Macendamandel 24 Year 888 (New Imperial Calendar)

Out of the frying pan and into the fire.  I think that’s supposed to mean that things have gone from bad to worse.  But how else are you going to get out of a frying pan but for jumping into the flames?  Being in a fire sucks (sadly I know that for a fact) but you’re one step closer to getting out of the whole mess.  Things don’t have to get worse before they get better, but they usually do.  I bring this up because as I was traveling today an animal slash monster slash beast slash whatever came charging out of the brush at me.  Not sniffing around, not giving me a look, not growling or snorting, full on murder running at me. 

Even when a human runs at you with a weapon ready to kill you in a way it’s not fully intimidating because people aren’t very graceful runners, especially when they have an ax in their hand as well.  It takes a damn good bit of coordination to actually charge at someone with a weapon and hit them.  You ever see a group of untrained soldiers try it for the first time?  Fully half of them go down faster than etcetera etcetera etcetera crass sexual comment here.

But when a dangerous animal (or whatever) runs at you it’s pretty terrifying because they’re great at running and killing things while running.  That’s their whole deal.  I’ve seen dogs loosed at people, I’ve done it myself a time or two, it’s obscene how strong and fast they are.  The thing that came me was doggish but with strong overtones of boar and weasel as well as deer-ears just to round things out.  It was lanky and somewhat ill-formed looking to the eye like a greyhound or a cheetah but guess what greyhounds and cheetahs have in common.  They’re fucking fast.  Cheetahs are much faster though, I’ve seen the evidence.  I had a split second to react and what reaction was was to jump in the river. 

You maybe be thinking “Ela, that doesn’t seem like a good idea for several reasons – it can probably swim too and you’re not a good swimmer.  Plus just yesterday you saw a giant fish-monster in that very river.”  Too true, too true.  But what you have to figure is that if I lose half my speed in the water and the boar-dog-weasel does as well it’s losing a lot more than I am.  If you have a thousand men and your enemy has ten thousand and you have an attack that will cost you both half your men you definitely should do it.  But you’re still outnumbered ten to one you say?  Sure, but you’re only outnumbered by forty-five hundred instead of nine thousand.  This is the kind of math you have to think about when you’re always on the short end of the stick like I am.  It’s amazing that I always manage to triumph given the odds against me every step of the way.

As for potential river monsters, well better the devil you don’t know.  That’s the expression right?  That long strange body that was so great at running was less great at swimming.  It was still gaining on me in the river, but it was at a much slower rate.  I was right is what I’m saying.  As it closed in I realized another good reason to be in the water – I, as a human being (a glorious example of one but still just a human woman) have hands.  It was surprisingly easy to turn and push the beast’s head under water as it came at me.  It thrashed around some, but it was rather simple to down it – I’ll have to remember that for future encounters.  One of the advantages of being a biped.  Thanks primitive humans who decided to stand upright, if you weren’t already dead already I’d really owe you one. 

The bad news, because per the laws of reality nothing can ever be an unmitigated success for me, is that during the drowning time I was swept a goodly ways down river.  It was probably more than a mile.  I’ve said it before but you always underestimate how strong the current in a river could be.  It took me maybe another half a mile of being swept to paddle to land.  When I managed to pull myself up onto shore I saw that I wasn’t alone.  Standing on the riverbank was woman with a sun-burned face despite her broad black hat wearing strange puffy pants and a ragged white shirt that looked several sizes too big for her.  Or maybe she just lost a lot of weight recently – in the upper body.  Framing her peeling face was long dark hair that looked to be both tangled and in need of a good washing.  She seemed decidedly uncurious about a woman climbing out of the river.

I nodded at her “Thanks for helping me out there.  I really appreciate it.”

“Is that a cape?”

“It’s a cloak, for hunting vampires.  Vampire are the ones that wear capes, the people that hunt them wear cloaks.  Vampires hold their capes out like wings to turn into bats, vampire hunters wear cloaks so they can wrap them around themselves and turn into shaggy mountain dogs.”

“Is that a true story?”

“It’s certainly true that it’s a story.  What brings you out this way?  You don’t look like a Kostelos horsewoman.  Did you try to commit suicide and then get swept upriver to become a priestess to a minor God?  Or are you from the convent?  Or are you from the military ship?  For a land that’s supposed to be empty I seem to be running into a lot of people.”

“Neva Firare.”

“What’s that?  That doesn’t tell me anything.”

“That me, that’s my name.”

“Huh.  Sounds like an Ulpine name.” She nodded “Are you Ulpinese?” She nodded again “Oh.  I feel like we should battle then or something since our countries are at war.  Although we’re both civilians so I’m not sure what the protocol is.”

She looked around “Am I in the Kingdom now?”

“You sure are.  At least I think that you are, I haven’t seen a map recently, but I heard that we won a big victory that knocked you dirty reject barbarians out of the war so it seems unlikely that you would have seized territory this far north.”

She continued to peer at landmarks “I was told that we were winning the war.”

“That’s propaganda for you, I can assure you that you’re not though.  My government tells me the truth.”

“That’s disconcerting.”

“What are you doing here?”

“Looking for my husband.  What were you doing in the river?”

“Drowning a deadly beast.  In addition to being a vampire hunter I’m also a general slayer of monsters.  And a spycatcher, but don’t worry I only catch Vieland spies.  Frankly I was told that the Ulpine were too stupid and primitive to have an espionage arm.  No offense.”

“None taken.”

“You’re not a spy are you?”

“Not that I know of.  Was the beast you killed something like a wolf?  I was just at a village where they were saying everyone was being killed by a canine beast that was something like a wolf.  Only longer.  And immune to arrows they said.”

“It was something like a wolf.  Good thing I drowned it instead of trying to shoot it eh?  You think they would pony up a reward of some kind for killing it?  A reward worth finding and dragging the carcass out of the water?”

She shrugged “It didn’t seem like they had much to give anyone, even themselves.  There’s not a lot out here for them to have to give.  Makes you wonder why we’re even fighting over this land.”

“That’s just how nations pass the time, it’s like knitting for people, or getting drunk – it’s a hobby.  I mean what else are they going to do?  Public works projects?  So what’s the story with your husband?  Is he a soldier?”

She shook her head “No, but they sent him to fight anyway.  I got letters for the first few months, then after the Battle of Gevudan I didn’t hear from him anymore.  I thought he was killed or captured or maybe just lost.  I don’t know what I thought, I just want to find him.”

“Gevudan?  There’s been no battle there, also that’s a ways to the south.  How long ago did the letters stop coming?”

“How long has the war being going on now?”

“Difficult to say exactly when the previous war ended and this one got spun up but I’d say at least three years now.  Give or take.”

“Probably about two years then.”

“And you’ve been wandering around the border all this time?!”

“It’s been . . . . . difficult.”

“I would fucking imagine!”

I was thinking how mad she must be when I realized that I didn’t have to imagine, I had been wandering around for almost two years myself.  And even though her husband is one hundred percent likely dead her quest is probably less of a longshot than mine is.  It’s an odd feeling when you’re about to judge someone very harshly and then realize that their behavior is the same as yours almost exactly.   Self-awareness, it’s a sneaky bitch.

“Well, good luck finding your husband I guess.  You must really love him huh?”

“Actually he’s an asshole, I just didn’t know what else to do.”

“Good Gods woman, that is about the most depressing thing I’ve ever heard.”

________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Funds: 6922 gold

XP: 1,199,351

Inventory: Bag of Holding, +2 Distance Light Crossbow, traveling outfit, Ring of Invisibility, potion case, potions (Cure Light Wounds x3, Enlarge Person, Protection from Evil, Cure Moderate Wounds x2, Oil of Fire Trap, Rage) Blessed Robes, Vampire Hunter’s Cloak, +1 Mithril Holy Undead Bane Sword-Cane  

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, eyeless hag, Baron Saltwheel, Baron Harmenkar, Colonel Tarl Ciarán’s wizard soldier, Victor, Beharri, Cebuano, Mayor Eryn, Chimera Trading Company, maker of the manacles, Calvados Eure, Law Offices of Lampblack and Brimstone, Peronell Missplitter, Nightmare Hag

Out of character interlude – magic items

I was accused of being “a little down” last night. I denied it but maybe it’s true because I don’t feel like writing anything today. But I am required to by the terms of my probation so here’s some magic items Ela picked up. You know, in case you still play an outdated version of an RPG that’s getting blown away by 5th edition D&D and you’re not satisfied with the 17 zillion magic items that already exist. As a special treat they have no prices or requirements to make them!

Remember the card game Rage? I do. It was great.

Blessed Robes

+5 Armor bonus to AC

When struck by a critical hit or sneak attack, the wearer can spend an immediate action to negate the critical hit or sneak attack (similar to the fortification armor special ability, but without requiring a roll). The damage is instead rolled normally. This ability functions once per day.

Melee weapons wielded by the wearer strike true against evil foes. The weapon is treated as having a +1 enhancement bonus for the purpose of bypassing the DR of evil creatures or striking evil incorporeal creatures (though the spell doesn’t grant an actual enhancement bonus). The weapon also becomes good-aligned, which means it can bypass the DR of certain creatures. (This effect overrides and suppresses any other alignment the weapon might have.)

Vampire Hunter’s Cloak

The wearer gains a +2 resistance bonus on all saving throws against negative energy and level drain, and whenever he makes a Fortitude save to recover from a negative level, he may roll the save twice, taking the better of the two results as the actual result.

Once per day, the wearer can target an undead creature with a halt undead effect (Will DC 14 negates) as a swift action.

The wearer can infuse a single melee weapon she wields with the purifying light of the sun as a swift action for up to ten rounds per day. These rounds do not need to be consecutive. While a weapon is infused with the sun, it deals +1d6 points of damage to any undead creature that is susceptible or vulnerable to sunlight, such as specters, vampires, and wraiths. A weapon infused with sun strike sheds illumination as if it were a sunrod.

Macendamandel 23 Year 888 (New Imperial Calendar)

Of the many cold shoulders I’ve gotten over the last two years this one ranks as the most discourteous.  I kill two vampires for these religious broads and they turn me out without so much as a how do you do?  Disgraceful.  Sure killing the vampires was easy but that’s because I’m magnificent.  My magnificence shouldn’t be held against me.  Lashmi abandoning me is no big deal, she was a Striderian after all so what else would I have expected?  In truth I’m lucky that she didn’t try to kill me to win favor with her stupid shabby itinerate God.  I mean seriously, what kind of occupation for a deity is traveler?  Of course that ignores the even more interesting question of why Gods should have occupations at all.  Does Demuren need to pay rent?  Does Eltara need some scratch because she has an eye on whatever the forge-God makes and sells?  Gods with jobs, there’s a horrifying concept that no one seems to understand – if the Gods have to work for a living eternally what hope is there for us?

Some say that death cancels all debts, but the priests of Odobenine and their Church of Deals goes quite the opposite way – to that faith there is no greater sin than dying with your debts unpaid.  A sin that is punished with many lifetimes worth of servitude in the afterlife.  It almost makes you think that Odobenine must be right because no person would create a mythos so bleak.  No sane person anyway.  The problem with insane people is they always catch you off guard because you can’t even imagine what they think.  It’s like when Haimatt fought the Master of Many on the Bridge of Kumort – at first the Master was able to block Haimatt’s every attack because he was so skilled at reading the intentions of his opponents.  Haimatt was only able to prevail when he unleashed the madness inside him and attacked without thought or pattern.

But all that mumbo-jumbo is neither here nor there (nor anywhere else) what’s real is that I am heading north along the Pipestone alone heading towards Gib’s Tor.  I never thought of myself as one of those people that needs to be around other people – back at court I was never happy, but I was always less unhappy when I was alone.  But that was an entirely different situation.  I find now that trudging alone through the deforested wilderness gives me time to think and that’s not entirely welcome.  Too much time to think turns to pointless rumination about what should be or what could have been done.  And that manner self-flagellation does no good for anyone, except the religious types maybe.  What is is what is and you just have to deal with it and move forward.  There’s nothing for it. 

Early in the morning I saw some Kostelos riders watching me far off to the northeast.  Despite the good chance of decapitation I almost wished they would approach me just so I could have someone to talk too.  Plus I might get a horse out of the deal.  They were shaggy wild little things but I didn’t even know there were Kostelos that husbanded horses so that’s something.  They didn’t come anywhere near me though, they watched for more than an hour probably and then rode off.  That was the extent of the morning’s entertainment but things got interesting again later in the day. 

From a goodly distance off I saw a ship up ahead.  As I got closer I realized that it wasn’t moving.  As I got closer still I realized that it was canted off center a good fifteen degrees or so.  I assumed it was hung up on a reef (do they have those in rivers?) or rocks or whatever boats get hung up on in rivers but as I got closer still I saw that one side of the hull was staved in and protruding from that side was a massive fish.  It was the size of a small watercraft itself and it was covered with hard scales like a crocodile as well as seemingly random boney knobs. 

There were men in the water and on both banks, and more men climbing all over the ship as well – carrying supplies to the shore and hauling on ropes and generally shouting and cursing at one another.  Some folks on the east shore were pulling on strands attached around the tail of the beast and with a last heave pulled it free to reveal that the piscine abomination had horns like a bull.  Out of the many strange beings I’ve seen you wouldn’t think that a fish with horns would rate that high but it was the damndest sight.

When the colossal fish was pulled free I expected the ship to dramatically shift as a result and send men on the deck flying but it didn’t move at all that I could tell – must be run aground as well as fish-rammed.  What did happen is the river was dyed dark as the bloody head of the dead creature was yanked free to run into the water.  I approached the dozen or so shirtless and/or waterlogged men loitering on the east bank watching while other men continued to work and dipping cups into a barrel.  Said shirts, hung out to dry or clinging to their owners, were those of the King’s Own.  Or Queen’s I guess.  Royal soldiers is the point.  I directed my remarks to a mustachioed fellow who though bare-chested had his cap on, I took this to mean he was in charge.  Hats equal authority eight times out of eleven.

“Having some trouble with your ship?”

He glanced at the listing holed boat in the middle of the river “No, no trouble, why do you ask?”

“I noticed that your flag was flying upside down, I thought that was a signal for help.”

He grinned “Come running to help us poor lads did you?”

“I could do no less, every citizen of the Kingdom must do their part and so forth and so on.  What are the King’s men doing on this desolate patch of river?”

“Don’t you mean Queen’s?”

“Haven’t you heard?  She’s remarried thank the Gods.  Can’t have a woman in control of the country can we?  What would become of us?  Here’s what you’d get with a woman running the Kingdom.  Murder.  All the time.  Everyone’s going to be murdering each other.  And mail fraid.  Your wives will lose their virtue, having sex willy-nilly all over the place with lots of different men.”

“Thank goodness that’s over.  What we’re doing here is patrolling the river in case the Ulpine or the Vielanders try to sneak an army in by river.”

“Given that there’s an army of Vielanders sneaking in through the Lodge Forest right now that seems pretty unlikely – especially with all the great victories we keep hearing about our side winning.  How many armies can they have left at this point?”

“I always sat the best place to look for the enemy is where they aren’t.  You never know what kind of devious schemes our enemies are capable of, it’s only through our courage and the grace of the Gods that we’re still here at all – surrounded my enemies like we are, both at home and abroad.”

“Wise words.”

“And what are you doing out here that you were able to rush to our aid with such alacrity?”

“Hunting vampires.  I’m a famous vampire hunter, you’ve probably heard of me – Baroness Cisastasia Sarovna tussenvoegsel Cobradefreytagy.  Just yesterday I killed two vampires at a convent down the river.”

He touched two muddy fingers to his forehead “My Lady.”

“No, no, please, no reason to stand on ceremony.”

“Vampire hunting sounds like an even worse line of work than soldiering, how does one get into that field?”

“Oh, it’s a family thing.  My grandfather was a successful vampire hunter and he passed on the business to my father.  My brother was all set to take over when he choked on a clove of garlic ironically, what else could I do but step into the breach?  I had to give up a very promising career as an opera singer don’t you know, but family comes first.” 

“A most noble of sacrifices.  How many vampires have you killed?”

I gave a world-weary sigh “Oh, I used to keep track when I first started, I even had all their vampire skulls in a room in my basement all organized and documented with the tale of their destruction. But after the first fifty or so it becomes a blur, you know how it is with work, after a while you don’t pay close attention anymore.  Hundreds certainly.  Thousands perhaps at this point.  I’m undoubtedly the most prolific vampire killer the world has ever known.”

“Wow, that’s quite impressive.  Were they all vampires or did a couple normal people sneak in there?”

“That’s the nice thing about it, legally anyone I kill is classified as a vampire – liability reasons and so forth.  Can’t have my important work being interfered with now can we?”

He chuckled “Certainly not.”

“I’m heading to Gib’s Tor, looks like once you’ve got this scow right-side up you’re heading downriver.” He nodded “Well then, I guess I can’t ask you for a ride.  Do you know anything about Gib’s Tor?”

“We stop there often.  There’s no vampires that I’ve noticed but I don’t have a professional eye for them like you.  It’s a nothing town on the ass-end of nowhere, not even sure why it is there.  Lot of half-orcs there for some reason.  I guess because there’s orcs in the mountains.  There’s a tavern there that has terrible whiskey, worse beer, and pretty good brandy.”

“I wouldn’t have taken you for a brandy drinker.”

He glanced at his foundering vessel “Well, as they say, any port in a storm eh?”  

________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Funds: 6922 gold

XP: 1,196,951

Inventory: Bag of Holding, +2 Distance Light Crossbow, traveling outfit, Ring of Invisibility, potion case, potions (Cure Light Wounds x3, Enlarge Person, Protection from Evil, Cure Moderate Wounds x2, Oil of Fire Trap, Rage) Blessed Robes, Vampire Hunter’s Cloak, +1 Mithril Holy Undead Bane Sword-Cane  

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, eyeless hag, Baron Saltwheel, Baron Harmenkar, Colonel Tarl Ciarán’s wizard soldier, Victor, Beharri, Cebuano, Mayor Eryn, Chimera Trading Company, maker of the manacles, Calvados Eure, Law Offices of Lampblack and Brimstone, Peronell Missplitter, Nightmare Hag

Macendamandel 22 Year 888 (New Imperial Calendar) Part 3

This replacement Martialla isn’t working out well at all.  Lashmi doesn’t talk much and when she does she never has anything remotely interesting to say.  I expected her to at least have some entertaining and grotesque and gruesome stories from her old days working the streets but she never talks about it.  It’s like she wants to forget being a sex worker or something.  I told her she should make a list of all the clients she had that were particularly unpleasant and then enact some form of petty, or not so petty revenge, on them but she wasn’t the least bit interested.  What’s even worse though than her taciturnicty is that she doesn’t seem to realize how great all the stuff I’m saying is – and trust me what I’m saying is pure gold. 

Here’s a good example of why she probably isn’t going to pan out as my new sidekick.  Once I determined that we were dealing with a vampire I had the priestess superior roust all the nuns and herd them outside to see if any of them would burst into flames and die.  They even wheeled Sister Agata out still strapped to her infirmary bed.  None of them did burst into flames, but it’s an overcast day so maybe a vampire is among them, best to keep an eye on them anyway.  I asked if anyone was missing and sure as shit they eventually figured out (took forever, I expected nuns to be more organized) that Sister Loke was not in the gathering.  For some reason they all thought this meant she had been killed by the vampire rather than that was the vampire.  People are strange. 

At this point is Lashmi suggested that we search the abbey, which is foolishness because clearly we need to search the crypts – where else is a vampire going to be hiding?  Martialla would have never suggested anything so stupid.  The priestess superior insisted that we would not be allowed into the catacombs under any circumstances while she continued to insist just as strenuously that there is no such thing as vampires.  I hate the part of the book where the protagonist is trying to convince everyone that they’re dealing with a vampire (or whatever) and everyone else insists on denying it even though all the evidence is in front of them.  Seemed unrealistic to me, but here I am.  I’m not even sure Lashmi believes there really is a vampire.  Martialla would be sharpening stakes right now.  She’d probably already have some pre-sharpened stakes in her bag.   

“Fine then, we won’t disturb the dead yet, but I reserve the right to disturbing the dead at a later time if need be.  Where do the secret passages go?  That’s maybe where the vampire is hiding if they aren’t in the crypts, which they are.”

The old priestess scowled “What secret passages?”

“There are always secret passages, you’re in charge you must know where they are.”

I looked to Lashmi for support but she stood like blank-faced like she knew nothing about secret passageway or that I’m always right about these things.  Martialla would have backed me up.

“Why would a religious order need secret passageways?”

“I don’t know, for secret lesbian love affairs, or to hide from the enemies of your seemingly ill-defined and amorphous faith, or from the old days when this was a fort – how should I know what you do with them?  I just know that they’re there.”

The old priestess got herself all ready to huff and puff about it, but another priestess (or nun or novice or whatever) a pink cheeked gal with massive smile-lines and a thick neck came forward to say that there were in fact two secret passageways.  I don’t know if the old broad was lying about it or if she just didn’t know – I couldn’t get a good read on it and I’m great at reading people.  This whole group of nuns is weird as Hells, even for nuns.  Cheeky Thick Neck led us to a tiny storage closet where you pushed on a panel to have a wall slide away and reveal a staircase.  I was in the middle of smiling smugly and about to annihilate the good superior with a brutal comment about how I was right when a form lunging out of darkness knocked me to the ground.

“Oh shit!”

That’s apparently what I say when I’m tackled to the ground by a blood-drinking nun (or novice or whatever).  I didn’t get a good look at her when she was hurling herself at me, but she looked small – like barely five feet maybe – but she was strong.  Not strong as a bull, more like something that’s good at wrestling.  Something that can use it’s forelimbs to grapple you.  Like a bear.  But not as strong as a bear.  She was as strong as a small bear.  Not a baby bear, but like a sub-adult bear.   Unlike a sub-adult bear though she was hissing like a bat and biting at me like a rabid wombat.  She wanted my blood bad.  I was able to hold her biting face away from my very fetching neck and was surely just about to make my move to turn things in my favor when Lashmi splattered the vampire nun’s head-goo all over my face with her hand ax.  That much at least was very similar to something Martialla would have done.

I heaved the corpse off me and spat out some eyeball jelly “Thanks.” I clambered to my feet and looked down at the now mostly headless corpse “Huh, I thought they turned into mist or something when you killed them.”

The old priestess and Cheeky were horrified “Sister Reesblout!”

“I thought you said Sister Loke was the one that was missing.”

They looked at each other “Sister Reesblout must have been missing too.  I don’t remember seeing her.”

“What kind of operation are you running here?  Don’t you even know who’s on the roster?”

Lashmi crouched down to look at the ax-hole “So was she a vampire or what did I just kill?”

I grabbed a mop sitting nearby and used it to soak up some of the nun-sludge on me “Of course she was a vampire, did you see the way she lunged at my carotid?”

All the color had drained from Cheeky’s face “Maybe she was hiding in there from the vampire and just got startled.”

Oldy was resolute “There’s no such thing as vampires.”

“She was a vampire Gods damn it!  You don’t try to bite someone’s neck because you’re scared!”

Lashmi and I went down the stairs which led to a very short tunnel that came to another staircase that led up and through another panel into a hallway by the dormitories.  I feel like Cheeky could have told us that it didn’t really lead anywhere.  I turned to Lashmi as we walked back around to the supply closet.

“You know in Morinly some vampires took over a bordello and were killing the people that visited it.  What I don’t understand is how they got away with it for so long.  Didn’t anyone notice that all the whoremongers were disappearing?” I wait a moment for a response “Do you have any thoughts on that?”

“Huh?  Uh, no, I guess not.”

“You don’t think that’s strange?  How do you think they were getting away with it?  A whole nest of vampires had to be killing a lot of people don’t you think?  Granted a lot of them were probably people that no one would miss but plenty of married men go to brothels, I think at least some of the wives would wonder why their husbands never came home.”

“Yeah, I don’t know.”

“Good Gods woman, I’m trying to make conversation here, give me something.”

She didn’t.  We met back up with the two nuns and Cheeky led us into the head priestesses own office, much to her surprise and shock.  Pushing back the desk and pulling out the rug there was a trapdoor underneath.  We were greeted by a blast of cold air when the trapdoor was thrown up.

I look at the old priestess “You ever notice any vampires or giant rats crawling out of here when you were working?”

Lashmi cast a suspicious eye at Cheeky “How do you know about this?”

“There’s a map in the library.” After a beat “I’m the librarian.”

I leaned over the hole slightly “There’s a light down there, do vampires need light to see? Seem like they shouldn’t.  Well, let’s go kill the damn thing, I suppose the rats will still be here but maybe without the vampire around they’ll wander off.”

Lashmi looked around nervously “Doesn’t it seem strange that we haven’t seen any rats?”

I pointed “They’re probably all down there.  Or out in the courtyard killing all the nuns.”  I put my hand to my ear “I don’t hear any screaming though, I feel like if you were a nun being eaten by giant rats you’d scream a lot.” I drew a rapier from my secret pocket “Anyway, let’s hit it New Martialla.”

“What?”

“Just go.”

At the bottom of the stairs was a large round room with a small pillar or pedestal in the middle.  On the pedestal pillar was a wildly incongruous little pillow that had a deep indentation in it as if something had been sitting on it for years and years.  Standing nearby in a bloody white nightshirt was a raven-haired young woman who was ghostly pale and clutching a skull to her chest like it was a newborn babe. 

“Well this is unsettling.  You would be Sister Loke them I presume?”

She smiled, overly large fangs glimmering in the lantern light, speaking in hushed towns like we were trading secrets at the opera “You want it don’t you?  You came for it didn’t you?  Well you can’t have it!”

“Uh no, I’m good on skulls, we just . . .”

Her fangs, already appearing too large to even shut her mouth lengthened and her eyes seems to shift shapes “YOU CAN’T HAVE IT!!!!!!!!!”

I was ready for the lunge this time and shoved Lashmi in the way.  Maybe you think that’s a dick move, but she’s a priestess alright, why wasn’t she confronting the vampire with her holy symbol?  What is the holy symbol of Strider anyway?  I feel like it’s a boot and a walking stick maybe.  Sometime dumb like that.  Sister Loke and Lashmi went down in a heap and I carefully stabbed Loke through the kidney.  She screamed and flailed around a lot and what seemed like eighteen gallons of blood came out of her but she died all the same.  The skull clattered out of her hands and rattled to a stop as if was looking at me – jawless but with two large fangs on the top row of teeth.

“Huh, I though vampires were supposed to be harder to kill.  What keeps the teeth in a skull after the body is dead anyway?  Shouldn’t that root rot away?  It’s not bone is it, it’s like whatever your gums are made of?”

Lashmi finally managed to yank one of her hatchets free and seemed to be brandishing it at me “What the fuck was that?!”

“A vampire obviously, maybe they’re weak at first and they get stronger over time.”

“NO!  You fucking pushed me into her!”

“Yeah, I needed a distraction so I could backstab her.  Calm down, Martialla and I used to do it all the time.”

“Who the fuck is Martialla?!”

I guess we’re not going to be friends at all since she left in a huff when I asked her to help me drag the body up the stairs for verification that it was Sister Loke.  Have you ever tried to drag a dead body UP a staircase by yourself?  Try it sometime and then tell me it’s not next to impossible.  The old priestess confirmed that it was indeed poor Sister Loke and then after much badgering did a role call to make sure no one else was missing.  I guess it was just the two vampires then.  Or whatever they were.  I never did see any rats.  I wonder what that’s about.  Maybe the Pied Piper of Illmarsh lured them away. 

When I asked for a little something for the effort the good sisters invoked the whole vow of poverty thing, which doesn’t make a ton of sense since this place itself has to be worth a fortune.  Cheeky did show me to yet another secret room though, where the gear of an old hero who had died in their care was hidden away. Seems like the kind of stuff that would have been helpful to get my hands on before fighting a horde (two is a small horde) of vampires.  When I asked why they had a vampire skull sitting on a pillow in a special hidden room they all but gave me the bum’s rush.  They didn’t even invite me to stay the night or feed me.  That’s gratitude for you.

________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Funds: 6922 gold

XP: 1,196,951

Inventory: Bag of Holding, +2 Distance Light Crossbow, traveling outfit, Ring of Invisibility, potion case, potions (Cure Light Wounds x3, Enlarge Person, Protection from Evil, Cure Moderate Wounds x2, Oil of Fire Trap, Rage) Blessed Robes, Vampire Hunter’s Cloak, +1 Mithril Holy Undead Bane Sword-Cane  

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, eyeless hag, Baron Saltwheel, Baron Harmenkar, Colonel Tarl Ciarán’s wizard soldier, Victor, Beharri, Cebuano, Mayor Eryn, Chimera Trading Company, maker of the manacles, Calvados Eure, Law Offices of Lampblack and Brimstone, Peronell Missplitter, Nightmare Hag

Macendamandel 22 Year 888 (New Imperial Calendar) Part 2

The ratman (not a literal man-rat a guy who hunts rats) refused to have anything further to do with the convent, but since my new friend the priest of the travel-god has no idea how to travel anywhere  he agreed to at least show us the way to the place.  He kept up a steady stream of recriminations about the rat-catchers guild and their leadership interspersed with sleazy comments about Lashmi and me (mostly me) but as we got closer to a copse of trees he fell silent.  Why are there trees still here when all the other ones have been cut down?  Ambience probably – loggers are well known from their sense of dramatic tension. 

There was a heavy fog clinging to the trees (nature likes a dramatic spectacle too) which were splashed with orange and yellow leaves several months out of season.  We came up on what looked like a monolith from olden times – great grey walls that you might expect to see at a fortress not a religious institution.  Maybe it used to be a fortress back when there were Kostelos to fight and was converted to nunnerism once they were all dead or scared off. 

I gestured annoyedly “You see, this is what I’m talking about, how the Hells did this get built way out here away from everything?  Who drug all this tone all this way?  And why?”

Lashmi glanced up at the walls “Well there used to be people here, we passed many old abandoned villages.  And, the river is called the Pipestone because there’s available stone all over the place that’s easy to quarry right?”

“Oh . . . I knew that I guess.”

The ratman bid us farewell and scuttled off before I could ask him exactly what he had encountered here that spooked him, a professional rat killer, so seriously.  Some more details about what happened would have been nice.  Going around the walls we found a short stone bridge over a tributary (contributory?) of the Pipestone.  Across the bridge was a massive wooden door, more of a gate really, with one of those little slit-things with a sliding window.  I pounded on the immense wood for a while before the window sild open to reveal the beady eyes of an old nun.

“I’m sorry, we’re not taking on initiates at the moment.”

“What?  Oh, you mean . . . me?  A nun?”

A had a good long laugh at that, which the eyeballs clearly didn’t like.  Lashmi took over and said that we were there to help with the rat problem while I was still chortling over the idea of me in nun school.  The mighty gate swung open and I laughed some more at the idea of a bunch of grunting nuns straining to move that massive hunk of wood, but inside there was no one else.  I guess the door operates on faith alone.  The gatekeeper shuffled off without another word and there was no one else in sight.  Lashmi and I looked at each other and started to wander into the seemingly uninhabited complex when we were chased down by a slightly younger but much more spry priestess.  She grabbed me by the shoulder, slightly out of breath.

“Come, the infirmary is this way.”

I frowned “Why would we want to go to the infirmary?  Neither of us is infirm.” I looked over at Lashmi “Are we?”

She frowned back, confused “That’s where Sister Agata is.”

“Who’s Sister Agata?”

“I thought you were . . .” she suddenly seemed suspicious “Who are you?”

“We were just passing by and we ran into the rat-catcher guy that you guys hired.”

Lashmi piped up “Otis.”

“Yeah, that guy, oddball in a disgusting big rat-fur cloak.  He told us that he was running away like a cowardly failure so we thought we’d come take a look and see if we could help.  Lashmi here is priestess too so you should get algone well, although she worships Strider instead of . . .” I looked around “What God is this place dedicated to?  Doesn’t look like any temple I’ve ever been to, it looks like a prison.”

“This isn’t a temple, it’s a postulary.”

“What’s that?”

“A facility of a religious order dedicated to self-sufficiency and service to the community.”

“What community?  There’s no one else out here.”

“All communities, once their training is completed here our members go all across the kingdom to serve in churches, dormitories, libraries, balnearies, and hospitals.”

“And which God is this facility dedicated too again?”

“We are in the service of all the Gods of good.”

“Which ones are the good ones?” She looked at Lashmi who make an apologetic half-shrug “Maybe you should just tell us what’s going on, the rat-man didn’t have much to say other than that he failed horribly and was running away like a dirty craven coward.  Why would we want to see Sister Agata?”

She stared at me for a moment before speaking “Several weeks ago some sisters complained of hearing whispering in the night and being tormented by violent dreams in their sleep.”

“I can relate to that, I’ve had dream people attacking me for months.”

“At first I didn’t think much of it this, bad dreams and whispers are nothing to be concerned with – just an overactive imagination – but then Sister Agata fell ill, and soon afterwards the rats came.  Huge and vile rats that have driven us out of the abbey.”

“So there is an abbey, the rat-guy and I were debating that.”

“They act as if controlled by a single mind, I believe that Herla, called King Herla by the debased and the wicked, is here in spirit controlling these dire vermin to vex us.”

“Who’s that?  And what is he king of?”

Lashmi seemed concerned “Herla is the conqueror of the invincible city, the devil-price of Alphas, it is said that Herla is a master of disguise who seeks to trick his victims by using a dozen voices and a hundred different faces.”

“That doesn’t sound that impressive for a devil lord, as far as I know the number of voices and faces I can use has no limit.” I took on the form and mimicked the voice of the priestess superior “See?”

Lashmi elbowed me “Stop that, you’re going to get us burned at the stake!”

I returned to my normal form “I was just making a point.”

The old nun was revolted “Who are you?!”

I waved casually “Don’t worry about me, I’m here to help.  What makes you think this Herla person would care about one little abbey like this?  Seems like a demon lord would have better things to do than personally send rats to attack you guys.  And better minions than rats.”

Lashmi corrected me “Devil prince not demon lord.”

“What the fuck’s the difference?” The old priestess gasped “Good Gods woman, calm down, your people are being devoured by rats and you’re clutching you pearls over some profanity?  Priorities okay?”

Lashmi frowned “She’s not wearing pearls.”

“It’s an expression.”

The old priestess shook her head “No one has been eaten by the rats.”

I made an exasperated noise “I didn’t mean literally, I was just . . .” I took a breath to calm down “Look, we’re getting nowhere slowly, just tell me why you think this devil-guy is all up your ass.”

“Five thousand years ago Grotrad sought the help of an oracle of Bleftrianze and was given the thousand swords of the dust-lord Agramemnon. When Grotrad and his men arrived outside the city as instructed wielding the swords all the warriors the Agramemnon had turned into dust with his vile breath sprang up into battle as undead beings. For ninety years . . .”

“Fuck me, forget I asked, let’s just go this see sick nun.”

“But the Society of Mask and Cloak, of Blade and Boot, dedicated itself to the service of Herla with debauched rites and forbidden magic and . . .”

I sighed “Can we just go look at this broad?”

Scowling the priestess led us to a wide shallow room lined with beds. They were all empty save one, where a young woman lay, pale skinned and heavy with sweat despite the chill in the air.  Her chest was heaving like she was having a panic attack.  Possibly because her hands and feet were secured to the bedframe with knotted sheets.

The priestess touched her wet forehead tenderly “She wouldn’t stop failing, even when we called up our divine magic to calm her.  We had to restrain her to prevent her from hurting herself.”

“Well this is pretty messed up.  Clearly she’s possessed, what do you expect us to do?  You’re the ones who should be able to cast out demons right?”

Lashmi was kneeling by the side of the bed “Devils.”

“What’s the difference?!”

Lashmi gestured “Look at all these bites on her neck.  I don’t think these are rat bites, and even if they are why would they only bite her on the neck?”

The girl spoke, which for some reason startled the Hells out of me “I was sleeping and in my dreams I was being watched by horrible red eyes.  I was stripped naked before them and ran, but they were everywhere, I couldn’t get away.  When I woke up I was on the floor of the abbey and there was blood running from my neck.”

“Huh.  Isn’t controlling rats something vampires are supposed to be able to do?”

Lashmi look up at me “How would I know that?”

I looked over the priestess superior and she crossed her arms “There’s no such thing as vampires, that’s a heretical peasant superstition.”

“Are you fucking kidding me?  You think a devil price is after you but vampires are too incredible to believe in?”

Lashmi stood up “If there’s a vampire here shouldn’t we leave as soon as possible?”

“Don’t sweat it, I’ve killed several vampires, they’re push-overs really.  One of them we had to dig out of the grave out by the Scar.  There was this talisman of Korrok that . . .” They both gasped as the mention of the name “Oh by Gods don’t tell me you buy into that He Who Shall Not Be Named bullshit.”  They both started frantically making various religious signs to ward off evil “Yeah, vampires are superstition but you two are the very soul of modernity.”

________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Funds: 6922 gold

XP: 1,196,951

Inventory: Bag of Holding, +2 Distance Light Crossbow, traveling outfit, Ring of Invisibility, potion case, potions (Cure Light Wounds x3, Enlarge Person, Protection from Evil, Cure Moderate Wounds x2, Oil of Fire Trap, Rage)

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, eyeless hag, Baron Saltwheel, Baron Harmenkar, Colonel Tarl Ciarán’s wizard soldier, Victor, Beharri, Cebuano, Mayor Eryn, Chimera Trading Company, maker of the manacles, Calvados Eure, Law Offices of Lampblack and Brimstone, Peronell Missplitter, Nightmare Hag

Macendamandel 22 Year 888 (New Imperial Calendar) Part 1

I had an uncomfortable but untroubled night’s sleep at the Strider shrine.  I asked Lashmi (that’s the priestess) if my unmolested dream state was because her God protected was those who sought shelter in his holy place and she just shrugged and said maybe.  Back at court there were many religious people who were not all that faithful, I didn’t expect to find them out here in the real world as well.  Although this seems different, those were second and third sons who took up the robes as a path to power and prestige – that’s clearly not this woman’s motivation.  There’s no power nor prestige to be had in hermiting it up by a forgotten shrine in the middle of nowhere.

Last night she had told me how she ended up out here – she had been a prostitute in Three Rivers and decided that she was done with that so she jumped in the river with a heavy chain around her neck.  Impossibly she had been swept upstream and deposited here at this shrine instead of drowning and moving on the next life.  Seems like the kind of thing you would ascribe to the God of the shrine you ended up at and that’s why you would take up his worship but she downplayed that as well.  She’s an odd one for sure.  Of course I don’t really know anything about the orthodoxy of Strider, perhaps they’re all this casual about their devotion. We headed north on the riverside together and after a couple hours of walking we saw a figure in the distance heading our way from the north.

I turned to my new traveling companion “You ever use those axes for anything other than cutting firewood?”

“I killed a worg once, although a centaur did most of the fighting and I came in at the end.”

“Why would you do that?  Worgs are usually good temporary allies, you can buy them off just with some cooked food.  Granted that backfired on me once, but otherwise treated with sentient wolf monsters has worked well for me.”

She gave me a very strange look as we continued towards our rendezvous with destiny.  Destiny in his case was hairy overweight fellow with chipped teeth, oily facial hair, and battered hat that looked like it had merged with his tangle of black hair.  He was holding some kind of stick that I think was the worst designed spear I have ever seen.  The blade looked like the bayonet I used to have for my crossbow, it was off-set in a way that a real spearhead never would be.  And the butt end of the stick also had a stock like a crossbow would.  On top of everything else it was incredibly short for a spear, maybe not even five feet.  It was the most useless looking weapon I think I have ever seen.   

He was wearing a thick cloak made out of the skins of giant rats.  How did I know that it was rat skin and fur?  Because there was a rat-head still attached to one of the pelts.  I like a good fur as much as the next person but I’ve never understood why some people prefer for the head to be made part of the garment.  It’s ghastly if you ask me.  Once I realized this was a man wearing a rat-cloak I understood that he was wearing a rat-hat as well.  Possibly rat boots too.  As soon as we were close enough to see his face he started grinning like a cat happening upon a nest of helpless baby mice.  He continued grinning all the way up to us, where I gestured with my crossbow that he had come close enough for my liking.

He whipped off his rat-hat in a half bow “Well hello ladies.  I never expected to find beautiful creatures like you out here, and two of you even, I like these odds.”

“And what is a prosperous rat farmer like yourself doing out here to find beautiful creatures like us?”

He crammed his hat back on his massive head “Rat hunter good madam, rat hunter, I don’t know as there’s much money to be made in farming rats.  Even though they are a good source of meat and hides.  It breaks my heart to think of all the starving people in the world that could be fed with rat meat – but for some reason people don’t like to eat certain animals.”

“Plague probably has something to do with it.”

He clucked his tongue disapprovingly “Rats don’t carry the plague the madam, the fleas on the rats do.”

“And the rats carry the fleas so what difference does it make?”

“They’re safe to eat is my point.”

“I’ve gotten deathly ill before from a rat-bite.”

“Well sure, if you let them bite you, I’m just saying that . . .”

“Look, I don’t want to debate the health concerns of rat meat with you, if you’re a rat hunter what are you doing out here?  I would assume that most of the money from rat killing would be in the big cities.”

“And you would be right in that assumption my fair lady, but I was called out on special commission by the blessed church itself to render my services at the abbey nearby.”

I looked over at Lashmi “There’s an abbey around here?” She just shrugged “What kind of exploration priests are you?  You don’t see to know where anything is in the area.  What exploring have you done?”

“I told you I’m just getting started.”

Rat-man nodded eagerly “There certainly is, a convent I guess it is, not any abbey, full of nuns.  Although I didn’t see too many of them when I was there, they were all locked away on account of the rats.” He grinned again “Or maybe my reputation proceeded me.  If you know what I mean.”

“They were hiding from the stink of your rat-vest?”

He laughed uproariously for a moment and then smiled even wider “I like a woman with a sharp tongue, usually means that tongue . . .”

I held up the crossbow “Hold that thought for . . . ever.  That must have been quite an infestation if they called you all the way out here.”

He nodded “It was, I’ve never seen worse in all my years.  Giant rats, big swarms of them, more than even and experienced and celebrated rat killer like myself could handle – I’m lucky to have gotten out of there with my life.  I think there must have been some wererats pulling the strings, it’s the only thing that explains their coordination, and the sheer volume of them.  Normal rats you might see in the hundreds, but it’s unusual to see this many rodents of unusual size all together in the same place.  Something must be going on.”

“So you just left the nuns infested with giant rats?”

He seemed unperturbed “I’m a normal rat fighter not a wererat fighter.  Fighting wererats is an entirely different discipline you see.  You need silver for that, which is mighty expensive.  Maybe wolfsbane too, although that probably only works on werewolves huh?”

“I hope you at least gave them the money back before you ran out of them.”

“I don’t charge anything for my services madam, I ask only that those I work for take a pledge not to use poisons for rat control nor to engage in any way with the rat-catcher’s guild.  I make my money off crafting and selling rat-furs and various other rat byproducts.”

Lashmi frowned “That sounds insane.”

He seemed delighted by this accusation “Far from it!  The manufacture of rat poison is ruining our waterways, I will gladly rid anyone of their rat problems if it means they will no longer suckle at the teat of the rat poison industrial complex.  There are solutions to every problem that don’t rely on destroying the environment, and spreading that message is my true calling in life.  And as for the rat catcher’s guild let me tell you something . . .”

He launched into an extensive airing of grievances against the rat-catcher’s guild, which I didn’t even know existed.  Mostly it was a semi-hysterical diatribe about how they were conspiring against him and keeping him down with their political clout.  Which is what guilds do by default – that’s the whole point.  Take control of the workforce and anyone not in the guild gets the shaft.  While he was ranting about the personal faults of the guildmaster I turned to Lashmi.

“So you want to check out this rat-infested nunnery?”

“Why would I want to do that?”

“You know for a follower of the exploration God you’re proving to be surprisingly skittish about going places and exploring.”

“My theory is that I should explore myself before I spend a lot of time exploring the world around me.”

“I would have thought that your self would have been thoroughly explored in your previous profession.”

“Don’t be crude, I meant explore my thoughts and emotions – really find out who I am who what my place is in the world.  I think you knew that.”

I turned back to the rat-man “What about you Ratso?  You want to head back and have another go at those rats?”

He stopped in mid-tirade “Huh?  What?  Go back?  Why would I want to do that?”

________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Funds: 6922 gold

XP: 1,196,951

Inventory: Bag of Holding, +2 Distance Light Crossbow, traveling outfit, Ring of Invisibility, potion case, potions (Cure Light Wounds x3, Enlarge Person, Protection from Evil, Cure Moderate Wounds x2, Oil of Fire Trap, Rage)

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, eyeless hag, Baron Saltwheel, Baron Harmenkar, Colonel Tarl Ciarán’s wizard soldier, Victor, Beharri, Cebuano, Mayor Eryn, Chimera Trading Company, maker of the manacles, Calvados Eure, Law Offices of Lampblack and Brimstone, Peronell Missplitter, Nightmare Hag

Macendamandel 21 Year 888 (New Imperial Calendar)

Lunch with cousin May stretched out into the afternoon and before you know it the two of us were sitting on the stern (that’s part of a boat right) trading tales of her social climbing and my . . . whatever you call it that I’m doing.  A good time was had by all.  With all the whimsicality of the idle rich she invited me to stay and I saw no reason to refuse her.  We drank to the ill-health of our enemies and continued our nattering until sunset.  It was a particularly picturesque sunset, probably because of all the miniscule wood particles in the air from Three Rivers.  I’ve heard that just the right amount of air pollution is what you need to have a really nice sunset. 

Driven below decks by the emergence of the night’s biting insects I was treated to a somewhat less extravagant meal than lunch had been which was saved by the appearance of the good wine.  There was a part of me that wondered if my dear cousin was suckering me in to betray me to the consortium but a much larger part of me that didn’t care if she was.  I don’t meant to be dramatic but the wound from Martialla leaving was still fresh and if there’s better ways to stitch those wounds than getting drunk I don’t know what they are.  Cousin May could still drink like the farm girl she was but she was still no match for me, she retired to her state room hours before I decided that I had had enough. 

The room I was given was basically a fancy closet, but what do you expect on rivercraft?  No matter how rich you are there’s only so much space you have to work with inside a boat.  Unless you get magic involved and I guess she either isn’t that rich that she can afford it or is that conservative not to do it.  I feel into a deep and dreamless sleep in the closet.  I can’t imagine that it’s because of the booze, it couldn’t be that simple, maybe she is rich enough that the boat has some kind of protective wards.  I was just happy to get some good hours of sleep for once. 

In the morning she had some new clothing for me, not anything she’d wear now, clearly some clothes from the trunks of her servants – I’m sure she was delighted by that.  She made sure to load me down with food and supplies.  She was quite enjoying lording her success over me and I wasn’t embittered in the least by it.  After all if you can’t count on family you can you count on?  No one.  Which you can’t.  She was kind enough to confirm that it was the Umberlee River we were on and she dropped me off on the west side so I could make my way further west to the Pipestone.  She wished me well and we were off our separate ways – she floating downriver and me heading upriver, although not on the same river as we just established.

The Pipestone is so named because there is (or was) an abundance of a kind of mudstone in the area that the natives use (or used) to carve pipes and other trinkets out of seeing as it is a fine-grained and easily worked stone that even their primitive methods could handle.  As I understand it the Pipestone was once (maybe still is) considered a sacred land by the Kostelos and several differing tribes went to war to control it – as one does when something is sacred.  Allegedly all the Kostelos have been cleared out of the area south of Gib’s Tor but with my luck I’ll stumble across some stragglers looking to even the score.  I believe a tor is a rock formation of some sort but who Gib might be and why he or she decided to lay claim to a rock formation I have no idea.  I suppose I’ll find out when I get there, assuming that I’m not killed by savages before I get there.

If there’s anything good about walking alone in the wilderness (there’s not) it’s that it gives you time to think.  Thought such as, what was the point of chasing the Kostelos away from here if no one was going to live here?  I frequently came across the remains of what used to be logging camps, small towns even, all abandoned now that the timber trade has moved south.  Seems like we could have just come to an agreement with the natives “hey we’re going to spend a couple decades cutting down your scared woods but then you can have the land back okay?”  All they had to do was give up with primitive stupid religion and they wouldn’t have been driven away.  Doesn’t seem like too much to ask. 

It was a little eerie seeing all those deserted communities but I’ve certainly seen worse.  At least this desolation was just the march of progress rather than the result of war or plague or something like that.  Still it all seems rather wasteful.  If people living in the slums of Paladore knew there were whole little towns sitting out here idle I wonder what they would do.  Would they come?  Can you just claim a town once everyone leaves?  If I convinced people to settle and populate all these places did I just make myself a Baron or a Lord of some sort?  Is that how new counties are formed?  Not by an edict from the Crown but simply by taken action?  Could be, I’ve often said that one of the main things I’ve learned from my exile that no one is really in charge, you can get away with quite a lot just my having the balls to do it.

I suppose it’s like that old story about the circus elephant that’s held in place by a tiny stake – a manner of learned helplessness.  They could get away but they never try because they don’t think about it.  I suppose that’s what society is in a way, just a veil pulled over people’s eyes to keep them from trying too much.  After all we can’t have everyone trying to live a good life and we now?  That would be bloody anarchy.  It’s important to make sure that the blood is spilled only when and where the government says.  More or less.

I walked all day and didn’t see another soul, nor any traffic on the river.  My understanding is that of the three rivers the Pipestone is the one that doesn’t have a lot to contribute to decent society.  The Umberlee is an main artery of trade, the Visgoth will pick up more once the war is over, but there’s still plenty of traffic that way – the Pipestone is the old maid of the three watery sisters though, her virtue given away and used up long ago.  I didn’t see much in the way of animals either other than beetles, which I guess is what you get when you cut down a forest.  Still though it seems like by now some other kind of ecosystem should have developed – come on nature get off your ass and repopulate this new desert we made.

Late in the afternoon I came across a riverside shrine to Strider.  I always think of Strider as the God of roads, but I suppose he oversees river travel as well, although I’ve never seen such a shrine before.  Maybe there’s some other river God that usually handles river stuff, I don’t know exactly how the Gods decide who’s in charge of what.  Seems like there should be a lot of Gods fighting over the interest of revelry and getting wasted but instead as far as I know there isn’t a single one.  What kind of management structure is that?  Maybe there is and I just haven’t heard of them – there are so many Gods who can keep track of them all?  And most of them are real duds let me tell you.

I figured that was as good a place as any to bed down for the night, and by bed down I mean sit down and have some of the food my cousin packed with me.  Even with all the travel that I’ve done I’ve never really gotten the hang of making a camp.  I suppose a more rangery type would have a hammock set up and a fire merrily blazing and be snatching fish out of the river and digging a latrine and all sorts of things.  I just leaned against the pipestone carving of a boot or whatever the lump dedicated to Strider was supposed to be and enjoyed a box of sweets from my dear cousin.  They won’t keep long anyway so there’s no reason not to polish them off, and if you ask me there’s little that compliments wine better than sugar.  Since I was there anyway I figured a prayer wouldn’t hurt anything.

“Dear Strider, how are you?  I am fine.  I apologize for not praying to you more often but I don’t really believe in you.  I mean I know you’re real because your priests can do magic, I meant that I don’t believe in you in the sense of I don’t trust in you or care what you deal is.  I’m praying to you today because I would like to apologize for killing some of your priests.  Just two I think, but I don’t really remember so it may be more.  Not that they didn’t have it coming but I could have been nicer about it.  I realize now that there’s no reason to torment people before you croak them, it’s best just to kill them and be on about your business.  So that’s my bad.

But I wanted to ask you something as well.  If you’re so into travel and exploration and people moving all around for the pure joy of it shouldn’t you be doing more to make it safe for them to do it?  Seems like you can’t walk five miles in any direction without being ambushed by bandits or attacked by monsters or set upon by a rape gang or slavers or some other damn thing.  Shouldn’t you be doing something about that?  Just the other day I ran into some Vultur people who are going to patrol the roads – seems like the kind of thing that your people should be doing. 

I don’t want to tell you your job but it seems a little embarrassing to me that another God is taking up your slack.  Instead of be trail-worn wanderers with dusty backpacks and battered hats shouldn’t your followers be hunting down monsters and killing bandits and so forth?  Again, I don’t want to tell you how to run your religion, but it seems to me that people might be more willing to travel if there wasn’t a one hundred percent chance of them being murdered when they leave the city.”

“That was some prayer.”

The voice came from a lanky woman with deeply tanned skin, dark hair is tied in a tight braid with the sides of her head shaved to the scalp.  She wore a shabby work shirt with the sleeves rolled up to the elbow and those leather braces that workmen have sometimes along with coarse trousers tucked into well-used boots.  She had a hatchet dangling on each hip as well.

“You step lightly friend, it’s pretty hard to sneak up on me.”

“You were clearly deep into your religious observations, probably your awareness as impaired by your piety.”

“Probably.  Are you going to kill me?”

She smiled slightly “Something tells me that wouldn’t work out if I wanted to try, but no, I’m not one of the bandits you mention – I’m one of the people that you think should be doing something about those bandits.”

“You’re a Striderian?  Wow, who knew that prayer worked so quickly?  Is maintaining thi rocks a full time job or what do you do all the time?  Travel I suppose, seeing as how that’s your divine mandate.”

She sat on the ground across from me “Not as much as you might think, I mostly just hang around here.  I’m from the city, I’m still getting a handle on this thing where you have to catch and cook your own food.”

“I was just wondering if that happened, this is really some kind of divine intervention.”

“People typically find the hand of the divine anywhere if they look hard enough.”

“That’s a surprisingly coherent statement for a priestess.”

“Well I’m new to that too, I’m sure over time I’ll become a true fanatic.  I couldn’t help but overhear in your prayer that you killed some priests of Strider, so I turn the question back to you – are you going to kill me?”

I shook my head “I don’t think so, you seem like a decent enough sort at least on first impression, I’d keep an eye on me regardless though, I’m very dangerous.  See, I have a scar and everything.”

“Very tough looking.”

“Do you want to escort me safely to Gib’s Tor?  You know, because of your God and all?”

“Where’s that?”

I laughed shortly “Aren’t you the one who worships the travel God?”

“I told you I’m new to it, until a few months ago I never set foot outside of Three Rivers, and I was never much of one for geography.”

“Seems like you have no choice but to come with me then, isn’t visiting new places what your religion is all about?”

“Something like that.”

________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Funds: 6922 gold

XP: 1,196,951

Inventory: Bag of Holding, +2 Distance Light Crossbow, traveling outfit, Ring of Invisibility, potion case, potions (Cure Light Wounds x3, Enlarge Person, Protection from Evil, Cure Moderate Wounds x2, Oil of Fire Trap, Rage)

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, eyeless hag, Baron Saltwheel, Baron Harmenkar, Colonel Tarl Ciarán’s wizard soldier, Victor, Beharri, Cebuano, Mayor Eryn, Chimera Trading Company, maker of the manacles, Calvados Eure, Law Offices of Lampblack and Brimstone, Peronell Missplitter, Nightmare Hag

Macendamandel 20 Year 888 (New Imperial Calendar)

It’s been said that you sometimes don’t value something until after you’ve thrown it away.  The reverse effect of buyer’s remorse I suppose.  I miss Martialla, which doesn’t make sense because I just saw her yesterday.  We used to go days or weeks at a time without actually laying eyes on one another so why should I be melancholy when I just saw her last night?  I mean, I know why, but still it seems strange.  But there’s nothing for it, life goes on and all that.  Even sleeping fitfully as I did I didn’t notice her leaving in the night, she was gone when I woke up, headed south I assume.  Speaking of fitful sleeping my non-dreams have been increasingly feeling even more strange.  Have you ever watched a snake swallow a fat rat?  It’s slow and awful and you can’t look away.  Somehow that’s the feeling I get while I sleep  now – like the power that that bitch hag is using to protect me is being worn away inexorably.  I need to get to Gib’s Tor as soon as possible. 

Should be easy, all I have to do is follow the river north, problem being I’m not sure which river I’m looking at– it’s not like they have signposts.  I assume it’s the Umberlee and what I need to do is cross to get to the Pipestone but I don’t know that for sure.  It could be the Pipestone.  Another issue, all the nearby bridges are back in town and given my (totally justified) murder spree yesterday it seems like a bad idea to go back there.  But as I said, there’s nothing for it.  I headed north along the river hoping that some method of crossing would present itself.  I thought maybe that one method would be the river being fill of logs floating downriver to be milled, but I quickly realized that all the logging was going on to the south – this was the area where all the trees had already been felled. 

It’s hard to imagine that this dry desolate land was once a massive forest.  I wonder at what point we’ll reach the time when we’re cutting down trees faster than they can grow somewhere else – and will we realize it in time to stop ourselves from cutting them all down?  You know I’m feeling gloomy when I’m sparing thought for sustainable forestry practices.  Another thought I was kicking around, which I’ve had before, is how easy it is to get away with things when you can change your appearance on a whim.  I’ve been told that disguising yourself with an illusion is fairly elementary magic.  Given all the things I’ve gotten away with simply because I can appear to be someone else at the time it doesn’t take much to imagine that a small group of illusionists could cause an inordinate amount of damage to foundations of society.  Which quickly leads to the thought, maybe there is already a cabal of shape-changing mages out there that are up to all kinds of evil shit.  Who would know?  Maybe all those people being hung while protesting their innocence actually are innocent.  Wouldn’t that be a fucking kick in the ass?

There was a minor noble back at court that would let slip if be imbued enough that he was convinced that there was a sect of demon worshippers that were secretly controlling everything.  Once he was drunk enough he’d go on at length about how they would feed babies to alligators or sharks or something nonsense like that.  As is usually the case his belief was rooted in the fact that he had achieved nothing in his life and never would – and he was a great man so clearly the reason for his failure was because the world was controlled by a secret group that he was not a part of.  Usually I was intent just to listen and be entertained by his nonsense but one time I got exasperated and told him that if what he was saying was true, it would mean thousands of people killing tens of thousands of people a year all without leaving any evidence and without anyone being the wiser.  It would be the greatest cover-up in the history of humanity.  He looked me in the eye, dead serious, and said “now you understand what I’m dealing with.”

Although in his defense I have run into an inordinate amount of cults since my exile from court, not demonic all of them, but potato tomato you know – they were sacrificing people so it hardly matters to whom (or what).  I have a theory about that.  There’s all kind of crime in the city, but it’s all normal stuff like theft and murder and rape.  Out in the countryside is where the real freaky stuff happens because there’s nothing else to do.  You work day and night busting your ass to grow wheat day after day year after year with nothing to look forward to other than plowing your ugly wife occasionally and suddenly some weird monster with fifteen noses and lizard-lips is saying you should carve your neighbors heart out on a weird stone you found in the woods and doesn’t sound half-bad as an alternative.  Some people say that idle hands are a demon’s best friend, but I think idle minds are the real problem.  You need to numb people’s minds with the sweet allure of entertainment.  Alcohol is doing as much as it can, but it needs some help.   If you’re a musician or an actor or a storyteller or some kind of performer you need to be touring out in the sticks.  It sucks, but do your part to keep human sacrifice to a minimum okay?

I was contemplating these kinds of weighty issues so much that it took me a moment to realize that I heard a voice.

“Is that you cousin?  I scarcely recognize you.”

I turned and saw that the voice was coming from a boat making its way downstream towards Three Rivers.  It wasn’t exactly a pleasure craft but it clearly wasn’t a dedicated working vessel either – it was a hybrid of sorts, the kind of thing you might find in the grubby hands of a wealthy peasant who wants something nice but can’t help but be practical as well.  The voice belonged to a woman sitting on the deck in a camp chair with a maid holding a parasol over her and a manservant hovering nearby clutching a bucket of ice holding a bottle of wine. 

It took me a long moment to realize that it was my cousin May.  Last time I saw her she looked different.  To call her an unfortunate looking woman would have been overly kind.  She looked like she had been hacked from a fallen log by a blind woodsman.  Her chin was pointed, her cheeks hollow, her face creased from constant frowning, her back bent as if she was always cowering from a blow that never came, and her short dark hair was streaked with grey even though she was not yet thirty.  That was what she looked like before.  Now she was drop-dead gorgeous.  As I well know some of it was artifice – cosmetics and a fine dress and all the right accessories – but I know enough as well to spot a stone cold fox when I see one. 

Her hair was long and thick and lustrous without a hint of grey.  Her face had been alternatively sharpened and softened as needed, and if we’re being honest symmetricalized as well.  Her eyes were bright and confident, her skin was smooth and pure, and if she had gone a little overboard with the fullness of her bosom who can blame her?  Depending on your preferences some might have said she was even more comely than I.  They would have been wrong, but they would have said it.

“You’re looking well cousin, whatever can you be doing here?”

She managed to sound bored by the idea “I’ve just returned from a retreat in the mountains – hot springs, rejuvenating treatments, that sort of thing.  I wanted to go before the snows set in, winter is coming in the highlands and I wouldn’t want to be trapped in that ghastly part of the Kingdom for months on end.”

I couldn’t help but smile, remembering my awkward country cousin “Certainly not.”

She smiled meanly “You’re looking a little ragged there cousin.  I couldn’t quite believe it was you walking beside the river like a common peddler.  Last time I saw you you were the very height of fashion and good taste you were.  I was quite jealous at the time.”

“Events have conspired to teach me to be humble since then, not too humble mind you, but my circumstances are much reduced as you can plainly see.”

She was clearly delighted.  Her boat was in danger of floating beyond speaking range and she gestured slightly with her fan for the crew to pull over to the side of the river and they silently moved to obey.

“Would you care to join me for lunch cousin?  You’re looking rather underfed.”

There’s no pleasure in life quite so grand as rubbing your success in the face of someone that used to have things better than you – why should I want to deny my dear cousin that?  Her skiff (is that the right word) glided (glid?) to the shore and I walked a rickety gangplank on board where a group of efficient servants was bringing out a table.  It was a nice table but still it was quickly hidden like a shameful bastard child under a thick tablecloth and then decorated with glittering dining ware and fine crockery.  Charcoal grilled fish with white asparagus, steelhead trout roe with a sauce of cured grapefruit and spices, candied strawberry with hot strawberry jam, ravioli, chicory and ricotta topped with grated white truffles – it was quite a spread, especially for a traveling meal.  The wine was subpar, certainly not worthy of an ice bucket attendant but beggars and choosers etcetera.

“Eternal damnation suits you well cousin, you’re looking radiant.”

“Yes well if I had know that selling my soul would work out so well I would have done it years ago.”

“And here I was thinking that if I met you again you might be cross with me over the whole thing.”

She waved away my concerns flippantly “Oh Gods no, best thing I ever did.  What good did having a soul ever do me anyway?  Useless thing I say.  Nothing to compare to beauty and dignity certainly.”

“Indeed a small price to pay for eternal torment.”

“If you listen to the priests of Odobenine poor people go to the torments of the Hells anyway so I didn’t have anything to lose.  The Adariel women will tell you something other altogether but that’s why I leave theology to the theologians.  I intend to live well and let the Gods worry about souls and the afterlife.”

We touched our glasses together in a toast “I couldn’t agree more.  I have to say I’m impressed cousin, based on the manner in which you travel you’ve done a lot in a short time since I visited you on the farm.”

“That was more than a year ago cousin.”

I raised an eyebrow “Was it now?  Time flies doesn’t it?  Regardless though it’s not as if you can just walk into town and say ‘look at me, I’m pretty give me money’.  You can only go so far on looks alone, you’ve done remarkable well based on your lack of refinement and cleverness inherent in your upbringing.”

She smiled “That insult was so thinly veiled as to be practically barefaced, but I forgive you cousin because I am rich and attractive and can afford to be generous with the envious.  You’re correct though, being dazzlingly lovely doesn’t throw open all the doors of wealth and power, just opens one or two a crack – you still have to jam your foot in and then force them open.  As my sisters learned much to their remorse.”

“You were always the smart one May.”

“Damning with faint praise that is, comparing me to Liddie and Elba.  And no one calls me May anymore, my name is Maianjuno now.”

“That’s a mouthful.”

“I can’t have people thinking I’m common now can I?  Rich people always have stupid names.  And what do people call you now cousin?”

I chuckled, so briefly maybe it was only a chuck “Any number of things.  People really have no manners these days.”

May regarded her wine glass for a moment and then tossed it overboard “I have something to confide in you cousin, I don’t know if anyone else could appreciate it.  When I was a girl I used to pray every day, to Adariel, to Odobenine, to Melmoth, to any God that might be listening.  I promised them I would be good if I could just have a little more.  But now that I have instead of have not, I see that was childish.  I don’t promise the Gods that I’ll be good anymore, I promise myself that I will be as evil as I need to be to never go back to the way things were.  People born rich have never known hardship so they don’t really know what they stand to lose.  That’s why people like you and me, people that fought up from the bottom, the ones who know – we’re the really dangerous people.  Because we know what it’s like to never be clean.  Never be warm.  Never be full.  To be sick and scared all the time.  We know.  And we know that there’s nothing so bad that you shouldn’t do it to avoid going back.”

“You’re quite the philosopher for a poor country girl from Cymrile county.”

She snapped her fingers for someone to bring her a new glass “As they say, you can take the girl out of the country but you can’t take the country out of the girl.”

“So true cousin, so true.”

________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Funds: 6922 gold

XP: 1,196,951

Inventory: Bag of Holding, +2 Distance Light Crossbow, ruined nobles traveling outfit, Ring of Invisibility, potion case, potions (Cure Light Wounds x3, Enlarge Person, Protection from Evil, Cure Moderate Wounds x2, Oil of Fire Trap, Rage)

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, eyeless hag, Baron Saltwheel, Baron Harmenkar, Colonel Tarl Ciarán’s wizard soldier, Victor, Beharri, Cebuano, Mayor Eryn, Chimera Trading Company, maker of the manacles, Calvados Eure, Law Offices of Lampblack and Brimstone, Peronell Missplitter, Nightmare Hag

Macendamandel 19 Year 888 (New Imperial Calendar)

Martialla’s rebuke stung more than I would have imagined.  I’ll grant you that trying to sleep under a wagon in the rain when you have a headfull of messed up dream stuff going on isn’t going to work out well regardless, but her hard words kept my up as well.  I still think she’s being unreasonable, there’s nothing I could have done, and I’m here now right?  It can’t be easy being my friend but I always thought I would be there if she needed me.  And I wasn’t.  Maybe it doesn’t matter if it wasn’t really my fault.  Maybe she has a right to be a little unreasonable. 

My grandmother always aid that vanity and recklessness were the worst sins, even more than ignorance and she hated ignorance.  I’m guilty of both on a regular basis.  Despite my grandmother’s wisdom, vanity I can live with, but as I’ve said several times before I recognize that I have become hasty and careless but I can’t seem to do anything about it.  I keep doing the same things.  Two years ago my problem was that I thought too much before I would act, I wanted to be sure and you can never be totally sure.  Now I have the opposite problem.  I’m like a loaded crossbow – and little bump and suddenly someone is bleeding and crying on the ground.  I don’t know what to do about it.

I think about my grandmother often, but I don’t think about my parents.  And not because I’m trying not to think about them, I just don’t remember them much.  Some of the other kids at court would cry themselves to sleep at night because they missed their parents.  It never really concerned me to miss them, I had too many other things to worry about.  I don’t remember my mother at all, just a fleeting image of a reddish dress.  I remember my father a little more, I remember his hands – they seemed gigantic and they were rough and work-worn.  I remember that he was always worried and usually looked a little sad but he would always smile at me and tell me how pretty I was and what a hard worker I was. 

Laying in the mud under that Gods forsaken Ples Del’mer wagon slung so low to the ground I felt like I was in a coffin I wondered what my parents would think of me now.  Their little girl with her hands stained red with blood.  I wonder if that would bother them more or less than me being the Duke’s playtoy.  I had never stopped to think before what they might have felt when the Duke said that I was to go and live at court.  Were they crushed?  We they happy to get rid of another mouth to feed?  I know that my grandmother never sent them any word about me, she said it was a mercy to keep them in the dark, did they forget about me after a few years?  Did they agonize over my fate until the very end? 

I can’t imagine what meeting them now would even be like.  I feel like we’re not even the same species anymore.  What possible good could come from us seeing each other now?  A tearful hugging reunion and then I help them plow fields and marry some meaty corn-fed tub of guts and muscles?  No.  They come to live in the city with me and my riches?  That would be like putting trousers on a duck – it just doesn’t fit.  I don’t pine for my parents, I don’t feel alone for having lost them, but that night I wondered what they would make of the woman I am now.  And what would I think about them?

Before dawn I talked to the Ples Del’mer chief, a bony woman of indeterminate age who stood straight as an iron rod.  She told me they weren’t interested in hiding a fugitive any longer than necessary.  I passed her some gold and told her that if she showed me the way into the city and back I would get Martialla out of their hair.  She whistled up a teenage girl as bony as she was – with the addition of being boyish and gawky was well.  She twitched like her skin didn’t quite fit her.  But she was quiet and sure as she led me through the forest paths far away from the work crews back to Three Rivers.   I told her that I would be back after nightfall and she nodded and darted away like a fawn. 

When I entered the city I had no intention other than getting some magic healing aids for Martialla.  But as I was walking I saw the (or at least as branch of) the Law Offices of Office of Glilcus and Stolo.  It was a very pleasant looking slim three story building made all of very solid brick.  Being a lumber town almost everything in Three Rivers is made of wood, which made it look even more extravagant.  There were three doors on the bottom level and three windows on the second and floor about the same size.  It gave the impression that there was no front wall at all.  On a whim I walked through the middle door.  There was a small desk there with a small blonde woman sitting at it reading a book – the Marked Token.  A pretty good mystery, but I don’t like books where everything revealed at the end is new information, I like clues that give me a chance to figure it out. 

Oddly she was wearing a soldier’s cap, maybe a symbol of affection from a lover at the front?  She looked up from her book when I came in and so our eyes were locked when I shot her in the chest.  The force of the bolt send her tumbling backwards over her chair, although I think she had been leaning back slightly too.  I could hear her moaning and gurgling as I reloaded my crossbow.  A man dressed in a dark suit like an undertaken poked his head in to see what the noise was and I shot at him too, but he dodged back around the corner with a frightened shout.  I turned invisible and walked a few blocks away. 

I have no idea who she was, she never did anything to me herself, but Glilcus and Stolo are my enemies and she worked for Glilcus and Stolo so she was my enemy too.  And killing your enemies is what you do right?  It’s natural and proper to kill your enemies isn’t it?  Who could argue with that?  Pacifists?  As a wise man said pacifism is nothing to hide behind.  A few streets and a couple bridges later I saw a tonic salesman set up with a cart outside of the free market.  That’s illegal, a merchant isn’t allowed to operate outside the free market and he’s probably doing it because he doesn’t have a permit.  I took care of that by running him through from behind with a rapier while he was putting the moves on three giggling women.  They wailed like banshees when I cut this throat just to make sure.  I ransacked his cart and found that conveniently he had his real wares hidden in a compartment under his bottles of snake oil.  I couple consortium goons ran towards me as I picked up his satchel but I turned invisible and walked away across another bridge and to another section of the city.

Going down into the lower city I found another one of Peronell Missplitter’s little shops with two guards outside.  I took cover down the street a few shops and started sniping at them with my crossbow.  They couldn’t seem to locate me and after taking a couple hits one of them fell to the ground and his buddy dragged him inside yelling for help.  I don’t know what the shop I was hiding in front of was other than cramped, poorly lit and gaudily decorated.  An incredibly skinny man with a wild mop of wheat-blonde hair came out the front door to scream at me.  I bashed him in the face with the butt of my crossbow and he went down in a fountain of blood.  I considered shooting him as well, much to his dismay, after all I’m at war with the consortium and Three Rivers is the consortium for all intents so therefore anyone in Three Rivers is my enemy right? 

I didn’t do it, but if I had it would have been a morally good act in service of justice.  If justice can be achieved without violence, it ought to be. If war must be fought, however, anything you do to the enemy is fine.  Shooting that innocent man in the face would have been a morally good act in service of justice.  By accepting my actions morally, I can still find respect for myself.  And who deserves respect more than me?  I went across and back up to the topside of the city, intent on making my way out, but I saw a group of consortium goons hassling some protestors so why not take a few potshots?  The why not turned out to be because they almost caught me, but I managed to get away in the end.  I’m very good at getting away with things. 

Potshot is a weird term.  It’s usually employed as an insult, taking a shot at someone who doesn’t deserve it but as I understand it the idea is that a potshot is a shot for the sake of getting an animal for the cooking pot rather than shooting just for the fun of it.  So the usage really makes no sense.  I apologize for my poor choice of words, even if I was just following societal conventions. 

Once I was clear of the city I went back to the spot where the Ples Del’mer girl had led me but it was well before dark so she wasn’t there.  Although it turns out that she was never coming back anyway.  I managed to retrace the steps on my own (small miracle right) but those dirty Ples Del’mer bastards had pulled up stakes and carried on, leaving Martialla to lie in the dirt like a wounded animal.  Which I guess she was since she was wounded and humans are animals.  People tend to forget that.  She looked unconsciously or maybe dead, but when she heard me approaching her head popped up.  I picked up her cursing softly to herself.  The effort of raising her voice clearly was tiring in and of itself but she managed.

“Go away Ela!”

I kept walking towards her “Don’t be stupid.  Be pissed at me if you want but I have healing potions for you, it makes no sense to turn me away.”

She held her hand up and I saw the magical energy starting to gather in her palm – and also sweat starting pouring down her ashen face immediately from the effort “Stay away from me Ela, I mean it!

I sighed “Look if you hate me now fine, but there’s no point in laying here to die – let me help you and then you can go back to hating me hale and healthy.”

Her hand was shaking like that of an old man “I’m serious Ela, if you take another step towards me I’ll burn you.”

I gestured casually “Go ahead, take your shot, maybe it will make you feel better.  Work out some of your anger.”

She didn’t say anything so I continued towards her and I hadn’t taken three steps before a searing beam of fire erupted from her hand.  It forked like lighting, one of the branches missed badly, but the other sliced me across the ribs.  Explain that will you?  How can fire cut you?  But that’s what it felt like.  Magic is crazy.  There was enough impact to spin me around and knock me to my hands and knees – where my eyes started stinging from the dark smoke coming from my own singed fleshed.  I realized after a moment that my short was on fire and I desperately beat it out.  I’ve seen Martialla do that to other people many times, now I know what it feels like.  Bad. I had dropped the potion case so I pulled it over by the strap and started riffling through it.

“If this was a novel I’d crawl over to you to give you a potion before I drank one myself, as some kind of ill-conceived apology.”  I popped the cap and downed the potion like it was fine spirits.  “Wouldn’t that be silly?”

I crouched and no further arcane artillery fire was incoming so I felt like that was a good sign.  When I walked over I saw that she had passed out from the exertion of casting her spell.  I like to think that she wouldn’t have attacked me again either way.  I poured one potion down her throat, which healed her enough to start struggling against me.  Half the second potion was wasted as I tried to force her to drink it as well before scooting away in exasperation and then hurling the third potion at her.

“Fine, here, drink it your Gods damned self.”

She muttered something about it probably being poison by drank it anyway.  It didn’t make her hair grow back, but she ripped the bandages off her head and the splints off her legs and crammed her stupid hat on her head so she must have been mostly fine.

She glared at me as she got to her feet “This doesn’t change anything.”

“I know that.”

She stared at me for a long while “It isn’t easy for me either you know.”  I didn’t know and was about to say so when she continued “You like to talk about how bad you had it growing up in the lap of luxury but I had it way worse than you.  I was on my own.” She gestured expansively “Out there.  I had my sister to worry about and keep safe.  You think your life is such a fucking tragedy because you had a bed to sleep in every night and all the food you wanted and stables and tutors?  I’ve been working since I was a fucking child!  Who was looking out for me?  Fucking nobody!  You complain all the time about how you can’t trust anyone, you think it’s easy for me to trust anyone?”

“I never thought about it.”

“Exactly.  Ex-fucking-actly.  You’re selfish, and you’re cruel, and you treat me like a servant.  What kind of friendship is that?”

“The only one I’ve ever had.”

She took a breath like she was steeling herself before plunging into cold water “I think we’ve reached the end of the trail Ela.  I can’t afford to be your friend anymore.  I think it’s best that we go our separate ways.”

The words came a lot easier than I expected “Please don’t leave me.  I know I’m a bad friend, I wish I could say that I’ll change but I don’t know if I will, or if I can.  I don’t deserve your loyalty, but I’m asking for it anyway.  Don’t leave me alone.”

After what seemed like an eternity she spoke “Let’s go to Graltontown, do what you said you’d help me do when the first met.  Show me that my concerns matter to you at all.  Then we’ll just see what happens after that.”

I shook my head “I can’t.  I have to go to Gib’s Tor.”

“What will happen if you don’t?”

“I’ll die.”  She sighed again wearily “Are we going to be okay?”

“I don’t know, it’s hard to see how we could be.”  She frowned “Why is there blood all over your clothing?”

“I think there’s something wrong with me Martialla.”

I couldn’t tell if her laughter was bitter or not.

________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Funds: 6922 gold

XP: 1,196,951

Inventory: Bag of Holding, +2 Distance Light Crossbow, ruined nobles traveling outfit, Ring of Invisibility, potion case, potions (Cure Light Wounds x3, Enlarge Person, Protection from Evil, Cure Moderate Wounds x2, Oil of Fire Trap, Rage)

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, eyeless hag, Baron Saltwheel, Baron Harmenkar, Colonel Tarl Ciarán’s wizard soldier, Victor, Beharri, Cebuano, Mayor Eryn, Chimera Trading Company, maker of the manacles, Calvados Eure, Law Offices of Lampblack and Brimstone, Peronell Missplitter, Nightmare Hag

Macendamandel 18 Year 888 (New Imperial Calendar)

I trotted my steed into Three Rivers a couple hours before dawn.  For a brutal commercially sponsored dictatorship security is surprisingly lax in the city.  I suppose you don’t worry about tax revenue when you control everything and there’s nothing being imported outside of your own little monopoly.  I dismounted, leading my fine stolen steed into the lower city and asking the first person I saw (there were a lot of people working already even before sunup) where the local chapterhouse of the messenger service was located – the idea being that I had found the grand equine wandering in the woods and wanted to return it to the proper authorities.  The fellow I asked had one of those beards without the mustache part and his eyes were wide and unfocused.  He told me that there was no royal messenger house there which I didn’t believe because I’m ninety-nine percent sure that’s illegal – every community with more than a thousand residents on a royal highway is required to at least have a swing station.  But several other people told me the same thing so it must be true.  Maybe I can take down the Consortium with that legal issue.

Eventually I just found a stable and turned the horse over to the stablemaster to let him figure it out.  I was sad to hand him over, he was a fine steed and I would have liked to keep him, but aside from the fact that I was technically committing treason by riding him I’ve found that my lifestyle doesn’t support me having anything that I can’t carry on my person – including things that could carry my person on them.  I made for the safehouse but at the first leg of the journey I was intercepted by one of the street performers that had been feeding us information – a preposterously flexible woman with jug ears and lank dirty brown hair named Eaevn.  She told me that the safehouse was no longer safe, Hessenmeel had been captured and executed.  Milani and Damrow had taken over the reins of the group but they had shifted things more from rebellion mode to non-violent protest mode. 

“What about Martialla?”

Her face was blank “Who’s that?”

“Tallish, dirty blond hair, pancake face, stupid hat – she was recruiting with Hessenmeel.”

She shrugged “If there were any other leaders they must have been captured and killed as well.  Milani and that out of towner are the only ones left that I know about.”

I sighed, this is what happens when I’m out of it for a minute – everything falls apart.  I would be lying though if underneath my exasperation there wasn’t a rich seam of fear as well.  When Martialla hadn’t shown up at the safehouse the night I was captured I didn’t think for a moment that anything had happened to her – we’re not joined at the hip and she can take care of herself.  But the casual way Eaevn declared that she must be dead made me go cold all over. 

There was a part of me that was angry for being worried about someone else, that said this is what happens when you form attachments of any kind.  And for a long time I would have given that voice its head.  But you know what?  Martialla is my friend, and that’s nothing to be ashamed about, that’s not a weakness.  I realize that now.  My grandmother always told me that the strong are strongest alone, but as wise as she was her words in that case undermined her own argument – because she was sharing them with me.  We weren’t alone, we had each other, and we were both better off for it.  I was alone for a long time, so much so that the idea of every trusting or depending or caring about anyone else was repugnant to me.  I was a survivor and I valued that over everything else – I didn’t need anyone else.  I didn’t want anyone else.

And that’s still true that I don’t need anyone else, but by the same token I don’t need delicious wine.  I don’t need good food and a soft bed and a stable full of fabulous horses.  I don’t need for my enemies to be destroyed.  But life is so much better with those things.  And my life is better with Martialla as my friend as well.  I would have avoided becoming her friend had I know it was happening. In order to make a connection with someone you have to show your ass – and being vulnerable it something that I would never voluntarily do.  She showed up and we were going along and then one day we were just friends.  And I’m glad that it happened, because even though it opens up the possibility of something like this – her being taken away, it’s worth it. 

I hit the streets and started doing some legwork like in the old days, gathering information to see what had happened to Martialla.  Enough people said that she had been captured by the consortium that I decided that it was probably true.  Unlike with Hessenmeel there had been no public execution for her, people assumed that she had been killed in private.  But no one had seen her die.  I wasn’t going to believe that she had been snuffed out by the consortium until I saw a body.  That’s hard information to come by though, unless someone was actually there – assuming that it happened at all.  I was contemplating some kind of ill-advised covert action against one of the Consortium bigwigs when I was approached by a stern looking man with grey hair wearing an overgenerous forest green mantle.  I recognized him as one of Hessenmeel’s merchant contacts.

He told me that Martialla had indeed been captured by the consortium, but that some of the group of Hessenmeel’s followers that she had helped escape had staged a reciprocal rescue operation.  Sounds like it turned in a bloody mess but she was spirited away successfully.  Speaking with a chain of the surviving rescuers, who were more than a little bitter about the experience, they told me that she had been hidden out of the city with a band of Ples Del’mer travelers/wildcat lumberjacks/itinerants.  Which doesn’t seem like a very safe haven to me, but since they were already feeling salty about the rescue mission I didn’t break bad with them about it.  Plus they probably weren’t spoiled for choices in people willing to hide a condemned fugitive.    

From there I was eventually able to make contact with some shady operators who put me in touch with some smugglers who were able to convey me to the Ples Del’mer camp away from the city several hours after sunset.  By this point I was exhausted, which seems to be my normal state of being these days.  I’ve promised myself before that once this is all over the Duke is dead and gone I’m going to sleep for several weeks straight and never get up early or stay up late again.  I reaffirmed that promise to myself as I crouched in some bushes with the smugglers made dumb bird calls to the hidden camp of the wandering people. 

What no one told me is that Martialla had been badly injured – either during her capture, during her imprisonment, or during the escape.  Or possibly all three.  I was trundled to a covered wagon back in the brush where a single candle was lit and jealously shielded to reveal Martialla’s waxy and pale face.  Her legs were both bound with splits and she had bandages all about the head as well – based on the amount of missing hair it looked like a piece of her scalp had been ripped off.  My relief at seeing her alive was squashed instantly by her condition – I’ve seen her wounded in battle many times but never before had she looked as fragile and weak as in that moment.  Her face was slick with sweat and her breathing was labored.

“Good Gods you look like shit.”

Her eyes fluttered open and after a moment she woke “You look fine . . . . as always.”

She had an accusatory tone that I had never heard in her voice before, gone was our customary lighthearted mockery.  I wasn’t sure what to say but she had no issue coming up with something to say.

“Where the fuck were you?”

“I was captured too.  I just managed to get back to town.”

 She frowned “What do you mean?  Why were you out of town?”

“A man named Peronell Missplitter grabbed me and sent me downriver, he works for Pyshundt and . . .”

She clenched her fists so hard I thought she might break her own fingers “Who the FUCK is Psyhundt?  Another Gods damned person on your Gods damned fucking list?  So while Hessenmeel was getting fucking drawn and quartered and I was getting my legs FUCKING SMASHED you were fucking around with your fucking list?!”

“No, no, nothing like that.  Peronell grabbed me because he knew I was wanted by the Consortium, it just so happened . . .”

She was frothing at the mouth slightly as she shouted “Where the fuck were you Ela?  Where were you?  You LEFT me!  You LEFT me!”

“I was only gone for four days, I got back as soon as I could, I got pinched too!  What the Hells was I supposed to do?”

She nodded sarcastically “That’s what I’ve been wondering too.  I’ve been wondering what you could have done.  Seems like every time you’re in trouble I come to save your skinny ass but gee, come to think of it every time I’m fucked you’re nowhere around are you?”

“That’s not quite true, you know that . . .”

“Shut up!  Shut UP.  I am sick of your lies.  Lies, lies, lies!  All you do is lie!  Do you even know what the truth is anymore?  Could you even recognize if it slapped you in your ugly scarred face?”

“I don’t lie to you Martialla, I mean . . . not anymore I don’t.”

She snorted “Well, what a fucking comfort that is.  Thanks for remembering that I’m alive and coming to check on me.  As you can see I’m fucked up so I’m no use to you anymore.  I guess this is goodbye then right?  Good luck burning the whole world down because things didn’t go your way.  Things didn’t go exactly the fucking way you wanted them to so clearly that justifies killing hundreds of people.  Thousand even.”

“I had my own problems Martialla, I came back as soon as I could.  You’re an adult and you are more than capable of handling yourself, it’s not my job to babysit you.  You want to be mad at me that’s fine, let me have it, shout your lungs out, but you’re being unfair.  This is a bad beat and it sucks, it happens. You’re going to have to deal with it, if you want to be pissed at me for a while go right ahead.  You’ll get over it.  I’ll be back tomorrow with something to heal you.”

“Sure, because we’re such close friends.”

“That’s right.”

She closed her eyes “You don’t know what friendship is Ela, you’re dead inside.  Blow out that candle and go away.”

________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Funds: 6937 gold

XP: 1,196,951

Inventory: Bag of Holding, +2 Distance Light Crossbow, Noble’s Traveling Outfit, Ring of Invisibility

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, eyeless hag, Baron Saltwheel, Baron Harmenkar, Colonel Tarl Ciarán’s wizard soldier, Victor, Beharri, Cebuano, Mayor Eryn, Chimera Trading Company, maker of the manacles, Calvados Eure, Law Offices of Lampblack and Brimstone, Peronell Missplitter, Nightmare Hag