The Kingdom - Born on the Bayou

punkey 2013-06-21 14:23:09
Chapter 7 - The Saga Goes South
Gatac 2013-06-21 14:25:04
After the breakfast, Martin picks his way back to his tent. Once inside, he snags some loose rope and ties the entrance closed - he doesn’t need anybody barging in for this. “This” being where Martin has to find out how much effort it really takes to return to his human form, if he can will it at all. But the journey to Placerville will not let him hide amongst friends, and traveling in the shape of a rakasta will cause too much trouble if he’s seen at all. In what is becoming a bit of a theme in Martin’s life, personal satisfaction makes way for more immediately practical concerns, and he sits down on his cot to try and...meditate the changes away.

A minute later, Martin almost wishes that didn’t actually work.

It’s not difficult willing the fur and other changes to his body to reverse themselves - Martin’s self-healing meditative trance serves well enough - but the pain, Gods, the pain! It’s like when Martin took a bad sprawl on the training mat and had to have his shoulder relocated, only now 1) nobody’s holding him down, 2) he has to do it to himself and 3) his whole body, bone by bone and joint by joint, has to be reset. (In this context, getting the fur to recede, which feels like sloughing off the dead skin of a serious whole-body sunburn, almost doesn’t register.) Several times, Martin feels himself almost black out when his focus wavers, and it’s like backsliding on a mountain climb, banging against rocks all the way down the slope and barely catching yourself at the edge with three fingers. It’s only when he’s managed to simultaneously force down everything, all over his body, at the same time, that it feels like his body stops fighting itself and his human shape “clicks” into place as the new normal. The second the tension suddenly releases, Martin falls off the cot onto his knees and hands, barely choking down the scream, then panting and trying to suck up a whole tent’s worth of air into his lungs. As he gets up, his body shivers and twitches, with sweat dripping off...everything.

Looks like he needs to go wash again.

But before he can, a familiar voice clears its throat from behind him. Martin whirls around to see Lucius standing near the side of the tent, peering at Martin from under his hood.

“Lucius!” Martin pants, trying to shake off the pain and effort of the last ten minutes. “What can I do for you?”
“Looks like it hurt,” Lucius replies. He pushes off a tent post and heads over to where his meager gear was placed. “Heard you panting. Are you all right?”
“I will be in a moment,” Martin says. “It extraordinary challenge. But despite the pain, it is good to know that I can change when I need to.”
“Hmph,” Lucius says. He starts to leave, but stops and turns around. “You know I’m not a fan of magic that twists what you are, right?”
“Given our experiences with Asenath’s...victims, yes, I tend to agree,” Martin replies. “Which is why it is important to me that I remain in control of this. But at this moment, it seems to be more helpful than not, so I am in no hurry to be purged of it.”
Lucius raises a hand to stop Martin. “But. You still seem like you. Anton might not be a fan, but...” He pauses. “There’s no need to hurt yourself on my account. We’re all grown-ups here. We can take care of ourselves.”
Martin nods. “The painful part is over,” he says. “My concern now is that we stand the best chances of infiltrating Placerville. A rakasta traveling with you would have made that harder on all of us. So, you know, I may have saved us all - myself included - a whole lot more pain down the road. I’m not entirely unselfish, you know.”
Lucius chuckles. “That I do, despite your best efforts.” He stands up. “Just so you know what the others think. Understood?”
“I understand,” Martin says. “If I may be excused, I seem to be sweating out a rather alarming amount of fluids.”
Lucius nods, and walks briskly out. Martin snorts out another heavy breath, then wipes the sweat from his eyes, grabs his robes and trundles out of the tent in search of a washing tub.
punkey 2013-07-08 16:54:07
Packing up for the three day walk to Placerville - and of course, it’s a walk, Rollins makes the point that anything more than a pack animal or two is just one more large animal that could get stuck in the mire - is made surprisingly easy by the generous offer of Branson and Brandon Kittridge to help yourself to their stores. “If it’s for the fight against the forces of darkness, then no excuse to hold back support could be said,” Branson said, then ordered his son to help them pack while another frontal assault assembled. Brandon seemed put out by being sidelined again, but he struck up a conversation with Ozzy and settled into enjoying the work in front of him. Martin’s return to human form surprised some of the group and some of Brandon’s team, but aside from some visible relief on Anton’s part and the occasional staring glance from Lucius, no further drama resulted. Many hands made light work of the travel prep, and the final surprise was only delivered as the group started to shoulder their packs.

Rollins reappeared, this time with his fae agent sitting on his shoulder. “Apologies, but Blair is needed to investigate the next potential hidden tablet, so Q will be accompanying you in her stead.”
Blair started to protest, but then simply nodded and stepped over towards Rollins.
Q, already wearing his armor and tunic with a teensy leather pack over his shoulder, fluttered over to rest on the back of the donkey hauling the group’s gear. “Yes, when it comes to deserts, we send the lily-white paladin, and the fae gets the swamp,” Q cracked. “Not like there’s no giant frogs or anything there.”
Rollins smirked at that. “He’ll be an asset, I’m sure. Good luck.”

And it’s with good luck that the group sets out for Placerville. The spring is unusually mild so far this year, and travel is easy. The plains surrounding The City eventually give way to woods, and the first night is spent at the edge of the wood, where Q’s first party trick reveals itself: he’s quite an agile hunter. Of course, his game is all his sized, but he’s already killed and started butchering a field mouse by the time the fire is going. The rest of the night passes without incident, and although it takes a little longer than everyone else for Martin to get going the next morning, the day gets started well.

The next day, the woods grow steadily more dense, as narrow aspens give way to more substantial oaks, and the forest floor became ever more shaded. Foxes and wolves yelp in the distance every so often, and even the occasional deer reveals itself through the trees. The road is a well-rutted path connecting The City to points south, mostly the southern port town of San Ysidro, but it’s not the main road that the group is interested in. In fact, camp is set up in a small meadow just after a specific fork in the road, marked only by a hand-carved wooden sign that says “Turlock and Swamps”. There’s no indication that this is the way to Placerville, but Red assures everyone else that it’s the only way in.

The next morning, Anata is up early - damn rock under her bedroll made it next to impossible to find a good position - and instead greets the morning by taking a pre-dawn stroll. It’s a peaceful and calming exercise, until she sees something surprising: Martin, or more specifically, Rakasta Martin, strolling around in the woods himself. He’s barefoot - or rather, bare-pawed, and only wearing the pants from his robes as his ears flick in all directions, listening to the sounds of the forest.

The duelist came to a halt, her musing on the endless ability of human beings to find someone worse off than they were, street thugs and gutter rats looking down on swamp-folk interrupted by the sight of Martin wandering the woods. She stood for a long moment, not hiding but making no particular effort to make herself known, simply watching the young monk wander nearby.

Martin sits down cross-legged, hands on his knees and eyes closed as he settles into his painful new routine. There’s less backsliding now - once parts of his body are transformed to human, they stay transformed - but he still can’t muffle the grunts of pain and exhaustion completely, and the rays of morning sun reflect off his glistening brow and body as he powers through the effort. For a moment, it’s like his humanity hangs in the balance as he looks almost-but-not-quite human - and then it clicks over, it’s good old human Martin again, and he falls forward, letting out a breath through gnashing teeth. After a few seconds, he seems to recover from the ordeal and picks himself off the ground to wander back to his tent.

He finds his path blocked by Ana, standing slightly to the side of the path back toward camp, leaning against a tree. Her expression isn’t judging, but rather a mix of curiosity and concern. “I’ve known a number of men who needed a shave and a haircut after bedding a Rak, but there’s something more to this Martin...they don’t have a tendency to pop back to their normal selves after a morning stroll. And forgive me but...that didn’t seem like it came as a surprise to you.”
“It is not,” Martin admits. “I have been learning how to control it, but I am aware that it looks...distressing. I do not wish to worry anyone, however. Will you keep this in confidence?”
The noblewoman simply nods. “I keep secrets well.”
“Thank you,” Martin says.
“Of course. Though if you need a sympathetic ear...” she smiles softly and then steps more firmly out of his way, disappearing into the forest on her own early morning stroll.
“…I shall know where to find it,” Martin mutters to himself.

By the time Anata returns to the camp, a breakfast of bird eggs and salted pork is already prepared (the eggs retrieved by Q, who has already proven to be at least a great travel companion), and the camp is mostly torn down for the final day of the journey. By nightfall, they should be, by Red’s estimation at least, in Placerville.


The walk down the road to Placerville is an education in geography and ecology; as the land slopes downwards and the ground slowly becomes moister, the trees change from thick oaks to spindly pines and aspens, the ground plants go from large, leafy bushes to small, low-lying shrubs, and the air turns moist and musty. Before long, the expanse of woods and the rolling hills all around turns to a flat floodplain, sometimes even walking along a narrow strip of dry land surrounded by slowly moving water. One, then two, then four turn-outs are passed in the road before Red directs the group towards a small path cut between two trees. Path is actually rather generous; it’s more like a cut that just keeps going, and the fact that said path goes through a giant puddle almost immediately only further lends the impression of heading straight into the bush.

Travel on Red’s path is slow going, with the donkey having trouble negotiating the path and needing support from some of the group’s larger members. Q hops from tree to tree, scouting the path ahead. Soon, it’s late afternoon, and the day’s travel has begun to wear. It feels like you’ve been trudging through the swamp for twice as long as you really have, and the path hasn’t afforded much in the way of places to sleep. If you don’t hit Placerville soon, bedding down on the road for a night being eaten alive by mosquitos - or something larger - might be your only option.

“Still fuck-all up here,” Q shouts from the trees. “Looks like there’s a clearing up ahead, maybe we can stop for a rest.”
“Let’s push on fer another few minutes,” Ozzy says. “We can come back n’ rest if we don’t find it, but I ain’t keen to wake up itchin’ from these damned bugs.” Ozzy had the look of someone resigned to sleeping in a swamp, however. Anyone near him can hear him grumble, “At least this time ground’s too soppy to build a proper sewer system. Honest muck here, and make no mistake. Wouldn’t do to go another day without bein’ spattered with slop n’ shit.”
“Can do, bossman,” Q calls back as the group passes the clearing. “Shouldn’t be much further -”

And that’s when the group’s whole world turns upside-down - literally. All you hear is a brief snap before a net strung through the underbrush on the path snaps you all up - the poor donkey included - and suspends the group from the trees above. The donkey freaks the fuck out and starts kicking and screaming, but he’s fortunately at the bottom of the pile. Still, this is obviously a not-very-good situation.
“Holy shit!” Q calls out and flutters down to the suspended net. “Everyone all right in there?” he asks as he orbits you all.
Admiral Duck Sauce 2013-07-08 16:57:47
"We're good," Ozzy replies, his face pressed up against the rough strands of rope. "We must be close, eh?"
e of pi 2013-07-08 17:26:54
Anton is just grumbling at the donkey after having to help the donkey past yet another of the seemingly unending mud puddles and stretches of trackless mucky "earth" when they hit Q's clearing. "Though you were supposed to be helping us, not the other way around. I expect a bit of riding later on for all this trouble," Anton mutters as he wipes a hand on his tunic leg. It's debatable if it leaves the hand or the leg cleaner, but it soothes Anton's mind a bit...right up until the earth takes a dramatic turn for the "upside down." His head jammed in against the donkey's side as it kicks underneath him and Kneecapper's hilt jammed into his gut, Anton grits his teeth. "Ack!" he says. "Not what I wanted, dumb ass." After a moment to settle himself and take inventory Anton gives a muffled, "Fine here."
skullandscythe 2013-07-08 22:42:52
There's some movement through the net as Red tries to slip his arm through the net; sure enough, a second later, a hand flops down in front of Ozzy's vision. "Okay. Good news, we're here. Welcome to Placerville, sit down, have a bite," Red says hurriedly, breathlessly. "Bad news? Trap is not supposed to be here. Not unless shit is bad. Real bad." There's more squirming: Anton can feel something moving around, not far from his face. "Dammit, why do I always have to keep my knife in the most inconvenient places? We're sitting ducks, strung up here like this. Fucking target practice. For the kids! And they always try to shoot for the soft bits, too...Q, can you try to cut the line?"
e of pi 2013-07-08 22:56:27
Anton cranks his head against the donkey's flank to look at the source of the squirming. "No wonder how they got such a reputation as open and hospitable folk. You mind not moving so much? I've got enough ass in my face."
Gatac 2013-07-09 00:07:11
Though the closeness of the net precludes direct looks at him, the grunting and squirming from Martin are not exactly...human, and when he speaks, it's in the soft purr you've been having to get used to.

"The bad news is, I don't think I can hide my condition right now," he says. "The good news is, I've got claws."
CrazyIvan 2013-07-10 02:33:37
Ana twists slightly, moving her hand to her hip, feeling a reassuring weight there.

"Or we could just use a knife. Not to rain on Martin's parade or anything, but perhaps he should learn his mystical predator powers when we're on the ground?"
Gatac 2013-07-10 14:06:52
"I think the how of our freedom matters rather less than the thing in itself," Martin says. "Let us both try to cut the net."
punkey 2013-07-12 03:42:46
However, the net proves surprisingly strong (perhaps not so surprising considering the weight it's supporting); after a few minutes of sawing, neither Anata, Lucius nor Q make any headway at all, and Martin's slow progress is only due to the increased dexterity that using claws attached to his fingers instead of a blade provides.

Meanwhile, Ozzy hears...something walking through the underbrush. He can't tell where it is or what's going on, but something is definitely out -

An arrow whizzes through the air right past Martin's face. "Hey there, beast man!" an accented voice calls out. "I'd recommend keepin' your paws off of the net!"
"Who goes there?" another, older and rougher voice calls out.
Admiral Duck Sauce 2013-07-12 08:45:30
"Oswald von Bruckenheimer," Ozzy calls out from within the pile. "Net salesman! Check out the weight capacity, the wossname... tensile strength and all that! It can be yours for a pittance, my good man!"
Gatac 2013-07-12 14:35:03
"Last month you were selling leather jackets..." Martin murmurs.
skullandscythe 2013-07-12 16:56:52
"Ozzy, now isn't exactly a good time for comedy," Red grouses. "Although, this ain't exactly the 'welcome back' I was expecting from you either, Pops. If I'd wanted to be strung up and feathered, I'd've just stayed in the City."
punkey 2013-07-12 17:03:31
There's a pause from the brush. "Renard? What're you doin' with these ugly brutes and this beast man, m'boy?" the older voice shouts back. "You want us to give these goddamned interlopers a dose of the Ol' Painless, you just give a shout!" That last sentence is spoken in one continuous rush.
skullandscythe 2013-07-12 17:20:08
"Please don't poison my friends, Pops," Red yells. "I really don't think an apology would suffice. Besides, they came with me to help when I heard there was trouble in my neck of the woods. Ol' Painless doesn't really seem like the proper hospitality, ya know?"
punkey 2013-07-12 17:32:54
Another silence. "You've got some mighty strange friends there, Renard!" the voice Red calls "Pops" shouts back.
"And when it comes to trouble, we can handle our own! Don't need no City folk help!" the younger voice adds.
"Quiet down, Beau! Pa's talkin'!" Pops shouts, and a moment later the net drops back down to the ground, disgourging a tangled mess of arms, legs, and one still very freaked out donkey.

A large, portly bearded man wearing a red shirt underneath blue suspenders holding up leather pants walks out of the forest, followed by a younger, gangly-looking man with stringy hair and similarly patch-made clothes, both of them holding bows and with quivers slung over their shoulders.
"Well, any friends of family are friends of mine," Pa says in his rambling mutter. "Welcome to Placerville, strangers."
skullandscythe 2013-07-12 17:59:17
Red smiles as he straightens up. "Lookin' good, Pa. Been a while." He turns to look at the gangly fellow, and his smile turns into a smirk. "Sorry to be an inconvenience, Beau. You always said I couldn't help but be one."

He spins back towards the gang. "Guys, this is my Pa. Pops, these are my friends. The big guy with crazy eyes and crazier hair is Ozzy, the other big guy is Anton, the slinky guy behind him is Lucius - don't gimme that, Lucius, this is family, be nice - here's Martin, nicest kid you've ever met, just don't give him any catnip please; the lovely lady is Anata, and the little guy is Q, and don't let his size fool ya, he can hunt with the best of 'em."