They were in a glade, at noon or nearly so. The air was fresh, fresher than any of them could ever recall smelling. Flex lay on the ground nearby, and around the glade was scattered a few fragments of debris from the fight. There was a rough path leading into the glade and then out on the other side.
Max stopped his dodging and looked around the clearing. "Gentlemen? Where are we?"
Bolo took a step back, "I thought you did this."
The Wanderer took a breath and glanced over toward Sharpshooter, concentrating.
"Oh," said Sharpshooter, "I don't feel so good."
Quarrel took half a step back, "SS what's wrong?"
The Wanderer looked toward Max, "a better question might be 'when' are we? I don't smell any auto exhaust or street vendor hotdogs." As his words tailed off, the Wanderer was repositioned beside Sharpshooter, grabbing his bow. "Mr. Quarrel, you need to talk right now with some good answers."
Sting grew to full height, then slid right next to Quarrel, using the confusion to relieve Quarrel of his crossbow. "And you can do so without this in your hands." He winced from the pain going through his body.
"Talk?" said Quarrel, "About what? This is none of my doing."
"The last thing I remember is the mirror falling off the wall, a mirror that you and your merry men here took," accused the Wanderer. "And unless a white rabbit that late for an appointment comes by soon, I'm holding you responsible."
Max took stock of the group. Three bad guys. Check. Four good guys. Not check. Flex was down. Sting was now full height and the Wanderer was handling the bad guys well enough.
"Sting, can you get in touch with our colleagues and see if they can find us?" Max asked as he checked on Flex. "I'm surprised you aren't a puddle," he said to the fallen hero, lightly tapping the side of his face to try and rouse him.
Flex groaned and stirred.
Max nodded with satisfaction. He set Flex's head gently back on the grass, ghosted out and took to the air for a better look at their surroundings.
Flex looked up at the face of Max. "Oh what happened? I remember Sharpshooter taking a pot shot at me and then I blacked out," said the mouldable man as he sought to get into a sitting position feeling less together than normal (Which for a man with his powers was saying something.) "What is going on, did I miss much?" Flex looked up and around him, "What are those guys doing here?" As he said this his facial mask which normally covered his whole face changed shape and allowed his mouth and nose unrestricted access to clean air.
Flex suggested he climb a tree and get a look around, but he had barely started when the sound of hoofbeats rang out through the glade. A moment later, two men rode into the glade. One was a man of medium age, short and perhaps going a little to fat like an aging athlete. He wore a hauberk of mail and had a shield and helmet strapped to his horse. The second man was younger, also short, clad in a leather jerkin, riding a smaller horse and leading a pack animal.
The first reined in. "God's teeth," he growled. "What in the name of heaven are you?" He looked around at the garishly clad heroes, one holding Quarrel's crossbow, one holding Sharpshooter's bow, the rest eyeing Bolo suspiciously.
"Er," began the Wanderer, "we are entertainers and our wagon has been stolen by theives. Perhaps you could point us to the nearest village?"
"Entertainers? Ah," his face cleared, "Fools and jongleurs. I see." He nodded to the costumes, "Very good. But, very foolish. Your wagon was stolen, you say? By whom? Brigands? Or the army of the enemy?"
"Either or both. They are same gutless scoundrals, aren't they?"
"Aye, that they are." He came to a decision. "You had best come with me to Duke Brian's. It is not safe for any to be out, and God knows we could use some good cheer. I hight Sir David of Brenlake."
"You are most generous. How goes the war?" asked the Wanderer as he prepared for the journey. A firm pat on the shoulder of Sharpshooter as he helped him to his feet conveyed an urgency to play along.
Mystified as the others, "I better just roll with it," Flex thought to himself. "Take the Wanderers lead and play along."
Sir David replied to the Wanderer, "The Duke fights well, but when one is facing Hell-spawned magic ..." The knight shrugged.
The party gathered itself together and picked up the few possessions that had accompanied them on the journey, as David filled them in a little on the situation. An evil sorceror had come out of the East a year or so ago, and promptly struck down the defenders at a castle on the border of Brian's land. Since then, his influence had spread, drawing evil and opportunistic knights to his banner.
During this byplay, Sharpshooter managed to confront the Wanderer alone for a moment, "Look, I don't know what the hell is going on here, but whatever it is, I'll be of more use if I'm armed." He looked pointedly at his bow, which the Wanderer still carried. "And I'm sure Quarrel feels the same."
The Wanderer looked deep into Sharpshooter's eyes, "Your feelings don't exactly mean much to me. When the time comes, you will be armed. Until then, be merry." He mussed Sharpshooter's hair and shoved him back into step.
Sharpshooter stumbled into the group, and shot the Wanderer an evil look before going to talk to Bolo and Quarrel.
Catching up with Sir David, the Wanderer continued "Whereabouts is this castle? I've found that evil sorcerers always enjoy a good show. Perhaps we can help the Duke in some way." This was such a wondrous adventure, he thought to himself, and hopefully said castle bore a striking resemblance to the long depart Castle Brangore, if they were lucky.
"The Duke's castle lies not far from here," said Sir David.
Finally shaken from the shock of the moment, Max leaned over to Flex. "It's a good thing Defender isn't here. He'd probably have us rushing out to face these hell-spawned monsters. But we'd have to knock on the door and ask permission first."
Flex laughed at Max's joke. "Yes that would be true, but when all is said and done, Defender is a honest man and a good one at that, and that is often a rare thing these days. Especially among the line of people I tended to waste my time with. No, although he would have us probably knock on the door first - you know I just think I'd be the kind of guy who would find himself cancelling the milk as I went to join him," said Flex as he nonchalantly pulled his mask of. Only Max could see him then seem to absorb it back into his hand.
As Max looked at Flex's unmasked face something struck him. There was a odd look about him - perhaps if he had been a film buff he would have thought it odd that Flex bore an amazing resemblance to Kevin Costner from that Medieval movie he stared in about a good thief some years ago. Nonetheless he looked more like a theatrical player now especially since wearing a full face mask tended to look a bit odd given the present company. Max knew that Flex was a shape changer and deduced that this was probably as much a mask for the present situation as the one he tended to wear in their own time.
Turning to Max, Flex continued to listen as the two continued to talk as they followed their newly met companions on the way to the Dukes Castle.
Staying just our of earshot - or trying - of the armoured men, Max shared his thoughts with Flex. "I'm a bit of a throw-back in our group. Being a Duke myself, I find it at once comforting and terrifying that we seem to be in medieval England. I can only hope that our companions are finding a way to get us out of this strange dream. Yet, something in my soul cries out for this. Curious, would you not say?"
"Curious isn't the half of it - I daresay that this is quite romantic but give me the shades anytime. I agree with you I do hope that either this is a dream and I am going to wake up soon. Let's hope that what ever brought us here is not one way only." Flex turned to Max a curious frown crossed his face. "But now you have got me curious what is a Duke doing with a group like this, I think the closest i have got to aristocracy must have been the seeing the Queen on TV, back when we lived in England. So tell me some more about yourself Max?" Flex looked back to Max for was bound to be an interesting tale.
"Wow," said Flex. "Well, I make my abode the 'Parts these days - if there is anything I can do to help out let me know. I without work at present and besides kicking around for leads and doing my bit with the costume I am looking into some line of work to pay the rent. If in the meantime I can lend and hand let me know- your band sounds a little like my kind of people." Flex thought to himself, "These are quite a bunch."
"I'm the Duke and protector of a secret nation of outcasts. You won't find us on any modern map, nor will you find a nation that recognizes us. That's intentional. We exist outside the notice of modern governments and are happy for it." Max looked toward the Wanderer. "As to how I got involved with these folks, I can best sum it up thusly... mutual interests. Assisting on the occassional case helps my people out."
The Wanderer drifted back to Max and Flex. "Max, I am ashamed to admit that while long-lived I am not familiar with this part of your world's history. Perhaps you can look into the religious beliefs in the area when we arrive, evil sorcerors and magick cause me gas." A friendly pat on the back and the Wanderer was back in step.
"Tell me please, who is this sorceror and how did he come into opposition of the Duke?"
"We know little of him. He came from the wild lands to the West, and dresses as the pagan priests of the primitive tribes do, save that his garb is black as sin," said David. "He possesses strange powers over beast and plant. I have seen him work his foul magic and call upon his foul spirits."
"Who can say why he attacked the Duke? The Duke is warden of these marches, and so to penetrate further, he must first defeat the Duke. But I fear, unless aid arrives, that day is not too distant."
"From where do you expect aid?" asked the Wanderer.
David barked a dry laughed, "Aye, there's the rub. Most of the other lords are occupied on the Eastern coasts. We have no great expectation of aid."
"Assistance comes from curious sources," remarked the Wanderer.
"I must agree with my able companion," Max said with a wink. "Perhaps even lowly entertainers can prove helpful."
"Unless you are sorcerors in disguise, I do not see what aid you can provide," said David. The heroes noticed that he did cast a sharply appraising eye over them.
After only half an hour's walk, they crested a small rise and saw the castle in the distance. Even from here, it looked like the Wanderer's surmise was correct -- the castle looked like Brangore.
"Perhaps we should go to yon castle and ask for our wagon back," the Wanderer posed. He looked to Sting, Max, and Flex and turned to Sir David "Where should we meet you?"
David gave him an odd look, "Yon castle is our destination, 'tis the castle of the Duke."
"Oh," said the Wanderer, "then proceed."
The party approached the castle, now clearly identifiable as Castle Brangore in a different level of completeness. There was a curtain wall around it, and it lacked the rear towers, but was very much the same structure the heroes knew. "Welcome to Brian's Guard," said David.
Servants appeared and took David's horses, "You may sleep in the stables, and perhaps you will entertain us this evening? I must report to the Duke." He turned to go.
"One moment," the Wanderer called after him. He approached and bowed slightly, "may I have audience with the Duke, his hospitality and graciousness will be rewarded."
"Perhaps," Max ventured. "Perhaps your Duke or one of his advisors could speak to us about this enemy some more. We have traveled far and wide and perhaps might have a trick or two up our sleeves. As for providing entertainments, I think we can manage a few jabs, pratfalls and maybe even a houdini or two."
"Because," began the Wanderer, "we just might be what he is looking for -- or needs," he said with a grin. The Wanderer turned to walk back to his compatriots and paused to add, "Forces greater than thee, are at work." He approached Sting, "We need to get the group together and see how we want to proceed."
As the group gathered near the stables, Max tilted his head and gave the Wanderer 'the look.'
"You're up to something. Why do I have this feeling that we are about to be volunteered against these 'dark forces' from the west?"
"Because you are most perceptive, Duke Max," said the Wanderer with a sweeping bow. As they gathered nearer, the Wanderer posed his plan. From the sound of things, the Duke was needing some allies to assist in the battle and didn't appear to be too aversed to magic. "What if," posed the Wanderer, "we masquerade as mystical warriors from across the planet brought together on a divine mission to banish this evil from the soil forever? It would explain our strange manner and dress, not to mention abilities."
"If this involves us each picking a primary color, I've got dibs on black," Max said with a smirk. When the Wanderer did not laugh, "You're serious about this, aren't you?"
"Certainly. Of course, I will live to make it back to Port Alexander if we have traveled in time so the risk is not as great for me," he pondered. The Wanderer scratched his head, "Also, I don't believe 'black' is a primary colour." He leaned against a fencepost, "I'm open to suggestions."
"When you put it that way, helping him might be our best option. It has occurred to me that something brought us here and it seems to revolve around the mirror. For all we know, someone working for the Duke might have brought us here. I wish I had some idea of 'when' we were."
"I like the angle," said Flex. "Besides how else are we going to be any use of we don't make out that we are somehow similarly equipped?" Flex looked to the Wanderer, "One question - you know I am from England and if this is where we are - we may find that their are some local priests or monks who may not be so comfortable with outright 'magic' being used, especially if we purport to be on the side of the good guys. Not everyone has our kind of attitude, I suggest we tread carefully, sound out the Duke. If we can win him over without giving the game plan away then maybe we would be all right to get go on using our powers more openly. We don't want them to think that we are part of the same as the sorcerer and get tarred by the same brush before we have had a chance to prove ourselves. What does everyone else think?" Flex looked to the rest of the group for any other suggestions.
"Most definitely," agreed the Wanderer. He always found the humans on this planet's fascination with, and fear of, magic amusing. "I'd wager that our abilities and demeanor will convince the Duke of our pure intent."
The Wanderer added, "One thing is for sure. If there is no mirror in that castle then I'd bet dollars to doughnuts that the evil sorcerer has it." Looking over to Quarrel, Sharpshooter, and Bolo the Wanderer called out, "what do you three think?"
"I didn't think prisoners got a vote," said Sharpshooter sourly.
"Welcome to how the good guys do things," the Wanderer quipped.
"Then I vote you give me my bow and then we go home," said Sharpshooter.
Perturbed, the Wanderer replied "How about you go home and I'll mail it to you?"
Quarrel said, "There may not be a way back. If so, we should make the best of the situation. Having a Duke in our debt seems a good way to begin."
The Wanderer nodded toward Quarrel, "Sensible. And since we are all stuck here together, tell me about that mirror. Who asked you to pilfer it?"
"The mirror should have been mine," said Quarrel. "Richard Brangore had no right to give the mirror away! It belongs at the castle. When I purchased it, I assumed the mirror came with it. The wall looks bare without it."
"I'm not buying it," said the Wanderer. "I'd expect that nonsense from him," the Wanderer gestured toward Sharpshooter," but you're too smart for that. You expect us to believe that we're here because you decided to re-decorate in medieval castle chic?"
"I don't expect you to believe anything, and I have no idea why we're here," said Quarrel. "You can believe as you wish, but, yes. We wanted to redecorate, as you say, in medieval castle chic. Why should we buy a castle if we didn't? We want simply to be left alone with the relics of history. Why is that hard to believe?"
"At this point, nothing is hard to believe," said the Wanderer as a he touched the brim of his hat toward a group of women carrying water who walked by. "It does, however, look as if you are getting your wish."
The Wanderer pulled Quarrel aside for a little walk, "Come, join me." Leaving Max and the others alone, the Wanderer spoke frankly with Quarrel out of earshot of the others.
"You seem reasonable, even though I'm not completely convinced you are being honest with me," he said. "I haven't a clue how or even if we can ever get back home. One thing is for sure, we can only do it if we work together."
Quarrel nodded, "I tend to agree. That means, however, that you're going to have to trust us."
"Yes. We want to get home as much as you do," Quarrel smiled a little ruefully. "For all our romanticizing of the middle ages, I don't want to live here. My castle Brangore has running water and electric lights."
"Fantastic," exclaimed the Wanderer. "On your word as a gentleman I am holding you responsible for Sharpshooter and Bolo."
"I'll do my best," was the reply. "Will you return our weapons now?"
"Your best will have to do, else my worst will get the job done for good," stated the Wanderer matter-of-factly.
He turned and rejoined the group, tossing Sharpshooter his bow. "Gentlemen, have we any more ideas of our mission here? Quarrel, you know the castle layout better than any of us. Maybe you can see if your beloved mirror is here."
"The place for it would be in the lord's chamber, which probably means the room or rooms above the main hall," he said. "With luck, that's where our audience will be."
"Wanderer, one thing." Sting interjected. "You had said that it would be likely that you could live until our present day. If I understand time travel correctly...and if that is the case...wouldn't you be able to go to our friends in the future and let them know what happened to us? Maybe make a mental note of it now and go do it then?"
"I suppose that hundreds of years from now, I will be able to tell quite a yarn. Alas, I will have to wait for then to come to me, month-by-month, day-by-day, hour-by-hour. I'd much rather prefer us finding a portal of sorts and returning together." The Wanderer wasn't sure Sting fully understood the physiology of an immortal race, nor the loneliness of outliving time.
"Well then," the Wanderer said with a clap of his hands. "Are we ready to talk with the Duke?"
The heroes agreed, but they were waiting on the Duke's pleasure, and so they were quite antsy when Sir David approached them an hour later. "The Duke is interested in hearing your offer."
He led them into the castle and suggested that they leave their arms in the hall. The three weapon's fighters deposited their weapons without a murmur, although the heroes noted that Bolo kept his gun.
David led them up a set of wooden stairs at the back of the hall and into a familiar room. They looked over to the wall, and there was a familiar mirror, just where it should be.
A short distance away a short, but powerfully built, man in fine clothing was conversing with a non-descript man dressed in simple brown robes. After a moment, the Duke turned to the arrivals. "Sir David tells me you wished to see me?"
And just like that, heroes and villians alike turned their eyes toward the Wanderer. Max gently patted him on the back. "No pressure."
The Wanderer bowed deeply, removing his hat. "It is an honor. We have finally arrived at your service."
"Yes, our journey has been long." The Wanderer turned to Sir David, "forgive us for misleading you. But we had to be sure that our quest was not misguided, and the Duke's graciousness is exactly why we were sent."
Max was suddenly happy that he had worn the riding boots today. Sure, his feet were a little sore, but the wading was about to start. He lifted first his left then right leg and examined them for debris. Sting swatted him for fidgeting and Max sheepishly looked ahead.
"Continue," said the Duke.
"As men of battle and service, we obeyed the higher calling which beckoned us. Duke, without question, we have arrived to assist you in your battle with this evil sorcerer that Sir David told us about. Until that moment we were unsure as to the duty we had been assigned."
"All help is welcome at such a time. What skills or talents do you bring? You have two stout yoemen, however garish their attire," he waved his hand at Quarrel and Sharpshooter. "But the rest of you are unarmed and unarmoured. To what duty should you be assigned?" asked Duke Brian.
"We come from the far reaches of the world, sire. And have been gifted with abilities from far beyond, by a great wizard. It was expected that such gifts would be needed to combat an evil sorcerer."
"What are these gifts? Can you summon fire to raze a castle? Create an army where there is none? Protect my men from demons or that druid's accursed fires? Or are these gifts so inexplicable that to explain them is impossible?"
"It is often best to avoid the lure of too much information, that is what corrupts every practicer of magic eventually," offered the Wanderer. "Our strange manner and dress reflect wondrous designs and powers, that are often hard to understand -- but the results are easily accepted." He paced about toward the mirror.
"Tell me Duke, have you had this mirror for long?"
"Some years," said the Duke, "So, you have strange powers and will not tell me what they are. What can you do for us then? Will you go to face the druid's army and retake the castle?"
With a series of smiles, frowns, and other funny faces the Wanderer continued to mug for the mirror. "This mirror seems familiar, I believe it appeared in the wizard's vision to me. Could the druid be after this? Max, take a closer look at the mirror, what do you think?"
Max examined the mirror, running his hand just over the surface and even passing his hand just slightly through it. He was sure it was the other mirror, but was unsure why the Wanderer had called his attention to it.
The Wanderer then turned to the Duke, who grew impatient, "Yes, we will banish the druid from whence he came. We will need information as to his location and army."
"Very well, we shall discuss it on the morrow. Tonight, if you wish, you may eat in the hall, in the morning we shall plan your attack," said the Duke. It was an obvious dismissal.
The Wanderer bowed and followed his compatriots outside. "Impressions?"
"He doesn't believe a word you said," Max chimed in. "He thinks we are fools, and rightly so. However, he didn't order us imprisoned either, so that's good."
"Ah. So noted." The Wanderer paced about, "then are you saying we go hunting for this druid ourselves? or are you content with milking cows and wearing metal underwear until you die?"
"I think you misunderstand me. Put yourself in his shoes. A handful of strangely dressed men appear out of nowhere. We have no apparent knowledge of local events and act in a bizarre fashion. When he finally speaks with us, he hears tales of fantastic powers but sees no proof. Regardless of what this druid might be capable of, this Duke still wants to believe that everything in his world has some explanation, even if it is as simple as 'the will of God.'" Max took a breath and clasped his hands together.
"We were introduced to him as entertainers. Part of him probably is waiting for the punchline." Max emphasized with a phantom rim-shot. "I'm all for going home. I'm also up for helping them solve their little problem. My only concern is that if we join them in the fight it will mean someone has to die. I'm uncomfortable with the idea of killing and even more so with the idea of dying. Already thought I was dead once, and I don't plan on repeating that experience.
"No, I think that we have to take an 'all in or all out' approach. And since you've already tossed our chips into the pot, I think we should call the bet."
"People will die regardless of what we do." The Wanderer continued, "this druid will slaughter everyone here if he possesses these powers the Duke spoke of. Besides, a band of," the Wanderer counted them, "seven should be able to sneak in to some musty old castle easier than an army."
"No one needs to die," Max said. "We simply need to avoid joining this duke's army. If we take care of the druid ourselves, as you suggest and I was thinking, then we can do it in our own fashion. Besides, the idea of one duke serving another makes my teeth itch. It's... degrading. What would my barons say?"
"I think that since this whole bussines began we have been put in one awkward sitution after another. I agree with the Wanderer on this though, we have the ability to sneak in on this druid and maybe take him down. With him suitible evicted his power base may crumble." Flex smiled, his neck elongated so as to say his piece even as his body remained standing a little away. "So the only question is do we strike out tonight - whilst we have the element of surprise in our favour?" At which point Flex's body drew near to allow his head to remain where it should normally be upon his body.
The Wanderer looked on in silence at a loss for words. Then he suggested, "Our day begins tomorrow. Maybe we could do a bit of exploring on our own and see what information we can retrieve about this druid and his location." The invitation was given to all, but specifically he looked at Sting and Flex. Their unique abilities could render them innoucous enough to blend in to the castle grounds and eavesdrop on a conversation or determine they could best be directed on the journey home.
Sting shot around, obviously impatient. "Look, I know this isn't an easy situation, but one thing is easy. This druid is evil." He gestures towards Quarrel, Sharpshooter, and Bolo. "Crime may be crime, but as bad as stealing and assault is ... namely, these guys ... murder and genocide, which this druid is likely to purport, is worse. It needs to be dealt with, or we're not going home. And I want to go home. I've got family that's probably apoplectic right now."
"I say we go by night, take this druid out, and drop him in front of the duke with a nice bow on his head with the message 'Entertained yet, your highness?'. I don't know much about magic, medieval times, time travel, immortality, the list goes on. I do know that there's a problem we need to deal with and I'm sick ... of ... talking ... about ... it."
Max asked plainly, "How do we know this druid is evil?"
Sting leveled his eyes at Max. Max could see a clear exasperation in his eyes as Sting measured his words carefully. "Maybe he isn't. Maybe he's the good guy and this duke is the bad guy. With El Du-ke's attitude, it wouldn't surprise me in the least. Maybe this druid can help us get home. But we're not going to find that out here. We need to go figure out what is going on, and we need to do it by ourselves so we can use what we have to the best of our ability. Going with the Duke's men will only albatross us."
Sting looked at Wanderer pleadingly. "We're getting nowhere, Wanderer. In Defender's absence, you are clearly the leader here. Make the decision."
"Gladly," said the Wanderer. "Unless the way home is as simple as knocking the mirror off the wall, we are going to have to find this druid. Personally, I do not know where he is. We can either ask the Duke, search the globe, or find out by other means."
The Wanderer scratched his head, "If this druid is such a pressing issue then people must be talking about it. Let us see what the people are saying, then we can find out where to look."
Flex looked across at the group and in a moment he had changed into the garb of the duke's men and sublty changed the shape of his face to one of the many men dotted around the castle. "Right. I am ready to start poking around. I could escourt us if you like, that way we can avoid being stopped - right then, I am as anxious as Sting. What say we get to it? How about we start in teh kitchens." Turning to Quarrel, Flex asked, "Can you direct us to them from here?"
"Probably the easiest way to do talk to the people," Sting said, "is to go to this dinner and talk amongst the commoners, find out what they've heard, maybe even chat up a couple of the lower-level soldiers. My only other recommendation is to keep our current cover going ... I have a feeling we can operate with more freedom with the duke thinking us buffoons as opposed to him actually thinking we're dangerous."
The heroes decided to be conservative and see what they could learn at dinner before making any final decisions.
Dinner was served in the main hall for the Duke, his knights and other members of the household. The bulk of the soldiers and the other servants and castle folk ate elsewhere. The meal was plentiful but plain; roasted meat, bread trenchers, and soup thick with onions and leeks. Weak beer or ale was the beverage. The castle was clearly not under seige, but at the same time it was obvious that there was a lot of stress on the inhabitants. Before dinner, the heroes had noticed a bustle of work, as arrows and stones were moved to storage spaces, and the blacksmith hammered out arrowheads and worked on bits and pieces of armour. No, the castle was not under seige, but was clearly preparing for one.
The converstaion turned on the activities of the evil druid. Some said his name was Daffyd, but most simply called him the druid, or the dark one.
While eating, when the converstaions turned towards the druid and the preparations for him, Sting asked "Do we know for sure specificially where he is right now? Is he en route here?"
"Doubtful," said one man. "Most likely he's still at the border keep, mustering more of his damned forces."
"What sort of forces? What could possible have such stout men as yourselves concerned so?" Max asked from his place near the end of the table.
"He is fearsome enough by himself, but he has gathered about him several knights of low reputation."
"Aye," said another, "and those knights are in league with the devil! I saw Sir Justin slice clean through a man in full armour with no effort. He's enscorceled or a tool of dark forces."
"We're these knights known to you before Dark Daffyd appeared?"
"They were, though not in so fearsome a form. Justin was never a good man, but he could never drive a sword through a stone wall to pierce the man behind it either. Aye, I saw him do that, too."
The Wanderer joined in the conversation, "When did this Druid come to power? And does he join these dastardly fellows on the battlefield?"
"Not long, last summer it was, when he first arrived. The castle he now occupies fell quickly. By fall, he had recruited his few allies - a few knights and a few dozen brigands. This spring we set forth to retake the castle. This druid, spewing fire and Justin and Sir Daryl," the man spit, "smashed our forces and now we wait for help -- or for them to fall on us."
"Oh aye, Sir Daryl," said another. "That bastard was with the druid at the first. His family has always been queer, dabbling in evil things. No one was surprised when he told the defenders of the castle to surrender or be destroyed."
Max turned towards the Wanderer. "Is it possible that these men are gaining superhuman powers from this druid?"
The Wanderer answered Max in hushed tones so as to not reveal too much to the duke's subjects, "Not only possible but highly probable. It concerns me that the longer he remains, the more of these magically enhanced warriors he can create."
He stretched and asked the talkative man across from him, "Where exactly did you say we could find this Druid and this Justin?"
"They abide at Middleford castle, only a day's ride west of here. It sits on a hill above the river," said the man. "A good castle, too. Defensible, unless some damned hellspawn can wash the battlements with green flame and laugh as the yoemen sizzle like fat in a skillet."
The Wanderer laughed uneasily, "So the duke has not access to magic of his own?"
"Well, there's Master Devlin, but little he seems able to do against whatever forces this druid wields."
Sheepishly, the Wanderer withdrew his cup. "Master Devlin would benefit greatly if he were acquire the Druid's artifacts and tomes, would he not?"
"What? Who knows? Wizards, faugh!" The man spat again.
The Wanderer spat in kind but ended up wiping the botched attempt from his chin.
"And a drink to all wizards, be that mighty or small. They embrace dark powers and tempt a fall. When the flames are licking at their shins, they'll know right away that good always wins." Max drank down his ale and pounded his cup soundly on the table. With a little hop and a foppish grin, he took to his feet and launched into a song. While his singing voice was not the best, his deep tones followed by sharp falsettos made for a foolish image.
Singing what were traditional folk songs for him, adding pratfalls and somersaults augmented by his preternatural agility, the mighty Duke lowered himself to the level of common fool in an attempt to give the men heart. After a couple of songs - mostly arrangements stolen from Silly Wizard, Steeleye Span and the Minstrels of Mayhem - Max took a bow.
"Laugh well, my friends and sleep even better. For tomorrow my companions and I shall ride forth to rid the land of this foul druid and his hellspawn knights or die trying."
"Gentlemen," the Wanderer said to his friends, "we should probably turn in soon. We have a big day ahead of us." As the party walked out of the hall, he asked, "Should we wait or depart tonight?"
"I am happy to wait - since it seems that the place is a day away. At any rate, if we walk or ride we could be there by nightfall tomorrow. Besides, I am concerned that we do not let the Duke think we have deserted him by disappearing as well," said Flex as he looked around the group.
"On the other hand," Sting said, "The Duke already think we're nuttier than Jimmy Carter's homeland. If we go to him tomorrow and say we're off to rid the world of the Evil One, he *MAY* simply say "Have Fun Storming the Castle" and write us off as kooks...or he may have us locked up "for our own safety". I think it might be best for our autonomy to just hit the road and do this."
As the Wanderer walked back to their lodging he agreed with Sting, "I think we should leave tonight. If the duke believes us he may send some of his men along and they will be at best distractions and at worst casualties."
"Hmm," Flex said, "I had not thought of it like that. OK, I'll buy it. But don't ask me to ride I have never tried in my life - always been a city boy."
Max suggested waiting till morning, offering as reasons: that the party could use the sleep, they might find out what to expect between here and there, and they might could look at a map and see where "there" is.
"Max has a point," Flex said. "Besides, do we know what direction we need to go in and what lies between here and there, beyond it is a day's journey away?"
The Wanderer was antsy, and curious about this Master Devlin the mage and sought him out. Hopefully a few well placed questions to the men in armour could give him a lead where this man of the magickal arts resided.
The men told him that Devlin had a home built out from the wall of the castle. It had originally been a smithy, but Devlin had caused another level to be built on top of it, and one more on top of that and now it was effectively a tower rising above the battlements.
Overhearing the Wanderer's questions, Max fell into place behind him like a shadow.
The lower door was unlocked, and a servant was tending a fire in the room. He called for Devlin at their request and soon the man descended a stairway to meeet them. "Yes, what may I do for you?"
The Wanderer bowed, "Good evening, Master Devlin. May my associate and I have a word with you? we seek knowledge."
"A wise man always seeks knowledge, sit down. Sven fetch drink. What knowledge do you seek?"
The Wanderer took a modest seat and spoke respectfully, "We seek information about the druid whose heart is as black as the night."
The man sighed, "And you do not wish to rest and hear it in in the morning? No, I see you do not. Well.
"I have learned but a little, and surmise a little more. I do not think he is a demon, but I do think he is more than merely a man. There was a man of some small knowledge called Daffyd who studied with a man of my acquaintance. I think this druid is the same Daffyd, but ... changed ... or possessed.
"I suspect, too, that it was Sir Daryl who set these things in motion. For he dabbled in things better left untouched. I fear that he found a trove of objects that had been lest and were better left lost. Chief among them is the Orb of Malice. Daffyd would know enough to wake the orb, but would be too weak to control it. I think Black Daffyd is Daffyd, but ruled by the orb.
"No," he said forstalling their questions. "I do not know aught else of the Orb, and I may well be wrong. I fear I am right."
"And you," he leaned forward, "there is more to your story than you have yet told."
The Wanderer looked to Max, since he disliked the Wanderer's magnificent tale which would impress even Kurosawa's love of warriors being summoned to rid the world of evil.
"We have a calling of our own. There is a great evil that must be defeated," Max answered. He held a finger to his lips in a shush, then passed his other hand through the chair next to him. "Not all who wander are lost."
Devlin blinked. He looked at the chair and the hand and back. "Whence come you?" he whispered.
"From a kingdom from across the vast seas," Max said. "Our leige has sent us in secret for fear that knowledge of our presence will endanger those we come to help."
Devlin had no response to that.
The Wanderer's eyes buggged out behind his goggles as Max stole his tale. He cleared his throat, "I'm afraid he exhausted all to send us here, are you able to assist us in our return through your arcane arts?"
"If you can tell me whence you come, I can attempt to aid you in your return. Has this land a name?"
This time, it was Max who turned to the Wanderer. The Wanderer began, "That it does," and then it struck him that this was going to be much more difficult than he thought when he looked at Max. "Later, Master Devlin, we have work to do. Do you have a map where we can find this Black Druid? or Sir Daryl?"
"You mean to go tonight, then? Perhaps it is best. No, I have no map, but none is needed. Outside the castle is a river, follow it upstream a day's ride to Middleford castle. There you will find Black Daffyd, Sir Daryl, Sir Justin and any others they may have gathered."
"I shall lead them, Devlin," said a voice from the door. Everyone turned to see Sir David at the door. "I found them, they are in my charge."
"Why Sir David," exclaimed the Wanderer, "have you been following us?"
"We've got a guide and some idea what we are up against. We'll get our companions while you get your gear together, good sir knight." Max smiled at the Wanderer then started cabbage-patching. "Let's go get nasty."
Glancing over to the curious looks on Devlin and David's faces, the Wanderer explained, "It is a ritual warriors go through before battle where he is from."
"Will you ride, wanderers?" said the knight.
"We can attempt it," Max answered. Sir David departed to fetch horses. As the Wanderer and Max left to gather the others, Max turned to his companion. "You looked a little surprised back there."
"I never cease to be surprised at what you terrans do," he answered. "The Orb of Malice, the Jewel of All-Devouring, this Daffyd fellow has a problem." (See Issue #6 Jewel for the last time the Wanderer met the Black Druid)
"We also invented chivalry, puppy love and hot wings served by beautiful women in orange shorts. I guess the bad comes with the good." Max wore a smirk like it were today's high fashion. "And I still get to be the Black Ranger. He was always my favorite."
"Lets hope our trip to yon castle is uneventful. Keep an eye on Quarrel and his band of not-so-merry men, I do not trust them."
The Wanderer and Max arrived to where they had left the others and announced what they had discovered, including their upcoming departure time.
"Ho boy, have you guys cooked up enough of a story so that we do not freak out all of Sir David's men when we do our thing," said Flex looking somewhat concerned -- though whether about the thought of horse riding or the looks he'd get as he'd use his shapeshifting powers to stay on, none could tell. "Well anyway I am ready for the off - welcome the thought of seeing some action, it gets my mind off what we have gotten ourselves into and more importantly where we have got ourselve into".
A few moments later, Sir David arrived with a few stableboys and his squire, all leading horses. He mounted up and waited for the time travellers to do the same.
The Wanderer strode up to his steed and gently stroked its mane. With a modicum of grace he mounted, and pulled the horse around toward Sir David and answered the surprised looks of his friends with a tip of his hat, "What? I suppose I'm a cowboy at heart."
Max had less luck, at first having difficulties mounting then staying on. Once he was finally up, he grasped the reigns. Something in the back of his mind clicked and he cut a regal image astride his noble stead. Then said noble stead moved and the very modern born and raised Max found himself holding on for dear life.
David led the way out the gate and down to a path that ran along the river. "If we ride all night, we will arrive early in the morning. Is that what you wish?"
"That is best," confirmed the Wanderer. "Arriving when lookouts are weary can only help us."
Max dropped his head onto the horse's neck. "I'm never going to make it," he whispered to his mount.
"So be it," said David, and led the way.
* * * *After many hours of riding, David reined in his horse and again consulted with the party. "You can see part of the castle from here," he pointed to a turret barely visible in the distance. "This path leads to the village below the cliff on which the castle sits. There is another way I know, but the path is more difficult. It leads around and up and we would strike the castle from behind -- on the cliff, although still below the castle. But we would not arrive until several hours after dawn."
The Wanderer looked off at the castle in the distance. An attack from behind could increase their chances of success, although the path would be more difficult to traverse and surely the Druid expected such an attack and defenses were in place. Combined with their abilities, their small number should help them in infiltrating the stronghold; the Druid and his warriors would expect an army if they expected an attack at all.
Voicing these concerns, the Wanderer asked the others for their opinion.
"If this castle was constructed by someone with any tactical knowledge, we will be unable to go undetected without some veil of invisibility. That, or a holocaust cloak and a wheelbarrow." Max took a moment to think while rubbing his sore backside. "I don't care what anyone says, the horse out in front of S-Mart is not a good representation. Anyway, depending upon how treacherous the cliff approach is, it might be our best bet. If it is very difficult to traverse... less sentries would be necessary. We also have a few other options for entry that do not involve the normal roads. I for one can pretty much get into the castle from anywhere. In fact, I think I could make quite the distraction while the rest of you got into place."
"Hmm, you count me in when it comes to making a distraction," Flex chimed in.
"True," agreed the Wanderer. "We needn't view things with the eye of a traditional siege. We have neither the skill nor the forces, we do have to get close, however, and preferably the less noticed the better."
"So what is the plan, leader man?" said Flex, glad for some action at last.
"Sir David," the Wanderer began, "tell us about this village, and where we can expect to meet resistance."
"It is small and completely at the mercy of the castle. I would not expect resistance in the village, but it is possible some traitorous swine would seek to curry favour by carrying word to the castle of our arrival," said David.
"Curry favouring swine," the Wanderer mumbled in disgust. "I never did like Indian food," he added offhandedly, "then to the cliffs and the backdoor, we ride!"
David led them off the path onto a faint track into the woods. At times, the trail dissappeared almost entirely and the party feared they were lost, but David led them on and a few moments later they would again see some sign of the trail.
Dawn broke, and the woods began to seem less dark and fearsome. Now and then, a view of the turrets and towers of Middleford would be visible in the distance. After another hour or so, the path became much clear and the vegetation thinned. Another few hundred yards, and David again halted the party in a depression.
"The castle is only a mile or so away, over this ridge and then up," he said. The party scrambled to look. The terrain was scattered with trees and rocks for most of the distance to the castle, but was bare for the last hundred and fifty yards. The ground sloped gently up to the high walls of the castle, and there was a trench cut around the foot of the walls with a drawbridge providing access. As the party watched, a faint green flow appeared on the top of the nearest and highest tower and then vanished.
"We may be expected," the Wanderer said to no one in particular. He turned to Quarrel and Sharpshooter, "If either of you see a large bird, shoot it."
The two men nodded.
"Sir David, we cannot ask you to continue on with us. It is far too dangerous, thank you for your assistance. We will see you soon, with victory for the Duke."
"Godspeed and good luck," said David.
Flex looked up at the real 'lived in' castle and wondered what turn of fate would occur when they got inside. Looking around, he surveyed the faces of the group as all started to to go through the inward process of readying themselves. He looked at the Wanderer, wondering what his instructions would be and who or what they would find when they carried them out within ...
Max wondered that as well, giving voice to his questions. "Shall our plan be Get'em, or do you have something more devious in mind?"
As people looked and pondered the options available to them, Flex turned back to the group and said, "Well it looks like it is up to me and Sting to try and scout out things. Max is there anyway you can get up there as well?"
Max floated off horseback and came to rest onthe ground next to Flex. "I think that I have a good chance of getting up there, but I can't say that I'd be able to do it unseen."
"Maybe," said Flex in reply, "But if you can float and pass throughout the rock and I can partially change shape and colour we can make it darn hard form them to notice - besides who is going to think anyone can climb this side into the castle".
"One problem I have - there are no, err direct lines of communication," Flex said as he made to imitate a talking into a phone with his hand. "But other than that I think that I can see if we can gain some other means of entry, get back to you and then see what we want to do - anyone else got any suggestions?" Flex looked from the group back to the castle and then back again as he waited for others to think through his suggestion.
"Sounds like we need either some sort of signal or just attempt to use timing to coordinate an assault," Max responded.
"I agree with Max - Max can sink into the ground and cover the distance between here and there more or loess under cover - sorry no pun intended," Flex said in all seriousness not wanting to detract from the planning. "I and Sting can cover the ground pretty quicky in our own ways. That only leaves you, Wanderer, and our friends who can take up the rear when we have made sure it is clear. I suggest that we wait till Max can get into the draw bridge area and lower it so we can get in." Flex stopped to make sure people where taking this all in. "Then I suggest if we are noticed that we create a diversion - say if Max took off and started crashing and bashing around or even lowering the front draw bridge that would draw attention away. But hopefully that will not be necessery since I hope we may have a little luck and get by yet undetected. 'Fortune favours the bold' after all. Ok so lets move on this unless anyone has any objections or alternative suggestions."
Max surveyed the castle walls. "I say we get'em. I can provide a distraction. I think I remember my Hamlet's father. That should be appropriate on the castle walls. While they toy with me, you can get into position and attack. In fact, I think that's our best course of action. Attack when you hear the commotion."
Ghosting out, Duke Maximillian Immungrun, called Beggar King, took to the air. He arrived at the castle wall in seconds, flying at top speed. Alone on the tower top of the nearest tower, he saw two armed and armoured knight who were watching a man clad in brown robes. How they had gotten a live ox up onto the tower Max couldn't begin to guess. The robed man was waving a long dagger and chanting something in a language Max did not understand. Now and then, green fire would coruscate around him or the blade.
With his best Hamlet's father dying on his lips, Max ducked back out of sight, hoping he had gone unnoticed. This added a new wrinkle. He made best speed back to where is companions waited.
"On the walls... druid... sacred rite... we should probably stop him... now!
"Gotcha - well lets do it!" said Flex as he tore of at top speed to get to the castle as quickly as he could assuming that the others would follow automatically.
As Flex moved by, Sting grabbed him by his pliable shoulder and shrank to an inch in size, hitching a ride with his cpmpatriot. "Don't forget I'm back here" Sting said.
"No worries, friend, I'll not forget," Flex said as he smiled before allowing his face to once again be covered by the familier mask the group first encountered him in. "I will do my 'long limb thing' whilst Wanderer I suggest, if he can, goes with you and I will take Sting on my way over," said Flex as he thought, "What am I doing - here I am the new boy, the boy who would not say 'boo to a goose', is giving the orders. I hope no one objects." He continued out loud, "Max how many can you fly up there?"
"I can't really carry anyone safely, but the Wanderer has his own ways," Max said plainly.
Startled as they were, Quarrel, Sharpshooter and Bolo took off toward the castle. "Do we rendezvous at the bottom and try to get up at one time or make our own way?" asked Quarrel. "We can't go up the outside without help."
"Head to the drawbridge. I'll get it open if I can." Max smiled to himself. Finally, a role he could play in this group of heroes.
The "villians" trotted toward the drawbridge, as the Wanderer started to race after Flex.
Whether by luck or fate, the party made it to the shelter of the castle wall without being detected as far as they could tell. The ditch around the wall was dry, not a moat, but the drawbrdige was up. The wall was about ten meters tall at this point, and the tower five meters higher than that. They could hear the sound of faint chanting from above.
"If you can easily get to the top, do it. Otherwise, wait for the drawbridge to drop and make your best time from there." Max said. He looked at the wench chain on the drawbridge and tried to guess where the mechanism was. And that was where he headed, allowing no obstacle to get in his way.
"Max, keep an eye on these three Wanderer perhaps you ought to go with Max and bring up the rear, while I take Sting up the outside".
With the now familiar soft pop of displaced air, the Wanderer appeared atop the wall. He leaned in against the tower wall and waited.
Flex ran his fingers over the wall, trying to find places to grip but having little success.
Max floated up through the wall to where he thought the drawbridge mechanism might be located and was rewarded by finding it in his first go. He returned to his solid form and removed the chok and began to lower the drawbridge. This was a noisy process and after just a second or two, he rechoked it and considered his options.
Outside, Sir David regarded all of this with awe. "Surely you are demons, or sorcerors of great power," he said. Then he muttered prayers underneath his breath and crossed himself, in case it was the former rather than the latter.
The Beggar King shrugged and pulled the chok loose from the windlass. With a rattle and a crash the drawbridge slammed down. In a trice, the time travellers and Sir David were across the bridge and into the courtyard. Max floated through the wall above them and they looked around them.
An exterior staircase led to the wall, and it seemed they could easily get to the wall, although that would leave them five meters below the top of the tower. The Wanderer signalled that there was access to the tower from the wall.
Built against the back wall was a large hall, and several smaller outbuildings were near it. All the open and visible buildings were empty, but noise could be heard coming from the hall.
"OK, fan out people. Let's not make ourselves an easy target." Flex looked around not sure what they could expect to pop out at them next but confident in the Wanderers leadership.
"Get to the top of the wall. I'll try and slow down any guards." Max said as he headed toward the hall. Max grabbed a pitchfork from an open stable on the fly and flew over to the hall. He jammed the pitchfork into the wall and then let it go. There was a puff of dust, and then ... nothing - the pitchfork remained embedded in the wall.
The door opened at that point and Max saw a number of men in the hall looking out trepidatiously.
Max, in his ghost state, finally had an audience for his Hamlet's father.
"I am thy father's spirit,
Doom'd for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confined to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away. But that I am forbid..."
The men flinched away, several crossed themselves. Mutters like, "No wonder he had us stay inside, he's raising spirits!" flew around the room.
David stood in the courtyard. "I shall deal with these foes," he said facing the hall, "solid men that die when you stab them!"
"Thank you, my lord," Flex said in deference to his position. "Quarrel, why don't you and your friends help Sir David, your bows should prove useful here whilst the rest of try to stop this blasted druid." As he said this, he indicated to Max and Sting to follow him up the stairs to the top of the wall.
An armoured head poked over the top of the tower and looked down. "Invaders!" shouted the man. "Led by Sir David. Get out of the hall and cut him down, you cowardly blackguards!" he roared. "There are some strange looking ones coming toward us, Daffyd."
A voice drifted back, "Deal with them, Daryl."
"Aye," said the first man. "The fires of Vermithrax shall sear the flesh from their bones." He raised a hand and a jet of green flame shot toward the Wanderer.
"I can take the flesh off my own bones, thank you," said the Wanderer as he teleported clear -- or tried to. He was a hair late, and when he reappeared it was with singe marks.
"Damnation! They're wizards, Daffyd!" cried Sir Daryl.
"Then they shall suffer as wizards should," said the voice of Daffyd.
Flex shouted, "Sting, Wanderer ... take the stairs."
The Wanderer thought this was a good idea and moved into the tower and started up the stairs.
Flex, meanwhile, inflated like a balloon and stretched up to where the top portion of his body was above the parapet of the tower. From this position, he could see the two knights lying in ambush by a trapdoor that obviously led to the stairway down, and another man in brown robes above a freshly slain ox. In his hand, this man, the druid Black Daffyd, held an orb that was a smoky color and which seemed to shift both colors and, ever-so-slightly, size. It hurt Flexes eyes to try to watch it too closely.
Flex reached out and ripped one of the crenelations of the tower clean off the wall and balanced it as if considering its worthieness as a club, missile or shield.
Daffyd said, "I know not where ye come from of if you be Demon or Sorceror, but no matter. The fires of Vermithrax shall be your doom." Raising his hands twin jets of flame shot toward Flex.
Flex held the stone in front of him to block the fire, which it did beautifully although it was nearly reduced to rubble in the process.
Unseen by everyone, Sting leapt off Flex'es shoulder and raced over toward Daffyd.
The trap door popped open and the Wanderer leapt onto the roof, right into the waiting arms of the ambush laid by Daryl and Justin. The two knights swung their swords at him in short vicous arcs. The Wanderer saw the blades coming and tried to 'port clear. With two quick pops, he moved around and clear of the weapons ending up behind Justin. Not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, the Wanderer punched, but the blow went high.
Justin spun around and swung again as Daryl of the Two-Swords looped around to get at the Wanderer from the side. The Wanderer 'ported clear of Justin's first blow and that set both men off their stride and their next blows missed. The Wanderer 'ported away from Justin's next blow but then his luck ran out and Daryl's left-hand sword connected.
The Wanderer noted, in passing, that Black Daffyd bore no physical resemblance to the Black Druid that he knew although their attire was identical.
Black Daffyd continued to spew fire at Flex. The blasts impacted around the mouldable man, and finished destroying his makeshift shield. Flex stretched out to the next crenelation and snapped off another large chunk.
Suddenly, Sting appeared! Growing from his tiny height, he rocketed upward into a body-block type of action, targetting the arm carrying the orb. The impact was impressivel Daffyd flew back and off the tower down the line of the wall and landed about 8 meters away on wall. The orb also flew from his hand and fell off the wall to the ground outside the castle.
Meanwhile, in the courtyard, Max dropped down into the ground and travelled into the hall, then floated back up. "I am Duke Maximillian Immungrun! Born of a beggar and a king, I've come to claim your heads! Flee before me or roast in the pit for eternity!" Max screamed at the guards, hoping to break their courage.
The guards jerked upright in shock. One or two, braver than the others took swings at Max, but blenched when their weapons passed through him. Most of the others fled out into the courtyard, and a sound of thumping and cursing proved that Max'es improvised tripwire was having some effect.
Another few curses and shouts indicating that Quarrel and Sharpshooter were also taking a toll.
Max continued his spooky moanings and quotings and the knights and men at arms in the hall were thoroughly demoralized. When Max chased them out into the courtyard, he saw that half a dozen lay sprawled, dead or insensible, on the ground, and the rest were fleeing out the castle gates. David was dispatching one just as Max appeared. Max noted that Quarrel and Sharpshooter seemed to be aiming to disable rather than kill, and Bolo was simply clubbing them down with a bola.
He looked up just in time to see Daffyd and the orb sail off the tower. He instinctively started to fly toward where the orb was likely to have fallen.
With no further targets, the weapons masters began to run toward the stairs and the wall.
Sting turned quickly to Flex. "Get the orb. I'll help Wanderer" He wished the comm units worked locally, as he would love to have Max make sure the druid was down...but that Greg Louganis impersonation, he hoped, would at least keep him busy. He sped towards Daryl's blindside and went for his trusty right cross.
"The Orb can wait," said Flex, but that pesky Druid won't. I will keep him of your back until Max can get here, I don't want him taking you guys from behind." Still with the chunk of wall in hand he moved to the edge of the tower. Running in to launch himself into the air he leaped, down onto the druid. "Your days are up druid - and so is your fashion sense, give it up," Flex shouted, as he hurtled towards him.
Sting cursed aloud...and hoped that Flex's impetuousness and lack of battle savvy didn't end up with him being a corpse. His trusty right cross was on target, but Daryl manage to slap some of the impact aside with one of his swords. Daryl fired back with several sword blows.
Sting waded through the sword blows and went for another shot on his foe. He landed a solid shot to the body that Daryl must have felt even through his armour and the blow knocked the knight back off the tower. He fell down toward the outside of the castle, made a grab for the wall, dropping one sword, but missed. He landed in a puff of dirt in the trench outside the wall.
Justin kept swinging at the Wanderer as well, one blow knocking him back to the edge of the tower and a second dropping him to the ground senseless.
However, that led Justin to the edge of the tower himself. Immediately, an arrow, a quarrel and a bola came sailing up from the courtyard where the Weapons Masters were. Quarrel's shot hit and bounced off, sending a shower of sparks every which way. Sharpshooter's arrow missed its target and fell over the outer wall. Bolo's bola struck but failed to wrap up Justin.
Meanwhile, Flex was surprised when the druid rolled off the tower and into the air to avoid the impact. He looked over and saw a giant eagle swoop down and grab the orb from the ground. The eagle shimmered and the druid stood on the ground with the orb in his hand. He smiled a thin smile and another bolt of green flame lanced out at Flex, missing and knocking a chunk out of the wall.
Max poked his head through the wall, saw the druid holding the orb and decided discretion was the better part of valor. He pulled back to just inside the wall and watch.
Flex tossed the chunk of masonry he was holding at the druid, but missed.
The druid responded to Flex'es attack with another blast of flame.
Sir Justin had seen Daryl fall from the tower and turned to seek a new foe. He charged in and started swinging at Sting.
Daryl aimed his remaining sword up the wall at the weapons masters who were looking down at him, and a jet of green flame shot from it and licked the wall at their feet. They replied with a barrage of arrows, quarrels and energetic plasma - that last from Bolo's handgun. With no place to dodge in the trench, he fell beneath the onslaught.
Justin battered Sting mercilessly, leaving the hero stunned against a crenelation. Justin closed in for the kill, and Sting suddenly cut loose with huge vibratory blast -- which missed, knocking another chunk of wall off the tower.
Flex attempted to dodge the blast of fire, but failed and stumbled against the wall -- where he grabbed another large chunk of masonry.
The druid launched another series of blasts at Flex, which the hero blocked with his piece of rock.
The weapons masters betook themselves to the tower, coming through the trapdoor as Justin prepared another mighty swipe at Sting.
Sting exploded forward, driving all his body weight into a mighty sunday punch, which Sir Justin deflected with his shield.
Sir Justin grinned a predatory grin and pressed the attack on Sting. A looping blow caught the hero and sent him over the side of the tower into the courtyard. He hit the ground and lay still.
Justin turned and saw the three weapons masters. "They send yoemen now, when their demon's fail?" he asked as he closed in on Quarrel. He smashed the crossbowman with two quick blows. Quarrel fell to one knee against the wall.
"'Ere now, leave off," said Bolo punctuating his comment with a bolt of energetic plasma. Justin sidestepped and the blast nearly vaporized the crenelation against which Sting had been leaning a few moments before.
Sharpshooter dropped to one knee and fired. An arrow landed squarely in Justin's chest, then exploded. Justin screamed in rage.
Below, the Druid cursed in some ancient language, then continued, "You dare defy my will! You will all suffer!"
Justin lashed out at Sharpshooter, knocking the archer back a step. He pressed closer, causing Bolo's plasma bolt to miss. Sharpshooter fired another arrow point blank and hit. Justin staggered and the next plasma bolt hit and knocked him back off the wall to join Sting in the courtyard.
"Thank goodness for that" thought Flex as finally Justin fell from the tower. "No time to check Sting just yet we need to take this druid out as well," Flex said to himself.
The Wanderer opened one eye, "Did anyone get the number of the train that hit me?" he asked.
The Beggar King floated up from the ground behind him, solidified, and punched at the villian. "By Odin's beard! Go down!" Max shouted as he tried to beat down Black Daffyd. He landed a punch, but it seemed entirely ineffectual.
The druid turned to face Max, giving Flex an opening. He leapt off the wall at his foe. The druid must have heard the rush of air, and slipped to one side. Flex landed heavily, but kept swinging, as did Max.
"You all shall suffer," cried the druid sending blasts of flame at each hero. Even the insubstantial Max could feel the heat.
A volley of arrows and plasma rained down from the tower onto the druid. "Have at the caitiff," cried the Wanderer from the tower, before hopping down to the wall. "Fire stout yoeman, fire!" He seemed to be quite swept away in the moment.
The Beggar King slid forward and into the druid, doing his best to confuse and dismay his foe, while Flex continued to pummel the man.
"Don't worry about me," Max shouted. "Just hit him with all you've got!" He continued to ghost in and out of the druid to keep him distracted.
With a pop, the Wanderer joined the men on the ground. A moment later, Sir David came running around the edge of the castle, and a moment after that Sting overtook him as he came to join the heroes.
Max waved to the vapor as it drifted away. "Oh, I hope that wasn't our way home."
Sting, in pain and VERY angry, moved over to Flex and stood about six inches from his face. "THAT," Sting exclaimed, pointing in the direction where the mist was, "is why I said get the orb. Not because I like to talk, not because I fancy myself a leader, but because I saw a connection between the druid and the orb...a connection that that wafting mist pretty much corroborates to me."
Sting turned away from Flex. "I really, really, REALLY hope that your hotshotting didn't cost us our way home."
"Hey. Flex didn't break the orb. Quarrel shot it." Max said.
"And it wouldn't have come to that," Sting countered, "if Flex had went for the orb when I suggested it instead of going after Daffyd. At least it *might* not have."
"I got there long before he could have and still couldn't get the orb," Max said. "That's neither here nor there. We've stopped this guy. Now what?"
Slightly taken aback by Sting's outburst Flex shrunk down to his normal size and as he did shouted back, "I thought the mirror was the link not the orb, besides what was I supposed to do let him attack our backs whilst we defeated his cronies." Flex stopped for a moment visibly getting his temper undercontrol.
"I may have made a mistake regard the tactics but someone had to call the shots - but take full responsibility for my actions, I did in the circumstances what seemed right".
"The orb was the link to his powers, or at least it seems so...I didn't see any green flame flying when he didn't have it, and that's why I hit him the way I did in the first place...to seperate him from it and weaken him. We can talk about this more back when we get to our time. Somewhere in this castle I'm betting is the mirror...THAT, I think, is our way home."
Max looked at the Wanderer. "Buh, wasn't the mirror back at Brangore, er, Brian's Guard? I'm pretty sure I touched it."
"But first..." Sting stepped over to Wanderer and whispered in his ear briefly. The Wanderer nodded in reply. Then Sting turned to their knight companion. "First, are you OK? Second, do you have any explanation for what we just saw that you can help us with?"
As Flex awaited the knights answer he thought about the rest of the castle and the other three unlikely allies, whom without which they would have surely failed. He looked around to make sure that they where not up to any underhand dealing. "Might be like them to either take off with the only way back or maybe do some other stupid stunt, still they really came through in the fight," Flex thought begrudgingly.
David was looking a little dazed. "OK? I am unharmed. I have no explanation." He looked over at Daffyd, "Does he not look smaller than he did?"
Indeed, the fallen druid looked somehow slighter and weaker and softer than he had before.
Upon the ramparts, the three weapons masters were visible. Quarrel and Sharpshooter appeared to be scavenging for there ammunition. Bolo was resting one foot on the ramparts and watching the scene below. "Someone might want to make sure that this Johhny here," he pointed down at Sir Daryl, "doesn't wake up all armed and dangerous."
Flex looked around thinking the same thing and said "I suggest gentlemen that we secure this area then we can examine this place for clues and look into whether this druid has any knowledge to get us home. But first of all I suggest we take are of the fallen as our new allies indicates by making sure our prisoners remain captive". With a look to the rest of the group and a nod to Sir David Flex turned to jump to the wall with a view to doing just that.
Sting looked at the rest of the group. "First, lets secure the enemy so that they can't come back to haunt us. From there, we need to search this castle. It had slipped my mind that the mirror itself is still at Castle Bragnore...but that doesn't mean there isn't something else here that would help to trigger it...we would be remiss not to explore the few options we have left."
Flex looked at Sting as looked relieved, "Great that makes two of us, unless anyone has any objections lets get back there now then shall we" Flex gestured back to the wall and moved up to the wall. Once on top he offered a hand to any who needed it then started down to where the prisoners where to administer the Coup De Grace.
Once this had been done he looked at the group and said, "I suggest we get into search parties maybe two groups split up and return in half a hour unless we find difficulty in which case I guess holla real loud" said Flex smiling behind his mask.
The heros and their allies made a quick but fairly thorough search of the castle. They found little that was unexpected. The soldiers had left a mess as well as some of their armour and weapons -- Quarrel and Sharpshooter were able to fill their quivers even if the replacements were not as fancy as the gimmick arrows they had started with.
Flex looked around the group, "So what have we come up with - Sting did you guys come across anything that you think could help us unlock this mystery? Did anyone see any books or scrolls any signs that read, 'break me in case of emergency. Flex looked less than happy and unsure as to what their next move should be.
"I guess no one saw anything like a secret chamber or safe place?"
"It appears our delivery to these shores was by other forces. Perhaps the wizard the Wanderer and I spoke with back at the castle can shed more light upon it now that the danger is past." Max took a moment to survey the weaponry their knightly companion had unearthed. "What do you have here, Sir David?"
"Both less and more than I expected," was the reply. "They have little in the way of weapons and missiles." He pointed to a stack of arrows, "That is inadequate for any kind of siege. They must have relied on their magic to defend them, but your magic was stronger. A few of their weapons and some of the armour, though, is quite impressive."
"Really? Such as?" Max joined David in his investigations.
"This sword which I took from Justin after he fell from the tower is of exceeding fine quality, and the balance is superb. Look at the workmanship on that breastplate!"
"Amazing. Spoils of war and all that." Max looked at the collection of weapons before him. "I fear if we leave those villians in the storage room, they will simply escape to cause further damage. What do you suppose your lord would like done with them?"
"His justice will surely be swift. I believe that Justin and Daryl will be hanged," said David. "Perhaps one of you sorcerors can get word to him quickly that the castle is ours? Then he can send a garrison and instructions as to the disposition of the prisoners."
"I think I can make that trip quickly enough," Max said. "The rest of you hold down the fort while I'm gone."
Max ghosted out and took to the air. He flew up and over the trees and headed for Brangore.
"OK We'll I am going to check our prisoners are not busting the door down then going to have another look around" Flex said. His sense of frustration with the groups circumstances was mounting now that there was nothing to occupy them.
Flex gave the area another, more thorough search after verifying that the prisoners were secured. He found nothing else worth commenting on. There were no dungeons, not unusual in a small border tower.
"I would suggest keeping a watch on this door," said Quarrel. "It may not stop that druid from getting out if he wants."
A watch was laid, and an uncomfortable night spent. Nearly noon the next day, The Wanderer who was lounging on the tower shouted that a column of men was approaching. It was the Duke, with Max and a garrison for the castle. The men were quickly installed and set to work repairing some of the damage. A soon as the immediate orders were given, Brian asked for the heroes to meet him in the great hall.
"My thanks go out to you for your work, my friends," he said. "You have done me a great service. I am in your debt."
"We're charged with ferretting out such corruption," Max said. "Now, if we might ask a small favor of you? This is going to sound strange, but we would like access to the large mirror in your throne room and your wizard, please."
"Of course, he is at your disposal. He is at Brian's Guard as is the mirror, please retire there at your liesure," said the Duke.
Max remembered the pile of weapons and armor then thought about the displays Ka-Sador has so lovingly constructed. "Oh, and perhaps a simple spoil or two from our battle."
"They are yours by right of conquest, saving only those that my loyal knight Sir David has chosen and such items as are needed for the defense of the castle," said the Duke.
"Gentlemen," Max said, addressing his companions. "I recommend a bauble or two to remind you of our time spent aiding our good Duke here. Beyond that, I suspect we should return to Brian's Guard to see if we can unravel the mystery of the mirror."
For his own part, Max took a small belt dagger that would be both useful and remind him of this jaunt back in time. For the headquarters, he tried to get a breast-plate and broadsword for display. He found a suitable breastplate and broadwsord with no difficulty.
Looking down at what there was Flex also choose a small item - it would not look good for him if the place he lived in would was adorned with swords or armour. "I agree with Max, there is clearly nothing for us here, we've done our bit now lets see if we can't find a way back home - hope springs eternal, as my Nan used to say," said Flex as he waited for the others to choose. He then took the opportunity to say good bye to the knights.
Everyone who wanted a souvenir had a chance to sort through the pile. After farewells were shared, the heroes and their strange-bedfellow allies were back on the road toward Brangore. Max took the time to tell the group of the meeting with the wizard.
"So, the Wanderer and I discussed the basics of our arrival here with the man, but did not go into great detail. He seemed to be under the impression that he might be able to help us return home. We were unsure about the agent of our arrival, so it was decided to look into the Black Daffyd situation. As we found nothing there, I'm at a loss for what brought us here. I'm sorry this didn't come up sooner, but I was concerned about how much to voice in front of our knightly escort." Max said as he clung tenaciously to his horse. "Hm. Almost like riding a motorcycle."
Striking on a moment of thought, Max signaled for a halt. "Let's go over it again. We were fighting in the hall. What caused the mirror to fall?"
Sting uprighted on his horse like a shot. "I was firing a sting at miniature size at Quarrel...and it hit...the..."
"Perhaps with the assistance of this wizard, we should try and recreate this incident." Max looked to the others.
"Sounds good to me," Flex chimed in. "I'm at a lose as to what to suggest anyway as I only remember waking up in this strange place not what happened during. But I reckon its a safe bet that, if that mirror that brought us here is magical and it brought us here perhaps this one here can undo what its future self did and bring us back. Oh man - did I just say all that. Does this happen often? Am I going end up sounding like Dr Spock or what?"
As the sun began to set, the party arrived at castle Brangore. They were cheered as heroes. The wizard, Master Devlin, was in his tower they were told.
"Gentlemen, shall we retrieve the good Master Devlin?" Max asked, already heading for the tower.
"Sounds like a plan." Sting said, as he looked for the staircase leading upwards.
As they entered the lowest level of Devlin's tower, the man himself came bustling down the stairs. "I saw your arrival," he said. "And let me add my congratulations to the rest. You have done us a great service."
"Cool. Thanks." Max cocked his head to the side. "Wait. Which arrival did you see? Just now or when we appeared originally?"
"Just now, of course," he looked at the heroes with an odd expression. "How could it be else?"
Flex looked at Max and said, "Max I do believe that you are being overly suspicious, explain how we got here and then lets get on with this".
"My dear Flex, you really misread me sometimes," Max said with a smirk. "Defender is the suspicious one. If Master Devlin saw our original arrival, it would imply he has some idea of how we get home."
"Now I am confused. Do you not know how to return to your distant land?" said Devlin.
"We have an idea, but need your help and advice." Max directed Master Devlin to sit, then told him a condensed version of the fight, ending with Sting's blast striking the mirror. He concluded, "We think striking the mirror with another such force might open the portal again. But we know nothing of magic. So, what do you think?"
When the heroes told Devlin they had come from the future, he leapt to his feet and began to pace. He grilled them over every detail of the journey, coming at last to the mirror. "You are certain it is the same mirror?" he asked.
"Uh," Max said while nodding. "No. However, the gentlemen who originally stole it might be better able to answer that."
"We did not steal it," retorted Quarrel hotly, "It was mine by rights." He calmed himself, "But regardless, it appears to be the same but is it?"
"Could there be another mirror? Where would it be?" Now Max was worried. "Do you think there might be clues where we first appeared?"
"Honestly", Sting began, "Before we go off on another wild chase, lets see if *THIS* one will do what we need it to do, eh?"
Devlin looked into the middle distance while he thought, "Perhaps you could examine the mirror or mirrors, while I ... think." He began to drift upstairs lost in thought.
Max shrugged. "Shall we?" The group moved to the throne room to examine the mirror.
A thorough examination convinced everyone who had an opinion that this was the same mirror, or an extremely close copy.
"I think we should give it a try. Anyone want to wait for Master Devlin to arrive? He's a spiritual brother, down with Force and all. He might be able to tell us stuff we weren't meant to know." Max stopped then looked at the Wanderer. "I've been around you way too long."
"Or we could have Sting fire another blast at it and see if the same think occurs again..." Flex said looking around.
As Flex looked at the faces responding to his words spoken more in jest he realised that the group still hardly knew him nor his sense of humor. "Aww, only kidding I don't want to rush in again," Flex said grining. Then taking a seat he waited for Devlins return as he cast a whistful look at the mirror.
Sting rolled his eyes inside his mask as he spoke. "Yes, lets wait for Mr. Devlin."
The heros waited. And waited. The evening wore on and the sounds of revelry began to drift up from the hall below.
After a while, Max began to worry. He shared a look with the Wanderer then headed out of the room. "I'll be back in a moment."
Once outside the throne room, Max sprinted for Devlin's tower. He had not wanted to worry his companions over his silly paranoia, but needed to reassure himself.
Max raced to the tower and into the bottom room, where he scared the bejeezus out of the servant who was tending the fire.
"Where is your master?" Max asked. "We have been waiting for hours. Where is he?"
"Upstairs," said the man when he had recovered. "He'll probably be there all night. I've seen it before. He gets caught up in something and loses all track of time. You want my advice, eat, enjoy yourself, sleep and try him in the morning."
"I suppose you are right," Max said. Then he pointed toward a sizable log on the fire. "Is that suppose to be falling out of the fire?"
When the servant turned, Max ghosted and zipped through the ceiling.
A few floors up, Devlin was hunched over a table examining an old manuscript. Every now and then he would mutter to himself. Occasionally, he would stare off into space. At irregular intervals, he would dip ink into a well and scritch out a few lines or characters.
Max settled by the door, waited until Devlin's pen was in the ink well and cleared his throat loudly.
Devlin jumped, "Who's there? Ah, it is you! What, is something the matter?"
"Sorry, but I was getting concerned for you. You disappeared upstairs and we were expecting you hours ago."
"Really? I hope I didn't mislead you into thinking that. This could take days, or weeks."
"I'm sorry. What will take weeks?"
"The answer, the answer. To your problem." Seeing Max's confusion he elaborated. "Unless I am very much mistaken, sending you home will be quite an effort. If you weren't from ... the future, I doubt it could be done at all. Even as it is, I'm not sure. Researching the proper incantations is time-consuming. I would like to see that mirror, though. Could you arrange for it to brought here?"
"Weeks?! Oh, Sting's not going to like this." Max took a deep breath. "I guess we could move the mirror over here, but wouldn't you rather observe it in it's natural environment?"
Max started to explain. His mouth opened, his hands made gestures and he pointed to various motes in the air seemingly at random. His eyes widened, his mouth opened and closed. But no sound came out. Understanding turned to confusion then to acceptance. He shrugged.
"I don't know," he finally acquiesced. "I'll go have some of the strong types cart it over now."
Max drifted back down through the floor, startling the poor servant out of his mind. "Oh, sorry. Is that a wild Alsatian dog about to eat that arm chair?"
With the servant again looking away, Max drifted out the door and headed back to the others. Sting was not going to like this at all. In fact, none of them were.
The heroes carted the mirror over and Devlin thanked them and returned to his labours.
At loose ends, the heroes tried to find things to do, but mostly they chafed at the enforced wait. Two days passed, and then Duke Brian returned from the castle. The traitors had all been hanged, he said. The heroes were treated royally but still wanted to return home.
Three days afer Brian's return, Quarrel and Sharpshooter rounded up the heroes. "Devlin's servant found us at the archery range," Quarrel said. "We must have been the easiest to find, since that's where we spend most of our time. The man said Devlin had news."
Eagerly the time-travellers gathered in Devlin's upper story room around the mirror. "I have found, I think, the solution," said Devlin. "Since you are not wizards, I cannot explain precisely how it works, but ... the mirror you," he pointed at Sting, "set vibrating had a spell on it, which called you back here. This mirror had no spell on it when you arrived. When you return, the mirror there will have no spell on it anymore. This mirror here has a spell on it complete save for one thing." He looked at Sting again.
Sting looked at everyone, and whispered something in the ear of Wanderer, then stepped forward.
"OK, if I recall, I was shrunk to minimum size when I did this, so I better do that again, just in case. Is everyone and everything squared away?" His eyes locked on Wanderer as he completed his sentence.
"Wait, wait!" cried Devlin. "As soon as you do this, the spell will be complete and you will be drawn back to your time!"
Sting laughed openly, then composed himself. "I'm sorry for that, Master Devlin, but that's what I thought the goal here was."
"Then I am doubly glad I stopped you," he said. "My belief is that you can return whenever you are ready. But having said that, I invite you to remain. There is much we could learn from you, and you will be treated like Princes!"
"Time will teach, and I fear we have tarried here too long as is." Max bowed deeply. "There are those under my protection that I must return to. Hit it, Sting."
"Perhaps," offered the Wanderer, "we might take our leave of the Duke and gather our keepsakes, first?"
"Oh, yeah. Our shinies." Max bounded out of the room.
Flex looked after the retreating Max and said, "Tourists, huh." Looking around he thought to himself, "As much as this has been nice I am so ready for the 21st century."
Soon the heroes had gathered their keepsakes and said their farewells. Devlin had caused the mirror to be moved back into the hall where it had originally been located and he, Duke Brian and Sir David were waiting when the heroes returned. Brian thanked them again and then the three men moved to the side of the room.
"Are we ready?" Sting said.
The Wanderer nodded from his position between Quarrel and Sharpshooter, who both nodded as well. Bolo said, "Yeh, let's go home."
"Man, to think that we could have gone anytime - I sure miss home, lets do it, Sting," Flex said longingly as he waved to the Duke and his people.
"Your Grace, from one Duke to another, you run a fine duchy. Thank you for your hospitality. If you're ever down by Church and Thirty Third street, look me up. Bon chance, mes amies. Au revoir." Max whipped a pair of Wayfarer sunglasses out of his coat. "We've got half a suit of armor, a pack of cigarettes, it's the Dark Ages and we're wearing sunglasses. Hit it."
Sting had to smile. "These guys are weird," he thought to himself, "but they're quickly becoming family."
Sting motioned for the heroes to gather closer, so they would be in a tight grouping, and motioned for everyone else to step back. He placed a hand on the Wanderer's shoulder, then shrank to one inch so he was perched on the shoulder. He concentrated, measured the shot, and aimed for the frame of the mirror.
The mirror rang like a bell, then a grey misted filled the vision of the time travellers. Each slipped into the mirror, then their vision went black.
A moment later the mist cleared and all the men found themselves standing exactly where they had been standing a moment ago. For a split second they thought something had gone wrong, then they saw the different furnishings and architectural details. It was the same room, but from their time not the past.
A few changes struck them immediately. All the antiquities taken from the museum were gone and the mess of the fight had been cleaned up.
The hour of the day was different, it seemed like early morning.
At the Nest, PC was jarred awake as an alarm blared. She blinked and checked the scan -- the motion sensor Defender had placed around the mirror at the castle had been triggered, and the linked video camera was already starting to stream data back.
PC jumped out of bed and waited for the visual to confirm what she had hoped, then hit her portable com line to contact Defender...she couldn't remember if he was on base or not...while hastily throwing on a pair of sweats before heading towards Ka-Sador's quarters.
The same alarm had sounded at Defender's home. He was on his way to base within ten minutes.
"Wahooo! I think you did it, Sting ole Buddy," said Flex, his enthusiasm evident to all.
"Now it looks like we are back in Kanses, we had better check in and see how long we have been gone," said Flex as he looked for his mobile to switch it back on and see if he got a signal.
"What now," said Quarrel, looking at the heroes. "It seems kind of pointless to pick up where we left off."
"For what it's worth, Quarrel, I agree. I would like to get the rest of the team here, however, to talk this out...besides, I'm sure they're wondering where we've been."
Sting punched in the codes to signal base. "Sting to PC, you're not gonna ..."
"DA....amn glad to have you back, Sting," PC said almost immediately. "Defender had the room motion sensored for if and when you returned. Everyone OK?"
"OK, if not a bit confused." Sting said. "We need Defender and Ka-Sador out here at the castle as fast as they can manage it. But my first pressing question is...what's today's date?"
"You've been gone for a week," was the reply.
Max had been considering the question of what to do with the Weapons Masters as well, and now he stepped aside, bowed slightly and motioned them toward the door.
"What do you mean?" asked Quarrel. "This is my home."
"True. Will you be waiting for the police here then?" Max began to pace in Columbo fashion. "I seems to remember now that youse guys robbed a museum. Maybe you get away with it. Maybe we don't say nothin' in return for your help at Medieval Times. Since the stuff you pinched is gone, we can only assume the authorities will know you did it."
An idea struck Max, violently. "Maybe we can work something out to keep the museum from pressing charges..."
"Such as?" asked Quarrel.
"If we can keep Defender from getting you tossed in the pokie... and convince everyone that you intend to go straight... and you donate a chunk of change to the museum and agree to some community service... I think we can get it all swept under the carpet. Of course, this all hinges on one little thing... you *do* intend to go straight, don't you?"
Quarrel sighed, "This was the last thing anyway. We just wanted to furnish the house properly. Yes, we'll go straight."
"Then put your weapons away and have a seat. Sting will speak to Defender when he arrives," Max said, passing the buck. "Oh, and if it was furniture that you wanted, there is a tradesman in my duchy who is a genius at crafting reproductions. I realize it isn't the same as the real McCoy, but it would at least be legally obtained."
The Weapons Masters looked around (except for Quarrel) and realized there was no place to sit. "Perhaps we should go downstairs," said Quarrel.
"Gentlemen, welcome back... from where ever you were," Defender said as he walked into the room. "What happened?"
"Well, you'd better sit down if you want the full version - it's a long story, as they say," said Flex as he looked at Defender's anxious face.
Flex and The Wanderer filled Defender in.
Sting cleared his throat and began. "That's about the long and short of it. The only question now is what to do with the Archers Three over here. They acquitted themselves well. And Quarrel has stated that at this point they just want to go straight and retire. I believe him."
"That's right," said Quarrel. "Look around, this place is mine - bought and paid for. I like it here, I don't want to risk it. The museum was stupid." He shook his head, "That damn mirror. It really should be mine, you know." He held up his hands, "I know, I know. Spilt milk. I'll live without it. If it wasn't for the mirror we probably wouldn't have done it at all." He barked a short laugh, "And look what happened. Actually," he became thoughtful, "did we even have a choice? That spell was on the mirror to take us back, but it wouldn't have been if Devlin hadn't cast it to take us home. If we hadn't taken the mirror and you hadn't shown up here we would never have gone back and ... I lose track of it right about there."
"Well, Sting could give it a zap and we could ask Devlin himself," Max offered.
"I'm guessing you've had your fill of the mirror then?" Defender asked. Not waiting for an answer. "This story sounds incredible, but I'm not sure about letting them go. I understand that..."
"Don't worry about it," Max interrupted. "Quarrel here and Sting came up with a master plan to keep the threesome out of the pokey. Basically, our very high profile friend here will make some donations to the museum, get them to drop the charges and we talk to the DA to get them off with some community service. Genius plan, my friends. Pure genius."
"What about our 'special friends' in law enforcement?" Defender asked.
"Been thinking about that. Do you really think they want to tangle with the potential publicity of this situation? I doubt they will be any trouble." Max smiled and stretched. "Unless there is anything else, my duchy has doubtlessly fallen into pure chaos in my absence. I should be getting back to them soon. Oh, a present for the trophy hall." Max handed the broadsword and breastplate to Defender. "You know, I should have thought to bring you a shield, Defender. It would fit your personality perfectly. Maybe something with a mullet gules and concentric circles argent and gules."
The heroes batted the plan around a bit longer, and it was agreed. They departed, taking the mirror with them, and left the now-retired villians at their castle.