Consider the Possibilities (cont.9-10)

By: Heidi



Part Nine
Chris woke disoriented and in pain.  He ignored the pain while his mind tried sorting out the important things, such as where he was and what he was doing here.  As 
he was trying to work through the fuzzy images, he heard a voice.
"Easy, Chris."
He knew the voice; it was coming to him – Travis.  His throat wouldn't let him verbalize it.
"Don't talk, Chris; you've bruised your neck and your throat's swollen.  Talking's not going to be easy for a while.  Don't move, either – your neck's immobilized.
Listen.  You and your team were in a bad accident.  Everyone's alive.  You hear me?"
Flashes of lights and tilt-a-whirl images spun through his brain, slowing down just enough for him to remember the accident itself. Wasn't their fault, he recalled, some
truck ran into them.
Everyone's alive echoed in his brain, giving him a sense of relief. He blinked, and let his eyes drift over and finally focus on Travis standing beside his hospital bed.
It was almost as if Travis could read the questions in his eyes or just knew him enough to know what he would be asking if he could speak.  "You have a broken leg,
three broken ribs, two with hairline fractures that if you sneeze wrong they'll break, a concussion, contusions on your neck and throat and a cervical sprain – whiplash 
– of your neck.  Your neck's been immobilized for the foreseeable future.  They tell me they loaded you with pain medication.  Do you feel pain now? The doctor said
he would give you more if you woke and needed it.  Just move your left hand for yes, right hand for no."
Beyond the most basic of sensations, such as the sheets against his body, the collar against his neck, or the discomfort when he tried to talk, the odd bits of pain he felt
on awakening was manageable.  More important at this moment was getting oriented and finding out about the others; that wouldn't be possible if he was in an even 
deeper drug induced haze.  He moved his right hand.
"Good.  You feel up to hearing about our boys?"
Chris moved his right hand again in a give-it-to-me gesture.
"Most of you weren't wearing your seat belts – we'll talk about that later – and bounced around worse than pinballs.  The doctors are pretty confident right now, but
everyone's getting their heads examined."  Travis harrumphed.  "Not that the findings will do much good; you have to be crazy to work for me and do what you do. 
Seriously wonder what they will find when they look into those twisted brains."
Chris appreciated what Travis was trying to do, to lighten the mood and ease his worry.  He wasn't use to not being there for his boys when they needed him, and 
now it sounded like they were all definitely in need.  They're alive, he kept repeating to himself, they're alive, and they can recover.  We'll be okay; we just need time. 
He leaned back and closed his eyes, sending up a quick prayer of thanks.
"If you're interested, the driver of the vehicle that hit you is alive, too.  He's banged up, but he'll make it.  Told the doctors he'd been up for almost forty hours straight.
 He should not have been behind the wheel."
Larabee heard Travis pause.  He wanted to open his eyes, but they didn't seem to be cooperating too well right now.  It was too peaceful floating along like this.
"I can tell you're falling asleep; I'll leave you be; you need your rest.  I'll come back later, and maybe have some updates on the others.  TV's on, remote's beside you
 if you want it.  Call button's beside your left hand.  I'll be back."  Travis reached down to squeeze Chris's hand once before leaving.
The normal sounds of the floor disrupted his peaceful interlude. Giving up on the idea of rest, his eyes stared at the television out of the need to see something other
than the ceiling.  He hated hospitals, especially when all one could do was stare up at the ceilings or the bland walls.  The blond hated this show worse. Reaching with
his right hand for the remote, his fingers brushed it, accidentally pushing it off the bed onto the floor.  He heard it clatter.
Hell, he thought.  He tipped to one side to try and pick it up, but moving wasn't easy in his current condition.  In fact, it was down right painful to move, the pain 
receptors sending strong protests to his beleaguered brain to quit trying.  His fingers reached for the call button, hesitating at the last second.  The nurses had better
things to do than to pick up his remote.  His friends were still receiving treatment; calling whomever had the duty pulled them away from his boys.  He was tough; he 
could stand watching a show he hated.
Five minutes later, his hand hovered over the call button.  Ten minutes later, he was wishing the remote would just fly up into his hand to end this torture.  Twelve 
minutes later his finger nearly pressed the button, stopping only because he heard the sounds of the staff rushing to a patient in distress on his floor.  Fifteen minutes
later, he said to hell with it and closed his eyes, hoping the pain medication would let him drift into the sleep state he felt when Travis was here.  Noise reached his ears;
he opened his eyes to see hospital staff pushing another bed into his room.  He couldn't see who was on the gurney, yet he watched anyway; it was something to do.
They settled the patient in the other bed, closing the curtain between the two.  A nurse looked in on him.
"Mr. Larabee, do you need anything?"
Remote, he said in his mind, but verbalized, "Rrrrrrrmmmtt." Houston, there is a problem with his voice.  He tried again.  "Rrrreeeeeeemmmmm."  Frustrated, he lifted
a finger to point at the television, motioning with the fingers of his other hands to come here, hoping she understood.
"Oh, where's your remote?"  She bent down and picked it up.  "It's so quiet, no wonder you want it turned up.  Sure.  We just don't want it too loud for your new
roommate.  My name's Marnie, so if you need anything, let me know."  She put the remote down on the bedside table near his head.
His fingers snatched for it.
"You can leave it on if you fall asleep, Mr. Larabee.  Don't worry about turning it off.  Have a good rest.  Call me if you need anything."  Marnie left.
I need to change the channel, Marnie, he muttered inside his head. Not turn it up; I hate this show.  I hate the fact I can't speak clearly.  I hate being in the hospital,
Marnie, and I want the damn remote in my hand.  He tipped his head over to glare at it, trying to gather the strength to roll over and grab it.

The remote flew into his hand.  Grinning, he changed the channel.
"I was watching that," JD complained.
Chris turned his head to see JD sitting in the cabin's other recliner.  "Should have held onto the remote."
"I was, until someone I know took it from me."
"I'm sitting over here, JD.  How could I take it?"  Larabee was genuinely puzzled by his friend's comment.  He couldn't make things fly across the cabin.  Wait; cabin? 
Last thing he remembered was being practically immobilized in a hospital room.
"Well, duh, you are the telekinetic.  Geez, Chris, did getting blown up a little bit scramble your brain?"  JD rolled his eyes.
Tele-what?  Sounded like one of those preachers on television. Speaking of television, time to change the channel.  "I hate this show."
"You said I could watch it.  During our hospital stay.  Isn't it time for your pain medication?"  Dunne crossed his arms and did his best to mimic his leader's glare.
Chris frowned at the younger man, more because JD was right than because he was annoyed.  "Fine."  He changed the channel back to the hated show.
"Seriously, Chris, isn't it time for your pain medication?"
Medication to take away these annoying throbbing, aches, and twinges sounded wonderful.  He tried to remember where he left it, figuring it to be in the kitchen.  
Tipping his head sideways to look in the adjacent kitchen, he saw the bottles sitting on the counter.  Yup, there they were, way the hell out of reach.  He'd have to get
up to get them.
He stretched out a hand, deciding to be silly for JD's sake.  His friend looked entirely too serious and worried.  Waggling his hand, he joked, "Here pills pills pills.  
C'mere, pills."  Glancing at JD, he asked, "Do you think they'll come?"   He thought it would be cool if they did.
"As if they have a choice," JD muttered.
Whap – whap – whap!
Pill bottles bounced off his nose.  He frantically grabbed for them, flopping around in the recliner looking like an idiot until he snagged them and stopped their mid-air. 
"Pain inflicted by pain pills."  JD laughed until one hand clutched to his side.  "Oh, don't make me laugh."
Now he remembered, his earlier confusion understandable.  He was still shaking off the effects from their last fight with the radical militia who wanted all sentients 
either caged or dead.  During the final confrontation, half the team suffered serious injuries, while the other half nursed broken bones, concussions, and various bumps
and sprains.  He and JD initially fell in the serious-but-stable category, having been blown up and off the roof of the three story compound headquarters.  The irony 
was almost funny when Chris thought about it; he'd ordered Buck to force the militia out of hiding.
It was their job as members of Psi-Team Seven to make the world a safer place for sentients, and stop those who wished to abuse or kill anyone who was born 
having a special ability like empathy, telepathy, telekinesis, pyrokinetic, and so forth.  Until recently, sentients were persecuted, hunted, and killed for having been born
with a gift such as telekinesis or telepathy; now Psi-Team Seven worked to right the wrongs still remaining against sentients.  With Psi-Team Seven made up of men 
with special abilities, called sentients or psionics, backed by the United States Government, they were the perfect people to go after those who hated them and any 
like them.
Buck figured the best way to accomplish his objective was to smoke them out; a single fireball from the man's fingertips created the smoky fire down the chimney 
where it could remain under control.  JD, Chris and Buck positioned themselves on the roof to make entry and clear out the stragglers who refused to leave the 
building from the top down.  Josiah, Vin, Ezra, and Nathan prepared for a ground level entry, one on each corner, with the military personnel assigned to them broken
into backup teams for the sentients.  The remainder of the military assigned to this detail stood by to collect prisoners.
Their faulty intelligence, gathered from prisoners taken earlier, left out the fact there was ammunition stored in the basement level, stacked outside the basement
fireplace.  Apparently the old tenement had a fireplace on every level, all using the same massive chimney. When Buck shot a fireball down the chimney from the roof
access, he made it so weak it was more smoke than flame.  The ball flew out of the basement fireplace right into the unstable explosives.  Reaction was immediate;
whoever wasn't blown out the doors and windows ran out.  Arresting them was a simple process; either they walked out, or they were carried out.
Unfortunately for those on the roof, the tremendous force of the blast sent them airborne and off the safety of the roof.  The three-story fall shattered both of Buck's 
legs, leaving him in the hospital for weeks while Nathan used his healing abilities to knit the bones from the inside out after the surgeons pinned them back together. But
Nathan had his own injuries to deal with and was limited in the amount he could help.  They didn't want him to overdo himself, so refused to let him exhaust himself 
healing any of them completely. Wilmington was not a happy camper, still cursing himself for even thinking of using his abilities and causing the entire mess.  Nothing 
anyone said to him broke through; the last time JD tried, hospital security removed JD and sedated Buck.
JD's own landing from the explosion stopped suddenly when he landed in a tree almost a block away.  Quick thinking and fast reflexes kept him from impaling himself
on the branches, but the force of the landing broke a few ribs and strained his arms.  His right shoulder dislocated; but the main worry was where the rib splintered into
internal organs.  Three weeks out from surgery and JD still was on the mend, a slow and careful process of not jarring the other fractures or pulling his incision site.  
The youngest still regretted the argument with Buck; since Buck refused to talk to him, a permanent dark cloud took up residency around the younger man.
Chris wanted to make the cloud go away before it ate up the vibrant, energetic person he knew, and to hell with his own injuries.  In typical Larabee fashion, he 
survived the initial explosion, knocked to the edge of the roof and holding on.  Of course his luck didn't stop there; he had to ride the building down when the 
explosion caused an implosion, collapsing the building from the inside out. When rescuers finally pulled him out of the rubble, they found him exhausted and bleeding. 
His arms and legs were pinned by too much weight for his telekinesis to lift, leaving only his mind to hold up the stake attached to the old board – it was a long, thick
pointed chunk of wood that reminded him of a stake – from driving into his brain the entire time he was buried.   He didn't remember much after he was pulled out.
He did recall, though, some members of the militia escaped and swore revenge for the havoc Psi-Team Seven caused in the performance of their duties for the
Honorable Retired Justice Orin Travis.  The team served as his eyes and ears, his enforcers, against those who planned to take advantage of people born with a 
special ability.  Those who escaped posed a threat to the recovering team, forcing Chris and JD into hiding with their military team providing protection.
Chris objected to hiding, but Travis overruled him.  Travis felt, and eventually Chris agreed, the injured men needed to recuperate in private.  The media blackout kept
the press away, but until the most dangerous members of the militia were accounted for, the wounded posed a tempting target.   All of the team was separated, not 
allowing them to be in one place together.  Vin and Ezra currently recovered somewhere on the West Coast; Nathan, Josiah, and Buck were hidden on the East 
Coast, and Larabee convinced Travis to let Dunne come with him into hiding, giving the chance for the two to talk. The two men were somewhere in the rural parts
of Texas.
"So are you gonna let those bottles roll around on the floor, or are you going to get mine for me too?" JD's voice broke the blond from his thoughts.
"I'll get 'em," Chris replied, his focus back on the present. Thinking about his team's injuries and being separated from them didn't help with his own recovery, or help
 bolster his younger friend's sagging morale.  "Where'd you leave them?"
"Right here.  I can't reach."  JD smirked and tipped his head to his right.
Can't reach, my foot, Chris thought, almost immediately regretting the thought.  Concentrating, he moved the bottles one at a time in front of JD, opening the caps 
through focus.  He drew the line at dumping the pills out.
"Thanks.  Now yours."
He glanced at the bottles. Sighing, he collected them, bringing them up to his hand.  Turning off his power, he closed his eyes.  An enormous wave of exhaustion rolled
over him, par for his recovery. The doctor he saw about his sentience told him he had, using an analogy, "drained his battery," and needed rest to recharge.  Small 
usage like moving pills bottles was encouraged, but cost him. Yesterday, he lifted a blanket to cover a sleeping JD on the couch and passed out when he finished, 
waking up two hours later with a brain-banger headache.  He hadn't lifted anything since, except the pill bottles.
Given his broken left arm, sprained right shoulder, broken right wrist, and badly sprained ankles, he wasn't much for standing upright and walking now.  Barely able to
stand for more than five minutes, hating the wheelchair and unable to push himself around in it, he did use his powers more often.  At least his powers weren't enough 
to make him crazy like JD's could, the main reason he used his telekinesis more often than touching something.  JD's gift was reading the history of every object, 
through the emotions the holder felt whenever he touched it, and with the amount of agony each day brought Chris, Larabee didn't want the kid to read how much pain
he hid.  Hence, the no touching JD's stuff rule the blond imposed on himself.
He tipped his head in the younger man's direction, swallowing the last of his pills.  JD's eyes bore the weight of the world in them, warning Chris about the serious 
nature of the discussion about to start.  What he wouldn't give to take that weight away from his friend, to see the normal exuberance for living return.  "Yeah?"
"Will Buck ever forgive himself?"
Larabee sighed.  "Ow," he muttered in response to the physical action.  Making sure he locked eyes with JD, he said, "Buck might. It'll take time."
"It's not his fault."
"I know that, you know that, but he won't accept it.  It's my fault for asking him to make the fireball in the first place.  We were lucky most of the militia left the building
when we told them we planned to smoke them out.  Guess they knew something we didn't."  He remembered they found most of the trapped militia on the far side
of the building, well away from the former fireplaces and chimney.
"Like the explosives?" JD asked, sarcasm heavy in his tone.  "Heaven forbid we discount the possibility they stockpiled ammunition and explosives.  What possible
use could they have for such materials?"
Chris felt a flush of pride at JD's dead-on impression of Ezra.  He knew the clairvoyant warned them about something not being right, having received a vision of the
militia cowering in the corners.  But the vision didn't hint about the upcoming explosion, or the fact they caused it.  The blond did some damage control in the hospital 
when Ezra finally stayed conscious for more than ten minutes, assuring him it wasn't his fault for not seeing the blast coming, and that if anyone was to blame, Larabee
was for the foolish idea.  Vin didn't have to agree, having overheard the conversation when he wheeled himself in to talk to Ezra.  Of course, the longhaired telepath
got Ezra to smile and gloat, blaming Chris for the entire mess.  The smile and sense of belonging on Ezra's face, having someone agree with him, made taking the blame
– something he already shouldered on himself – much easier.  Now if they could only get Buck to stop blaming himself…or Josiah to stop feeling like he failed because 
Buck wasn't responding to anyone's treatment…or Nathan to quit overtaxing himself trying to use his healing abilities to fix the others.  Or…the list went on, none of 
which helping the fact JD was in crisis, and it was currently up to Chris to help him.  He focused on the young man, ignoring his headache, and reassured his friend.
"Those who didn't run got caught in the blast.  No one died, JD." For that, he'd already given his thanks to those upstairs, whoever was listening, and was especially
grateful his team had the chance to recover from this debacle.
"Buck thinks he hurt people.  Innocent people.  Okay, he's fine with no one dying, but they got hurt, and he thinks it's because of him."
"Were they so innocent, JD?  They collected explosives to kill sentients," Chris pointed out.  He waited to hear JD's answer.
"They fought for their beliefs."
"Their beliefs included killing you.  Me.  Buck, Josiah, Nathan, Vin, Ezra.  To kill us all.  Everyone who has a sentient ability, just because we're born with these gifts."
JD considered for a few minutes.
Chris waited, knowing the next question, whatever it was, would be a doozy.
Dunne asked, "What gives us the right to say their beliefs are wrong?  I mean, I'm not excusing what they did, but who are we to say you can think this, but it's
wrong to think that?"
He fell silent, considering his response.  Chris knew this discussion was probably one of the most important JD would ever have, because his answers could shape 
how JD viewed the world.  It was an awesome responsibility, and it pleased him JD trusted him enough to ask.  He chose his words carefully.  "We weren't after them
because of their beliefs, JD.  We went after them because they hurt people and broke laws.  You can believe what you want; our country's set up that way. The line,
no, line doesn't work, the point where you take your beliefs and violate laws changes the situation.  Acting out negatively – but hurting people, torturing them, breaking
laws – brings law enforcement into it.  We don't persecute for beliefs, only for the actions contrary to society's written laws."  He could tell JD was listening, but he
hadn't gotten his point across.  "I'm not explaining this right."
"Keep going," JD encouraged.
"Oh, boy.  Just because you believe in something doesn't mean you have the right to go out and use violence to enforce your beliefs. Say what you want, but don't use
a hammer to hit someone to make them shut up because they don't think the same as you.  Use words to prove a point, not violence."
"Meaning it's okay to talk about not wanting sentients to have rights, but it's not okay to go out and beat us up, or kill us because we are sentient."
"Yes.  Freedom of speech for the first part, but assault and homicide are against the law, with very few circumstances where the law allows it."
"Like self-defense," JD suggested.  "It's okay to shoot the guy breaking into your house, but it's not okay to go up to him and just shoot him because he said he was
going to break into your house."
Chris chuckled.  "Close, but there's a lot of wiggle room in the law to go either way in your scenario.  It depends on the full facts of the incident."
"But Buck thinks what he did was wrong.  I could argue it was self-defense; they had guns and said they wanted us dead."
"You could," Larabee allowed.
"So –"
A gunshot stopped their discussion mid-sentence.  Glass shattered in a perfect pattern, the bullet zinging past between the two men.
"GET DOWN!" Chris yelled.
Part Ten
Chaos erupted.  A gigantic web burst from Josiah's fingers, encompassing the entire area, not in the controlled manner he planned.  A bump by the kinder, 
Ripplewood Dewberry, right at the release point in the spell casting process, it went off, and so was the wizard's aim.  In addition, the collision between the distracted
Rip and Josiah also released a smoke grenade out of the fingers of the kender.
Yells and bellows of outrage filled the area, while those caught in the web attempted to jump or cut their way free.  Only beings with high dexterity, or the caster, 
could move through it with ease. Anyone else found themselves pinned in place by the magical construction.  Making things more difficult was the smoke grenade, 
occupying a large percentage of the web.
Almost immediately, Josiah muttered the words to remove the web from the majority of the bazaar, not moving much because he nearly caught himself in the web.  
Having cast the spell himself, he controlled the ability to turn it off or on at will.  Most wizards preferred not to end the durations of their spells, but in this instance, it 
was necessary.  He also created a small wind to remove the smoke.  When he finished, he reached down and grabbed hold of Rip's topknot.
"I beg your pardon!"
"This is not an opportunity for exploration," he said to the kender.  "I know there are many interesting things being dropped which you would like to pick up, but it 
would be best for your future audiences with the king to remain out of jail."
"Why would I go to jail?"
Josiah removed the hand from the topknot, moving down to the kender's shoulder.  "Step back here."  He protected Rip from a group charging the exit past them,
anger clearly written on their faces.
"Oh!  I hear it now!"  The sounds of fighting grew louder.  "You were concerned for my safety.  I thank you, Wizard Josiah, for your kindness to a kender.  There are
so many who do not even grant us the most common of courtesies.  Why, this one time, I went into this town my brother wrote me and told me was a wonderful place.
I barely reached the inn before they chased after me with swords, pitchforks, and I do believe I saw some scythes.  After that, I did not listen to my brother.  He has a
habit of …"
Josiah half-listened to Rip, pleased he was keeping the little fellow out of the melee in front of them.  What was not needed in this situation was a kender to find
interesting things, whether they are dropped, set down to come back to, or shining on someone's belt. Kender could not help their ways; if something interested them,
they took it to examine it.  They thought they were borrowing it, or the owner left it behind, or gave them permission.  Their concepts of personal belongings did not 
match with the majority of the world's ideas.
The wizard turned his attention back to the fight.  In the chaos, the fight, which started the entire incident, had escalated.  It encompassed most of the attendees; the
merchants busily packed up their breakables and guarded their money.  The King's Guard immediately went to the protection of the merchants.  Those not directly 
involved left the area.  He only concerned himself with those who looked guilty or were attempting to escape.  His hands held onto those, pushing them against the 
wall where he left part of the web.  Three of the King's Guard arrived to assist him in holding prisoners.
He used his hands to cast a spell, summoning the other peacekeepers through a message on the wind to them.  A sharp glance at those stuck to the wall, trying to cut
their way out, accompanied by exaggerated motions of his hands, reminded them he was the one with the magic powers.  His eyes glowed pale blue, the spell for
arcane sight changing his vision, allowing him to see magic.  He quickly pointed out those with magic weapons or armor, the spell he made permanent on his sight
telling him over a short period of time the strength of the magic based on the creator's caster level, and who around him carried magic.
"He is enjoying himself, isn't he?"  Rip politely indicated Chris.
"He enjoys a good fight," Josiah replied, glancing away from the strong magic coming from Rip's body and belongings to his friend in the melee.
The grin on Larabee's face reflected his pleasure at punching someone.  A mercenary, identified by his crest-free armor, jumped on the blond's back, attempting to
strangle the fighter.
"I am impressed," Rip said.  "Not often have I seen the superior strength of throwing someone bodily into a pile of manure, rendering him unconscious.  Of course, I 
have knocked big burly fighters unconscious, laid them low with a single blow.  Would you like to hear about it?"
"I would be delighted," the wizard answered, grateful he didn't have to detain the kender forcibly.  There were significant amounts of magic on the kender. but given
the kender traits of collecting anything of interest, this was not too suspicious.  Besides, many were of the opinion that kender were magical creatures to begin with, 
which would distort the mage's arcane sight.
"I was a guest of Lord Sikyth, owner of the King's favorite hunting grounds, when these rude fighters blamed me for their losses in dice.  They felt I had modified the
"How rude!"  Josiah exclaimed to keep Rip going.  Meanwhile, he watched Buck dive right into the fight, fists swinging on the three men who dared attack JD.
"I see our good behavior did not last long," Ezra remarked.  He grabbed another person and threw him into the web.  "Get over there and wait."  One hand fell to his
sword, subtly discouraging the man from pulling his weapon to cut himself free.  "I see what you have done.  Shall I announce it publicly?"
The man fell silent, the King's Guardsmen very fascinated by the man.
"Hello.  I'm Ripplewood Dewberry.  Friends call me Rip."
"Ezra, at your service."  The bard shook the kender's hand with great ceremony.  He exchanged a glance with Josiah.
It pleased Josiah that Ezra understood the silent message – keep the kender out of the fight and under our control.  This way, if someone blamed the kender for
stealing, they could say he was under watch by the town's protectors during the entire melee, and therefore could not of seen anything interesting to examine or borrow.
An arrow flew past the two men, latching one of their detainees to the surface behind him.
"Many thanks, Vin," Ezra called.  He went over to the detainee and tsked.  "You believed you could stab this guardsman and not face penalties for it?  For shame." 
He used his kerchief to remove the man's knife from his hand, careful of the dripping blade.  "Poison? I am deeply offended, sir."
The guard growled and approached the now weaponless, formerly homicidal, captive with hate in his eyes.
"Poison?  The coward's way.  Why, I once was stabbed with a poisoned blade, but I always carry an antidote potion with me.  It was close, I tell you," he started.
"How close?  I'd love to hear about it," Ezra interjected smoothly, ignoring the pounding the man on the wall took from his intended victim guardsman.

Vin watched the melee with a dispassionate eye.  He had come from the back of the fight, taking a position there to protect those merchants behind him.  The follow
-the-leader mentality pervaded, the bulk of the visitors heading for the main exit out of the area.  His position watched the now sealed side exits, a precaution they 
established with the King's Guard in case anything happened.  Forcing everyone to one exit may create a little more chaos closer to the exit, but it would prevent
thieves from leaving out the sides with stolen merchandise.
"I see the need to teach JD," he said to himself when the young fighter received a punch to the eye, knocking him backwards.
His bow was ready in his lowered arm, almost an extension of the appendage.  An arrow waited in the hand holding a bow, not requiring more than a second to line 
up a shot when necessary.  Keen half-elf eyes, sharper than humans, watched for dangerous movements by any of the combatants, or those detained by Ezra and
Josiah.  He stood as guardsman for his fellow protector, vigilance in every muscle.
All around, King's Guard fell into protective positions, their orders clear.  Protect the merchants and their goods.  The King's treasury received a small "offering" from 
each merchant as recompense for the King visiting and promoting the merchants, and the King liked large offerings for this service.

He was having fun.  Chris knew as leader of the protectors, he should wrap up this free-for-all, but it was entirely too enjoyable.  After all the time of being polite to
others, using force as the last resort, letting loose felt good.  He thought the mercenaries involved in this weren't fighting because they sought an advantage or for
escape, but because it  released the restraints of proper behavior. It wouldn't be the first time any of them spent a night in jail for fighting; as long as damages were 
paid and oaths to the King sworn, they would be released.
He ducked a blow aimed for his head, throwing a quick jab at the opponent on his right.  Currently, three men attacked the leader, and from the light of battle in their
eyes, they were having as much fun as he.  A quick glance showed JD taking a pounding, but any good fighter knew a pummeling helped make winning the next one
easier.  At least they had a cleric to heal the youngest's black eye.
His inattention nearly gave him a shiner of his own, a reproof in the eyes of the thrower.  Nodding, he threw himself back into the fight.

Buck rarely got the opportunity to beat the crap out of someone when they weren't adventuring.  He enjoyed a good fight, without weapons especially, and knew he
was good with his fists.  Receiving Josiah's summons was a mixed blessing.  He hated leaving his inn when it was full, but he knew it would be run just fine in his
He ducked a particularly nasty haymaker, using a blow of his own to the midsection of his left attacker.  Facing more than one opponent, he felt, kept his skills sharp. 
Backing up a step, he incorporated JD's four attackers, who currently had the kid half out of it, into his own field of battle.  Faster than they thought possible he
released a barrage incorporating all of them, refocusing their attention on him and off the winded JD.
"Gotta teach you how to fight, Kid," he said to the youngest.  "Men, you know better.  No fun in knocking a stripling out."
"Has to learn," one of the mercenaries replied.
JD staggered two steps to the right, then one step forward, nearly pitching over on his face.  "I can fight," he said with determination.
"You stayed on your feet.  Go help Josiah.  Me and boys here will work things out.  You don't mind a night in jail and oath to the King?"
The black haired mercenary shrugged.  "Free accommodations.  Already has my oath."
Buck laughed.
A rather large, robust mercenary gave JD a shove in Josiah's direction.  "Good fighting, kid.  Maybe next time."

Nathan prayed while he fought.  Clerics weren't usually among the front lines of fights, because they were needed to heal the fighters.  He hated inflicting damage he
would probably be paid later to heal.  Ducking a punch, he remembered Ezra explaining to him to cause damage would be beneficial to his god in the end, because
those he punched paid the clerics in one form or another for healing, enriching the coffers of his god.  He still didn't like it.
Seeing the King's Guard surrounding them, keeping order, he shook his head.  They probably knew the King would be distressed to discover the Guard sullied 
themselves in a street brawl, and would mete out discipline for not appearing perfect and parade-ready.  He took a blow to his stomach for his inattention.  A strong 
backhand reminded the offender he was not weak.

Josiah watched the fight turn from a melee to a controlled battle. Those who caused it were unconscious on the ground.  Those who sought to take advantage of it
were against the wall behind him.  Those who wanted to have a fight to release some tensions engaged the town's protectors.  The mercenaries and Buck removed JD
from the center of it.  JD came to a reluctant, wobbling stop near Ezra, sitting down at the bard's request right in the middle of the street.
He hid a smile.  His own youth was punctuated with moments like that; he learned his calling was magic, but his strength, constitution, size, and dexterity made him 
hard to put on the ground.  Every good mage should be able to defend himself, or herself, he mentally corrected, without putting traveling companions at risk trying to
protect the wizard, usually the weakest member of the group.
Strong dark magic approached; he could feel it coming.  Whistling a certain note, he began searching the area for the source.  High above, he saw a figure well over
twenty feet from the ground, closer to fifty or a hundred, flying toward him, the aura of magic very strong to his treated eyes.  A lightning bolt streaked directly toward
him, striking him in the chest.  The power of it knocked him off his feet.
Giving thanks for once again beating Ezra in a dice game for the ring granting him immunity from electricity, he pushed himself up.
Arrows flew from Vin's bow, striking some type of disk shield in front of the attacker.
"All must die, for it has been decreed, the King shall rule no more!" screamed the mage.  His hands moved quickly in intricate patterns.
Josiah released his own signature spell – a fireball of considerable strength – with a thought.  He centered it behind the mage, going around the shield since the mage
was attempting to cast a spell.  The mage visibly trembled from the effects of the fireball, his spell disrupted.  A meteor swarm prematurely went off, engulfing the
mage. Because of the height over the ground, there were no effects to the village itself.
"Check for others," Chris yelled.
JD accepted a hand up from Nathan, giving him a nod of thanks for the healing in the touch.  He also downed the potion pressed into his hands by Ezra.
The bard began singing for them, giving them some of their strength back, curing injuries with the power of his voice.  He continued to sing the same song, minute by 
minute, to allow those who had been hurt, especially his friends, to recover what they lost in the fighting.
Buck drew out his own longbow, using his superior strength to fire at a different angle than Vin, both men working to prevent the mage's shield from blocking or
deflecting the blows.
One part of Josiah's mind accepted he would be the one required to bring down the mage.  The others were well versed in their arts, but this was a magical duel.  For 
the mage to cast a meteor swarm, he was of a high level.  To not be killed having the spell go off early said the mage either had powerful defenses, or a strong 
constitution.  He bet on both.  Drawing strength from Ezra's voice, he knew he needed to get this fight away from the village.
Using the minute it took the mage to come out of the meteor swarm, he cast a spell on himself, taking off.  To fly was one of his favorite pastimes, but he would not
abuse the power of flight in the village unless necessary.  His focus remained on the mage; his responsibility was a fight to the death if necessary.  There were too many
people counting on him; his friends on the ground could find the collaborators.
He threw another fireball at the mage in passing, almost daring the mage to follow him.  The mage, looking rather charred and sporting some arrows in his robes, 
obliged him.  He gave the mage the chance to fire a spell at him, and realized the mage drank a potion while flying.
"Heal now, mage, for I enjoy a good battle," he said.
Josiah reached the spot he wanted the fight to take place, his opening salvo a lightning bolt.  Dead center, shaking the mage up.
"Death to you, and death to the King!" the mage screamed.  A fireball flew from the mage's hand at Josiah.
"Alive, Josiah, you want him alive," he reminded himself aloud. Alive meant he could be interrogated.  Dead meant making work for a cleric, probably Nathan, reading
from a scroll.  Speak with dead often was not as accurate as questioning a living being.  The impact of the fireball was negligible; he didn't tell Ezra, but another ring
they found adventuring gave him protection from fire.  He traded a high-level ring of protection for it, knowing the immunity from fire and fire-based spells more
important than a ring of protection he could get custom-made for him.
"Give up, or you will die yourself!" The older wizard attempted reasoning with the mage.
His answer was a fire storm.
He sighed.  "Fool doesn't even realize he hasn't hurt me yet.  Even the lightning bolt only knocked me from my feet."  Figuring it was time to end this, he slipped on a 
leather glove and four copper rings joined in a curved, continuous line on his primary hand.  He cast his spell, creating Bigby's Clenched Fist.  An enormous hand
appeared, fingers outstretched.  His control gave the fist direction.  It attacked the mage, successfully snatching him in the giant grasp. The mage, already weakened
from Josiah's other spells, was stunned into inactivity.  Josiah took advantage, issuing the power word Stun from his lips, rendering the mage unable to do anything.
He and the hand flew back to the village, dropping off the mage into Chris and Buck's waiting arms.  Landing, he declined the potion offered by Ezra, accompanying
the man inside the converted jail.
"Well done," Ezra complimented.
"Powerful but not knowledgeable," Josiah replied.
"And a traitor to the King," the bard continued.  "Who will be publicly killed."
"After questioning, I hope?"
"Yes.  Chris and the Captain of the Guard had a rather spectacular discussion regarding the questioning process.  Chris won, having the only powerful cleric here to
assist the mage in speaking the truth."
"I should –"
"Rest, my friend," Ezra smoothly cut him off.  "There's naught you can do until morn, except to accept the adoration of the masses." The bard walked him out of the
jail to the inn, where a loud round of applause greeted his ears.
Josiah accepted the gratitude with simple modesty; he did what was necessary, nothing exceptional.  He was an experienced wizard, not deserving of all this praise;
yet he understood the reasoning behind it.
"My friend Josiah, what a tale you have created!"  Rip joined him, ingratiating himself with Josiah.  "The bard Ezra has given me the responsibility of writing an ode he
may then sing about you."
For some reason, the kender did not bother him.  In fact, the chatter kept his mind distracted from the slow exhaustion from spell casting he felt creeping up on him.
He nodded thanks to Buck for the trencher of food and tall tankard of ale, barely hearing what the other man said to him.  His eyes started to droop close the longer
the kender talked, and the more he drank from the tankard.
"Come on, hero," he heard after a long while.  He blinked bleary eyes at Buck, who shouldered him to his feet.
"I can get myself home," he said, the words thick and slurred from his lips.
Buck grinned.  "Right to the bed behind the bar."  He led the way past the bar into the back rooms, stretching Josiah out on the wood-and-rope framed bed, with soft
mattress.  "Sleep well, Josiah."
He thought he said good night, but the welcoming comfort of the bed allowed him to drift to sleep.

"Where's Josiah?" Chris asked the others, assembled for breakfast in a private room in Buck's inn, away from the crush of guests.
"Sleeping off his victory celebration," Buck replied.  "Behind the bar.  I'll check on him in a bit, when we're done here.  I thought he would snore the rafters in."
"I couldn't tell everything that was cast," Nathan said, "but they exchanged high-level spells.  If not high-level, high potency."
"We must be on guard today for the King arrives," Vin suggested.  "Nathan, what was learned from the mage?"
"He received a large sum to kill the King.  His information was the King would be here yesterday."  Nathan sighed.  "His family was stripped of their titles and wealth 
because of not paying a large enough tribute to the King's coffers.  Their contribution was all they could afford and continue to run their estates for the next six months
without income.  The King felt differently, demanding all but two months reserve.  The family refused, and their father died defending their land against the tax 
collector's mercenaries.  Their lands were forfeited, arrest warrants issued, and they are now considered traitors to the Crown."
"A family of traitors willing to kill the King because they have nothing left to lose," JD said.  "How many are in the family, Nathan?"
"Two brothers and three women.  He was the mage; his youngest brother a cleric; his middle brother a thief; his mother without profession, but has the intelligence. 
His younger sister is a sorceress, and his middle brother's wife a thief."
"Two thieves, a cleric, and a sorceress.  All but the cleric can blend into the crowds."  Chris looked at his cleric.  "Any new arrivals to pay homage?"
"No, not to my church."
"We need Josiah," Vin announced.  "If anyone can see or stop the magic they might use, he could."
"I will, of course, be on the lookout for the thieves," Ezra said. His next words came out laced with sarcasm.  "As you once said, Chris, it takes a smooth talker to
recognize another."
Chris glared at Ezra for the reminder.  The silent communication between them showed the fondness neither admitted to aloud.  Ezra teased, it was his way; Chris
glared, that was his way.
"Let Josiah sleep," Buck requested, "at least to get his full eight hours.  He'll need time to prepare his spells."
"Let him have until almost noon," Chris decided.  "The King is expected by mid-afternoon, according to the captain."

Vin's quiet steps did not disturb the man sleeping on the bed. Something was wrong; the half-elf felt it.  It was not like Josiah to sleep this soundly for so long.  Yes, 
it was an hour before the time Chris suggested, but it bothered him the wizard continued to slumber.
He called out first, "Josiah."
A snore gave him his reply.
One hand reached out and quickly shook the shoulder, pulling back before a blow or spell could be released on him for disturbing his friend's sleep.  He'd learned the
hard way while adventuring with the wizard to shake the shoulder and get out of reach.
His friend rolled over.
He poked again.  Half-elven eyes narrowed when Josiah showed no interest in waking up.  A quick glance around the room found what he wanted.  After
examination, he tossed the cold water onto his friend's face.
No reaction, unless he counted the snore as a response.
Something was amiss.  Squatting down for leverage, he shook Josiah hard, enough to rattle any loose teeth.  He would welcome the blow or spell if it meant the 
wizard woke.  Josiah did not, setting Vin back on his heels to think.  He needed either Nathan or Ezra.  The thought of poison crossed his mind, sending a frisson of
unease through his body.
Noiseless steps brought him away from Josiah straight to Ezra's Emporium, the closer location of the two men he sought.  "Come," he said to the merchant bard.
The bard shot him a look of annoyance, the ledger he wrote in open in front of him.  "I am –"
"Coming with me," Vin interrupted smoothly.  "Now."
Ezra complied, walking with the half-elf to the back of Buck's inn.  "What is wrong?"
"Josiah may have been poisoned," Vin said.  He indicated the still-snoring wet wizard.  "I shook him, I doused him in cold water, and still he sleeps on."
A cautious approach put Ezra within hand's reach.  "Josiah," he called, shaking the wizard's shoulder.  The lack of response inspired the bard to shake almost as hard
as Vin.  Taking a deep breath, Ezra lifted one eyelid.  The eyeball did not appear.
"I will need your assistance, my friend," Ezra said to Vin.

Chris continued his patrol of the village, searching out anyone who acted in the least bit suspicious.  His instincts warned him naught was well in his world, yet were
not specific in where things had gone astray.  Trying to find the family who threatened the King's life was almost an exercise in futility; until they made a move, all 
Chris and the Guard could do was prepare.  His own audiences to recommend the King delay his arrival, or better yet, cancel his trip, were ignored.  Other than 
vigilance, there were no other actions they could take.

"The King's here!  The King's arrived!" yelled a runner dressed in the King's livery.  "Make way for the King!"
JD moved toward the retinue to assist watching the crowd, knowing once the coach passed him, he could follow.  He kneeled with the others when the royal
conveyance passed, a bejeweled hand waving out the window at them.  Gaining his feet, he nodded to the Guard, who allowed him to walk behind the coach and 
watch the people with other rear guards and those permitted to follow the coach.
It did not surprise him when they stopped in the center of the village near the fountain, and the King disembarked to enter Buck's inn.  Once inside, he went to the 
second floor, appearing in one of the windows.
The part of JD which hated court life knew the King's ego required he be the center of attention and everyone look up at him.  The crowd, playing to protocol, went 
back to one or both knees.  He joined them, not wishing to draw attention to himself.
"Rise, my people, rise!"
Even on our feet, JD thought, we are still lower than you, which is precisely the point.  Along with if someone sends something at the window, they will have a hard 
time hitting you unless it's a magic missile.  I'm sure as King you have a ring to prevent you from being hit by those, too.  Tearing his eyes away from the window, he
studied the crowd instead.  He tuned out the speech meant to inspire and endear the King to him; he had better things to do than to listen to what Buck called "more
wind than there is magic in the world."
Nothing caught his eye.  He moved with the people to the fields of combat, pleased to find out the King wanted to see a jousting tournament, and brought several of 
his loyal knights to participate against any and almost all challengers.  It took some time to set up everything, especially the Royal Box where the King presided 
over the rabble, or what the King called his loyal subjects.
JD came up alongside Chris.  "Are you entering?"
"No," the fighter replied.
"Why not?  You told me you used to joust in tournaments."
Chris just smiled his infuriating half-smile.  "My well-known skills are better used looking for threats."
"There goes the kender, right to the King," JD observed.
"Kender are drawn to leaders," Chris said.  "And they are mostly harmless, as long as you understand their society."
"Seems the King likes him."
"Perhaps they've met before; Rip does wear court clothing."
The younger fighter wanted to kick himself for not noticing that small detail; what else had he missed?  He could tell the crowd was getting restless, ready for the first
joust to begin.  His eyes caught sight of servers from Buck's inn weighted down with platters of food and drink for the King.  A royal cleric used his spells to test
everything before allowing the King a single bite.  After another boring speech, the contest began.

Nathan saw Chris and JD working their way through the throngs on the other side of the ring from him.  He kept his eyes open, searching out people paying more
attention to the king than to the joust. Having an actual joust was not part of the original plans, but a bonus to the attendees and those selling drinks and food to the
masses.  The joust would last a couple hours, and the hand-to-hand afterward against the King's knights would put them well on the way to the evening meal.
Nothing caught his attention.  He paused to watch the action, his height allowing him to see over the others standing on the edges away from the gallery seats.  People
walked by him constantly, the flow of pedestrians seemingly endless, which did not worry him.  He felt a sting, just behind his right ear.  Thinking it a bug, he swatted 
the spot, coming away with a tiny dart.  He started to feel woozy.

Chris heard the dart hit his armor.  He whirled, one hand grabbing JD and moving them lower to the ground and deeper into the press of people
"Are you hit?" he asked the younger man.
"What?  Um, I don't think so.  No one attacked me."  JD checked himself over.  "No, nothing.  You?"
"My armor caught it."  He used his leather-gloved hand to remove a tiny dart from the shoulder, dropping it into a pouch.  "To the King."  His strong hand steered JD
in front of him like a ram to clear traffic.  He ignored the dirty looks, but his reason to use JD as a block was more to prevent the darts from hitting the younger fighter,
than to hide behind him.  JD did not wear layers of armor like Chris did, the near-invisible fine-weave, light as air magical elven chain beneath his modified plate 
catching the dart instead of allowing it to go through the normal leather jerkin usually worn beneath the plate.  Chris knew his strength was greater than JD's, allowing 
him to wear more armor, and the plate mail was a distraction without magical properties; his magical armor was the elven chain.
They reached the rear of the King's Box, stopped immediately after receiving a pass and giving a warning to the first two sentry points.
"Someone attempted to fire a poison dart at me," Chris said to the Captain.  "My armor caught it, but you must be prepared."
"Three of our outer guards are unconscious," the Captain replied in a low voice.  "Also struck with darts.  We plan to remove the King after this contest."
"If he allows it," Chris said.  "Or are they attempting to have you move him, away from where he can be best protected?  Magic guards the Box, and all within it."
"Treachery abounds," replied the captain.  "We will leave him in the Box.  All inside are known to us."
"We will search, then.  Come, JD."
"Fair hunting, Chris," the Captain called out.
"Many thanks, Captain," the blond replied.  He looked at JD.  "We need Josiah, and we need him now.  Go."

JD ran to the inn, not finding the wizard, Buck, or Ezra anywhere on the premises.  He couldn't even find Vin.  On his return run, he found Nathan leaning heavily
against a building.  "Nathan, are you well?"
"Poison," the cleric replied.  "A sleeping draught.  I counteracted it, but it will take me a few minutes to recover.  Here."  The black man passed a potion bottle. 
"Three doses.  Use wisely."
"Many thanks," JD replied, tucking the potion bottle into a thick leather liner before shoving it into his belt.
"The others?" asked Nathan.
"Chris and I were attacked, but his armor caught it.  Nothing hit me, at least that I know.  We warned the Captain.  He was going to move the King, and thought 
better of it."
"We stay together, then.  Have you seen Josiah, Vin, Buck, or Ezra?"
"No.  Chris sent me for Josiah, but I can't find him."

Buck personally thought poison was a coward's way, having met up with Chris on the outside of the jousting field.  There was nothing more satisfying for a man, other
than a willing woman, than to meet on the field of battle.  He dressed in his armor today, noting the appreciative looks of the females he encountered.  His height put 
him well above the majority, giving him the chance to look around.  He even put on his helm, figuring on a little combat before the evening meal.
"Where's Ezra?  He'd be able to find the users quickly."  Buck looked around for the merchant.
"I have not seen him.  JD should be bringing Josiah back to help us find out who wears heavy magic, and who does not."  Chris continued to scan the crowd.
"The others?"  Buck looked in the opposite direction of Chris to give them full coverage.
"Here," JD said when he approached.  "I couldn't find Josiah, but Nathan was hit.  He's okay now."
"And I come bearing gifts," Ezra said, appearing beside the group.  "Potions to cure poison.  Three doses, use sparingly, return to me when done for credit."
Buck and Chris grinned at Ezra's remark about credit.  Taking the potions, they slid them into special pouches designed for the bottles to prevent breakage.  Color-
coding kept the cure poison separate from the cure wounds potions.
"Vin and Josiah?" Chris asked.
"Otherwise occupied."  Ezra said nothing more, indicating the King's Box.  "I would strongly suggest to keep your eyes on the crowd.  We will be in battle 
"With who?" JD looked around at the people surrounding them.
"You will know when you see them," the bard cryptically remarked.  "Fellow Man of Commerce, might I interest you in a stroll to the other side of the ring?"
"I would be delighted," Buck replied with a grin.  They only took a few steps away before curiosity erupted.  "What –?"
"The less you know, the less likely you will face punishment," Ezra hissed back.  "Do not ask, for I will not tell even what I think will happen.  About here should do." 
They stopped.

Chris saw the yards of fabric drop from the ceiling of the King's Box, obscuring the King and others from sight.  The sounds of yelling occurred, most notably the
King bellowing about hanging someone.
Silence fell over the crowd, the fight on the field ceasing with the change in the mood.  Both combatants neared the King's Box, held back by the King's Guard on the
front side of the ring.
A body tumbled out of the Box, rolling out from under the layers of fabric.  A small body, the body of a kender.
"What?" JD exclaimed.
Nathan leapt over the ring's railing, racing toward the kender.
Before their eyes, the kender's body stretched and changed.  It morphed from the tiny form of a kender to that of a full-grown man.
"JD, the crowd."  Chris scanned for the grief in the faces of those around them, finding it in a pair of women a scant ten feet from them.  "See them?"
"Yes."  JD fell in step beside Chris, approaching the oblivious pair.
"The bastards!" one woman hissed.  Her hands started to move.
Chris grabbed them, collecting the hands in one of his own, his other hand covering the woman's mouth.  His body slammed into hers to prevent the spell from taking
shape through any of her movements.
JD held a sword at the other woman's throat.  "I'll gut you where you stand, thief!" he yelled loudly.  "How many good people have you stolen from today?"
Any hope the women held for the people to come to their aid died in the angry faces.  Members of the King's Guard rushed over, taking the two women into their
custody.  The senior member of the guard promised the attendees any reports of theft would be taken seriously, and if they were victims, to report to the jail to
reclaim their property.

The kender's body tumbled out.  Ezra tugged on Buck's sleeve, pointing out the man and his mother wearing identical mixed looks of rage and grief.  They
approached from behind.
Buck grabbed the man in a bear hug, applying significant pressure.  "It's over.  Please give me a reason to squeeze the life from you," he requested.
The man raised a dagger, attempting to stab Buck with it.
Buck had fought dirty before learning the code of honor Chris kept trying to make him adhere to, and anticipated the move.  He sidestepped without losing his grip,
the dagger sliding harmlessly past him – into the woman.
She screamed.  Ezra grabbed her before she fell to the ground.
"Mother!" the man screamed.
"You want us to save her, you drop the dagger," Buck ordered.
The dagger fell, and Ezra administered a dose of the potion to the woman.  "You'll not die, ma'am," he said.  "Yet."  After a brisk, impersonal search removing more
weapons, he lifted her up and carried her to the waiting King's Guard.  The other man went to the Guardsmen too.

"What happened?" JD asked Josiah for the second time, his first request put off in favor of an ale and food.  "One of you needs to tell us what happened."
"Vin?" asked Josiah.
The half-elf nodded, glancing at the group of protectors in their private room.  "I couldn't wake Josiah from his rest, even with cold water thrown on him.  I suspected
poison, because this was not like Josiah."
"He fetched me," Ezra said.  "I knew almost immediately it was a sleeping draught, but not which kind.  After some research in my books, which took us quite awhile
to isolate it, we found the cure was a particular root and herb mixture.  We had to go to Josiah's cabin to fetch the proper ingredients."
"Ezra said one of the passwords wrong, and set off fireballs.  His eloquence there had to heal us before we could continue.  In case one of us said the wrong thing
again."  Vin poked Ezra with his finger.
The bard rolled his eyes.  "We were much more careful thereafter, taking us longer to get there and come back."
"Meanwhile, the King arrived," Buck filled in.  "Setting up the jousting tournament.  I saw Josiah sleeping, but was too busy to wake him."
"Once we returned and made the cure, we forced it down Josiah's throat.  He threw most of it up, meaning we had to make more."  Vin sipped from his tankard.
"He eventually woke up groggy and disoriented."  Ezra sighed.  "Once we helped him clear his head, we questioned him about who was close enough to him to poison
"Ripplewood Dewberry," Josiah said slowly.  "The kender, but not a kender."  The wizard glanced at his friends.  "He was surrounded by magic.  I thought it was
because of his rings, or because of his pouches, or perhaps some magical protective spell with permanence cast on him.  It was not a protective spell, but a 
polymorph spell, cast by the mage."
"Kenders are able to go anywhere almost unmolested," Chris said, "because they are small, people know they are mostly harmless, and to count the silver after they
leave.  So he became close to the King."
"Yes," Josiah said.  "I had no proof he was not a kender, only that a kender poisoned me.  Kenders are not poisoners by nature."
"We had to get him away from the King," Ezra said.  "But we also knew the jousting was a perfect opportunity for the rest of the family to take out the town's
protectors, who are considerably more powerful than even the Captain of the Guard.  Our high skill levels prevent us from being killed by spells which would murder
a lesser guard."
"The poison darts," JD murmured.  "But that doesn't explain what happened beneath the curtains."
"Josiah asked for an audience with the King, with me along to watch his back," Vin said.  "He told the Captain it was a matter of the King's life, and he could only talk
to the King."
"With Josiah's defense of the village yesterday, and the information his returning the mage alive resulted in, the King agreed," Chris said.
"Yes.  I immediately knocked the curtains down to prevent the family from seeing what happened.  While the King was bellowing, I advanced on Rip."  Josiah
rubbed his chin.  "I told him I knew he wasn't a kender, and to step away from the King."
"He tried to stab the King," Vin picked up the tale, "when both Josiah and I attacked him.  I shot him with an arrow, and Josiah fired magic missiles.  The guards with
the king both stabbed him when he fell back, sending him tumbling into the ring."
"We planned to show the kender under arrest, instead of killing him," Josiah said.
"When the body changed, we knew you were responsible," Chris pointed out, "so we watched for the grief instead of the shock."
"We found the women," JD added.
"And we found the rest," Buck finished.  "They'll live long enough for a public trial and execution."
"We have the King's gratitude," Chris said.  "All of us are to be knighted for services rendered to the crown."
"Sir JD," the youngest mused.  "I like the sound of that."
"Will there be any monetary recompense?" asked Ezra.
"The King mentioned he had an adventure in mind, allowing us a percentage of what we find," Chris allowed with a smirk.  "Once everything returns to normal."
"We'll need to discuss the percentage," Ezra replied immediately.
Laughter echoed around the table.

Josiah woke with a start.  It was dark in the room, but it smelled like…antiseptic?  Definitely cleaner than his cabin.  Were the walls whitewashed?  He blinked, noting
the light blue color.  When did he do that?  He continued to study the walls in detail, gazing the room only with his eyes.  They stopped on the box with the sound and
moving pictures.  What was that?
He stared at it, mesmerized.  There was a dragon.  He knew how to fight dragons!  No dragon would kill him lying down, either.  The words came easily to his lips, 
the spell to begin the battle.  He went to stand, realizing the metal bed pinned him inside.  He stretched, then nearly screamed from the pain.  His eyes closed against
the waves of agony.
When he woke, he recognized the hospital bed.  His mind, confused from the traumas it suffered and the drugs pumped into it, had that fuzzy feeling.  He'd felt like this
before, and trying to move again reminded him why it was wiser of him to remain immobile for the time being.  He took a few deep breaths, hoping to clear his brain
and slowly gazed around the sterile room.  The pains, the equipment the woozy feeling, he knew he was hurt and it was bad enough the circumstances showed he must
have had surgery for something.  But what happened to the others?  And where was the King?  The King? What King?
"We now return you to the conclusion of our feature presentation, Dungeons and Dragons," the television blared.
A dream, he thought, chuckling to himself.  It was all a dream.  He was in a car wreck, he remembered with clarity, and pinned in the van.  There were no dragons, 
nor wizards, nor anything remotely resembling the fantasy world he inhabited in his mind the past few hours…or however long it had been.
A dream.
His eyes fell to the bedside, noticing a leather pouch.  It was old, smelled like herbs, but not a bad scent.  A piece of spiderweb clung to the side of it.
It was all a dream, wasn't it?
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