I’m going to admit something to you folks, despite living in Paladore for more than fifteen I don’t know what it is, I mean formally. The Kingdom is made up of counties and those counties are administered by Counts and Countesses. That’s pretty straightforward. Cathars is the capital of Cymrile County and the Count lives there sometimes. I know that Dukes are the next level above Counts but below the King. What I don’t know is what they are actually in charge of. You’d think that there would be duchies made up of counties and Dukes would be in charge of those, logically that makes sense. But there are not enough counties for that. Paladore is not the capital of a Duchy. So what is Paladore then other than the place where Duke Eaglevane lives? What is it the capital of? Nothing?
I think there are three Dukes that are in charge of all the counties and the other Dukes do stuff with trade or the military or something? My education really gave me the short shrift on civics and political sciences but I know seventeen different ways to courtesy and so much about fashion and makeup. Alsio it didn’t teach me what short shrift means. What I do know that is back in olden times (not the Old Empire though, I don’t think, I got shafted on history too) Paladore was two separate cities that were in separate kingdoms right on the border. When the THE Kingdom was formed they were forced together like reluctant lovers – not unlike the actual King and Queen at the time.
It’s easy to tell that Paladore used to be two cities because on one side you have grand towering buildings, sprawling manor houses, bustling markets, and all manner of comforts and opulence. The other side? Not so much. You ever see a turnip that looks fine on the top but the bottom part, which is scraggy and ugly even on a good turnip, is rotting away? Paladore is a like that, right on the “border” there’s a big band of normal urban sprawl but it gives way to blight the farther you travel across that invisible boundary. There’s no name for that boundary but everyone knows it’s there.
I heap a lot of scorn on Graltontown, and justifiably so, but the truth of the matter is that the far west parts of Paladore are even worse. Because of the scale if nothing else. The only thing in this world that can make me think for a single moment that maybe city life isn’t the way to go is a glimpse of the crushing poverty and misery if those crumbling parts of west Paladore.
“Ela what does this have to do with anything?”
I’m getting to it, hold your horses. Living in the Duke’s palace I didn’t have many glimpses of that part of the city – even on the rare occasion he wanted to go “slumming” we went nowhere near the actual slums. But when I was a child and was first brought there we passed through west Paladore and I saw something that I will never forget. A woman, a girl really, was handing a shiv to what could have either been her younger sister or her daughter and saying this “If they see you run, if you can’t get away go for the eyes or the groin first, then the throat.” That sums up west Paladore in a nutshell. It’s good advice as well. For me I changed it a little bit – first keep them talking, if that fails then run, and if that fails then you go for the groin stab.
I’m fantastic at the talking part. The running away part depends on where it is – in the country I’m not so good, in the city I’m great at that too. When it comes to the stabbing I’m better than I ever thought (or wanted) to be but in the final analysis I’m just a mediocre stabber. I’m good at catching people off-guard and getting the first strike, but if that first attack doesn’t end things or at least seriously debilitate whoever’s on the other end of the stabbing it often puts me in a spot of trouble.
Keep them talking, avoid conflict, and if that doesn’t work run like the Hells. And if that doesn’t work fight like the Hells – all thirteen of them. I suppose I should add in a fourth step, one that has served me well on several occasions – if you can’t beat them beg for mercy. Beg like you’ve never begged before. Discard all shreds of dignity and grovel like the most pathetic harmless defeated worm that ever lived. Offer bribes, flatter them, cry like a damn baby, do whatever you have to do to get them to be lenient. This is all in service of the number one rule that necessitates all others – stay alive no matter the cost.
I’ve broken a lot of rules, tons of them in fact, but that was one rule I hoped I would never be on the wrong side of. Things started off promisingly enough, the undead wolf beast (that was clearly NOT an undead werewolf because that would be ridiculous) was willing to talk. The problem was that it didn’t seem to have any wants or needs. Nor did a rotting half-man half wolf waking corpse find me attractive or interesting or useful in any way that I could work with. After an auspicious opening in a few minutes it was clear that the undead thing was losing interest in talking and gaining interest in attacking.
I’ll give myself credit for having enough awareness to know that. Cold comfort, but that’s all the comfort I’m likely to get from here on out. Since we were in a small office running wasn’t really an option. I could have backed through the door into the other smaller room and hoped there was a window I could dive out, but I was worried about the thing’s quickness – plus the stalhounds were out there, which I assumed were under the control of this thing. So that didn’t seem like a good option.
The best bet maybe would have been to try and make it out the front door and onto Stranger. The beast was between me and that door unfortunately. What I should have done knowing what I know now is started maneuvering for the door when we first started talking and it was still being amiable, relatively speaking. But I didn’t know then what I know now.
So fighting it was. When it became clear that it was time for violence I did manage to strike the first blow, sweeping it off its feet with this stick I found in Wolcott’s emergency stash. It doesn’t look like much, but it must be lousy with magic because there’s no way I could have done that all on my own. I would have liked to wallop a few folks with that, it’s too bad I didn’t get to have it for long. Speaking of, I really miss that magic walking stick that I had made. That thing was great. I don’t usually get attached to things, especially magic things, but I really liked that walking stick. It had so many things that it could do and it looked great. It saved my bacon dozens of times. Plus it was just fun.
But what really would have helped us those boots I used to have that let me run up walls like a squirrel up a tree. Those were really useful. If I could have gotten out the window and up the side to the roof now that’s an entirely different situation. But as they say it’s a dead craftsman who blames their lack of tools. I suppose I should have overcome my revulsion and learned to do some magic myself instead of relying on items. I’m sure I could have done it based on the wizards I’ve met. They weren’t the brightest bunch so I bet I could have learned to be great at magic. I just hate it so much. I guess for all my talk I was as hamstrung by pride as anyone. I don’t like magic so I didn’t want to learn magic. So I didn’t. I should be better than that, I did all kinds of things I didn’t want to do.
So I got in the first hit, and maybe one more after that, but then it was all undead wolf-monster from thereon out. I fought as hard as I could, I assure you of that, but it didn’t amount to much – I’m just not much of a fighter really. As several people warned me would happen I ran into someone (something really) that was immune to my charms and tricks and was stronger and tougher than I could fight in my wildest dreams. And as you folks well know I’ve had some wild dreams.
Getting ripped apart by an undead wolfman was very painful, don’t think it wasn’t, but honestly I’ve had worse. All the beatings and stabbings and acidings I’ve endured over the last two years were training for this moment I guess. It wasn’t a painless death but any means, far from it, but it wasn’t so bad all things considered. I’m sure many people would have wished worse upon me.
Remember that time that guy strangled me and I almost died, or maybe did die for a little while? Sure you do, it was when I was ransacking the house of the people that the Juosts displaced. During that strangling and almost death (or death)I had an out of body experience – I was floating outside of my body and I could see what was happening. This time was nothing like that. Everything just went black and that was it. I couldn’t see anything, there was nothing to see. I don’t think I exist anymore so how could I see anything? So maybe that’s how you know the difference between a near death experience and death.
The same guy showed up as that time though. Out of the darkness the tall, jet-black skeleton with a long, bony tail, and the massive black-feathered wings of a crow. Over its odd bird-skull face was a bronze mask that appeared to be of the face of the creature inside. It was very, very, very slowing coming my way.
But he wasn’t alone. Coming from another direction was the thoughtful looking bear-like “angel” that was the size of a small house. And from yet another direction was my old friend Poor Annie, the massive black canine looking like a tiny lapdog in comparison to the huge bear-angel. I get the feeling that time no longer means anything, yet it still seemed like it took forever for them to get to me – all arriving at the same time.
“So” I said without body or voice “What comes next?”