Multifold Manus Chapter 19

The first Sunday of the Christmas break had come, most students piled into carriages and made their way to the train platform a bit south of the Fairgarland grounds to head home while others drove themselves or even teleported back. All of Karak-Albrac’s council, but for Todd, stood at the station as Fredrik waved five tickets at the counter. Each was quickly checked before the light on the spinning gate dinged and turned green, allowing all five to push through. Galahad carried his usual bottomless messenger bag and wore a thick cloak that Root had given him as a gift ahead of his departure. While he couldn’t have gotten a gift for every little goblin there, Galahad had made sure to send along a few. One for Crud: a bottle of dwarven rum, another two for Root: wine of gnomish make and a new microwave that she had asked for, and one each for Blud and Rald. The goblin boy had received two games he had wanted while the girl had received an amulet to assist her in her study of conjuration magic. Wheeling behind him was a blue trunk, Manus’s luggage. The fey-witch had little idea what she was doing so Galahad had taken it upon himself to be sure that she was taken care of. Fredrik had two rolling bags, one of a silver color and the other in gold along with a laptop bag slung over his shoulder. 
Suzie’s bag was as big as she was, loaded down with cloaks, clothes, and various other things she thought she might need. Holmit was last, already red in the face from the swigs of dwarven rum he had been ‘pre-gaming’ with, as the younger dwarves called it. He had a wheeling suitcase along with an ice chest for his personal selection of stouts and a backpack.
Galahad stared at the grand, brick laden train station. The usually boring and dull brown-red bricks with gray cement were now magically vibrant in reds and whites like a candy cane all over the station. Each column of candy cane brick was garnished with a green reef, decorated with red, white, gold, or silver bows, “Don’t lick the bricks,” Holmit grumbed, “I made that mistake in my first year.”
Fredrik nodded as he led the group to boarding platform B3, “While they do look tantalizing, the illusion magic does not make it taste good. Our train should be arriving any minute. I spared no expense in our trip. Only the best of transport for me and the rest of Karak-Albrac!”
"Is that why you always book first class?" Suzie wondered aloud with a snicker.
“Of course. Speaking of, our train looks like it is arriving now,” He gestured down the track where an old black and green steam engine with the number one-two-six inlaid in gold on its front began to roll into the station. It carried five cars, “The Casper! I always book it or one of its sisters if I can.”
“Never took you for a train guy,” Galahad scoffed, “Can you tell me more about it?”
“Of course,” Fredrik nodded as the train slowly came to a stop, “Although it looks like an early, pre-cracking locomotive, it is actually modified to run off of mana. The reactor this small fleet uses is much larger than modern ones and has since been upgraded to a modern standard, but has kept its size. Due to this, it enables a smooth, luxurious ride with its excess mana, along with other faculties such as air conditioning or heating as we'll be enjoying on our trip, along with other wonderful luxuries,” The train, as it stopped, blew off a gust of steam, “It also makes use of the excess mana by conjuring steam for an authentic industrial revolution look!”
	“I… see,” Galahad scratched his head and looked to Manus who simply shrugged her six shoulders.
	“What car are we in?” Suzie wondered as people began to approach the train.
	“The front one. Come along,” Fredrik motioned for them to follow him. The front train car looked wooden with metal beams holding it together. Windows lined it at evenly spaced intervals, about a foot or so apart.
	“Tickets, please.” The dwarven conductor asked as they approached. With grandeur, Fredrik handed them over. The dwarf looked at the tickets and then warily up at Fredrik’s relatively simple golden mask of a grinning lion’s head, “Ah, you’re in room one. Have a pleasant ride,” A nearby ogre began to help load the groups’ bags into the car.
	“Thank you very much, sir,” Fredrik and his friends stepped aboard. The car felt much wider inside than out. Longer too, Manus noted silently. There were two doors on either side that led into rooms. Fredrik waved his ticket at the door labeled ONE in gold letters and nodded as he heard the latch click. As the door opened, Suzie gasped. Inside was an impossibly big lounge. A big three-quarters circle couch dominated the center, easily big enough to comfortably sit eight or ten around its marble topped table. Beyond the couch on the left side was an area with bar seating– which was stocked of course. There was a bathroom, and a bunk bed for two along the wall with the entrance door. The bottom bed was larger than the top. The other side of the door was much the same with a third bed along the wall in the far corner. A big TV screen dominated the wall. Fredrik chuckled when he noticed the look of awe on everyone's faces, "Oh, seems I forgot to mention that much of the excess mana is used to expand the inside of each car, and some of the rooms as well," Around the room were little pamphlets, which upon Suzie's further inspection were actually menus for the dining car.
	“Room service!?” Suzie balked at the food choices, many of which were far more fanciful than anything found in Fairgarland, “Fredrik… how?”
	“No need to worry your head. Please get situated, friends,” The golden wonder tossed his luggage under one of the beds before making his way to the main couch. 
Miss Manus and Suzie claimed another with Galahad taking the top bunk of Fredrik's leaving Holmit with his own bed, “I don’t fart that much when I sleep. Do I?”
“If you wake up in a foul smelling dome of silence, then you know,” Fredrik jested, “The journey is a little more than a day long from here. Holmit, and if the rest of you are so inclined, I have paid for unlimited drinks and food. Someone should come by with snacks shortly after we leave.”
Holmit sputtered in response, “Unlimited– Fredrik you know how to treat a dwarf!”
“It is my secret Santa gift for you, friend! Enjoy it!” He laughed as he picked up a menu. The two quickly began to chat about wines and scotch to order for the group, quickly discounting the ones they could find at their in room bar.
Miss Manus sat on her bed, running her hand over the plush comforter. Galahad plopped down at the foot of the bed as Suzie climbed the ladder to her bunk and began rolling around on the bed and getting comfortable, “Oh, this is so much better than my bed at the dorms!” The gnome cried.
“Suzie! Halfling cider or dwarven beer?” Holmit shouted.
“Get something else! We always drink those! I want something elven or human made!” Suzie replied. 
	“Elven sparkling plum wine it is, I suppose. Not getting human IPA…” Holmit grumbled as he went back to conversing with Fredrik. Suzie stared out the window at the people who were slowly boarding the train.
Miss Manus nervously ran her hands over her cracked orb. Glass, brass, bass, grass, and so on, the channeling focus went as Manus channeled transmutational energies into it idly. Galahad could see something moving under her cloak, “Everything okay?” The man asked quietly.
The fey witch nodded, “Just a little nervous.”
“Never really traveled, right?”
“Right on the nose, Galahad,” She sighed, “I struggle to figure out what I should do.”
Galahad smirked sheepishly, “Same here. Relax, I guess?”
“I swear,” Suzie huffed as she scurried down the bunk bed, “You two sound like you have done nothing but work your entire lives. You should learn to live a little!"
	“I’ve taken… some breaks,” The duelist folded his arms.
	“Holmit! Fredrik! Get these two some snacks! Onion rings! Fries! Mozzarella sticks! Some other deep fried soul food! Oh, some soda too!” 
	Fredrik nodded and scribbled a few things down on the order sheet, while Holmit perused the other drinks on the menu.

Time seemed to pass by just as the scenery did. Many of the forests and hills that Fairgarland was known for were quickly replaced with mountains and valleys. Snow was everywhere, and there was more of it as the train took Karak-Albrac's council towards their destination. Manus observed it all from the window in their room. She leaned against the cushioned wall, nearly against the glass as she witnessed these new sights. It was really like Fredrik had said, the train ride was incredibly smooth. It almost felt like they were not moving at all, but the train did rock slightly every so often and gently listed into turns.
"See anything interesting?" Galahad asked idly from across the room.
"I saw a family of deer playing in the distance. There were three of them, kicking up the snow." She recalled, "I would have liked to have watched them a little longer, but…"
"We must be on our way," Fredrik finished, "We will be there tomorrow, most likely around midday.”
	“And our drinks and lunch should be here in about an hour!” Holmit laughed, “Drink and grow fat, friends. Tis the season for it!”
	“I’m glad every culture is on the same page about Christmas,” Galahad smirked, “Everyone wants to get together and eat a hell of a lot of food!”
	Suzie folded her arms, “Gnomes do that all year, and I work hard to stay lithe and strong!”
	Fredrik nodded, “Aye. You do a great job with your figure, must be all those stairs we take,” He praised making the gnome's face turn red like a beet. Galahad wasn’t even sure if Fredrik realized what he had just said, the golden wizard carried on as normal,
“Anyone want to check more of the train? I would like to head to the observation platform on the caboose."
	“Uh, yeah, let’s go,” Suzie quickly volunteered, “I should burn some calories now before I load up on onion rings. Gotta keep my, uh, figure good.”
	“I think I’ll take a nap,” Holmit grumbled before heading to his bed.
	Galahad looked at Miss Manus, “Want to go wander around?”
	“May as well. Better than sitting here all trip, hm?” The fey-witch decided.
	Fredrik handed out a pass to everyone. The Casper: First Class, room one it read, “It will let us enter this car and room. Come along, friends.”
	Miss Manus followed the golden masked man as they stepped into the hallway. The carpet under foot was thick and soft, the chandeliers overhead were lit with small, brightly burning candles. There were paintings on the walls of past conductors and other important people within the company like owners and major engineers as well as the inventor of the train’s original mana reactor. There were also photographs of the train with celebrities and major political figures standing in front of it shaking the conductor's hands as they smiled for the cameras, a testament to the wide-spread opinion that the Casper was the preferred first-class locomotive. Fredrik pressed a button and the doors slid apart, letting the four through. In the second car was the kitchen, the group was taken around it on a little path by the windows with no way to look into it. On the far end was a few cafe seats and booth seats for people to sit at and eat. At the moment, two dwarves sat next to one another sipping on coffee while reading newspapers. The next car was first class with a few seating arrangements in closed off booths at the front and simple rows of comfortable looking seats towards the back. Next was a sleeper car with more booths that looked much too thin, but Manus figured they were using magic to enlarge them again. The next was an economy car with rows upon rows of cramped chairs. There were very few people sitting here and the four easily made it into the back of the caboose. They found themselves on an open air platform with elegantly twisted, iron guard rails adorned with little metal flowers on top and corners of the rails. Overhead, a magicked lamp burned and expelled large amounts of heat to keep them from freezing. 
	Galahad stood next to the railing on one side and stared out at the nearly flat, snowy landscape. The dark gray clouds overhead concealed the sun's blinding light, and the fog kept him from seeing too far, “The snow’s looking pretty thick,” He commented idly.
	“Yes, how does the train easily glide through it?” Manus wondered.
	“Flame throwers?” Suzie guessed jokingly.
	Fredrik shook his head, “A plow at the front. I cannot say whether it is heated or flaming or not.”
	“Ah,” The fey-witch nodded, “Thank you for dragging me out here. Although it is mostly just snow, I am glad I am getting to admire the beauty of this world. I almost wish I could frolic about in this untouched winter wonderland.”
	“We’ll get our chance,” Suzie assured her, “The cabin’s supposed to be pretty remote.”
	“I, for one, wish to build a few snowmen,” Fredrik declared as he stared out at the snowy landscape, “Have you ever made one, Miss President?”
	“Perhaps when I was… a wee babe? Hard to imagine with a fey, but we are in fact born,” She half-joked, “Something I did with my mother and siblings once or twice.”
	Suzie looked through the gaps in the metal railing, “Well, it sounds like your childhood wasn’t as awful as I used to imagine. Back then you were a lot harder to get to talk, let alone hold a conversation with, y'know. But now that I have the chance I wanna know, were you spawned– born, I mean born, as this form you are now?” She asked.
	Manus smiled, “No, I used to be smaller. Much smaller. But like mother and my siblings, I grew and grew to the size of a human.”
	“Eh, you’re a little short for a human,” Galahad teased, “Maybe closer to one of those elves or a gnome.”
	“You know what I meant, Galahad,” Miss Manus shook her head, “Cease your playful, pedantic teasing.”
	Fredrik shivered, “I should have worn a warmer cloak.”
	“Even that lamp isn’t keeping you warm?” Suzie scoffed, “Alright, come on, better get you into your warm bed before you catch a cold.”
	“Alright, alright. I yield to you,” He chuckled before following her back into the train car.
	With the departure of the two council members, Miss Manus was left with her duelist. Galahad was leaning on the railing and staring out at the snow. Miss Manus took a spot next to him. Her fey eyes could see very far, spotting a fox prowling the plains for its next meal, “What do you see out there, Galahad?” She asked, watching as the fox leapt up and landed head first in the snow.
	The duelist paused, trying to peer the best he could through the fog and snowy precipitation, “Well… The snow mostly. The odd tree. Rocks,” He noted while looking down at the rails below the train, “You?”
	“Not much more than you can see,” She replied, slightly fibbing.
	More time passed with both just taking in the scenery, “Can I ask you something?” 
	“You may.”
	“Well, why are you at Fairgarland? You’re away from your family, and from how you’ve put it, you’ve never left Fairgarland to see them. It's hard to imagine that you don’t have the means to go see ‘em.”
	It was Miss Manus’ turn to pause for a time, “Well, it has nothing to do with magic or money. I have more than I need due to my mother and father. To be honest, it is hard to feel accomplished in the long gloom of their shadows. My status is nothing more than a hand me down title,” She began, looking out into the snowy countryside that passed them by, “I feel nothing when reminded that I am royalty of the fey lands. I suppose that’s why I have not gone home. You made me think of this when you told Arthur about wanting to be challenged a few weeks ago. I realized I felt the same way and that was why I stayed away. What do I gain from it?”
Galahad thought on her words for a moment before the fey-witch continued, “The second is that they sent me off as soon as I was found to have magical ability. Fairgarland had raised me more than they did, in truth. As soon as I metamorphosed from a mostly thoughtless fey child to the form I have now, I was almost immediately sent off. The academy is all I know. It's where I feel I belong. It's where I’ve chosen to work and stay when I have achieved mastery. I simply do not feel the need to go home. Honestly, those I have become closer to at Fairgarland feel like my real familial ties, thin as they may seem. Though a small break from it may be nice every now and again,” Manus tittered into two of her left hands, “And before you ask, I don’t feel abandoned by my parents or anything. They do write, and I write back, but they are few and far between.”
	Galahad nodded, “I see. It feels so distant to me, but I guess I’m no better. Maybe I just don’t understand fey culture, but I do understand feeling like you’re in the shadow of your parents. I’m the same.”
	Manus studied Galahad's face for a time, watching him look out to the tracks behind them, “I believe you have said as much. Will I get to know who your parents are one day?”
	“Of course,” He nodded but the woman gave him a skeptical sideways look, “Okay. How about this; when you graduate and achieve your mastery, I’ll lay it all bare to you,” He offered with a smile, “That should be enough incentive.”
	Miss Manus smiled back, “Fine. But I want to know everything.”
	“And ruin all the mystery?" Galahad smirked.
"If a mystery is greater than its answers then it's not a very good mystery at all." She replied, "I have read many books like that, Galahad, so I hope it is worth the wait."
"Fair enough. Come on, let's go back to the room. I’m hungry for more of those mozzarella sticks. I swear I can taste them already.”
	The sun in the sky was nearing the horizon, threatening to set soon on the frosty Monday evening. Fredrik drove the big rental truck along a gravel path through the thick snow. Tall fir trees covered in white flanked both sides. From the passenger seat, Holmit grumbled and swore as he gripped the door handle. In the back seat, Suzie sat between Manus and Galahad, madly grasping eithers’ cloaks to stabilize herself as the truck rocked back and forth, “H-h-how-w-w mu-u-uch fu-urthe-er!?” She shouted, her voice shaking with the bumps on the road.
	“We’re getting close!” Fredrik called back, thanking his lucky stars as he spotted a wooden sign with a four on it, “I think I see it!” He said before turning off the gravel road and down a snow covered dirt path. True enough, the cabin came into view after some twisting and turning curves amongst tightly packed trees. Number four, the one they had booked for the week. The snow had stopped for a moment, letting the group see the deep purple sunsetting sky between the breaks in the woods and the clouds. 
	Nestled between the snow covered trees was a boxy cabin, its log construction had a simple, weathered look with a single door painted bright blue. The curtains were drawn over the windows and no smoke came from the chimney. To the left of the building was another similarly built shack connected with a thin hallway to the main building. A spot to chop logs was off to the other side, almost completely covered in snow, “Holmit, you can swing an axe, right? Wanna chop some wood?” Suzie asked.
	The dwarf sputtered on whatever alcoholic liquid he was sipping on, “Just because I’m a dwarf I can swing an axe, is it? Really, Hillbottom, I thought you didn't believe in stereotypes.”
	“Really?” Galahad balked at him, “I thought every dwarf learned how to use axes, hammers, pickaxes, and armor before they were twenty.”
	“I mostly focused on magic. And armor.”
	Manus frowned, “If dwarves live in their undermountain holds, why would they learn how to wield axes? Would spears not be better in the tight hallways of the under mountains?”
	Galahad and Holmit both turned to her, “Elves live in trees,” They replied.
	After a few moments Galahad piped up again, “I can chop wood. With magic, but I’ll get it done.”
	“I’ll start cooking then,” Suzie declared, “Manus, will you help me put everything away?”
	“Of course,” The fey nodded.
	Fredrik parked the truck and sighed, “Lordy. I hate these big, unwieldy vehicles. Allow me to clear the ground before you all disembark. The last thing we need is for someone to slip and crack their head open,” It was difficult to tell if he was joking as he left the truck. The golden masked wizard collected his staff from the trunk before grabbing his magical tome and looking for a spell, “A spell that will clear ice but not harm the truck,” He told himself, “Aha!”
	“Oh boy,” Suzie sighed as she saw the sparkle in the eyes behind the mask. 
	Fredrik tapped the book with his staff, absorbing the power from the magical script of the page into it. The golden staff glowed with a bright, silvery light. Speaking in his own magical incantation, he pointed the staff at the snow and ice, letting the magical blast go. ZZAPP! The spell screamed as it struck. Suzie shivered and covered her head with her arms to brace herself.
	To her surprise, she didn’t turn to gold or explode. The silence of the car was broken as the door opened and Galahad jumped out, “What is that?” He chuckled, “Is that… carpet?”
	“Merely a temporary change,” Fredrik nodded, “Metal would still be too slick but carpet should help our friends maintain their footing, and what better way to give a royal welcome than rolling out the carpet?" 
"Always the showman," Galahad smirked. Suzie slid out of the car, easily helped down by him onto the plush gold carpet. The gnome could see the carpet led in a little winding, and twisting path to the cabin door.
	“A wise choice,” Manus praised as she was helped from the truck by the duelist.
	Holmit stumbled from the truck and wound up face down in the snow due to his short and stubby legs, “Ach, could have done with conjuring up some step stools too,” He grumbled, pulling himself up from the snow, his beard caked with the powdery white substance.
	Soon enough, the group had collected their bags and transported them inside. The inside of the cabin was aggressively wooden and very dark. But for the fireplace nearly everything was made of some kind of wood, from the furniture in the lounge to the countertops in the kitchen. Galahad dropped his bag on the floor, “I’ll get some wood for the fireplace,” He decided before heading back out into the cold.
“Look at this!” Holmit gasped, “A beautiful, dwarven carpet! My, I have one of these at home! Made by the Gran-Derrak hold too! Look at these runes! Amazingly crafted!” He looked around, “And this axe!” He scuttled to the fireplace and used his magic to bring one of the two crossed axes hanging from the brick work into his hands, “Reign-Derazzi made this! Much better than the one I have!” He seemed to expertly drop into an axe-dwarf battle stance and swing at the air, laughing the whole time.
“Can’t use an axe, huh?” Suzie scoffed, “Scared of a little cold, you old drunk?”
“I– Well– I’m just… testing the boy, yes. Testing him,” The dwarf cleared his throat and put it back, “Need to know how loyal he is to Karak-Albrac.”
The wooden floor of the living room was covered by the dwarven-made rug next to the big fireplace. Fredrik could easily imagine it roaring with flames to warm the cold building. There was a big, wooden framed leather couch, a fabric loveseat, a recliner, and a big, stone top coffee table. A little Christmas tree sat in the corner, decorated with a few red baubles and garland. To the right was a full kitchen with a long dining table. A wood fire stove, a big ice chest, plenty of counter space and cupboards full of more dwarven crafted kitchenware. Octagonal plates made of some kind of light stone, wooden flaggons, expertly made wooden cutlery, forks, and spoons, iron cooking pots, and very nice rags, towels, and most other things you would need to cook. There was also a door leading to the back yard where a hot tub sat under a wooden awning and on a stoney deck. A few pieces of firewood were here, left from the previous visitors.
	On the left side of the building were five doors down a hallway. There was a master bedroom with its own bathroom, two big beds, and its own little fireplace. Another bedroom which was much smaller with a bunk bed and a desk, a third bedroom with a queen sized bed and a couch, a big, wonderfully crafted bathroom with a standing shower and a big bathtub. The last door, at the very end led to another hallway that led to the outdoor sauna.
	Suzie had already grabbed some wood from outside and thrown them into the wood burning stove, “Let's get those pork chops cooking!” She declared as Miss Manus started moving all the materials to the counter or into the ice chest.
	Fredrik glanced out the window. Galahad had already felled a tree, looking like he had burned it toward the trunk. The duelist wreathed his hand in lightning, grunting as he brought his plasma-covered arm down onto the log and slicing it up into more manageable lengths with his powerful evocation magics. Once they were in easier to manage pieces. He switched to using abjuration. He carefully pointed his staff at the bark before snaking his blue, translucent magic into the cracks of the wood. Once stuck through to the other side, he poured his mana into the abjuration to expand it, splitting the wood in half before doing it again on the two halves. Soon, he had broken it down into near identical eighths. 
Fredrik nodded, a bit surprised with his technique, “Holmit, would you gather the wood and take it out back?” With the wave of his hand, the golden wizard removed the bottle the dwarf was about to open and placed it on a high shelf, “You can do some work like the rest of us before getting drunk. Also, you can take the room at the far end, with the couch.”
	“Ugh, fine,” He grunted before throwing a thick cloak and woolen hat on as he stepped out into the snow.
	“We’ll take the bunk bed,” Suzie offered as she started the fire in the oven.
	“If you say so,” Fredrik nodded as he then prepared the main fireplace. Just as he thought, the roaring fire’s heat quickly began to spread across the house. He fell onto the couch, eager to rest for the week. 

. . . . .
	Carly licked her lips as she carefully adjusted the lens of her camera. She focused it as she zoomed in at nothing in particular. The camera stared into the black void of the night, “As we know,” She began, “All of our sightings of the Butcher are in the same place. He always comes back on the same path, and from what we can see, he leaves that way too. BUT we’ve never seen him go out there with our own eyes. So, we suspect invisibility. And that’s where our thermal camera comes into play,” The group was hiding within an igloo on the southeast part of campus where the classrooms were. From where they sat, they could see the path they had seen the Butcher take before. The ABUG crowded together around a little screen connected to Carly’s brand new thermal camera. 
	“It's just blue,” Sophia frowned.
	“Because nothing warm is over there,” Blud smirked, “This baby should let us see when the butcher wanders out into the woods.”
	“But what if he’s a vampire?” Rald wondered, “I’ve heard some of the necromancers are actually undead! Would they show up on camera? I know they don’t appear in mirrors. Cameras use mirrors for pictures, right?”
	“This is a little different. Also, I think we’d know if they were full of undead,” Carly gave the goblin a scoff as she sat back, “We’d have a ton of articles about such a scandal.”
	“I guess so…” Rald sighed, trying not to be vocal about every necromancy spell she knew about that could obfuscate numerous forms of undead, not to mention the illusion spells that could do the same thing. 
	Blud watched the screen intently, slowly turning a dial on the side to focus the picture a bit better before checking the batteries for it, “Lookin’ good. It’ll last like, four hours I think. By then we’ll call it.”
	“Agreed,” Sophia nodded. The cat witch peered into the screen. There was nothing but a deep violet cover that blanketed the view and she was hardly able to make out a tree or two from within it. On the left side was a bar that listed various colors from blues to reds to white and what temperatures they represented, “Technology is fascinating,” The witch muttered. She could think of a spell or two that would let her see invisibility, but not to the range of this camera. 

	Time passed. The group stayed warm with a tiny spell that covered them in an invisible blanket of warmth. Each passed time in their own way, taking half hour shifts of watching the camera. Blud played video games on a little hand held device, Rald knitted, Sophia meditated, and Carly checked, double checked, and then triple checked her gear before moving on to eating numerous packs of fruit snacks between each gear check.
	“Look!” Blud hissed. A haze of orange started to waft into view of the camera.
	Sophia squinted, “What is that?”
	“Magic lets off heat, especially illusions. It's a way you can tell them apart. Though I don’t see why someone like you would carry around a thermal camera,” Carly explained, “I think that’s our guy. You can see the cloak, the mask… look how cold their skin and mask are. The Butcher is on the move. We need to get going!” She grabbed her bag and hastily tossed all her things into it.
	“Stay here, Rald,” Blud ordered as he grabbed his bandolier of magical components and messenger bag.
	“What!?” The goblin gave him a cross look, “Why?”
	“Mom would kill me if she found out I let you follow along,” The goblin said as he condescendingly patted his slightly shorter sister’s head, “Just stay here.”
	“This isn’t a debate. I’ll be right back. We’ll only take a minute,” With a wave, Blud, Carly, and a nervous Sophia all began to walk into the woods with all their gear. 
	Left alone now in the cold with wind blowing in her pointy ears, Rald started to fume, “He is such an idiot,” She cursed, “A real… moss collector,” The goblin hissed, “And that moss collector,” It felt dirty on her lips, like a word she should never say. But her brother was definitely acting like one, the lowest of the low, “He is gonna get them all killed with his bull headedness,” She sighed and checked the time on her phone, “Can I do anything? The night watch? No… Lox!” Rald dropped down, ready to run before stopping short after a single step, “GAH! He’s out of town! Of all the times–” She stomped her little goblin foot in the snow while chanting goblin, dwarven, and orcish swears.
	Her mind started to race, she really was worried about them, but what to do? The wheel in the goblin’s head spun faster and faster, trying to think of someone that would help. Rald snapped her fingers, “That’s it! But…” She frowned before shaking her head and sighing, “That’s the only option. He has to help,” She decided before running down the path towards the dorms.

. . . . .

	The dark woods around the cabin were highlighted by the dancing lights coming from within it. Holmit snored in the recliner, a bottle in his hand and a few shot glasses on the coffee table in front of him. An unfinished BLT sandwich sat on a plate near him with the crumbs of spicy chips around it. Across the table, Suzie flipped her two cards, “Two pairs,” She brandished her ace and gestured to the ace and the two tens amongst the five cards of the river.
	“Quite well done,” Fredrik nodded, “However,” He revealed two tens from his hand, “Four tens.”
	“GAH!” The gnome howled in frustration, “You… you!” She swore in dwarvish and orcish at the golden wizard, making Galahad burst out into laughter, nearly choking on the soda and chips he was snacking on.
	“I will assume you were swearing at me,” Fredrik decided before swiping the poker chips towards himself and stacking them up in his pile in front of him, “You were the one who wanted to play poker!” He swiftly reminded her.
	Manus stared into the fire, a drink in her hand that did very little to intoxicate her due to her feyish nature. She didn’t care much for the taste either, “You okay?” Galahad nudged her. The two were seated on the love seat, “It's your turn to deal a hand.”
 “Oh, right,” The fey woman set the bottle down and shuffled the cards magically with the wave of her hands. She flicked her wrist and everyone was dealt two cards.
	“Can we PLEASE do some traditional shuffling?” Suzie begged, “Fredrik DEFINITELY has a pair! I mean, look at him!”
	Galahad frowned, “I… don’t see anything. It's not like his mask moves with his face.”
	“The glimmer in his eyes,” The gnome hissed, “I can see it.”
	“Oh? Are you enamored by the intelligent gleam in my eyes? Perhaps you find them charming? You enjoy how I stare like a hawk, do you not?” He teased her, “Maybe it makes your heart race,” Suzie’s face turned red as she started to steam and swear quietly. 
 Once again, Miss Manus folded upon seeing her cards. Galahad smirked and checked her cards, “Eh, not a bad hand.”
	“But not a good one,” She replied.
	“Right, but you’re not gonna get those gold coins back if you fold nearly every hand,” Galahad attempted to encourage her but she still shook her head, “Alright, fair enough,” The man leaned back in his seat, “Check.”
	“Check,” Fredrik decreed with Suzie knocking on the table to check.
	“Flop,” Manus muttered as she tossed a card aside, “River,” She revealed three cards. Seven of hearts, four of clubs, and a king of hearts. Fredrik and Galahad both glanced over at Suzie who immediately had a glimmer in her eyes. 
	“Check,” Galahad repeated.
	“I will raise five piece,” Fredrik declared.
	Suzie smirked, “Raise by ten!”
	“Oooh, fifteen smackaroos,” Galahad tossed his cards in, “This crap ain't worth that.” 
	“I shall call,” Fredrik decided, pushing in ten dollars of chips. Miss Manus nodded and flopped another card and revealed another in the river. The five of hearts. 
	“Raise,” Suzie immediately called out, pushing in ten in chips.
	Fredrik paused, staring at his hands and his mountain of chips. Suzie had very little to her name, “Raise,” He pushed in another ten which the gnome copied. The next flop and river came. An ace of hearts, “Bet,” Fredrik placed five in which Suzie excitedly copied it. Fredrik scoffed, “I have a straight,” He showed his three and six.
	Suzie cackled, “Flush! I win!”
	“A congrats to you, friend,” The golden wizard pushed the chips over to her, “Another hand?”
	“Yeah, one or two more,” Galahad agreed. Manus discarded her drink and got ready to play again. Though she didn't care much for the game itself, she found herself enjoying the reactions of her friends.

. . . . .

	The snow was thick. Too thick for Sophia. She shivered and shook in her long boots. Her robes were dark and thankfully not inlaid with gold or silver, but they were still made for looks and not for warmth. Carly led the march into the woods with Blud right behind her and Sophia trailing behind. She could only wonder what she was really doing. Going to battle a killer, what was she thinking? Blud might be the only one who was somewhat qualified since he hung around the big Karak-Albrac duelist. Carly was preparing a camera as she wandered onward. She waved a hand and the path was revealed to her, “Looks like we keep straight,” She whispered.
	The forest was silent beyond the whispering winds and the noise of ice and snow crunching under the group’s boots. Sophia brushed the snow out of her face, “Are we really going to do this? Shouldn’t we just stake it out and bring a bigger force? Like we could get Harold, Galahad, and Sean.”
	“We won’t know if he’ll be there if we come back,” Carly quickly pointed out.
	“A simple bolt to the skull should do him in,” Blud gave a thumbs up, “We’ve got this.”
	Sophia was already pulling up lawyer contact information in her head. The best way to spin it, rather than being vigilanties, was acting in self defense. They weren’t heroes, not even sanctioned wizards. The guilds would not look favorably on vigilantes. Sophia doubted these thoughts had even crossed Blud’s mind, certainly not Carly’s. While she was all for stopping the killer, she was not all for killing him. 
	The crunching of snow stopped, prompting Sophia to stop too, “What is it?” Blud hissed.
	“Do we really need to crouch walk? It's killing my precious knees,” Sophia whined.
	“Ssh!” Carly hissed. She crawled forward, carefully hiding behind a bush. Through the thermal camera, the witch could see her target. The lingering warmth of illusion magic clung to the cloak of the caster. He had dropped his invisibility spell, no longer needing it this far into the woods, Carly figured. He was a tall and foreboding figure that made Carly’s heart pound. She could see the side of the figure’s mask glowing white in the moonlight. It was the perfect shot for her story. She swapped to her photo camera, easing her shaking hands as she excitedly brought it to her face for a shot. She breathed in, her index finger starting to press on the button. Carly breathed out, steadying herself, especially her hands as she had many times before as she tried to snap a photo for her journal.
	A flash went off with the snapping of the photo.
	All three of the ABUGs’ hearts dropped in that instant. Carly and Sophia froze as the Butcher’s gaze fell upon them. There was only darkness behind the mask, eyes full of shadow and despair that pierced their hearts. His hand raised, staff at the ready. A blast of dark, sparkling energy was quickly lobbed at them, “AAAH!” Blud hollered as he swung his wand, slashing through the bolt and sending it flying to his sides. With a loud incantation, the goblin put a spell into his hand. He pointed a finger at the Butcher, “BANG!” He cried as his small spell turned into a crossbow bolt that the Butcher knocked aside with a hiss of pain. 
	With the wave of the Butcher’s hand, Blud found himself shrouded in an impossible darkness and his heart weighed down with despair. His limbs and eyelids felt heavy, “You… dung eater,” He hissed as he fell to one knee, dropping his wand. The Butcher waved his staff again, slowly building energy for another spell. Carly managed to come to, breaking through her fear. She brandished the only thing in her hands: the camera. With a rapid finger, she continually pressed the button, attempting to blind their attacker with the continuous flash. The butcher groaned, in a strangely feminine voice before letting their magic spell go and vanishing into the darkness, hastily retreating from the flash.	
	Carly shrieked as a slow moving burning blast was lobbed at them. Dark flames cast a dim light as it flew at them in a crescent. Carly put her hands up to defend herself. Blud could hardly move due to the magic affliction and Sophia was still paralyzed with fear. 
	The spell exploded as it struck. A dark, fiery explosion enveloped the group. Slowly, Carly opened her eyes. She pat herself down with one hand, amazed that her body was still whole. She sighed with relief and looked at her two other ABUG members, “You two okay?” She asked, her voice raspy and wheezing as her heart was still racing from the adrenaline. 
	The magic that weighed Blud down was gone, “Yeah, yeah…” He exhaled before slowly getting up.
	“Sophia?” Carly called quietly, “Sophia?”
	“I am here,” The cat-witch sighed, “But we have been found out, friends.”
	“Blud!” Rald rushed to her brother, “Did he hurt you?”
	“Rald, you’re supposed to be back at campus,” The goblin groaned, still shaking off the evil magicks.
	“If I didn’t come here, you would be dead!” She scolded, “You should be thanking me. Actually, you should all be thanking him.”
	“Huh?” Carly peered into the darkness as another figure stepped closer.
	Wearing black robes with a blue arm band and a blue tie, she realized it was Sean Reagal. He straightened his aforementioned tie and glared at Carly, “What have you gotten these three into, Carly? Chasing a killer with just the three of you? If I had not seen him myself, I would have called you insane. And Sophia, I thought you were wiser than this. I should look into having you expelled for putting them in this much danger!”
	The cat-witch glared back, “If not us, then who!? No one will take us seriously. Not security, not the police, not the heroes of old! What other options do we have? Allow him to keep murdering people!?”
	Sean crossed his arms, “You should have told me about this. Or Galahad. Or Harold. Or even Fredrik. Any of them would have been able to at least go toe to toe with this supposed killer. I may have been able to help along with some of my other task force. Harold or Galahad could have made short work of this.”
	“Ugh, would you have wanted to ask Harold?” Rald stuck her tongue out. Sean was silent, “And I would have asked Galahad but of course he’s gone right now.”
	The group was silent for a moment with Sean sizing everyone up. Blud looked around, finally feeling better, “Now what?”
	“We go after him. He’s onto us now, we can’t let him get away,” Carly decided as she looked at the group, pleading with them, “This is our one chance, he will come after the five of us next. He ran deeper into the woods, Blud, I think you drew blood, can you track him?”
	“I think so. I can smell it at least,” His nostrils flared, “At least I think I can. I smell something. Something close. Too close.”
	“Are you all really going to do this?” Sean sighed.
	Rald nudged his thigh with her elbow, “Come on, Sean. Didn’t you say I could come to you if I need anything? With you here, how could we lose?”
	Sean blushed and cleared his throat, “Alright. This needs to be dealt with and I can aid you. If something was to happen to you four, I would never be able to live with myself if I stood by and did nothing.”
	Blud spun around, “I can smell it! He’s here!” He shouted as he drew his wand again. Everyone drew their own casting implements as a tall, barely visible person in a hood stood just outside their vision, “Die, monster! You won’t get me this time!” He shouted as he cast another spell into his hand. Sean, Sophia, and Rald all readied their own casting, preparing for their showdown. 

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