178: Abridged

on March 14, 2008 in 07: Pitched Battles

In Which Mackenzie Changes Minds With A Troll

At the far end of the farm, there was a gate like the one I’d come through, with the addition of a large metal plate in the middle with three holes in an evenly spaced line. It seemed as though I could have saved my question about the pitchfork if I’d explored the other end of the road first.

I stuck the tines of the fork into the lock. There was a click, and then the metal of the gate began to smoke and hiss as it dissolved away into nothingness. When it was gone, I stepped through and back into the maze proper.

I spared a glance behind me, sure that the gate would be back… or perhaps that from this side, it had never been gone. What I saw made me do a double-take, and then turn around completely.

Not only was the gate still gone, but the farm behind it was changing. The brown grass was green and growing. I stood up against the wall and peered in at an angle—I didn’t want to step back in and risk it being a trap—and saw that the corn was looking much healthier, too. The rays of the sun fell on the scarecrow, which now seemed to be nothing more than a dummy of ragged clothing and straw.

A normal-sized crow perched on its shoulder.

I wondered if the farm was just like that for me, now that I’d “beaten” it. It seemed odd that I’d been able to take the pitchfork outside of it… I guess that made it rather unlikely it would turn out to be some sort of uberpowerful magic weapon disguised as a farming implement, if the farm puzzle provided a new copy for each group that came through.

Anyway, I couldn’t sense any magic in the pitchfork. The gate must have simply been set up to recognize it.

Then it occurred to me that if the maze was dynamic enough, perhaps the farm puzzle was a one time only thing, created from a stock of common puzzle elements. Had it existed only for me? If so, then the scarecrow entity would have merely been a magical construct fulfilling a role, not an actual living soul bound up in servitude.

That was probably wishful thinking on my part, though. There were whole books written on the labyrinth and its pitfalls and perils. Not books I’d read, unfortunately, but they were there, and that suggested there was some “actual” to its actual layout.

I took paths at random now, still taking the time to mark which way I went. The layout seemed to be getting more chaotic and less concrete, frequently curving around to very flagrantly backtrack over itself or having one branch that looped me back to where I’d just been without any angles or curves.

I supposed that made sense. I’d come into the farm at the “entrance” side and gone out the “exit”, so I was heading deeper into the maze rather than towards the edge of it.

As soon as I had that insight, I realized that if the farm’s apparent return to normalcy had been genuine, then maybe the gate at the other end would have disappeared, too, and I could have found another path to follow that might have led me closer to an exit. I tried backtracking, but when I came to a fork and there were no markings, it became clear I was too far in for that. I turned back around to resume my trek into the heart of the labyrinth and found myself facing another large, expansive “room”.

This one was diamond-shaped, with a proper stone floor that was strewn with bones. I peered around for whatever was responsible for them, but it seemed to be empty. A death trap? I stood in the corridor and reached out with the pitchfork as far as I could, tapping the floor. Nothing. I prodded the floor directly in the entryway. Nothing.

Gingerly, I stepped into the room. Still nothing. I walked through it, carefully testing the floor every step of the way. I got about halfway through when the real trap revealed itself.

My first thought was that the floor was shaking, as the bones began to rattle and move. Very swiftly, though, they assembled themselves into the shapes of humans, dwarves, and assorted beasts. I was surrounded by animated skeletons.

I didn’t think bones would burn very easily and I was positive the skeletons weren’t capable of being intimidated, so I didn’t bother with the flames. Instead I leveled the pitchfork in front of me like a ram and simply charged full-out for the exit. I plowed right through the brittle figures in front of me, shattering them, but several of the other things lunged at me and clamped on with toothy jaws or grabbed with bony arms.

I did my best to shake them off, but concentrated on getting to the exit. Unencumbered by flesh, the skeletons were too light to drag me down. Even when I tripped and went sprawling, I was still able to kick my legs free and crawl and claw my way along, powdering whatever bones got directly in my path. It would have been easier if I’d let go of the pitchfork, but I held onto it.

When I crossed the threshold of the room into the far corridor, the skeletons collapsed back into bits and the pieces I’d dragged across with me rolled back into the room. Panting, I turned and watched with fascination as the bones arranged themselves around the room once more. I got to my feet.

My knees felt raw and bruised, though of course they weren’t. I fixed my pad, which had come loose in the scuffle, and continued on my way through the labyrinth.

The next sign of weirdness was a sign that appeared around a bend. It said “TROLL BRIDGE – TROLL AHEAD – PLEASE HAVE EXACT CHANGE READY.”

I had to read it twice before I took in the “r” in “troll.” That could be interesting, and by interesting, I meant “potentially very bad.”

Trolls were an odd lot. They were intelligent, but with little resembling a culture or society as the other races had. People had sometimes made deals with a troll or a band of trolls, but there was no troll nation, no troll kings or emperors. Each troll looked out for its own interests and nothing else, and its interests could vary from the usual food, shelter, and comfort to bizarre things like gardening or collecting buttons.

Physically, they could be anywhere from two to fifteen feet tall, with almost any number and arrangement of heads and arms. One and two-headed trolls were the most common, but there were reports of up to a dozen. Some were gangly and spindle-limbed, and others had legs like tree trunks. The saying was that the gods made trolls out of leftovers.

You could always tell it was a troll, though, because of their unmistakable facial features: a bulbous hook nose, little yellow eyes, snaggle teeth, and big wild tufts of bushy hair jutting out of their heads.

Their flesh was tough but oddly pliable… there were no muscles, no bones, and no internal organs. Trolls didn’t have sexes, or sex. When two of them wanted to reproduce, they’d charge into each other as fast as they could and mash themselves into one big ball of flesh which sometime later would split into five or six smaller trollkins with some of the memories and personality traits of the “parents”. This was why trolls had no true culture… when they mated, there was nobody to rear the children, and no real need for it.

The offspring were created already knowing how to walk and talk and fight. They would eat ravenously to increase their size to whatever they judged to be the ideal, and then would eat irregularly and mostly for pleasure after that. The trollkins would eat whatever they could bring down, and some of them acquired a taste for the flesh of intelligent beings that lasted for the rest of their lives, but that was hardly universal

The trolls’ odd construction made them hard to kill as all get out, but many of them had a penchant for riddles and games. I wouldn’t necessarily want to fight a whole encampment of trolls, especially as their somewhat goopy flesh was highly resistant to fire, but the warning sign suggested there was just the one, and I wouldn’t necessarily have to fight.

The passage opened up around the next bend. I found myself on a jutting cliff of sorts, sticking out over a chasm that stretched to the right and left for as far as I could see. An old stone bridge arched across it, and on the center of the bridge stood the troll.

It was on the larger side, being almost twice my height and even broader across the shoulders… it took up the width of the bridge. A barrier unto itself, in other words. A massive club of tapering stone almost as tall as the troll rested on its shoulder.

The troll made no sign of notice as I stepped onto the bridge. I approached with some trepidation until I was as close as I could be and look up into its face without craning my neck.

“Um, hi,” I said. “Are you going to let me pass?”

“Exact change, please,” it said gruffly.

“I don’t have any money,” I said.

“Doesn’t want money,” the troll said. “Wanna change.”

“Change?” I asked.

“Like this,” the troll said. Its outline became shimmery and indistinct, and then its bulk collapsed like cascading water that shaped itself into a great big tawny-colored lion, as if the troll had poured itself club and all into a container the size and shape of the big cat.

Great. It was a magic troll.

“I changed exactly into a lion,” the lion said, then exploded back into being a troll. “See?”

“I don’t suppose I could convince you to give me another demonstration and turn into a mouse or nothingness or something like that?”

“No, doesn’t suppose you could,” it said. “Most folks who isn’t shapeshifters just change clothes with each other.”

“I don’t have clothes, or anybody to exchange them with,” I said.

“I know,” the troll said. “Wouldn’t point it out, otherwise.”

I sighed.

“I suppose I’ll have to go back the way I came, then,” I said.

“Can’t,” the troll said, shaking its big, ugly head. “If you doesn’t have exact change, I get to eat you.”

It adjusted its club on its shoulder. With its length of arms and the size of the club, I had little doubt it could knock me silly before I’d got out of reach. The club probably wasn’t magical, and neither were the troll’s teeth and claws, but if it got tired of chewing fruitlessly on me, it could always pitch me over the side.

I had no idea where that would leave me… the chasm could be truly bottomless.

Of course, if I went with the assumption that somebody from the school would eventually locate me and then successfully teleport me out, a bottomless pit would probably be the safest place to wait things out… but that was a few too many things to gamble on.

Oh, well. I’d managed to bluster my way past the scarecrow. Maybe something similar would work here.

“If you’ll accept a change of clothes, would you accept a change of mind?” I asked.

“How do you mean?”

“Well,” I said. “I’m a half-demon.” I lit my fist on fire for demonstration. “And I’ve decided to kill you.” I doused the flame. “Oh, but see? I’ve changed my mind.”

“A half-demon?” the troll echoed thoughtfully. “Gonna kill me. Changed its mind. Hmm. Gonna have to think about this.”

“If one change of mind’s not enough, I could change my mind again,” I said, raising my pitchfork and lighting my eyes. “Two-for-one special.”

“Oh, no, once is enough for me,” the troll said. It lifted up one leg and swung its body like a door, allowing me to pass before it.

“Thank you,” I said, hurrying past.

I broke into a run to get off the bridge and away from the troll.

“Little girl?” the troll said.

“What?” I said, stopping and turning towards it just in time to see the massive club descending. I raised my arm reflexively… the pitchfork was knocked from my hand and the club struck me. It felt like the roof of the world collapsed on me and I was dashed to the cobblestones.

“I can change my mind, too,” the troll said.

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4 Responses to “178: Abridged”

  1. pedestrian says:

    in an adventure, potentially should always be defined as “you are about to be on the receiving end of a depressingly nasty bit of fate and you are not prepared.”

    Current score: 1
  2. Pamela says:

    One of these days I will remember not to take the descriptor of the chapter literally.

    Current score: 0
  3. Macman says:

    Smartass gets smarts. This could be a title or a job description. 😉

    Current score: 0
  4. zeel says:

    This one would have been easy. Just switch the pitchfork to the other hand – changed hands! Simple.

    Current score: 1