Episode 7: In the Forest of Moonlight
In the meantime while they waited for Alistair to wake up, Parker, Snow, Guy and Artemis had done their parts to get ready for the trip to Boonsboro. Well, Artemis mostly complained about them wanting to "go camping," as he put it, until Parker went off on him, pointing out the obvious: the sun would set well before they arrived at the remnants of the city, and they would need all the rest they could get. Since waiting till morning wasn't an option, camping was the way to go. The Warden simply didn't argue after that.
Guy gathered scraps from the area and built a cart he could tow behind him in cheetah form. It would lighten the load for them in general, and allow them to carry anyone who was injured, if it came to that. He tried to convince Snow to let him dismantle her motorcycle for a motor to run it, instead of pulling it himself. Her response: a gun pointed at his head and narrowed eyes, along with the warning, "Try it. See what happens." He had similar luck when he asked Parker for a blender motor instead, the wizard flat out telling him no and asking rhetorically if he knew what Alistair had to do to get it for him in the first place. Guy decided he'd rather not know the answer and settled with his cheetah-powered prototype.
The cart was loaded with tents, sleeping bags, and other assorted gear by the time Alistair came ambling down the steps. He looked as though he'd woken from a fitful sleep, and unsurprisingly he held the side of his head while he walked into the bar. Parker had been keeping a kettle warm for him, knowing he'd want tea. Guy, finished with his project, fixed him a cup while he sat down, reading through the labels to find one suited for headaches. Alistair muttered a thanks when he passed him the cup, but was completely silent while he drank. Hesitantly, Snow was the first to speak to him. "How are you feeling?"
"Like a steam engine has run its course through my head," he told her with a groan. "How long was I unconscious?"
"About three hours."
Alistair wrinkled his nose and rubbed his head again. "Bloody hell..."
"Yes, so," Artemis cut in, clapping his hands. "When you're ready and refreshed, we'll all be on our way to Boonsboro, so..."
"Whoa, wait, hold up!" The conman lifted his head and stared at him in confusion. "Are you off your trolley? Why in the good Lord's name would we want to go to Boonsboro?"
"It's where we think Zacharriah and that kid have been taken," Parker explained. "Where the warlock or the skinwalker or whoever is causing this trouble is."
Alistair turned his gaze to him. "And I repeat, why are we going there?"
"To... save them? Why? Do you have something against saving my grandfather?"
"I should think so, and the brat too! Both of them have shown a certain interest in having me killed, or at least arrested, which -- given Major Updike's typical demeanor -- will probably result in execution anyway." Alistair shook his head and took a gulp of his tea. "If that's what you're all up to, then count me out!"
"Alistair," Parker said through his teeth, trying to keep his temper at bay. "Major Updike said he would drop the charges against you if we do this..."
"And like a daft fool, you believed him, didn't you?" He rolled his eyes. "They can both die for all I care."
"Oh, bugger off! My head still hurts..."
Parker was just about to offer to make his head hurt more, but before he could, Snow put her hand up to stop him, hoping she could change his mind. "Look," she said calmly. "Maybe they don't like you, but what will it hurt you to help save them? Zacharriah may warm up to you if you show up to his rescue, and let's face it: the boy's just a dumb teen. Even if Updike was lying, his son might side with you if he goes back on his word."
"I'm not putting my life on the line for those who wouldn't do the same for me," Alistair said bluntly. "If it were you or Parker, sure; I'm a firm believer in reciprocity. But Old Zacharriah, who'd sooner see me dead and God only knows why he hasn't killed me yet? I think not. I'll stay right here."
"Here's not so safe either," Guy reminded him quietly, trying to stay out of the arguing. "We're all going, and once we leave, who's to say they won't attack the bar again? You'd be all alone to defend yourself."
It was the appeal to logic and not emotion that got to him, and the only thing he couldn't argue against. He'd nearly been taken along with the other two, and Alistair knew there was no way he'd be able to handle another attack on his own. He took another sip of his tea, fingers tight around the handle. "Fine," he finally conceded. "I need to get my dagger back from the brat anyway..."
"Good." Artemis nodded his head with confidence. "So, now we must decide whether to take the main road or the back roads..."
"Main road," Parker interjected. "I'm not dealing with another argument, and it'll be the quickest route. Obvious, but quickest. I'm sure they already know we're coming anyway."
"Right, okay then." Artemis looked a little overwhelmed by this and seemed to be stalling. "I guess we'll go as soon as he's done with his tea then."
"Done," Alistair grumbled. He shot the Warden a glance. "Let's get this show on the road."
Artemis sighed and adjusted his glasses. "Then I guess we leave now."
It was around ten in the evening and just after dark when they decided to set up camp in the woods off the main road. On the way, they'd encountered the remains of a barricade along the old city boarders, which Artemis was very insistent on demolishing with magic. Snow teased him about his over-reliance on spells, but knew it wasn't worth arguing with him over it. Not long thereafter, Guy spontaneously turned human again and was unable to pull the heavily laden cart, leaving Artemis to boast about the usefulness of magic while he made the cart lighter. In general, everyone just ignored him.
Soon enough, tents were pitched and a fire circle built, Parker starting it and putting Alistair in charge of keeping it burning while he and the were-cheetah went hunting for some extra food. "Trail mix might be fine for Mr. Warden over there," the wizard said with grin, nodding towards Artemis while he sat on a rock and munched away. "But I'm looking to cook some real meat. Any luck, we'll find a nice deer. Suitable revenge, I think."
"I just don't like the idea of a fire," Artemis said with a frown. "It's going to draw whatever's out there right to us."
"Oh please!" Snow rolled her eyes, pulling out a pink piece of chalk. "You think I wasn't prepared? Parker, Guy, wait a moment while I put this veil up, so you'll still be able to spot us once you're on the other side." She sent a smirk Artemis' way. "Anyone else will see a plain old patch of open field, sans tents, campfire, and people. Good enough for you?"
The Warden frowned, then stood up. "I think I'll patrol the area, just in case."
"Paranoia, paranoia. Everybody's coming to get me..." Alistair sang under his breath with a smirk. Artemis didn't hear him, but Parker did, somehow managing to hold in his chuckle.
"There," Snow said as she finished the spell. "You're free to go patrol and hunt. I'll stay here with Alistair."
"Awe, thank you, love," he teased, smirking. "I'm sure we'll keep good company by the fire."
It was hard to tell, but she blushed slightly before she edge away from him to the other side of the flames.
"We won't be gone too long," Parker assured them, leaving with Guy in cheetah form in one direction while Artemis left in the other.
The first few minutes alone by the campfire passed in awkward silence. Alistair still wanted to ask her about her reaction to him the other day, but with her moving to the far side of the fire from him, he wondered if she would even be open to listen. Getting the kettle to have an excuse to talk to her, he almost brought it up, but instead only asked if she could conjure up some water for tea. He felt stupid for not mentioning it then, but returned to his place once the kettle was filled, setting it on the flames to come to a boil.
Maybe it would be better to bring it up with the others around anyway.
Several more minutes later and there was a shrill whistle from the direction Artemis had gone. Snow was immediately on her feet, drawing her wand as she stood. Alistair was slower to rise, unsure of what was going on. "What was that?"
"A warning," she said, looking around. "He's spotted something."
On the other side, perched in a tree and waiting for prey, Parker heard the whistle too, right around the same time Guy became restless on the ground. It was dark out, but with both the Warden and the cheetah's warnings, he knew he had to keep a sharp eye out for danger.
And then, there it was: from out of the woods appeared two large wolves, each one nearly as big as the were-cheetah and twice as ferocious. Their eyes shone with unnatural light, and they didn't hesitate to rush in and attack.
Parker primed his bow and fired a shot into the leg of one, wounding it just as it tried to get at him up in his tree. He adjusted his position to be further up and readied another shot. "Never eaten dog before, but I guess now's as good a time as any to try it."
On the ground, Guy nimbly dodged the second wolf before turning around and pouncing right back, slashing through the beast's back with his claws. It howled in fury and tried to shake him off, only making his claws dig deeper.
Inside the circle, Alistair drew his sword.
"Don't," Snow warned, pointing her wand at him. "If you step out of the circle, the veil will drop and they'll know we're here. If they need our help, fine, but let's play it safe for now."
He stared at her, then back out into the fighting. He knew Parker could hold his own, and Guy had done fine in the fights before, but what he'd said to them before they'd left the bar was nagging at him. He had said if it was Parker's life on the line, it would be a different story, and there was no telling how many more wolves there were that they couldn't see. It wasn't the fact that Parker was potentially in danger that bothered him so much as it was being true to his word and a loyal ally. So, Alistair re-sheathed his sword, but once again turned to Snow, this time with a rueful smile.
"Sorry, love," he said to her. "But I can't just sit back and watch." He started towards the edge of the circle. "Oh, and cover your ears. Just in case." He didn't give her a chance to protest, hurrying out into the darkness in the direction Parker and Guy had gone.
It was too dark to see much of anything except for the vague outlines of trees and the glowing eyes of the wolves, but with the veil broken (thanks to his exit), there was at least faint light from the fire. Alistair braced himself. It'd had been a while since he'd done this.
"Weep not for roads untraveled," the siren sang, his voice taking on that subtly lilt. "Weep not for paths left alone..." When both wolves stopped momentarily, their ears turning back towards him, he knew he'd gotten to them. Unfortunately, Guy's ears perked up too, and he could only hope the were-cheetah would fight off the enchantment and stay focused. He knew Parker would be fine.
Not sure what he was doing, only barely able to hear his song, Snow nevertheless took the opportunity of the wolves' hesitation to whip up a spell. Silently, she swirled her wand above her in the air, conjuring up a freezing whirlwind that set upon the beasts. The small tornado caught up one of the wolves in its frigid winds, tossing it about and slamming it into a tree with an audible crack before the spell dissipated. Snow clutched her head in pain, not used to putting such effort into a casting, and wondered if she'd be able to pull off a spell like that again. She hoped she wouldn't have to, but no sooner had she eased some of her migraine did she hear a scream from the opposite direction.
Running as fast as he could, Artemis would have been a hysterical sight to see if it weren't for the two wolves chasing behind him. He didn't even question why the veil was down, skidding to a stop within the circle and nearly tumbling over as he whirled around and placed one hand on the chalk, the other behind him.
"Sorry Snow," he said quickly, the pink outline suddenly turning red. "I need to use this." Flames flicked up from the campfire and moved like fluid towards his other hand, and just as the wolves closed in, Artemis touched the fire to the chalk circle. A wall of flames shoot up around them, and one of the wolves didn't stop in time, yelping as its fur was singed.
Outside the ring of fire, Parker, unaffected by Alistair's song, made the branches of the tree Snow had slammed the wolf into wrap around the creature and squeeze. The spell managed to crush it some, but the wolf was uncannily nimble and squeezed free. Unable to reach the wizard, it launched itself at its original target, biting into Guy's side with its razor sharp teeth. The cheetah growled, but missed as he slashed at it again.
Meanwhile, the wolf that had first tried to climb the tree shook the enchanting song just enough to realize its source and turned on Alistair. Luckily for the siren, he was prepared for retaliation and moved out of the way before the wolf could land a strike. Unshaken, he continued his song. "...'Cause the love that you lost wasn't worth what it cost..."
The wolves eyes glossed as the song took effect again.
"Fuck this," Snow growled, switching hands and drawing her gun. The wolf attacking Guy was wounded enough, and all it took was one shot to put the beast out of its misery. Artemis jumped and looked at her questioningly, but turned his focus back on the wolves that had followed him and were trying to figure out how to get past his barrier.
"It's your turn motherfucker," Parker shouted, spotting the wolf that had attacked Alistair. Like the first, he used plants to engulf this one, summoning vines to envelop the wolf while it was distracted by the song. Thorns shredded through its fur and flesh, but the pain allowed it to shake the enchantment again, and as soon as it had freed itself of the bush, it went for the singer once more. Alistair was less lucky this time, only just avoiding the wolf's vicious bite, but he couldn't maintain his singing anymore with the direct assault. He drew his sword and tried to attack in return, but was too off-balance and missed entirely.
One of the other two wolves gave up on the two within the fiery barrier, drawn like the rest towards Alistair's song. It saw the cheetah before it saw the singer, and ran to tear at Guy, but missed as the feline leapt out of the way. The other, however, decided to brave the flames, overcoming both the siren's call and fire, jumping into the camp with a ferocious growl. Artemis' eyes widened and he backed into Snow, waving his hands for a quick spell. The wolf made a horrified, disgusting sound as its body suddenly crumpled, imploding in on itself before crashing at the Warden's feet in a compact (albeit bloody) heap. He wrinkled his nose at it and cast it out of the camp with another hasty spell, but still turned to Snow with a smirk. "Bit more effective than a gun, huh?"
She snarled at him, already switching back to her wand and unwilling to comment as she hurled her standby frost spell at the wolf attacking Guy, freezing it in place. Leaving that wolf for the others to finish, the cheetah sprinted towards the one attacking Alistair, pouncing and successfully latching onto its throat, shaking and tearing until the monster stopped moving. In his tree, Parker drew another arrow, charged it with lightning, and finished off the remaining wolf, shattering it with a decisive strike.
With all the threats gone, Alistair let out a sigh of relief and patted his sides. "Whew, no injuries this time."
"And no bodies." Parker tucked his bow away and looked down from his perch in the tree. "Looks like these were fae creatures and went back from whence they came after we slaughtered them. Too bad. I was kinda looking forward to some variety for dinner." With flourish, he hopped down from the tree, seeming to land fine until he stumbled and cursed under his breath. He'd twisted his ankle. "Fils de garce!"
"At least you brought your bourbon," Alistair teased him as Guy joined them and they returned to camp. Artemis had dispelled his fire and Snow was sitting, rubbing her temples. The siren decided to take the chance and sat down beside her. "Would you like some tea for your head, love? You look like I did this afternoon."
"That would be nice," Snow said with a light smile. "I'm surprised smart-ass over there isn't having migraines too. Though he probably did more running than spell-casting." She sent the Warden a bit of a sneer. "Thanks for bringing more our way."
"I warned you first, didn't I?" Artemis turned from finishing removing the spell, brushing his hands off. "I knew you were capable, though that reminds me." He looked over his glasses at Alistair. "Interesting thing you did there, with your singing."
The siren grinned widely. "A bit more than mortal, aren't I? And here you thought I shouldn't be let in on anything, despite my magic heritage, because I mostly appear mortal..."
"Well, minor talent or not, you're still hardly anything of consequence to most in the magical community."
Alistair snorted, his smile abruptly becoming a frown. "Tell that to those vultures who keep trying to scoop me up. I don't think it's random that I've been targeted by them on three occasions now."
Artemis pressed his lips thin in thought. "Yes, that is strange..."
"Stranger things have happened."
The voice was not one of theirs, and everyone was on edge as a creature approached the campsite. The cat was smaller than the wolves, but still unnaturally large, and it planted itself beside the fire opposite them. Its fur was a dark shade of gray, and its blue eyes were almost human, but more disturbingly it seemed to smile as it spoke again. "What is sought is most often found, if it is truly sought. I'm here to help."