Fields of golden wheat stretch in every direction from the small group, save two opposite compass points between which runs the wide dirt road that they walk upon. The sky is empty of clouds, the horizon unmarred except for the dot of what might be a farmhouse and there is absolutely nothing else to see. The whole world looks to be divided in two colors, gold-brown or blue.
Teal looks half-asleep inside her open helm, but manages to speak loud enough for the others behind her to hear as she marches at a steady pace, “If anyone so much as asks whether we are there yet for the entirety of this trip, I will first hit you and second feel no remorse for doing so.”
Rolf smiles and speaks from his position directly behind her, “Miss Teal, I am a traveler by profession. If anything yer added company makes this more enjoyable than I am usually permitted.” A small table floats in the air in front of him as he walks, upon which sits a notebook and a mismatched set of beakers, tubes and bottles full of various churning, bubbling or smoking liquids. He alternates between mixing the liquids, watching the results and noting down reactions by tapping the notebook pages and causing words to appear, though nothing interrupts his taking quick glances every now and then at Teal's backside.
The Drunk nods from his position at the rear of the party, “Aye lass, you will hear no complaints from me either, nor the boy.” Sorrow is riding the Drunk piggyback style, and looks to be asleep. The leash to Talls and Shorty's rope-bound hands is also in the Drunk's care, and they trudge onward under his not-so-watchful eye. Talls shakes a fist at Teal's back.
“I don't care when we get to Goldenburg, the longer it takes the better! I can't believe the missus and I's honeymoon trip is walking ourselves to a jail cell, you Tall Folk have no shame!” Shorty blushes a rosy red at Talls' mention of 'the missus' and looks down at the ground with a smile she can't hide.
Teal spins around to confront Talls, causing Rolf to step aside and pretend he wasn't looking at her, “If you're tired of walking we can end this right here!” Her broken maul handle is already in her hand and she raises it as a threat to the Small Folk bandit, “I am fully qualified to be the judge, jury and executioner of a hostage taker! We all know you did it, we have two witnesses and the maximum punishment is very simple to - !”
“In Light's name, be at peace.” A white glow washes over Teal and she pauses to look down at Klax, who holds a hand up in front of her. He speaks as if nothing just happened, “As for me, my ministry work takes me to many places without a local rift circle. I too am no stranger to a long road, though I am not the equal of the Drunk.
“Klax, do not cast your magics upon me.” The calming spell seems to have had little effect on her mood but Teal does re-holster her maul-club. She turns forward again and continues marching, “We're wasting time people, move!”
The sun is farther along in the sky now, perhaps only a few hours from going down below the brown-gold horizon, and Teal appears haggard as she talks to herself in a quite monotone, “A paladin is tireless. A paladin is tireless. A paladin is tireless.” She glances up at Rolf, walking slightly ahead of her and engrossed in an old tome. “Rolf, you've been awake nearly as long as me, how are you still doing fine?”
Rolf looks back at her, his eyes somewhat blood-shot and his smile a little too wide, “Alchemy! I mixed up a batch of slow-acting stimulant, though I've already used them all, but for ye I would happily craft some more!” Teal considers his offer but shakes her head and returns to her mantra.
“A paladin is tireless. A paladin is tireless. A paladin is - .” She looks up again, where a ways in front of her the Drunk walks with Sorrow sitting upright and alert on one shoulder, Shorty the orc bandit perched on his other shoulder and a sleeping Talls in the crook of his arm. Sorrow keeps watch from his high position while the Drunk can be heard humming something cheery. Teal grimaces, “Show off.”
“He's really very fascinating, don't ye think?” Rolf leans closer to Teal, his eyes darting between her and the Drunk, “Doesn't seem to tire or injure, no apparent sense of shame or care for his appearance, and I doubt there is any creature stronger. I think he may be some sort of magical automaton, or perhaps a body propelled by raw positive forces.”
Klax speaks up from near their midriffs, “The Drunk is no construct, but there is some magic in his body. I have seen him bleed only once before, and when I treated him with Light's blessings I sensed a little of it, but the spell is far too intricate for me to understand.”
“Fascinating!” Rolf stares greedily at the Drunk as he speaks now to Klax, “Do ye think … could ye convince him to allow me to study the spell's nucleus?”
Klax shrugs, “I could ask him, but I warn you, even my master found it puzzling. It is far advanced, I doubt a mage of our era could understand it, let alone have created it.” Klax closes his eyes and puts his hands over his heart, “Light counsels me to trust the Drunk when he says he is very old, so perhaps that is not too strange.”
Rolf stares off in thought, “Another era?” After a moment he shakes his head, “No, there is nothing people of one age can do that people of another age cannot. Magic is sometimes lost but always reveals itself to the studious, therefore anything possible through magic can and will be discovered by those who give the proper effort.”
Teal mumbles, “You know, the Red Dragon makes mention of a man like the Drunk in his journals.” Both Rolf and Klax turn to her in surprise, their attention causing Teal to explain herself with a scowl, “I was once interested in learning about the Dragons and their adventures, and the Red Dragon's accounts are by far the most detailed.”
Rolf rolls a finger forward for Teal to continue, “Yes but Teal, how did ye read them? Shouldn't they be locked up somewhere?”
“Those attending the Paladin academy are given access to the Royal Library. They're basically neighboring wings of the palace, so we would do our studies there.”
Rolf sighs, then wipes his hands on his coat before returning the old tome to his pack, “What I wouldn't give for such access! I make do with what tomes are kept by the Rift Mage chapter-houses, but the selection is limited by level and I doubt even the top levels have such treasures.”
Teal nods, “That's right, I noticed you had rift magic. What is your license classification?” She scowls at Rolf, “You do have a license, correct?”
“Of course miss Teal! I am but a lowly first circle, mostly to supplement my income, though the real coin to be had is in becoming a second circle member. I am nearly there myself.”
“Nearly second circle?” Teal studies Rolf's eyes for a lie, “I had not thought you an older man, but I suppose that would be easy for you to hide.”
“Miss Teal, ye wound me! I do not alter my age,” Rolf walks a little taller as he grins at Teal, “Actually, I am somewhat gifted with magic of many kinds. I would be second circle by now if the old men were not forcing me to go slow.” He looks down to Klax, “So I do believe I could learn a little from studying the nucleus of the drunkard's magic, if ye would be so kind as to bring up the idea with him.”
“I will ask. But in Light's name please, call him the Drunk, he prefers that.” Klax's plaintive request is received with some hesitancy, until Rolf sighs and puts his hands up in defeat.
The ruddy sun now sits mostly hidden by the horizon as dusk and gloom sets in. The Drunk still walks cheerfully onward, but now a long and groaning fence board rests across his large shoulders. Everyone else is riding atop it, with Klax and Sorrow as the two lightest on the ends, Talls and Shorty huddled together to his right and an awkward Teal and Rolf to his left. Teal pats the Drunk on the head.
“This will help us greatly, if you can walk through the night we will surely arrive with the sun.”
“Aye lass, but so little sleep would leave me befuddled. Still, I think,” the Drunk sniffs at the air, “yes, I believe something good lays near. A place to get a little shut eye.” Spying a small copse of trees at the edge of a field he alters his course for them, leaving the road and trudging through a patch of still-green pumpkin plants. Teal begins patting his shaggy head more roughly, her eyes wide.
“What are you doing? This is private property, we can't just walk through - !” She holds tight to the fence post board as the Drunk sets off at a trot, causing the board to sway more violently. Rolf wraps his arms around Teal's torso, only pretending like he might fall off any moment, while the others all find their own way to become more secure: Klax takes a death grip face-down against the board, Sorrow remains sitting but holds on tighter with his feet, Talls grabs hold of Shorty and she leans close to the more-stable center-point of the post.
The pumpkins around them are meanwhile growing riper the closer they get to the trees, and noticeably larger. Soon the Drunk is weaving through pumpkins that rise above his waist, while in front of them and nearly inside the close-set trees the pumpkins are almost as large as a full-grown man. Without any warning for his riders the Drunk reaches up and twirls the board around to rest only on one shoulder, so that now everyone is traveling sideways. A large shimmering curtain in the air seems to open in front of him and he carries everyone through at a run, to what is suddenly a forest of ancient trees dappled with moonlight and lit by a few paper lanterns in the shape of pumpkins.
The Drunk breathes deep, then grunts a little as he sets the fence post down on the ground and flops against a tree with a tired sigh, “No more from me. Someone greet our host in my stead, I would like to rest.” Without another word he appears to fall asleep on the spot, huddled up inside his furs as short airy snores soon whistle out through his nose at regular intervals.
Teal stares around them, “Where are we? Where did we go?”
“We are in a fey garden miss Teal.” Sorrow's matter-of-fact tone still manages to make her eyes widen, and he continues in the same way. “They sometimes appear to weary or endangered travelers, and Father has a knack for finding them.”
Rolf raises his eyebrows, “I've never seen anything like this … though I do tend to plan my routes to stay at inns or way stations.”
“I've been in something like this before.” Klax's voice has a slight tremor and his face appears pale, “I was trapped within a sunlit hedgerow maze for what felt like several hours, where before I had been seeking shelter from a bone-chilling rain. The maze seemed to change when I wasn't looking, but with Light's guidance I finally escaped.”
Sorrow nods, “One can become trapped for days or weeks inside a fey garden.”
Teal takes hold of Sorrow's shoulders, “We don't have days or weeks!” Her voice is an angry whisper and she bites her lip in desperation, “We need to get to Goldenburg!”
He nods again, “If we all introduce ourselves to the host, he or she will not allow us to be lost.” Sorrow looks around and speaks as if to someone listening behind the trees, “Greetings honored host, I am Sorrow and my father here is the Drunk.” He looks to Teal, waiting, and she lets go of him to speak.
“I am Teal, daughter of Olivia and Julius.”
Rolf steps forward, but then doesn't seem to know where he should direct his voice so takes another step closer to Teal, “I am Rolf honored host, a simple traveling merchant.”
Klax's voice is a bit shrill but he speaks all the same, “I am Klax, priest of Light!”
Everyone now stares at Talls and Shorty, waiting on them, and finally the Small Folk bandit speaks, “I'm Talls and this is my wife Shorty, sir … or madam.”
“Welcome weary travelers!” The voice from above causes everyone but Sorrow to jump, then they all look up as a man in a dapper black suit and with a pumpkin for a head lowers down from a hanging vine. He energetically shakes each of their hands in the order they introduced themselves – except for the Drunk, whom he bows to – before anyone can say a word. “Welcome, I am the Jack-O-Lantern King. May I take your coats? Armor? Weapons?” His eyes, empty holes from which a solitary candle glimmers, crinkle at the corners as he looks to Klax. “Your faith? Your fear? I can take anything you don't need while staying here, and you can leave it behind when you go, if you wish.” Klax whimpers and shakes his head.
Sorrow bows to the Jack-O-Lantern King, “Honored host, we wish to be on the road again when the sun rises, in the same place that we entered your garden, and until then we wish to rest peacefully.” A sheet of paper and a vine-shaped quill appear in the Jack-O-Lantern King's hands, and he starts taking notes. “These two,” Sorrow points to Talls and Shorty, “are prisoners and should not be granted requests, but the others may have something they wish for. I need nothing more.” The Jack-O-Lantern King nods and turns to Teal, while Sorrow walks over to where the Drunk is sleeping and sits at his feet to begin removing his knives and armor.
Teal coughs a little, “Honored host, I need sleep badly, but I am unsure. If I ask you to keep my armor safe, will it be returned to me in the same condition when we leave?” The jagged mouth of the pumpkin curls into a smile and the Jack-O-Lantern King nods, and so she begins removing her armor as well. Rolf looks excited for a moment, but when she succeeds at undoing the several clasps up one side and lifts the torso section up over her head she is wearing a simple woolen coat underneath. The other parts of her bark armor consist of her arm shield, two jointed arm segments, one large hip section and finally a jointed segment from each leg; she keeps her bark gauntlets. Everything else is handed to the Jack-O-Lantern King, who effortlessly balances it all in the palm of one long-fingered claw. Teal waits, broken-maul club held in her hand, her warrior-woman physique more apparent out of her armor.
The Jack-O-Lantern King turns to Rolf, who is looking at Teal and appearing to like what he sees; the King taps his quill against the paper, “Anything for you traveler? Food? Drink? A creature from another plane who will fulfill your every desire in exchange for your soul?”
Rolf speaks without thinking, “A bed and a romantic fire for Teal and I.” The Jack-O-Lantern King nods and another curtain in the air closes between them, cutting Teal and Rolf off from the others as the forest seems to warp and shift around them. An orange bed grows up from the earth as a roaring fire appears in the hollow of a blackened tree. Rolf blinks, “Oh, did I say that out loud?”
Teal sighs, “Rolf … no. Just no.”
“But miss Teal, ye said yerself there was something between us, some attraction!” Rolf is removing his traveler's backpack, and his long coat of many pockets shifts to something like woolen bedclothes. The light from within his body seems to brighten as he leans closer to Teal, “Nothing need happen this night, we can simply sleep in this lovely bed and be warm - .”
“The bed is yours, you did ask for it after all. I will take the ground by the fire.”
“But miss Teal - !”
Teal holds up her hand to stop him, “Rolf, your fiancé may very well be dead, and she was my close friend. I will not sully that. Yes I felt something when I first met you, but then you propositioned me only moments before you would have died and just after being revealed as a shape-shifter. My initial feelings no longer matter.”
“Surely ye would not dismiss me because I am a shape-shifter?”
“I will, because I know a little of your kind from Reina. Your kind pairs each shape-shifter with another at your fifth birthday, the marriage arranged and planned for even if the parents of either should be killed, the promise held sacred by friends and family no matter the future circumstances. In other words Rolf, you were cheating on that promise by propositioning me. I declare myself no longer attracted to you!” She points her broken maul club at him, “Not because you are a shape-shifter, nor because you lied to me. Because you are an oath-breaker.”
And with that she lays down on the ground, arms crossed, club held tight in one gauntlet-covered hand. Rolf's glow weakens and he turns away from her to lay down in the bed.