Tiddles lost. When brewing his potion of Purple Mysteries he had forgotten the proper number of half clockwise stirs, as well as the essence of bristlecone extract that was the penultimate topper to the mixture. The result had been magic-dead sludge. To make matters worse, his prestidigitations had lacked color. Not to his eyes, but to everyone else's. He didn't know how to fix them, because he couldn't see the problem. And Gargamel's prentice had performed flawlessly. Not a single mistake in their three hour contest.
Tiddles was in disgrace. As he walked from the amphitheater his master had refused to so much as look at him. Back in the tower, Tiddles moped over his things, wondering what he was to do.
"It's okay, pretty," Cornelia cooed at him. "Our master wont stay angry with you. He loves you."
Tiddles made a trilling sound of disappointment, and hung his head.
"Oh pretty," Cornelia spread her arms, "come here."
This, Tiddles could not resist. He scampered into her vanilla scented embrace, nestling his snout between her zaftig endowments. For the briefest span he forgot his troubles, and dreamed of being human, and of managing to be somewhat other than this sybaritic wonders favored pet.
It was this way that Corneus found them, red faced and fuming. His thighs thundering as he stamped, his belly rolling like a thundercloud.
"Tiddles! You worthless insect! I have had enough of your failures. You're not worth the base I didn't spend on you."
"Hey!" Cornelia interjected. "You're frightening him. Look, he's shivering."
"Shivering!" Corneus became, if anything, more rubicund. "In the warmth that I provide him? Does he not appreciate my care? Don't you know what I've given you! Answer me, you squirming snake, answer!"
Tiddles, shaking violently now, had all but lost the gift of speech. He could not bring the words to bear that this situation required, he could not mollify his father master mage. And because of his anatomy, he could not even cry.
"Nothing?" Corneus menaced. "You have nothing to say? So be it. I have nothing for you. You are no longer wanted here. Banished! You gecko spawn, out of my sight!"
Cornelia gasped. "Don't send him away! Oh, master, I can't let him go."
The wizards eyes flashed like lighthouse beacons. "Then go with him. You are banished as well." His tone was as unyielding as old tallo, and as without feeling.
Cornelia dropped the Skree. Her hands went to her breasts.
"No! Master, I didn't mean it. Send him away, I don't care. But don't send me away."
Corneus smiled wickedly at her distress. Even if he could not best Gargamel, in his own domain he still held absolute power.
"I have made my decision. The both of you are to leave by suns closing. Outside."
Upon hearing this Cornelia, always pale, became veritably translucent.
'Outside' meant something quite serious to the denizens of the Tower of Sorcery. It was a self contained universe, and aside from the wizards themselves whole generations went by without a single foot being set 'outside'.
Thus it was that by the closing of the sunflower Cornelia and Tiddles went out into the world alone. The great doors did not open for them, they were pushed out through a crack in its ancient planks that a horse could have sidled through.
A prodigious silence pressed close about them. The boundless plains stretched beyond the limits of mortal vision, a flat ocean of tall grasses interspersed with thickets of Knuckle trees and spiky, spindly shrubbery. Their heartbeats quickened at the sight of so much... much. The Tower was the highest wonder of Mythopoeia, or so they could be sure. Here, though, was open.
And the sky, they had known that there was such a thing. They hadn't been prepared for how large it would be.
Cornelia screamed, startling Tiddles half out of his scales.
"It's gone!" She shrieked. "Chains and blood. Bloody chains! It's gone!"
"No need to swear." Tiddles muttered. He didn't have to turn to know she spoke the truth. He had felt the immensity of the tower vanish as soon as they had passed out the interstice in the doors. Behind them was more grass. The Tower could only be accessed by magic. To those who were not wanted, it was as intangible as the legend it had become to the rest of Mythopoeia.
"Where do we go," Tiddles asked no one in particular. Then he was on his knees, clutching his head. Cornelia, standing over this trembling wreck, seemed about to strike him again.
"This is all your fault," she breathed, and fell into a sobbing heap. Tiddles gradually recovered, the wound to his heart was far meaner than the blow to his skull, and he gathered his robes about himself, clutching also the small backpack that constituted his worldly belongings.
"I have something," he said, and Cornelia ignored him. He ruffled through his provisions and drew out his second set of robes. They took up more than half his pack, but folded inside was the Tablet of white clay. He tapped the anterior side with a birdlike finger, and waited for the face to appear.
A mouth appeared, no more. The lips moved.
"You are outside?"
"I lost," Tiddles sniffed, "I lost and my master sent us out. I don't know where we are and I don't know what to do and we've only got a little food and Cornelia hates me and I'm afraid of what might be in the grass..." His complaints wailed away into silence, like a retreating siren, and he did not cry, but only because Skree can't.
The lips pursed.
"You have a woman with you? Probably best to leave her behind. She will require as many aliments to sustain her as three of your kind." As a general rule the face in the clay did not have intonation. He was toneless. And this bit of advice was no exception. Tiddles was horrified, but not half so horrified as Cornelia.
"What? What did it say?" She wiped her fists over red rimmed orbits. Her face endearingly swollen by her weeping. She loomed over Tiddles frail shoulders.
"I was only joking," the clay said. "You couldn't tell, I suppose. Would you like me to generate a map of your location?"
"You can do that?" Cornelia said hopefully.
"With the wiznet, anything is possible," The lips disappeared, were replaced by a topographical representation of a bare stretch of grassland, not particularly exciting, with two divots at its center representing Tiddles and Cornelia.
"I don't seen anything," Tiddles said, "Can you give us a larger map?"
The Tablet obliged, and they shrank from divots to a single depression that couldn't have housed a grain of sand. Aside from that, this map looked almost identical to the first.
"How much is that?"
"Two Walks across, three top to bottom, though such measures are always approximate," the map replied.
"How far to water?"
A deep incision highlighted a stream three quarters of the distance to the end of the Tablet.
"That's not so bad," Tiddles reassured himself. "What about people? A town? A friendly town."
The Tablet was silent a moment. "Two or three Walks would be enough to intercept one of the Tang tribes, but that would be unwise. Rather I would lead you around that kind of difficulty."
"The Tang? I've read they're peaceful. Why wouldn't they help us?"
"Like most people, they are peaceful among themselves, and inhospitable to genuine strangers. They would eat you, o-snouted one, and take your companion as a form of human chattel. Unpleasant in either case. And I could do little to affect your dispositions."
Cornelia moaned, and sat back on her heels.
"What about the towns? Don't the plains border Valanthia?" Tiddles went on desperately.
There was another pause, and the slate wiped itself clean. "Proceeding apace, three Riders Days would see you to a safe settlement. Though I should clarify that it will not be a Valanthian settlement, as Valanthia collapsed nearly three millenia ago, and will not be returning soon."
"Many of the Tomes provided for your education were somewhat out of date."
"Somewhat?" Tiddles managed.
The master of the wiznet did not see fit to respond.
"Okay," Tiddles squeaked. "That's okay. Just take us to water first, and then we'll worry about finding a town. You can keep us away from trouble, can't you?"
In response, the Tablet generated an arrow, signifying south-east. Tiddles glanced at Cornelia, lost as she was in wide eyed bereavement, and he asked, "Are you coming?"
The young woman did not respond.
"Please," Tiddles whined, "talk to me."
Cornelia turned a dead gaze upon him, but still said nothing. She had not packed well for their journey. A reticule with a handful of gems, a favorite chemise. They had a water jug and a cup between them. Tiddles shrugged helplessly, and set off. After a moment, he could hear the rustle of motion behind him as she followed in the grass.
* * * The Hero's Guild did not have a presence in Grape. Its offices were little more than a collection of wooden shacks and outhouses, a few granaries and a barracks all arrayed behind a square palisade. The gate was never closed, indeed, its hinges had broken free of their moorings some years before, and it now canted back and to one side, held in place by a pair of old crates.
Watching this non-gate, seated upon one of the aforesaid crates with his back to the entrance to the compound, was a man with a remarkable beard. The color of rusted tallo, it ran in a stiff bristle nearly to his ankles. He was not tall to anyone excepting perhaps a Skree, but he was wide and thickly muscled. His mismatched armor looked as if it had been collected, piece by piece, from the battlefield dead, which was not ironic, as it had been just that.
He did not look up as boots scuffed against the gravel, and a young man entered the compound.
"Don't do it, boy."
The young man stopped, and paused to brush his hair from his eyes. It was tawny as he was pale, this tall, slim youth of uninspiring attire.
"Don't do it, boy. You heard me. In the days when there were armies, real armies I mean, that's what the old men would say to the one's who wanted to enlist. Now we've got the guild instead of armies, the sentiments the same. And so's the response. Boys never listen."
The young man hesitated, "I'm going to make my fortune."
"As you say." A moments silence.
"What?" The voice was not intentionally rough. It just was.
"Where is everyone?"
A bark of amusement, a wave of a mailed hand. "Out on assignment, most of em. You'll want to talk to the Gather. Ge does all the paper. Walk strait until someone stops you, and tell them that's who you want."
The youth complied, honest and eager as he was, and was mildly embarrassed to find himself running against the far wall of the camp (for that is what it was, he now saw, a camp that had become permanent) without sensing another spark beyond his own. It was on his way back that he was stopped.
A man in a faded pink tunic stepped out of one of the shacks. He looked disheveled and weary, excepting the twin straight swords at his hips, whose scabbards, at least, looked oiled and eager.
"Can I help you?" He asked placidly.
"I think I'm looking for Gather."
"Yes, thought as much. Come with me, then."
The man took him down an alley between the shacks, and into another makeshift street of the same. a particularly run down hovel, if anything smaller than the others, appeared to be their destination. The man took him inside.
"Gather, we've a fish for you."
There was a table, and behind it a man in a chair surrounded by towers of rolled scrolls. The air was humid and close, and yet somehow still unseasonably cold.
"Yes, I see you do." The man who was putatively Gather drew a blank parchment from below a pile below the table.
"What's the name, boy?"
"Aric. Aric Ganolin."
"Good enough. Can you use a sword?"
Aric bristled. "Good enough?"
"And why are you hear?"
"To enlist. I'm going to make my fortune, and I'm going to be a hero."
Gather met the eyes of the other man over Aric's shoulder, but his only comment was, "Good enough. Listen up and I'll give you the spiel. Being guild is an honor, la la la, song and dance and what have you. Anyways, you're in for life, and you can't get out unless they let you out, which they won't unless you're old and useless or have enough gold bases hid up about your person to bribe your way home. You'll probably die before then, though. Anyways, you should already guess the guild does the dirty work for everyone with coin in the three kingdoms. We don't assassin, but there is a bit of killing involved, and you won't like it. Hmm... what else, Arthur, what've I missed?"
Aric, by this juncture, was quite red. "Why are you all trying to turn me away? I've told you I want to join."
Gather raised an eyebrow. "All?"
"The man at the gate, he told me not to enlist."
"Spilth." Gather said distastefully, "No need to heed him, he's been discharged. And as he didn't buy his way out, I leave it to you to reason why." He pushed the parchment and a quill across the tabletop. "I'll need you to sign this," he said, "or can't you write?"
"I can," Aric gritted his teeth. His family had been unable to afford a formal tutelage, but his father was an educated man, and that was enough to give Aric a breadth of schooling uncommon in his economic strata.
"Write: I, your name, am of the Heroes Guild, by the light, on this day, fifth day of the seventh month of the ninth year before the third dark of Lord Demerol's Wardship. You have all that?"
Aric scratched out the swearing in a quick, neat hand, finishing with a flourish, before returning the parchment. Gather frowned, "Should have gone into clerking. Too late now though." He signed as a witness in a considerably less accomplished hand, stamped it as true and authentic, then rolled it and tossed it on a heap of similar documents. He clasped his hands behind his head, and leaned dangerously backward, his eyes like twin awls blunted by use and viciousness.
Arthur put a hand on the younger man's shoulder. "I'll take him to be equipped, shall I."
Gather nodded. "You needed a new green didn't you? I'll put him on your roll. Give him the rounds and all that."
"As you say."
Aric found himself led outside, and down another mud-thick alley to the armory. It was a warehouse about the size of a village smithy, not much within but barrels of old arms and armor, most of it dented and discolored.
"Have your pick, son."
Aric gave the man a sharp glance, he was not so young, or he so old. But there was no insult in this man, only a sort of weary negligence. A chipped dagger, a halfmoon axe with a pitted edge, he cast one aside after another.
"Don't cut yourself. It will fester."
Aric didn't reply. It took another quarter of a turn to see him outfitted with a studded leather chest piece, and bracers and leg guards that nearly matched. For his blade, he settled on a long sword not unlike the ones Arthur carried on his hips, though of a lesser quality. And of course he had his own dagger, the kind that all men and women carried alike for mundane tasks. It was not much, all in all, but he had no desire for heavier armor, and this was serviceable. Next was the barracks, and Aric could not help but note as they worked across the compound that the aged soldier, Spilth, was gone from his post at the broken gate. He was nowhere in sight.