Snek is a Good Boy
Part Twenty-One: Encounters
[A/N: This chapter commissioned by Fizzfaldt and beta-read by Lady Columbine of Mystal.]
Amy glared at her sister. Life just wasn't fair sometimes. "You got to meet Snek? You met his Master? How come all the cool stuff happens to you and not to me?"
"Well, it wasn't all cool," Vicky protested. "The fight against Mouse Protector was scary as fuck. I wasn't even coming close to winning. The most I was doing was keeping her attention until Snek dealt with the Simurgh."
"That's something we're going to have to address," Carol interjected. "There's no way we would've cleared you to go into a Simurgh battle with the rest of New Wave, much less on your own. You were irresponsible and reckless—"
"I had no choice!" shouted Vicky. "Mouse Protector was a Simurgh bomb! Snek said so! And I wasn't fighting the Simurgh, I was fighting Mouse Protector! And Snek's Master wasn't letting the Simurgh affect me anyway!"
"Wait, what?" Aunt Sarah's eyebrows rose. "Snek's Master is so powerful he could stop the Simurgh from messing with your mind?"
"That's what Snek said." Vicky shrugged. "I could feel something trying to get in, but it couldn't. So, unless my force field works against that sort of thing … yeah, he's that powerful."
Carol traded a glance with Aunt Sarah. "Then why hasn't he come here and fixed … well, everything?" She gestured at the wall of the house and, by inference, everything outside it. "God knows we need the help."
"I'm not totally sure, but I got the impression that he's real busy, and our problems aren't all that bad in the grand scheme of things." Vicky grimaced, like she was trying to put something into words that she wasn't too sure about. "He said something about how there are always monsters, and how he lets Snek deal with them to free up his time to do other things."
"Monsters?" asked Mark. "He's got Endbringers wherever he is?"
Vicky snorted. "If he did, he doesn't anymore. Snek loves chowing down on them. As I said before, the impression I got was that there are a lot of worlds and … well, he called the monsters Horsemen and Great Old Ones and kaiju and stuff like that. And he deals with bigger problems than that."
This time, the glance that Carol and Aunt Sarah shared was a good deal more concerned. "Great … Old … Ones?" That was Sarah. "Are we talking Lovecraft here?"
"Mayybe?" Vicky didn't look like she quite knew what their aunt was referring to, which was fair; neither did Amy. "But he seemed to think Snek was totally capable of dealing with them on his own."
"Right." Carol's voice had slipped into the tone that Amy knew from long experience concealed deep concern. "Just … let us know if you encounter him again. And … it's probably not the best idea to go off to some other world without letting us know first. Sarah?"
"I have to agree with Carol about that," Aunt Sarah noted. "If Snek decided to leave you there and go off on his own, you might never get back."
"What?" Vicky shook her head. "Seriously? His Master was there. You know what the guy keeps as bookcase ornaments? Endbringer cores! He collects them as a hobby, and lets Snek eat any duplicates he gets! If he couldn't get me back to Earth Bet in time for school, I would be totally surprised."
"Endbringer … cores." Uncle Neil weighed in on the conversation. "By this you mean, something that's in the centre of Endbringers." He sounded as though he wasn't sure if he wanted to believe what he was saying.
"Well, they didn't sit me down and give me a full tutorial on it, but that's the gist of what he was saying, yeah." Vicky waved her hands as though trying to convey with gestures what she couldn't express with words. "He had a stuffed dragon hanging from the ceiling, and Riley told me it was real. Also, little tiny ones that are about the size of cats, and just as playful and cute. She said they're empathetic, and if they encounter people who think like they do, they sometimes just go off with them."
"Wait. Dragons." Carol's tone had not lost the concerned edge. "Are we talking about the fantasy creatures with fire breath and an appetite for virgins, here? Not just a knockoff, like Lung?"
Vicky rolled her eyes. "Well, we didn't go into the 'virgins' bit, but Riley said, sure, some of them breathe fire. But she also said they're friendly, Mom! Well, not all of them. The mid-sized ones are feral, but the big ones are real nice, and she says they regularly take her flying."
"So does everyone in this other world have a regular name, like Riley?" asked Aunt Sarah. "Not something like … I don't know, like out of Lord of the Rings?"
"I dunno, because I didn't meet anyone other than Snek's Master and Riley, and Snek himself." Vicky was visibly getting impatient with the interrogation. "Sorry I didn't take more notes when I got in a fight and went to a fantasy world!"
"Well, I don't like the idea of these dragons." Carol's tone was definitive. "They sound dangerous. Did you at least get this Master's name? Or did he just like being called 'master'?"
Vicky huffed a sigh. "His full title, Riley told me, is 'The Master of the Castle'. That's capitalised, by the way. If he has a name other than that, nobody mentioned it. Snek calls him 'Master', or rather, 'Masster'. Riley calls him 'boss'. I called him 'sir'. And just by the way, he knew a ton about me and Earth Bet."
"Wait," Uncle Neil interrupted before Carol could say any more. "These monster cores. Just how many did he actually have?"
"Um … let me think." Vicky frowned and looked up at the ceiling. "I didn't do an actual count, but … from what I can recall, maybe a couple of dozen? And that's not counting the ones he's given to Snek to eat in the meantime. I remember thinking they were pretty."
Mark shook his head with a fond smile. "Vicky girl, only you would call something as insanely dangerous as the core of an Endbringer 'pretty'."
"Well, they were," Vicky protested. "Some of them even glowed just a little bit."
Everyone else cringed slightly, apparently due to the idea of being near something like that while it was glowing. Amy was pretty sure she wouldn't be getting close enough to an Endbringer core to even register the glow. A whole different continent sounded perfect to her.
"We're getting off-track here." Carol folded her arms. "Everything seems to have turned out well this time, but we have no guarantee that it will again. Any fantasy world you care to name will have dangers that the locals know about and automatically avoid, or have simply accepted as their due. Dangers that we just don't know about. So, I'm putting my foot down. Victoria, if you encounter Snek again, be friendly of course, but don't go anywhere with him."
"Okay, fine." Vicky pulled off one of the best eye-rolls Amy had ever seen, and she considered herself well-versed in the art. "I'll totally not trust the big friendly talking python who's eaten two Endbringers as well as several murderous supervillains, and saved countless lives, and who took me to where Mouse Protector was going to kill people. He's clearly hiding something up the sleeves he can't even wear."
Carol's brows drew down and her expression became stormy. "Victoria. Regina. Dallon."
Uh oh, thought Amy. Carol just pulled out the big guns. She never uses Vicky's full name like that.
Evidently Vicky had registered that as well, because a lot of her attitude basically just fell away. "Uh … yes, Mom?"
From the twitching of Carol's eyebrow, she looked like she wanted to scream at Vicky, but managed to control herself. "You're good at what you do, but you're still a teenager, and there are a lot of things you have yet to learn from life. If you trust someone you've only just met, it makes it all the easier for them to turn around and stab you straight in the back."
Amy knew Vicky well enough to know that she wanted to argue, but she personally had no desire to see Vicky end up embroiled in a screaming match which she would absolutely lose anyway, and which would leave Carol in a foul mood for the next day or so. With that in mind, she caught Vicky's eye and shook her head fractionally. For a long moment, it seemed her sister was going to ignore the silent advice, but then Vicky let out a long breath and subsided.
"Okay, fine," she said in a vague approximation of surrender. "I'll make sure not to go off to Snek's world or any other one without making certain I've got a way to get back. Okay?'
It seemed Carol wasn't totally satisfied, but Aunt Sarah put a hand on her arm. "That's for the best, dear. We're only thinking of your safety."
We're superheroes, Amy carefully didn't say out loud. Safety isn't in the job description.
"You should've been there, Ames." Vicky leaned back in her computer chair and kicked her legs back and forth idly. "Not for the fight, I mean. For the other bit. It was amazeballs."
"Pun intended?" Amy asked dryly, sitting cross-legged on Vicky's bed with her back against the wall.
"What? Oh—haha, no, well, maybe." Vicky snorted at her own accidental wit, and crossed her eyes. "It wasn't just the Endbringer cores. It was everything. I mean, it was definitely a castle—I got to look out a window, and it was built into the side of a mountain and everything—but there was more than just that. I mentioned the stuffed dragon, didn't I?"
"Yeah, you did." Amy quirked a grin with one corner of her mouth. "I'm thinking maybe you could've left that bit out. Just saying."
"Mom's totally overreacting." Vicky flicked her hand dismissively. "I never got to meet them, but from the way Riley described them, they love meeting new people. And if the little ones, the hearth-dragons, are any indication, she wasn't exaggerating."
"Little tiny dragons …" Amy leaned back against the wall. "Not gonna lie, that sounds kind of cool. But if you'd actually brought one home, she would've had a massive fit. You do know this, right?"
"I know," Vicky sighed. "And she probably would've got the PRT to poke and prod and test it to within an inch of its life, to make sure it wasn't carrying magical dragon cooties or something equally fucking stupid. And when it bit someone—because it would totally have bitten someone—she'd be all 'see, I told you it was dangerous'."
"Oh, so you've met her," Amy deadpanned. She sat forward again, dropping her legs off the bed. "So, Mouse Protector got you in the leg when you were fighting her, didn't she?"
Jesus—how did she—Vicky did her best to bring her reactions under control. "I'm not sure what you mean." Even before the words were all the way out of her mouth, she could tell from Amy's cynical expression that the prevarication was going exactly nowhere fast.
"Really? You're gonna go there?" Amy rolled her eyes. "I know you, probably better than anyone. And I know exactly what someone trying to hide a limp looks like. Your left leg hurts just a little bit, and I caught you once or twice skimming your foot just above the ground and using your flight so you don't have to rest your weight on it."
"Well, shit." Vicky was busted and she knew it. One question remained, however. "Why didn't you tell Mom and Dad?"
Amy snorted. "Same reason you didn't. Because if I had, you'd still be going through the wringer, and you'd probably be grounded for a month after they finished yelling at you. Now you owe me." She gave Vicky a beaming, angelic smile.
"Yeah. I do." Vicky was no stranger to sisterly debts. "Desserts?" Amy had a liking for choc mint ice cream.
"Maybe. I'll think about it." Amy gestured at Vicky's leg. "Let me see."
"Okay." Vicky bent over and rolled up her jeans leg—she hadn't anticipated this, so it was fortunate she wasn't wearing skinny jeans—so the location of the cut was exposed. Then she bent her leg and rested her foot on the bed next to Amy. Flight, she decided, was damn useful for keeping her balance in situations like this. "There you go."
"Huh." Amy leaned over her calf muscle, a finger tracing the line of the cut. "Are you sure this is the right one?"
"What do you mean?" Vicky twisted around until she could glimpse the area. "Uh, yeah. Mouse Protector slashed me right across the leg. I was bleeding pretty badly until Snek got me back to his world. Then Riley fixed me right up."
"She certainly did." Amy prodded at the cut, causing a minor twinge but nothing more. "I would've sworn this was a month old, not a day. For all intents and purposes, it's basically healed, and I'm willing to bet that it won't even scar. What did she do, cast a magic spell over it?"
"Actually, no. And stop that, it tickles." Vicky put her foot back on the floor and unrolled her jeans leg again. "She said she doesn't do magic. She's just really, really good at medical stuff. But the thread she stitched me up with was magical. Anti-infection, stuff like that."
"Also, invisible." Amy leaned back against the wall again. "There were no stitches, or even the marks where stitches went in. But like I said, it looked like an old wound, well-healed."
"Okay, then." Vicky raised her eyebrows. "She did say something about them being magically dissolving. But that's still impressive."
Amy snorted. "So, are you going to be catching a ride with Snek back to see this Riley every time you get a boo-boo from now on?"
Vicky wasn't sure where that had come from, but she had a ready answer anyway. "Actually, I talked to her about you. She knew who you are. In fact, she's from Earth Bet as well."
"… which explains why she doesn't have a weird fantasy name, right?" Amy mimed a facepalm. "So why didn't you just say so when everyone was asking questions?"
"Because that bit's her business and nobody else's." Vicky had made the decision on the fly, though she figured she could trust Amy with it. "They would've pushed for more information about her, and Mom might've even decided that it was our sworn duty to 'rescue' her from the Master's world, and that's where everything would've gone tits-up in a major way."
As Vicky sat back down in the computer chair, Amy twisted around and rolled onto her stomach, supporting her chin on her hands as her feet kicked Vicky's pillow: left, right, left, right. "I'm guessing she chose to be there? And was in a bad situation here on Bet?"
"Yes to the second, no to the first. But once she got there, and got her head straightened out, she absolutely chose to stay. As far as I could tell, she's totally enjoying life as a magician's apprentice, only without the stupid walking broomsticks."
"Damn it, I was going to make that joke too," groused Amy, but without any heat. "Is she a cape? Someone we might know?"
Vicky held a finger up. "That's … something I'm going to keep on the down-low until you meet her and she gets the choice to fill you in. But I can definitely tell you that she's not a bad person. Nobody who works for the Master of the Castle, and who gets along so well with Snek, could get away with being one for more than, say, five minutes."
"Okay, that's definitely got me curious." Amy rolled her head sideways on her hands. "Why do I get the impression that you're leading up to something?"
"Because I am." Vicky took a deep breath. "She said that you'd probably enjoy visiting. There's a town at the foot of the mountain, probably several, and you could set up as a magical healer. Nobody would be the slightest bit surprised at someone who can touch a person and fix all their health problems. But at the same time, the workload would be far less than here."
Amy blinked. "Okay, that's absolutely not where I thought you were going. Not that I had much of an idea where you were going, but that wasn't it." She paused. "Really? I could visit?"
"Only if you wanted to go. And only if you never, ever told Mom or any of the others about going." Vicky tried to put all the gravity she could into the statement. "If you think the grilling I got just before for going there accidentally was bad, imagine how she'd go to town on you for wanting to go."
"Um. Yeah." Amy sat up again and shook her head. "I think I'd rather sand my nails with an angle-grinder."
"You and me both." Vicky leaned back in the chair and used her flight to prop her feet up on nothing, one leg crossed over the other. "So, you interested?"
Amy didn't say anything for a long moment, but then she nodded slowly. "Yeah, I think I might be."
"You know, I thought I'd been getting fit walking around town," Paige observed, trying not to use up too much of her breath at once. "Turns out I was wrong."
Elmora nodded. "It does kind of feel that way, doesn't it?" She raised a hand and gestured at the landscape around them. "This has got to be the furthest I've walked in my life in one direction, but I'm pretty sure we'll pick it up."
"How far have we come, anyway?" Paige looked around as well. There was the road in front and behind, and forest to either side. For the first few hours after they left town, they'd been passing farmlands, but that had given way to uncultivated lands. Trees grew around and about, the ones by the road offering useful shade, but clumping here and there for no apparent reason. The road actually deviated slightly up ahead, to go around one such clump.
"Sorry, I left my odometer in my other boots." Elmora grinned to show it was a joke. "But I figure we're making three, four miles an hour, and we've been on the road for about five hours."
Paige did the math in her head; it was harder than if she'd been rested and comfortable, but she puzzled it out eventually. "So, about fifteen to twenty miles."
"Yup." Elmora didn't add anything to that.
Twenty miles, to Paige, could be covered in twenty minutes on the highway. It struck her as ridiculous that the arduous pace they'd been travelling at had taken them half the day to get that far. "We're not going to reach the next town by sunset, are we?"
"That's why we've got camping gear," Elmora reminded her. "In time, once we've built up a stake, we can buy a horse and cart or something, and do this the easy way. Until then, we learn the hard way why they call it 'shanks' pony'."
Paige wrinkled her nose. "And I'm pretty sure none of my spells cover getting a hot bath. Or any kind of bath, really."
"Nope." Elmora seemed to be more amused than upset by the situation. "We're going to kind of reek by the time we hit the next town, that's for sure. But then you'll have the chance to wow them all over again with your singing."
"Well, some things apparently never change." Paige had memories of overly long trips in a cramped minibus, and more or less falling out the far end smelling of everyone's sweat. "I could've hoped that one would, anyway."
When Elmora didn't answer, she looked around at her travelling companion, to see that she'd stopped and unslung her bow. "Get behind me," Elmora said quietly, in a tone utterly different to the light banter from before. "Be ready to run."
The sight of Elmora nocking an arrow got Paige's attention just as much as her words did; without even thinking, she did as she was told. At the same time, she pulled the small dagger she'd purchased as an everyday tool and eating utensil. How much good it would do, she had no idea, but she was long past the point of letting shit happen to her, without giving back as good as she got.
"Too little, too late." To Paige's shock, a man dressed in rough leathers stepped out of the clump of trees, drawing a sword as he did so. The leathers and cloak he wore over them were mottled in greens and browns, making for extremely effective camouflage. "We'll be having your coin, ladies, and any other valuables upon your persons."
"'We'?" asked Elmora, her tone one of disdain. "I see only one of you, and at this range I can pick which eye I'll be putting the arrow through." She drew back the bowstring by way of illustration. "Walk away, and nobody gets hurt."
"Nice bow." The bandit didn't seem fazed. "We've got bows, too." As he spoke, three more men showed themselves. Two had bows like Elmora's, only shorter. Arrows were nocked, and strings were taut. The third had a crossbow, and it was similarly prepared. "Now, you can no doubt get me. But you won't get them, and they will get you and your girlfriend too, if she doesn't drop that cute little blade right now."
"Shit," muttered Elmora. "This is bad. This is fucking bad. They swore to me that there were no bandits in the area."
"So, not running?" Paige didn't think it was going to happen. Elmora's headshake just confirmed it. Drawing a deep breath, she raised her voice. "Uh, I'm a bard. Just starting out. I really don't have much in the way of coin, and without my lute I won't be able to get any more."
"Hm." The bandit leader seemed to be thinking about that. "Well, you're not in town now, and the Bardic College isn't here to bail your ass out of trouble—"
"And that's as good an opening as I'll ever get." A tall woman with a commanding presence strolled into sight from around the clump of trees. She was wearing well-made leather armour and had a pair of goggles pushed up on her head. An iridescent green hearth-dragon—Paige had seen them around, both in the Master's castle and in the town—rode on her shoulder, looking around alertly. The heavy crossbow in her hands tracked the bandit leader closely. "You'd be Harraster Baker. Your men are surrounded, and you've each got a price on your heads that we intend to collect. Don't do anything stupid, and you'll live to face the magistrate."
"Who the hell do you think—" began the bandit leader, then he looked around as one of his archers fell face-forward, the arrow releasing to stick into the road surface in front of him. The other two, carefully lowering their weapons, stepped out onto the road; the reason for this was that they were being prodded that way with swords.
"One more time." The woman brought her crossbow up to sight on the bandit leader. "Dead or alive; it's all the same to me. Alive is only a little more convenient. Don't make it inconvenient."
"Well, dragonshit." The bandit dropped his sword and raised his hands. "Where in the four hells did you come from? Were the ladies bait in a trap?"
She grinned as her comrades—they had to be, because they were holding weapons and the bandits were not—chivvied the rest of the brigands from their hiding place in the clump of trees. "Not as such. We've been trailing you for a few days now. The descriptions seemed to fit, but we wanted to catch you in the act. And now we have. You'll pay for our next few months' worth of expenses."
"Well, damn," Elmora observed, releasing the tension on her bowstring and returning the arrow to her quiver. "That was very damn slick indeed."
"Why, thank you." As a skinny guy—wearing a top hat, of all things—began securing the bandit leader, the woman strolled over to them. "Hi, I'm Noelle Meinhardt, of the Travellers. You're okay? Nobody hurt?"
"Not other than a bad fright, and a realisation that maybe the life of a wandering bard isn't the best idea if you're on your own, or even with a friend." Paige took a deep breath. "But thank you for the rescue."
"Heh, you're welcome." Noelle grinned broadly; the green hearth-dragon chirped, and she reached up to scratch under its chin. "So, a bard, huh? And you'd be a bowyer and fletcher, from your pouches?"
"That's right." Elmora slung her bow. "So, they're new to the area, huh? I was thinking I'd have to smack someone around for giving me bad intel."
"That's right." Noelle peered at Paige and frowned. "Wait a minute. Do I know you?"
"That depends," answered Paige cautiously. "I used to be known as Bad Canary."
"Holy shit, it is you!" Noelle slapped her thigh. "I used to listen to all your tracks. You helped me through some very dark times."
"The fuck? You're from Earth Bet too?" asked Elmora. "How many more of us are there around here?"
"No idea, but we were in a bad way before the Master helped us out. Simurgh bomb and proto-case fifty-three, right here."
Poking her thumb into her own chest, Elmora grinned. "Bet you a gold piece I can top that."
"Really." Noelle raised her eyebrows. "This I gotta hear."
Elmora gave a rough approximation of a courtly bow. "Butcher Fourteen, at your service. Retired, of course."
"Well, fuck." Noelle snorted, reaching into a pouch and flicking Elmora a gold coin. "I don't suppose you happened to retain any of those moves you had, back in the day?"
"Some." Elmora snatched the coin out of the air and smirked. "Pleasure doing business."
"Riiight. So, you were saying something about maybe needing more protection on the road. We could always do with two more, especially a bard and a Butcher."
Elmora sighed. "I've been trying to get out from under that shadow. Just call me Elmora."
"Sure. Also, we'd all love to hear the latest from home, in a 'never going back if you paid us' kind of way."
"So, wait." Paige was still getting her head around the idea. "You're all from Earth Bet?"
"Every single one of us." The bandits were now all secure, so Noelle removed the arrow from her crossbow, decocked it, then slung it across her back. "So, what do you say?"
Paige shared a glance with Elmora, who shrugged. "Why not?"
"That's what I was thinking." Paige offered her hand to Noelle. "If you'll have us, we're in."
"Excellent." Noelle's handshake was firm but not overly so. "Welcome to the Travellers."
End of Part Twenty-One