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desolate milkshake

Nightingales can't live on fairy tales

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Deep in the land of bison shit and camel spit, in the shadow of Evil Mountain—that's what Jackson called the rocky abode of Marlboro Keep—there was a noisy little town where the people weren't accustomed to anything more than barking dogs, singing cicadas and the patter of rain. Fleets of wagons and their covered, and sometimes armored, trailers passed through Chesterfield all day and night now. Honking horns, thrumming engines, and hooting and whooping of caravan folk was their new norm. But tonight they were in for another kind of whooping, the kind that would leave this ass-end of nowhere red for a long while.

At least he hoped so. It had been a week of mindless drudgery. Walk the town. Walk the farms. Walk the roads. Talk to anyone else who walked them, although their doddering accent made the Terric difficult to follow. They had settled on an abandoned tornado shelter on the outskirts of town to turn into a local hideout and supply cache, wherein they ate together at the end of every night and shared tales about the nothing going on. For example:

"Martha accused Stuart of stuffing his camel's humps today during the camel competition," Jackson said over a can of beans and the dim light of a fire stone outside their designated hole in the ground "Is cheating at a camel competition punishable?"

And it was on this night that such philosophical quandaries on the reach of Justice were interrupted, the lone stretch of highway beyond the depot filled with another kind of noise: the popping of tires and screams that were music to their ears! A wagon, hitched with a comically large armored trailer and spiked spokes on its wheels, tore to a sudden stop. Pinpricks of light from green-cloaks hidden in the grass and their flaming arrows rained down it. Other wagons sped by with haste to escape the incident. They were far enough away from town the locals had not an inkling.

"Finally! Something's happening!" 

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Eddie was finger deep in the mouth of his shoes,  holding onto their backs with his socks stuffed down into them, his attention focused on his feet. The toes of one foot was splayed over the ground while the big toe of the opposite worked its way into the space between each set of the former.

His feet ached and throbbed.

For the better part of the day, he etched runes onto every viable surface in order to shore up the foundation of their security network, or at least the magical side of it. Not the sort of work he had expected to be doing, nor was it something he was built for. Climate control was an important aspect of whatever occupation he found himself in. Climate control, large desks, and those spinning chairs with wheels that would eliminate the need to physically walk anywhere.

And just how he ended up ruining the seat of his pants on a grimy, grease covered canvas wrapped pile of lumber, that was what he wanted to know!

“Camels are assholes,” He replied in a half-mutter, not really following along with Jackson as he worked dirt from between his toes, still lost in thought. In a lowered voice, he complained to himself, “bastard spit right on me, unbelievable,” which validated his criticism despite its sideways relevance.

The light of the fire stone sputtered a moment as Eddie looked up. A rose colored nimbus trailed after his eyes, settling briefly until he shot up to his feet and began tearing his socks from out of his shoes, tossing them aside as he shuffled and shambled, hopping on one foot, then the other, putting on his loafers. He was already half way up the shelter’s stairs by the time he was done. He peeked out from the vault just long enough to confirm the situation.

The scene outside was one of chaos, where the world was a a cacophony of metal on metal and people shouting. Eddie emerged to see a convoy of vehicles making a run for the town, and more that had bogged down and was being pelted by unseen assailants. He was too far away to discern the minute details. Several yards away a tire rolled toward them with a black, noxious smoke trailing from it, but it flipped on its side as its momentum was bled from it by the grass and rocks.

“Hey,” Eddie began, scratching the side of his nose lazily, dredging up Jackson’s words before that he hadn’t really been listening to. “Is littering punishable?”

Wind moved in from the south, from their rear, and grabbed hold of the smoke, carrying it back toward the attack. Eddie was moving with purpose toward one of the warehouses nearby the road as the smoke expanded into a fog bank that stretched across the open ground just thick enough to get him where he needed to go. It would dissipate quickly, but what did Gaia want from him? If she wanted fancy, she should’ve given him fireballs.

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"Cheatin's cheatin' ain't it?"

Jericho applied his razor to the quandary and left in its wake a loose tangle of what was once a knot.

"I wouldn't say as we cut off his hand or nothin', assuming he did it that is, and I'd also say we should finish up with murders and rapists and all that sort of folk first. But maybe we break one of those dinky little fingers on an off-hand, somethin' like that."

The popping of wheels. The screaming of people. The screeching of metal rims on asphalt as a ponderous vehicle skid, toppled, and slammed onto its side. Jericho grabbed his sword and a pouch, remaining nearly hitched to Eddie's waist as they each sped to the surface.  

The moment the shelter's ceiling gave way to the night sky, Jericho flexed his legs and shunted heavenward, disappearing into the cover of a nimbostratus cloud bank. His descent delivered him into the heart of the location suggested to him by assault trajectory – the flaming arrowheads gave their position away. And on descending, it was with his sword punching through the back of a hapless bowman.

Jericho took off again, earning an arrow through his thigh for his effort, but then vanished from sight against the star-speckled pitch in short order. Archers on the lookout for him would be disappointed to find that Jericho would not descend into their midst a second time, and moreover, used this distraction to his advantage; the corpse of the archer he killed withdrew the sword from its own back and ran it through the chest of its nearest comrade.

He was back at the shelter, eyes open and blank, hands outstretched before him, the only physical indicators of his undue influence over the two, and growing, corpses he commandeered on the field of battle; one of the possessed archers was making use of his bow while the other continued to leverage Jericho's sword.

The Ghost Pouch was powerful – now Jericho needed to sound out the depths of that power.  

Edited by supernal

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Once the trailer toppled—its length in excess of the road's width, its cab dragged and swung by the hitch, one of its passengers flung clear out the windowthe highway was blocked. A line of angry and fearful travelers piled up behind; many fled their inferior canvas and wood vehicles.

A second volley loosed and arrows flew in trained synchronicity. Their aim, however, was off when they found themselves unnaturally downwind. Most fell short, and those that did not punctured or bounced off the wrong vehicles.

"Oy, mista!" A dirty brat of a girl in a powder blue dress and scarf, and one brown side-pigtail intercepted Eddie at the warehouse. It seemed a few others had a similar idea about shelter, but he was the only moving toward the disaster, and maybe he just had one of those faces. She reached out with her grubby hands to pull him by the clothes toward a flaming, lone wagon full of holes flanked by two other despairing children. "Come quick! Me mum's 'avin a baby!"

Jericho landed in the beginning of a brush fire. As he killed the first and the first killed the second, a horn sounded. The green-cloaks absconded; their retreat back into tall grass was calculated and fast. In the midst of the smoke, firelight reflected off of a fist-sized metallic object that careened toward Jericho, and in the moment the fireflush grenade exploded he got the impression that these weren't simple highwaymen.

At about that time, an ostentatiously dressed man that could be described as a living tub of lard managed to climb out of the supposed highwaymen's initial, now overturned target, and yelled at nothing in particular through his sweaty bush of a mustache, "Hey, you fucking pricks! Get back here! You owe me a fucking truck, you cowardly pieces of shit! Fuck, where's my ribbon‽"

During the commotion, Jackson had tried to peg one with his crossbow, but missed spectacularly when a few beasts of burden off-roaded in panic. He thought he had his second shot, but again, it was a dud on closer examination. The sword-wielding zombie received a bolt center-mass. 

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A bloody god damn showoff was Jackson, Eddie decided after reaching the warehouse, huffing and puffing as he removed a cigarette carton from an inner jacket pocket. He shook the last cigarette loose and tossed the empty carton behind him. Littering probably wasn’t punishable.

“What?” Eddie looked down to find a small hand holding onto his shirt, another small hand clutching his discarded carton, with both joined to the same dirty bumpkin girl. He swatted her hand off his suit jacket, cautiously ensuring that the connection between them was brief, if forceful. “So get a doctor, you stupid girl,” he told her as he bent down and began dragging his finger across the ground, drawing a figure in the dirt and grime.

A geometric diagram coalesced beneath Eddie’s finger as the girl expounded on the situation, emphasizing the severity of the situation with wild gestures and the occasional stomped foot, advising Eddie that there would be trouble if he didn’t comply and comply quickly.

“You come and ‘elp, or I’ll scream and everyone’ll think yor a bad man,” the girl said with a glare leveled directly at him. She turned in place and indicated a nearby deathtrap.

“Ok, just real quick, stand here,” Eddie instructed her, pulling the girl into a circle orbited by several rectangular figures. The girl put up brief resistance as she stared down at her feet and noticed the crudely drawn words in the circle, each having been written in an alphabet only distantly related to Terric. They also wiggled when watched too long. “Shy buggers,” he told her, but she wasn’t listening anymore.

Her resistance left the moment she entered the diagram, allowing Eddie to reach down and pull up a transparent piece of fabric, almost invisible in the night; the girl shuddered as he pulled her shadow free. He stood, bringing the shadow with him, holding on tight as it fought and squirmed. He whispered something quiet in its ear before releasing it.

Like an arrow loosed, the shadow darted across the ground swiftly, barely needing to touch it as it propelled itself forward. It clawed one man in passing, raking its arms across his back with fingers the size of small knives, sharp and deadly. It threw itself at another, ducking between his legs as it coiled up the length of his body, tightening into a snake-like vice.

Eddie left the girl where she was to check in on this mum ‘avin a baby.

“Bollocks,” Eddie cursed, moving round the flaming wagon to find a woman propped against a rear tire, heaving with deep breaths, legs spread to either side, “so it wasn’t an ambush.”

Eddie pulled the woman into a carry after some indecision, electing for a brutal honeymoon with a battlefield as the threshold, unsure of how to handle her distended gut. An arrow whizzed by once, but he did manage to safely deposit the family, minus one kid, safely into the warehouse. Then he lit his cigarette. Bollocks!

Meanwhile his heroics, Eddie felt the connection with his shadow terminate, pulled away from his consciousness like a plucked hair. The girl would return to normal, shadow in tow, but his improvised weapon of mayhem was gone. Unknown to him from his position at the warehouse, which he was only just exiting, a small woman in a green cloak put an arrow squarely through the shadow's chest. Several more had finished it off.

Looking for a new target, the woman sighted Jericho, revealed to her as the zombie hit the ground, and she drew a bead on him in one fluid motion, notching, sighting, loosing; a streak of orange and red was hurled across the distance between them.

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"Damn." Jericho cursed.

To mundane sight he was just standing there. Rather, leaning against a wall, relieving his leg of weight it was not prepared to take due to the arrow which jutted from its thigh.

To a more sensitive awareness, which belonged to psychics and mediums and diviners of a certain class, this same man had been until that instant the focal point of a massive, whirling tide of spectral energy. The presence abated, swirling down the drain of the pouch he had tied to his hip, leaving behind only the man himself.

"Just two. Well, least I can –"

His train of thought was derailed by the sight of a metallic sphere racing towards him. His leg was too injured to leap him to safety; even as he had that thought, the sphere unfurled and unleashed a full payload of chemical fire.

With the benefit of an instant of thought, the only idea which occurred to Jericho was to shrink his attack surface. He pivoted on one foot, the one attached to his good leg, and presented his shoulder to the wave of flame The flush splashed and spread against his shoulder and chest. The canary yellow shirt underneath his coveralls was consumed at near the moment of impact, the fibers melting against his skin. The coveralls themselves remained untouched, the chemical wash slicking down his front to puddle flame at his feet.

On that same good leg Jericho shunted backwards, removing him from one attack vector while exposing him to another. The grimace overtaking his face due, in part, to the pain from the burn on his shoulder, and in much larger part to the sight of a skilled archer on higher ground drawing a bead on him. This vignette induced in Jericho an existential pain. Being fast enough to trace her every movement thrilled him; being in too poor a condition to do anything about it filled him with dread.

The arrow flew towards him and the possessed corpse placed between Jericho and his nemesis twitched to life and sprang to intercept it, taking the arrow in the chest alongside Jackson's bolt. The moment it hit the ground the body stumbled towards Jericho, who had himself tumbled into the shelter for proper cover.

When the corpse delivered Sally into Jericho's hand, Jericho dismissed the spirit driving it and the bowman's cooling corpse fell limp to the ground.

"Lesson learned baby." Jericho stroked his cheek against the pommel of his sword before laying it across his lap. "Never letting you go again. Now let's see about this fucking leech."

Jericho pulled free the woman's arrow from the corpse which took it on his behalf. She had fletched it herself. That made the contagion link strong. Without so much as breaking the rhythm of his breath, Jericho transferred a conjuration spell back to the bow which had shot this arrow. A half-minute later the bow collapsed into acid in the woman's hands.

"Who else is left!?"

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Eddie put down the pregnant woman, who managed an exhausted thanks between heaving breaths, and several less courageous do-gooders within the warehouse attended to her. The youngest of the three children, a boy in an elephant onesie gazed wistfully at the cigarette-wielding champion of the unborn. "Awe you going to be our new dad?" His brother in the giraffe onesie collapsed next to mum and sobbed.

Jericho received an answer of background chatter from bystanders and crackling flames; one street lantern on a tall pole flickered as if to reply, "I survived," the carved initials of lovers ages past preserved in this small stretch of once quiet country. On closer inspection of the arrow in his hands, there existed a slight pressure against his conjuration, a residual anti-magic that had only touched but not seeped into it. 

But the corpulent trucker wasn't content with rest. He plucked a jeweled mustache comb from the chest pocket of his lavender robe to sort out the good ole upper-lip mop, then a different comb for his scalp, and once put together undulated in Eddie's direction from his overturned metal lookout at the front of the pileup; moon and fire revealed a glimmer in his eyes like slick hard-candies. "Excuse me, neighbor," he interrupted Eddie's smoke break with a smile; his cheeks oozed over his smile lines, teeth so white he must have visited a dentist every month to scrub away the taint of similar vices. "I'm Owen, purveyor of exotica, and I couldn't help but be entranced by your valiant rescue of the hapless bourgeois. Can I shake your hand?"

Owen stuck his hand out; his palm wasn't sweating at all. "What brings such a hero to the hinterlands?"

Jackson, upon reloading his crossbow and seeing no one left to shoot at, assisted the first travelers back to their vehicles and checked for any stragglers Jericho might have missed. The short reconnaissance proved unfruitful and he approached Jericho. "You're crispier than your cooking." His nose scrunched. "Eager to try out your new toy? What does it do? Show me, I missed it!" 

 

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With considerable effort, Eddie managed to disentangle himself from the throng of cowardly yokels, as well as a kid that kept insisting he was his daddy, and made good on his retreat from the warehouse. When the door slid shut behind him, and before he could truly enjoy his cigarette in peace, an impressively mustachioed gentleman imposed himself between Eddie and relaxation.

“Fuck me, but you’re a bloody big one, aren’t you?”

Nobody could blame him for his surprise, and Eddie dared anyone to try. It would take at least four of him to make up one Owen. And unlike many of the other truckers, the fearful weaklings in the warehouse, too, there was a presence to Owen that lent him a likable air, only slightly diminished by the glistening brow beaded by sweat. One such bead of sweat swelled noticeably at the tip of a strand of hair in his mustached. Eddie watched it with horrified disgust, at not being able to look away, and that the man appeared to not notice at all.

“Wot?” Shaking his head, Eddie looked back at Owen, not comprehending. “Shake my…? Absolutely—!?”

Before the sentence could be completed, Owen pulled Eddie’s hand into a firm, two-handed grip, one sweaty mitt over the other, trapping Eddie’s hand in place until the ritual could be completed, leaving just a little peace of Eddie with Owen, and a lot more of Owen — sweat, as well as his aura — with Eddie.

“Sure, sure fin’… No problem, shake away, Owen, purveyor of exotica…” Eddie stared dumbfounded at his hand. “Huh. Exotica?” He could use a few more horned skulls baptized in Outsider blood, as well as a few more down to earth cult objects, like your run-of-the-mill tantric sex fetish for his more scandalous rites. “What kind of exotica are we talking about here, Owen?”

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Jericho touched his sword to the arrow and bisected it, leaving a two-inch projection from his thigh. The stream of curses flowing from his mouth was both liberal incoherent as he hobbled deeper into the shelter and to their first aid station.

Jackson found Jericho midway through treating his own burn; rinsed and cleaned, he had only to bandaged it.

"Naw, you didn't miss a thing. Shot one of my toy's toys through the chest actually. Maybe that archer wouldn't have seen me if you didn't, or maybe I wouldn't have been able to save my own life. Hard to say. Do you know what a 'lukewarm thanks' is?"

As he spoke, he had moved on to the arrow wound. A very brief, equally painful, twirl of the shaft confirmed the head wasn't lodged in bone. After washing his hands a second time, Jericho used his fingers to enlarge the wound and ease the arrowhead out amidst another cloud of cursing. He stopped only to chew on a half-burnt stalk of grain he pulled from his coveralls, then started to sew the wound up.

"You're seeing it now too. I can't sew wounds this tight. One of those fools I killed had medic experience. This pouch here lets me put a yoke on their spirits."

The harrowed faces of the two soldiers Jericho had just freshly reaped from their skirmish flashed in the space above his head, casting his features in a gristly limelight for less than a second.

"I gotta let 'em settle a bit and then I'll try squeezing somethin' useful outta 'em. Right now we gotta find Eddie and talk this thing through. That was military tech we were going up against. Maybe they just lifted those grenades off a crate but they were real organized too. I think we may have helped the wrong side, or things just ain't what they seem. Help me over there will ya?"

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Owen let out a boisterous belly laugh that was at odds with the dismal milieu, and those narrow eyes honed in on Eddie with the same expression as a poacher who just spotted a pink rhino. "Might you be a fellow enthusiast, neighbor? I have an abundance of curious curios from the terrifying biomes of savage Biazo! Bunniumbra feet, Naiadus draconis tails, preserved knucksucksUlway tsantsa, and..." He leaned in and whispered, "A live, speckled rat-ogre! Though I must conjecture it may not be so alive after that crash..."

A massive arm swung around Eddie's shoulder and he slapped him a forceful go get 'em pat on the back. Go get what, pray tell? "That is where a man of similarly refined taste can help! Perhaps I might invoke your passion for the esoteric and gain your assistance with worthying my meager carriage for the road?" He was of course referring to what might be the biggest monstrosity on the highway this side of Day River, currently on its side.

Jackson shrugged. "A local blend of tea heated at a modest temperature?" he guessed. The thanks must be a secret ingredient. Thanks didn't translate from Terric to Rosinderan well, nor did gratitude in a more general sense. "I can't see anything," he whined, the disappoint clear on his face. Jackson squinted at the poach. "I didn't know spirits had yolk. Are they related to eggs—" and specters flashed before his eyes. Jackson tripped over himself and fell on his rump, covered in mud and scrambling back up to help Jericho hobble over to Eddie on his good leg. 

Whoever Owen's driver or passenger was, he was certainly forgotten by the purveyor of exotica. They passed his charred corpse on the way to the warehouse. A flaming arrow must have hit him in mid-air, and he had struck the ground with such force that when he landed on his neck, the rest of his body crumpled inward like an accordion. A crow was already picking at the remains or foraging for unseen shinies, and cawed as they got close. "We should buy a healer's kit in town," Jackson muttered. "Should we stop everyone from leaving?"

One of the stopped wagons had been extricated from the wreck during the sewing session, and a pair of dwarves were hurriedly hitching their oxen in place, visibly eager to get going despite Owen's roadblock of a vehicle.

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Truth be told, Eddie considered the possibility of some magical property to be eked out of Owen’s merchandise, but nothing he wanted to explore. Also what was a tsantsa? Aside from the Bunniumbra and the Knuckle sucker, Owen possessed parts of intelligent creatures, and…

Briefly, Eddie considered the consequences of branding a power word on some part of Owen, there was a lot of canvas to work with, and Owen’s familiarity grated enough to warrant it. Probably.

Instead of doing any of that, however, Eddie suppressed his murderous inclinations and struggled to swallow a hex that fought its way to his lips. The mere thought of staying near Owen a second longer than necessary made Eddie want to head for the hills.
“Did you say a speckled rat-ogre? Live, as in living?” His face, still fixed with a frown, twisted further. “You’re an absolute mad man, Owen. Anyone ever tell you that, mate?”

Eddie lifted an arm to wave Owen goodbye-and-good-riddance, but the farewell gesture only gave the big man a hold to grab onto, and so Eddie found himself walking in the direction of the scrapheap that Owen called transport. On the way, Eddie turned to see Jackson and Jericho, half-way between the warehouse and their re-purposed fallout shelter, and politely used his free hand to flip them the bird. Attention grabbed, he hooked his thumb toward the wreak, indicating the direction he was being taken.

Jokes aside, Eddie noted the condition of Owen’s transport, mainly that it suffered under sustained fire, more so than those that shared the road with the so-called purveyor of exotica. Maybe Owen carried something good, that he chose not to mention, or maybe he carried something bad, that he needed to die for having.

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"No." Jericho scanned their surroundings, synthesizing detail as quickly as his mind would allow. "Not everyone. Just the ones that count."

The arrangement of vehicles in the pileup, the scarring and smoldering on the ground, the pattern of pockmarks on the vehicles themselves which thinned near the back and concentrated at the front. These led Jericho to the conclusion that the oversized wagon capping the pileup had been the target throughout the entire exercise. Despite having given the directive to locate Eddie, Jericho was curious to see what it was those greencloaks were willing to kill and die for.

As they neared the wagon a fresh stream of wind skipped over the twisted mangle of metal, washing over Jackson and Jericho. It was strong enough to put out some of the flames – the rest guttered but kept on burning. When the wind hit Jericho, it made him stop in his steps for a heartbeat, during which he raised his arm to his face and exhaled violently.

"Phheeeewww fuck! . . . that's not just burning flesh. Smells like someone dropped burnt cinnamon sticks into a pot of boiling pus. Someone's working a charm around here. A pretty constantly flow of some mid-grade enchantment, and they're working their way up to something heavy."

He scanned their surroundings again, with a changed perspective on what detail to seek. His gaze settled for some time on the dead driver he found lifeless on the ground halfway between the collision site and the warehouse. For those few precious seconds, most of Jericho's energy was reserved for his face. Squinting of eyes, shifting of brows, pursing of lips and that sort of thing. Then his eyes left the corpse and danced sideways, as if upon a tightrope, towards the warehouse, to land on Eddie and the Fatman.

"Hey. Hey!" Jericho cupped his good hand next to his mouth in a pitiful attempt to amplify his voice. "That guy's charmin' ya!" Jericho started waving that arm above his head to flag Eddie's attention and screamed again.

"Don't let him touch you!" Then to Jackson. "You better git on over there and put your sword through that fella's neck something fierce, before Eddie ends up falling in love."

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Jackson inhaled when Jericho exhaled; the scent he mentioned burnt his nostrils like cold air during a jog, but he didn't find anything peculiar or magical about it. He sniffed a few more times and made a mental note to watch out for cinnamon sticks in the future. Following Jericho's sight line with his own gaze, Jackson spotted Eddie flipping them off. As far as he knew, that was another bizarre Terran greeting gesture. 

The trailer Owen and Eddie shuddered as they approached. A heavy thud resounded from the inside. Owen either didn't notice or was unperturbed, given his attention on Eddie.

"Mad? No, but I adore it!" Owen proclaimed. "I'll add it to my business card, clever neighbor. Owen the Mad would sound divinely stirring to certain clientele, don't you agree?" And why wouldn't Eddie agree? In fact, didn't Owen seem like the most reasonable fellow in Terrenus? Surely, his logic was only rivaled by his sizzling smile, a smile that needed to be protected. A faint scent like cinnamon sticks drifted from Owen; he activated a contagion link in a way similar to the one Jericho had used to turn the greencloak's bow to acid, but his methodology came from all the touching and contaminating—and now, once revealed, an apparently sizable reservoir of magical talent lived between the folds of his bloated skin. 

At about that time, Jericho was screaming and Jackson was on his way to go put his sword through "that fella," not exactly following why being charming was a crime but not exactly against stabbing gauche Terrans either, his eyes darting between Eddie and Owen to get some sense as to whether the two were "falling in love" like Jericho said and if he'd have to stab Eddie, too.

An impact from the inside put a small dent in the trailer.

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“Owen the Mad, yeah, that could work,” Eddie agreed.

He strained to hear Jericho’s distant words. Something, something charm, touch this or that, or something ridiculous like that. Eddie would know if he was being charmed. Owen charming him? Pshaw, Eddie thought. He thought about it some more. He looked away from his compatriots to Owen, considering. He didn’t like the man, this Owen. He was fat, sweaty, handsy, and direct. He hated those things, so of course he hated Owen.

Someone—anyone, really—sharing any one of those characteristics getting too familiar with Eddie might enjoy a good hexing, or at least a wallop or three. That being the case, why wasn’t Owen bleeding in a ditch somewhere complaining about explosive diarrhea and accented pretty-boys? Bollocks. He was being charmed.

“Oi.” Eddie craned his head to the side, still following Owen. “This is wrong, innit? You laying the whammy on me?”

Knowing, as the ancients said, was half the battle, except it didn’t do Eddie much good in this case. He could feel the connection Owen established between them now, probing it with his own senses, recalling the abrupt handshake and the contaminate Owen spread. That explained why Owen maintained the use of his legs, and still possessed all his bits and pieces. That sort of skill meant Owen didn’t get caught often, and when he did it was probably too late.

They came to a stop at the transport. A flinch caught Eddie mid-exhale as metal ballooned outward, toward him.

“Damn but I hate being the damsel in these situations,” Eddie remarked, being pulled forward by the arm toward the transport before Owen let go, shoving him hard for good measure. Before Eddie could capitalize on the lack of touch, he was swung around to find all the air forced out of his lungs. A glance downward, as he fell onto his ass and hit the back of his head on the transport, confirmed his suspicions that he had just been sucker punched by the fat man. He reeled, coughing and sputtering, and trying to clutch his head and his stomach at the same time, so settled for squirming on the ground like the world’s most pathetic worm.

Eddie recovered just enough to see Owen struggling with the cargo door of his transport, pulling a metal bar from the latch, undoing its tongue and pulling the locking lever back.

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Jackson wasn't moving fast enough, so Jericho put his good hand on Jackson's shoulder and gave him a shove.

"Get going I said!"

Of the litany of Jackson's many peccadillos, expediency was not among their number. The young soldier took off like a bolt from a crossbow, moving away from Jericho with such ease and rapidity that Jericho was shocked into standing on his own, suspended in the air for a second before gravity reassumed its reign and shoved him to the floor.

Jericho sat down, hard, hard enough to lose his breath but the ground had become soft with blood and broke his fall.

Resisting the temptation to jettison his sword once again, Jericho put his mind to task. As he began to parse through the array of spells accessible to his short-term memory, the list winnowed constantly by the lack of available components, Jericho shook his head at their circumstances – himself incapacitated and lacking a proper crutch, Eddie charmed and on the verge of being killed or abducted, and Jackson . . . well, Jackson always seemed to give Jericho a reason to shake his head.

Jericho stuck his sword into the ground until it was embedded halfway up the shaft of its blade. Jericho turned Sally into a siphon, funneling whatever ambient streams of energy had not yet been tapped to exhaustion and directing them into the ground around him. Then Jericho stuck his hand into the mud, the ground parting and rippling like water up to his elbow. His eyes remained closed as his mind traded in symbols and objects, juggling the algebras of mass and proximity against hermetic sympathies.  

Because of the focus demanded by his arcane machinations, Jericho was too preoccupied to notice the commotion inside the trailer. His one goal was to interrupt Owen by whatever means necessary, allowing Jackson to gain an advantageous position. So, to that end, an earthen hand one-and-a-half times the size of a man erupted from the ground and made to swat Owen like a bug. Owen proved more nimble than his weight suggested, or at the very least more reckless. He tumbled out of the way with the abandon of a gymnast, and rolled to his feet as the earthen hand crumpled his metal trailer.

Already primed by Owen, the trailer's door popped up from the pressure. Taking advantage of the escape route the moment it became available, a hulking monstrosity leapt from the trailer and landed in front of it on two legs. The creature stood on the north side of 7 feet, muscle bunching into thick ropes across its torso and arms. It had no machined weapons anywhere on its person, but the curved claws sheathing and unsheathing at the end of its fingers looked dangerous.

The rat-ogre took a single look around, found Owen and Eddie on the same side, and charged at them both.

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