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Barklins for Booze - by Crazto

The sun beat mercilessly down on the lands, untainted by clouds.Wildlife were wise enough to hide from its glare, and the grass unlucky enough to be denied the protection of a tree's shade were brown and withered. Rain clouds gathered at the horizons, but not once has the wind let them blow towards this pseudo-desert.

Yet one man stubbornly defied the almighty rule of the blazing orb. His skin was the colour of milk chocolate, his hair streaked with grey under the wide-brimmed straw hat, but his movements were strong and assured, unhindered by the infirmities of old age. His dark eyes shone with mirth and an unending curiousity of the world around him at ordinary times.

But, of course, this was far from ordinary. The man's eyes were focused on one thing, and one thing only - the great castle of Medievia, levitating in the air, a banner unto itself. In one hand was a well-worn walking staff, tipped with iron at the ends, and the other held a scrollcase as if it was his most prized possession. Travel-worn robes brushed the ground as he walked, effectively hiding tracks from anyone - or anything - that could pose a danger to his person. His gait was casual and uncaring, yet there was an alertness about him that made people think twice before crossing his path. There was a highly expectant tone to his gait, as if he had just won a prize and was heading to the city to get it. In fact, if he was less alert, he would have overlooked the faint, but distinct melody in the air.

The man stopped, and inclined an ear, straining to hear the sound. There it was again - the brief, jaunty tune of a mandolin, carried by the air's gentle breeze. The song was nothing familiar - most likely the random tune of a well-talented daydreamer, but there was something about that tone that made the traveler stop in his tracks and turn, heading towards the source of the sound, which happened to be the outdoor tavern, quite close to the City itself. Inside, he had to push aside quite a few rowdy dancers, and even work his robe loose from some of the more enthusiastic female types, but the effort was well worth it.

Another man, with exotic, angular features, sat on a chair, pouring his soul out into the mandolin. His dark hair was tied off into a horsetail, and his skin was pale, though calloused by hard times. His dark eyes flickered, glancing at the traveler in brief acknowledgement before looking down at the mandolin's bow, which was fluttering over the strings as he belted out the cheery tune the dancers kept rhythm to. Threatening as he may seem, the big smile plastered on the musician's face dispelled any unpleasant thoughts concerning mortality. The traveler had to admit, after listening to the music for some time, he felt like dancing too.

When the player finished, there was a round of applause, and the traveler eagerly joined in, matching the other man's broad, humble grin as he stood and bowed at the cheering audience, mandolin and bow held proudly. The musician sat down again and began another tune, a slow, lugubrious tone that set a solemn occasion to the tavern. As the crowds dispersed to do justice to the song, a woman stepped forward and clapped the musician smartly on his back.

"Great performance, there!" She grinned. "I can't be prouder."

The man smiled, pausing for a moment to make a few obscure gestures with one hand. The woman looked indignant, as was obvious by the way one of her eyebrows practically disappeared into her mouse-brown hairline.

"Pay them for your songs?" She spluttered, her grey eyes flaring. "Are you crazy, Daertin? That's highway robbery!"

Daertin grinned, winked, and made a few more gestures. The woman rolled her eyes and stalked off, muttering, leaving the traveler to safely question the mute before the fiery lady returned. Smiling a welcome, the traveler sat at an adjacent chair.

"Nice song, Daertin," he said, smiling nervously.

Daertin blinked, although he continued to play. Then his eyes shone with epiphany, and subsequently darkened with accusation.

The traveler mentally smacked himself. *This is getting off to a nice start,* he thought sarcastically. *Well, let's see what you can salvage out of this.*

"Sorry if I eavesdropped," he apologized. "I'm Marcus Dunewind, a traveler from the deserts. I just dropped here because I heard you playing, and I figured I might as well just stop and listen."

Daertin nodded, casting a cursory glance over Marcus, his eyes cautious. Then the gaze broke to something behind the traveler's shoulder, and a smile that was one degree less from a smirk began spreading across his face.

"What in Vryce's holy storms are you doing here?" Came an accusatory demand to compliment the mute's derisive amusement. Marcus groaned, and turned to look full into the icy grey eyes of the ouse-haired woman who congratulated Daertin earlier, though at this present moment, she looked anything but congratulatory.

"Why, just congratulating your friend for his efforts," Marcus replied, a charming smile plastered across his face in an effort to mollify the fiery, unpredictable personality standing before him. Now that they were practically inches from each other, Marcus noticed the details that a cursory glance at a distance would overlook, such as the pinprick blemishes of past acne wars, and the slightly skewed position of her nose - obviously the aftermath of a brawl of sorts gone out of hand. To tie the not-so-charming combination off with a bow, her too-square jaw gave her a stern demeanor that destroyed any semblance of docility and prettiness. Of course, Marcus knew better than to comment on the woman's relative beauty - or lack of it, thereof, if he wanted to keep all of his teeth.

The woman grunted, unconvinced, and shrugged. "If you came all the way from the distant lands just to do that, you have too much time on your hands."

A split-second's worth of surprise registered at Marcus' normally unflappable expression. "How... what... who... were you scrying?" He demanded in a voice a little shrill for his liking.

The woman smirked, her tone scornful. "No, you idiot! Simply a bit of common sense and experience, especially since you practically trailed dirt all over the floor and carrying a half-empty waterskin. Unless you're playing an elaborate - and unnecessary - sham trying to convince your status, I'll have to take you for the real thing."

Marcus swore he could have blushed to the roots of his hair. "Ah... um... well, you're right," he admitted, "but I came here because your friend, Daertin, distracted me from the path with his music. It's quite a charming piece."

"I see. And?"

"And what?"

"And what else? I haven't seen you touch a set of dice or a tumbler ever since you came here."

Despite his annoyance, Marcus felt an opportunity just begging for release. "Are you always this questioning to us foreigners?" He said, leveling the full force of his charming grin at his interrogator. Rough and tough as she was, the woman was totally not immune, and she actually blushed, then threw up her hands.

"Bah!" She exclaimed, disgusted. "You sly old wolf, I'd have punched those teeth out if you were some other person!" Then her gaze grew alert and wary. "Yes, I am suspicious of foreigners, Daertin excluded."

There was something about her tone of voice that set Marcus on edge, but he shook it off. *Nerves,* he thought to himself. "Well, looks like we have to take care of that first," he said cheerfully, and extended a hand. "I'm Marcus Dunewind."

The woman's jaw trembled, as if the owner was calling upon extreme restraint to keep it from falling somewhere into the deepest levels of the catacombs. When she spoke, she was tripping over her words in incoherency. "M-M-Marcus D-Dunewind?" She said, her voice lilting in incredulity, "THE Marcus Dunewind?"

"Yes," Marcus replied, absolutely deadpan, though his eyes glittered with amusement. "So, you've read my books? I thought they didn't sell well, so I didn't expect a fan to go 'ga-ga' over it..."

The woman snorted, her eyes gleaming with suppressed mirth. "A fan? Are you insane? I was just surprised that the author of such a terrible series of books could be so... so..."

"Incorrigible? Charming? Obnoxious?" Marcus offered with a whiff of ruffled indignation.


"Thanks for disillusioning me," the author grumbled. "You spoiled all the fun."

"My pleasure. Oh, and by the way, I'm Tamra d'Orth, and my friend over there is Daertin Elachion."

"Pleased to meet you, Tamra and Daertin," Marcus smiled, bowing to each of them. "I suppose there's a reason why you're here plying your trade among drink and jovial tunes?"

Daertin's eyes narrowed threateningly, but he remained motionless. Tamra smiled, a thin, chilly smile. Almost *too* casually for Marcus' tastes, she replied, "Oh, we had a little disagreement with our employers. I suppose they were a little too strung up in hangovers to appreciate Daertin's music."

"Well-meaning employers don't get drunk," Marcus corrected sternly.

"Then why did they left us in disgrace?" Tamra's voice was almost a scream. Then she seemed to regain control of herself, and took several deep breaths as if it would help retain her patience. "I'm sorry, I don't mean to be like that, I get passionate sometimes..."

"I see."

Tamra huffed. "Now I suppose I might ask you, what are YOU doing here?"

Marcus smiled, his eyes twinkling. "Ah. I was just going to wander off into the distant lands to look for a very special creature, found only in the reaches where no human influence taints the area - the Barklin trees. I believe they have a component in their barks that may prove to be the ingredient of a potent drink, but I can't really confirm that until I have a sample myself."

Tamra's face widened into a derisive smirk. "Good luck there," she replied snidely. "Those Barklin trees of yours are pretty rare and hard to find. I should know - I've traveled with Daertin over many areas and haven't encountered one yet." Daertin matched the smirk and nodded his friend's confirmation.

"Ah," the traveler objected, "but the key word is 'yet'. Who knows, maybe we'll be able to find one, and you can tell your children about it."

Daertin snickered. Tamra's smirk took on an incredulous expression.

"Excuse me?" She demanded indignantly and rose to her full height, which was pretty considerable, and Marcus wondered how many teeth he would lose at the end of this adventure. "Listen, you old geezer, I have no intention of having spoiled little chits tripping all over the place and screaming their heads off, and Daertin can attest to that! Also, what is with all these 'we's'? I didn't say anything about coming with you!"

Marcus groaned inwardly. *This is going to be difficult,* he thought. *Oh well, time for some dirty tactics.*

He shrugged, attempting to look indifferent. "All right, then. I suppose you can stay here and ply your trade, but you'll miss out on the reward."

Both heads swiveled to regard the traveler more closely. "Reward?" Tamra inquired, a raised eyebrow adding weight to her word. Daertin's expression, bless his scrutiny, was skeptical.

Marcus smiled to himself. *Well, that worked,* he thought with relief. "Yes, a reward for you two if you help me get the component."

The woman bit her lip, and looked at Daertin. The mute shrugged, and gestured briefly, concluding with a knowing wink. Tamra smiled.

"A quarter of your earnings will do if you want us to come," she said primly.

Now it was Marcus' turn to keep his jaw from dropping. "A q-quarter?!" He spluttered, his voice shrill with indignation, knowing they had him in a corner. "That's out-and-out robbery!"

"Take it or leave it," Tamra persisted, her expression carefully neutral. Daertin tried without much success to conceal a triumphant smirk.

"I can't believe it," Marcus grumbled to himself as the three trudged down the road. "Those two scoundrels basically hoodwinked a quarter of my earnings out the door!" Feeling a slight tap on his shoulder, he stopped and turned to be greeted with Daertin's clenched, scarred fist. Marcus couldn't possibly miss it, as it was approximately an inch from his nose.

The mute's other hand twitched repeatedly in a series of gestures, although Marcus didn't need to understand sign language to figure out the intention behind the action.

The traveler rolled his eyes as he put the fist aside. "Well, first, your friend blackmailed me with her obscene offer, and now you threaten me? That's plenty of ground to call you people scoundrels."

"He's right, you know," Tamra's voice rang out as she fell in step with the two men. "Daertin, you can stop flaunting your physique at our friend." With a scowl that vaguely resembled a thundercloud, Daertin stepped back obediently, leaving the woman to walk beside Marcus for a while.

"So, how long have you been traveling, Marcus?" Tamra said, raising up clods of dirt with every step she took.

"Oh, many turns and phases of the moon," the traveler replied, musing as he rubbed his sparse beard. "It's been so long, though, but I drop by the occasional city for a while.I used to go around exploring areas for the danger and adventure. Now I just retire amidst strong drink, mountains of gold, piles of scrolls..."

"...And fast women?" Tamra finished, her grey eyes blazing with such intensity Marcus winced slightly. Fortunately, the gaze calmed, and shone with humour. "Well, what else to expect? You look pretty well-worn for your age, I suppose it's about time you stopped wandering the lands like you're a young sort. Which I am."

Marcus chuckled. "True, you're young, and with your silent friend, I suppose you'll make a great team."

Tamra smiled. "Indeed."

"My turn. So, how about you?"

"Not very long, really. I'm just a small-time mage, and Daertin over there used to be quite a caterwauling hooligan, before he got his tongue cut out. We used to work for this big, doughy git who doesn't even know how to be nice, and makes a living by shaving gold coins. I just ensorcell them so they seem heavier than usual, which lets my boss shave a little bit. It doesn't seem like much, but it paid over time."

Marcus frowned. "Isn't that illegal?"

Tamra chuckled. "Oh, yes, it is, but a couple of bribes here and there and he was filthy rich in months. Until..."

"Until what?"

Tamra smirked. "Well, Daertin was in one of his singing expeditions - trust me, he sings as bad as his playing is good - and our boss was having a hangover at that time, so he ordered his henchmen to cut Daer's tongue out." The woman's eyes blazed with anger. "I took that personally. My boss lost quite a big chunk of his businesses when the guards suddenly took special note of our tampered gold. Of course, the old git thought it was just bad luck, carelessness and all, but his cursed henchmen knew better, though, and they came after our heads." She shrugged indifferently. "Since we're rather partial to them staying on our shoulders, we ran off and decided to wander the lands. And wound up here."

"Fine story. So, are they still after you now?"

"I don't know, although my bets are on that they'll be... DUCK!"

If Marcus had been a split second slower, he would most certainly have bit the dust from the crossbow bolt fired at him. He ducked and rolled, feeling his hair ruffle as the deadly projectile hissed past, and got to his feet quickly, bearing his iron-tipped staff, his eyes wary with a cat's alertness.

Tamra swore viciously. "I should have known," she berated, sullen. "They would stop at nothing to bring my staked head to them." Daertin's scowl was dark as twin venom-tipped knives appeared to have materialized in his hands.

"Dat's right, girl," came a grating voice. Out of the woods stepped a man, dressed in bandit attire, with a crossbow leveled at Tamra, and the woods crawled with more. "Ye'd t'ink dat yer false trail wud lewse uz dat eezy? Ah won' git yeh another chance t' do dat t' us agin, an' yer 'eads wud be de perfect gifts fer our boss."

In the meanwhile, Tamra smiled, a cold, heartless smile as she fingered something in her hand. "Oh," she drawled, "I'm pretty partial to my head, but you can have this."

At the last word, she threw the object in her hand and uttered a swift incantation, and the thrown projectile burst into flame, exploding against the henchman's body. Marcus winced his sympathy as he watched the man being incinerated before his eyes.

Then the traveler's keen senses acted again, and he ducked and swung his staff, effectively clipping the shin of the mercenary sneaking up on him. The man howled in pain and dropped his dagger, hopping painfully on one foot. Marcus reversed his grip so that the other end of the staff clanged against the henchman's helmet and left a pretty sizeable dent. The result was fairly predictable as the cutthroat slumped to the ground with the unconscious dignity of a sack of potatoes.

Meanwhile, Daertin and Tamra were taking care of their hunters. The mute's daggers were wreaking major havoc to any opponent within range of them, and the air all around him reeked of the stench of bitter poison. Arcane syllables spilled from Tamra's mouth in a continuous stream, belabouring her enemies with magic missiles, lightning bolts, and well-aimed shards of ice, severely punishing them for their choice.

But they were grossly outnumbered, at least five to one. As Marcus belted a henchman in the solar plexus with his staff, something clipped the back of his head, and the traveler collapsed to the ground, his vision swimming with stars. Dimly he saw the henchman grinning with yellowed and decaying teeth, raising his flail for the final blow, and he also saw the dagger that seemed to subsequently grow out of the flail-wielder's back. The man's face contorted with pain and surprise before keeling over.

However, Daertin's contribution to Marcus' rescue cost him dearly. The mute was beset by three more of the mercenaries and, after a brief scuffle, had a dirty knife to his throat, underscoring the obvious stalemate.

"Don' move, old man," the henchman spat, "or dis un gits it thru' 'is weasand-pipe!" He tickled the tip of the blade against the outraged mute's skin for emphasis, and by the impressive amount of cursing involved, it seemed apparent that another trio of henchmen had apprehended Tamra in similar fashion.

Marcus groaned. His head pounded as though a herd of tavern regulars were hosting a party there, and he felt like throwing up and running away, but obviously his friends wouldn't approve. There was only one choice he can gamble their lives on, before he gets captured as well.

"Sorry," he mouthed at the two, and began incantating a spell. Tamra's face turned from white to beet red and she unleashed a withering tirade of verbal abuse as she realized the spell Marcus was invoking before a dirty hand clamped over her mouth and shut her up.

Fog swirled around the traveler's feet and eventually covered him fully. When it dissipated, he was gone.

The henchman menacing Tamra's throat grinned. "Now, where were we?"

The world blurred back into Marcus' existence, and he collapsed to the ground, gasping for breath. The pounding in his head had diminished to a dull throb, and when he placed a hand on the injury, he can feel crusted blood clinging to his graying hair.

"I'm getting too old for this," he muttered as he got to his feet, using a nearby rock for support. "I should be retired amidst ale and books, but noo, you had to adventure like you're the young man you once were."

Berating himself, Marcus looked around, seeing nothing but green, green, green. "You can't even see the forest for the trees," he grumbled, and weaved his hands in an incantation. Vertigo assaulted him, nearly making him lose his lunch as the world seemed to expand below. He could see everything, from the many wildlife teeming around him to the area where Tamra and Daertin were held...

...Then it was gone, and Marcus really lost his lunch as the headache redoubled. Knees weak and trembling, the traveler wandered through the forest, trying to work out a plan.

SQUISH! A foul stench drifted up his nose. Marcus blanched, and looked down.

"Oh, that's disgusting!" He exclaimed, and began kicking the dirt with his boots. In the process of doing so, though, an idea hit his mind with the force of a warhammer.

"Our boss wuz un'appy wid yer leavin'," the apparent leader of the henchmen drawled.

"Fairly obvious," Tamra retorted, shifting against the grips of the strong mercenaries holding her in place. "Otherwise, why would we have left? I'm sure he wasn't looking forward to fetching us for another deal."

The cutthroat laughed. "Yer quite wrong, ah'm afear'd. Our boss wuz more than pleez'd t' git yer 'ead fetch'd back on a knifetip." He licked his darkly stained blade. "An' ah'll be doin' de 'onours. Ye'd better not resist, or else..." He glanced meaningfully at Daertin, still getting his throat threatened by a knife, speaking in more than words the result if she refused to cooperate. The leader nodded, and the other nodded back, grinning wickedly.

Tamra closed her eyes. Because of the stupid, charming, grey-haired traitor, she was going to die as a bounty reward...

"HA!" Came a loud baritone cry, shortly preceded by the thunderous pounding of hooves. The mage couldn't resist opening her eyes. Nor could she resist her jaw from hitting the ground.

Marcus, unsteadily mounted on a wild-breed horse, charged through the mass, twirling his staff over his head. One hand was held in a white-knuckle grip on the mane, and the mount, obviously *very* angry, was taking its charging wrath at anything that got in its way. Which was, involuntarily, them.

"Ha!" Marcus yelled again, and a series of clangs and cracks resounded in the area as the staff dealt retribution in their ranks. "Take that, you sneaking curs! And that! AND THAT!" Marcus exulted with every blow of his staff, and in short order those who had tried to resist were either unconscious or nursing broken bones.

With Marcus distracting her captors, Tamra raised her foot and stomped down on that of the henchman holding her. He let go, his yelp of pain becoming a panicked shriek as the mage unleashed a rainbow of colours in his face. The bandit holding Daertin growled and his knife looked ready to slit the mute's throat until a series of magic missiles cast by the traveler knocked the cutthroat several yards from the original area.

In short order, the leader and three of his goons were the only ones left. The former spat a vicious curse at the trio, and yelled out a barbarous war cry that chilled the blood. All four charged, right towards the traveler.

Marcus' smile remained on his face, as though he could care less that an angry mob was seeking his blood. At the last moment, he altered his grip on the staff so that it was parallel to the ground, and spurred his horse onward. The momentous result dislodged quite a few pairs of teeth and left the bandits sprawled on the ground, nursing numerous tender spots.

When the leader got up again, he was seething with rage. Marcus' smile did not twitch one bit.

"I suppose you fully understand the current situation here?" The traveler said sweetly.

The henchman spat. "Ah do, an' ah'll give yeh de beatin' ye deserved, old man!"

Marcus tsk'd like a father scolding a naughty son. "Watch where you throw that term around, bud," he said casually, "or you may just regret it. Besides, I'm not *that* old, grey hairs and all."

"Ah'll slice yeh t' ribbons!" The leader growled back. His longsword slid from its sheath with a horrid SNIKT that sent shivers up the back. By the saw-toothed edges on the blade, Tamra could guess it was a weapon of pain, not death, and she snorted with derision. It would serve its purpose as a decoration better than intended.

Marcus shrugged and dismounted his horse with cold disregard. "Do you want to reinforce that claim?" He said. "Your sword looks awfully rusty. I don't think it could cut water even if your life depended on it."

The cutthroat snarled, and charged, swinging the sword with wild abandon. Marcus casually stepped aside, looking for all the world like a master matador. He lowered his staff to kneecap height and swung, and the pain-squeal his opponent gave off sounded like a cracked organ pipe. Marcus backed off, his stance casual yet ready.

Sweating and swearing, the henchman leader staggered to his feet, an excellent set of bruises topping his kneecaps. He glared at Marcus with sheer hatred, drew a knife from his belt, and flung it at him, all in one smooth motion.

Tamra sucked in a breath, but the sound that came was a hard *thunk*, not the soft thud of knife hitting flesh. Marcus made a clucking noise as he looked at the weapon vibrating in the hard wood of his staff. "You should be more considerate of others' property," he chided, yanking out the knife and examining it critically. "As well as your own. This sticker's in pretty poor condition, but you can have this back, anyway." And he drew his arm and tossed it back.

The henchman ducked the whizzing knife, which turned out to be a move as fatal as getting transfixed by the projectile itself. By the time he got up, the iron tip of Marcus' staff was already on its way, and the resulting noise was not unlike that of an axe hitting a melon. The leader's eyes glazed and keeled over on his front, not to rise again.

"Hurm," the traveler mused, "it's been a long time since I saw a man's brains leaking out of his ears." He turned to the remaining survivors. "I suppose you want to join your late, unlamented comrade? I'll be more than happy to grant your desires."

The henchmen nearly trampled each other over in their mad rush to get away. If Marcus had counted, he wouldn't even have reached three before they were out of sight.

"That was cruel," Tamra scolded the traveler, though her grey eyes were bellowing with the laughter her mouth stifled. Daertin was less successful, his amused laughter ringing across the woods.

"So?" The traveler winked. "They were being a little too liberative with their demands. Anyway, why don't we find a place to spend the night? I'm hungry."

Tamra rolled her eyes. "Men."

Finding a sufficient spot to set up camp was tough work. The clearing they had fought in reeked too much of blood to be sufficient, so they spent the better part of an hour looking for another proper spot. They eventually set on one, a small thistle-filled area surrounded by long-dead trees, their lifeless limbs seeming to plead at the sky.

Tamra grouched the entire time. "I swear, if someone sets something on fire here, we'll all be burned alive! Yowch!" She hopped on one foot, cursing the thistle that was plaguing it. Daertin's sullen glare seemed to reflect his friend's opinion, tripping every couple of steps over the rough ground until his shins bled and Marcus had to help him along. By the time they got organized enough to set up camp and relax, the three were in a sour mood.

They ate and drank in awkward silence. After the giddiness of the day, it felt unnatural. When they set off to sleep, Tamra offered to keep night watch, "just in case". As Marcus laid on the hard ground, his mind drifted off to happier, better times, when he wasn't the grizzled old wanderer he was now.

He was asleep before he could complete his thoughts.

Too soon for his comfort, a hand shook him awake. "Your turn," Tamra grated.

Marcus yawned, mumbled an inarticulate protest, and got to his feet, rubbing sleep from his eyes. He added more wood to the fire, watching the world in a detached manner, still half in the land of dreams.

Yet he was lucid enough to notice the breeze ruffling his cheeks, the skeletal limbs of trees pleading at the night sky, and the tree shambling across the ground towards him... wait, WHAT?

The traveler's eyes snapped open, fully awake, and he lunged, his staff flying in a blow, too quick for common sense to check it. It would have returned in time, though the resulting force of the shock speeded up the process. "Ow!" He yelped as savage waves of agony vibrated up his hands, nearly causing him to drop the weapon. The tree reeled back slightly, but otherwise it was unaffected.

Sucking in deep breaths in an instinctive attempt to minimize the ringing pain, Marcus extended his staff towards his enemy, and with an uttered magical word, multiple missiles of blazing magic shot from the iron-tipped end, belabouring the living tree mercilessly, causing it to reel back. The tree gave a roar of pain like steel being torn apart, and a gigantic limb swung at the traveler. Marcus ducked, and the branches plunged into the campfire, setting it alight. With another roar, the tree batted its arm all around the place in an instinct to snuff out the stinging flames, though it did little but to further enrage the creature.

The sounds of the scuffle woke the two others, and they stumbled to their feet, groping for their weapons and dodging the berserk tree's swipes. Meanwhile, Marcus was beside himself with exultation, his face flushed and beaming despite the dim light.

"Finally!" He grinned, despite the gravity of the situation. "A Barklin tree! Just what I need!"

"You're going to be tree pulp if you stay that way!" Tamra practically screamed, and lunged aside to evade the swinging overhead branch. Daertin's face was dead grim as he circled the Barklin tree, daggers twitching like twin viper heads waiting for a chance to strike. For several heartbeats, the tension of a stalemate hung in the air until the mage felt like incinerating the traveler for stalling.


"Okay, here's the plan," Marcus said between evasions. "We've got to strip some of its bark because that's what I just need for the recipe." Then his face turned as grim as Daertin's as if struck by an epiphany he did not like, and in a reflexive movement repelled the enraged tree with another barrage of magic missiles when it started to show an uncanny interest at his anatomy.

"Easy for you to say," Tamra grunted, sprawled on her back and gasping for breath from the blow to the solar plexus the Barklin tree gave her. Daertin lunged in and thrust his dagger at the behemoth, but the blade skittered away, leaving only the tiniest of nicks on the bark's surface. The mute was subsequently knocked several feet across the area to hit the trunk of a dead tree with a sickening crunch. He slumped to the ground, shuddered involuntarily, and was still.

Marcus, looking at Daertin, shoved aside the impossible thought and faced the opponent, the worst of its rage over, as the final wisps of smoke radiating from its burned branch showed. But it was still very dangerous, and a staff and his minor magics would be child's play against the behemoth, even though the weapon can knock the pieces of bark that he needed, getting close enough to do so would put him in range of the swinging branches.

The traveler bit his lip. Timing was going to be critical...

As if his thoughts were answered, a huge ellipsoid of orange flames whizzed past his head, and Marcus sneezed as the stench of burning hair filled his nose, though he saw the magical projectile hit the Barklin's body with unerring accuracy. The tree squealed and started batting itself repeatedly to try to snuff out the magical flames that enveloped it. It was so engrossed in its task that it failed to see Marcus' advance, and a sharp series of blows in the right spot caused a few chunks of the prized bark to crumble to the ground. The traveler grabbed the precious commodities and stuffed them in his scrollcase, for a lack of adequate containers, and lunged aside to avoid the tree's belated counter.

*Finally,* he thought, his mind reeling with exhaustion. He felt sorry for the tree for being exploited as such, and this was hardly the encounter he had in mind. Looking at Tamra, Marcus saw the same knowing expression in her eyes. The two nodded in a silent cue, and faced the tree. It roared, unaware of the doom about to befall on it, and it remained clueless to the very end, when a barrage of fireballs and magic missiles turned it into a pile of smoldering ash.

Marcus sighed. He hated doing this, and it made him feel so tainted and wrong.

"But there are some decisions that you just have to make," he muttered to himself. He turned from the dark thoughts to Tamra, who was kneeling beside Daertin's body.

"Is he..." the traveler could barely get out the words.

To his eternal relief, the mage nodded. "Unconscious from the impact," she replied primly, "and with plenty of sore spots and lost blood, but he'll be fine once we get him to a competent cleric."

Marcus chuckled. "How do you know so much about people?"

"Long experience," the mage shrugged.

Marcus opted to avoid that line of discussion. "So, anyway, shall I escort you to the nearest temple?" he asked, flashing a charming smile at her.

Tamra winked. "Be my guest." Then she seemed to ponder for a while. "Of course, you still have to carry him. He's quite a heavyweight, you know." She failed to stifle a smirk at the pained expression on the traveler's face.

In the obscure corner of an inn, under the skeptical innkeeper's blessings...

"Well, that was quite an adventure," Marcus mused as he nibbled on his quill. "It'd make a pretty good book, and it'll sell for a pretty price. I wonder what to call it... 'Barklins for Booze', perhaps?" He chewed on the quill a bit more, patted his lean purse, and gave Tamra a glare bristling with poison daggers. "You cheated me," he accused for teh umpteenth time.

"I don't care," Tamra snapped, and shot a meaningful glance at the smoking barrel in front of them. "Is it done yet?"

Marcus' retaliatory look was mildly annoyed. "Be patient," he replied. "It takes time to make a good drink, and I'm not intending on compromising quality for your demands."

Without further ado, he took the quill out of his mouth and began to write, totally ignoring the mage's presence. Her face reddened slightly, but she opted to storm off, stopping long enough to retort, "Well, know that I paid for it!"

Daertin, sporting a new set of scars and a slightly blank-eyed look from his ordeal, snickered involuntarily, and was rewarded by Marcus' mock-withering glare. "Oh, shut up, you," he grouched, and resumed writing. When Tamra was well out of earshot, Marcus put down his writing implements, a mischievous grin on his face. "I lied; it's already done, anyway." He winked, reaching for two mugs he smuggled into the corner. "Want a drink?"

Daertin winked back and offered his hand. Marcus filled both mugs and offered one to the mute. "To adventure," he intoned, and held his mug high. Daertin nodded and followed suit, and both tipped their heads back to let the liquid burn a trail to their stomachs.

The laughter, as well as the off-key blaring of a mandolin, blended unceremoniously with Tamra's indignant outbursts, could be heard for some time.

News and Features

- by The Mudslinger Staff

Contest Winner! Alternate Lives
~ by Crazto

An Interview with God Calrog
- by The Mudslinger Staff


Folly on the Fury
~ by Aivanther

Barklins for Booze
~ by Crazto

Poetry and Songs

An Autoquester's Prayer
~ by Tiexie

A Valediction: Forbidding Trading
~ by Selenia