Roy, Durkon and Elan rush towards Haley in a phalanx. They’re tailed by V, who’s wrapping the sleeve of Belkar's shirt around hir bleeding hand, and Belkar who can’t quite get his balance right on legs that are almost as long as his previous body.
Durkon reaches her first. ‘Haley, lass! Are ye alrigh’?’ She looks up at him blankly through Vaarsuvius’ eyes. It’s actually surprisingly creepy to see that expression of unfocused, transcendent bliss on the elf’s thin, serious face. Roy drops to his knees beside them.
‘Haley! Can you hear us?’
‘Heyyyy, Elan. You’re pretty.’ She reaches out to touch him gently on the arm, then bursts into a fresh peal of unnerving laughter.
Elan lunges forward and reaches for Haley. ‘Oh no! Something’s gone wrong with her, and she’s had her mind scrambled instead of swapped, hasn’t she! Haley! Speak to me!’
V steps forward. ‘Please allow me’. Fumbling one-handed at zir throat, ze removes Belkar’s tatty green cloak and drops it in one smooth motion over Haley’s head.
‘Miss Starshine? Are you able to understand me?’
From under the cloth, Haley’s voice sounds puzzled and odd, particularly filtered through the elf’s soft, husky vocal chords, but at least she’s able to answer. ‘V? Is that you? How come your voice sounds strange? Wait a minute, what’s happened to my voice, too? And hey, is it me or did Belkar just drop his cloak over my head?’
‘Ah. I thought as much. Please do not panic, Miss Starshine. It was I who placed the cloak over your head as a precautionary measure. It appears that we have become the unfortunate targets of some sort of arcane body-swapping spell.’
‘V, what are you talking about?’
Elan moves in to touch her, but is warned away by the elf. ‘Haley, it’s so strange! When we woke up, everyone was in everyone else’s bodies!
Belkar chimes in, ‘And not in a good, end-of-campaign cast-party way, either!’
Roy frowns at them. ‘It’s extremely weird, and that’s saying something given the normal standard of everyday background weirdness we deal with around here.’
‘Miss Starshine,’ V gestures towards the others to stop them from crowding her ‘can you please tell me what you experienced when you woke up this morning?’
Haley puts her hands to the hem of the cloak.
‘No! Please leave your face covered for the moment.’
‘But why —’
Roy raises an eyebrow. ‘Hmm. I think I see what you’re getting at, V. Haley, can you stay under the cloak for a minute and tell us what you saw?’
‘Well, OK, if it’s that important to all of you. I don’t think this spell has got me, though, 'cause I don't think I was in anyone else’s body. I just woke up and everything was really… different. It was like the world just got twenty times louder and brighter, and sort of, sort of sharper somehow, and everything smelled so good, the trees and the grass, it was just… And then I heard shouting and it was hurting my ears, so I came over here instead and then I saw this butterfly, and it was so beautiful, I mean have you ever really looked at – ’
‘Elan, do you still have that Mirror of +5 Good Hair Day?’
The bard nods, and clanks across the clearing to dig in his pack. He retrieves the mirror and hands it to V, who holds it up before Haley’s cloaked face. The wizard then nods at Roy, who pulls the cloak off Haley’s head once more.
‘Ahhhhhh. Allsobriiiight… ’ Her gaze falls upon the mirror. Dazedly, but with an obvious effort of mental concentration, she struggles to focus upon the face it shows her. Understanding dawning, she manages to whisper ‘V, am I…?’, before solemnly waggling one high, pointed ear-tip, then the other, then collapsing sideways in a fit of even more hysterical laughter.
‘It is as I suspected, Sir Greenhilt, Master Thundershield. I once conversed with a human master shapeshifter who dabbled with transubstantiation into elven form. She reported a very similar effect when she first attempted the transition’.
‘And that effect is?’
‘Essentially, that the human mind is adapted to deal only with the input provided by the human senses. Without wishing to be rude, I must state that my own eyes, ears and senses of smell, touch and taste are significantly more sensitive than those of any human. Thus, I surmise that Miss Starshine is currently being exposed to a level of sensory stimulation with which the human brain was not intended to cope. I am told that the experience, until one’s mind becomes accustomed to the extra stimulus, is not dissimilar to the effects of a powerful psychedelic hallucinogen’.
Elan frowns through Durkon’s beard, an expression of utter confusion dominating his face. Vaarsuvius sighs, and shrugs hir shoulders.
‘She is, as I believe the former occupier of my current physical form would put it, completely bombed off her face.’
Belkar grins. ‘Alright, Haley! Hey Ears, if I’d known being an elf was the equivalent of being on an LSD trip 24-7, I’d have understood a lot more of your behaviour over the last year or so.’
Roy attempts to glare at him severely. The effect, on Elan’s delicate features, looks more like the pout of a petulant child. ‘That’s enough, Belkar. So V, I’m guessing from what I’ve just seen that if we keep Haley’s head covered, she’ll be able to calm down enough to talk to us.’
‘EEE hee hee! A ladybird! Look, Durkon, LADYBIRD!’
‘You are correct, Sir Greenhilt. And as her mind becomes accustomed to processing the input from my elven senses, I believe that her normal levels of sobriety will eventually reassert themselves. However, this leads me to fear that the situation is in fact more serious than I had previously believed. Master Thundershield – ’ the elf holds out Belkar’s left hand, still gently oozing from the earlier cautionary stabbing ‘would you kindly attempt to heal this for me, please?’
Durkon steps in to V, wrapping both of Roy’s large hands around Belkar’s small, wiry one. He bows his head to Thor and whispers the spell. A warm white light utterly fails to materialise and magically heal the injury. Shocked, the dwarf pulls back. ‘I dinnae understan’ - ’
‘Elan, will you make an attempt also?’
Elan repeats the ritual, doing his best to copy the way he’s always seen the cleric heal the other party members. When he pulls his hands away, the injury continues to bleed through the makeshift bandage.
‘I suspected as much. Stand back!’ Vaarsuvius whirls around and attempts to throw a fireball across the clearing. The only noticeable effect is that ze spins hirself off-balance, and tumbles into a pile of leaves, no magic accomplished.
‘I believe, if all present are satisfied as to the results of the experiment,’ a pair of hairy feet emerge from the leaf-pile, followed by the rest of the wizard, ‘we will perhaps not ask Miss Starshine to attempt to cast a fireball at present.’
‘Eeee! It’s got ANTENNAS! And it’s waving them at me! Hello, ladybird!’
‘Oh, man!’ Elan flaps Durkon’s stubby arms in panic. ‘You guys have lost your magic! How did that happen?’
‘I am afraid that my initial assessment of the situation was incorrect. This is not, in fact, a polymorph spell, but rather it appears to be a genuine exchange of our consciousnesses between our physical forms. As to what could cause such an unusual magical effect, I must confess that I am so far unable to fathom it.’
Roy frowns. ‘Durkon, I guess Thor thinks he’s given you your spells for the day, but they’re anchored to your physical body and Elan’s not a cleric, so he’s not able to use them. V, I’m guessing that Belkar’s body hasn’t learned how to do the hand motions for most of the spells you cast – ’
‘And you haven’t exactly helped matters by slicing-and-dicing my favourite set of tendons, either, Fairy Titania. I hope you know you’ll be forking over the gold for a healing spell if Beardface’s magic is permanently out, right? I mean, you do realise I need that hand for – ’
Belkar is mercifully cut off by an indignant squawk from Haley as Roy drops the cloak back over her head, frightening her ladybird away. ‘Right, everyone. Listen up. That village we went through yesterday morning, I’m pretty sure they had a wizard there. We’re going to backtrack back there and get this problem resolved as soon as possible, because as it stands right at the moment, this party is in some serious danger. We’re down both our casters, Haley’s in no state to be let anywhere near a bow, we need to get Belkar’s – I mean, V’s – hand healed before he can fight properly, and – ’ he looks as if he’s about to burst into tears ‘I can’t even lift my own sword! We’re sitting targets for every bandit, monster or other random encounter between here and civilisation!’. Roy claps one hand over his mouth, horrified, as he hears his voice rising into the panicked squeak in which Elan tends to speak when he's nervous or upset.
‘Awww, Roy.’ Elan reaches up to put his arm around his own body’s narrow shoulders. ‘Shhh, don’t cry. Here, you can have my rapier. And if you promise to take care of him, I’ll even let you hold Banjo!’
‘Travel, travel, travel-back-to-the-village-so-we-can-all-get-put-back-in-our-proper-bodies!’
‘Will you desist that infernal racket!’
‘Elan, lad,’ Durkon looks down at his team-mate kindly, ‘I know ye’re only tryin’ to help, but ye must stop that. I cannae carry a tune in an electrum-plated bucket meself, and now ye’re me, ye cannae sing either.’
Tears stand out in the brown eyes. ‘But – but Durkon, it’s what I DO! How can I be any help if I can’t sing a song to help lift our spirits during this dark or-ordeeeaalllll….’
‘And ye neednae start turnin’ on the waterworks, neither, I dinnae want to be washin’ snot outta me beard for days when we get changed back.’
The Order is now an even rattier-looking group than they appeared when they woke up this morning. Roy has insisted on swapping outfits with Durkon, although his own tunic and chain mail are now ridiculously large on him, and he’s struggling not to trip over his oversized boots. Due to inescapable Strength penalties, Durkon is now carrying Roy’s greatsword, Elan has Durkon’s hammer (he’s only dropped it on his foot twice so far), and Roy has Elan’s rapier, although he has declined the offer of Banjo the puppet. Belkar is wearing Haley’s leather armour (having been forbidden to take his clothes off by general consensus) and is carrying his own daggers, while V, lacking any other means of defending hirself, is now carrying Haley’s bow. Haley herself is stumbling along in the centre of the party with the others ranked defensively around her, Belkar’s cloak cinched about her shoulders and draped across her face in order to block out as much sound and vision as possible while still allowing her to walk. Occasional strange noises emerge from under the hood, but she appears to be settling down somewhat.
‘Hey, Hex Factor,’ Belkar leans around to Elan with Haley’s mischievous smile plastered across his face ‘if you want to make yourself useful, why don’t you take over helping Lucy in the Sky over here for a while? She keeps tripping over rocks and grass and stuff, and it’s not as much fun watching her do it when there’s no point in looking down her top.’
Elan gasps, and hurries to the middle of the group. ‘Oh, I’m so sorry, Haley. I was distracted, I should have been helping you from the start.’ He gently reaches under the cloak to take her hand.
Haley’s mind, even with the protection of the cloak, is a chaotic blur. She is beset by a million million unfamiliar sensations, the sun on her shoulders like melting gold the swirl of the red robes around her ankles the life in the earth rushing up through her bare elven feet and distant birdsong things in the trees, music of the leaves, stars invisible in the daytime sky and the clouds splitting and scattering overhead… But now all of this is overridden by the hand that slips into hers. She can feel the pulse and thump of his heart – Durkon’s heart, really, but even through the fog she knows it’s Elan’s too – through the hard skin of his hand, thick strong fingers wrapped around her own, she can hear his blood and internal organs, the gasp and sigh of air in his lungs, and it’s intoxicating, intoxicating. Before Elan can stop her, she reaches up and flicks the cloak off her head, forgetting all the overwhelming clamour of the outside world in the desire to look upon the face that isn’t even his own.
In the rear of the party, Durkon reaches down to nudge V gently on the shoulder. The two of them pause to take in the spectacle of their own bodies gazing adoringly into one another’s eyes, hands entwined as they walk slowly down the forest path. For one awful frozen minute, they trade looks of the purest horror, then break as one and sprint towards the front rank to begin the imperative task of distracting Belkar before he notices what’s going on.
But Belkar, it appears, has problems of his own…
To be continued!