When Emus Attack
In Sunnydale, none of this was noticed. They didn't realize the costumes had been sold. They weren't even truly aware of the added value Sunnydale pieces gained when transported and sold to others in far away lands. No, in Sunnydale, Joyce Summers was trying to figure out how to be President of Sunnydale. That was something easier said than done, as Joyce was never in the mental preparation stage of the election in which she anticipated winning the seat. And so she found herself stuck in the position having won the dubious honor of being the winning write-in candidate.
There were all sorts of things she had to deal with and she didn't quite have the hang of delegating down pat. However, when a bunch of nervous ecologists walked into the room, Joyce knew it was going to be trouble. Not that ecologist are normally trouble, it's just that she had developed a sense about the unusual living in the former Mouth of Hell. But when Sunnydale ecologists say there's a clear and present danger to their continued existence, she, as president, had to at least hear them out. The team was half way through their presentation when she held up a hand to pause them.
"Wait a minute, emus?" she asked, her incredulity heavy in her voice.
"Yes, they are a clear and present danger to the local ecosystem in its current fragile state," one of them said.
"Emus?" she asked again, even more incredulous this time.
"Precisely, Madame President," one replied as if it explained everything. Which it didn't.
"How did this come to be a problem? I'm still not seeing that," Joyce said. "I don't have a science background. The closest I come is a little bit of anthropology through my Art History degree. So pretend you're talking to a layperson (because you are) and start from the beginning."
The ecologists, their forward momentum on their presentation ceased, conferred with each other for a while before nodding. One stood up to begin again.
"As you know, when Sunnydale arrived, there were a number of fields and farms on the outer edges that didn't quite make it all the way through," the ecologist explained, pointing to the various effected sections of Sunnydale on the newly printed National Map.
"Okay," Joyce said, gesturing for them to continue.
"Well, in most cases, those farms were protected by new cliffs or the animals easily rounded up, or they stayed on the land with the most food," one ecologist explained. "Sheep are rounded up off the hills, cows tend to stay towards the closest hay bale or patch of grass and so on."
"I'm guessing the emus did not?"
"No, not hardly," the ecologist explained. "You see, early in the 20th century, emus were brought to the US primarily for zoos and the occasional farm, but it wasn't until the 1970s that emu farming really took off in the US. However, by the early 90s, people started thinking that they could get rich quick by raising emus."
"And that brings us to Sunnydale," said the second ecologist. She was not wearing the suit most of the scientists seemed to prefer, but a small tan vest, rubber boots, shorts and a t-shirt that read: "I'd rather be flyfishing." On her head was a green hat with a brim that circled her head with a multitude of hooks, lures and flies all over it. "Sunnydale was prime pop-farming territory. It was not far outside of LA; it was fairly lush in terms of coastal California; and real estate was cheap, real cheap. And so these pop-farmers-"
"People who farm whatever the latest fad is, kinda like pop music?" the woman explained. Joyce nodded and motioned for her to continue. "These pop-farmers thought Sunnydale was the perfect place to get rich. And then the Shift happened. Most of these Pop-farms were on the outskirts of Sunnydale and emus require high fences to keep them in. We managed to keep a number in safe zones, but more than a few escaped with their young due to hunger or just lack of fences keeping them in."
"What about winter? Isn't it quite a bit colder than emus are used to?"
"Emus are actually quite adaptable," the woman replied. "And their survival and fortitude depend on two things that we didn't have back in California: Geothermal heating and the Underdark." The ecologists moved over to the Sunnydale map and pointed out several spots in Turnstone Pass. "These are places that the SSDF blew up as entrances to the Underdark and these are just the ones we knew of. In most cases the charges were set fairly deeply underground and blown so that there were still small caverns closer to the surface. When combined with the geothermal nature of this region, you can see how it is troublesome for us."
"No, not really, because I'm missing something, clearly," Joyce commented dryly.
"Oh, I forgot not everyone read the same reports we do. The Underdark is filled with edible mosses, plants and fungi that grow on walls and floors. They're significantly different from Earth Fungi," the woman explained. "They grow all over the place down there and there are even some that glow. We think that they are at least partially fed by magic, creating a sustainable ecosystem without sunlight. So, combining the heat from the earth and the year round food sources, the emus had plenty of chances to survive the winter. Then last winter was the problem."
"Emus breed in winter," she replied. "The female goes around to several males and lays a clutch for each. Each clutch can be somewhere between fifteen and fifty eggs each. The males hatch them and raise the young while the females go back and lay another clutch with other males."
"I'm starting to see the problem," Joyce nodded. "You're talking about heading off the problem before it becomes a real issue."
"Yes, exactly, especially since we could have a lot more than the seventy or eighty or so that escaped," the woman ecologist explained. "Figure half the population is male, so let's start with six hundred to two thousand eggs. Let's assume a third of them hatched, which is a little high in the wild, but it's best to assume the worst in these situations. We're talking about two hundred to seven hundred birds. In a couple of years they are old enough to start laying. That original seventy to eighty birds turns into 2,100 to 19,500 eggs. Assuming a third of them survive that's still thousands of birds"
"What about predators?"
"What predators? Sunnydale's arrival hit the landscape with the force of several nukes, considering the grosse mass displacement of air and land when we arrived," the first ecologist explained. Joyce wasn't quite clear on that and her confusion apparently showed. "Do you remember those photos from the first orc attack?"
"Well that was a landscape that had been shredded by winds going faster than the speed of sound, the entire area around Sunnydale was scraped clean, leaving our fair city a green gem in a barren wasteland," the second ecologist explained as she fiddled with her vest. "The only saving graces are the mountains to the north and east, although the desert east of us wouldn't have been so terribly impacted in comparison to the forests south and southwest of us and the grassy knolls to the west. We ended up with a landscape that makes the Somme in 1918 look like a paradise."
"I wasn't aware that was our fault, but go on," Joyce said.
"We've been doing what we could to patch up the landscape but it's like putting a bandaid on a bullet wound," the woman continued. "Now, the emus are thriving on the new growth, the bugs and small animals that survived in the valleys and sheltered places. They live primarily on the fungus in caverns and Underdark entrances during the winter. Aside from the occasional magical creature, they have no predators in the wild and so the normal ecological pressures against them are fairly low."
"So what do you suggest?" Joyce asked as she leaned back in her swivel chair. The Mayor had good taste in furniture, and Allan Finch had given the chair to Joyce as a "happy election day" present. It was a nice blend of looks, comfort and stability. She could almost stand to sleep in it.
The ecologists looked at each other.
"At this point we're not sure," one said to the other. The flyfishing ecologist shrugged and nodded for her companion to continue. "We want to do some research and we need some help with that. Aside from some anecdotal accounts of herds of emus, we don't really know what's going on there. Are they seeing the same emu herd multiple times? Are there many survivors? Or are there just a few?"
"So you want permission and funding to send out an expedition to assess the emu situation?" asked Joyce.
"We need people too. There's a fair amount of equipment that we need to haul around," the flyfishing ecologist explained. She shrugged. "We've bought a magic tent that is bigger on the inside and everything stays in place when erected, but we need a team of at least five for this expedition and at least some of them need to have some kind of training to keep us alive if things go wrong."
"Isn't that like tempting Murphy?"
"I always assume things go wrong so I can be pleasantly surprised when they go well," the ecologist replied. "It comes from years of fishing. I also tell a good story."
"Are you pleasantly surprised often?"
"Not as much as I'd like to be honest."
Joyce nodded. "Fair enough. I think I know just the people to help you."
"Why do you have an evil smile?" the first ecologist asked, glancing briefly at the door as if making sure there was a clear getaway path.
"Oh, don't worry, it's not directed at you," Joyce replied, her evil grin widening.
"The numbers might not seem like much now, but we could be looking at populations numbering in the hundreds of thousands in only a few years judging by our projections," the flyfishing ecologist explained, ignoring Joyce's evil grin.
"And they're just eating resources left and right, correct?"
"Yes, they're disturbing already fragile soil, eating many bugs and plants that we need for a healthy environment, and, well, they're pretty mean if you get up close to them," the first ecologist explained, rubbing an already sore arm. "Anyone who goes near them probably shouldn't wear anything shiny because emus are liable to grab and steal it, even if the shiny is attached to the person."
"I think I know exactly the people to take care of this problem, or at least manage their populations," Joyce said with an evil grin. She pressed a button on her desk. "Odd-Bjorn? Send in Buffy with her friends. They need to feel my wrath for putting me in this chair."
"Again, Madame President? That's the fifth time this week," her secretary commented.
"I know," Joyce said with a grin. "Aren't I a stinker?"
Drizzt didn't know what to do with Liriel Baenre.
Gromph's little princess had accompanied the archmage of Menzoberranzan when he arrived in Sunnydale some weeks before. Joyce had given them refuge despite Drizzt and Vierna's arguments against such a course of action (Dinin had wisely stayed out of the discussion). While Drizzt only knew them by reputation, both of them had some rather large reputations. In the brief time Drizzt studied in Sorcery during his Academy training, Drizzt heard more than a few stories regarding the revolving door of Gromph's apprentices and his specialty spell: Transmute Apprentice to Corpse. It had several variations. Vierna, on the other hand, had lived for nearly a decade in the Baenre Court, and so had a more in depth understanding of the mentality of the Archmage. Having met each other multiple times on different footing it was safe to say that neither Vierna nor Gromph had a strong liking for the other. Liriel, however, they had only heard rumors of. Here in Sunnydale, she certainly jumped in the social pool with a splash.
Drizzt was socially conscious enough to realize he was considered a bit of an exotic beauty as far as Sunnydale High was concerned. He had sharp features that many women found attractive and hair that made more than a few of them jealous. His violet eyes were commonly commented upon. Still, even with this, he was pigeonholed in with Buffy, Willow and Xander as one of "that" crowd. It didn't help that he was the center of so much media attention considering the trial, his quasi-psychopathic brother and his semi-homicidal sister. That's not even mentioning his evil mirror-twin from the elemental plane of Goatees (he didn't know why Xander called it that, but name had stuck). Liriel was a bit different.
Instead of dealing with things by trying to fit in, the dark elven princess decided to be the center of attention without joining any group and had largely succeeded. She had rebuffed Harmony's crowd; ignored the rest of the former cheerleaders; looked down her nose at the clubs; politely declined membership in the Witches Circle; sent scathing statements towards the fan girls; blatantly ignored the student council and only gave the bare minimum of lip service to the faculty. Her clothing, if it could be called that, was classically Menzoberranzan, but covered rather lessthan the average American would wear to school and only slightly more than they would wear to the beach. In the last few months before the school year ended, Liriel had become the successor to the Queen C. But then she had locked onto the only other drow of a noble house going to the school: Drizzt.
Drizzt didn't know what to do with Liriel Baenre.
She would appear in the strangest places. She delighted in touching him in public and she seemed to have discovered how easy it was to sneak into his room when Buffy and Joyce were out. She sat next to him during lectures, she tackled him in the hallways and she would touch him in the most inappropriate places.
His mind went back to the day before during Professor Walsh' History of Psychology lecture. Professor Walsh had been teaching a second semester bridge course on psychology with the intent to help people along into the university after they graduated. Drizzt, having agreed to sign up with the rest of the Scooby Gang, had sat down with Buffy, Cordy, and Xander when Liriel had sat down next to him. Buffy smirked a bit and Cordy giggled. He still didn't know what had been so funny. Soon Professor Walsh had walked in and began the lecture. She had been discussing Freudian Psychology and the psychosexual aspects of culture when he suddenly felt Liriel Baenre's hand enter the front of his pants. More than a little shocked, he looked at her with surprise, only to see her not looking at him at all. In fact she was jotting down notes from the lecture! The dark elf maid had raised her hand.
"So when you are talking about psychosexual symbolic figures in culture," Liriel said while groping Drizzt from inside his pants, "Could this relate to the spider imagery used in the worship of Lloth? With the female dominated society, the spider could be used as an analogy to the vagina and clitoris, reinforcing the status quo. The legs are fairly phallic, representing the males of Drow society who are dominated by the larger and more important Priestesses of Lloth."
"Good example Liriel," Walsh said with a smile and a nod. "There are many examples of religious imagery on both Earth and Faerun that extend to the culture that follows said religions. Some are rather ironic like the sun symbol of Lathander, who is a male god, but has significant female imagery in the symbol of the Sun on the Horizon. This can be understood in two significant ways. The first is that Lathander as a notable fertility, vitality and health deity shows this in the female imagery as in most cultures women raise the children and act as healers. The second relates more to how the religion encourages sexual expression." Liriel's hand squeezed a little at this phrase, causing Drizzt to jump a little in his chair and gasp. He was lucky dark elves couldn't blush. Buffy and Cordy stifled laughter behind their hands.
Needless to say, Drizzt was a little too distracted for the rest of the lecture, but he hadn't wanted to make a fuss. Professor Walsh was never pleased when her lectures were disrupted. The last time Liriel had groped him in class, he had squeaked quite loudly. Professor Walsh had kicked the two of them out. As soon as they were out the door, Liriel had kissed him deeply before skipping away. Cordy only laughed at his troubles. Buffy told him to confront Liriel as soon as possible, but didn't give any suggestions as to how. Xander was completely confused since he didn't see a problem at all.
Drizzt didn't know what to do with Liriel Baenre.
Liriel Baenre was confused by Drizzt Do'Urden.
Here she was, the most desirable Baenre princess, a daughter of the First House of Menzoberranzan, and a damn sexy one at that, if she did say so herself. And she did. Liriel could turn any male drow head and a few of the female heads as well. Humans drooled after her (but in hindsight, some of those drooled after anything with breasts). She was even sure some orcs were checking her out, but she wasn't interested. Basically, she could have had anyone she wanted. ANYONE. Except Drizzt who neverlooked at her with interest!
But Drizzt never looked her way. In fact, when she was wearing a little less than usual, he actually looked away. The boy was a prude. Honestly she never understood how he had survived so long before escaping to the surface world. She recalled the first time she had snuck into his room, naked and relaxing on top of his covers, waiting for him to pull out of his reverie, the state of meditation that takes the place of sleep for elves. She had watched as his eye fluttered oh, so sexily open and then as wide as dinner plates when he spotted her. The sound that came out of his mouth was something between a scream and a squeal, but it was high-pitched enough to wake the Slayer and her mother, and bring them into the room armed and ready. A moment after them the Secret Service appeared, all pointing their tiny little weapons at her. The assemblage found Drizzt speechless and pointing at Liriel with a surprised look. She merely raised a snow white eyebrow invitingly to the drow.
The Summers mother was not pleased by her sneaking into their house and slipping naked into Drizzt's bed. Buffy was not so worried about that, but was upset that anyone could get inside without her knowing. Liriel smirked. Amy's wards were good, but she was better. After Liriel had been forced to dress and come down stairs, Joyce summers had given her the Talk regarding her relationship with the Do'Urden dark elf. And even though Liriel would never show it, the Matron of House Summers was a bit intimidating. The irony was that she had been given the talk three times already by Buffy, Xander and Cordeliaof all people.
"If you are just playing with him, or you are just going to abandon him after you have your way with him I will introduce you to horrors that even you cannot even comprehend even with your specialized education. You should fear my wrath." But the fact of the matter was, Liriel was serious. She wanted Drizzt Do'Urden like she had wanted no other male. He was smart, an excellent swordsman, reasonably good at magic (for a swordsman), had abs like a washboard and buns of steel. She liked his buns a lot. And best of all, he was the one drow her family (excepting her father, who loved the irony) wanted her to have nothing to do with. In other words, he was perfect.
So why in all the hells was he not interested in her?
"MooOOoom! You can't be serious!"
Joyce looked down at her daughter with a smug smile on her face.
"You did say you were having trouble keeping busy," Joyce reminded her. "I guess after the election, you had all that free time, since you weren't busy arranging my life for me. So, I've got the power, I figured I might as well use it for some petty revenge."
"No mom! With great power comes great responsibility! You can't go to the dark side!" Buffy said in a frantic tone.
"I'm your mother, not your watcher; your pop-culture references do not work on me, young lady," Joyce said, enjoying the uncomfortable squirm Buffy gave in the chair opposite her own. "Now, you're going to be spending the next two weeks living in a tent without a shower, without running water or even a regular supply of food. Only a few changes of clothing and not a store in sight. You'll be walking through muck, and bogs and downed trees and boulders strewn across the landscape."
"Don't worry, Buffy, you won't be suffering alone," Joyce said with a mysterious smile. She described the basic goals and the core of the issue.
"We have a what problem?" Buffy gaped at her mother like she just said apes just flew out of Margaret Thatcher's ear and actually expected her daughter to know who Margaret Thatcher was.
"We have a growing Emu problem," Joyce said amicably.
"They're threatening our crops," Joyce said with a smile.
"They're hurting all the widdle native wild animals," Joyce continued with a poutish look.
"And since you're such a good kingmaker, you're going to take care of the problem!" Joyce said with a brilliant grin. "And I know that since you're the Slayer, you won't let down this nation in its oddest hour."
"You're an evil, evil woman," Buffy told the older blonde.
"And I'm still your mother, so get to it," Joyce said making a shooing motion towards the door.
Needless to say, Buffy did not consider it a worthy use of her talents to go on a wild emu hunt. It wasn't like these were really serious problems, right? They were just- Buffy paused and turned towards the scientists.
"Wait, what is an emu anyways?" Buffy asked the ecologists.
Ten minutes later Buffy was being towered over by one of those remaining in captivity. Buffy eyed the emu, and the emu eyed Buffy.
"We're hunting mutant demon ostriches?" Buffy asked.
"First of all, they're not demons, their ratites from Australia, though, so they arerelated to the African bird, and we do have a few of them in the zoo farms," the ecologist said. "Second of all, we're not exactly hunting them, we're going on a mission to take stock of their groups to get an accurate hypothesis on our projections for the future populations and the impact of their extended invasive nature on the local ecology."
Buffy looked at them wide eyed.
"We want to have a good guess at how many there will be in a year or so," the ecologist explained.
"Well, why didn't you say that?"
"I just did."
"But say it like that the first time," Buffy demanded.
The ecologist was saved from Buffy's lack of scientific vocabulary by the arrival of Team Emu, consisting of Xander, Amy Madison, with Drizzt's unhappy sister Vierna there as part of her community service to prove her loyalty. Xander had decided to dress as if he were going on an African safari complete with the steel pith helmet. He was given one of the few tazer guns not issued to the Initiative. His light training with the SSDF gave him plenty of practice for light work such as this, but he didn't want to have to depend on it. Amy was dressed more reasonably in jeans, well worn hiking boots and a light jacket. She had a small magical haversack she'd managed to score off a trader a few months before; it was quite a handy item. Vierna wore the blackest John Lennon-style sunglasses she could find, some of Joyce's old flower-power bellbottoms, and a white tube top. She also glared around at the others as if to say: "I hate you all." It was probably true.
"Team Emu reporting!" Xander said with a salute. "We could combine them and call us 'Temu' for short."
Judging by the looks he got, his suggestion was most likely not going into regular practice.
"Great, you're all here," the flyfishing ecologist said, clapping her hands together. "Let's get you outfitted and we'll go looking for-" the tall emu took a liking to Buffy's earrings and attempted to rip it out "-emus. Oh, right, you probably shouldn't wear anything shiny."
Buffy, having caught the Emu's head just barely before it clamped down on her ear, looked at the ecologist with an annoyed look. "You should have told me that before hand."
"Wait, it'll just bite us if it sees something shiny?" Amy asked, raising a hand as if she were in class.
"Not necessarily, but they do like to have nice things for their nests," the woman reported.
All of the collected team glanced at the hovering emus suspiciously and quickly divested themselves of their shinies.
Extreme Emu Expedition, Day 1
Today we found our first mob of emus in the western valley just before it turns to rolling hills and grasslands in the foot hills of the Nether Mountains. At this point, where the sharp mountains hit the savanna woodlands of Turnstone Pass is prime habitat for the ratites. In the morning we identified ten probable hatching sites in the geothermal caverns that abound in this region. The frequent precipitation and limestone have carved a number of passages to the Underdark. While normally this would allow the birds entrance to deep caverns, the majority of these caverns were closed for national security purposes, allowing for more shallow caverns, but still allowing the warm waters to seep through the rubble of collapsed passages.
The first part of the Emu hunt was the most arduous. Climbing down the Sunnydale plateau and into the rolling hills was no easy task, even with the newly engineered switch-backing road leading down to Orctown, the new permanent settlement at the base of western slope. Ironically, the vast majority of the town's occupants were not orcs, but visiting merchant caravans and a clan of orogs more interested in booze than fighting.
The settlement was named such because that was where Buffy and Drizzt had first sighted the tanarukks from Hellgate Keep. The Shaman's orcs weren't too happy about the naming scheme, but they didn't have much say in the matter. Once down the trail, they stopped for a while and replenished their water supply.
"Now, we're going to be in the bush for several days, moving early in the morning and continuing until darkness," reported the flyfishing ecologist. "I'd like to remind people that it gets light much later here in the valley and gets dark earlier. It can also get hot or cold quite quickly with the mountains so close. If you need any other equipment for camping or traveling, now is the time to get it before we leave civilization."
Buffy needed a new pair of boots, something that would actually not hurt her feet to walk in, and got a nice pair for a song in Orctown. However, Buffy would regret not having worked them in ahead of time.
"Do you see that off in the distance? That's an emu herd," said the flyfishing ecologist.
"Don't you mean flock because they're birds?" Amy Madison asked.
"Actually, the proper collective noun for emu is mob," Vierna stated. Her shocked companions turned with stunned expressions. The dark elven princess shrugged as she fiddled with her translation amulet. "I've been working on my ESL certification."
They crept up closer so that only their heads peeked over a small rolling hill with the mountains at their back.
"Now watch closely as the worgs circle the mob," said the ecologist. "They're cunning hunters in these hills, with the lack of other megapredators, worgs are clearly the dominant spot on the food chain. Worgs, with their wolven bodies and intellect comparable to cheerleaders-"
"HEY!" protested Buffy loudly, catching the attention of both worg and emu. "Oops!"
The ecologist paused a moment and then realized the mob was headed right towards them.
"Get off the hill and find some cover, don't try to out run them!"
"They can sprint at highway speeds!"
And with that, Team Emu ran for cover. It wasn't long before the emus were sprinting over their hiding places. Buffy got an unfortunate foot on her head, but otherwise, they were fine. However, they were now between the Worgs and their prey.
"Now we run," the ecologist stated, but before any of them could attempt an escape, they were surrounded by the lupine creatures, all tooth and claws. One particularly large female stared the ecologist down. The Alpha female gazed at the human and licked her lips in anticipation of an easy meal.
"Does anyone here speak worg?" the ecologist asked worriedly as she shied away from one's feted breath.
"Woof," said Vierna, stepping up to the plate. The ecologist stepped back quickly, ducking behind the imposing dark elf. The others followed her lead, crouching low and moving quickly, but Vierna stood up without fear and started growling like she was rolling chunks of granite around in her throat.
The Worgs stopped, looked at her, and growled back. She growled at them some more and the conversation continued for some time with the humans looking on in confusion. The dark elven maiden turned towards them and shrugged before going back to speak with the wolfen creatures once more. "This is Grrr-Argh, and she's the leader of her pack. She says emus number in the mid tens, somewhere around fifty, for this mob, but it generally meets up with several other mobs near the rivers." The Worg growled some more before Vierna translated. "There are some dangerous mob leaders. They're better, faster, stronger-"
"I didn't know emus had that kind of technology," Xander quipped, earning a glare from Drizzt's sister. "I'll be quiet," he said as he hunkered down.
"Good," Vierna responded, her red eyes seeming to glow with rage even through her dark glasses. Xander gave an involuntary shiver, but stayed quiet. Vierna kept up her furry conversation. "The leaders are bigger, smarter too. And uh, I don't know the word, niirel? Uh, prone to excessive, prolonged and frequent attempts at reproduction? I know you humans are sensitive to references to sex."
"We've got horny giant emus?" Amy asked, looking to the ecologist for help. She just straightened her fishing hat and shrugged. Amy turned to her school mates who looked similarly confused. "How in hell?"
"Lord Manshoon," Ambassador Peris said with a bow before the long range communication mirrors. "It is an honor to speak with you once more." The archwizard looked out from the magic mirror with a disgusted look. "Is something the matter, my lord?"
"Yes, Peris, yes," the masked man replied. "It seems my partner Fzoul has vanished from Zhentil Keep with a large number of his followers."
"They are not here so far as I am aware, My Lord," Peris said.
"Yes, but I do believe that if they managed to pull such a stunt without my knowledge they would not be interested in letting a known agent of mineaware," was the man's sarcastic reply.
"Of course my Lord. What do you wish me to do?"
"Be aware, use the assets of the Black Cloaks in the market place," Manshoon commanded. "Find out as much as possible and report to me. Remember, no Baneite can be trusted."
"Yes Lord Manshoon, that is a lesson I have long since learned," replied Peris. On the other side of the magical mirror, Manshoon chuckled mirthlessly.
"A lesson we all learn or die if not learned soon enough," he said flatly. "And you might as well use any other sources you might have at your disposal."
"I'm afraid I don't know what you mean," Peris replied with a perfectly schooled face full of confusion.
"Of course you don't," the archmage smirked without humor.
"I shall inform you whether yea or nay," Peris replied dutifully. His heart was pounding in his chest, the news did not bod well.
"See that you do." And with that, the image was gone. Peris let the blood drain from his face. This was particularly bad. No, it was very bad. Peris downed a glass of water and poured himself another, downing that one as well.
'Kellindil, he might have some ideas,' thought the Harper/Zhentarim Agent to himself. Racing down the hallway, he knocked on the elf's door and opened it as soon as the elf's voice made a sound.
"Fzoul Chembyl has left Zhentil Keep with most of his sub-clerics," Peris blurted out. He suddenly realized that the Moonwood ambassador was not alone. Also in the room were the other ambassadors and Economics Secretary Chase. After an oh-my-deity-what-did-I-just-say? moment, his next reaction was rather smooth. He glanced around at them and looked at them flatly. "Just pretend you never heard that from me."
"What are you saying?" Fret asked.
"I mean that the Chosen of Bane has just up and left his power-base for somewhere else," Peris said. The blood drained from the faces of the other Faerunian ambassadors. "And you can understand that this is not official and I am still in my room."
Fret looked at him silently. So did Kellindil. Then both nodded. Ambassador Axegrinder was about to argue, but finally sided with the others.
"I don't understand," Chase said. The ambassadors turned to him with grim looks.
"Mr. Chase, I think it is time for you to leave," Kellindil said. "Pretend you have heard none of this and ask Joyce to visit."
"Oh, it has the potential to be much worse than bad," Fret said "Perhaps call for Rupert and General Hennessey as well."
"Oh, if it's that bad I'm calling the whole Cabinet," Chase said, moving to a telephone.
"If you don't mind, we'll be contacting our superiors as well," Fret said. Chase nodded.
"I'll have the staff put together tea in the sitting room," Peris said.
Extreme Emu Expedition Day 2
Whereas the first day had more travel, today we discovered how bad the emu problem was. When we awoke, the tent was apparently in prime emu habitat, making it rather easy for us to get a better estimate of the local mob's numbers.
Buffy took the initiative and began our estimation, even bringing back samples for us to study up close. We also discovered that the magical battery requires a stronger insulator casing that can withstand heavy impact and some slashing damage.
That night, they camped out on a hill that had some shelter. The fallen tree wasn't much, but it protected them from the harsh winds flowing down from the mountains. A fire was impossible as it just wouldn't light, but Amy had packed some magical MREs and they got to chow down, but food would be more scarce the further they ranged from Sunnydale proper.
The wind was warm, but forceful, nearly knocking over the tent they had set up. It was a special case, bigger on the inside than the outside, but everything stayed in stasis when the camp was rolled up. It was big enough to sleep ten people comfortably, but a good portion of it was taken up by the science equipment and a computer running off of a magic battery.
They awoke to find themselves surrounded by about sixty emus, many of which decided to pluck at the silver rings and pegs holding the tent in. Buffy stood up, put her hands on her hips, and was apparently completely nonthreatening if one were to judge by the reaction of the emus.
"Go on! Shoo!"
Instead of running, an emu decided that her pajama button was pretty and pulled it off.
"Hey! That's not nice!" she yelled as she pulled her shirt closed. The curious emu swallowed the button and went back for another only to be blocked by a knife hand to the beak. "Ha!"
The emu seemed to get annoyed and took a step forward, looking the shortish woman in the eye. It had an easy time at this because they were almost the same height, the emu only slightly taller. Its feathers on its chest puffed up, making it seem larger as it gave Buffy the hairy eyeball. And then it went in for another button, only to be blocked again by Buffy's hand.
"Hey! No means no, feather head!" she declared before attempting to tackle the bird that probably outweighed her by a few kilos. She succeeded on getting on it's back, but didn't anticipate it standing up. Panicking from the creature now clinging to its back and pulling on its feathers, the emu got back up onto its feet and took off running. Buffy, normally a very self assured young woman, discovered that the emu could sprint at near highway speeds. She grabbed on for dear life, preventing the terrified bird from shaking her loose. It zigged and zagged in attempts to dislodge her unwanted passenger, and made a quick 180, charging back at the tent where a startled Xander was being prodded by ten other birds. Xander saw the Buffy laden bird charging in his general direction and ran back inside the tent with an exclamation of fear and surprise. Unfortunately for everyone, the emu charged right through the flaps, ducking it's head low and closing its eyes.
Amy, who had been getting dressed after they kicked Xander out of the tent, screamed as first Xander, then Buffy riding an emu charged into the tent. Vierna, having been about for hours, working on her studies for the Admittance test and ESL, was squinting because it was too bright with the flap open, temporarily blinding her. She slid on her sunglasses (something that was rather a necessity for surface drow), reached under her pillow and pulled out her flail.
"DON'T HIT THE COMPUTER!" the ecologist screamed as she tried to cover the monitor with her body. With no exit in sight, Buffy's emu friend took to hitting the corners of the tent as if to test for another exit. Were this a normal tent, the frantic emu would have made its own exit, but the magic expanding the space also protected it from damage.
Outside the tent, the emus heard the noise, but couldn't detect any other kind of action, as the magic tent didn't move at all from outside observation. When Xander opened the flap, hoping the crazy bird would leave, it had the unexpected result of inviting more emus in, who got upset when they saw their buddy going insane. Soon five crazy birds were charging all over the place, but avoiding the exit because Xander was standing right next to it. Amy called on her arcane powers and made the air thicken, which did slow them down, but when Xander tried to run up and tackle one to the ground, the spell slowed him as well. He missed the emu by the slightest of margins. Hitting the ground, he was quickly trampled, shredding his trousers, but luckily there weren't any significant wounds.
Vierna was getting a headache from both the noise and the light. Swinging her flail while still partially blinded was probably a poor decision, but swing it she did, right into the magical battery powering the computer. The ceramic casing cracked, sending the battery flying. The ecologist ran over and grabbed the cords to the computer in the hopes of preventing the entire apparatus from flying off the desk.
Buffy, opening her eye after a moment of panic, realized that both her and the emu were heading back out the flap that was now opened by Amy's magic. Jumping off the bird's back, she accidentally elbowed another emu intent on escape, sending it flying into the broken battery, sending a jolt through the bird that sent up a rather appetizing smell as it flew across the tent and fell down on the other side. As the humans and elf were recovering from their abrupt pre-breakfast exercise, the other emus ran right out the open tent flap. When the silence reigned once more, Amy let loose a breath she didn't eve know she was holding and slumped to her bedroll.
Buffy checked Xander over for wounds, but he just had a few scratches. He sniffed the air.
"Funny," he said.
"Fried emu doesn't smell like chicken."
"So, now that we're all here, what exactly is going on?" Joyce asked, sitting down in the head chair. Glancing around she realized that they were still missing one person. "Would anyone care to tell me where my vice president is?" She quickly scanned the room and sighed. "Great blank stares all around. Why don't we get started? My missing VP can get caught up later. Mr. Peris?"
"Ah, yes," Peris said, hesitating as he tried to figure out where to begin. He sighed inwardly and decided that a full reveal might be the best way. "First of all, I am known as a member of the Zhentarim, but that is not precisely true." He glanced about the room and pulled out a strange necklace of a stringed lyr. "I am actually One Who Harps."
The locals' eyes widened in sudden realization, but they nodded. The Sunnydale crowd did not have the same reaction. Kellindil chose to save him. Standing up, the elf nodded to the others assembled.
"The Harpers are a clandestine organization that was created to combat a variety of threats," the Moonwood ambassador explained. "As a whole, they owe allegiance to no nation, nor to any organization other than the Harpers themselves, though certain nations endorse and support their actions. Mr. Peris is in quite a bit of danger by revealing himself, especially since he is probably the highest placed member of Those who Harp in the Zhentarim, although his true resources into that organization is stunted by being the Zhentarim ambassador to Sunnydale."
"Lord Manshoon knows I am a Harper, but I am more valuable to him alive than tortured for information, especially since I have brought quite a bit of income to the organization," Peris explained. "However, to explain the whole situation, you need a bit of history."
"About the Zhentarim?"
"Yes," Peris said, before taking a sip of water. "The Zhentarim in its current form was created by Manshoon two or three hundred years ago, I'm not exactly sure when, the older members of Those Who Harp would know better than I, but it was originally just a part of Zhentil Keep, Lord Manshoon's family estate, which he inherited when his father was assassinated. Lord Manshoon was traveling at the time, and began first delving into the Art. When he returned, he destroyed the usurpers, and built the current form of the Zhentarim as a way to increase his political and economic power. But any organization that is as...flexible...in its methods of economic gain makes enemies."
"Excuse me? Flexible?" General Hennessey asked, holding up a finger.
"The Zhents are scum," Axegrinder replied. "They aren't picky about recruits, but they sure ain't nice. They kill; murder; poison wells; salt fields; wipe out whole villages just to gain land or resources."
"And we've been dealing with these people?" one member of the cabinet asked in a horrified tone.
"In your defense," Peris said, "you couldn't afford to be picky, but not all Zhents are the same, myself included. However, eventually, Lord Manshoon's arcane and martial wings required a bit of balance and so he made a deal with Fzoul Chembryl, the High Priest and Chosen of Bane."
"When you say chosen, what does that entail?" Giles asked. "We have a slightly different usage of the word."
"Various deities have Chosen mortals," Kellindil explained. "What it means, exactly, varies from deity to deity, but in general, strength of arm and body, virtual immortality, occasionally regeneration of body and sometimes it brings arcane or divine abilities along with it. Chosen are, forgive the repetition, chosen because they represent the ideal of that Deity's followers. For example, Dove Falconhand and her sisters, Alustrial and five others, are Chosen of Mystra. Elminster is the eldest of Her Chosen, being some thirteen hundred years old and all are gifted in the Art quite beyond simple dabblers."
The Sunnydalers were understandably surprised. They had heard the term before, but assumed it was something like Buffy's situation with the Slayer essence. To think of someone thirteen hundred years old was hard to imagine. Joyce filed it for later use, but motioned them to continue.
"And the Church of Bane, what does it represent?"
"Bane is the deified personification of Tyranny," Peris explained. "World domination is the smallest of his goals. Control over people, animals, everything is its goal, but the followers, while primarily the power-hungry type, are not as expansive in their goals. Fzoul, however, is more than just a simple zealot."
"Harkening back to his being the Chosen of Bane, I assume." Joyce asked. Peris nodded in confirmation.
"Right. Now, Lord Manshoon considers this to be the worst mistake he ever made," Peris continued. He squirmed a little in his seat. He was not used to having so many people staring at him like this. In battle asking orders was one thing, but for him to talk like this, it made him uncomfortable, and he started sweating. "Fzoul started gathering followers in a greater and ever-increasing pace. He started unofficially enforcing Bane as the One True Faith of the Zhentarim some time ago. People like my cover story, a worshiper of Mask, have been pushed out of top positions for some time. Lord Manshoon has been waiting for Fzoul to make a move for some time, but didn't want to give away anything. For the past three decades or so, the Zhentarim has been a massive chessboard, with Lord Manshoon and Fzoul moving the pieces. In some ways, Sunnydale may well have saved my life by putting me out of the line of fire."
"That's fine," the General said. "But why are we here?"
"Because Fzoul finally made his move," Peris explained. "Fzoul and the core of his Banite clergy have left Zhentil Keep, or at least have vanished from sight. It is doubtful that he could manage to move that many people out of the city proper without Lord Manshoon being aware of the action."
"So basically, the Zhentarim is about to have a civil war," General Hennessey replied with a dark scowl. He was not pleased by the news.
"I don't know, right now, you know as much as I do, and this came from Lord Manshoon himself," Peris explained. "Lord Manshoon would not have told me if he did not intend for me to inform Sunnydale. Fzoul has been very interested in Sunnydale for some time. He considers you weak and consistently criticized Lord Manshoon's choice to not attempt a military takeover of your nation. It is very likely that Fzoul will be bringing his army here."
"You say his army, don't you mean the Zhentarim army?" Giles asked.
"No, Fzoul would not allow his divinely blessed army to have any infidels in it," Kellindil answered for the tired Zhent ambassador. The other ambassadors nodded in agreement. "There is some overlap, but not entirely. This is a Holy war for him, not a politico-economical one."
"We need more information," General Hennessey said gruffly. "We can't go into a full on war blind. We need information, and we need it fast."
"Lady Alustriel and Dove will be perfectly willing to assist," the Silverymoon Ambassador said. "We've been collecting information on the Zhents for some time."
The General nodded in thanks, but didn't say anything more.
"What concerns me the most," Kellindil said, "is that Fzoul has vanished from the public eye. He is not one to give up the power that his presence gives. If he has left, it is because he is planning something big."
"I want as much information on this as possible," Joyce said. "but for now, quietly put people on alert. We'll talk tomorrow on this again."
People nodded, got up and went to work. The various ambassadors went out to contact their various governments and to get the requested information. The military and Initiative were put on alert. Due to several leaks in the past few months, the police were not put on alert, as they didn't want to cause a panic.
Extreme Emu Expedition, Day 3
Today we dined on emu for the first time, having found one recently deceased. They taste remarkably like beef, even for being a bird. We saved their feathers, blood, and tissue samples which we stored in the powered cooler.
Amy worked hard at building a new casing for the magical battery that was damaged the previous day. While our attempts at finding clay were unsuccessful, Miss Madison was able to magically transmute some creek silt into the proper material, after which we used the coals and a touch of magic to bake a new ceramic casing.
The rest of the day was spent attempting to trace the lives and patterns of the emus during the winter months.
"Hey look at this!" Amy said, motioning the others over. She pointed towards some distinct green shells.
"Yup, those are emu egg shells," said the ecologist. "There's probably a nest around here, too."
Xander glanced at Amy, who shrugged. He turned back to the ecologist.
"Um, you're standing in it," he said, slightly hesitant. She looked down in surprise and jumped to the side.
"Uh, no offense, or anything," Buffy said, "but you're not a bird scientist are you?"
The woman looked like she was going to argue for a second, but she gave in. "No, not really. I spent three years studying whale patterns and well, not too many whales this far inland."
"You speak truth," Xander agreed.
"So why did you get this job?"
"I skipped the staff meeting to go fly fishing," she admitted. "I was nominated...the vote was unanimous."
"It's a fair cop," Buffy said. This time she got the funny looks. "What? I can't use Giles-speak?"
"Just don't," Amy said. "With you it feels unnatural."
"I wonder if these hatched here?" the scientist asked.
"How would you know?"
"Me? Probably only if I watched one hatch," she admitted. "Let's continue on."
They continued on, going from cavern to cavern, noting several that were previously undocumented and open to the elements. As they went further inside, they discovered phosphorescent mushrooms.
"These are edible," Vierna replied. "In fact, Menzoberranzan considers them to be quite the delicacy. They have a slightly tangy flavor which goes well with fresh rothe."
Xander poked a stick at some blue glowing mushrooms.
"What about these?"
"How should I know? I'm a priestess, not a ranger!" she snarled.
"Hey!" Buffy said sharply. "You're the only one of us who's lived in the underdork!"
"Underdark, Buff, Underdark," Amy quietly corrected.
"Whatever! You shouldn't yell at us for making assumptions, especially since you do all the time!" Buffy continued.
"Actually, when we're on this trip, we try not to make assumptions, but just gather data," the ecologist reminded them. "Making assumptions makes for bad science."
"Um," Xander said.
"Honestly, if you want to know how to survive in the Underdark alone without magical support, ask my idiot brother as he seems to know all," Vierna continued as if the others hadn't spoken.
"You know, for a priestess who was dropped like a handful of poop, you sure seem pretty uppity!"
"Um," Xander said.
"Well, sorry for disappointing you! At this point the only way for me to get back into Lloth's good graces would be to sacrifice all of you to her, host a party, roast your souls over an open pit of hellfire and give birth to a demonic spawn of one of her handmaidens!"
"So when hell freezes over?" Buffy asked.
"Actually that's just south of Trondheim, so it freezes quite frequently in the winter," the scientist put in with a helpful smile.
"Nobody asked you!" Amy, Buffy and Vierna snapped.
"Um," Xander said.
"Vierna, all high and mighty, looking down her nose at us all the time," Amy taunted. "You can't even fight without doing more damage to us than to the enemy! You're useless, no wonder Lloth flushed you out of her system!"
Vierna launched herself at the witch, who pulled her fist back and aimed a blow at the dark elf maiden's nose.
"OH FOR THE LOVE OF TWINKIES! DOES NO ONE ELSE SEE THE GIANT TREE WALKING AROUND WITH THE GUYS IN GREEN ROBES?" Xander bellowed, pointing out the entrance to the cave where new vegetation was sprouting all over the visible countryside. His yell shocked Amy and Vierna off balance, with Vierna falling flat on her face. Amy, unbalanced by the lack of target, went flying forward and ended up punching Buffy in the shoulder. The blonde glared at her friend and brushed off the blow like it was nothing. "Seriously, like fifty people out there in green robes! The giant tree's shooting seeds from its fingers like bullets from a pistol."
The ladies slowly turned around to see a band of druids casting spells to reinvigorate the landscape from the previous spring's damage. Even after a year, the environment had yet to recover, which was one of the problems with the Emu explosion. However, these divine servants of nature were making quite a bit of progress. In general, the denizens of the High Forest weren't quite as pleased with the appearance of Sunnydale as many other peoples of the North were. They had no need of increased trade, and they had no interest in advancing their level of technology. Add to the fact that Sunnydale's arrival decimated a portion of the High Forest that had taken a year of magical assistance to recover, Sunnydalers were not the Druids' favorite people.
Turnstone Pass had gone through many incarnations going back centuries. Before the Crown Wars shattered the various elven empires, it was part of the High Forest in the Empire of Aryvandaar, a wooded land that stretched from the Spine of the World to the north and down to the banks of the Delimbiyr to the south, a forest of which only remnants remain. It was a mining place for the Netheril Empire and several of their floating cities were built of peaks cut from several Nether Mountains. With the fall of Netheril, the refugees fled to Ascalhorn, later to become Hellgate Keep, a fell place of demonic hoards crowded behind prison wards forged of the greatest magics. Thus constrained, they reproduced, crossbred, and mutated, falling into clans that fought an ongoing demonic civil war. After Hellgate's hordes were contained, the forest pushed back, the landscape changed once more. Netheril was long since a memory, the massive desert Anauroch took its place and the eastern portions of Turnstone Pass turned to sagebrush and grasslands where the mountains met the desert. To the west of the River Shining, the rolling hills, infested with orcs, demons, or combinations of both, were grasslands on par with the Great Plains of North America. Tall grasses, sparse copses of trees, and boglands competed for territory as the many tributaries of the region shifted, merged and split, only to do all three over again.
Before Sunnydale's arrive, Turnstone pass was a largely abandoned trail that hadn't been regularly used since Ascalhorn had become Hellgate Keep, as stated before, a city-fortress infested with creatures descended from devils and demons summoned up from the bowels of the planes, as the lesser of those demons tended to venture forth for food and slaves for the greatest of the demons, the Balor Grintharke, undisputed lord over Hellgate Keep. Wards were in place to prevent more from arriving, but that did not prevent newborn infernal and abyssal denizens from leaving their prison. Since they were born on the prime material plane, mystical laws considered them native to said plane. Sunnydale discovered this the hard way when Kaanyr Vhok invaded at the head of the army sent to destroy and enslave them. They chose pathways through the upper levels of the Underdark to keep the element of surprise, not that it helped them in the end. It was not uncommon for demonic patrols to take missions into the wilds of Turnstone Pass, encouraging a lack of civilization in the region.
Sunnydale's arrival brought with it a sudden displacement of air, akin to an explosion that flew like a shock wave west, east, north and south and even up and down. The areas closest to it were completely cleared of flora and fauna, leaving only bare ground, if even that, in its wake. To the north and north-east, the shock wave was largely contained by the Nether Mountains, but even with that barrier the sonic explosion was unforgettable. There were more than a few people struck deaf by the sound that day. The further one got from Sunnydale, the less dreadful the results; Sundabar, for example, only had glass shattered and the buildings shaken like a small quake. However, the surface of Turnstone Pass was decimated by Sunnydale's arrival and was a mess of downed trees, shattered earth and stagnant water that turned into a series of bogs from where the arrival changed the course of rivers and streams. This brought about it several months of massive erosion caused by the lack of vegetation holding back the soil, and led to series of tainted rivers clogged with detritus and debris. Normally known as the Shining River, the Delimbiyr River was the color of coffee with a heavy dose of milk. By the time it got down to Daggerford on the Sword Coast, it dragged along with it dead fish, logs, and silt as well as any other detritus within its banks. When the river flooded the spring after Sunnydale's arrival, the Delimbiyr dumped its load on the land, the salt from Sunnydale's waterfront sinking into the lower floodplains.
The arrival of the town was felt much further than the shock wave of its immediate arrival. In Daggerford, deep to the south of Sunnydale, fishermen and people who depended on the river for their livelihoods were out of work or dead. Spells were cast, hoping to purify the water before it could permanently salt the farm lands that depended on it for water and revitalization with the floodplain. While a few clerics casting spells can help on the small-scale, the Delimbiyr was nearly the size of the Danube, and served a similar purpose in terms of travel and location to the Sword Coast. The sheer volume of water that coursed through its banks each day was more than any number of clerics could hope to purify with common spells. Further up the River Shining, locks were clogged, damns of silt and stone and wood backed up water, transforming the region.
To the Southwest, the closest portions of the High Forest fell to the wave of displaced air, knocking down trees that had stood for centuries. The wave of air continued on though the forest, but the further it went, the weaker it was, until the thicker portions of the forest just felt an unnaturally stiff breeze. Considering this effect, it was not long before the various orders of Druids took notice. Their work began in the immediate locales of their Orders. They restored habitat and worked to ensure fertility in both flora and fauna. They removed blockages in the rivers and slowly made their way northward to where Sunnydale was making itself noticed. It took a year before the Druids following Silvanus arrived in Turnstone Pass. Some of the local Stone Giants had cast their own spells on the earth before then, summoning up stones, shaping them and the more powerful of them even brought life back to the barren landscape. However, for all their hard work, it was not enough. The damage was done, the scar opened for the world to see.
Life still existed in the valleys and sheltered places among the craggy peaks. These places were the lucky spots, where flora and fauna still lived. Drizzt and his subsequent trackers survived because of these secluded valleys, as did much of the surviving orcs. The sheltered spots became special places where their seeds spread across the newly opened landscape. Sunnydale also assisted, although that was somewhat involuntarily. Seeds, spores, and sprouts from Southern California species survived. Many of them lived well and thrived without native competition, in those small places where soil remained. It was also the heated nature of the Nether Mountains, their place above a hotspot that provided hot water, steam and temperatures higher than in most other places of the North. This allowed species to live that normally would have died. As birds, squirrels, mice and other California-native (and some not so native) species flew, burrowed, climbed, ran, swam and scattered to and from the newly arrived city, they spread seeds, increasing the presence of Sunnydale's flora.
The Druids, having had many a debate on what to do about the upstarts in the nonnative city, eventually decided to fix the damage, but not to act outwardly hostile. Some Orders, like those following Silvanus, understood that one must take the good with the bad, and that nature is nature, beyond even the Forest Lord's ability to totally command. Other Orders, like those following the bestial Malar, were still of the opinion that the arrival of Sunnydale simply meant the druids had easy prey. Eldath, the goddess of the calming aspects of Nature, cautioned her followers to not view Sunnydale as an enemy, and that it was unlikely this devastation was their intent.
The debate was never truly settled, but Eldath's followers did seem to prevail for the most part, taking a wait and see approach. That was not enough for several orders of druids, who appeared now in Turnstone Pass to mitigate the damage as much as they could. It was amazing what fifty druids and a trent druid monk could manage if they put their minds to it.
The Shaman of Ilneval walked back to his people and summoned the Elders.
Orcish society varies from tribe to tribe, but there are two things that are always true with orcs: "never mess with an orc's mother" and "an old orc means a smart orc."
Orcs, because of their warring, clannish culture, tended to have a female/male ratio weighted greatly to the former. Males tended to die quick and young as most orc cultures don't have organized military training beyond "go kill that." As a result polygamy was hardly unusual and most orcs were raised by groups of mothers who were equally in charge of their male's offspring regardless of who actually gave birth to a specific child. Mothers were held as the most important figures in the tribes since they raised the children and usually trained the warriors before they went out to fight. The result was a strange dichotomy of male deity worship and mother worship that was not aligned with their deific figures. "Yo momma" jokes were not acceptable in orc society and spouting them off was enough to earn at least a belt in the gob, if not a sword in the gut.
When it came to elders, both male and female, there was a reason they were so powerful: they lived when all others died. It was important because it enforced certain beliefs on the tribe, and certain practices.
In the Three Tribes of Sunnydale, there was a bit of an upheaval when the Shaman of Ilneval took over. Normally in times of strife, the xenophobic priesthood of Grumsh held control, enforcing the brutal lifestyle on the young males. Now, in the year that they Three Tribes had settled in Sunnydale, a different set of ideals took over, especially considering the massive gap Buffy and the Vhrok demons had made in the "government" of the tribes. It was prime territory for Ilneval to take over, as the Shaman was the eldest priest still alive and the elders of the orcs tended towards the worship of Ilneval considering he was the orcish deity of strategy, intelligence and overwhelming numbers. Of those three qualities, the first two old orcs had or they would never have become old orcs, the third they always wished for.
So when they found themselves dependent on Sunnydale for their very survival, they observed the Sunnydale Military closely. It was organized, controlled, and highly skilled. It was something to aspire to and the young warriors were encouraged to go to school and join the military. A year later, one-quarter of the orcish males were in the SSDF and excelled, especially when trained by warriors they could respect. That number was expected to rise as the word of their training spread. Orcs, no matter the tribe, respected battle prowess and those who fought well.
Ranma Saotome was one such warrior. While some orcs fought using the occasional forward kick when weapons locked, Saotome showed them that the body itself was a weapon, something a new order of warriors embraced. The result was an orcish order of warrior monks under the banner of Ilneval: clerics with a martial bent that were utterly dedicated to self-control in battle and the ideal of the body itself as a weapon. The order, which became known as the Sacred Fists of Ilneval, was a fast growing group. The Shaman of Ilneval couldn't be more proud of them.
The Shaman sat down around the central fire of one long hut with the other Elders. Every one of the Elders were scarred, and not just physically. Some had narrowly avoided being called cowards, a death sentence in many orcish tribes, but had survived and now had respect. Others were just so – what was the Sunnydale term? Ah, "badass" – yes, some were just so badassthat they had just kept going long after they should have keeled over. Two or three were just plain lucky, but luck had its own benefits and wisdom.
"How went your council?" asked Arh-klah, an old male with grizzled features and only one arm (something the aging orc had frequently proved was nota weakness and many younger warriors had the scars from his examples). He'd worn a hat for the past thirty years that he had stolen from a corpse on the battlefield and the Shaman questioned whether Arh had removed it at all since.
"War is on the horizon," the Shaman replied.
"War is always on the horizon," scoffed another.
"I think much larger than normal," the Shaman replied. "The Bane worshipers have forsaken their lands. It is believed that they march on Sunnydale."
Another of the old warhawks spat on the ground. Most orc tribes had no love for the human religions, and Bane numbered among the most hated, even considering the actions of certain "good" religions against orcs, as Bane wanted to supplant Grummsh, Ilneval and other orcish deities and use the orcs as fodder to feed his tyranny. All of the Elders had lost relatives to human raiding parties, or "adventurers" as the humans called themselves. Not all the Elders were pleased with the allegiance with Sunnydale, but even they had to agree that Sunnydale Humans were a different breed than the other humans of the North.
"What does this mean for us?" an old female, Gorrrok, asked. She, unlike most others, was a witch. She was a bit different from most others, being not a cleric like most orcish casters, but she was well-respected for her Arts.
"We shall go to war," replied the old war hawk that spat replied. "This is our land now. We shall fight for it."
"This is not our fight," argued another. "We should not fight for the humans!"
"No, this is our fight," the Shaman said. "Think what life was like before? The hunger, the loss? The battles with the demons from Hellgate Keep? The raids that stole our children? The humans that hunted us down like dogs? Now we have strength, something to protect. We have something to live for. The world has changed, and we must change with it."
"Bah!" heads turned towards the last remaining elder of Grumsh, a one eyed, haggard creature. His broken spear was hung about his neck on a strip of leather.
"Humans are nothing more than food! They will turn on us just like they always do! We should kill-"
He was cut off by Arh's fist in his mouth. Orcish political discussions were not exactly peaceful; although compared to previous orcish political debates, this was quite serene and tranquil.
"We live as we live, and now we have tied our people to Sunnydale," growled Arh, pulling the one-eyed elder close by his necklace of fingerbones. "Grumsh is the past. His ways have gained us nothing but death after death."
"Indeed," commented the Shaman. "The humans of Sunnydale have a saying: 'insanity is doing the same thing over and over, each time expecting a different result.' And that is what Grumsh has done: he has made madmen of us all. Ilneval knows that the world must change, and we cannot be the same. Look at us, we have the highest number of successful births in one year in living memory. We have food, enough for us all to not go hungry; we have water, clean without the need for boiling. We are nearly without disease, and our clerics are hardly taxed by the spells needed to cure what little we have left."
"And they treat us like slaves! Like fodder for wars! They are no better than the Baneites!" the Grumsh follower protested.
"Fool!" snarled the old witch. "We fight with them, not for them! And what is an orc without war? What are we if we do not fight? You don't see what happens when numbers grow too large and there aren't enemies to fight; I have. The tribes fight amongst themselves! They shatter their own tribes and then are swept up by those marauding bands of humans, slaughtered bit by bit. Is that what you want for the Three Tribes?"
"We are the Thousand Fists!"
"FOOL! We are the last of the Thousand Fists. The LAST!"
"We have no longer the overwhelming numbers that protected us against the demons of Hellgate Keep," Arh stated. "I will tie my horse to Sunnydale's chariot if it means we live to fight another day."
"As will I," stated the witch.
"As will I," said another.
"As will I!" growled a third.
This was repeated over and over until the only Elder who hadn't agreed was the Grumsh follower himself. He squinted his one eye, glaring at his companions, his rage simmering in his chest, but he kept his temper in check. After all, one did not get to be his age by being stupid.
"You're all fools, but I'd be a greater one to harm the tribe," the Elder said with a hesitant nod.
The Shaman of Ilneval was pleased. He could have ruled the tribe with an iron fist, as so many other leaders had in the past, but that, as it always did, brought ruin to the warriors and then to the women and children. The numbers would shrink and there would be little left. But this way, seeking a consensus, was so much better because it limited the threats. While rule by strength is good for some, rule by the many was good for the tribe.
The next day, every blooded warrior of the tribe enlisted in the SSDF.
Extreme Emu Expedition, Day 4
Today we had our first close up encounter with the druids and the odd lifeform of the treant, a living, moving intelligent tree. This particular one was an oak, but apparently there are many in the forms of various trees.
At first the druids were not very welcoming to our presence, but after some explanation, we came to some sort of agreement as to the details of each other's goals. After some time we came to a middle ground.
The next morning was rather raw in the valleys west of Sunnydale. Above freezing but still not particularly warm, the oppressive wet fog sprung up around the foothills, soaking everything it touched. Luckily, the inside of the tent was enchanted against such an occurrence, but it was little help went they stepped outside. The sky, while still lighter than night, was a dark gray, blocking the sun and making the hills and scrub and brush look rather stark and monochrome in the early light. The mountains to the east looked black and oppressive and seemed to loom higher than normal, stretching their shadows over the small encampment.
"I hate camping," Buffy said, peeling her shirt away from her shoulder. "Ugh, I really hate camping."
"This is nothing," the ecologist said. "Wait until you're in a monsoon with only a small piece of plastic keeping you in a semblance of dry. It pours so hard that it bounced up off the ground so it's raining from above and below. That was wet. Yeah, you might be damp here today, but it could always be worse."
"Just because it can be worse, doesn't make this any less sucky," Amy argued with a shiver. "I'm going to spend the entire afternoon next to the heating element in the tent."
"Ditto," said Buffy.
Vierna, having lived all her life until recently in a city without weather, just glowered at them all. She, more than any of them, including those who grew up in Southern California, was unprepared for this. She had only brought a few of her Sunnydale style clothes and some of her more traditional Menzoberranzan outfits. Neither were any good for a day like they had.
Xander was on the other end of the spectrum. He had memories of being much worse off, having chosen to sleep on the lawn instead of dealing with his alcoholic parents. He had brought just about everything he needed along with him. So he was decked out in a rain suit that had withstood many types of weather, having been procured from the Uncle Rory Collection of fine clothing and design (always never the height of fashion). It was rubber with vents and he wore an oiled shirt and wool pants underneath. To top it all off, he'd managed to get his pith helmet on top of it and that kept his head dry. The only problem was that he had forgotten to disconnect the hood and it collected a bit of water as time went on, occasionally dribbling down the back of his neck.
The ecologist, however, had decided on a fishing vest, a heavy oiled leather coat, waders and a big hat. She did notice that the fish were jumping in several of the ponds made from shifting sediment. More than a few of these ponds were formed in ages past by glaciers, and so had no inlet or outlet, depending entirely on groundwater. The recent erosion had connected several of them, and a few fish had taken up residence. But they weren't there for fishing, they were there to find the emus that had vanished the day before.
"Okay, let's look around for a mob of emus," she said. "From what I read before this, they aren't too picky about wet or dry, at least they weren't on farms. I don't know about now."
"Or we could deal with the guys in green robes looking down at us," Xander said, looking behind them. Turning, the women saw the humanoid tree glaring down on them with its hands on its hips, the green robed druids in a semicircle in front of it. "Hi there green guys!"
They were not amused.
Buffy squinted as she looked up at the treeperson. "Did you know your leaves make you look like you've got a giant afro?"
The druids looked over Team Emu with dispassionate eyes until they landed on Vierna, and their eyes grew cold. For most of the Realms, the fact that they traveled with a dark elf was proof enough of their guilt. Vierna tensed under their gaze, her hand going for her flail at her hip. Xander stood at attention, his hand moving towards his back. Amy's hands moved towards the pouch of herbs she wore on her belt. Buffy just stood akimbo, gazing defiantly at the taller people. The ecologist palmed her face and shook her head.
"Why oh why did we have to have a first contact on this expedition?" she bemoaned. Shaking her head, the ecologist stepped in front of her team and held out a hand. "Hello, we're Team Emu from Sunnydale. We're here to look at the ecological impact of Sunnydale's arrival on the surrounding terrain."
The druids didn't say anything but looked towards the tree for assistance. In a low gravelly voice it said something that had the head green guy nod. She pulled her hood off, revealing almond shaped eyes and slightly pointed ears.
"I am Shaiyana, Druid of Silvanost," she said stepping forward, holding out a hand like the ecologist had done, but made no move to shake hands. The ecologist felt silly at not remembering that it was not a local custom and blushed as she slid her hands into the pockets of her jeans. The druid cocked her head. "What are these emus you speak of?"
"They are the big birds that run around in mobs," Vierna said, relaxing her stance as she noticed the druids on the high ground sat down, setting their staves across their knees. "They escaped from farms, and we're trying to figure out if they're going to eat everything in sight."
"I did not speak to you," Shaiyana snapped, her eyes hard as diamonds. The half-elf's dislike of drow was rather obvious. Vierna just rolled her eyes and looked away, pretending that neither of them said anything.
"Well, what she's talking about is true," the ecologist said. "We can't stop the impact, but we can check how best to solve the problem."
"It seems we have a task in common," Shaiyana commented, cocking her head to the side before sitting down crosslegged. The ecologist did the same and they both started talking in terms of ecology and druidry and quickly lost the rest of Team Emu. Seeing as it was obviously going to be a while, Amy decided it was time to set up camp and rolled out the tent. Vierna actually helped out since she was eager to escape the oppressive sunlight. Slipping inside, Team Emu started making lunch.
"So what do we know right now," Joyce asked, leaning back in her chair as she faced her advisors and cabinet. She turned to the former Deputy Mayor and motioned him towards the white board. "Allan, if you would take notes?"
"Of course, Madame President," he said with a slightly smug look. She flashed him a glare but turned back to General Hennessey.
"One, Fzoul has taken his faction from Zhentil Keep," the general said.
"Two, he has an unknown number of forces remaining both in the Keep and in the other Zhent strongholds," Kaanyr Vhok put in. "Three, he has stated on frequent occasions his dislike of Sunnydale and has encouraged its destruction. Four, he is a very dangerous man who follows a very dangerous god. Five, he has three agents in Sunnydale, only one is actually a Zhent, the other two having slipped in separately."
People turned to look at the cambion with amazement. He adopted a smug smirk and crossed his arms loosely.
"I am very good at my job," he replied with no ounce of modesty. "I'm hoping to coordinate with others to feed disinformation or manipulate them into doing our bidding."
"I have some intelligence specialists that should help," General Hennessey suggested.
"Give me their names and I'll meet with them," Kaanyr replied. "I don't actually have an office so much as a lair." He turned to Joyce, "I also need some office training for my assistants. While very capable, they have no idea how to use computers and the like, although they are very quick studies."
"Okay, I'll have Allan take you through the bureaucracy primer we've set up," Joyce said. "After all, a government falls apart without the red tape." She turned to the others. "Any possibility we could get all the data our allies have on Fzoul?"
"I don't see why not," the Silverymoon ambassador said with a glance at his compatriots.
"And any information the Harpers have on him," Joyce continued, looking at Peris.
"I'm afraid that I'm on the other end of the information chain," Peris explained. "I couldn't be of much help in this except for funneling information from the Zhents. But I can inquire with Lord Manshoon about his resources."
"Good, we need all the information we can get," Joyce said.
"You're certainly taking to this well," Allan Finch said with a bemused grin. Joyce shrugged.
"I have no idea if I'm doing it right, but I've watched a lot of spy movies," she admitted. She turned to Giles. "Rupert, can you try to close in the borders a bit more, but without looking like you are? Also if you have some people you can lend to Mr. Vhok for his operations, I'd appreciate it."
"I have a few lesser known agents that might work, especially good at blending in, a talent for languages," Giles nodded, jotting down a note on his pad. Giles was one of the remaining people who still refused to use a computer, even with the distinct lack of new paper being produced. He was still unable to type at any reasonable rate, something that many people had tried to change over the years, but the solution they had come up with was a special pad of paper that would translate information to another where it would be read and scanned into a computer, creating a perfect record of everything written on it. It was something that "the Trio" had come up with in R&D and were working to develop more of them. They were damn lucky that they had managed to get magic and technology working together, because otherwise Giles wouldn't have been able to do his job.
Joyce made a few more suggestions and dismissed them. She leaned back in her chair worrying about the coming war and worrying about her daughter that she herself had sent out into what could easily turn into a war zone in the very near future.
"Finally," the ecologist said with a satisfied smile. She stepped into the tent with a big grin. "First contact, no combat, how 'bout that?"
The rest of Team Emu looked up with incomprehension from stuffing their faces.
"Druids don't like what happened to the environment; ecologists don't like what happened to the environment; Fusion!; Druids and ecologists team up to form super-environmental-hippie-science-team," she said with odd pauses. Her teammates nodded in understanding.
"So what next?" Xander asked.
"Next we continue on the emu hunt," the ecologist explained, "while the druids continue their restoration work. They're doing in days what would take us years. Magic is pretty cool."
"Yes," Amy said with a grin, "yes it is."
"But it's getting late, so why don't we rest up and get started early in the morning?" the scientist suggested.
"You just want to go fishing for a few hours," Buffy accused.
"I just want to go fishing for a few hours," the scientist agreed. She had already put her rod together before any of the others had even noticed. "Maybe if we're lucky, I can get something tasty for dinner. Got my whistle in case of problems." She flashed them a smile and walked outside, trudging up the newly grassed and planted hill to the nearest large stream where she had seen jumping fish the day before. She snaked her line through the air, the flies just barely touching the surface of the water and in trial and error, she found where the fish were hiding. Unfortunately for her, they weren't very big fish, but fortunately for her, she was an experienced fisherman and so was well skilled in the talents of exaggeration. The big one always got away.
One of her biggest issues was her inability to shift her lifestyle towards living in Faerun, something that many Sunnydalers had trouble with. You would think that a town that had a large vampire population would at least have some kind of instinctual knowledge of Apex predators, but when it came to the various human eating critters, she, like many other Sunnydalers, was quite ignorant. Of those rules two of the most important are that you never go out alone, and you never stay out after dark. So the woman never thought anything was wrong as she went back with the stars twinkling overhead and the wind whipping through the druid grown grasses.
She was nearly back to camp when she heard a noise down over the next hill. The wind was going in the other direction, so she wasn't sure what she heard until she climbed up the slick grassy slope to see a team of men in black armor standing over the corpses of some of the druids they spoke with earlier. She let out a little scream, catching their attention before scrambling down the hill in the direction of the tent. She nearly tumbled down the hill, blowing on her whistle in the hopes of giving warning. The rest of Team Emu, lead by Buffy were out of the tent with weapons ready, but they were only in time to see the large portion of the ecologist's body turn to dust. All that was left were her fishing hat, her tackle box, and her boots (feet still inside) as well as a few scraps of cloth that fluttered away in the wind.
They froze motionless for a long moment, not hearing the clamor of armored men and creatures surround them until it was too late. Xander looked at the pile of gear and sighed pitifully.
"I just realized we never knew her name," he said, but the rest of his team weren't paying attention to him. Walking with the calm pace of a man who knew he was in control, a tall man with wavy blond hair, a van Dyke style beard and plate armor trod down the hill. His plate armor was dark gray, not quite black, but on the breastplate there was a black hand clenched into a fist around some dark energy that tried, but failed, to escape its grasp. His long arrogant stride was justified by the fifteen crossbowmen positioned on either side of him.
Buffy drew her sword, but almost as soon as she did so, the strength of the slayer seemed to cringe away, leaving the stout blade feeling many times heavier than normal.
"Ah, Miss Summers," the man said in a tone of false-cheer, pulling off a gauntlet to scratch his beard. "Your formidable strength quite nearly made you a legend," he said in a tone that showed a great deal of arrogance. He slipped on his gauntlet, his eyes watching his hands as he continued to monologue. "How unfortunate for you that your people did not keep the origin of it a state secret. After that it was a simple task to eliminate you as an obstacle to My Lord Bane's plans. You see, Sunnydale is an affront to My Lord Bane. Your lack of organization, your inability to hold onto control is an embarrassment. You go by the will of the people who are inevitably-" he was cut off by Xander pulling out a pistol and firing several shots. The bullets seemed to curved around him as if orbiting some invisible sphere around him. The man smiled. It would have made him handsome if it were not so cruel. "-Inevitably flawed. My Lord Bane also resents your interference in His goals. You see, Sunnydale's appearance broke up the long term goals of the Zhentarim, an organization which I fully intended to wrest control over from that fool Manshoon. I would have honed it into an army of Bane."
"And My Lord Bane shall have my army, the greatest army in the history of Faerun, even if I must grind Sunnydale to the ground and salt the earth to get it," the man continued in his conversational tone. He dropped his hand back down to his side. "When my agents reported that you had left the city, I was surprised to see the makeup." He glanced at Buffy, who was looking more exhausted than anyone had seen her, she looked worse than when the Master killed her or when she was in the hospital with the flu. "You, Miss Summers, the Slayer, out on a walk assigned by your darling mother. She should really know that princesses such as yourself are worth their weight in gold. One of your reputation would earn a ransom in platinum." He turned to look at Amy Madison who looked equal parts angry, worried and confused. "You, Miss Madison, considered something of a magical prodigy, if only overshadowed by your friend Willow. As much as I might find it entertaining breaking you until you could honestly swear Bane is your Lord, I haven't the time. Perhaps later." She shivered in fear at his bemused tone, but his gaze had already continued to the next person in line. Vierna clutched her mace as she glared back at the man. "Vierna Do'Urden, the twice abandoned cleric. My Lord Bane hears things, and your antics in service to Lloth are such entertainment, as well as the punishment she has declared on your head. Any drow who delivers you to the Spider Queen will have Her favor. Judging by what has been said, that Favor might last for a very long time. The only one she wants more is the Baenre wizard." He glanced briefly at the remnants of the ecologist. "And one absolutely unremarkable scientist." He said the word like it was something to be pitied, an object of scorn.
"And then there's little ole me," Xander warned even as he reloaded his pistol behind his back.
"Yes, you," the man agreed with unnatural interest.
"How'd you do it?" Buffy asked. "How'd you take my strength?"
"My dear, we didn't take it, merely suppressed it for the time being while we completed our task," the man replied. He waved his hand and three of his crossbowmen stepped aside and knelt in front of their fellows. Taking their place was an abomination, an aberrant shape that shouldn't exist. It hovered several feet above the floor, its body filled by one giant eye and a mouth of teeth that stretched from side to side. Ten stalks protruded from its spherical body that twitched and glanced around. Its central eye was staring directly at Buffy. "Allow me to introduce my associate. While we differ greatly on ideological terms, our business relationship is more healthy than ever."
"What-?" Amy asked in horror at the creature. Xander prepared to shoot it, but an eyestalk turned towards him and as it rose up to meet him, the ground dissolved into dust. Fzoul Chembryl shot a glare at the creature and the disintegration ceased, mere inches from Xander's feet.
"What is that?" Buffy hissed.
"They are called many things," Vierna said, fear that shook her to her very core replacing the normal arrogance she displayed. "Most commonly as Beholder, or Eye Tyrant." She gulped nervously. "Even Matron Baenre feared and respected their power."
Xander glared up at the Chosen of Bane and cracked his knuckles. "I won't let you take Buffy."
To everyone's surprise, the cleric burst into laughter. "No, Alexander, so-called Protector of Man, I am not here for Miss Summers," he said. "I am here for you."
Thanks be to Janessa Ravenwood for all her help. Please don't kill me! I'll get it out faster, I promise!
And also thanks to everyone whose suggestions I've used. More are always welcome.