"I just can't help myself …"
Mystic Prequel Fanfiction by: A J
(Standard Disclaimer Applies, Rated M!)
Koruk was in the lead, tugging at a series of especially recalcitrant vines in their path that wouldn't cut. Miranda had climbed up to see how much farther their objective of the Torrok Hills was, and Drake was eyeing the petite raven-haired shapeshifter warily, lest she try to escape. Kaithi was mumbling arcane words over a dry branch he'd scavenged earlier, trying to light one end as a torch. Elyon sat on a mossy stump, telepathically gossiping with the Guardians about the new hottie in French class.
"I don't get why you're still taking French," Irma sent to her. "I mean, the rest of us're still gonna be on Earth, and you'll be taking up the reins here, right? How many people in Meridian speak French?"
"Four," Elyon responded, giggling. "Me, my parents, and now Caleb. That's a start, and we can teach it to others as our own private spy language."
"You've thought this over way too much, Elly," Cornelia snorted. "Besides, you're the Heart! Why would you need spies?"
"I still have enemies, 'Lia. Like my brother. Or the next Nerissa-alike. And the Count of the D'rigaan Province, and …"
"Okay, we get it. You need French. Or something else just as foreign." Elyon could hear the laughter behind Will's telepathic message.
"What's up with the Count?" Taranee asked. Her mental voice sounded like she had a cold.
"Oh, the usual medieval nightmare," Elyon replied. "He was a big supporter of my … of Phobos' rule, and sees my 'enlightened reign' as just a fad. It wouldn't surprise me if he's the one who helped the Prince escape."
"Sounds like someone you should just shun into submission," Hay added to the discussion. Most of the Guardians just sent back giant mental question marks, but Taranee started laughing, then coughing.
"You okay, T?" Will asked, worried.
"Yeah … we're just … entering the hot springs," Taranee returned, her mental voice sounding muffled. "I may not mind the heat while all Guardianed-up, but I still have to breathe!" The others laughed. "Thanks a lot. Hey, Hay-hay. Could you flit this way long enough to give my team some breath-bubbles?"
"Sure! My team could use a quick break, anyway.''
"So, where did you hear about shunning, anyway?" The other girls strained their mental 'ears' to hear the exchange as they could all sense Hay Lin crossing a large section of swamp at mach speed.
"Star Trek," the Air Guardian blithely replied.
"And here I thought she'd watched too much M. Night Shyamalan," Elyon countered, and the Guardians laughed.
"Thanks a million, Hay," Taranee sent a few moments later, and her mental voice was back to normal. Hay told her "Anytime," and while she was swooping back to her team, Taranee explained shunning better for Elyon and the others.
Half an hour later, Will was crossing an especially moist area, Bruyere warily keeping pace at her side, when the two suddenly found a deep spot in the swamp the hard way. The Guardian leader shrieked as she went in over her head, just a step from a spot that had barely been ankle-deep. She and her new blue friend popped back to the surface, both swearing in their native languages.
"I wouldn't kick around too much, you two," Vathek said amiably, kneeling down to help the drenched girls back up from the brackish water. "This looks like an allodile's den." Will just spat the last of the water out of her mouth, confused by the half-familiar word. But Bruyere paled and climbed out all the faster.
"What's an allodile?" the red-haired girl asked as the two horned folk helped drag her out.
"That," one of their two companions said, pointing at a stream of popping bubbles swiftly approaching from across the deep area. All five turned to see a wicked violet saurian head break the surface inches from Will's ankles, snapping fang-filled jaws after her as she hastily flew up several feet.
"Allodiles're water-dwellers, fortunately," Vathek chuckled, as the flipper-equipped creature, easily as large as the blue guard, heaved itself back off the shallow spot they were all standing on and back into the deeper water. Will watched it go warily, noticing its similarities with aquatic dinosaurs she'd seen in books. The streamlined creature quickly disappeared from view in the depths of the murky pool, and she settled back to the muck out of its immediate jaw-reach with the others. The swimming monstrosity hadn't been nearly as graceful on land, pulling itself awkwardly the few feet it had like a sea turtle with its stubby webbed feet.
"Okay … not looking forward to meeting his friends, so … Quintessense." Will used her telekinetic command to bring her a thin three-meter branch from the ground nearby, and used it to test each step of their path from there on.
Irma and her quartet slogged through the Bog of Eternal Stench (so named by Irma and Elyon amid a giggling fit last year) with wary eyes. Phobos, Frost, and their pack of lurdens weren't the only dangers out here after all. Will had just warned them all telepathically about the allodiles in the deeper spots, and Caleb (through Cornelia) passed on a similar admonition about the glow-snakes, Meridian's very real answer to the old Earth stories of will-o-wisps.
"Couldn't have run off to the beach, could he? Naaaah, that'd be too eeeeasy," the Water Guardian grumped. "Sun, shade, a little surf, some fruit drinks with little umbrellas in them … what's wrong with that? Instead, Phobie has to drag us after him into the muck and mire and …" She stopped abruptly, and Acebo behind her dug in her heels to keep from plowing her into the silty swamp. The blue-skinned girl's hurried hand signal halted the others, and they all turned to see what Irma was looking at.
"Larveks," Tarno said with a grimace. His black skin gleamed under the little daylight making its way through the subtropical canopy above them.
"Yeah, but … what happened to them?" Irma uttered. The three larvek carcasses were shredded down the middle, but it looked like whatever had done it had managed the feat from the inside. "No way one of your swamp dinosaurs or a neon snake did this."
"Maybe the creatures got on our fugitives' bad sides?" her greenwoman companion Vufira wondered.
"We can hope," Acebo spat. "I've never been on the swamp patrols before, but I'm sure anything that could do that would have been reported long before now."
"Considering that whatever it was could kill a larvek … larveks, but didn't choose to partake of the bounty afterwards, I'd say our missing prisoners are our most likely suspects," Tarno said. Vufira gave her kinsman Nandisi a questioning look, and he nodded.
"On that encouraging note …" Irma replied, and slogged in a wide circle around the gutted larvek bodies. They continued on, even warier than before.
She couldn't think of a quieter place offhand, but Taranee thought maybe the Library at midnight ran a close second to the unnatural stillness around her band of investigators. They were all standing on an outcropping of basalt, staring down at what had been a too-recent lava flow. All life in the area that could had fled, and the vegetation that survived would doubtless flourish once the volcanism had died down again.
"Gang, the hot springs're a bust," the Fire girl informed her teammates and Elyon. "Looks like the vent that heated this place went all Mount Saint Helens down here within the last week or so. The magma isn't even all the way solid in here, yet. No way our unfriendly neighborhood baddies came this way."
"Might as well lead them back this way, T," Elyon told her. "There're more caves by us than we thought, and we could use the help." Taranee apprised her team of the Queen's request, and the five searchers made their way carefully back away from the recently active volcano.
Diont was an accomplished aquamancer, for which Cornelia was endlessly thankful. He'd carefully check each deep body of scum-laden water as they came to it, sparing her from all but the largest of the worst areas. The one thing she didn't shirk, when it came inevitably, was a hands-on approach to combat.
Their other party-member, a young man named Neimad, was poking his sword cautiously between a large cypress-like tree's root-arches, when an angry howl erupted from under its nearest neighbor. Blunk shrieked, distracting the large sauropod that suddenly burst forth long enough for the young guard to flee from its snapping jaws.
"What the #&][!" Cornelia screamed, waving her hands and making the two trees bend around the heaving monstrosity. She pinned it in place, and took to the air, looking for more of them.
"It's a dryx, Cornelia!" Caleb cried up to her. He snagged a nearby vine and swung up to the nearest branch by her. "They're solo hunters, not pack animals. We probably disturbed its nest."
"Or its last meal's final resting place," Neimad corrected, flicking reeking muck from his sword-blade. He closed the distance to the dryx' trapped head, and leveled the blade with one of its eyes.
"NO!" Cornelia cried, calling another vine to tug him away from his lethal action. "We're not on a &\ safari, mister. Don't touch the wildlife. It's trapped well enough we'll be long gone before it can dig out of there, so leave it." She settled down to ground level again next to him, glaring meaningfully. Caleb swung back to her side, and cast an alert eye around.
"Where's Blunk?" he sighed. Diont started laughing, and pointed back the way they came.
"Where else? Safely in the other direction, probably halfway back to Meridian City." Caleb smirked.
"Good thing I planned ahead, then." He pulled out a colorful box, opened it, and rattled it. "Hey, Blunk. Which one's your favorite? The elephant or the gazelle?"
Cornelia took one look at the box, and doubled over laughing. "That's how you got our tracker to 'volunteer'? You bribed him with animal cookies?" She slowly floated up off the ground in her mirth, and eventually started drifting towards the direction they'd originally headed. Every now and then, she'd pause, look back over her shoulder at Blunk, and start giggling uncontrollably again.
"This is gonna be a long day," Caleb muttered to the other two men, slogging in her wake. Blunk caught up to him in a single rush, casting another worried look at the still-trapped dryx on his way past. Neimad cleaned his blade off and resheathed it, and followed Diont, shaking his head.
"These girls bested Prince Phobos?" He threw a last disdainful look of his own at the dryx, which snarled ineffectually after them while trying to wriggle out from under the two warped trees.
"Blunk like the ephelants," could be heard a moment later, followed by fresh peals of Cornelia's laughter.
Zay led them through the strange area at the south edge of the Bog, pointing out the unusual wildlife that flourished at the barrier between land and muck. Medium-sized ('Football-player-sized.' Hay found herself thinking,) mudslugs kept company with froglike amphibians with brows as ridged as Vathek and Aldarn. Her butterscotch-complexioned companion Fayd identified them as kipli, and their buzzing prey as skirges. These foot-long mosquitos were the real menace to the searchers. Hay kept a ring of low-pressure air around the five of them so that as soon as one of the skirges flew near, it lost all lift under its wings and plopped into the mud. Zay and Fayd, both from nearby villages to the south, chuckled grimly whenever they noticed the trapped bugs getting eaten by the opportunistic predators of the swamp.
Hay's Air-enhanced hearing caught the low conversation of her rear guard, Aldarn and Radha, one of the red lizardfolk volunteers. 'Boys will never change,' she mused with a grin. The pair were talking about several girls they both knew, including two they both had 'known' in the biblical sense. Hay shook her head, her just-awakened libido cataloging several remarks for personal research later. Then a name arose in the conversation that made her pay much closer attention.
"I'd pay a month's wages to get a night like that with Irma," Aldarn murmured, after Radha had finished relating a marathon bout with his latest lover.
Hay did her best to keep her gasp from alerting the two men that she was eavesdropping on them. Zay heard it from just ahead of her though, and paused to look at her quizzically. Hay shook her head, denying any problems, and whispered "Just a stray thought." She waved the other girl forward again, and returned her attention to the two men, still muttering together.
"Irma? The Water Guardian? I'd have thought you were partial to the flame-haired one," Radha was saying. Hay fought down her giggles, which got even harder to do when he continued. "I know I am. Her temper is already legendary among my people, and her ingenuity as well." He smiled toothily. "It's well known the Keeper of a Heart is always brimming with the energy she wields, and never tires out. Especially when the exercise invited to is pleasurable."
Hay pretended to have a coughing fit to hide her laughter. The girls were going to have a field day when she told them these later. Will was always complaining about being tired. "Just some dust," she lied to Fayd when he stopped to aid her. He took the second spot behind Zay for her in the meantime, and cast occasional wary glances back to check on her from then on.
"Will's taken, though," Aldarn sighed, recapturing the Air Guardian's attention. "The Regent of Earth is her chosen mate, according to Caleb, as he is the chosen of our Queen's friend, Cornelia." A breath later, he added "I'm not sure who to feel sorrier for with that pair. She's a right terror, I hear, but Caleb himself is no catch. I love him like a brother, but he's crude at best, raised as he was by the other rebels in Julian's absence." The two men chuckled.
"So how would you … court the Water Guardian?" Radha asked, his voice changing 'court's meaning to something much racier.
"She likes music. I'd invite her to the Winter Festival. We could dance the night away, even after the minstrels quit playing." Radha chortled, and a curious Hay Lin took a millisecond's peek over her shoulder, to see Aldarn rolling his hips suggestively. Her experience in an Earth high school gave her all kinds of possible feminist return jibes, but her new inner pervert fought them down heroically, the better to hear more.
In the meantime, she pretended to concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other in Zay and Fayd's wake, and practically had another choking fit when she noticed how much attention Fayd was paying to Zay's pert backside, himself. 'Well, I'm definitely keeping company with the right crowd,' she thought to herself, smiling slowly. She set herself to hearing more from the lecherous pair behind her, and did her best to keep her eyes open for other trouble.
Taranee and Elyon:
"Your brother sucks," Taranee said tiredly, climbing out of yet another low tunnel.
"I'll trade ya any day," the young Queen responded with a smirk. She met Taranee's eyes, and the two girls giggled. Only Miranda, who'd been to Earth often enough to have seen the Fire Guardian's older brother, got the inside joke, and smiled faintly in agreement. "At least yours isn't Hell-bent on ruining your life."
"Nah, just the dating part," Taranee countered. "He was with the rest of us at the mall last week, and Will and Matt started making googley eyes at each other. Nigel went to hold my hand, and Peter gave us both such a case of 'the Eye' ... Nige practically ran." Elyon laughed.
"You never know, T. He might be under orders from your 'rents. I don't think they've ever warmed up to him," she said. "'specially not after the statue incident."
Hopa and Solaya, who'd gone to the sulfur spring with Taranee earlier, exchanged confused looks. Miranda's smile widened. She'd spent many hours in Elyon's company during that first year, and still understood most of the former Princess' 'Earth-speak'. "Her parents don't approve of her boyfriend; the two were responsible for defacing a statue together with some other Earth rebels," she explained to the other two young women. Hopa, who's strict warrior culture had many rules of honor and obedience, nodded quickly. Solaya, another of the many green folk who made up the bulk of Meridian City's population, snorted.
"She works with rebels of multiple worlds. Why should her parents mind this one boy?"
Taranee giggled again, before turning to her teammate. "My parents are … allies of the constables and magistrates, who help keep the rebels of Earth from disrupting our society. Unlike here with Phobos, our rebels don't have anything to be up in arms against, except boredom. Our rebels … well, they're actually a lot like Frost and Raythor were: tough guys acting bad because they wanted to ..." Elyon listened as intently as the others, but when Taranee said the last sentence, she burst out laughing. "What?!" the Guardian demanded telepathically.
"You just relegated the likes of Frost to Uriah's level!" Elyon had to respond in kind, unable to get enough air to speak right away. Taranee grinned sheepishly.
Kaithi and Hopa stopped the others from going into the next cave when they reached it. "Something sleeps inside," Hopa told them. "Very large … mammalian …"
"Smelly …" Miranda added, holding her button nose. "Faugh, the passlings at their worst were more appealing than this." Taranee cringed, for Blunk's sake. Miranda had made no apologies of her desire to devour the W.i.t.c.h. girls' odiferous companion. But the description of their current location's tenant had reminded her of something, and her encyclopedic mind quickly dredged it back up.
"Ohmigod, it's a Hermeneuta beast!" Taranee squeaked. "Let's get to the next cave, and just leave this one be." She backed away nervously. Once was bad enough; she had no desire to deal with another of the invisible, invincible super-boars that had totally thrashed Sheffield in a single night. 'And that one had been the baby!' she reminded herself.
The two teams split up again as they came to a half-collapsed hill with four cave openings in it.
Koruk and Drake warned the Queen back for a minute while limber Kaithi slipped in to the far left cave first. A second later, Hopa ducked into the next one, with a wary Solaya covering the entrance behind her. Taranee eyed the scouts' crossbows with renewed appreciation; they would come in much handier in the cramped tunnels than a regular bow, the traditional missile weapon of the standing Meridian army.
Kaithi reemerged a minute later. "This one ends in sand," he pronounced, dusting himself off as he stood straight again.
"I'll get the next one," Miranda sighed. "Coming, Drake?" she threw over her shoulder at her attentive jailer. His only answer was to check the cord on his crossbow, and to slip the knot on his sword-sheath. Miranda scurried into the third tunnel before anyone could see her rolling her eyes.
Before Kaithi could check the last entrance, Hopa poked out of it, making them all jump back, weapons drawn. "Sorry, everybody. These two connect, and lead into a network that heads down …" She looked around. "Well don't everyone come in at once …"
"Miranda's checking the one in the middle," Elyon told her, then nudged Drake out of the way. "'Randa?" she called, kneeling down. There was a moment's expectant silence, then a frightening screech sounded from the third cave. Elyon fell on her rump, swearing, and her hands began to glow.
"J A S, Elly," echoed out next, and Elyon and Taranee both relaxed. They had to reassure the others, though, who had no idea what the shifter had actually said.
"It's from Earth," Taranee explained to her team. "A short way of saying just a second. Well, of writing it, anyway," she added, as she saw them all sounding both versions out for themselves in confusion. "Are we that bad with our net-ese, Elyon? Miranda's using it around us?"
Elyon huffed. "Mostly my fault, there, T. Those first few months here in Meridian, just me and Miranda, while I wasn't talking to you guys …" They grinned at each other sheepishly. "Yeah, well, I mean, I was missing Earth MAJOR, ya know? And chatting on the net, and hanging with other girls, and … I sorta educated 'Randa in Earth culture to stave it all off." Miranda came out of the third tunnel then, a strange grin on her face, and a dark stain on the front of her dress and one sleeve.
"Sorry that took so long, Elly." She sucked for a moment on the end of her pinky finger, on the same hand where the sleeve was darkened. Taranee suddenly suspected what the stain was, and had her theory confirmed inadvertently by Kaithi, who licked his lips nearby. "It's lunchtime back in Torus Filney."
"Ooookay," Elyon countered, and turned to face Hopa. "Will we all fit through there?"
Hopa cast an expert eye across their collected team. "Hmm, Koruk and Drake might get caught at their shoulders, but the rest of us should fit," the red-scaled woman replied. The two broader men looked around at their slimmer compatriots, and Drake cleared his throat.
"No problem, Your Majesty. Someone should stay out here and guard the entrances anyway." Koruk nodded with a sheepish grin, and Taranee gulped. She'd wanted that job for herself; she wasn't looking forward to crawling through a cramped cave looking for their missing fugitives … then it hit her.
"Hey, Elyon ..? No way did your brother scamper down this particular rabbit hole. 'specially not carrying Cedric or Frost!" The whole company's mood lightened considerably at that.
Even Miranda breathed a sigh of relief. She had no objections personally to crawling through an extensive cave system. Heck, it sure beat staring at the same four walls for months on end! But the dratted Fire Guardian was most definitely right, no way was her dear Cedric down that tiny hole, let alone the bulky Frost or the lurdens, the least of whom stood out half again as muscular as the baker's son or Drake.
"You're right, T …" Elyon admitted with a reassured smile. "Still, I won't feel right 'til we've checked in there sooner or later. But for now …" The young Queen looked at the two caves in question for a moment, the grinned wider. "Hey 'Randa? Could you web these two shut for the time being? We can send a team to check them out later when we can spare them. Even if my brother hasn't found a use for them, it doesn't mean somebody else hasn't, right?"
"Absotively posilutely, Your Majesty," Miranda said with a grin of her own. She shooed the others back, and while Drake stood by her with a cocked crossbow, she morphed into her four-legged spider-form. A few seconds' work with her spinnerets, and she sealed each tunnel tightly, then shrank back to her little girl's body. Giving Drake a quelling glance for his dedication to duty, she resettled her dress, and stepped back to the Queen's side. "Hmm, mayhaps I should leave at least a small hole in one, … Elly. You know, so any small animals in there can get out at least?" she wheedled. Elyon gave her a nod f agreement, and Miranda knelt before the left tunnel again, and made a hand-sized hole at the bottom of her web.
"That should be more than big enough for any stray jhares to use," Kaithi nodded, eyeing her handiwork. "To the next cave, Your Majesty?"
"With this as a reminder, we can hopefully speed up the process," Taranee said, when Elyon seconded the idea.
"Hear, hear," Hopa said, looking back at Drake again. "From now on, we only check caves you can fit in, Captain," she told him with a grin. The others laughed, and they continued into the Torrok Hills.