Well, yeah, we knew what we were doing! Or did we? Good intentions sometimes have to backtrack for practicalities. Oh, and did we mention that wizards are jerks?
There are only so many beery evenings you can sustain before the guilts and worries start creeping in. My friend and relative Dan Ur-Jennan and my pal Margot the Troll and I had been heartily partying since our company took down:
1.) The evil wizard Fellmount of Verdansward (for covering up the murder of and assuming the identity of the golf-addict Lord Seaguard, as well as for just being a major creep who was trying to kill us)
2.) His slut accomplice Hailcatcher the Weatherwise, (her and her fancy-assed clothes) for trying to help him kill us, and
3.) The wicked tyrant Kaladang the Axe who had bled and massacred the populace of the Great Plateau for years and years, and just needed something done about him in the general course of things.
"Aser tossed their hats and magic wands into the river," said Margot the Troll to Danner. Turning to me, she rumbled, "Danner hexed Kaladang and his soldiers so they couldn't move. What more do you want?"
"More beer," said Danner, and moved to wave at the barmaid. I pinned her hand to the bar.
"You're done for the night," I told her, and being my junior by some decades, she belched loudly but acquiesced. "Margot, we counted on Kaladang finding the wizards after we left them tied up to that tree, and maybe making them into his personal jesters, or seat cushions or something. But Danner's curse neutralized Kaladang -- so if you were Fellmount on the loose, where would you go to try to find your hat and wand to regain your former power?"
"The river. But doesn't the Icetrout River go down some mountain into the desert?"
"The Veil of Shelas is the end of the Icetrout River. The cliff is so high that the water pretty much evaporates before it hits the ground below. At least in summer. In winter it makes a pretty little oasis down there. I'd bet just about anything Fellmount and Hailcatcher are headed there right now, to search for their stuff."
"You're doing it again," muttered Danner irritably.
"What?" I asked her.
"Every place we've been, you say you've been there before. We hit the beaches, you know every inn and what their specialties are. We come across some game trail in the woods, and you've been there twenty years ago. We crawl underneath Castle Caedmon in a secret tunnel, and you say you were there playing hooky when you were a kid. You've dropped hints you knew the lands of Kaladang and Highway 1 out of Oceanside in another dimension. Now you talk about the Oasis of Shelas like you spent a winter there."
"Some people don't spend their lives sitting in taverns," I told her. "Some people get off their asses and travel. Get a better perspective on life than over the rim of a stein."
"If you please, Ladies, these are on the house," said the barmaid, setting two mugs and a pitcher before us. "No need for upset here." She curtseyed, nodding her head with its crown of braids.
Danner had the mug to her lips before I could move it away from her. I looked at Margot, who had already drained half the pitcher. "Here," I said, pushing my mug over to Margot. "My compliments in turn."
She picked up the mug and emptied it into her pitcher. "Thanks, Aser. Don't mind if I do. You don't really think those wizards will find their stuff, do you?"
"They're wizards. They have hundreds of years to search."
"So ... what do you care? You'll be dead by then, not meaning to be pessimistic or anything," said the troll.
"I will be, but the Jennan Clan won't be. And neither will Fellmount's memories or vengefulness. He's the kind of asshole who'd burn down a whole forest if he got poison ivy walking through it."
"You want to go all the way to Great Well and climb down the road to the desert to try to find those damn wands and hats first?" Danner sputtered. "That's insane! We can't get there before them!"
"I think we can," I said. "We have the advantage of the big north-south road, good weather, and commerce wagons that go from Shaddir to Great Well, stopping only to change dray teams. Fellmount and Hailcatcher have to go on foot through a track that's hardly more than a footpath all the way along the cliffs. And my guess is that they're as clueless about traveling in the wild as a certain other wizard we know, so they'll probably spend a lot of time going in circles following game trails and arguing about which way is south."
"I've never been to Great Well," Margot said speculatively, "and I do have to start heading south again to pick up the caravan. They got any good food there?"
"I know this inn there where they slow-roast a whole side of venison on a spit and baste it with bacon oil and rosemary ... "
"See what I mean?" grumbled Danner. "There she goes again."
Margot rubbed a huge scaly hand over her Mohawk. "Do we have to take Danner with us?"
"Phhfffbbt," said Danner with her tongue. "You need me. I've got the magic, Margot. I've got the power. Maybe Aser thinks we're going to find a couple of sticks and crumpled mushy hat-bits, but my guess is what we're going to find is Hailcatcher shopping for a new girdle."
"You're an apprentice," said the troll, her orange eyes gleaming as she drummed her claws on the bar, "and you're no match for Fellmount even if you caught him in the bathtub with no towel."
"You want to see me make cockroaches do a line dance up your leg?" asked Danner beerily.
"Do not bring another round," I sternly admonished the girl behind the bar as she looked at the empty mugs and pitcher and opened her mouth to speak.
"Aye, mum," she said and scuttled away.
"Danner, don't threaten trolls, it's bad for your health. Margot, I bet your dog would remember their scents -- we have a better chance of finding the hats and wands than those wizards do. And then we'd have a chance of ending this adventure for certain, instead of looking over our shoulders all the time wondering when Fellmount was going to find his magic wand and turn us all into toilet seats."
This is the reason so many people are willing to turn a blind eye to wrongdoing. They fear that if they expose it, and the wrongdoers are not brought to justice, they will become the targets of the future.
Farmer Dogwattle hears through the field workers that his neighbor, Farmer Cattabarn secretly puts lead weights in the weaves of his bushel baskets to increase the amount he's paid for his crop at the public scales. He informs the local magistrate, who checks out the story and finds it to be true. Farmer Cattabarn is fined heavily and loses the sale of his crop. The next year Farmer Dogwattle worries all the year about whether his cows will be poisoned or his fall harvest mysteriously burned. He lives in miserable fear that Farmer Cattabarn will find out that it was he who informed the magistrate.
In a residential neighborhood in Shaddir, a widow closes the windows of her townhouse, even during the summer, because what she might hear happening on the street could implicate her if a crime was brought to court. It's far easier to say, "I had me windows shut. I didn't hear nothing" than it is to say, "Yes, I heard them screams, but I didn't want no one to think I was the one as sounded the alarm on old Goaty the Highwayman." All the populace wants Goaty's robberies and mayhem stopped -- but unless Goaty goes to jail for a long, long time, the witness who turns Goaty in might as well change his name and move to a far, far country.
Everyone wants their own hide to stay as intact as possible for as long as possible. That's a basic survival instinct, and a good one. But it's not so good if someone is willing to let other people take the arrows and losses just to keep their own lives in comfort. There has to be a point where you're willing to step up and do something to stop wrongdoing, even if you put yourself in jeopardy, because otherwise, wrongdoing wins, and the fact is, evil left unchecked keeps growing and growing ...
"Wait a minute," Danner said, holding a finger up in the air. "We're assuming that Fellmount and Hailcatcher are striking for the Oasis of Shelas to find their wands and hats. What if they're not?"
I put some coins on the bar to pay our tab. If we were to get a good start in the morning, we had to quit drinking beer now. "What else would they do?" I asked her, picking up my staff.
"Like you said, they've got hundreds of years to find their stuff. Maybe they have some other wizard buddy who can help them locate it sooner. Washed up on the banks of the Icetrout or dangling from a tree in an oasis, their hats and wands are safe. What if they aren't headed for the Eastern Desert, but are trying to find us? I mean, we aren't exactly inconspicuous, what with trolls and talking baboons -- "
"And dumbass apprentices who like getting drunk and showing off in bars," said Margot, buffing her brass wristguards with a bar napkin.
"What do you suggest?" I asked. "You want to go hide in the woods with Elves?"
"No, don't be a shit," she said. "Let me talk to my master, and see if he can transport us magically to Great Well -- that would get us there ahead of Fellmount and Hailcatcher."
"Fine," I said, rolling my eyes up in my head. Her master, Cloudraft the Great, was a wonderful wizard -- if you didn't have to spend time in his company.
"Great," Margot thundered softly and sarcastically, tossing the napkin over her shoulder and hitting a dwarf at the bar on the side of his head.
"Hey!" he said angrily.
"Sorry, must be allergies," said the troll.
Danner had pulled a small silver device from her trousers' pocket, and poking it with a finger, produced a number of faint, magical beeps. Then she lifted her dark hair and held the device to her ear. "Hi," she said, "I really need to talk to you."
Margot and I looked at each other, puzzled.
Danner made the thing beep one last time and stuffed it back in her pocket. "Cell phone," she said. "I have no idea what the hell it is, but it's quicker than crystal balls."
"More other-dimensional crap," I observed.
Cloudraft the Great appeared on the barstool next to Danner, white beard and moustache neatly trimmed, shreds of magical purple smoke dissipating around him. "What's on your mind, Dannie?" he said irreverently, gazing into her green eyes.
Margot gagged and clacked her nails on the bar to get the barmaid's attention. She pointed at her empty pitcher. The barmaid hustled towards the taps.
"We need to be transported to Great Well," Danner told the wizard, adjusting the lapels of his sumptuous dark blue robe. "We're going to try to find Fellmount's and Hailcatcher's hats and wands to keep them from getting their power back. They might be after us, so I was hoping you would send us there and save us from being tracked."
He rubbed his nose against hers. "Don't worry about it, my dear."
I felt ill, and tapped my mug for a refill as well.
"Then you'll send us there?" Danner asked, tickling her fingers along his close-cut beard.
"I don't have to," the wizard whispered loudly. "When I realized Aser had thrown the hats and wands into the river, I simply magicked them from the water into a yard sale in another dimension. They'll never, ever find them."
"Cloudy!" Danner cried and wrapped her arms around his neck, kissing him. They disappeared together in another faint cloud of purple smoke.
I took a pull from the mug of beer. "I guess that solves that."
"Idiot ex machina. Drink up, and let's get out of here before they know we're gone," said the troll.
"I wish I could do that," said the young barmaid.
Margot and I looked at her. "Kiss a wizard?" asked Margot.
"No, just disappear from here," said the girl.
"Hey, it's a job," I said.
"No, it isn't. It's my life. My father sent me off to marry the owner of this here bar. We're not married yet and he orders me around from sunup to midnight, get the fire going, bring up some ice from the ice-cellar, bake some pretzels, hurry up, what's keepin' you? What's it going to be like once I'm his wife? He waters down the drinks -- oh, sorry, I shouldn't have told you that -- and lies about his taxes. If I'm his wife and he gets caught, I'm going to get time in the stocks, too. What about it, ladies? Take me with you! Could you use a servant to help you?"
"No. We don't keep servants. Think about it. You'd have a tougher life elsewhere."
"But it wouldn't be here, would it? I guess I'm just having second thoughts about what's going to happen to me if I stay. If I could, I'd rather leave and take the chance."
Margo put a gold coin on the counter. "Put the money in the till, girl, and let's go."