Montalan 6 Year 888 (New Imperial Calendar)

“Do you ever get tired of being wrong always?”

Duel’s attempt at a mocking sing-song tone only made her incompatibly deep voice all the more jarring.  She stood there gaping at me with her awful jeer as we came up to the outskirts of the bandit-hold of  Cauldron.

“What the Hells is wrong with your mouth?  Your teeth are a child’s nightmare.  When that belt transformed you did it leave your teeth the same or have you done that much damage already? Do you know anything about taking care of your oral hygiene?”

She guffawed “You’re just jealous because I was right!”

“You are right, and I am wrong, plainly there’s a settlement here.  But that does not change the fact that you are a waste of human skin.  I’ve traveled a lot recently and I can safely say that you are the worse person in the Kingdom.  You’re stupid of course, but what’s worse is that you’re willfully stupid – you seem to revel in your own stupidity.  The more stupid the thing is that you’re doing the more joy that it seems to bring you.  You’re joyfully stupid.  You are uncouth to the point where I would much rather invite a flea-ridden dog to dine with me, which mind you would be far more hygienic than you are yourself – even after this theoretical dog has rolled in filth and eaten its own shit.  You have absolutely nothing interesting to say yet you never shut up, as far as I can tell you can’t do anything – and I’m not even saying that you can’t do anything useful, I’m saying that you can’t seem to even accomplish the day to day tasks of being alive without a lot of trial and error.  I’ve seen you trip over your own feet a dozen times a day stone when cold sober.  How you haven’t killed yourself out of shame and sadness at your own existence I’ll never know.  Anyone who meets you is worse off for having done so, they are a worse person – you made them worse.  You have snot running down your face constantly, there’s bird shit that’s been in your hair for several days, and you slobber like a dying hog.  You are a malodorous pervert and just thinking about you makes me want to throw up.”

She had her hand to her chest like she was having a heart attack “That . . . . was uncalled for.”

“Let’s go before your breath makes my hair fall out.”

Once the group of us got close enough to see that there actually was something ahead we decided that Duel and I would go alone – assuming that knightly types are probably not welcome in such a place.  I’ve never seen an elf-city (and I never want to) but I’m given to understand that they build their homes in trees like squirrels.  I guess somehow this is supposed to be respectful to nature?  Elfs are fabled to be big into nature and trees.  They’re reputed to masterful architects (although they’re reputed to be master everythings so who knows?) that use magic to make their tree-villages into works of art, the beauty of which would cause mere mortal humans to weep at the very sight.  I don’t know if Cauldron was modeled after one of these elf tree villages but either way it looked to be largely a failure in concept.  A bunch of rickety tree-houses connected by bridges that looked about as sturdy as the head on a mug of beer.  It was hard to tell how many of them there were or how big the place actually was because trees that can hold up that much weight are not that close together so the “town” was very sprawling.  Those trees that did have ramshackle huts in them were not doing well – maybe the elfs and their magic work it better but as you might imagine building a house on tree isn’t great for the health of the tree.

These cheeky buggers had crude signs posted all over the place most of which said “Death to the King” and a few of which read “You are now leaving the Kingdom and entering self-governed territory”.  The handful people that we saw either clinging desperately to rope-bridges and looking terrified or sitting outside on the edge of their elevated shacks smoking ditch-leaf and drinking moonshine were a universally sullen and ill-looking bunch.  They almost looked like they were another species, some manner of degenerate humans that time had left behind that had wandered out of their caves and into the trees.  There were some buildings (I use the term loosely) on the forest floor but they were of even worse quality than those clinging to the branches like mold.  Out of one of these collections of loose timber and tar came a welcoming committee of a half dozen thugs. Clattering up to join them on hooves was a creature that looked like a massive hyena maybe mixed with a badger with long horse legs.  It carried with it a stench that could raise the dead and then send them back into their graves again.

One of the goons growled “What’s yer business hare?”

I pointed “I just wanted to let you know that your signs need to be updated.  The king IS dead so they should be changed to say ‘death to the queen’ I suppose.”

One of the other goons, a tall fella with no nose spoke up “The queen reagent is of no concern!  There is a King on the throne young that he may be!”

“That’s a surprisingly coherent argument.  I guess the signs are fine then.  As long as we’re here though I guess we want to rescue some children that were kidnapped and sold to a witch.”

The beast laughed, well like a hyena, but when it finished chortling its voice was astonishingly polished and proper “Do you always announce your rescues?”

I shook my head “No, not always.  We’d like to talk to the witch that purchased these children if possible.  We can buy the children back maybe or come to some manner of arrangement.  Or, my friend here is a pit-fighter, she can battle for them in your arena or pit or whatever.”

Duel’s voice went so high-pitched that for once it was almost appropriate to her appearance “What?!  I never said that!”

I smiled sweetly “You killed a tarek right so it should be no problem.”

The beast hyena-laughed again and then invited us to follow it – as it turned lashing out with its back hooves and knocking one of the goons to the ground for no apparent reason other than pure meanness.  We followed it a goodly distance away and as we walked and I saw more of the place I saw that not all the buildings were human bird nests that would dump their inhabitants to their deaths at the first sign of a moderate breeze, a minority of them did look sturdy if not precisely well made, and like the fabled elf-homes seemed to be partially grown into or out of the trees themselves – those trees were the worst off of all though, either looking completely dead or oozing with sickly looking slime.  While there was a tangle of rope-bridges from most of the other houses these better class of buildings typically were not part of the network of sky-walks. The creature led us to one tree in particular that looked enough like the hag-tree in Blackroot Woods that I had a little shuddering flashback to the awful battle there and all the terrible charms and collections of the hags themselves.  Not to mention those poor bastards they turned into swine monsters.  After a moment I turned to ask the badger-horsyena what we were supposed to do but it was already walking away so I turned to the other monster nearby instead – Duel.

“You’re the expert on this place, what happens now?”

“I never said that I was an expert, I was only here once, and I was drunk most of the time.”

“You know, if I were going to wager on this I would bet that you’ve never actually been here – I’d bet that someone told you about it and you were talking out your ass and you just coincidentally happened to be right.”

“You’re just jealous.”

“You keep saying that but that doesn’t mean what you think, jealously isn’t . . .”

I was interrupted by someone shouting down at us from above.  Looking up I had a momentary experience of vertigo – for some reason seeing a being that tall above me even farther had my head swimming for a moment.  It’s hard to be sure because I was seeing it from below but it had to be over nine feet tall with blue-grey skin and talons that looked like actual steel.  I would that thought that it was a female ogre but they’re reputed to usually be enormously obese and this creature was definitely on the other side of that equation – being just short of painfully thin.  It looked like bruise-colored leather stretched over a frame of iron instead of a skeleton.  I can’t say why exactly but its hair made me think more of a horse’s mane than of human hair – maybe just due to the length, it had a braid that was probably almost as long as I am tall.  Where its talons were actual metal its teeth were cracked and soft looking as it smiled down.

“What’s the matter little girl, you never seen a true beauty before?”

“I have to confess that your dress made of living spiders is quite fetching.  We’re here looking for some lost children, the badger-thing led us here.”

“There’s no lost children here, just those that I buy, and I know where they all are so none are lost.”

“Lost to their parents though eh?  Those are most likely the ones were after.  We were hoping that we could get them back.”

“Which ones?”

“All of them, whatever you have in stock.”

“All of them!  You must be mad you must be!  What would you offer in trade for them?”

I retrieved one of my least valued possessions, the severed head from the hag of the Blackroot Woods “How about this?”

She cackled “Is that supposed to scare me?

I shook my head “No, I just thought it was neat.  I hear you can do magic stuff with it, you seem like the type that would enjoy a good magic severed head.” Next I pulled out one of the vials I picked up at the wizard-torturer’s hut during my mad escape from Colonel Tarl Ciarán’s compound “I also have these, they’re like souls or essence or spirits or something.” 

There was a loud clang as she clapped her hands together, her talons colliding like spear heads on shields “Now that’s something worth talking about!”

She leapt down like a twenty-something foot drop was nothing to her (which apparently it isn’t) landing so close to me that I involuntarily reeled back and ended up stumbling, although I managed to catch myself before spilling to the ground.  She reached towards me, her fingers looking double their length because of the claws, I rapped her arm with my Walking Stick which did nothing to dissuade her from grabbing me in her long leathery hands – her strength was such that she could have crushed me like a ripe peach but even so I don’t like being man (or whatever) handled.  I turned my Stick into a serpent and had it strike her on the forearm which merely made her giggle.

“Mmm, sweet venom, thank you little girl.”

I flicked the snake-head towards her eyes, which did make her flinch back that I was able to wriggle out of her grasp but only because she barely had a hold of me.  For lack of any other ideas I pulled out my Adariel holy symbol and presented it boldly, which did seem to make her very slightly concerned.

“You want to trade?  Don’t put your hands on me.”

“Your trinket won’t stop me if I decide that I want you.”

“Then don’t decide that.”

She cackled again and then licked her putrid split-lips with a tongue that seemed like a blind wriggling worm “What other treasures have you for me?”

“That’s it, the head and eight vials for the kids.  Fair deal.”

She slowly curled her fist into a gnarled knob larger than the head of a mace and slammed it into one of the ubiquitous sign-posts, shattering it like a pile of matchsticks. “Too thin!  Around here deals are sealed with blood!  You want the children someone has to bleed!”

“No problem, my friend here is a renowned gladiator, she looked different at the time but she killed a tarek called Marrow-Eater in this very place.  I’m sure you remember that, I’m told is was a legendary battle.”

Duel’s hands shot up “Wait a minute, I . . .”

The massive towering hag shouted to the heavens “I accept these terms!”

This time I did fall backwards.  You expect a lot of things from witches.  Curses of course.  Turning people into frogs or pigs or whatever, absolutely.  Fog and illusions and trickery and cruelty, all perfectly reasonable things to expect in this situation.  But what I didn’t expect was for this creature, even being as large as she was, to produce a battle-axe out of nowhere.  It was the worst crafted weapon I have ever seen – the hilt wasn’t anything even close to straight, it almost curled about like a shepherd’s hook – and the axe-head was just a sharpened piece of scrap metal I believe.  But that didn’t stop it from being effective, just based on the size of the damn thing it would probably kill you merely from the weight.  The hag-giant swung this abomination at Duel, who’s only attempt at defense was raising her hands uselessly.  She was smashed top the ground, broken like a doll with one swipe.  If I hadn’t tumbled I would have been killed as well by the same huge swing. The monstrous humanoid dropped to all fours to hover over me like a cat over a mouse.  She could have ingested my enter head into her mouth. Her breath was bizarrely sweet like sugar candy.

“Looks like I won the contest wouldn’t you say?  Now we trade.”

________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Funds: 23,045 platinum, 19,788 gold

XP: 725,701

Inventory: Flask of Endless Sake, Hat of Effortless Style, Ring of Disguise, Badge of Last Resort, Tankard of the Drunken Hero, Censer of Dreams, Enchanted White Pathfinder’s Gear (effects as Iadaran Dress Uniform) Belt of Physical Might +4, Versatile Vest, Campfire Bead, Expedition Pavilion, +1 Human Bane Endless Ammunition Light Crossbow with Sharpshooter’s Blade, Ring of Urban Grace,  Holy Symbol of Adariel (Sanguine Protection) Black Marketers’ Bag (5), white squirrel fur Slippers of Scampering, Token of Summoning, Tidy Trunk, Whiterock Family Ring (Ring of Binding), Ela’s Better Walking Stick, Meteoric Amulet

Courtier’s Outfit, noble’s outfit (5) collegium ring,  pocketed scarf, wrist sheath, signet ring (2) assortment of fake signet rings, silver chain set with moonstones, gold and emerald ring (2), garnets (700), gold necklace with jade pendant, ivory combs, tax collector’s badge, gold bracelet with ivory inlays, silver necklace set with rubies, gold earrings with jade inlays, silver and gold brooch, silver necklace with ruby pendant, disguise kit, covenant ring , tiny diamonds (27), Saryah Phidaner gown, masterwork thieves’ tools, onyx (55) personal signet ring

Revenge List: Duke Eaglevane, Piltis Swine, Rince Electrum, watchman Gridley, White-Muzzle the worg, Percy Ringle the butler, Alice Kinsey , “Patch”, Heroes of the Lost Sword, Claire Conrad, Erist priest of Strider, Riselda owner of the Sage Mirror, Eedraxis,  Skin-Taker tribe, Kartak, Królewna & Bonifacja Trading Company, Hurmont Family, Androni Titus, Greasy dreadlocks woman, Lodestone Security, Kellgale Nickoslander, Beltian Kruin the Splithog Pauper, The King of Spiders, Auraluna Domiel, mother Hurk, Mazzmus Parmalee,  Helgan van Tankerstrum, Lightdancer, Bonder Greysmith, Pegwhistle Proudfoot, Lumbfoot Sheepskin, Lumber Consortium of Three Rivers, Hellerhad the Wizard, Forsaken Kin, Law Offices of Office of Glilcus and Stolo, Jey Rora, Colonel Tarl Ciarán, Mayor Baras Haldmeer, Rindol the Sage, Essa