The Only Way Out
Glig crouched with the others around a crude map traced in dirt. He watched Chael closely, a small knot of dread growing inside him.
Where Glig was from, birdmen weren’t considered people. They were killing machines. Mindless super soldiers, insectile drones programmed during their construction to morph into whatever the hive of heaven required. They didn’t bleed, they had no hearts.
Glig had never really believed that, of course. It was too simple, too convenient. Life was more complicated than that. There had to be some good ones. Some hope of it ending one day.
But as he watched the others discuss their second jailbreak, he couldn’t stop thinking about the way Chael had looked while manhandling that scrapmaster. Powerful. Deadly. And for a moment, exactly like the birdmen that raided the Motherfen. Exactly like what that book had called an Angel of Death. Maybe they were all the same. Killing machines who could just morph into clever, almost-likeable rogues when it was required.
“What about a wizard?” asked Chael, almost-likeably, “Someone with a teleportation spell they can can cast on us or something?”
Mahani laughed a little, “I can’t summon a wizard.”
“Why not? Don’t summoners do that stuff all the time?”
“Not me,” said Mahani.
“What, you don’t know how?”
“No, I don’t know who,” she said. “I told you before. Summoning is three things. Power. Know-how. And know-who.”
“Yeah, but you never explained what that even means.”
“Okay. Summoning was invented as a form of inter-planar transportation. Willing subjects, familiar to the summoner, brought over from one world to another.”
“So summoners started as, what, ferriers?” asked Chael.
“Basically,” said Mahani, “But pretty soon they figured out that both willingness and familiarity could be nudged out of the equation a bit.”
“Well, willingness the ways you’d expect. Charm, coercion, deception, force.” She looked at Glig. “That’s what happened to you, Glig. Summoners like Sal, they take anyone they want and use them however they please. Rip them from their homes. Control their minds. They don’t care.”
“Not you, though.” Chael winced, then held a hand up apologetically, “I mean, not since the — ”
“Not since the dog thing, no,” said Mahani, “That’s why I’m sticking to animals now. They trust me, I trust them, and there aren’t too many ways you can force a 1000lb hippopotamus to do something it wouldn’t want to do anyways, you know? They view me as one of them, and so they’ll come over here and protect me.”
“So you won’t summon a wizard because you don’t know any who would be willing?”
“Yeah. But I also can’t summon a wizard because I don’t know any. Period.”
“Right. Familiarity. But you said that can be nudged too?”
“Yeah. Turns out you don’t need as much starting information as you’d think. For example, I had never met those hippos before, but I’d heard stories about them, seen pictures. That’s not always enough, but I got lucky I guess. It also helped that we were in a river, which is where they already live, even in their world.” She looked at Glig, “That’s why I needed to see the sky when I was trying to call that giant bird to us. I’ve never seen a giant bird, ya know?”
“Giant bird?” said Chael, eyes widening, “Well, now we’re talking!”
Mahani shook her head. “I…I don’t think I can. It wasn’t going well when I tried in the canyon. That batter spilling on us might have actually saved my life.”
“What do you mean?” asked Chael.
“Oh, they dumped batter on us. Then oil.”
“No, the other part.”
“Oh. The backdraft,” Mahani said. “If you try to summon something too difficult, and lose control, you can get sucked out of your world instead.”
Chael laughed and shook their head, “I didn’t realize there was this much to it. The summoners I’ve seen make it look like ordering a pint of ale.”
“They probably have namebooks,” said Mahani.
“Breep?” asked Glig, thinking of the books he had found on Sal’s body, the book of demon names he was listed in.
“If you have something of the person’s, it’s easier to summon them. A lock of their hair, a piece of clothing. Their name. A name is like a free pass. Makes the summoning almost guaranteed and takes less focus to use. Angel and Demon names are super valuable. There are people who make their living hunting them down and compiling them into books to sell to summoners.”
Chael was nodding, “There’s a whole black market for them. I had a friend who got really strapped for cash and sold their own name. Maybe they get called, maybe they don’t.”
“Right. And usually it’s only a one time thing.”
“Because they usually die.”
“No. Well, yeah probably, but I meant because you usually can’t use a name more than once. It loses its grip, the soul gets wise to it ya know?”
“Oh is that what tempering is about?”
Mahani snorted, “Yeah. Immunization. People pay temperests to use their names to summon them over for a cup of tea or something, then send them back. Then they don’t have to worry about their name getting sold to some warlord or slaver later on.”
Chael laughed, “I bet there’s good money in that.”
Mahani sighed, “There’s always good money in fear.”
The sound of chanting caught their attention. Glig looked out through the bars. The white-scaled, pink-eyed kobold shaman was dressed in its full-ceremonial vestments, busy organizing an array of ritualistic activity. Prayers were being read. Wine was being poured. A hallucinagenic powder was being applied lovingly to the participants eyeballs. And although Mahani had told him that kobolds could see a good sixty feet in the dark, torches were still being lit, for the sake of fire.
Chael stared out through the cage, chewing their lip. “Okay, so no wizard. I guess our only shot is to run like crazy? You summon an army of animal friends, as many as you can without getting backdrafted or whatever, and then they keep the kobolds busy while we slip out and — “
Chael stopped. Mahani was shaking her head.
“What? No good? You just said that animals want to help you.” Chael was looking out at the torches. “And I hate to admit this, but we need some major help right now.”
“We can’t just run,” said Mahani, studying the dirt map.
“If you’re worried about me leaving you behind — “ Glig caught Chael glance over at him, at his short legs.
“You said it yourself. The entire southwest side of this thing is one big trap.” Mahani traced her finger along the spot on the map. “Guard towers, bottlenecks…”
“Breep,” agreed Glig, thinking about the labyrinth of trapped canyons they would have to navigate again once they got off the gravel, the miles of badlands they would have to travel to get to the prairies.
Mahani looked up at Mad Mesa, then at Chael, “We can’t go around it, Captain.”
“What? You want to go over it?” asked Chael, rubbing their temples, “That’s 500 feet straight up. The panic bats will suck every ounce of blood from us before we even reach the top!”
“Not over,” said Mahani.
Glig could see Chael’s mind racing, studying the map themselves now, coming to the same terrible, inevitable conclusion that Mahani had.
Chael closed their eyes, nodded, and took a deep breath. “We have to climb into the pit trap.”
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