Field Trip Pt 4

From the Story Arc: Hope is the Thing With Feathers

Previous Story in the Arc: Field Trip Pt 3 by Victoria Victrix (Saturday, January 10, 2009)

Next Story in the Arc: Epiphany by Victoria Victrix (Saturday, January 10, 2009)

(posted Saturday, January 10, 2009)

Fangorn Forest was a literary conceit.

Except here.

Here, Underhill, in its own little pocket Domain, under the protection of Elfhame Silverthorn and its liege, Robin Goodfellow, where it was very real. Time passed oddly Underhill, and that did equally odd things to the memories and experiences of those who lived here. For all Vic knew, the dryads who were role-playing the part of Ents and Entwives probably thought they had been here "forever" in those roles. They certainly acted like it. Well, all but the newest, who seemed to be, not quite a dryad as such, but a Native American version of the same mythago.

They walked in relative silence. Red was too busy drinking in all that Fangorn had to offer. His flames, he knew, still made the trees a bit nervous, so when he suggested that they perhaps do a quick tour then wander the border between Fangorn and the Unformed Lands, Oheo had agreed it was a good idea. The little dryad who had so abruptly attacked Red spoke little, and still seemed a bit shy around them. If it was embarrassment, Red could deal with that. He himself knew what it was like to act in rash anger. If it was more, if she still resented their presence... well, he supposed he could deal with that too. For now, she seemed content to act as a guide, walking a few respectful paces behind Red, Victoria and Sunshine.

With one hand on Sunshine's shoulder, Vickie kept silence entirely. Communion with Sunshine was always silent; not quite telepathy since the elvensteed wasn't exactly telepathic, but generally quite clear, Sunshine was briefing her--

--actually, no, he wasn't. He was gossiping. The 'steeds were inveterate gossips for the most part. The Elves tended to forget just how intelligent they were, a fact that gave the 'steeds no end of amusement and opportunities to observe truly embarrassing moments. So Vickie was having to fight to keep a straight face.

Sunshine also wanted to know all about Red. And particularly about Red and Vickie. Every tiny little detail. Which, of course, he wasn't going to get, but Vickie had to be very careful about how much she let into her surface thoughts as a consequence. So the very little bit of her attention that she wasn't devoting to Sunshine's "'satiably curious" mind she simply devoted to watching Red's delight. It was so rare that he was able to simply enjoy himself. Not being Red Djinni. Not being a leader in the AoC. Just being...Red.

There needs to be more moments like this. A lot more. He needs time to remember what it's like to be himself and live in his own skin instead of behind that scarf.

"So," she said, briefly interrupting his reverie. "You ever going to put on those spurs?"

Still smiling, he leaned in to give her a quick kiss, and nodded. He unhooked the spurs from his belt, took a knee, and attached them to his boots.

Nothing happened.

"Huh, not as spectacular as the belt..." He looked down. "Still, they look damned impressive."

"Sometimes these things need a bit of sorting out," she replied enigmatically. "Before we leave you'll find out what they're for. Magic doesn't always work instantly."

He reached over and took her hand gently in his, and pulled her close.

"Aye," he whispered. "Sometimes it's better that way. The best things take time to come together."

Sunshine shook his head and made an amused sound. The feeling Vickie got, however, was less of "amusement" and more--sympathetic. And with that came the suggestion that perhaps Oheo would like to discover what it was like to ride. Since a 'steed rarely let anyone but his or her bonded rider in the saddle, Vickie was immensely touched.

"Oheo, Sunshine would like to know if you would like to ride him," she said aloud, and Sunshine nodded like a trick horse. The dryad looked exceedingly surprised.

"But--" she began, and looked wide-eyed at the 'steed. "The people of my forest had few horses...but when I watched the warriors ride..."

There was a flicker of longing in her eyes. Vickie smiled. "Trust me, it's even more fun to ride than to watch, and Sunshine will make very certain you don't fall off."

Oheo didn't need any more encouragement than that. And she didn't need more than an easy boost into the saddle, either. Rather than let her bare feet get tangled up in the stirrups, Vickie tied them up to the saddle. Really, if all she'd done was watch Native Americans ride, she wouldn't know how to use stirrups anyway. Sunshine gave a little flick to his tail and a toss to his mane, and they were off and away.

She turned back to Red. "Alone at last?"

He grinned. "That was nice of Sunshine. How long do you think they'll MMMMPGGH...."

Red found himself on the receiving end of a full-body tackle. Vickie had gauged the terrain carefully. There was a nice patch of bracken to break their fall, just there, and an uphill bit of slope, and if she twisted a little as she tackled him, it would turn the fall into a roll--

"Gotcha!" she said triumphantly, with him pinned under her. "About that yielding earlier...and the forfeit."

"Uh--" he began cleverly. Then conversation became... moot.

Or rather, impossible. Hard to talk in the middle of a kiss whose ferocity surprised even Vickie. Okay, she wasn't possessive. Or, normally she wasn't possessive. Definitely not jealous. But--

But somewhere back in the depths of the old Id, something was growling like a mated wolf, and an alpha-bitch at that. Mine! Mine! Mine! And heaven help anyone that tries to take him!

As for Red, his Id was screaming too. Gah! Wow! Help! This is so hot...

She was everywhere, while he was desperately trying to keep up. Just when he thought he had her figured out, she'd change the rules. She always surprised him, and he suspected she always would. And he loved her for it.

"Whoa, whoa... slow down," he whispered. "Hey. You've got me, I give up, I'm all yours."

She paused for a breath, and a moment to punch her Id in the nose. "Sorry...having a moment there." But she didn't let him up, either.

"Aye, and a good moment at that." He rested his hands on hers, and brought them slowly up, up her arms to rest a moment on her shoulders, and then to cup her delicate face.

"Y'know," he said, his breathing forcibly deep and steady. "Maybe it's just where we are, but you can tackle me anytime darlin'. In fact..."

He stopped, as they felt a tremor. And like that, they were on their feet, straining to discern the source of distant thunder.

No, not thunder, Red thought. Like before... like the marching of the Ents.

Except that this time, the rumbling wasn't coming from the forest. It was coming from the wastes of the Unformed...

"Vic, what...?" He turned to her, and watched her eyes go wide with astonishment, then narrow into formidable slits. He looked closer, expecting fear perhaps, but no. No fear, not here, not in Underhill. If he'd had the time, he might have pondered just how different she was here.

"Come with me," Vic said, taking his hand and leading him quietly to the forest rim. The thundering was definitely louder now, and steady, paced. It couldn't have been thunder. Nothing in nature sounded so measured. It was definitely...

"Marching," Vic decided, grimly. "Very, very big things marching."

"Aye," Red breathed. "And I think I can see from where."

He pointed at a massive cloud of dust in the distance. They took cover, and watched. In the haze of an obscured, setting sun, they appeared. Red thought he could make out a drum now too, measured beats setting the pace of the march. Under a swirling blanket of ash, dark silhouettes began to appear. They seemed impossibly close, until Red realized it was just a trick, of size and proportion. They weren't that close, they were just...

And as the sun burst out from cloud cover, light blazed over them, and Red heard Vic draw an involuntary gasp. They were just... huge.

"Giants," Red muttered. "Guess coming here, I should've expected to take the bad with the good. Care to fill me in, darlin'?"

"Every mythago in the World Above has a living counterpart here. We happen to be in the Euro-Celtic part of Underhill, but there's every sort of mythos represented in some Realm or other down here, from the Russian Rusalkas to the Great Lizard out of Aboriginal Dreamtime. However--" she shaded her eyes and her mind whispered the little spell to create the effect of binoculars in the air just in front of them. "These are definetly Euro-Celtic giants. Pity. I'd have preferred Semetic, like Goliath. Those you can kill with a properly placed rock."

"And these?"

"A slug-fest. Preferably with at least a troupe of mounted Knights."

Red looked around. "Nope, no troupe... hey, how about two unmounted knights?"

"It'll have to do until the cavalry arrives." She made the binocs a bit more "real," then thought better of it, and kenned a set into her hand. She could use a lens of air, give him something he was comfortable with.

"Uh huh," he said in resignation. "So what's the situation, what are they doing here?"

"Hell if I know," she shrugged. "A good guess would be that the Unseleighe like to unmake things. The nicer it is, the more they want to unmake it. This--" she nodded her head in the direction of the forest behind them. "--is not only as nice as it comes, it's precious to the Seleighe. And it's under Seleighe protection, so hit here, and you show them you can hit anywhere. But there's a truce. So they can't act directly. Instead, they incite some of the ancient enemies of the dryads, find them a way into this neck of the Unformed, and turn them loose."

Red took a peek through the binoculars. "Don't... seem to be too many, just a handful. God, they're making a helluva lot of noise for just a few. We might be able to take them. Still, it'd be nice to have a little speed and manoeuvrability going for us. But you know me, I tend to get a little pooped when trying to fly and fight at the same time."

"That, I can fix." She put her fingers to her mouth and whistled shrilly.

Sunshine hurtled out of the woods, with Oheo clinging to his back, her eyes the size of dinner plates.

They got even larger when she saw what was in the distance, and she flung herself out of the saddle to make way for the proper rider. "I go for help!" she cried, before Vic could ask her to, and vanished into the forest, running so fast she almost looked like a speeding hero.

Vickie looked Sunshine in the eyes. Now would be good. she thought forcefully, and sensed the assent.

"Red. You're a knight. You're wearing your spurs. Call your 'steed."

His steed. He flashed her a smile, brought his fingers to his mouth, and whistled. A different entrance than Sunshine's, if he had questioned whether his mount would be suited to his personality, his fears were immediately assuaged. A burst of fire, a showy flash, and he was there. Red gave a yelp, finding himself nose-to-nose with a white stallion, spotted with auburn markings. He reached up hesitantly, and placed his hand on the graceful arch of his neck. In his head, he heard a soft ringing, as if he had found a long-lost friend.

"Uh, listen," he mumbled. "Normally, I'd go for an intro about now, but we don't have a lot of time here. You with me?"

Aye.

Red chuckled. Yep, this was his mount.

"You know how to ride?" Vic asked, a gentle smile playing on her lips.

Red nodded. "Used to all the time."

She gave him a surprised look.

"Don't ask. Long story." He launched himself up, and mounted. "Let's go."

There was a reason that the gym apparatus was called a "pommel horse." The originals for those exercises used to be done on horseback, and were one of the things Elven Knights were schooled in. Rigorously. Vic didn't even bother with the stirrups, which were still tied up to the sides of the saddle anyway. With one hand on Sunshine's withers, she levitated herself into her proper place.

"Distance weapon," she muttered, and reached behind her. A bow appeared in her hand, and three arrows. Three was all she could manage at once. Robin could sling five.

Red took the reins in his left hand, and held up his right. Flames erupted from his palm, enveloping his entire forearm in an intense glow. "Got mine."

Vic gave him a nod, and together, they rode out to meet their foes.

She might, just might, have given them a warning. Except that the giants were not in the least interested in parlay. Actually, it was debatable whether they would even understand the concept. Euro-Celtic giants were dumb as a box of rocks, generally. But the first thing they did was act just like the stupid stone-armoured Outcasts, and ripped up rocks to fling at them.

They might be dumber than dirt, but their aim was just fine.

Fortunately, Sunshine had fought giants before. The two 'steeds parted, leaping out of the way as a boulder the size of a Volkswagon landed between them.

"Can you keep them together?" Red yelled as they moved to flank the lumbering behemoths, willing a slow build-up in his targeting arm. "What I'm about to do might make them... skittish."

"Red!" she shouted back. "They know what you're doing. Just do it!"

Red clenched his teeth, holding back the built-up blast as long as he could stand. And then--"Ignition!"--he released, and a massive fireball whistled as it hurtled into the giants' midst, slamming into the largest at the core of the group, and exploded into jagged shards of fire that punched deep sores into the group.

Vic nocked her arrows to her bow and let fly. At the same time, she readied the familiar spell in her mind, and as the arrows sped off the string, cupped the air, and "snatched" a handful in the familiar summoning gesture. A fissure appeared in the earth at the feet of the nearest, and the ensuing pulse of the "earthquake" spell knocked him off his feet.

But the giants were big, and the earthquake that would have immobilized a dozen humans only incapacitated a single giant. Meanwhile the three arrows she had shot at the rearmost were--

--getting bigger. Well, they were of wood, with tips of stone. Earth magic. They obeyed Vic's will, and Vic's will said that three little arrows wouldn't even irritate a giant. So the arrows responded. By the time they hit, they were the size of telephone poles.

One down.

"Nice shooting!" Red cheered, and flashed Vic a grin. She looked to respond, but her returning salute was cut short.

"RED!"

Another boulder, this one the size of a dishwasher, slammed into Red, knocking him off his horse. Vic threw an aura heal, then two direct heals before he even hit the ground. He landed unceremoniously on his side, bounced and painfully pulled himself up into a sitting position. At least he was moving.

Coughing, Red looked up and saw the giants had broken rank. One lumbered towards him, raising a massive club. Before the club could start its downward arc, the giant was encased in stone.

Bless ya, darlin'.

Red leapt up, swung around the encased club, and dove for the giant's exposed head. Wrapping himself around a struggling neck, he playfully poked the giant's eye. There came an enormous roar, giving Red his opening. A jet of flame erupted from his sword arm, right down the giant's enraged throat and into its maw. The roar became a groan, then a whimper. As his stone cage fell away from him, the beast collapsed, holding his hands to his belly and continued to moan. Curled up in a fetal position, this one wouldn't be able to get up, for a long while.

Two down.

Three. While Red dealt with the second, Vic had repeated her arrow-trick on a third; it had taken a moment longer than the last time, since Sunshine had carried her out of boulder-range, then dashed in long enough to allow her to let fly with another volley of arrows, then dashed out again. The third collapsed a moment after Red's target went down.

That left the leader. He had been left staggering for a moment, having taken the brunt of Red's fireball. Vic was out of range again, Sunshine hardly more than a gold toy on the featureless plain of the Unformed land. The leader grunted, shook his head, and pounded his club on the earth. He glanced at Red, at Vic, then back again. He nodded, his lower lip jabbering up and down furiously, and started a charge. Eyes wide, Red stood his ground, considering his options... but the leader was faster than he thought. And that club, that club was larger then Chuggy... and he whipped it around so fast...

It happened quickly, and really it was only instinct that saved Red. A charge, a flashing club of stone, descending... and striking the earth with a massive boom. Red's steed had come from nowhere, and in a desperate motion, Red had grabbed a fistful of his mane, and flung himself onto the horse's back.

"Nice save," Red panted.

Aye. It was.

"Keep him at this distance, going to try something..."

The leader had howled in frustration, and began the chase. Red launched his feet at the ground, bounced up and landed back, now facing the outraged leader.

"Steady... steady..."

He levelled his arm, steadied himself against the bumpy ride, and let fly a concentrated snipe. A thin blast of blazing heat exploded, smashing the leader at his heart, and driving him off his feet. He landed, a charred patch smoking just above his sternum, and stayed down.

As Vic came riding up, she was breathless with excitement. "Someday, you have got to tell me how you learned to ride like that!"

Red sighed, and shook his head. "There's no force on Earth--" he paused, and looked about "--or under it, that'll make me tell you that tale."

She chuckled. "You owe me a forfeit. I could make it that."

"Aw..." he groaned, looking pained. "Couldn't I just be your slave or something for a while?"

"How do you feel about cleaning bathrooms?"

"Rodeo," he answered promptly. "I was in... in a rodeo."

Her brows knit in puzzlement. "What's to be embarrassed about being in a rodeo? It's an honest living."

"Cowboy Red? Oh c'mon, you don't see anything the least bit humorous in that imagery?"

"Um... no?"

"Well, it embarrassed the hell outta me, I can tell you. At the time, I'd done more than a few stupid things, armed robbery, GTA, and... and worse. Needed to hide. And with the stupid scarf, it seemed like one of the few options. Part of the costume... Cowboy Red."

"Babe," she said gently. "Back in the day--I was sixteen--my roommate Tex and I organized an Underhill rodeo for the cowboy-crazed. No lie. She got a look at what she called their 'dude-dud-ranch tenderfoot spread' and elected to show them how it should be done. I told you they have everything down here. Elfhame Broken Bow. You should see me in a Stetson. And chaps. And a Western shirt. With embroidery. I drew a line in the sand when it came to fringe, though."

"You, uh, still got that get-up?"

Now she laughed. "Why? Wanna play cowboys and...?"

"Wait," Red cautioned, his hand going up. The ground was shaking. Actually, it hadn't stopped.

Vic rolled her eyes, muttering. AGAIN with the interruptions, every time it starts to get interesting... my life as a sitcom.

Can I be the talking horse? Sunshine interrupted.

Quiet you. That's a copyright violation.

Another cloud of dust, and the rhythmic thunder.

"Knew those four weren't enough for all that racket," Red swore. "They were scouts..."

Vic summoned her binoculars again, and gasped. Oh hell. Not a sitcom. The remake of "Zulu Dawn."

"Red, there's scores of them."

"We can't hope to match them," he said quietly. "Especially up close. Can you and Sunshine take to the sky somehow?"

For answer, Sunshine shook himself so hard he blurred, and when he settled again---

He was a Pegasus.

"Hey, that'll work." Red looked down at his own mount. "What about you? I was thinking... a harrier jet. Or a gunship."

His mount snorted, and blurred as well. Red almost fell back in surprise, when he found himself on the back of a sleek, metallic, gold... dragon?

Wyrmling.

Oh, Red thought, startled. Uh, perfect.

"Um," Vic said, looking at his--middle. Then, with a gesture--

Both of them were strapped into their saddles with extra harnessing that grew out of the leather of the saddles and fastened itself in place like something alive.

"Fasten your seatbelts and stow your stewardess in the upright position," she said, trying for humour. "'Kay Sunshine. Death from above!" Sunshine took off--and up--with a thunder of wings.

Red patted his wyrmling on the back, and as a golden head craned back to look at him, gave him a thumbs-up. "What she said."

He found out why the safety harness at that exact moment. If he hadn't been strapped in, he'd have gone somersaulting backwards over the cantle of the saddle as the wyrmling launched up. And if that hadn't dislodged him, the lurch that followed each wing beat would have.

"Alright," Red shouted, having grown somewhat accustomed to the exotic bounce of mounted dragon flight. "We stay out of range, and pelt them from the sky!"

"Done!" Vic shouted back. "But what do you suppose we do about that?" She pointed, and Red felt his heart sink.

A dragon. And not like the young wyrmling Red rode upon, but a full grown, fire-breathing, malicious as hell, dragon. About a city block long.

"You have got to be kidding!" Red bellowed. "They've got a freakin' DRAGON!?"

"You're one to talk!" Vic retorted.

He swore, and urged his mount to go higher. "I'm on the fire-chucker! Try to trap the horde in cages!"

The commander in her thought, He's lost his damn mind. But what the heck, he was a fire critter himself. Maybe he knew something she didn't. So she set to work calling up the earth itself against the giants, imprisoning them.

The only problem was they didn't stay imprisoned for long. They were creatures of Earth as was she. She had the magic, but they had brute force as well as a certain amount of the magic that all Underhill creatures innately had. It quickly became obvious how futile this was. While bound, they shrugged off any crushing effect the stone cages had. If anything, she was merely slowing them down. And not by much.

Together, Red and his wyrmling soared up to meet their colossal enemy. As they closed the distance, Red realized with some alarm that he didn't have a plan. It had been instinct. He had always gone for the biggest, baddest adversary on the battlefield. His tactics weren't all that complicated. Take them down, and take them down fast. But how did you take down something that big... and fast?

"This is gonna hurt..."

Red opened fire, unleashing a lance of flame that ricocheted off the dragon's scaly hide. He tried again, and again, and again... nothing. Each blast found it's mark, and was harmlessly deflected away.

The dragon stopped, reared back, and returned fire. His mighty chest heaved, and he spewed forth an enormous fire storm. The wyrmling shot down, dodging the blast, but it was barely enough. Red felt the heat wash over his back like a shower of daggers.

"Get going!" he urged his mount. "Go! This isn't working!"

As they sped down, Red noticed Vic was signalling to him frantically.

"I'm not holding them!" she shouted. "I'm barely slowing them!"

Red, you idiot, he thought, berating his stupidity. What's Ranc always been telling you...?

You play to your strengths, and their weaknesses.

"What say you and I switch dance partners, darlin'?" he shouted back.

"I thought you'd never ask!"

He streaked by her, and began dive-bombing the giants with fireballs. They had found Vic's cages an inconvenience. The fire, on the other hand, left them with charred, smoking patches of skin. They howled with rage, broke rank, and scattered. Over and over, Red's mount pulled up, gained altitude, and they dove again and again, raining fire.

Vic glanced up at the dragon, who had followed Red's dive, and patted Sunshine encouragingly on his neck.

Remember when I told you to never, ever, charge a dragon? she asked.

Yes... came the weary reply.

Forget all that. Let's go.

It was a rare moment to hear an elvensteed swear. She might have laughed, well, if she had been somewhere else. Anywhere else. Instead, she urged Sunshine up. They were met with a scorching breath of fire. Sunshine veered sharply, dodging the blast and allowing the dragon's momentum to carry it past them. Turning, Vic took a deep, steadying breath, aimed carefully, and called stone out of the empty air to encase the thing in a shell of rock. It didn't last for long, but then, it didn't need to. Already in a dive and unable to spread its wings to a halt, the dragon fell from the sky.

And when it landed, half on its side, held in an awkward half-twist by the stone that had formed around it, it bellowed with pain. It wasn't dead, of course. It wasn't even critically injured. But she had hurt it. And better, the dragon had landed on a score of giants.

She called up the earth to hold it. Instead of a shell of stone, now it was held in jaws of stone. Beneath it she told the earth to become as quicksand, slowing its movements and holding it on the ground. With the earth sucking at its feet, it couldn't flap its wings hard enough to get lift.

She and Sunshine hovered directly above and a little behind it; just barely high enough to be out of reach of the furious fire blasts it was directing towards her, and just close enough for her spells to be in range. And she thought about attacking it--

The image filled her mind of a mouse attacking a cat with a sewing needle.

Sunshine was right. She couldn't kill it with magic. Her tiny sword was useless. She could--and did--fire off the same magicked arrows at it that she had used on the giants, but the dragon was a lot tougher, and though it was getting bruised, the arrows were mostly bouncing off harmlessly.

She could hold it, but no more than that. And eventually she was going to get tired and start to lose control over it. She would get tired long before it did.

And Red's endurance was likely to flag before hers did. Like all fire-chuckers, energy--or lack of it--was always his biggest weakness. She could keep healing him--and whenever he got in range, she did--but she couldn't replace that flagging energy.

They were losing. It looked as if they were holding their own, but they were losing. There was more of the enemy than there was of them, stronger, and more resilient and it would not be very much longer before that enemy wore them down, then wore them out, then took them.

They needed the cavalry to come over the horizon about now. She scanned the horizen, daring to hope...

Nothing.

Oh, we are SO dead... And no hospital transporter here...

Red continued his dive bombing, but the giants had regrouped, and were waiting. He reared back, prepared to let fly another fireball, when the air came alive with projectiles--boulders. There were too many. The Wyrmling swerved about, shrieking, and taken off-balance Red let the fireball fly harmlessly off into the sky. He flung himself flat against his mount as the wyrmling dodged heavy fire.

"That's it, boy!" Red cheered. "You're too fast for 'em, you're..."

With a crunch, a slab of rock clipped the wyrmling's wing. Red's mount shrieked in agony, and lost his grip on stable flight. Crooked and injured, the wing crumpled in on itself, and it was all the wyrmling could do to keep them from plummeting. With a cry, it struggled to right itself, but they were losing altitude, and when they crashed down it did what it could to shield Red from the impact. It wasn't really enough.

"Red!" Vic cried out, and commanded Sunshine to dive. The missile fire had stopped, the giants were converging on the still form of Red Djinni and his mount.

"Pull up, Sunshine!"

At the lowest point of the dive, Vic fired off a healing aura, and as they rose again into the air, shot Red with direct heals. She watched him and his mount stir. There was a shimmer, a flash, as the wyrmling disappeared, and Red was left sprawled next to his white stallion.

Red shook his head with a start, picked himself up, and urged his mount to get up.

I'm afraid I cannot, he heard a feeble voice sound off in his head.

GET UP! Red ordered. I have to get us out of here!

I cannot, the stallion repeated. Fly, Djinni. Fly.

Red swore, and spun as he saw the giants converge on their position.

I'm not leaving you! Red screamed the thought.

You heroes...

And then, the ground shook, it buckled, and fissures opened up around them. Looking up, Red saw Vic and Sunshine hovering overhead, undulating waves of force coming from Vic's outstretched arms. Around them, a circle of pulsing craters shook the ground with the force of the elemental earthquake spell. Not like a real earthquake, this was more a series of phased explosions within a limited area. But it certainly worked like a real earthquake. Normally the force of one of these things was enough to knock a foe off his feet. She'd invoked half of dozen of them.

The giants stepped into the perimeter, confused, and slowed. They gingerly kept their balance, and it was obvious that the earthquake wasn't enough. They were still advancing.

"No!" Vic yelled.

"Alright," Red muttered. "Let's add a little fire to the mix..."

He raised his arms, and a sphere of pure heat erupted between them. Slowly, he spread his arms wider, wider, and a fireball grew between his hands. He gasped, as he struggled to rip everything in him--out. He realized he was trembling, his knees almost buckling from the strain. At a critical mass, he released, and the white-hot plasmoid flew up and out, cascading a rippling shockwave of heat down, around and away from him, a growing circle of liquid fire.

The giants, concentrating on manoeuvring through Vic's rumbling earth, looked up in confusion as the magma slammed into them, throwing them back. They screamed, the heat washing over them, searing their skin, leaving only charred flesh in its deadly wake.

Red fell to his knees, breathing hard, and toppled over.

Vic drew in a sharp breath of astonishment, then frantic, threw a directed healing spell, and another, and another and--hit bottom. Nothing left.

That was it, he was spent. Even calling upon an Inferno couldn't match what he had just done. It seemed you could tap into your very life force here, magics being what they were, if your desperation was deep enough.

Wish someone had TOLD me that before I tried something this dumb.

He heard a quiet chuckle echo in his mind.

My name is Amalenar.

Red smiled weakly, and let his hand fall on Amalenar's neck. He felt his eyes begin to close, utterly tapped out.

It's been a pleasure, Amalenar.

In the distance, he saw the dragon start to claw its way out of his cage of rock. A few giants were still able to move, and were painfully picking themselves up. Soon, it would be over.

Helluva way to end, Red, he laughed quietly. All this time fighting goons and creeps bent on wiping out life in Paragon, and here you are--newly knighted and already at yer last stand--death by Tolkien-types.

Sunshine landed next to them with a weary thud. Vickie slashed at the straps holding her in her saddle with a dagger, and slid down to land beside him.

"I'm not leaving you," she said, jaw clenched, as she looked into his eyes. "I'm never leaving you. No matter how, no matter what. I told you that before, and I meant it."

"Don't be stupid," Red slurred. "Git."

"No." She drew her sword. "I finally find someone worth living for, and you want me to--no." She swallowed. "I love you. I can't, I won't leave you. Babe--love. I--did something. Back in Paragon. Back--when we had that fight--"

The giants were moving closer.

"--I didn't trust myself. I know how easy it is for--anyway, I took out some--magical insurance so you'd never be--so I'd never be--"

His eyes were glazing. He looked at her, but it was as if he didn't see her.

"--I can't hurt you, ever," she said, desperately. "A geas. If I ever deliberately hurt you--it'll come back on me--it'll--probably kill me, but--"

--and that mattered so little at this moment. Half of her wanted to fling the sword away and take him in her arms and pour everything she had into him. The other half wanted to stand over him and defend him to the last drop of blood in her body. The one power she had back in Paragon, the one she thought she would miss the least, was the one she missed the most now.

She couldn't port him out. Porting didn't work here. Too many bindings against it, else you'd have all manner of unwelcome and uninvited guests showing up when and where you least expected them.

Who was she? The warrior? The healer? Save him? Or defend him? Or avenge him? She could only do one.

Past and present wrenched at her; pulled at her in a tug-of-war that threatened to tear her in two. Then she looked down at him, helpless in her arms, and it all settled.

Save him. Save him. After all, everything she was now was because of what he had given her. Payback time. And what was life without him in it? Nothing, hollow, empty, not worth having.

The sword went flying, skittering across the ground, and she sank down beside him, held him, and emptied herself into him. She'd never done this before...it felt...it felt like...

...yielding. Falling. All the strength draining from her, pouring into him, all the magic, all the power, and following that, all the life-force. Her muscles went slack, utter exhaustion hit her like a sack of bricks, and she felt herself crumpling, hitting the ground, her eyes falling shut because she could not keep them open, and a soft, warm, comforting darkness closed around her.

...all of it. All of it, and my love too. Go and live, Red. Go...

Last thought, before it all vanished in darkness,


They came to, together, and stared at each other in astonishment.

"I'm not dead..." she whispered, looking into the eyes she never expected to see again. Oh, she could look into them forever...

"Hey, that's my line," he chuckled, and doubled over to hack and wheeze for his efforts at humour. The coughing fit subsided, and he groaned. "Where are we?"

Slowly, they looked around.

Bloody hell, she thought. It's the best guest-chamber. The one--

The one only High King Oberon and his consort Titania ever used, at least, to her knowledge. Well, all right, and really important envoys. And--

--us?--

When the Elves of Silverthorn did "fit for royalty," they crafted something that would have made Peter Jackson's set designers open a vein in despair. Somewhere, Vickie suspected, there was a small army of woodcarvers who lived only to sculpt entire tree trunks into art nouveau furniture....

Because this was crafted, not kenned. Those who could change their surroundings with a thought appreciated the work and skill that went into actually making something.

It was a room that seemed designed to lift the heart, full of light and faintly sweet-scented air, and no matter where you looked, your eyes rested on something made purely for delight.

Except, of course, that the one thing that delighted her heart the most was tucked in a bed big enough to host a party right beside her.

"Nice room," Red murmured, and let his head fall back in exhaustion.

Typical Red understatement, she thought with a smile. "Holiday Inn Express," she said deadpan. "We spare no expense around here. Why aren't we dead?"

"It was not your time," an amused, but melodic voice replied from the right.

Kaledir Lossehelin had once been Vic's second-in-command. Now he was the captain of her old troupe. The last time she had seen him, he'd been neatly attired in a suit fit for a Crey agent, acting as her lead bodyguard in New York, ears nicely concealed by a shape-shifting spell.

"Elven platitudes," she said, instinctively pulling the plush golden-velvet counterpane up to her chin. "Why aren't we dead?"

"My apologies, Amber-star," he chuckled. "Did you wish to be? Had we known that, we wouldn't have bothered to restore you both."

"You found us," she murmured. "You saved us... the giants. The dragon! Did you..."

Kaledir nodded. "We arrived in time. Your heroics bought us the time to mobilize. Had they reached the wood, there is no telling how much damage they would have done. Or how many of them might have escaped to fortify in the forest."

It was more than mere damage to the wood he was talking about. It was damage to Robin's reputation. To the ability of his allies to trust in his protection. Trees could be regrown; the loss of dryads, however... and the knowledge that the second most powerful liege-lord Underhill could be attacked in his own stronghold...

"The 'steeds!" she exclaimed then, as her mind flashed from "allies" to "dependants"--

Kaledir held up a hand, and motioned her to lie back. "They are fine, we have seen to them and their wounds, as we have to yours. Amalenar spoke of his bravery and sacrifice--" he motioned to Red "--to our surprise. Odd, such noble behaviour in one of Overhill, is it not?"

She lifted on eyebrow. At the moment, it felt like just about all she could lift. "You, of all people, should know better." She glanced aside, and caressed that beloved face with her gaze." "Sieur Djinn is--a hero."

He gave her a cool look. "I have not forgotten, Amber-star, our last mission to the surface, and the atrocities visited upon our kind. Humans have much to atone for, and I will give quarter to none until they prove themselves to me. As you have."

He smiled, and motioned again to Red. "This one may have merit. His actions this past day have... proven a good beginning."

Red muttered, and opened one eye to glare at Kaledir. "I'm right here, y'know?"

"And the Sidhe are so noted for their chivalry and politeness," she murmured.

"Regardless," Kaledir continued. "I am here to extend to you both, the gratitude of our Liege. It seems Prince Robin holds you in high esteem, Sieur Djinn, and feels justified in your elevation by these recent events. We are to extend to you both every courtesy, until you are well enough to return Overhill."

He bowed, a bit stiffly, turned, and left the room.

"That's it?" Red muttered. "No gift-basket?"

She chuckled weakly. "Every courtesy translates to 'if you want forty naked Circassian slave-girls to feed you candied rose-petals, just tell us when and for how long.'"

Red yawned. "Maybe later, I feel like I could sleep a week."

"Or more." She let her head fall back on the pillow. It felt too heavy to hold up any longer. But her hand groped after his; she wanted to feel it in hers, even through the gloves--

--gloves?

--bless them. Neck to soles, she was covered in what felt like silk. They remembered. They might on occasion be exquisitely rude, but they were also exquisitely sensitive.

He smiled as he felt her hand slide into his.

Not good enough.

He winced as he slid towards her, his body crying out at the exertion. Still, it was well worth it, to feel his arms wrap around her. She sighed, and buried herself into his chest.

"Helluva day, love," he whispered, bending in to kiss the top of her head. "Thanks for showing me Fangorn. Next time, let's take it a bit easier, hmmm? Say... Mount Doom?"

"Never let it be said that I don't know how to show you a good time," she murmured.

"Not too clear on what really went down, I just lost... everything, I suppose. Vaguely remember you next to me at the end... remember you looked so beautiful... and you were telling me... telling me..."

He paused.

"What were you telling me?" he asked.

"That you don't get rid of me that easy," she replied.

He smiled. "Aye, that sounds about right--" he held her closer "--but there was more, wasn't there?"

"Yes," she whispered. "But mostly that I love you."

"You love me..." he sighed, as he finally faded, and drifted to sleep.

She listened to him breathe, listened to the strong, slow beat of his heart. And wondered if she should have told him of the geas after all. Would it have made any difference to him now? But--no. Not if it disturbed his peace even a little. It could wait for now--for a better time.

She opened her eyes, and touched her hand to his cheek--

Her eyes widened as a web of delicate filaments of Power, but dark power, faded into her Sight, settled over both of them. Her power--

--the geas--

There was no trust in that binding. Little trust in him, and none in herself. It was born out of desperation, of the certainty that she would fail, that she could keep no promises that were not enforced.

The net of power shivered--

What?

--it trembled, and started to writhe and spasm, and there was a sense of something screaming. Vic watched, eyes-wide, as it went rigid, shattered... and died--

--no longer alive--because the doubts, the fears, the pain that fueled it were gone.

And her?

--no longer chained by obligation--not when obligation had become love.

--no longer afraid--now that he had helped to show her who she really was.

A gift, a gift given with both hands and an open heart; he had given it to her long ago.

Today, she had given him the same gift in return--and had accepted his. Not reluctantly, not with doubt, nor with any reservations. Freely.

And the dark past fell from her like the withered shreds of a chrysalis, and she nestled in his arms and wept soft tears of purest relief to feel herself released. He murmured something into her hair and tightened his arms around her.

And when the last of her tears were spent, she allowed herself to drift into sleep, finally, at long last...

...home.