First Contact

The wedding had been fine, very fine indeed, reflected Florian Aglethorp Rosicroun Persimmon Hacklebee the Third.  The bride had been radiant in her mother's gown -- altered tastefully by Tailor Soukin to bring it more in keeping with current, high-collared fashion, but preserving the classic pouffed shoulders and man-length train that Princess Francesca Amanova had made popular in, what was it, the Year of the Gryphon?  Yes, that was it.  Ahh, those were the days, with knights and pegasi and damsels, just as the tales said, not like the days you had today, no sir, although Florian Aglethorp Rosicroun Persimmon Hacklebee the Third had to admit that Miss Delia Bancourt nee Crepinhook was indeed fair, and her husband did have a sort of knightly straightness to his nose, if he was only a cheesemaker. "Hey, Flarph!" called Vincenzo Caiaplante, making Florian Aglethorp Rosicroun Persimmon Hacklebee the Third wince at the sound of his nickname.  Vincenzo was only a cobbler, but his great grandfather had invented the double "D" buckle that practically every citizen of Highmont wore on his or her clogs these days, and his wealth gave him a sort of cheap respectability.  At least he could tell a white wine from a red.  By his breath, he hadn't been so discriminating tonight, however.

"Must you be so forward?" Flarph harumphed, but Vincenzo simply clapped a meaty arm around his shoulders and began to steer him back in the direction of the festivities.

"Flarph, I've told you since we were boys, nobody knows your whole name.  There's a Parsnip in there somewhere, right?"  He waved away Flarph's attempt to dignify an answer.  "Never mind all that, Flarph is a perfectly good name.  And, aaaaand..." he wiggled his eyebrows gleefully, "Maid Felicity was overheard admiring the cut of your doublet this very night.  Clearly, she's had a bit too much sacrament, buuuuut..."

The night was crisp and thrilling, and a late snow had left the tips of the trees and tops of the houses frosted with white.  The ridge of the mountain loomed high and close over their town, and the town square was festooned with the first flowers of spring, woven into floral braids and bound into neat bouquets placed at each of the five cardinal directions around the edge of the square.  (More of a wobbly oval, really, but they were on the side of a mountain, for God's sake, and nobody wanted to gather in "the town wobbly oval".)  Fat family candles snickered in the windows of all the homes lining the road, so that the ancestors might see the joyous occasion as the processional had ascended from the lower edge of town up to the square where the Church loomed, overshadowed only by the mountain, and by God.

Well, candles lit every window except one.  Maid Felicity's window, down near the edge of town, had only a small gas lamp.

"It is most unkind, sir, for you to say such things about a respected lady of the community.  Despite her," Flarph coughed, "uncertain parentage, Miss Felicity has built kites in the classical Highmont style, just the way Master Quince taught her, for long enough to have proved her stature to our humble town.  Additionally, my doublet is in the style of the third Lord Byrun, a man much prized for--"

"The third Lord..." interrupted Vincenzo, whose family emigrated to Highmont in his great-great grandfather's day, and so he didn't appreciate some things.  "Didn't he die two centuries ago?"

"Three.  It is a classic style," corrected Flarph, which caused the other man to laugh and laugh.

When he could draw breath again without giggling, he declared, "Flarph, you are a classic, crooked teeth and all.  Now, go talk to Maid Felicity, and try to get lucky."

Somehow, Vincenzo's arm had navigated Flarph to within several paces of Maid Felicity, who mercifully wasn't looking in their direction.  Flarph prayed that she hadn't heard Vincenzo's drunken exhortation: he was certain that the luck of which the other man spoke had been of a lascivious nature.  He took a tentative step toward Felicity, who was waving one arm in an animated discussion with Annabelle Bancourt, the bride's young sister-in-law.

"And then you heat the solution to a boil, which releases the thaumiol in gaseous form into the containment vessel -- the balloon -- but I'm not quite sure yet the best method for storage.  I've got dozens of the dratted things floating around my ceiling, which I'm pretty sure is a recipe for disas--"

"Good evening, ladies," Flarph interrupted, a bit shaky on the details of what he was hearing, which made him nervous.  "I, er."

"Oh!"  Felicity gave a little start, and then giggled girlishly.  Her companion -- who, at thirteen, had not yet mastered the art of politely extricating oneself from a conversation -- heaved a sigh of relief, and with a mumbled curtsy, bobbed off to find her sister.  The slightly older woman, whose age Flarph guessed was perhaps closer to Annabelle's than his own, tucked a dark curl back behind her ear, and gave Flarph an unpracticed curtsy as well.

"I crave your pardon, miss, I did not mean to startle you."  Flarph waited for his apology to sweep her off her feet.

"Ah.  Well.  Good," she began, "it would be very rude if you had meant to startle me.  What did you mean?"  Her brown eyes sparkled quizzically.

"What did I... hah!" laughed Flarph, managing to add, "What a strange question!" before realizing that she actually meant it as a question.

Indeed, it wasn't the sort of question any other woman in the town would have asked.  Perhaps there was more that set Maid Felicity aside from them than her unblond hair and unblue eyes.

"I, er," Flarph repeated.

"And I surmise that you probably weren't coming over to have a chat with me about methods of thaumiol extraction, which is what I was talking about just now.  You are aware that it's rude to interrupt?"

"Young lady, I--" Flarph tried, but her eyes lampooned him.

"And now a lecture from an elder?  What a delightful way to spend an evening!"  Suddenly, she laughed merrily.  "Ah, me, Master Quince tells me I mustn't be so incorrigible.  I corrige wretchedly, though."  Flarph thought that maybe she would reverie long enough for him to escape, but her eyes fixed on him again, pinning him once more... but gently, this time.

"You don't have a lot of experience with women, do you, Mister Hacklebee?" she asked, not unkindly.  "Would you like to start over?"

At the mention of his proper last name, Flarph got a jolt of hope.  Perhaps there was a chance!  After all, he was one of the only eligible bachelors in all of Highmont...

With an ear-splitting shriek, Miss Delia Bancourt nee Crepinhook burst into flames, and came flying through the air at him, arms outstretched, fingers like daggers.

It was hardly just.

A lancing bolt of energy from the sky caught her just before she reached him -- or perhaps Felicity, it was hard to tell with his eyes closed -- blasting her into a million pieces and leaving a crater in the cobblestones of the town square.  Flarph was knocked off of his feet, skinning his palms as he landed.  Ears ringing, mind ablaze, he looked up to the sky, whence the blast had come.

A strange creation swept in.  It looked to Flarph like a steel balloon, with windmills attached to either side.  These were spinning like mad, kicking up a hellacious gale that whipped at his face and tore at his clothing.  There appeared to be all manner of cogwheel attached in odd places, for no fathomable purpose that Flarph could discern.  Over the din, he could just barely make out a hiss, and he saw puffs of steam emerge from a series of vents along either side that looked like a row of enormous trumpets.

Emerging from the thing's underbelly was a ramp, and on that ramp stood a man... or possibly a yeti, for Flarph could tell even at a hundred paces that he was a monster of a man.  He would have had to be, in order to hold a weapon that big.

Flarph had never heard of a Light Amplification Searing Excrutiation Ray, but there was no mistaking the sleek barrel, fitted grips, ammo tube leading to a shoulder-mounted power harness, or the smoke pouring from its dragon-shaped mouth as anything but weaponry.  He gulped.  Then he thought about the cloud of dust nee Miss Delia Bancourt nee Crepinhook, and gulped again.

The balloon-craft swooped in low, and the ramp extended downward.  The man with the enormous weapon clomped down off of it.  He had a strange set of goggles over his eyes, with opaque lenses and small wire rims that extended back over the ears, where a normal man would have a leather strap.  He swept his hidden gaze across the courtyard, and suddenly, the place was bathed in dozens of spotlights emanating from the craft.  Flarph could see his fellow townsfolk staggering under the gale emitted from the ship's windmills, clutching at their clothes, and shielding their eyes from the bright lights.  The flowers that had festooned the square moments ago were blown into the night, and the family candles were all--

That was odd.  Despite the gale, the family candles were still lit.

There was another shriek, just as before, and Tailor Soukin also burst into flames.  He leapt into the air -- no, he sort of flew up, under his own power, but with no wings to speak of -- and then dove down at Felicity.  The man with the goggles heaved his weapon to bear, aimed, and squeezed a little trigger on the handle, and BOOM!  Soukin evaporated.

"Wh... what is going--" began Flarph, but the man stomped over and interrupted him.

He reached his hand out for Felicity.  "Come with me, if you want to live."

Her eyes flickered to Flarph, whose eyes were watering with incomprehension and a little bit of atomized tailor that had drifted in from the corners.  She held out her hand to the stranger.

Then she socked him hard in the mouth.

"You are aware," she grimaced, "that it is rude to interrupt?"  She glared at the newcomer, and added, "And also to kill people."

Laughter echoed down the gangplank of the ship.  A voice followed it.

"You know, Culnor, I think she is the right one.  You owe me twenty quid."

The personage that followed it, emerging from the glowing interior of the ship with a flourish, was much leaner than his counterpart, with an academic bearing that suggested that he might at any moment deliver a lecture on the lesser species of brain weevils infesting the upper reaches of the River Irsa.  He wore a double-breasted waistcoat, slacks, and carried a cane adroitly in one hand.

The big man called Culnor chuckled and rubbed his jaw, evidently not in the least perturbed that he'd just been punched in the mustaches.  "You may be right, my friend.  But I think you were right about our timetable, too: we need to get out of here before those candles let any more shades loose."

The other man had ambled up to Felicity, and was eyeing her intently.  She met his gaze, defiant... but Flarph thought perhaps a little less so than she'd been just a moment before.

"You're different from them," he pronounced, not bothering to gesture back at the townsfolk beginning to gather together in protective huddles.  "You've always known that.  You have wild ideas, flights of fancy... dreams that will not go away."  Flarph could feel the intensity with which his eyes bored into Felicity, and he cleared his throat to try to speak, but she answered before he could get anything to come out.

"... yes," she whispered.

"You've wondered where you came from, who you truly are--" Culnor coughed pointedly-- "yes, yes, I think I'm making my point, correct?  Mind always over the next horizon, strange hobbies, feelings of displacement?"

"Er, yes?"

"Sorry for not sticking to the script, but we're in a bit of a hurry."  He smoothly took her by one elbow and started ushering her toward the vessel's gangplank.  "You see, you're a princess, abandoned at birth by your parents in order to protect you from the Grand Vizier--with me so far?--and the time has come for you to return to reclaim your rightful heritage in a distant kingdom.  We're just going to pop aboard my ship, the Kailee here, and take a little trip, and we're going to do it before any more of the candles that these completely, utterly ignorant villagers have been burning for the last several centuries or so burn out, releasing the shades of the original town fathers from their prisons.  Who were put there by your great-grandfather several times over, I should add.  Sad story; I'll tell it to you sometime.  Devil worship, funny hats.  I'm sorry," he paused.  "I forgot to introduce myself.  I'm the Doctor."

"Doctor who?" asked Felicity, looking a bit swept away but not resisting.  Flarph wanted to call out to her, but he was completely dumbstruck.  The family candles... what was this doctor saying about them?

"I told you nobody has heard of you," growled the big man.  "Let's go, already."

"Doctor Mernick Fellthorn, at your service."  He doffed an imaginary hat, and then gestured vaguely with his cane.  Frost crystals began to emerge from the ground beneath one of the town burghers, encasing him in a block of ice in a matter of seconds.  Just as the spell had taken full effect, a fiery burst came from within the ice block as yet another of the family candles burned itself out.

"Right, on our merry," cheered the Doctor.  "The rest of you, sorry about the mess, but you really brought it on yourselves... ask questions, people, don't just bow to tradition!  If I were you, I'd be asking myself how quickly I could get home and blow that candle out..."

Felicity took one long, sad look back down at him as she boarded the gangplank with the two men.  Then, as the platform started to rise up into the sky, she shook herself slightly, and shouted, "Run, Mister Hacklebee!  Run!"

Then, with a blast of wind from the Kailee, she was gone.  Flarph looked around, saw the shocked looks on all the faces around him.  Saw a frenzy of activity inside of a melting ice block.  Saw, in his mind's eye, about how much candle he had left burning in his own home.

Flarph ran.

Flarph will return.  "Flarph against the Zombies", coming soon!