Thursday, March 02, 2023

WoAF - Game Session 45

Captain Bruin Hilda stood gazing at the sacks of snakes and lizards on the back of the jeep.  She estimated it ought be enough food for a few days at least.  They had eight hundred mouths to feed, and this haul was probably going to help quite a lot. Wilard, the king of rats, twitched his nose, and stared at her with eyes full of expectation.  He was trying to persuade her that he and his rat horde should go north with them along route 89, but she and Lt. Kerrington had found the idea palpably unappealing.  

"After all, a rat horde is called 'a mischief' for a reason", Kerrington had quietly whispered to Bruin Hilda.  Tom wiped the sweat from his brow, rubbed his hands together to dry them, and heaved the last of the burlap sacks onto the back of the jeep.  He had already made a tally and recorded how many creatures had been captured, and was calculating the number of lizards that they could distribute to each of the caravan refugees.  His tally had it that there should be enough for approximately 1,750 meals.  

"My rats can do a lot for you, you know," stated Wilard as he stood in the midst of his mischief.  One of them had crawled up on his shoulder and was nodding as if in full agreement with what Wilard was saying. He gave a look of earnest hope, and tried to look as sincere as possible.  "Foraging for food and water, you know.  And keeping an eye out for enemies at night! Lots of things," he said as he scratched his ear with his left paw-like hand. "Rats can be very handy, you know!"

"Well," said Bruin Hilda, "I was thinking that you all might fare better in the hills east of Panguitch.  There's a forest there that you could thrive on.  But we're heading into inhospitable desert, much of which is completely devoid of life.  I would think your rats wouldn't be likely to make it through the dead lands very easily.  Most of them would die, I think."

But Wilard was not having it.  He wanted to go with them, and that was the goal he had set his beady little heart on.  He was going to follow along, by hook or crook.  There simply were no two ways about it.  After all, they needed his services.  He screwed up his nose into a scowl and squinted his eyes fiercly.

"Wilard, there's going to be conflict between the refugees and your rats," said Bruin Hilda slowly.  "Knowing people, they will probably try to kill your rats, believing they are dangerous vermin.  I do not see a positive outcome with you and your rat horde traveling with the refugees.  I'm sorry."

She paused.  "But, I know that south east of us there is plenty of forest and you and your group can survive there quite well.  It is the best plan for everyone."

Wilard blinked hard a few times.  He had very mixed emotions.  He was trying to keep his rage in check.  His nose twitched.  His upper lip began to quiver.  He looked like he was on the verge of freaking out.

And so Captain Bruin Hilda decided to try a bit of mental persuasion.  She had learned, from a source she could no longer remember at all, the ultra-rare mystic power known as Modroni Mind-Clouding.  This should have had the effect of causing Wilard to become confused, befuddled and indecisive.  While in that state, Bruin Hilda planned to drive away. Hopefully Wilard, bewildered, would wander off to the south east where he and his rat horde belonged.  The power was difficult to control, and would cost her a fair bit of mental energy, but she had the expectation that it would help resolve what otherwise appeared to be a brewing confrontation.  It was worth it, she thought.

Unfortunately, due to a spasm of bad luck, a fly had landed on her eyelid just as she was focusing and she was distracted, and so the power went astray. She began wiggling her eyebrows, and rolling her eyes.  Wilard stared at her, and blinked a few times.  She began twitching and looking around in random directions.  Wilard twitched his nose and scratched his chin.  What was she up to, he wondered.  Her behavior was certainly confusing.

"So," said Wilard, "we're all good, then?  We can go with you, eh?"

"Well, um, I... I... um... well, sure, why not?" replied Bruin Hilda, having completely forgotten what they had been discussing.  She couldn't remember a damn thing, or who these people were, or why she was standing there. She was grasping at straws trying to remember.

Lieutenant Kerrington and Tom looked at her with expressions of shock and amazement.  

"Well, great then!" cried Wilard with a little squeal of delight. "We'll go off and hunt more food!  And water!  Lots of food and water!  We bring it to you later!  Come on, children, we're going on an adventure with fair, good, honest Captain Bruin Hilda!"  And with that Wilard darted off into the foliage and all the horde of rats followed him.  In a moment they had vanished without a trace.

"Boss, are you crazy?" asked Tom.

"Yeah," added Kerrington, "What gives?  I thought you were going to send them packing, Captain."

"Huh? What were we doing again?" asked Bruin Hilda, as befuddled as could be.

"Gee, Captain, you better sit down," answered Kerrington, now concerned. He and Tom sat Bruin Hilda down in the back seat.  After a few fruitless minutes of her trying to recall what was going on they drove back to camp.  

"You know, I should have just shot him," said Kerrington along the way.  "It likely would have saved us a lot of trouble later."

"Shot who?" asked Bruin Hilda, still utterly befuddled.

"Never mind," said Kerrington mystified, "It's water under the bridge now."  

By the time they got back Bruin Hilda's mind had cleared.  She wasn't quite sure what had happened exactly, but at least she could think clearly again. She asked Kerrington where Wilard had gone, but he just mumbled something under his breath, and so she let it go.  

They decided that the refugees should smoke the reptiles for the journey ahead.  The townspeople were good at this sort of thing, and in short order a host of smoke sheds went up and woodsmoke filled the air around the camp.  Cooked lizard and woodsmoke had a nice smell.  People were generally enthusiastic, and everyone was looking forward to putting as much distance between themselves and Panguitch as possible.   

While they waited Bruin Hilda pulled up her map. The road up 89 had not been explored in a very long time.  The map had no details.  Since they had a few hours until dark she ordered Kerrington to join her on a scouting expedition, and so they got in the jeep and headed north on 89.  She wanted to see what the road ahead looked like.  Scouting was the best way to find out. With a cloud of dust trailing behind them, they sped northward into the unknown. 

89 was truly desolate.  And the road was severely cracked and had been worn away by severe weather conditions. The further north they went the worse it got.  Bruin Hilda figured they might make it 25 miles up to Monroe and still make it back by dark, but with the road as bad as it was, that seemed doubtful after all.  As Kerrington drove she scanned the area ahead with her binoculars.  It was sweltering, and as rains had fallen recently there were mists in various low areas along the river which wound its way following the road on their right.  Things got pretty choppy about five miles north, so they slowed down and Kerrington had to weave his way past various ditches and other obstacles. 

About ten miles up they came to a long ridge.  The base of it began at the road where it sloped upward some two hundred feet to the west, and then continued on to become part of a chain of hills and sheer cliffs.  Kerrington slowed the jeep down to a crawl.

"What is it?" asked the Captain, her eyes glued to the binoculars.

"I dunno, Ma'am," said Kerrington, "but I thought I saw something up on the top of that ridge ahead."

"Well, let's drive up slowly then," she agreed, and focused her binoculars along the ridgeline. She saw a whisp of smoke move along the top and whisk away swiftly into the west.

"That's what I saw, Ma'am," said Kerrington.  "It was just some smoke, I guess."

Bruin Hilda had him drive to the base of the ridge and stop the jeep. She looked up the long slope.  It was rocky, and covered with a thin forest of pine trees.  She figured they could make their way to the top by foot and then look over the edge and see where the smoke was coming from.  She went ahead, and had Kerrington follow behind at fifty feet, covering her from behind.

She took out her pistol and in a crouching run she darted among the boulders and trees until she got to the top of the ridge.  There was a wind blowing from the east. She made it to where the ridge line began to fall off to the north and smelled sulfur in the air.  She crouched behind a large boulder and scanned the horizon with her binoculars. Kerrington made his way up to her position. They took cover and with bellies down crawled up to the edge and took a peek.  

They looked downward and saw that the ridge fell off steeply, and at the bottom of a vale to the north they saw a huge crater from which a thick white smoke was pouring out.  The crater was about two hundred feet wide.  The smoke was being carried by the wind up the ridge, making it to the top, and then getting swept to the west.  Bruin Hilda looked for signs of life.  Nothing.  Absolutely nothing. Not a blade of grass, or insect, or any form of life whatsoever.  Kerrington had his binoculars out and focused on the rim of the crater.  The entire area around the crater was completely devoid of life. 

"What do you think, Captain?"

"I wonder if that smoke is poisonous?" she said.  "I've known of places where coal mines have caught on fire and burned for years.  Or it could be volcanic.  Or maybe it's a result of the Ultra-War.  Some bizarre weapon maybe."

Kerrington took another look and by the dim red glow along the rocks he figured the crater must have magma boiling in it, just below their line of sight. 

"Yep," he said.  "Looks volcanic." 

"Still, it seems like the road is clear enough for us to pass by.  I don't see any direct threats here.  Let's continue scouting north."

And so they made their way down the slope to the jeep.  They drove north, but didn't get more than a hundred yards when they came to an old wooden sign.  It was broken and had fallen over, but the worn painted lettering could still be read.  "Hell Hole".

"Hmm...," said Bruin Hilda.  "I remember reading about something like this in the old history books."

"You know, the refugees are likely a superstitious lot," commented Kerrington, "I wonder how they'll react to this."

"I understand what you're saying, Kerrington, but I don't think there's a better route," she said. 

"We could take 20 West," offered the Lieutenant.

"Oh no, we don't want to go that way.  I don't think we should be heading towards the Blackwind Facility.  I think we're done with that."

"So what then?"

"I was thinking we should head south, ultimately.  I'd like to get back to Federation territory somehow."

"That makes sense, but I don't know how the refugees will react to that either.  None of them have even heard of the Federation before.  Most are still American loyalists, you know."

Bruin Hilda nodded.  Some people might have an issue with it, but where they could settle down was something she still needed to think through.  She knew Federation territory while far was at least generally hospitable.  This region up north seemed like it would be filled to the brim with perpetual hazards.  But convincing the refugees to go so far south might not be easy.  She'd have to think that one over.

She decided to continue north and after another score of miles they came it to a completely desolate town.  They passed by as there was literally not a house or building standing higher than three feet above the ground. They drove on and after a few miles came to a large weather beaten metal highway sign that had been folded down the middle by some violent event some time ago.  The paint was worn away but the word "Junction" could still be read. Bruin Hilda checked the location on the map. 

The town of Junction. From their position they observed a number of intact buildings scattered around to the east at some distance.  Some of them were not completely ruined and it seemed like there might be a few working farmsteads between the road and the river.  Not much was growing there, though. They could see trees and some of the land had plowed rows, but there was no sign of crops, or livestock, dogs, or people.  Most likely a failed community that had been abandoned.

They continued north until the came to a mostly dried out reservoir.  At the bottom there was a long shallow pool of greenish water. As it had rained recently, the water appeared clear enough to drink, but it would be hard to tell for sure without proper testing.  Poisons abounded in the post-Ultra-War world.  No one would dare drink from a water source without testing it first.

"Why don't we check to see if the water is fresh?" offered Kerrington.  With that they took a trek down to the water's edge and used a testing kit.  The water was clean enough for human consumption.  That was good news as there was plenty enough for the refugees and this would be a welcome sight for them all after the long trek this far north. They could camp along the rim of the reservoir, and maybe hole up here for a few days.  

They to continued north to Maryville.  There were massive craters covering the entire area of what used to be a town.  Some massive battle had occurred in that area and all that remained was rock and dust.  There were no buildings whatsoever.  Only craters of significant size, and foul pools of black water.

"Should we head back, Captain?" asked Kerrington, noticing that it was getting on towards the end of the day.  At that point it was a long way back.  The Captain agreed and they began the drive south. When they returned to Junction the Captain decided to have Kerrington turn east down route 62 to see how that road looked.  According to the map it should wind around to the south if the road was clear.  However, once they went east for two miles the road became broken and parts of it looked impassible by the jeep.  They could off-road it, but it appeared a bit too perilous.  She was curious whether or not the road's condition improved further on, but there wasn't a good way to tell from where they were as the hills blocked their view.  So they turned around and made their way back to 89.  Along the way Bruin Hilda noticed some movement in the doorway of one of the dilapidated farmsteads.  It was a young boy, maybe ten years old or so. When he detected that he'd been noticed he took off and darted into the shadows of the barn, and then reappeared around the back running along a dirt path towards an outcropping of rocks and trees.  Bruin Hilda was in no mood to go on a wild goose chase after the boy, and so they continued to 89 and then turned south.  Whoever that kid was, he'd have to take care of himself.

"Well, I guess there are some locals around.  I think we better tell the Lieutenants to keep an eye out when we come up this way," said Bruin Hilda said thoughtfully. What the disposition of the people up here might be was yet another unknown.  And possibly an unwelcome reception might await them.

From there they drove back to the campsite.  By the time they got back, it was getting dark.  Bruin Hilda called the Lieutenants together and they discussed the Hell Hole, and the other findings northward.  The Lieutenants listened attentively. 

"The original team that went north had taken Route 20," said one of Lieutenants.  "Why don't we take that route, and try to make our way to Beaver?  Wasn't it relatively safe on this side of Garrison?"

Bruin Hilda listened and nodded affirmatively.  "It's under consideration," she said.

"My goal is to lead the caravan back to civilization," she added. "And to my mind that means Federation territory, down south.  I'm looking at Arizona."

"Well, that isn't a bad idea," said Kerrington, "but again, we have eight hundred people, not all of whom are likely to want join up with the Federation.  There are still plenty of American Loyalists among them."

The other Lieutenants agreed with this point, and everyone said that it ought to be thought about carefully before anything is said to the refugees.  In the end, they'd have to discuss it all with refugees to gain consensus, and which route to take would be the next challenge facing Captain Bruin Hilda.

On the bright side, in the morning when they woke up they found several mounds of fresh snakes and lizards.  Wilard had been true to his word that time.  The refugees cooked up a lot of snake and lizard stew that morning, and everyone was feeling like the trek ahead might not be so bad.

* * *

Meanwhile, in the town of Panguitch, Captain Sam had been brought to Garfield Hospital and was recuperating after surgery.  He was speaking with Major Sekston, who had re-assumed command of the town's militia. She filled him in on the details of the current situation.  It turned out that the Lizardman Army had been shaken when the AGV had blasted the three tanks from the mountain side, but it wasn't until it blazed a hole through the crimson lightning storm that the Lizardmen actually panicked, broke and fled south back in the direction Saint George.  Everything afterwards had gone well for the Western Militia and US Army forces.  They had managed to deal a serious blow the Manticorian Army, and the troops were in a celebratory mood.  However, Sekston made sure that they didn't rest on their laurels for long.  There was a lot of hard work to be done.  They re-entrenched the town, and dug in special fortifications now that they had some idea of what the Lizardmen forces were capable of.  Every available soldier was busy on the trenches, operating machinery, restocking ammo dumps, and repairing whatever could be repaired. The airport was also being fortified as well, and a great deal of effort was being put into repairing the Rhino before the next engagement. The one thing the Major was sure of was that had not seen the last of the Manticorians.

As this all was going on, Doctor Rogers, who had returned to Garfield Hospital with the Mechs, got busy reuniting with Penelope and making plans for the future.  The old salt, "Guns" Gunnison, pitched in to help with the re-entrenchment wherever it was needed, while Fred spent his time working on the AGV.  What no one except Fred knew was that the AGV had been infected by an unclassified Artificial Intelligence.  One that had decisively turned the tide of the battle in favor of the US forces, but one that he was also nevertheless extremely wary of.  This was not a mere Class-C AI as he had original thought when they discovered it at Mech Base 12 all those weeks ago.  Oh no.  This was by far the smartest, and most mysterious AI he had ever encountered.  And Fred, being a Cybernaut, had encountered his fair share.  No, this was definitely something different.

* * *

Meanwhile, far under the earth in an enormous cavern a hundred miles or so to the north, Pita and Vilar braced themselves against the fierce sandstorm that had kicked up around them.  It was pitch black, and they could only see by the dim illumination of their Lemurian helmets' Night Vision.  They had been moving slowly along a narrow stone path through a forest of giant arrowhead-shaped stones jutting upward from ground like enormous teeth.  Even with the Night Vision they could barely see ten feet ahead.  At the moment they had taken refuge in a small alcove that had been worn out of the side of one of the great arrowheads.  The stones seemed almost evenly spaced at about ten feet, were made of some type of obsidian, were roughly eighteen feet tall, and their edges were razor sharp.  They looked like they had been deliberately chipped into shape, and were likely, thought Pita, the handywork of some ancient race of stone giants.  Such a formation could scarcely have been entirely natural.

As they hadn't any idea where they ought to go, they pushed further into the alcove, and there found a small enclosure that served as a temporary refuge from the storm, in which they had a chance to rest.  Pita took a look at Vilar's shoulder. It was still bleeding, and his bandages were soaked with blood.  The bat's vicious bite had done more damage than Pita thought.  Vilar had lost a good deal of blood.  His eyes were sunken, and he was parched.  Pita gave him some water from his canteen.  Vilar nodded in thanks, but was unable to muster the strength to talk. Pita recalled the class he had taken at Federation Academy on Medical Healing.  He took out his medical kit and gave his attention to the wound.  It was jagged and blood flowed freely out of it.  He poured a packet of pain dampening medication on the wound, and then got busy with needle and thread.  In a few minutes the wound was sutured up reasonably well.  He gave Vilar more water and waited.  Within a few minutes the young scout seemed to be doing a bit better.  After a while Vilar sat up and wrapped his cloak around himself more securely.

They had no desire to head back out into the sandstorm. Pita had one card up his sleeve that he hoped he could play to some good effect.  He had tried it once before, but at the time it had failed to do anything noticeably useful.  But he thought he ought to try it again now, given that under the circumstances their progress through the sandstorm was incredibly slow, and fraught with the risk that they would get buffeted by the wind and hurled onto one of the sharp edges of the arrowhead stones.  And that, he was certain, would be disastrous. He lowered his head, got down on one knee, and began to focus his mind, and all his mental energy into a single point of power.  And the thing that he wished to will into being was known as Alter Weather.  If successful, and it was a very difficult thing to do, the sandstorm would abate, and they could make progress far more easily.

Unfortunately, the weather proved to be of incredible strength, and once he had invoked the power he realized that the sandstorm was supernatural in nature.  There was no way he could avert it, or even temper it at all.  And so he was pushed backwards, and he collapsed against a wall from the effort.  Sweat poured down his forehead and his hands trembled.  No, this sandstorm was here to stay until it decided of its own accord to abate or wander elsewhere.  Perhaps it was their own invasion of these secret lands that had invoked it begin with, he thought.  He had an impression of the sandstorm being a kind of guardian spirit.  He rested his back against the stone and gazed at Vilar without expression.  

Pita went to the mouth of the alcove and turned on his Ray Gloves, pushing the lumens up to the maximum of 2600 and pointed them into the dark sand-shrouded storm.  This improved his ability to see, but at the risk that they might also be seen.  Pita deemed it a risk worth taking.  

They decided to push on.  Once outside they found that the sandstorm had increased in intensity.  They crawled forward against the wind on their hands and knees in order to avoid being blown onto the edges of the arrowhead stones.  They made some distance, moving between the stones when up ahead they discovered an area that was devoid of arrowheads for some distance.  They struggled against the wind to make their way forward when they came upon a single giant arrowhead stone in what Pita took to be the center of an open space, maybe a sixty feet in diameter.  They made their way to it, and braced themselves against its smooth cold sides, hoping to gain a respite against the wind.  When they touched it, Vilar and Pita both noticed a shimmering blue light flickered within the stone. They looked more carefully and Pita lowered the lumens of his gloves. Pita thought it must be a reflection but indeed. the stone was illuminated with a fiery blue flame that undulated within the stone itself.  They crawled along the side of the arrowhead and discovered a new alcove.  They went inside and found a narrow tunnel that led into a more spacious cave than they expected.

Vilar stumbled and slid against the inner wall of the cave.  Blood from his bandages smeared against the stone wall, and where it did the stone briefly sparkled with blue fire, covering the blood and evaporating it.  It only lasted for a few seconds.  He pushed away and sat himself against the opposite wall, frightened by the idea that the flame had devoured his blood.  It was still glowing internally with a wavering misty light.  He pointed to it.

"Do you see that?" asked Vilar.

Pita looked at the wall, and saw that it was pulsating with a distant multi-hued flame.  He took out his rifle and put it across his knees, and then took out his Lewiston Beam Pistol.  Vilar put his hand on Pita's shoulder.  

"Those won't do us any good in here, I think," he said as he pointed to the flickering flames within the wall.  As they looked they saw the flames differentiate into patches of light and dark, and shapes began to emerge from the shadows.  In a few moments they saw the shapes transform into a scene.  Vilar gasped.  The scene became ever more vivid as they watched.

They saw a vast cavern in the murky blue fires.  A being stood alone in the center.  It was walking.  It was a lion. It unfurled a set of eagle wings.  It looked arrogant and bold, and it smiled with radiance and confidence, its golden mane shining with light.  It walked with its head held high towards an enormous cave entrance that was rimmed by gigantic carved stones, the capstone of which held a symbol of warning, but the observers knew not what it was except that within the cave's infinite blackness there lay something that ought never to be disturbed.  Something about that symbol caused Pita and Vilar to shudder and they both began to tremble.  The infinite blackness seemed to swell and pulsate invisibly as the lion approached the entrance heedless of the warning or the danger.

The vision continued.  The lion walked down the center of a river that ran into the cave and then vanished as it rushed over the edge of a roaring waterfall down into the darkness below.  The lion, its golden mane suffused with a golden light, its great blue eyes sparkling with fierce fascination, spread his winds wide.  He came to the waterfalls' edge and lofting himself up soared swiftly through the archway and suddenly plummeted downward with his great paws outstretched. On his great eagle wings he sailed downward into the darkness, forming long graceful spirals in the air until he came to the base of the cavern where the waterfalls crashed onto the black rocks below with a deafening roar.  There was a high tunnel that the river flowed through from there, and the lion padded along the shore next to the rushing waters.  The tunnel walls were resplendent with gold, and diamonds, and lapis lazuli, and veins of countless nameless gemstones. Although it was pitch black, the observers could nevertheless see the lion and his surroundings in the flickering blue fires.  The waters became lazy and wandered into a vast cavern so dark that its dimensions were unfathomable. 

In the cavern the lion walked for some distance.  The air was utterly still and silent.  He came upon a great chain emerging from the ground.  The chain's links were the size of his head.  He stopped and looked up and his gaze followed the chain links as they vanished upward into the darkness.  He continued walking and there was another chain that also vanished upward into the darkness.  He spread his wings and flew up following the links as high as he could, and finally landed precariously on a link, the size of which was greater than his entire body.  He overlooked the vast domain of infinite darkness into which the chains vanished above and below.  He looked to his right and saw an enormous head next to him, the eyes half shut, the mouth open slightly, the nostrils wide.  Although he could only see the head, the lion perceived that the body of the Being was held up by the chains.  The Being was singing a song but the words were so incomprehensible that they sounded like the wind, or the roaring of waves, or the sound of the absolute silence within the outermost reaches of deep space.  Enigmatic, and mind warping were those sounds.  The words were far beyond ancient. They were words from beyond all known time and space, beyond all possible comprehension, beyond reality. 

As the Being sang, one of the links of the chain was being pulled by the lion.  He pulled and pulled and pulled with his paws until the link slid out from the others and the chain began to unravel from one limb of the great Being. Its arm came loose.  The lion flew down with the chain for miles and miles until it came to land on the rocky plain beyond the Being's reach.  He turned to look at the Being towering in the darkness.  It was free with one arm, and it looked all akimbo against the blackness of the infinite night, its eyes filled with a terrible pitch black brooding from which there was no possible defense.  It was so terrible it seemed as if all eternity must fall into it eventually.  And all of a sudden the lion was shaken to the core of his being, and filled with terror.  And he ran pell-mell at full speed heedless into the darkness, clutching the chain.. or was the chain clutching him?  He glanced behind him as he ran, his mouth flecked with foam, his eyes wide and rolling.  All around the Being that had one arm freed there was a dark space that had begun to twist into fragments like lightning moving in slow motion, tearing the fabric of reality into crystalline shards, dazzling in its dark magnificent beauty. The lion felt the space around his feet begin to twist in a way that was beyond comprehension.  It was not that the ground had moved, or folded, or fell away, but rather that the fabric of reality itself was being pulled and crushed and shredded all around him.  The reality in which his own being had any meaning was being shorn away like so many pieces of cloth, and burning away in some vast invisible fire.  He ran and flew and tumbled and clawed the air and gasped and frothed at the mouth until he could not see, tears streaming like molten diamonds from his eyes, his voice a cacophony of terrors utterly unimaginable.  And all the time the chain, had grown smaller and tighter and wrapped itself around him and was crushing him so that he could not breathe. Up and up he flew, following the waterfall until he flew out from the horrifying cave into the first cavern, holding the chain in his jaws, and the chain holding him around his neck.

The lion landed on the sands next to the river and slumped to the ground and lay there for a long time. Ages seemed to pass before he stirred again.  His visage had become black as coal, and his eagle's wings had transformed into bat's wings. Over his head arched, instead of his tail, a scorpion's sting. His eyes became brands of scarlet fire. And in them was a madness that could never be quenched. And he began to prowl, his eyes filled with terror and insanity and an everlasting hatred without hope or reason.  The lion's voice echoed throughout the cavern like a terrible whispering wind.  "What have I done?  What have I done?  What have I done?" 

And with that the smokey blue fire within the walls of the stone faded, and the stone slowly grew dark and cool, and the wind outside howled, and Pita and Vilar were stunned and frightened by what they had seen, and their bodies were covered in sweat, and they were trembling uncontrollably for a long while.

Pita thought about the chain that Captain Samwise had taken from the Iron Talon Monk before he shot him through the forehead with his Lewston Beam Pistol.  It was this chain that the black manticore, known as the "Shadow King", had been seeking when it had stalked them to Page, Arizona.  And he remembered its terrible relentlessness, and its merciless gaze.  And Pita reflected on these things and wondered.  

"That was terrifying," stammered Vilar weakly after some time.

"I've come across such a beast, and a chain like that, in my travels," said Pita quietly. "And both were terrifying, although I myself wasn't scared because I'm, um, me, you know.  But that's besides the point," he concluded as he shook the terror off and came back to himself.

He looked at Vilar.  The poor Lemurian Scout looked terrible. The vision had really shaken the lad up.  Pita realized that if he didn't act soon Vilar would likely succumb to a form of despair that might cause him to relapse, and make it impossible for him to carry on.  He decided another bout of healing was going to be necessary if they were both to get out of that dreadful place alive.  And so he chose another healing method from his bag of tricks.  This one was known as Mesmeric Healing, and it required a great deal of concentration as it had a spiritual component that was used to heal psychic and emotional harms. He focused his mind on the lad's heart and began to hum inwardly a special tune that only a few adepts from the Mentarian Order knew.  And lo, after a few minutes Vilar stopped trembling, and after a few more minutes he looked much more like himself. In fact so much so that the lad stood up.  He said he felt he could walk.  Pita was greatly pleased to hear this and so they prepared to depart together. 

"I hate to tell you," shouted Vilar over the wind as they came to mouth of the alcove, "but I have no idea where we're going!"

"But you're my guide!" shouted Pita in reply.

"I know!" shouted Vilar, "but we wandered into an area that I have never traversed before!  In fact, I don't think any surface human has ever been here before in the history of the world!"

"Well, of course, I would be the first, naturally!" shouted Pita with a toothy grin.

"Well, we're on our own!" shouted Vilar as he prepared to step forward into the sandstorm.

Then Pita heard a lovely voice in his head.

"Pita?  It's Linda!"

"My love!" exclaimed Pita loudly in his mind.

"Are you ok? Where are you?" she asked.

"I'm in some sort of mystic cavern.  My guide and I are as lost as we can be.  But we're ok, I think."

"I'm not far from you. I just need to know how to get where you are," she said. 

"How are you not far?  Aren't you at the palace?"

"I was, but then... well, after you left, I snuck away," she admitted sheepishly.

"By yourself?" he asked.

"I did. I snuck away by myself.  I think the Queen is likely to be quite upset about it, but I couldn't bear to leave you to head off into danger without me to back you up.  After all, we're both Federation Command Officers and we're on the same team.  How can I just sit in the Palace waiting around sipping Margaritas while you're risking your life?"

Pita considered putting up his Mind Shield.  He wondered if it was really her.  She was too smart to just head off into such danger as this on her own.  But then he considered how brave she had been on so many occasions. And after all, she was one of Lieutenant Brisbane's twin daughters. Acts of extraordinary courage did seem to run in the family. 

"Well, I'm at the bottom of a vast cavern," he began.

"I know that," she cut in.  "I followed you up to the point where the cavern opens onto a narrow ledge.  There's a huge spider web made of crystalline threads wavering along the cliff face.  You recognize where I mean?"

"Whatever you do, don't speak out loud," he advised.  "No matter what, don't make a sound."

"I'm with somebody," she said.

"Really!?  Who?" he asked, utterly surprised.

"The Queen's handmaiden, Talara," she replied.

Pita turned to Vilar and shouted over the wind, "Have you ever heard of a Queen's handmaiden going by the name of Talara?"

"What? Why?" shouted Vilar.

"She and my future bride happen to be in the cavern where we entered beneath the crystal spider web, and --"

"Talara?!!" shouted Vilar as he bolted upright.  "Talara's here?!  Talara is my fiancĂ©e!"

"Well, she and Linda are up on the ledge path that we came from," said Pita, now confident that it really must be Linda.

"But why would she be here?" shouted Vilar. "Talara shouldn't be here!  This place is far to dangerous!  The Queen wouldn't send her here!   Why would she be here?!" 

"Well, I have my suspicions," said Pita.  

"The Queen sent Talara to come find me after I snuck away," said Linda into Pita's mind.  "Talara in fact was here before me.  She had been sent to keep an eye on you two, but when things got too dangerous the Queen ordered her to return.  However, when she discovered that I had gone missing, she sent Talara after me.  And now we're together."

"Ask Talara if she knows anything about the stairs that descend from the far end of the ledge and if she knows of the plain of giant Arrowhead stones," suggested Pita.

"Well, we will likely need to ask the priest about that," said Linda.  

"The priest?" exclaimed Pita bewildered. "You have a priest with you, too?" asked Pita, now wondering how large a party had come down to find them. 

"Yes, but it's just the three of us. The priest came to protect Talara on her way here, and Talara came to protect me on behalf of the Queen," she said.

"And who is protecting the priest?" asked Pita, growing increasingly amused.

"I am," she said.

"So it's a circle of protection, is it?" he quipped smiling broadly.  

"Something like that," she said.  "Anyway, my ambition now is to get to where you are."

"Well, you'll need to make your way along the ledge, completely silently," instructed Pita, "and absolutely avoid entering the cave on your right no matter what happens.  After that you'll come to a plaza, but don't step out onto it.  Just before the plaza begins, if you look carefully down and to your left you'll see an ancient flight of stairs along the plaza's left wall,  It's very difficult to see from above, so keep your eyes open.  Take that stair down the two flights until you get to the bottom.  There you'll find a stone path that winds its way through enormous stone arrowheads.  Do not touch the edges of the stones.  They're incredibly sharp!  At the bottom you'll find yourselves in a sandstorm. You better set your Lemurian helmet and cloak to their most powerful protective settings or the sand will chew you to shreds.  Keep to the path as it winds through the stones and eventually you'll come to an open area within a circle of arrowhead stones.  At the center is an even larger arrowhead than the rest.  Vilar and I are there.  Oh yes, and beware - the cavern has bats!  And they bite!  And heaven knows what else may be lurking down here! Be careful, my love!"

"We will be there as soon as possible.  Don't go anywhere," said Linda.  And with that she, Talara and the priest, one Lucius Amorathane, made their way along the ledge towards their destination.  It took some time, but in due course they braved the terrors of the cavern, and the fierceness of the sandstorm, and finally arrived at the cave where Pita and Vilar were resting.  They entered the little alcove and made their way down the short narrow passageway until they entered the inner cave.  Pita and Vilar knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that not only were these two who they claimed to be, but they were also two of the most beautiful women ever to live in this world.  And so they sat down, sheltered from the stand storm, and made formal introductions.

And that is where we left things that evening.

1 comment:

ArtRebel said...

"The Place of the Lion" certainly comes to mind here. Tremendous treatment.