181: Fade To Gray

on March 19, 2008 in 07: Pitched Battles

In Which Mackenzie Is Defeated, Again

“What?” Justin asked. “She got the pitchfork?”

“The hell she did!” Seth said.

“Come see,” Lacey said.

“What’s the big deal?” I said. “I can’t be the only one who’s ever made it through the farm.”

“No, but you’d be the first one to get the pitchfork out,” Riley said, approaching within a few feet and looking down at it. “Up close, it sure looks like it.

“What’s so hard about getting the pitchfork out?” I asked. “Don’t you need it to leave the farm?”

“You need it to open the gate,” Riley said. “But it won’t let itself be carried across the threshold, and most people wouldn’t want to, anyway, because of the curse.”

“What curse?” I asked.

“The one that gradually fills the wielder with a boundless killing rage,” Riley said.

“Uh, I’ve been carrying it around for most of the morning and I didn’t feel anything,” I said, picking up the implement. “And I can sense magic. This thing doesn’t have any.”

The boys all looked at Lacey.

“It’s the real one,” she said. “I could feel it when I went to touch it.”

“I don’t feel anything,” I said.

“Well, think of it this way,” Lacey said. “Can you feel your own skin?”

I gave her a puzzled look, then touched my arm to see if I could see what she was talking about.

“Yeah,” I said. “I can.”

“No, I mean, when you’re not doing that,” she said. “You don’t notice your own skin, your hair, your… well, your clothes… in the normal course of things. The pitchfork might be too close to your own personal energy signature for you to feel anything.”

“Anyway, at least that explains why you’re naked,” Riley said.

“What are you talking about?” I asked. Lacey had said something similar.

“You used your clothes to make a scarecrow,” Riley said. “Just like we did.”

“That thing was just your clothes?” I asked.

“And some hay,” Lacey said. “And the spirit of the previous person to assume the role, who doesn’t get to move on until another actual person takes their place, unfortunately for him. Or her.” I stared at her, dumbfounded. She laughed. “What, you don’t think you’re the only one who ever thought of that trick?”

“I didn’t,” I said. “I couldn’t have. I got dumped in the labyrinth naked.”

“Then… how did you get out when the scarecrow demanded payment?” Justin asked. There was something in his voice I couldn’t quite place. It had gone lower, but he wasn’t doing his affected Mighty Leader voice this time.

“I flamed up and threatened to burn the field,” I said. “The scarecrow had to let me go.”

“You can’t do that!” Seth said. “That’s cheating.”

“Why don’t you two go finish searching for loot?” Justin said to him and Lacey.

“Okay,” Seth said. “Just don’t steal my kill while my back’s turned.”

“The thing is… he’s right,” Justin said as the healer and the archer went off. “Threatening the scarecrow doesn’t work. Everybody tries it, but it can’t choose to forego payment.”

“But I didn’t,” I said. “I answered three questions and did a service for the scarecrow, which put the onus back on it.”

The two fighters exchanged glances.

“I guess that might work,” Riley said. “Though it does seem like it’s stretching the point a bit.”

“Well, how else do you think I got through it without any clothes?” I asked. Nobody answered. The looks on their faces had become grim. I noticed their hands were resting on their hilts.

“Were they human?” Justin asked.

“Was who human?”

“The one you sacrificed,” he said. “Was it one of your Harlowe friends, or was it a human?”

“I didn’t sacrifice anybody,” I said. “I was dropped in here alone… without preparation, and against my will.”

“So you did what you had to do,” Justin said. “Right.” He drew his sword. “Just like I’m about to.”

I tightened my grip on the pitchfork, but since I was sitting on the ground with an arrow sticking out of me, I’m not sure how intimidating a gesture it was.

“Hey, guys, come on,” Lacey said, running up. “Look at her. She’s not going to hurt anybody else. Let’s just go. There’s nothing here.”

“Hey, I’m not done searching,” Seth said. “They wouldn’t put hellhounds in here if they weren’t guarding something.”

“If she gave a human to the field, she has to die,” Justin said to Lacey, ignoring Seth.

“She probably will, anyway,” Lacey said. “Anyway, why would a human even be with her in the first place?”

“I didn’t kill anybody,” I said. “Besides, it’s not like no delving parties have ever sacrificed somebody at the farm before. You can’t tell me that everybody who ever stumbles into the farm works it out.”

“We actually found it on the ethernet,” Lacey said.

She giggled. Justin gave her a dirty look.

“If an honorable fellowship of adventurers loses a member in the course of events, it is but a regrettable part of life,” Justin said, laying it on thick again. “We have all known one who lost his life in the pursuit of glory.”

“Wait, we have?” Riley asked.

“Yeah, dude, there were like seven whole parties that were wiped out last year,” Justin said.

“But we didn’t know them,” Riley said. “Only one of them was freshmen.”

“Okay, but, remember that guy, Greenwalt or Greenberg or whatever?” Justin said. “Fell into the acid pit during midterms?”

“Yeah, but, we didn’t actually know him, either,” Riley said.

“He was in our class,” Justin said. “He was our brother. And there was the girl with the… with the tongue ring thing?”

“Oh, yeah, Misty,” Lacey said. “Or Mercy. Something. I liked her. Didn’t she make it?”

“She was eaten by a snake,” Justin said.

“The thing is, Just, when you say it like that, it makes it sound like we actually knew knew these people,” Riley said. “Like they were our friends or something.”

“I was kind of friends with Mercy,” Lacey said. “Marcy? That doesn’t sound right. I thought she’d made it.”

“I’m pretty sure she was eaten by a snake,” Justin said.

“Look,” I said. “I just got out of the healing center for overusing magic defending myself from a girl with more hair than brains. I really don’t want to throw a lot of power around. I really don’t want to hurt anybody. But the longer you stand around calmly—or kind of melodramatically—talking about killing me for something I didn’t do, the more sense it makes for me to just flood this place with fire and hope for the best.”

“Did you hear that?” Justin said. “She threatened us.”

“You’re threatening me!” I said. “I’m just telling you I’m going to defend myself if you attack me.”

“Nobody’s attacking her!” Seth said. “I’ll put another arrow in her if you want, but nobody’s taking credit for my demon kill.”

“If you kill me, it’s murder,” I said.

“Actually, it’s adventuring,” Riley said. He turned to Justin. “Come on, though, Lacey’s right. Bitch is already dead. Let’s just go.”

“If she’s got the pitchfork, she might make it out,” Justin said. “Do you want to take that risk?”

“It seems less risky than provoking a fight with somebody who can throw fire,” Riley said. “Lacey used up most of her juice after the hellhound ambush.”

“Please don’t refer to the power divine as ‘juice’,” Lacey said. “I’m sure Anankha would disapprove.”

“Ananka?” I said. “How can you begin to condone what this guy’s talking about doing if you follow a demigoddess of peace?”

“Hey, I’m not condoning anything!” Lacey said. “I said we should just leave you. And Anankha is a full goddess, thank you very much.”

“She’s the daughter of Lord Khersis in his mortal aspect and Khelaine,” I said. “One mortal parent, one divine. That’s a demigod.”

“Okay, but, Khersis was a god in the beginning,” Lacey said. “Just because he incarnated as mortal for a time…”

“The time during which your hippy-trippy demigoddess was conceived,” I said.

“You know, I don’t think I care for your attitude,” Lacey said, putting a hand on her hip. “I’m on your side here, you know.”

“Yeah, you’d rather leave me to die on my own than kill me,” I said. “I bet Ananka would be proud.”

“Well, if you’d rather do things Justin’s way…”

“Hey, neither of you are in charge here,” Justin said. “I am.”

This was about the point when the pain of the headache began to outweigh the pain of my injury.

“Seth,” I said.

“What?”

“Don’t talk to him,” Justin said. “Talk to me. I’m the party leader.”

“Do you get the same credit for defeating an opponent as you’d get for killing them?” I asked Seth.

“Uh, yeah,” he said. “But that hardly ever comes up, because what’s the point of defeating something and not killing them?”

“Summon your teacher,” I said. “I’ll tell him you defeated me. The credit for bringing down a half-demon has got to be worth failing one exercise.”

“Really?”

“Just as long as you don’t make me take you out to dinner,” I said, thinking of Sooni.

“What?”

“Never mind.”

“Hold on,” Riley said. “If he does that, we all fail.”

I could see the idea appealed to Seth.

“If you don’t, then Justin will kill me and he’ll get the credit,” I pointed out.

“Fuck that,” Seth said. “Professor! Emergency situation!”

“You little weasel!” Justin said.

An image of a white-haired man with a long beard appeared, floating a few inches above the ground. Dressed in purple robes, he looked very little like what I had pictured for a delving instructor. Well, I supposed that there was a lot of magic and lore involved in the trade, too.

He took in the scene with a glance.

“Oh, my, you’ve managed to pick up wounded,” he said. “Ms. Beaumont, is this beyond your abilities?”

“I’m afraid that it sort of is, sir,” Lacey said. “She’s a demon.”

“A d… oh, my! There was some sort of memo… is that about you, my dear?”

“Um, possibly,” I said. It seemed the safest way to go. “What did it say?”

“That you’d gone missing or something,” he said. “You didn’t just wander in to have a look around, did you? We post those signs for a reason!”

“It was a teleportation problem,” I said.

“Are you in… imminent peril?” he asked, turning to Justin. Maybe that was where Justin got it from.

“No, sir,” Justin said, a little sullenly.

“Don’t move,” he said. “Stay with her. I have to alert the chancellor before I come through. ”

He faded out.

“The chancellor?” Lacey repeated, giving me a sidelong look.

I shrugged. Note to people with arrows in their shoulders: don’t shrug.

“We have a chancellor?” Riley asked.

“She spoke at the memorial breakfast at the end of term, remember?” Justin said.

“I remember the omelets station,” Riley said. “I didn’t pay attention to the speakers.”

“Why would the chancellor be interested in you?” Lacey asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’ve never met her.”

The professor in the purple robes appeared, solid and tangible this time. I think he came through in a hurry, because he was facing the wrong direction and stumbled a bit before turning around to face me. He was holding a big piece of cloth and a long silver rod.

“I’m terribly sorry to keep you waiting, my dear, but I had to alert the proper authorities and find a charged healing device at the same time,” he said. He knelt down on the grass beside me, laying the silver rod down and handing me what turned out to be a large tunic. “You can cover yourself up with this while I tend your wound. The arrow’s going to have to come out first, I’m afraid.”

“Uh, Professor Smith,” Justin said. The name jarred a bit. It didn’t fit the old man’s wizardly image. “I know that normally interrupting a crawl like this results in…”

“Oh, don’t worry,” the professor said. “Extraordinary circumstances, my boy. You’re to be commended. I think you made the right decision, taking the hero track. Anybody can raid a catacomb, but very rare is the man who…”

“It was Seth’s idea to get you,” I said, shooting Justin a venomous glance outside the Professor’s vision.

“Was it? Indeed, it looks like Mr. Stuart’s arrow, as well,” the professor said. “Ah, well. It’s a big man that redeems his mistakes.”

“I can still have credit for defeating her, before we knew who she was, right?” Seth asked.

“Defeating? If this had been a real threat, she would have killed you before you got off another arrow,” Smith said. He poked a finger at the wound. I cried out. “Sorry. Hmm.”

“But the first one would have killed her eventually,” Seth insisted.

“Probably,” Smith said. “Eventually. I’ve seen men die from less, but that wouldn’t help you much.” He took a leather pouch and a small silver knife from his belt and held it up. I cringed and shrank back. “Please remain quite still, Miss Mackenzie. The barbs are lodged in your flesh. I’m going to have to cut it out.” He handed me the pouch. “You may wish to bite down on this.”

I put it in my mouth. The feeling of foolishness helped me feel a little less afraid, anyway. The professor helped me lay back, and I closed my eyes.

The pain was… well, I can’t describe it. It was more pain than I’d ever experienced, except maybe when being signed at repeatedly the previous weekend, and this pain was a lot more… real. Tangible. My joints all locked up and I bit down on the leather hard.

It was over very quickly, though, and before I’d even fully registered that, the pain vanished along with the wound. I’d bitten almost clean through the leather.

“You can put that tunic on now,” Professor Smith said. “Gentlemen, avert your eyes! Have you honestly been gawking at this young lady the whole time? You could have come up with a shirt and pants among yourselves.”

“She’s actually kind of an exhibitionist,” Lacey said.

The professor wasn’t listening, though. His eyes had fallen to the pitchfork.

“Is that…? Well, I suppose we can cross the farm off the list of dangerous encounters now,” he said. “I suspect the solution’s already been leaked, anyway. You should bring that along. Old delving rule, you know.”

“What rule?” I asked, picking up the pitchfork.

“Finders keepers,” he said. “Now take my hand and we’ll be off.”

“I don’t know if I’m up for teleport magic at the moment,” I said. “Can’t we take a shortcut out?”

“We’re at least three hours from an exit by any path, but don’t worry… nobody gates directly into or out of the labyrinth on purpose,” he said. “We’ll be going the long way, comparatively speaking. Please, take my hand.”

I did, and everybody else began to become translucent, the way Professor Smith himself had when he’d first appeared. The environs of the labyrinth turned gray and then faded out, and it was just the two of us in an infinite indistinct space.

“Don’t let go of my hand,” the professor said. “We don’t want to go losing you again. You have some very loyal friends, miss. They’ve been sitting in the lobby of the administrative building since half past eight.”

I smiled.

“I’m not that surprised,” I said, picturing Steff, Amaranth, and Two. Maybe Celia, too. She seemed like the type to jump at a chance to protest.

“Makes me glad I don’t go over there that often,” he said. “Apparently, sixty or seventy people can make quite a disruption.”

“What?” I repeated. Seventy people? He had to have heard wrong… probably the story had grown in the telling. There were only twenty-five people on my floor and most of them hated me.

“Now, we’re heading straight for Chancellor Davies’s office,” he said. “One of the, ah, ringleaders of the little protest is your roommate, and she’s been sent to fetch you clothes.”

“Was she told to get my clothes or to get clothes for me?” I asked, picturing myself in a puffy sweater and jeans with spangles or sequins on the seat.

“I really couldn’t say,” he said. “Hold on. I think we’re just… about… there.”


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3 Responses to “181: Fade To Gray”

  1. pedestrian says:

    Come to think of it, that last would have been the sort of question my wife would have asked in similar circumstances.

    Current score: 0
  2. Alex says:

    Wait, seventy? oh this will be good C:

    Current score: 3
  3. zeel says:

    “Okay, but, remember that guy, Greenwalt or Greenberg or whatever?”

    Greenhilt perhaps? It wouldn’t be the first Order of The Stick reference.

    “I’ll tell him you defeated me. The credit for bringing down a half-demon has got to be worth failing one exercise.”

    One of Mackenzies few strokes of pure genius. She actually managed to plays Seth perfectly.

    “What rule?” I asked, picking up the pitchfork.

    “Finders keepers,” he said.

    I love this line, of course that’s the rule – that’s kinda the whole point of delving isn’t it?

    Current score: 1