings, this was a far cry from tromping through the woods and the five were grateful for it.

Once again they set the marching order with Stu in front and Jimmy behind, the three “squishies” protected by the beef.  Part of Allison took offense at her inclusion in the category of squishy – she had her steel breastplate, after all.  She had to remind herself that compared to the others, that was exactly what she was.  She had limited weapon skills, felt awkward in her armor at times, and because her character was brand new, couldn’t take nearly the damage that any of the boys could.  Maybe she could beat TJ in arm wrestling, but that was poor consolation.  So she agreed to march in the middle of the formation with the wizard and rogue, protected on both front and back.

At nightfall they set up camp just off the side of the road.  After going through the trauma of being clubbed and captured by Kobolds, they decided to take turns at watch rather than trusting to warning systems either magical or mundane.  Chuck offered to take the first shift so that when he was done he could find himself a tree to climb.  Even if it meant he woke up with a stiff back, that extra little bit of caution had already proven itself worth the effort, and his offer was met with unanimous agreement.  The Bonecrushers had provisioned the friends with a week’s worth of rations so Stu didn’t need to leave the protection of the fire to go hunt.  Even so, he set out a number of snares in the hope of getting a rabbit or two for breakfast.  While travel rations will keep you fed, fresh stew keeps spirits high.

The fire crackled in the darkness as the friends huddled over mugs of tea.  While the day was bright and warm, once the sun went down a slight chill settled upon the air.  TJ was first to break the post-supper silence.  “I don’t know about you guys, but I was starting to get used to having a roof over my head and a bed beneath my back.”

The others nodded, with the exception of Stu.  “Was getting kind of claustrophobic, to tell the truth.  Being cooped up like that with all those other people.”  He shuddered.  “I’m happy to be out on the road again.”

Chuck looked incredulous at his claim and Allison snorted. “All those people?  You live in an apartment complex, Stu.  I’ve visited your sisters there.  It may my not as big as the Bonecrushers’ home, but it’s got to be just as packed.”

The other boys laughed but Stu looked thoughtful for a moment.  He turned his gaze upward and continued as if Allison hadn’t interrupted him, “And we don’t need a roof overhead when there’s no rain on the way.  Not for a couple days, at least.”  He then fell silent.

Jimmy raised his mug towards Stu in salute.  “I agree.  A dry night is a great night.  Could be a lot colder too, don’t you think, Allie?  This time of year there’s already snow on the ground in some places.”

“Yeeeess,” she replied slowly.  “I’m sure that’s true.”  Jimmy nodded, satisfied, and the group settled back into silence, eventually finding their way into bedrolls and off to sleep.

Morning came without incident, and Stu was pleased to provide a pair of rabbits for stew, which because he took the last watch, was ready by the time the others woke. The friends packed up and began moving before the sun had crested the trees, travelling always further east.  The shining sun and crisp air reminded them all of fall at home, and the only thing missing was the smell of grass being cut for the last time until spring.  It was almost enough to forget where they were and what they were doing.  What drew them back to the present were the weapons, and the armor, and the…smoke up ahead?

Stu, a dozen paces ahead, gestured to the right and the five immediately moved off the road to crouch in the nearby brush.  Stu continued ahead, his form almost immediately becoming invisible in the undergrowth.  After several long seconds the others followed along as quietly as possible, everyone suddenly glad for the boots Allison had received from the Goblins.  She, herself, was positively amazed at the transformation.  It seemed that her feet knew exactly where to land to avoid twigs, dead leaves, and anything else that might make noise.  It was now her turn to wince at the noise when TJ or Jimmy placed a foot in the wrong place.

The source of the smoke was nearer than they had expected.  After five minutes of walking Stu returned at a trot and motioned them forward urgently.  Cresting a small rise in the ground they saw a hundred yards ahead of them a dozen or so covered wagons along the road, some in the grass on either side of the road, the lead one aflame.  One of the burning wagon’s axels appeared to be damaged as well, because although its horse was pulling for all it was worth in an attempt to escape the blaze, the vehicle wasn’t budging.  It was clear why no one was trying to put out the fire, or even trying to unhitch the horse from the burning wagon: twenty armed men, several on horseback, surrounded the caravan, weapons drawn and shouting.

The friends looked at each other in uncertainty.  Jimmy’s eyes took on a strange look and his fists clenched and unclenched unconsciously.  To Allison, he seemed itching for a fight, even if he didn’t know whom he was fighting, or why.  She placed a hand on his shoulder and her touch calmed him down - he realized that that unless he was joined by his friends this wasn’t a fight he could win.  Stu nocked an arrow to his bow, just in case.  “What do we do?” Whispered Allison.  Stu shrugged and TJ replied, “I don’t know.  Who are the good guys?  If these are local soldiers apprehending criminals, we shouldn’t get in the way.”

“Assuming we like whoever’s in charge here, that is,” noted Chuck wryly.  The moments stretched out, no one willing to make a decision.

Remembering her ring, and knowing what effect it had on most people she met, Allison took matters into her own hands by stepping out from the woods.  TJ grabbed at her arm but she slipped away smoothly and called out imperiously, “What’s going on here?  Who are you men and who are these people in the wagons?”

One of the horsemen turned his steed to look at Allison.  In contrast to the others, who were dressed in breastplates or boiled leather, this man wore a full suit of chain-and-mail and was obviously in charge.  He gestured toward one of the footmen, who ran over toward him.  Just as the horseman bent over to speak, a man’s voice rang out from inside one of the wagons, “Help!  They’re trying to rob us!”  The leader glanced in the direction of the cry before turning back to the man at his side.  After a brief exchange of words, the footman looked toward Allison, casually raised his bow, and sent an arrow flying directly toward her.  Stunned at the sudden turn of events, she stood planted to the ground watching the arrow come.  Just before it struck TJ collided with her and pulled her to the ground, the arrow passing harmlessly overhead.

“Well, I guess that solves that question, doesn’t it?  Bandits again.”  She smiled up at his face, inches from her own.  “And thanks.  I owe you one.”

The situation having become clear, Stu wasted no time.  His first arrow targeted the one who had fired at Allison, and it caught him squarely in the chest.  Surprised that his arrow pierced the man’s breastplate, he made a mental note to thank Chuck again for discovering the magical bow in the kobold’s compound.  He scanned the battlefield, immediately noticing which of the bandits carried bows or crossbows and sending an arrow at each.  Within moments there were five bowmen on the ground, three almost certainly dead and two incapacitated with arrows in an arm and a leg, respectively.  One man scrambled to reach a fallen bandit’s bow, but the arrow Stu placed through his neck dissuaded any of the others from attempting the same sort of maneuver.  The remaining attackers bolted for cover, placing the wagons between themselves and Stu’s bow, but his job had been completed – his friends could close the distance between the woods and the wagons without being turned into pincushions.

Jimmy led the way forward, resisting the urge to charge ahead.  With no archers left standing there wasn’t any hurry.  TJ and Allison marched behind him, with Chuck following at a bit of a distance.  Meanwhile, Stu circled around the battlefield to flank their foes.  As the others neared the first wagon, an arrow streaked just over Allison’s shoulder into a bandit who had peeked out just a little too far from cover.  She turned to glare at Stu, who, after giving her an exaggerated shrug, drew another arrow.

Circling around the wagons, the friends faced their remaining enemies.  Even though Stu had taken out seven by himself, they were still outnumbered three to one.  Four to one, thought Allison, if you didn’t include her, since she wasn’t much use in a fight.  And even worse odds if you excluded Chuck as well.  She glanced backward quickly and discovered he was no longer there.  Excellent.  The grins on their opponents’ faces suggested that they had done the same math, and all of a sudden this didn’t seem like such a good idea.  It was, however, too late to turn back now, especially since Jimmy let out a battle roar and charged forward, enormous sword raised over his head.

The nearest enemy stepped to meet him, his own (smaller) sword held at the ready.  On his left arm hung a round metal shield, which he raised to ward off the first blow.  The shield was no match for the fury of Jimmy’s initial assault, however, and instead of clang of steel there was a groaning tear as the wood-reinforced metal split down the middle. The man let out a cry and fell to the ground, arm crushed and useless, his body going into shock. 

A yell from the side drew the big man’s attention to a horse bearing down on him.  The rider’s long spear was aimed directly for him.  Before the beast was able to close the entire distance, balls of magical force raced from out of TJ’s outstretched hand.  The projectiles all collided with the rider, throwing him out of the saddle and onto the ground with a loud crack.  The bandit lay there, unmoving, smoke rising from his chest.  The horse, rather than completing the charge, slowed, stopped, and after looking around in momentary confusion, began cropping the grass.

In just those few moments, the bandits’ confident grins had been shifted into something different.  On some faces was uncertainty, on others, wariness.  Realizing that this would be more of a fight than they expected, the bandits spread out slightly.  Four approached Jimmy at once, still mindful of Stu’s arrows and keeping close to wagons for cover.  Visions of the kobold attack, during which their large friend was beaten not through skill but by sheer numbers, came to Allison unbidden.  TJ seemed to have similar thoughts, and began to chant a complex series of syllables.  Blue light shot forth from his hands and into Jimmy.  The mystic glow encompassed the larger man’s body, and while TJ looked shaken from the exertion, its effects on Jimmy were astounding.  His movements, elegant and fluid before, became almost otherworldly.  He was no longer merely quick.  He was fast.

The magic caused momentary confusion in the ranks of the attackers, and Jimmy used it to his advantage.  Twirling left, his sword arced out at his first opponent, smacking the man’s shield aside and leaving him unprotected for a follow up slash along his torso.  The breastplate offered no protection from the enchanted sword in Jimmy’s hand.  One down.   Continuing his spin, he drove a shoulder into the next in line.  Adrenaline and mass won out over the leather jerkin the man was wearing, and his ribs crunched in the impact.  A follow-up elbow to the face crushed his nose and dropped him into unconsciousness.  Two down.  In short order, the head came off the third and he skewered the fourth, all before any of them could process his movements.  Jimmy himself seemed surprised at how quickly he was moving, and he danced into the second rank of foes.

One of the bandits had managed to recover a massive crossbow from a fallen comrade and he fired it at Jimmy from a mere twenty feet away.  The magical chain armor could only do so much, and the loud TWANG was followed by an equally loud THUNK.  Jimmy spun in his tracks, the bolt planted firmly in his left shoulder, just above his heart.  The large man fell to his knees, grimacing in pain.  Allison let out a cry of alarm, new-found awareness that if it had been a couple inches lower her friend would be dead coming to mind.  The bowman frantically worked at the crank to reset his weapon for a second, killing blow.  TJ, exhaustion from his last expenditure of power clear on his face, extended a hand and directed a of his ball of fire towards the man.  The explosion sent both the crossbowman and two of his comrades flying like rag dolls.

“Get to Jimmy,” he grunted, raised his arms in front of him, and mouthed more arcane words.  A wall of flames sprung up between where their friend lay bleeding and the remaining enemies before TJ collapsed, his eyes rolling back into his head.  Allison used the cover from the flames to scamper over to Jimmy to heal his wound.  As she ran, another of Stu’s arrows few past her, a grunt indicating that he had once again found his mark. 

“You’re on your own, Ben,” a voice called out from beyond the wall of flame, followed by the sound of voices in muttered agreement and footsteps retreating in haste. 

 “Get back here, you cowards!  Come back!”  The frustration in the voice made clear that they were not listening to his request.

Allison looked at Jimmy’s wound, grateful that he had been shot at such close range.  The crossbow was so powerful that the bolt’s tip had not just pierced his armor, but gone through his shoulder and out the other side.  The point had a wicked barb on it, and if she had been forced to withdraw it it would have caused massive bleeding.  Allison snapped off the fletching and said, “Hold still a moment.”   Grabbing hold of the point, she gave a yank, sliding it all the way through the rest of the way.  Jimmy grunted in pain but and jerked, causing Allison to lose her grip on the shaft.  The arrow’s point sliced her fingers open and blood welled up in her hand.  Pain shot up her arm all the way to her shoulder, but it took only a moment’s concentration to send healing through her arm to close the wound and dull the pain.

The holes in both front and back of Jimmy’s shoulder began to bleed in earnest as well, now that the bolt had been removed.  The last time she’d needed to fix a life threatening wound was when TJ had been stabbed, not long after they had crossed from their world into this one, and it had been an act of desperation.  This time she paid more attention to the process, and as the energy flowed up from the earth, through her, and into Jimmy’s shoulder, she could feel the blood vessels closing, the muscles and tendons repairing themselves, and ultimately the holes in his skin sealing themselves.  It felt to her almost like dissecting the frog in biology class, but in reverse.  It felt amazing, and she suddenly understood the exhilaration TJ expressed after using his own arcane power.  She likewise felt the same wave of exhaustion that he had exhibited after his own spells.  She hoped with practice the fatigue would be less of an issue.  She also hoped she wouldn’t need to practice very much. 

Jimmy’s eyes opened and he gave Allison a nod of thanks.  His eyes suddenly opened wider in surprise, their gaze focused behind her.  She turned to look and discovered the bandit leader towering over her, his sword poised to strike.  He smiled a cruel smile at her and said, “Good.  I wanted you to see me before you died.  It will be my consolation for all this.”

His arm began its descent and she knew she that in her exhaustion she didn’t have the energy to dodge.  The blue light surrounding Jimmy had faded, and with his own wound he would never be able to get up in time parry.  TJ was drained and if Stu hadn’t shot this guy yet, he must be distracted by other things or not had a line of sight.  She closed her eyes and waited for the blow to fall, only snap them back open at the sound of Chuck’s voice. 


The bandit’s eyes turned glassy and he slumped forward, his sword clattering to the ground next to Allison.  Chuck’s dagger was planted firmly between his shoulder blades.

“Phew.  Good timing, Chuckles.”  Jimmy staggered to his feet and rotated his injured shoulder as he surveyed the scene, pleased that all their enemies were killed or had fled.  With his other arm he extended a hand to the still-shaken Allison and helped her to her feet.

“Thanks,” Chuck replied with a little bow.  “Been workin’ on it.”  Pointing into the distance he added, “What about the ones that got away?  We going to go after them?”  By this time Stu had approached, and at Chuck’s suggestion he turned to scan the woods for signs of the men who ran.

TJ spoke up, “Nah, let them go.  They won’t be back for more, and maybe the word will spread that this part of the world isn’t safe for their type.  At least while we’re here, that is.”

The others nodded and got to work cleaning weapons and armor, retrieving arrows, and in Chuck’s case, rifling the bodies for anything of value.  As they worked, Stu asked TJ, “That wall of fire was pretty cool, and that was some great timing.  But what was that thing you did to Jimmy?  I’ve never even heard of that sort of spell.  Where’d that come from?”

“It was a haste spell.  I would have to do the calculations out some time to tell you for sure, but I think it increased his speed by just about double.  Twice the attacks, twice the movement, twice the reflexes.  Neither that nor the wall spells were things that we could fake back in the real world, at least not easily, so they were never incorporated into the rules.”  With a wry smile he continued, “Obviously things are different here.  I learned them over the last week from Egg.  He wasn’t joking when he said he’d been studying decades.  It’s amazing how much lore he’s been able to squeeze into that tiny body.  He also had an extensive library with quite a few ancient spellbooks.  These were ones that he suggested I look at while we were visiting.    I need to be careful though.  They take a lot out of me, and I probably shouldn’t be casting both at the same time like that if I can help it.  I suspect with experience it will become easier.  The fireballs I cast barely tire me at all.”

Allison sighed.  “I wish I had thought to do some practicing, too.”

TJ shook his head.  “Healing magic doesn’t work like that, I’m afraid.  No spellbooks and practicing.”

“Then how do I get more spells?  Healing and smite are boring.”

“Not to us they aren’t,” countered Jimmy with a grin and tapping his injured shoulder.

TJ nodded enthusiastically before explaining, “When Healers gain a level in the game up they just get a couple new magic abilities.  I don’t know how that translates here though.  With all we’ve done since we got here, you should definitely have levelled up.”  He shook his head.  “I guess we’ll see what you can do when you try to do it.”

Engrossed in what they were doing, they all actually jumped a little bit when a voice came from out of one of the wagons.  “Milady?  Is it safe to go and put out that wagon yet?”

Allison smiled.  “Yeah, why don’t you do that now.”