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Chapter 85 - Only the most skilled can catch stow-away fever.
Their Blankets of Haste hummed warmly as they rode on towards Oranje's armada of mega-canoes docked at Shady Side. Colonel Glowfist and Roxy Tripfoot had weaved those blankets well, despite their frank personal discussion the night before.
It was just like old times – riding on donkeys towards some vast danger that the King would inevitably get the better of through quick thinking, the bravest of hearts and just a little luck. Only they weren't on donkeys because there hadn't been any around so the King tamed some brown bears that had been hanging around the White Roost by staring directly into their eyes and mouthing the saddest words he knew at them.
No bear was comfortable carrying Colonel Glowfist so he summoned up his usual pair of Awesome Horses from whichever hellish, forsaken scrub of reality that demon horses come from. Again, just like the old days when all they wanted was the death of Winter and to be back home, feasting their pants off, before Christmas. But five winters had passed since the King had hatched his crazy, beautiful scheme and the Adventure Team, who had been winnowed and thickened considerably since, sometimes felt that they were further away from their noble goal than they had ever been. But all that kind of negativity was going to turn upside down. They were going to find Oranje – inarguably the source of all these distractions they kept suffering – and they were going to put a stop to her infuriating, irrational schemes once and for all. It felt good for them to be getting back on track, even the newcomers like Cajun and Astrid and Scruff, because they were getting pretty in-tune with everyone's feelings.
Speaking of feelings, there was, among the group, a bit of puzzlement over how they were going to defeat or even slightly impede the United States invasion force, which was pretty big and armed with the most cutting-edge Smith Dynasty brand weapons and gear. The Adventure Team was made up of a bunch of awesome guys and ladies, sure, but with their heaviest hitters, Axe and Ba'al, out of action...
But the King smiled at their doubts and touched his nose with his finger in a friendly way. He had a plan! Of course he had a plan. They could trust the King to come up with something cool any time. It was as if the giant defeat they had just suffered wasn't so bad. They did beat the President, didn't they? Doesn't that count for something? It did, they agreed.
The King's plan was to be sneaky. The Adventure Team hadn't been too good at being sneaky since Sally Minefield had died, and even before that there weren't a whole lot of situations where stealth was necessarily a better option than brute force. But this was definitely one of those situations. They couldn't just go right out and attack the United Statsian troops as they boarded their megacanoes, but they could sneakily disguise themselves, stow away on the boats and find a way to slow the armada's passage and give the Angel Cowboy and his guys all the time they needed to get to Europe and set up their defence force or whatever. So that's what they did.
Cajun was the lynchpin of the King's plan. He'd been given loads of spooky dragontech goodies to field-test, remember, and he had enough of those very goodies stashed in his inventory to go around. Cajun had also recently defected from the CIA, which had been his family and provider since his awkward teenage years. They had taught him kickboxing and the mystical craft of the shaman. They had taught him how to live off the land, win arguments, blackmail homosexuals and sell dangerous herbs and medicines to poor people in order to influence statistics. Now he was without a tribe, without an assignment and without a run-down apartment in the immigrant part of town, owned by the Company, where he could watch bad TV until it was time to kill someone. He had explained all of this to the King shortly before they had set out for the coast that morning. The King had put his remaining wooden hand on Cajun's shoulder and so much understanding and empathy flowed from his hand into Cajun's ex-Company heart. The King stared directly into his eyes and mouthed the saddest words he knew at him. Cajun decided then that the King, who he had been spying on and following around for his entire adult life, was really more like a family than the stupid old Company had ever been, so he pledged allegiance to him then and there before saddling up his bear and moving out. There was no time for initiating the Circle Of European Dajhata but it was implied that it would happen soon.
And so they ditched the bears in an empty parking lot and Cajun used his skinwalker suits to disguise himself, Bernadetta Leathervest and Colonel Glowfist as bison then lent his invisibility cloak to Roxy Tripfoot and his spare invisibility cloak to Astrid Gimmerleck. He had enough dream-root to dust down David and Scruff completely. Once dusted, everything David did or said would sound weird, out of synch, sexual or all of the above. No one would believe he was there and after a while they'd just ignore him entirely. Axe Axewound, who could still not move or really even talk or stay awake for too long, and who was paraded around at all times by his ever-noisy, ever-smelly, ever-conspicuous army of forest animals, presented a different kind of challenge altogether. It was unlikely that his entourage would even fit on a megacanoe, never mind remain undetected for the months they would spend at sea. But Cajun's toys were up to the task. The King had gone over all of this with him beforehand, so they knew what they were doing. Cajun crouched down on the tarmac of the parking lot and carefully measured out a near-perfect circle with a stub of gypsum. Then he pulled his spooky portal gun out of his inventory and fired a bright orange hole into the marked-out ground. An eerie, unearthly buzzing and a foul smell came from within. There was an abstract sensation that suggested a vast, complex intelligence scratching around down there. The eyes of everyone present began to water. The hair stood up on their arms and necks.
“You're all going don that hole!” said the King, cheerfully, to the forest animals and the unconscious Axe Axewound. Astrid leaned over the orange portal and peered inside. When she looked into it head-on, her retinas were burned by the orange light. But if she turned her head and tried to see inside with her peripheral vision, she could make out dark shapes writhing in a mocking exaggeration of nonchalance. They didn't want to draw too much attention to themselves, those shapes.
“Is it safe? I can't see what's in there.” she said. The King had already dropped an armful of hedgehogs into the orange dish.
“This is the only way,” he hummed. That wasn't an answer in any way to Astrid's question but hey, he was the King. Less questions, more doing what he says, please.
They all helped to push, shove, persuade, force and throw the animal friends into the hole. It took quite a while. Finally, they tipped Axe Axewound, his pallet and all into it and then, with a flick of a switch on Cajun's gun, the portal shrank and condensed into a translucent orange orb the size of a cricket ball. The orb lifted from the ground and drifted up into the air, where the King caught it and put it in an old coffee tin for safekeeping. He looked at Astrid and smiled. Chill out, said the smile. I just put your boyfriend and a few thousand animals in a coffee tin but that kind of thing happens all the time around me. I'm the King. I've got a plan.
The last person who needed to be disguised was the King himself. For him, Cajun used some of the ceremonial warpaint he used for special occasions to paint the King up so that he looked like a native United Statsian. They found some old plastic bin bags which they cut up into strips and turned into a wig. Everything was pretty much ready. The King led the way with his three bison in tow and the invisible ladies tiptoeing at his flanks. David and Scruff, incomprehensible, brought up the rear. In this procession, they left the parking lot and, after a short hike, made it to the harbour. There they found an armada of a truly troubling size preparing to set sail from the shores of the United States to bring unending conquest and darkness down upon gentle Europe. Heading up the invasion, standing tall and resolute amongst the bustle and the many hands, was Oranje. They could see the hate in her eyes from any distance. They King took a deep breath and approached her.
“Excuse me, Ma'am.” he said and bowed. “These heads of bison strayed free this morning. I have retrieved them.” She was not very interested.
“Good work, we'll need every last one. Put them with the others.” she said, looking over the bison-forms of Colonel Glowfist, Bernadetta Leathervest and Cajun. Then she looked at her son, but what she saw instead was her dead mother jerking off a camel. She blinked and frowned and went to do something else.
The King turned and winked at his Adventure Friends. They were in! Now the fun could really begin.
End Of Chapter 85
Chapter 84 - We sat up all night weaving blankets and reflecting on the early part of our lives.
Colonel Glowfist yawned and rubbed his eyes. He looked down at the Blanket Of Haste he'd been weaving. The problem with crafting a magical artefact was that all of your magicalness went into the thing you were making and there wasn't enough slack left over to cast spells like, for instance, Stay Awake All Night or maybe Roxy Love Me Please. Roxy was sitting there on the other side of the wagon, weaving her own Blanket of Haste. It wouldn't be as good as Colonel Glowfist's one because he had a lot more magicalness that Roxy, but they would all be in a giant hurry in the morning and any kind of boost would be needed. Roxy looked up at Colonel Glowfist and smiled sweetly, but then looked away, embarrassed.
“You're not looking so good,” she said into the corner of the wagon. He didn't look at her. What she had said was true. A year or so of travelling, on foot, through the heartland of the United States had not been kind to Colonel Glowfist. Not much had been kind to Colonel Glowfist in the past few years. Right now, he really was a sorry sight. His skin was mottled and scoured and magenta from layer after layer of deep sunburn. In addition to the hidden depths of bad hygiene mentioned earlier, he had lank and gritty hair, horny talons for fingernails, a few missing teeth and the worst breath you've smelled in a long time. The rags that had been tied around his body when he'd first become all fat had disintegrated years before, but he'd found new rags and tied them around the exact same parts of his body as the old ones, like a badge or a costume. When you take into account his titanic weight and the stubborn little goatee that had suited him so well as a thin man, he did not look like the kind of person who could possibly be loved.
“I suppose we can't all ride in luxury with Mr. Big Shot Smith,” said Colonel Glowfist, concentrating fiercely on the weaving.
“That's not what I meant and you know it. I worried about you, Colonel. One of the most powerful magicians in all of Europe and you cannot even keep yourself presentable? Cannot magic up a shower or a haircut? You want to be like this. You're letting yourself go on purpose.” she said, evenly. Colonel Glowfist stayed with his blanket-making and the accusation hung in the air for at least a minute. This was just like high school.
Archmages are like Kings – they are born into their profession. But unlike Kings, which are simply a force of Nature, you've got to put a lot of thought, planning and time into making an archmage happen. Here's how it goes: First, a team of wizards labours night and day for a month or more to conjure up a batch of incredibly magical seed. This is then very carefully loaded into the wise old testicles of the most senior wizard of the team, who then drives around all night in his car looking for the sweetest chick in town. He's under a lot of pressure to find that chick because he only has a few hours before body absorbs the highly magical seed and he explodes into a fine mist of gore, bone fragments and raw magic – so he does absolutely everything he can to look his best. He will slick back his hair with pomade, shave off his wise old beard, whiten his teeth, apply a full gallon of cologne to his chest and arms, wax his back, wear the clothes that suited him well when he was still in his twenties and he'll put on dark glasses and at least one earring.
Once he's found a chick who is groovy enough to go, he'll tell her to hop in his car and then he'll have her sign some papers over some milkshakes and a burger and then afterwards they'll make an archmage right there in the back seat of his car. That is the normal procedure and no Archmage Creation Committee has ever been known to deviate from it. It is unknown what the result would be if, for instance, sodas were drunk instead of milkshakes, or if both parents were wizards rather than the traditional male wizard / female normal person match-up. This kind of variant has been discussed by many Archmage Creation Committees across Europe, but since all female wizards are painfully unattractive (with the exception of the evil ones, of course), the suggestion normally gets shouted down by the most senior wizard in attendance.
And so Colonel Glowfist was made in the usual way that archmagi were made and was born a usual archmage. 'Usual,' when applied to a baby archmage, really meant, 'roughly analagous to the dozen or so other archmagi scattered across Europe,' which is a difficult thing to determine as they were of all different ages, different genders, (archmagi are more likely to be born hermaphrodites or as the mysterious, unnamed fourth gender than normal people) and of different moral alignments. Most archmagi came out of adolescence being Good or Good Enough, but Evil archmagi were statistically consistent to the point where the rite-of-passage of a clutch of similarly aged emerging archmagi was expected to be the thwarting of whichever grumpy old evil archmage that was making life difficult for everybody at the time. This is probably because Archmage Creation Committees weren't what you might call regulated. Magic in Medieval times was really something of a free-for-all.
Baby archmagi were socialised among other, normal babies before they were yanked from society and made to spend the majority of their prepubescence being intensely home-schooled by the team of wizards that made them. The schooling was harsh and unrelenting, but the young archmage was looked after by its mother, who was invariably better with all the maintenance and icky stuff that childcare demands, but who was quite often killed off by the wizards when she started asking too many questions or threatened to take the child away from 'you demented old men,' or brought up the matter of those papers she had signed once too often.
Archmagi children were considered to be fully versed in the broad spectrum of magical arts by the time they hit puberty. The rest of their training would be a long exercise in restraint peppered with gruelling practice sessions and experience sinks. They are ushered from the quiet intensity of home schooling into a regular high school, with teens and issues and everything, where they learn whatever it is that is considered useful to know and are expected to mix with the other kids and make friends and experience a few issues of their own, but they are on no condition allowed to use magic for any purpose at all ever. The only magic allowed is magic that is done at home as part of the experience-boosting evening classes that run every day except Sunday. They are also not allowed to tell any of their classmates about the extreme magicalness they enjoy when not in school. They have to act and solve problems exactly how a non-magical chump would. Any breach of this rule will lead directly to the archmage being swiftly and decisively moved to a different school and losing all of their friends and social progress. This whole high school thing was inevitably a pretty awkward phase for the archmage in question, but when it came to graduation time things got real cool real fast. After a big party whereupon the archmage can finally show off all of their great powers to their friends in one giant display, their presence is announced to the courts and the King puts their name on a special list. Then the archmage was expected to wander Europe and her outskirts for any number of years, sometimes with a teacher or two, or a few friends and crushes from high school. They'll travel around righting wrongs, settling disputes, saving harvests from monsters, solving mysteries, letting the archmage specialise in their favourite kind of magic and always, of course, taking the time to level up. This will go on until the archmage settles down into some prominent role in local government, sets up or joins a wizardly academy, or goes bad and builds a freaky-ass castle up on a mountainside and makes a legion or two of monsters and spends an awful lot of time and energy by kidnapping young girls for various ends. This last one is quite rare but it still happens. Of course, the archmage may well have died before they even think of settling down. They are still killable, despite their incredible magicalness, though they can be a bit tricky on the matter of staying dead. The archmage may choose to just go on wandering, accumulating adventures and apprentices and loot at whatever pace they choose, always on the go, a force that alters lives as it passes, always just about to drift through town.
So Colonel Glowfist was a usual kind of archmage. Here's how he fits into the pattern established above: Okay. His father was Snakeskin Charpentier, a grand and powerful old Wood Wizard who had once helped the King's father on a minor-to-medium level quest to find, in the dark forest of Arduenna, a golden belt buckle of unusual size, the significance and ownership of which has escaped the attentions of the tales. His mother was a teenager when she first encountered Snakeskin, working at a roadside pancake restaurant. Her name was Dot. She jumped into his father's car with a mind to credibly distance herself from her lazy, depressing husband who had, until just a few months previously, been her high school sweetheart and the truest love she had known. Before she knew what was going on, she'd been relocated to a little villa outside of Brussels that was quite pleasant until she realised that the was a gang of old wizards living in the basement who fully intended to run her life from that point onwards and that the man whose car she had hopped into the night before was really kind of gross-looking when he wasn't wearing his suit, dark glasses and earring. The early days were pretty tense, as you might imagine the average kidnapping would be, but as her pregnancy developed and she got to know her wizard captors, she began to get used to them and their constant check-ups and revisions to her dietary scheme. But the time little Glowfist came along, with his adorable little moon face and his pudgy little toesy woesies, anyone in the villa who wasn't friends with everyone else already was united in the common belief that babies were cute and surprising and awesome.
Though it took some time to get that way, little Glowfist grew up in a home that as loving and stable as it was odd. His mother was not offed by the Archmage Creation Committee that watched over them, even though they would sometimes bring the idea up in hushed tones during their secret wizardly conferences - to which she was not invited – whenever she had scolded one or more of them for not keeping to the cleaning rota or for leaving their dirty robes and tunics lying around the house. She did, however, die quite suddenly, tragically and accidentally by drowning when Terrorthaw tried to recreate Noah's Flood, Terrorthaw himself in the role of Noah, as part of a high school science project. This was, of course, a bleak and monumental event in the life of young Glowfist, still in his early teens, was still adapting to the daunting change from home-schooling (which the wizards had jokingly referred to as 'Magic Public School') to high school, and was a boy best described as a fragile, slender and sensitive. So he swore revenge on the tweeny Terrorthaw, which was not something particularly approved of by his wizard teachers – who were now technically his guardians also – and in taking that revenge, he unleashed his unripened powers for an all-out assault on Terrorthaw's ark, which was something that his guardians approved of even less.
The course of young Glowfist's savage attack on Terrorthaw's ark and the many strange beasts that dwelt upon it led him to team up with the young King – who was also trying to put a halt to all this flood malarky by smacking Terrorthaw in the face a few times – and to expend an impressive amount of flashy, hormone / grief charged magic. The attack ended with Terrorthaw escaping back to his foster parents' house unrepentant and only slightly worse for wear. As far as Glowfist was concerned, that incident marked the first time he had teamed up with or even met the King. But the King, who could access each and every one of his memories, smiled a smile that was full of answers and knew better. The two of them had teamed up many times before, back when they had been babies. Glowfist didn't remember all the do-gooding, telling-on and tiny-adventuring they had done together in the first few years of their lives, and the King would only fill him in on everything after they became Adventure Friends but, right there on Terrorthaw's ark, the King knew that he was dealing with an upstanding fellow, a powerful magician and a good friend.
Glowfist was taken out of high school after that. His guardians were furious and his father, Snakeskin Charpentier, who had not then bothered to tell young Glowfist that he had been the one to deliver the highly magical seed into poor, drowned Dot's coochy mamma, was adamant that the boy be punished so that he would be discouraged from going all nuts over the death of his mother. Glowfist received such a dressing-down and tongue-lashing from them that you've have trouble believing it. They put a curse on him that made him unable to eat sweets for five (5) years. They called up his few precious friends from high school and told them that he had drowned too because he was such a loser and losers are always drowning. But Glowfist didn't care. His beautiful, sweet, loving mother was dead and the only things that were on his mind were the intense vengeance he would surely wreck upon Terrorthaw, and incredible excitement for having met the King of Europe and the need to hang out with him as much as possible and be buds. Imagine then his great surprise / delight / horror when he transferred to a new high school to find that it was the very one attended by both the King -and- Terrorthaw!
Glowfist did indeed pal up with the King and they became pretty great friends and would team up to stop Terrorthaw when he was misbehaving, or any other villains that would crop up in and around the school. However, the King would leave for six months of every year to travel Europe with his tutor, Father Dominoes, to travel Europe and have more exotic adventures with a more diverse cast, leaving Glowfist to fend all by himself against the likes of Terrorthaw, assorted bullies and some of the more malevolent members of staff. During these phases, he would wreathe himself in black – in mourning for his dead mother – and wrote ream after ream of verse in an irregular script, often in dead or mystic tongues, which would be about his singular anguish over being different and magical, or about being metaphorically abandoned by his mother, or his boyish infatuation with the King or diatribes on how he'd lay the school and all his enemies to waste if only he was allowed to. He was asking for it, basically. He caught seven kinds of flak from all the other boys and, with his mother's good looks hidden behind a long, black fringe and a rolling, put-upon expression, didn't fare too well with the all-important fairer sex either. And things only got a whole lot worse when Terrorthaw found one of his journals and read out choice quotations from it over the school's PA system. From that point on, there were two main factions in the world of everything – young Glowfist on the one side, the world on the other. And yet, when the King came back from his travels with a nice tan and a sack full of fresh trinkets, he would put his wooden hand on Glowfist's shoulder, chuckle a little loving chuckle and suddenly Glowfist was on the same side as the world for six whole blissful months. The King would deal with bullies and malevolent teachers just by looking at them or, if it was really difficult, his new and shiny Ring Of Diplomacy would give him the power to talk anyone out of not liking Glowfist pretty darn quickly. The problem was that Glowfist got into the frame of mind that the King's magic wouldn't work if the King did not come back and find him suffering.
For example, during one of the King's sabbaticals, he was rounded up by a small group of archmagi in his age bracket on some flimsy pretext – a cake sale or something – and they ended up banding together to beat an evil French archmage who just happened to be enacting some elaborately anti-social plot right at that time and in the general vicinity of the cake sale. This evil French guy had this idea to launch a giant looking-glass into the sky so that he could reflect the sun's rays and melt the frozen continent of Antarctica and get at the legendary kingdom full of goodies that was apparently buried beneath the ice. This would have caused a lot of flooding, and we all know how young Glowfist felt about flooding. So, as the oldest kid in that pack of archmagi, he led them (without their respective guardians' permissions, it should be noted) to the evil archmagi's spooky castle up on the mountainside and it all ended with the evil archmagi falling into his own looking glass-launching machine and it was all very ironic and just, but what also happened was that Glowfist was horribly burned by one of the beams that came off of the looking glass in the final battle. The younger archmagi took him to safety and everyone was very proud of his bravery and leadership and cool head under pressure, but oh his poor burned body! Everyone felt so sorry for poor little Glowfist. Luckily, the King came back early from his travels that year just the next day and just so happened to have some advanced Islamalandic anti-burn balm with him – a present from the Sultan, who was cool with presents. Glowfist was restored to normal right away and everyone felt good about the whole thing.
Or how about the time, after Glowfist and the King and Sally Minefield and General Majesty had been touring around India, being spiritual and learning about the world, the King gave Glowfist command of half of his armies and told him to travel to Angleland and defend Europe against any Irish incursions while the King himself was busy putting the house of Axewound back in order in Celtland? Glowfist was magnificent on the battlefield, combining cleverness with tactics and spells so that the Irish hordes of both factions were beaten again and again and again. Glowfist even matched wits with a few Saints on the fields of Angleland but always came out the victor. Thing is, after all these victories, he got the crazy idea to overload himself with some untested Earth magic and smashed the whole of Ireland right off of Angleland, putting their ability to invade Europe on hold for a few years until they got some boats organised. He did this and it went as planned, only it nearly killed him. He fell into a coma right there on the new coast he'd created. The King, of course, arrived within days by sheer coincidence. He'd cleaned up Celtland and reunited the clans of Axewound and now his bud and friend was at death's door! What a mature and dark and real-world development, fitting of the King's status as an Adult Man with Real Responsibilities! The King moved Heaven and Earth to get Glowfist, who'd been duly promoted to Colonel as soon as the King had heard about his achievements on the battlefield, out of his magically overloaded funk and even then, the good Colonel would suffer from a fluttery heart from that point on. But that's a story for another time. What's important is that Colonel Glowfist knew his limits just as well as he knew that the King was on his way back to see him. What possessed him to take such a terrific risk when his enemies were already defeated, what stroke of misfortune put him in the way of that burning ray of light in the evil archmage's castle and how, oh, how did Terrorthaw stumble across one of his super-private, super-personal journal back in high school?
Which brings us right back to the scene in the wagon, with Colonel Glowfist looking like a scary bum and Roxy saying that he was doing it on purpose and the blankets being weaved. The accusation hung in the air for at least a minute.
“This is just like high school,” said Colonel Glowfist.
“High school?” asked Roxy. High school had not been invented when she'd been alive the first time, so she didn't get the full significance of the phrase. Colonel Glowfist sighed then looked up at her. His eyes were baby blue and so full of sadness.
“The King went away a lot and whenever he came back I wanted him to feel sorry for me and bad that he had left.” he said.
“Colonel!” said Roxy, full of compassion. “Is that why you made yourself so fat?” Colonel Glowfist went back to his weaving.
“We've got a lot of work to do before morning,” he said.
Oh, you can bet that he got a hug or two then.
End Of Chapter 84