“These are the shitheads who already killed us once, ain’t they?”
8. Tongues of Mars
by Erin Halfelven
We got moving pretty quickly after that.
Seejay led the way. His real life military training as an intelligence officer in the Army included infantry training and he was our natural leader as well. He carried his double-barrel at the ready, pistol, sword and knives at his belt and rifle slung across his back. He had the real sword, the one that looked like an old movie cavalry saber.
Hote backed Seejay up, also carrying a double-barrel, with two pistols on his belt. He was ambidextrous in this world and could take advantage of it. He had two swords, too, the peculiar, cheaply-made machete-like things that Seejay called hangers. And on his back, he carried one of our extra double-barrels, charged and ready because we didn’t have a second rifle.
Trike carried our loot, bringing up the rear, still armed with spear, two-handed giant sword and his oversize pistol. He had better peripheral vision than any of us, and could see behind himself by only half-turning his head. Something about how his eyes were placed, plus he could see into shadows better than humans. He had two smaller swords handy, though they did not fit his hands, and he carried our piece-of-junk last shotgun with the trigger guard cut away so his big finger could reach the trigger.
I mostly walked in front of Trike. I wanted to be up with Seejay, but I would just be in the way if jelly turned to jam. I carried nothing and I still wasn’t wearing any clothes, which I hardly even thought about. Hote had suggested I carry some of the extra ammo but Seejay pointed out that wasn’t a good idea in case I had to electrocute someone or shoot lightning. I agreed. The idea of a spark reaching any black powder I might have been carrying horrified me.
Since the location spell trace of my Enemy pointed East, we wanted to go West. But the corridors ran North and South. North was back toward the banditos, so we headed South, looking for an exit from the building, preferably one on the West side.
The carnage of the lizards in the hallway had oddly been mostly cleaned up. They ate or carried away the large chunks, and various small scavengers took care of the rest. We spotted a few of these: a creepy, many-legged, scaly, rat-like thing, a number of skittering insectile types and the largest, a beast that looked like a cross between Trike and a raccoon. It had a fuzzy, feather-like growth over most of its body in a striped red and green pattern that made it amazingly hard to see in dim corners. It even had a mask which gave it our name for it: redmask.
Hote talked about what he had figured out about his own magic as we walked. His visualization of magic as a building with architecture was much more organized than my box of colorful toys. It made me giggle to think about how anal he sounded.
“Think of the lobby of the building as the spells that affect magic itself and other spells,” he was saying. “There are hallways opening out and even staircases to higher level magics.”
Seejay kept his attention on the path forward and sometimes motioned for silence while he went ahead a bit to scout. But Hote kept talking when he could.
“On the first floor are corridors representing earth, air, water and fire spells, these are basic. So I can seek earth, air and water, and create earth, water and fire, and shape earth and air.”
“Uh, huh,” said Seejay. I wished he did not have the rifle on his back; the stock hung low enough to interfere with my view of his butt. It was an overly long thing anyway, almost taller than me when he was loading it earlier. If the pistols were revolvers, why wasn’t the rifle a repeater of some kind, too? But it wasn’t. Daniel Boone would not have looked out of place carrying the thing, except it had a cap instead of a flintlock.
“On the next floor up is the corridor of body control spells. I can do a quick, minor heal and a slower major heal. Also, I can paralyze someone temporarily as an attack or just numb a limb so it can’t be used.”
“Wow,” said Trike.
“But I have to touch someone to do those,” said Hote. “I’ve also got spells to blind or deafen someone or undo those things. And a resist disease. Also, a purge spell to rid a body of foreign objects, like bullets left in wounds or contamination or whatever.”
“Sounds like you’re almost a mobile ER all by yourself,” said Seejay.
Hote was quiet for a bit while Seejay investigated a side corridor that seemed to go the direction we wanted but deadended after two doors.
“Next to the body control spells is a hallway for necromantic spells,” said Hote when Seejay returned.
That left all of us quiet for a bit. “I can seal a corpse so it can’t be raised as a zombie, or I can raise a zombie myself. Or dismiss one of mine or repel one of someone else’s. Or some other kind of undead but it works best on zombies.”
“Hmm,” said Seejay.
After a bit, he went on. “Remember that city in the game ruled by vampires?”
“Red Tower,” said Hote. “But Countess von Blut wasn’t a vampire, she was a necromancer. One of the barons was a vampire and she had him on a short chain.”
“Countess Ermalina von Rotebad,” said Trike. “That was her real name. When we were in town and I was playing my ranger, I was archery tutor to her kids.”
“Sam Treefall,” commented Seejay with a grin. “So called not because he felled trees but because he fell out of them.”
“Twice,” said Trike. “Only twice.”
“Not that many forests on Mars,” I said. “I think it was a long way between opportunities to fall out of trees.” I giggled and everyone laughed.
“Quiet,” said Seejay and did the cut-off sign with his free hand.
We listened. Trike heard it first, sounds up ahead of us, people talking in voices that were probably too loud for where we were, but soon all of us could make out the murmur that rose and fell with emotions.
Seejay gave us the look and the handsign that communicated that we should stay back while he moved up and reconnoitered. He really ought to send me, I thought, I’m the quietest one of us because I’m barefoot. Well, so was Trike but I didn’t have toenails like a polar bear.
We watched as Seejay approached a doorway. When he paused a few yards away from the opening, we held our breaths. After standing there listening for a bit, he crept a bit closer then suddenly froze.
And just as suddenly, I realized I could understand some of what was being said. “There’s something outside the door,” a rough masculine voice said. It wasn’t English or Spanish or whatever Zandro had been counting in there at the last. It wasn’t any human language I had ever heard before.
“Probably a redface,” meaning what we had just started calling a redmask, most likely, another, lighter voice answered. I knew I could have replied in the new language, too. Heck, I realized I could think in it.
“Animals are your department, farwalker,” said the first voice. Mostly I was still thinking in English, mentally translating as the conversation went along.
Seejay eased even closer to the wall and switched weapons, holding the shotgun under his left arm while drawing a knife from his belt. I should mention that these knives could just as easily be considered short swords. The blades were longer than my hand and forearm with hilts sized for someone like Seejay. And they were all metal; steel apparently, with a single winding of leather around the grip.
I wondered if Seejay could understand what was being said, too. A glance at Hote and Trike made me think that maybe he could. Trike had that, “I know I’m eaesdropping, but isn’t this fun?” look on his big, ferocious face. And Hote had a look of concentration he wouldn’t spend on something he couldn’t understand.
Well, it made sense that a party of adventurers would speak the local language.
I felt something tingle in the end of my tail. It was up near the side of my face and I saw a blue aura crackle around it. I could feel power building there. I pulled my tail down and behind me, using my hands. I didn’t know if whoever came out of the room might also be able to see auras. In my mind’s eye, my tail “fingered” a toy shaped like a miniature lightning bolt, folding and unfolding it, and each time it unfolded, it got bigger.
Inside the room, people argued. “We wouldn’t have so little loot to divide if you hadn’t killed the biggest piece of treasure in this whole vorlakh.” Vorlakh didn’t easily translate to English but I knew the word as meaning one of these enormous deserted buildings found on the edge of the old sea coast deserts.
“How was I to know another copper-bottom was her? She was throwing lightning, so I toasted her. A teensy little fireball shouldn’t have killed her anyway. She must have inhaled just as it hit her.”
I realized that they meant me! Or rather the former inhabitant of this body.
“You ought to know that you should never throw a fireball into the face of someone you might need to capture alive,” growled still another voice. That would do it, inhaling fire was a quick way to die. But I felt fine, not even a cough.
“Fireballs are yards across! You can’t aim to miss the head or face with one of them.”
About that time a figure slipped out of the doorway into the relative dimness of the hall, a figure I wasn’t expecting to see. At first glance, she looked something like me. A tailed-woman with coppery skin wearing no clothes. But this woman had metal wire around wrists, ankles, neck and forehead and other jewelry on her body in places. She carried a sword in her right hand and a pistol in her left and she peered down the hallway.
Trike waved at her.
She opened her mouth to scream or shout and Seejay cold-cocked her, knife hilt to the side of her head.
I grabbed my tail and held it so it would not release its bolt, the aura of which still sizzled around my nether partner. I could keep the lightning hot and ready and at the maximum power I could manage but I couldn’t cast any other spells while I did that.
No matter, I didn’t have to hold onto it long.
While Seejay had knocked the coppery woman out, it took a while for the message to get to her tail. That appendage reached for the doorway and signaled the other members of their party by screeching its one fingernail on the floor.
Seejay dropped the woman and switched back to holding the shotgun in both hands just in time to give both barrels to the first one through the opening. Hote rushed forward, ready to blast the second one.
Trike roared then shouted, “Kreegah! Bundolo, bundolo!”
I had to giggle. “Wrong series of books, Trikey!” I told him.
“Okey-dokey!” he said cheerfully. “These are the shitheads who already killed us once, ain’t they?”
The man Seejay had blasted moaned and tried to pull himself away. Two barrels at point blank range and he was still alive though blood spilled out around him in a widening pool. “Oi’m hit!” he said in what might have been a cockney accent. “Oi’m bloody well done for, mates! I needs a healer!” He added a cough, probably prompted by the gunsmoke.
Hote, our healer, holding his shotgun in one hand like Seejay had done, pulled a knife from his belt and threw it right into the dying man’s throat. “Shut up,” he snarled.
The man gurgled and went silent.
Wow! I remembered that Hote from some of our bloodier games, a bad man to make angry. And Red’s manipulation of his healer instincts yesterday probably still rankled, but it left me feeling on edge and a bit sick to see.
I got distracted quickly. “Gatita! Ven aqui y busca esta puta,” Seejay said in worse Spanish than my own. Kitten, come here and search this whore. Rude and he left out a preposition but understandable to me and maybe not to the bad guys.
I scuttled over, tail up high so it didn’t accidentally zap someone. It seemed to co-operate more with what I wanted it to do while carrying the lightning bolt spell. I searched her quickly, she wasn’t wearing any clothes except a couple of belts, but I gasped. Some of the jewelry she wore looked awfully familiar. Had it belonged to whoever I used to be?
I hadn’t actually seen myself but I had a pretty good idea what I looked like. This woman resembled me: copper skin, pointy ears, naked with a tail but there were definite differences. Her hair was brown instead of black and she didn’t have near as much of it as I did. It wasn’t as curly, either. She was a good bit larger and had some muscle on her bones and calluses on her hands and feet, too.
Why didn’t I have calluses? No time to think about that!
She started to come to, so my tail came down into her face and I showed her the nimbus of energy that danced around the tip. This wasn’t just the magic aura but the sort of static electricity effect made famous in Frankenstein movies. “Lie still like you do for your customers, bitch, or I’ll blow your left eyeball out the back of your head,” I said.
I spoke quite naturally in what I knew must be Red Martian and I spoke it back like a native. I didn’t exactly call her bitch, dogs had a higher reputation than that in her culture but I used an equivalent word. She understood and stopped struggling. Unlike a fireball, a lightning bolt can be used precisely. I wasn’t sure I would, or could, blow her head apart but she didn’t know that.
“How is it you are alive, plaything?” she snarled back in the same language I had used. What she called me wasn’t exactly plaything, it was more like if you called a guy dildo.
I leaned in close, putting a knee and most of my weight on her stomach. “Alive? What if I’m not?” I asked.
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