Date Unknown

Well it turns out that I misjudged Elth slightly.  I thought when I verbally tore into her she’d crumble.  Which technically she did, so I was right in a way, but she didn’t fall apart enough to keep her from having her goons throw me in a deep dark hole.  And if there’s one thing Graltontown has in abundance its holes – both of the ass and deep dark variety.  That and mouth breathing freaks.  It’s really a toss-up between the holes and the freaks.  That’s what it always comes down to in the end. 

If my reckoning is correct this is the third time I’ve been thrown on a lightless stone pit and I have to say it’s not an experience that improves the more you do it.  I’m going to be controversial here and say that I would be glad to never be thrown into a lightless pit ever again.  There, I said it.  On the other hand though it is probably the only form of torture that comes with a silver lining – it gives you time to think.  Time to plot.  Time to scheme. 

I don’t know how long I was down there, but I didn’t die of dehydration so it couldn’t have been more than a couple of days.  Sadly at this point I’ve become accustomed enough to a few days without food, but there’s not a lot you can do without water.  Except get really tired and have your mouth feel like it’s full of gross slime even though it’s so dry your tongue starts to turn into a piece of leather.  I knew a rent boy back in the day called Leather Tongue.  He wasn’t very popular.  That’s probably why he had to resort to robbery to get by and ended up being executed for robbery. 

It’s been a while since I pulled a proper robbery, I should do that one of these days just to keep in practice.  I loot dead people all the time, but that’s not the same at all.  That’s just taking stuff.  I haven’t picked a pocket in a good little while either.  I need to keep my skills sharp on these things.  Remember back in the early days when I stole twenty gold from the butcher shop and that was a big accomplishment?  It really was too, I mean I was singing on the street corner for silver at the time.  Look how far I’ve come. 

I wonder if Elth really did kill Martialla or if she was just saying that to try and get under my skin.  Clearly they must have encountered one another otherwise how would Elth have known about her?  I think she was lying though, Elth doesn’t have cold blooded murder in her bones, not just to potentially get back at me anyway.  She didn’t even have it in her to kill me, so probably Martialla is still alive.  Or if she’s not it’s because of something else.  Beyond my feelings about her on the personal level if would be a real tragedy if a useless pair of tits like Elth killed someone as wily and valuable as Martialla.  That would be a real shame.

When they finally came to drag me out of the hole the light stabbed at my eyes like a thousand burning needles.  You know the feeling when you’re hung over and some jerk throws back the window shades to flood you with sunlight?  It’s much worse than that.  I swear that dehydration does something to make your eyes more sensitive on top of the whole being in total darkness for three to four days thing.  Maybe someday I’ll be trapped in a dark room for a while with access to water so I can compare.  I hope that I’m not, but the way things go for me it would be a step up.

I moved to get up far too slowly for the liking of one of the goons.  I think I was moving pretty well considering the circumstances.   This fellow disagreed and expressed his counterargument by kicking me a few times.  I’m going to make another bold statement – I don’t like getting kicked.  It hurts so much more than getting punched.  His fellow goon pointed out that kicking someone on the verge of death wouldn’t make them go faster it would make them go slower.  But this guy has an answer for everything, he said “I know, I just like kicking women when I get the chance”.  You can’t argue with that.

When they hauled me up and dragged me out of there I very much wanted to pull a knife out of my secret pocket and stab the kicker in the face until his face was done and he was dead but I figured that was likely to result in me being thrown back into the hole.  I’ll just have to do something to him later.  After a long while without a lot of expansion on the List we’re about to have a slew of new names.  Sometimes I think my work is never going to be done.

I have no clue where they keep the hole they throw people in, but where it was I was taken to a small room with naught up a skinny table and a couple of chairs – I suppose it’s an interrogation room or something of the like.  They sat me down at the table and a trio of women came in to replace them.  One of them looked like a carnival strongwoman who was starting to turn to flab.  One of them was a lean half-orc woman who looked like a coiled spring.  And one of them was my old pal Stek.

“Well you’re moving up in the world aren’t you?  Are you a prison guard or what is your role here?  I’ve heard that pays a decent wage.”

She furrowed her brow for a moment and was just about decided to clobber me when she recognized me “Ela?”

I smiled thinly “The very same.”

Her face twisted into a mask of horror “My Gods what happened to you?  You look awful.

“Well thank you, it’s good to see you too.”

I jokingly asked if she could get me out of there but of course there was no chance of that.  She and her beefy pals searched me thoroughly a couple of times and then gave me a sackcloth “dress” to wear.  Stek sat me down at the table and gave me some broth to drink – apparently that’s better for rehydrating yourself that water.  Or at least that’s what she said.  Once I was lubricated enough to breath without getting a nosebleed she brought me some small bitter apples and some hard bread.  Even that small amount of food made my stomach roil.

“Thanks Stek, what I could really use is some whiskey though.”

She grinned “That’s not a good idea, alcohol just dries you out more.”

“Oh, that’s just an old wives tale.”

Despite her words she took a flask out of her shirt and poured me a capful which I eagerly downed “How did you end up here?”

I passed the cap back to her for some more “Oh you know, fighting against the established order, trying to stand up for the common folk, that sort of thing.  They don’t like it when you do that.”

“Strange, I figured you to be on the other end of the ladder when the class war started.”

“You want to know my secret?  I stay right in the middle of the ladder, that way when it flips I end up in the same place.”

She chuckled and looked around pointedly “Yes, clearly things are going well for you.”

“You know what they say, the night is darkest before the dawn.”

“They do say that but it makes no sense, the night it darkest hours before dawn.”

“True, so are you and your friends going to kill me or just beat me senseless?  If you’re going to beat me could you hold on the kicks?  I’ve had my fill of kicking for a while.”

“Neither, now that you’ve soften up a bit we’re just making you presentable for your audience with our benevolent and kind master the Baroness.”

“Master?  Don’t you mean mistress?”

“I thought a mistress was a woman having sex with a married man.”

“It is  a confusing term.  How about we say mastress?”

“Isn’t that a woman who makes masts?”

Once I was “presentable” I was loaded into a coach and returned to Wardsmeadow Manor where I was escorted under heavy guard to the solarium – if they did that on purpose to hurt my eyes it was a stroke of genius.  Baroness Elth was there but she wasn’t alone.  With her was another Baroness – the Lady Juost.  For a split second I was relieved, I thought she was there to speak on my behalf, but then I saw the coldness in her eyes.  There’s no way she could have figured out that I killed her husband but I suppose she could have guessed it.  In the cold light of day knowing what she knows about me and given the givens that’s what I would have assumed were I her. 

But that wasn’t the only special guest in the audience, along with the two Baronesses was none other than Duchess Eaglevane herself.  Seeing here there was so incongruous that for a moment I couldn’t believe what my eyes were telling me.  It’s like seeing a cow on the roof of a building in the city – it makes no sense so it takes a moment for your mind to agree with what your eyes are seeing.  The Duchess was never a great beauty, although she was no sideshow bearded lady either, and she was often in ill-health which didn’t help anything – but standing there before me that day she looked both healthsome and toothsome.  Her hair looked great.  She had grown it out and had some nice little curls going.   Maybe it was the dehydration talking but I don’t think she ever looked better.

They brought me there to grovel for my life and that’s what I did.  I’ve talked about this a couple times before so there’s no reason to rehash it, the bottom line is if you get a chance to beg for mercy there’s no reason not to take it.  Have you ever seen someone on the gallows lift their chin defiantly and say they won’t give the person condemning them to death the “satisfaction” of pleading?  Those people are idiots.  Dead idiots.  I knew Baroness Juost to be a religious woman, and I assumed that Elth was a well, being a country bumpkin that she is, so I leaned on that.  How I was a wretched sinner and ashamed of the things I had done and so on and so forth.  I apologized for everything I had done, I threw myself on their mercy, the whole nine yards.  I’m damn convincing at that sort of thing when my life is on the line. 

Aside from the three aristocrats there were a few other sycophants and fawners about who observed my display and clucked their tongues and said things like “disgraceful” and “have you no pride?”  Pride?  What the Hells good does that do anyone?  You can’t drink pride. You can’t eat it.  You can’t buy anything with it.  You can’t fuck it. The more of it you have the less good it does you.  If you’ve got none at all you don’t miss it.  There’s no shame in being a truckler if that’s what the situation calls for.  Okay there’s shame in it but that’s fine. 

The three women in their beneficence and mercy said that my life would be spared and I would be exiled to the North, never to trouble the good people of the Kingdom again.  I wept at their compassion and goodness and thanked them submissively.  I would have kissed their feet if they wanted.  I’m glad they didn’t because feet are gross but I would have done it. 

And so instead of death merely exile.  How stupid are these people?  Do they really think I’m going to quietly disappear never to be seen again?  Am I really that good of a liar?  I may have my flaws but one thing I don’t do is hesitate to put someone in the ground when I have the advantage.  It’s one of my best qualities. 

Montresor 20 Year 888 (New Imperial Calendar) Part 2

I’ve never really understood the expression “like a rat fleeing a sinking ship” where does the rat think it’s going to be able to swim?  It’s on a ship.  In the ocean.  Where do you think you’re going rat?  The rat would be much better served staying on the ship as it sinks.  There will be all kinds of wreckage to cling to, flotsam for sure, if the rat is lucky maybe even some jetsam.  Plus the rat can stay hale and hearty by nibbling on the bodies of sailors that drown.  What about water you ask?  Simplicity itself my good friend, the rat can live off the eyeball juices and blood of the rotting corpses as well.  Sure it’s a not a long term strategy, the rat is going to run out of eye juice eventually, but it’s better than just swimming into open ocean.  Stupid rats.

Kellgale slipped away into the crowd at the Cardshire Arms as the Graltontown city watch took me, not into custody exactly, but they were clearly tasked with taking me to see Lady Cornelio regardless of my interest in going.  As they escorted me through the streets they seemed to be wary of the worgs stalking the streets as much as the civilians were. I’ll be curious to ask Elth what the story there is.  The watchmen guided me to what used to be the edge of town before its massive expansion, where I was handed over to the safekeeping of a squadron of sharp looking soldiers in red and gold uniforms.  Not sure how they were, some manner of elite unit based on their haughtiness.  They transferred me to the Wardsmeadow Manor where I was handed off to another group of fancy looking fellows wearing the blue and black colors of the Eaglevane family.  It’s been a fair while since I’ve seen that uniform.  Can’t say as that I cared for seeing it.

I was taken into a room adjacent to the master bedroom where Elth was in the process of getting dressed for a formal dinner with the help of four maids.  Four maids is the correct number for this operation.  One to help you dress, one to help with the make-up, one to handle the jewelry and other accessories, and one floater.  Three or less and you’re shorthanded.  Five or more and that’s a too many cooks situation.  I know that some ladies like to have a whole battalion of maids attend to them at times like this, but that’s pure vanity, and foolishness to boot.  Four is the sweet spot.  Two of the boys in black and blue stayed nearby giving me dirty looks as I took a seat on a delicate chair.

“Why Elth I can see your petticoats, how lewd.”

When I first met her, covered in mud and pigshit on the road she didn’t look like much obviously.  Once I got her cleaned up and dressed properly she was a pretty picture to be sure, but still she didn’t seem like a great beauty that would entrance the duke’s cousin to the point of obsession.  But now, now she had a little something going.  She had grown into herself more, and while no one who knows about such things would mistake her for a true lady she was starting to get the hang of it.  Her hair was a natural treasure, honey-gold and smooth as silk – if you like blondes.  She turned to regard me with a frosty expression.

“I knew you’d come back.”

I held my arms out as if for a hug “Yes, and here I am!  The way you’re looking at me Elth, so cold!  Are we not still friends?”

“I’m not called Elth anymore, my name is Baroness Calseinica Daria Redgrave Goldenfield Cornelio.  And what is your name?”

I smiled “You know me Elth, I think of names like clothing – a different one for every occasion.”

Her minions continued buzzing around here like nothing was happening “Yes, I know you.  I don’t know if it’s your real name but I think Ela is what you’re called most often.  You ask if we’re still friends?  Is that what we were Ela?  Friends?”

“But of course we were friends, the best of friends.  I looked out for you didn’t I Elth?  I took you under my wing, I literally saved your life from those awful Hurmont people.  And then again when you were kidnapped by the enemies of your now husband.  I’m glad you came to your senses and went through with the wedding.  You see that was the best thing for you don’t you?  And the good news is with your new power and influence you can return the favor.  You can help me find some people.  People that have wronged me and need a good talking to.”

“Yes, you always had a way of collecting slights and insults.  That scar on your face for instance.  Not very comely is it?  Your looks are quite diminished, and you were always so proud of your looks.  I imagine someone paid quite a price for that.”

I flushed slightly with anger “They will.”

“I’m sure.  Friends Ela?  There was a time when I thought that.  There was a time when I thought of you as an older sister, a much older sister, someone who was going to show me how the real world worked.”

“That’s exactly what I did.”

She pursed her lips for a moment “Yes.  I suppose you did at that.  I think what I was to you was an investment Ela.  I realized after you left that you couldn’t have friends, it wasn’t something you were capable of, people were either obstacles to you or tools for you to use.  I was convinced of that, but it turns out that I was wrong.  When she turned up in town I discovered that you do have the capacity for friendship inside of you.  You and Martialla really were close weren’t you?”

“We travelled together for a while is all, how is the old girl doing?”

She smiled slightly “She’s dead.”

“Well that’s certainly a pity, she was a crafty woman, very useful.”

Her face twitched with anger as I maintained my calm “She came here, looking for someone, but I found her first.  I did it Ela, I killed her.”

I cocked my head “Did you really?  With your own hands?  I doubt it, I’m sure you had someone else kill her for you.  If you ask me . . .”

She leapt to her feet, scattering her maids like frightened birds and making the two guards tense up “You left me!  You left me here all alone!  I was nothing to you!”

“You’re getting upset Elth, that’s very bad for the complexion you know, and Gods know your complexion is shaky to begin with.”

“You pretended to help me, you pretended to like me, but it was so you could bring me here and sell me off to the Duke’s cousin like a prize heifer!  I ran away from home to avoid this marriage and you trapped me here!  You gave me away and then you left me!”

I held up a hand “Grow up lady.  I used you sure, you used me, we used each other – that’s what being an adult is.  I sheltered you plenty.  You were a babe in the woods when I found you.  What do you think you were going to do when you ran away from home?  You were talking about your fucking carpentry skills like a madwoman.  What did you think?  You were going to come to this shithole city and make cabinets or barrels?  If our paths hadn’t crossed you’d be out on the street corner right now getting worn out by whatever limp dick pig farmer had a few coppers.  In another year you would have been dead of an overdose or a slashed throat.  And look at you know – you’re a fancy lady in a stolen house with more money and power than you ever could have dreamed of!  You’re a Baroness for fuck’s sake!  And you’re going to break bad with me for what?  Because I didn’t stay around to be your best friend?  If anyone here should be pissed it’s me.  You fucking owe me!  You owe me everything!”

She had snatched up a hairbrush and was clenching it so tightly in her fist that it seemed like the handle would break.  A few tears run down her face “You left me.  You brought me here and you sold me off to that . . . man.  And then you left me.”

“Good Gods, are you crying?  You really are a child aren’t you?  Is this not going the way you wanted it to Elth?  Did you think that you could intimidate me?  That you could impress me?  Is this a joke?  I gave you a chance at a better life, I gave you power, and you’re going sit here playing dress-up like a fucking baby?  I am an adult and I am a woman Elth, you can’t get over on me, you have no idea what you’re doing!  You hit the jackpot!  A rich man wanted you and all you could do is run away and cry about it?  Your life was on course to be nothing and you get an opportunity that people have killed for and all you can do is complain?  And here you are still complaining!  Did you want me to fucking adopt you?

You’re all dressed up like a lady now but you’re the same terrified shit-covered little girl you were when I first found you.  You’ve advanced not a whit, you’ve accomplished nothing!  You’ve been given everything and done nothing with it.  I’ve had to fight for everything I’ve ever gotten, since day one!  And you’re going to sit there and whine at me you entitled little bitch?!  You drag me in here so you can do what?  Did you think I would fall apart at this pathetic little display?  Did you think I would break down and beg your forgiveness and we would hug and be best friends?  Things didn’t work out how you wanted?  Guess what idiot, you’re not the first person that ever happened to!  The world doesn’t stop spinning because Elth didn’t get everything she wanted.  Buckle up lady because it’s a bumpy fucking ride.  It ain’t over until you’re dead. Until then, you’ve got more punishment in store. Stand up to it like a Gods damned adult!”

Montresor 20 Year 888 (New Imperial Calendar)

I expected that Ancin, Reda, and Wine would try to murder me in the night.  They’re pretty salty about getting fired despite the fact that it was entirely justified.  Or maybe that’s why they’re so peeved about it – people are weird like that.  I suppose there’s a lesson there about taking it easy on people.  I should have killed Ancin and Reda and dumped them in the Heathgrove sludge for the gators or eels or wamp trolls whatever the Hells is down there.  Wine probably wouldn’t have sought revenge without being roped into it by those other too.  Maybe leaving him alive was okay.  Seems like being alive is plenty of punishment for him.

I don’t think that Kellgale even put them up to it.  It seems as though she’s had a rough time of it, there’s not a lot of fight left in her.  She’s so abjectly afraid of me that it’s not even fun.  What’s the point of taking revenge on someone who’s been beaten down by life so much that you almost feel sorry for them?  It’s like the world stole my chance for revenge.  What can I do about that?  I can’t get revenge on the world.  I suppose what I should do is build her back up to some semblance of the cocky scam artist she once was and then ruin her so that it has some teeth to it when I do it.  But that seems like a serious commitment of time.  It’s a real pickle. 

But what other options do I have?  Forgive her?  That certainly doesn’t seem like something that I would do.  I’ll have to think on that – how do you solve a problem like Kellgale?  Anyway, when the three murders snuck up on the tent I had commandeered I was standing a ways off in the darkness.  I give them no points for subtly and high marks for enthusiasm.  They collapsed the tent and started wailing away on what was inside (nothing) with their weapons.  I don’t know about you, but I have a pretty good idea if I’m stabbing a human body or a pile of bedding, seems they do not.  I guess they were too excited to take notice.  I wonder what their plan was for after, if they had one.  Loudly murdering someone in the middle of a camp doesn’t seem like a good way to get away with murder to me.   

With the fire behind them it was pretty easy for me to see them, although they clearly had no idea I was there.  They picked up that something was going wrong when I shot Reda (or maybe Ancin, I don’t actually remember which is which very well).  I was aiming for the chest but he moved just when I loosed and I ended up hitting him high on the side in the ribs.  One of the Duke’s torturers told me one time that burning someone in the armpit is one of the more painful spots you can target.  I wonder if that’s true.   

Before I could get off a second shot the camp was up in arms – which is pretty damn good response time.  I’ve seen far worse from far more professional organizations.  I belayed (what does that mean actually?) taking another shot as someone lit up the night with magic and people were rushing about with weapons drawn.  I stowed my crossbow and carefully came out of “hiding” into the light while Ancin, Reda, and Wine were surrounded.   

Someone asked what was going on.  I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a Striderian and based on the amount of grizzle going on I think it was one of the mercenaries rather than a bandit.  Mercenaries are often very grizzled whereas bandits tend to be hungrier looking like starving coyotes.  I told him what was going on was that these three men had stolen up upon me in the night intent on murder and I had barely managed to slip away from their depredations. 

They offered nothing in the way of a defense.  Although they did loudly complain about how I had fired them for incompetence.  Normally providing a motive for the crime you’re being accused of is a very risky legal move but I suppose since they were caught in the act there wasn’t must to be gained or lost no matter what they did.  I told the gathered assembly how I had dismissed them from my employ on account of their incompetence and drunkenness respectively and a tribunal was quickly assembled of the three leaders – the mercenary captain Blick Rissa, Stor Hairtail most senior Strider person based on whatever dumb system they use (most worn boots probably) and Pittacus Peatmoss the guy claiming to be a merchant who was clearly a bandit lord.  

They quickly decided that the defendants were guilty and the sentence would be death – carried out immediately.  Swift and arbitrary justice is much more enjoyable when you’re not on the sharp end of it.  I thought about asking for some manner of lenience for Wine since he’s more of an easy suggestible doormat than a stone cold killer, but what would be the point?  He’s the drunkest drunk I’ve ever encountered and I’ve encountered a few.  How he’s still alive I don’t know.  There was some talk about holding Kallgale responsible as well since they were in her employ but I put in a good word for her.  She was exiled from the camp but that’s fine since she’s coming with me to Graltontown anyway. 

There’s nothing like three men being decapitated before breakfast to start the day off with a bang. 

For some strange reason in the morning the rest of Kellgale’s hired swords decided they didn’t want to be around her anymore and made themselves scare.  Therefore it was just the two of us girls heading south full of light and promise and other good female stuff.  Late in the morning the stench of Graltontown came wafting northwards.  A couple of hours later the crouching toad of a town came into view.  Even from miles away it was clear that fustulent and brawling Graltontown was much changed since last I was there.  It seemed to have doubled in size and somehow gotten even shabbier and sadder.  I would liken it to an aged sow that somehow managed to become pregnant well past the day it should have been slaughtered out of pure mercy.  I suppose several thousands of soldiers passing through both ways along with all their hanger’s on will do that do you. 

Kellgale perked up enough to comment “What a shithole.” 

I snorted “What do you think it was before?” 

“Good point.” 

It’s hard to say at what point we actually entered the town, at one moment we were amongst a shanty town of tents and the next we were in amongst the glory and beauty of what has to be one of the worst cities in the Kingdom.  Aside from the population explosion (despite doubling in size it seems to have quadrupled in smelly morons) two other things were immediately evident.  Like in Cathars there were paintings of the Queen on the walls of many buildings.  There weren’t nearly as many but they were generally all of good quality, surprisingly.  Even more surprising though was that along with portraits of the queen were many paintings of none other than little Elth Belker herself.  She never looked so fine in real life as in those depictions but you have to make allowance for artistic license I suppose.   

The other interesting thing is the dozens of worgs we saw stalking through the streets.  Crowded though the streets were the beasts were given a wide berth – people flowed around them like fish around a shark.  A few of them were mounted by uniformed Shirelings like we saw before out on the plains but most of them were free and unencumbered.  I don’t know if they’re supplementing the town guard or supplanting them but they were doing more to keep people in line than that pack of lazy imbecilic fatheads ever did.  I saw a pickpocket get his hand snapped off to a bloody stump right there in the market.  Justice as swift and merciless as I saw that morning.   

Kellgale and I made our way to the Cardshire Arms – the place was hopping.  Mr. Conrad has really done well for himself with the influx of travelers.  The harried fellow at the desk told me that they had no rooms available and that none would be coming available.  I told him that I was old friends with the owner which seemed to really throw him off his game.

“You’re friends with Mister Moribond?”

“Who’s Moribond?  I thought Claire Conrad owned this place.”

“He sold the Cardshire Arms to Mister Moribond six months ago.” He tossed over his shoulder as he scurried off.

“Oh well, no matter, we’ll find him somewhere” I told Kellgale as we elbowed our way to a table.

We sat down ordered some food and drink and I started telling her about the many people in town we needed to take revenge on.  The many, many people.  I really had a hair trigger for putting people on the List back in those days.  I’ll forgive myself though because it was early on, I was still pretty angry about being drugged and left for dead in a provincial backwater.  Kellgale seemed to start coming alive a little as we discussed what contacts she still had in town and what kind of schemes we could get cooking.  Things were going well until I realized that the town watch – the normal town watch not the wolf monsters – had come in and were looming over us.

“Good evening gentlemen what can we do for you?”

The leader had that gruff voice that they must teach in watchman school “You’re wanted by Lady Cornelio.”

I put a hand to my chest “Little old me?  Tell me is ‘Lady’ Cronelio the broad who’s face is plastered all over the city next to the Queens’?  Has the country girl I knew by the name of Belker social climbed that high?”

He didn’t care for that.

Not.

One.

Bit.

Montresor 19 Year 888 (New Imperial Calendar)

Commodore whathisname (Cottonwood?  Candlestick?  Cambéul?  Some name that started with a C for sure) was nice enough to let me off on the south side of the river before the death fleet continued on their way to destroy the bridge.  Does this mean that the entirety of the county south of the river is in enemy hands?  Or that if it’s not now it soon will be in enemy hands?  Going to Graltontown is always a horrible idea, but if it’s fallen to the enemy that seems doubly true.  Maybe triply.  Is that a word?  Sounds weird.  Triply.  I probably should have asked the commodore for a situation summary before he dropped me off.  He seemed very accommodating for an enemy military leader.  I bet he would have told me all many of military secrets.  But it’s too late now.  Hindsight.

I really should start keeping closer track of how the war is going.  One moment there’s a titanic celebration in Cathars because the Queen secured a new alliance of some kind and won a critical battle down south.  The war is all but over and we won!  Next thing I know Vielanders are infiltrating the Lodge Woods and our own troops have sacked Malgareth.  Now an Ulpine fleet of monsters has control of the Compass River.  What’s really going on in the big picture?  I suppose this must be the fog of war they talk about.  I’ve already saved the Kingdom like seven times and it still seems like we might be losing.  Except of course the Kingdom doesn’t lose wars.  Ask any historian who’s still alive and not in prison.

My suspicion that the Ulpine raiders were destroying any riverside villages they came along as a matter of course was confirmed as I came across a mass of displaced persons from such villages on the road.  Most were heading for Ardint which normally would be a good idea.  I told anyone who would listen that the bridge was either gone already or soon would be.  Not many did.  I joined in the much smaller stream of people seeking refuge in Graltontown. 

When the sun was high in the sky a murmur and gasp ran through the group.  I saw what all the gawking was about off to the east.  Five worgs (everyone else thought they were wolves but I know a worg when I see one) were loping south a goodly ways off and they were dragging a body along with them.  I saw that one of the worgs had a grim-faced Shireling riding on its back wearing the uniform of a Graltontown guardsman.  Everyone else was terrified that they would attack the column, but I would have liked for them to come closer to find out what that was about.  Right before I left Graltontown the last time I was working on putting together a deal with the worgs of the Lodge Forest.  Looks like someone finished up my fine work I wager.

North of Graltontown there’s a spot where “vagabonds” gather to wait until they’re press-ganged into day labor by merchants.  I had never been there before of course, why would I, but the flow of people bent off that way and I always go with the flow.  I can’t imagine that prior to the local unrest this place was ever home to more than a couple dozen vagrants, but I now it has expanded into a massive camp of more than a thousand refugees, wanted criminals, escaped convicts, and deserters. Definitely the kind of place a woman traveling alone should normally avoid but I sliced the trousers off the first fellow that gave me the evil eye and beat him within an inch of his life with the Baron’s cane to make the point that I wasn’t on the menu.  After that most everyone was civil. 

As you might expect for a randomly thrown together collection of people fleeing war it was basically a giant mud (and other things) pile with children and dogs (possible both feral) running this way and that amidst the chaos.  I headed for higher ground where I saw actual tents, stacks of dry firewood , crude wooden tables with benches, hitching post with horses, and people that looked mostly clean and not diseased and desperate.  Along the way I came across a fellow in a strange blue robe screeching at the diseased and desperate.

“Do you think that money can buy you happiness?!  Do you think coin will buy you into Adariel’s bosom like a harlot at some tawdry carnival peepshow?!  Ownership is not the path to the afterlife, it is temptation!  The measure of a human is not what is in their pockets but the strength of their faith!  Strive not to be rich but to be rich in spirit!”

He wasn’t the usual wild-eyed fanatic with a crazy beard, he looked normal enough.  I decided to give home some pointers since he seemed reasonable.

“You need to work on your speech a little.  The afterlife is coming no matter what, I think what you mean is that greed with lead to the bad afterlife – the Thirteen Hells don’t you know?  Also not everyone here is human, most are, but not all.  So you might want to adjust that to be inclusive, say a measure of a person maybe.  That last line confusing, maybe you should say rich in money and then rich in spirit.  As it it’s just awkward.  Or maybe just say ‘strive not to be wealthy, but rich in spirit’ or something like that.”

He denounced me as a harlot and encouraged everyone to cast stones at me.  No one did, probably because I had just beaten a man bloody for kind of no reason.  I think I had some solid points.  Words matter, you should be very precise about what you say.  I was very curious about that robe.  It didn’t look like an Adariel robe, it looked more like a Vultur robe – and Vulturians aren’t known for their proselytizing.

“Where did you get that robe?  Did you kill the guy wearing it and take it?  I’ve done that a time or two.  The hard part is the blood right?  That one you have there looks a little torn at the hem but free of bloodstains.  How did you manage that?  Did you strangle the guy?  Vultur people are usually pretty canny in my experience, I’d like to know what scheme you pulled to catch whoever you took that robe from off guard.”

Rather than answering me he walked away muttering.  There’s probably a dead naked Vulturian somewhere but I suppose I don’t really care about that.  I continued up to the more organized section of the ragged mob.  The organizers of the “good” part of the camp were an alliance made up of the remains of a mercenary unit, Stridarian religious sorts, and a group that was playing it cool but were clearly bandits.  War has to be pretty hard on the banditry trade.  You’d think that Strider people would be organizing to protect the refugees since safe travel is their whole thing but it was just to protect themselves.  Typical. 

I had no problem insinuating myself into their ranks and taking what little pleasure there was to be had – a little food, a little wine, and a little gambling.  The lowest sort of unskilled gambling but any port in a sport as they say.  And who did I spy among these luminaries but my old friend Kellgale Nickoslander being attended to by my castoff men at arms Reda, Ancin, and Wine (among others).  They showed their customary lack of skills as bodyguards as I walked up and sat across from Kellgale at one of the tables without them moving a muscle.

“You look terrible Kell, what’s befallen you old friend?  After all that money we made at the tournament I thought you’d be doing well.  And yet here you are looking like a blonde scarecrow without enough straw in it.”

She looked like she had seen a ghost, mumbling something about poor investments.

I nodded sagely “Yes, I can see you have three poor investments with you right now!”

 I laughed much harder than deserved, watching the angry eyes of the three men, or two really, Wine seemed more confused than angry.  As usual.

Kellgale could barely look me in the eye “Are you here to kill me?  Have you come for my soul?”

“Your soul?  Oh right, last time we met I was damning souls to the Hells.  That was just a business deal I was doing at the time Kell, it’s not something I’m into generally speaking.  I’d be happy if I never damned a soul to the Hells again.  I would if I had to, obviously, it’s damn or be damned out there as you know but I didn’t get a taste for it the way some people do.  I damned some people to the Hells to get myself out a jam and that was it, I’m not proud of it but I did what I had to.  And kill you?  Kell.  Come on, it’s me!  Ela.  Or you know whatever fake name I gave you at the time.  I did that a lot back then.  You mind raping me that’s all water under the bridge okay?  I’m not here to kill you, I need you to tell me what’s going on in Graltontown.”

She shook her head, tears in her eyes “I don’t know, I was in Malgareth, I just escaped . . . I was coming . . . it was awful.”

I reached across the table and took her hand “I’m sure it was, I’m sure it was, you hush now friend, things are looking up for you.  We’re going to do great things together Kell, just like the old days.  Remember the old days Kell?” I chuckled “We had us some lively times didn’t we?”

She looked like she was going to be ill.

New map!!!!

As you all know I post a new map every 37 Wednesdays, but why? The number 37 symbolizes the Force, the Capacity and the Power. Also because of Clerks. I recently added Clerks to the list of movies I have to stop watching because I was starting to not like them anymore.

Which flag is your favorite? Answer in the comments to be entered into a drawing for a 1994 Ford Taurus!

Montresor 18 Year 888 (New Imperial Calendar) part 4

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my time for far (and there’s not, there’s tons, guys I know a lot of stuff) it’s that life takes some funny turns.  One moment you’re crouched in a dark windowless storeroom waiting to be blown to bits and the next moment you’re onboard the flagship of an invading fleet having lunch.  The food wasn’t much to get excited about but Commodore Cottonwood (more military men should seek out an alliterative rank) at the least provided a nice bottle of Lisken wine. 

The commodore was dressed in the manner of a common sailor and had the strangest pattern of baldness that I have ever born witness to.  He had the standard receding hairline leaving a stark peninsula of wispy hair jutting out in the front, but then on either side he had another little dip and a sandbar of hair as well.  It was like he had sideburns above his ears.  I’ve never seen anything like it.  When I first saw him I thought maybe he shaved his head to look like that for some incomprehensible reason but as we chatted through lunch I realized that’s just what his head is doing.  It’s something you have to see to believe for sure.  His head looked like a shoreline itself with little coves.  Maybe that’s why he became a navy man.

He had wanted to know who had organized the defense of Peacevast and once he found out it was a woman he simply “had” to meet me.  He was a tedious man.  The majority of his conversation was “I can’t believe you’re a woman” rephrased in slightly different ways.  This is especially odd given the fact that his executive office is a woman as are the bulk of his sailors.  Not to mention the fact that the defense of Peacevast was little more than telling everyone who could to get weapons and fight.  I guess the part with the ships was worth a little something but it was really just common sense.  It was a tiresome afternoon but I played along.

In the olden days I had an unlimited capacity for going along to get along, that was my job after all, and I was pretty good at it.  Also my life depended on it, which really helps motivate me.  But these days I really get myself worked up into a lather when I have to play a role for one of these preening jackasses.  What I wanted to do was stab him in the face until he was dead and then make a run for it.  I probably could have gotten away with it too, but probably isn’t good enough odds.  I like definitely more than probably.  And assuredly is the best.  So instead I smiled and laughed and acted the way he wanted me to act – defiant but not too defiant, just the right amount of challenge for him to “overcome”.  But I wanted to stab him in the face a lot.  I just want you to know that.

I’m sure that his intention was to keep me as his prisoner on his ship and then throughout the rest of the war trot me out whenever he felt like having chat and that in his mind eventually I would become his mistress and fall in love with him.  Then when the war was over we could have some teared-eyed embrace on the docks of whatever Ulpinese shithole he lives in as he goes back to his wife because of his dumb kids of whatever.  Despite this fantasy it was easy enough to convince him to let me go.  I’m pretty good at convincing people of things too. 

I told him that I was born in a house of ill-repute (but you know one of the fancy ones) and never found out which one of the women working there was my actual mother.  I told him how I was set to earning my keep at an early age, not in the way you think – cleaning, cooking, and running errands.  I told him on my sixteenth birthday they had a big celebration with a cake and presents and everything – that had never happened before.  And at the end the party when everything was nice and warm and rosy the fellow that owned the place declared that it was time for me to start working for real or to get the fuck out.

I told the commodore that I quickly found out how hard it is to make a living alone on the streets of Indlestacle. With nowhere to stay, no guaranteed meals, and no one looking out for me things had taken a turn.  But if I had learned one thing it’s that that a bit of flattery works on just about anyone.  I told him that I had lived by my wits, which is a nice way to say that I conned people.  I specialized in religious fakery, telling people what they wanted to hear and reinforcing what they wanted to believe. The Gods wanted people to be successful, but there were evil forces aligned against them. I could show them the way to the prosperity the Gods wanted them to have.

I told him about how doing this led to me to having an actual transformation of faith.  I had told people so often about the glory of the Gods that I started to believe it myself.  I joined to the church of Adariel as a novitiate but ended up not taking my final vows of priestesshood because I had fallen in love with the most wonderful boy in the world.  And when he died in the last war I thought that I would die myself, but when I didn’t I only became more convinced that the Gods had a plan for me and for everyone. 

I told him how I used my skills as a healer traveling from town to town helping in any way that I could.  It was a sappy story but that worked out well because the commodore was a sap.  I swear that he cried at one point.  He went on some long winded soliloquy about war and duty and this and that, I guess he was trying to say something about how great  I was for not hating him after the death of my fictional beau.  After talking for a long time and saying nothing he said that was all well and good but how was I able to organize an effective defense against his attack? 

I dropped him a sassy wink, completely out of character for what I had been portraying him “Adariel helps those who help themselves.”

I don’t even really know what that was supposed to mean but he looked at me for a moment and then roared with laughter like it was the funniest joke ever told.  He pounded the table so hard that a fork flew onto the deck of the ship and his Halfling page had to scurry out and pick it up.  Probably a slave.  Ulpine isn’t civilized like the Kingdom, they have slavery there. 

I not only convinced him to let me go, I convinced him to let all of the survivors go.  The ones that hadn’t already been tossed overboard to the monstermen anyway.  After all the villagers were just defending their homes, they’re not even militiamen, so they’re not soldiers they’re just noncombatants really.  And the dwarfs, they were just at the wrong place at the wrong time, they didn’t even know what was going on.  The witch and the wizard were nowhere to be found, probably they had escaped with magical means.  Which begs the question of why they were fighting to defend the village in the first place of they had the means of getting away. 

Montresor 18 Year 888 (New Imperial Calendar) part 3

The name escapes me at the moment but there’s a book the premise of which is that some shifty alchemist comes up with a formula that can turn people invisible for long periods of time.  Wizards and such can turn people invisible obviously, but it’s only for a short time and also then you have to deal with a wizard – and who wants that?  The alchemist injects his serum into a squad (or whatever) of soldiers so they can invisibly murder the enemy.  But the serum is bad for you man.  After the first few times most of the soldiers start getting all twisted in the brainpan and eventually they go totally crazy.  There’s one guy though who’s able to keep his shit together and while all his squadmates (or whatever) go mad he keeps going on missions of invisible slaughter.  Eventually they learn that that guy is dying because even though he’s able to maintain his sanity the juice is eating away all his organs.  But he keeps doing it because otherwise it was “all for nothing”.

The book is renowned in certain circles for a couple of reasons.  One is that the author just made the book about the Kingdom – they didn’t invent a new place and make it exactly like the Kingdom like most people do, they just called it the Kingdom.  The second reason is that people of a certain ilk regard it as an ultimate expression of the pointlessness of armed conflict and of the exploitation of the working class by the ruling class while at the same time being held up by others as a perfect example of a citizen doing his duty to the bitter end and honor and glory and all that.  And thirdly some other people love this book because it allows them to argue endlessly if the main guy really was crazy because he kept going on the missions – and if that made him the craziest of all. 

At the time I first read it I thought it was fine.  It seemed to me like one of those books that people like because of the idea more than the execution of the idea.  I don’t think it’s a great book, but invisible soldiers are way cool so people pretend like it’s some monumental work of art.  Now that I’ve actually spent a decent amount of time invisible I retroactively find this work annoying because a squad of invisible people?  That doesn’t work.  You know because they’re invisible.  I had that issue all the time when Martialla and I were trying to do stuff invisibly.  Even if you attempy something as simple as “hey let’s both turn invisible and attack those people by that tree” you end up both showing up at different times or you bump into each other or some other damn thing.  A whole squad of people?  No way in Hells that works.  It would only work if you were invisible but could see other invisible people, or if you had telepathy or something maybe. 

Not only that but in the book the soldiers were invisible for days or weeks at a time and there’s a bunch of chapters were they’re having conversations with each other during those times.  I didn’t notice it at the time, but now I realize that the writer was talking about their body language and facial expression and so forth during the invisible conversations.  Which makes no damn sense.  I bet if I asked the author about it he’d say “oh it’s a metaphor” or some other chickenshit thing like that.  Writers are the worst. 

“Ela what does this have to do with anything?”

Nothing really.  I just often think about that book whenever I’m around a bunch of soldiers. 

My tattoos were glowing on account of the people coming out of the river. Lliterally walking out of the water, not like all the other people that were on boats.  They were obese fellows with grey-white eel-like skin.  You know how the flesh of an eel looks like it’s pudding or something?  It’s not like fish scales or like skin or anything proper, it looks like if you touched it your hand would sink into it.  And also like you would never want your hand to sink into whatever it was.  They appeared to have no genitals but they may have been hidden behind their pendulous flabby belly that swayed like holiday dessert in a bowl.  They for sure didn’t have ears, nor eyelids – and they really needed eyelids because they had eyeballs the size of my fist.  Actually no, not my fist seeing as how dainty and wonderful my fists are, more like the gnarly first of a bulky longshoreman.  Their necks were like a mass of skin flaps like one of those weird wrinkly dogs you see sometimes, only with skin.  Maybe those are gills of some kind?  I would wager that other people who saw them would say they were “fish-men”.  They looked nothing like fish.  They looked like abominations.

What the Hells is going on in Ulpine?  First they have horned women crewing their ships and now they have these walking nightmares working for them as well?  I feel like the Kingdom propagandists are really missing their mark.  Instead of talking about how Ulpine violated the Treay of Cole Loch by collecting taxes in the Northern Marches three times a year instead of two times a year how about we focus on how they’re monster-lovers?  You know what people don’t care about?  The taxation of noblemen in border lands.  You know what they do tend to get riled up about?  Monsters eating their faces. 

I have no idea why he did it since we were getting out of there anyway, but one of the villagers ran at the creatures as they slowly and inexorably came out of the river and impaled it with a spear.  The creature didn’t seem to care in the least.  Or maybe it cared a little big since it ripped the guy’s head off like a farmer does with chicken, but it didn’t seem to cause it any pain or damage. 

Although as it turned out we were not getting out of there.  We ran through the village only to find the bellringer and the shouter coming back our way with about a score of other people.  The fleet must have landed some men further down the river and they doubletimed it up to block the path to the north.  Not wanting to get caught between them and the eel-monsters coming out of the river I made the command decision to head north.  My reasoning was that even though the bridge to the north was their target none of the Ulpine ships had made it past the village so I figured that was our best bet.  But there were soldiers blocking that route as well.  There was no time to head back to the south, we were trapped.  We took cover in the sturdiest building in Peacevast – a stone storehouse of some kind that we kidded ourselves into thinking would be able to stand up to a magically exploding ballista bolt.

I was looking for a good opportunity to take on the form of an Ulpine soldier and slip away while the rest of the group prepared for a last stand.  I’ve never been one for last stands myself, it’s just not my style.  But the attack never came.  We huddled amongst sacks of moldy grain while the village was flattened building by building.  Every forty seconds or so another mighty boom and a building was gone.  Once our shelter was the last thing left though the artillery stopped.  Soldiers surrounded us at a safe distance but there was no charge. 

After a while a small woman (not a Halfling, she was just short) came forward out of the line of soldiers.  She had on those baggy pants sailors seem to like but over that was a rich red check patterned garment that would have looked great on me except for the fact that it would have barely come down to the middle of my back.  Her hair was ridiculously coiffed for a battlefield and she was chewing on an apple.  I wanted to shoot it out of her face just because it was such an obvious move to show how casual and unconcerned she was.  I detest that kind of playacting. 

She tossed the apple core away with calculated nonchalance, for a small woman her voice was strong and clear “Who’s in command here?”

I stayed well back but tossed my voice out to her “Master Sergeant Hala Tankelthorn at your service.”

She smiled indulgently “I wasn’t aware that the Kingdom was enlightened enough to allow women serving in the ranks of their renowned military.”

“It’s a recent change, we’ve got a queen running the place now you know so women are being afforded more opportunity.  It’s terrible, as you well know it’s woman’s duty to stay at home and be the primary care giver because the Gods created us to bear children.  And yet here I am fighting and dying like a man.  I mean I have a sword in my hand instead of a knitting needle – what is even happening?”

She shook her head sadly “What is the world coming to?”

“It’s tragic is what it is.  Hey what’s the deal with those guys that came out of the river?”

“You know of it is in wartime, alliance are made with all sorts.  Strange bedfellows and all that.”

“You get into bed with those things?”

“Figure of speech.  I’m here to talk about the terms of your surrender.”

“I’d love to hear them.”

“Surrender now or we’ll kill you.”

“Well that’s simple enough.  I give you credit for not trying to fancy things up.” 

Montresor 18 Year 888 (New Imperial Calendar) part 2

The “fun” thing about battle fury is when it ends.  One moment I’m jumping around swinging my sword like man and then all of a sudden I was thinking to myself “why am I running onto this ship instead of hiding back on shore shooting with my crossbow?”  It’s great.  One of the sailors (are they still sailors on a river?  I guess the boat did have a sail.  What do you call people that work on a sail-less vessel?  Seamen?  But what if they’re not on the sea?  Or men?) came at me with a hook (not like a hook for a hand a tool of some kind) but I managed to grab her by the horn-antlers and knock her off balance.  Also I stabbed her through the stomach.  I should have said something like “nice rack!” but a guy with a sword (I think they’re called cutlasses when you’re on a ship – which is not good since I’m a lass and I don’t like being cut) was coming at me and he looked pretty pissed.

I managed to parry his first stroke but then I was reminded that fencing isn’t really my thing.  I’m more comfortable stabbing people in the back.  Preferably while they’re asleep.  Also it would be good if someone else was doing the stabbing while I was watching from a safe distance and drinking champagne with orange-flavored triple sec liqueur and cranberry juice.  He backed me up with his swinging cutlass (if you know what I mean) whereupon I tripped over some kind of nautical thing that had ropes tied to it.  Did he do that on purpose?  That’s some pretty crafty fighting using the environment to his advantage like that.  As he loomed over me I used my Stole and a few bars of The Farewell Aria of The Red King Bajazet to fill his face with jagged shards – pretty sure one of them went in his eye.  I could have done without seeing that. 

I poked him through the heart (you know with my sword) or at least somewhere close to the heart and he went down to the deck.  I looked him dead in the eye and said “I hope you already got paid for this voyage because the rent in the Hells is paid in advance!”  Now that’s a quip.  I need to make sure that I work on something really good for when I finally kill Duke Eaglevane.  What’s better than killing your most hated enemy? Sending them into the afterlife with your voice in their ears and the knowledge of your victory in their head, that’s what.

Another sailor came at me with her horns but I was able to sidestep and direct her over the side.  You’d think an able seawoman (riverwoman?) would know better than to run at someone with their head down like a goat on the deck of a ship.  An officer looking fellow started playing a fife which seems like a pretty silly thing to do in a fight but I assume that he was doing some kind of magic.  I advanced on him but another horned woman came forward to lash at me with a whip.  I’ve talked about the insanity of using a whip in combat before, they were a combat duo to beat a full house for sure – the fifist and the whip master. 

Despite my scorn the horned whipper managed to entangle my sword and send it flying into the river which is annoying because that thing was expensive.  I wonder how many valuable magic items are lying at the bottom of rivers after skirmishes like this.  Seems like you could make a pretty good living going around and gathering them all up with water breathing magic.  The fifist contributed concussive blast that knocked me back and over the side of the ship myself.  The question is – is the fife itself magic or did he just use it to cast a spell of his own?  Sadly we’ll never know.    

If you ever have someone cast a water walking spell on you here’s something to keep in mind – if you fall (or dive) into the water that’s like slamming into solid ground.  I was a little dazed tumbling over the side of the landing craft onto the hard, hard water but not so dazed that I wasn’t able to get out my crossbow and shoot the whip wielder in the face as she came over to look.  I clambered back on board where the fifist and the few other people still around all jumped off and started swimming towards another ship.  I’m generally not someone who gets hung up on fighting fair or honorable combat obviously, but there is something discomforting about shooting someone in the back of the head while they’re swimming away.  I still did it but I don’t feel great about it.

I hurled a blazing lantern from my Greatcoat onto that ship as well (why didn’t I do that from the start?) and then walked out onto the water to take stock of the situation.  The blazing fishing boats were drifting downstream towards the greater body of the Ulpine fleet but they weren’t doing much other than bottling up the river – the Ulpinese had smaller boats out in front pushing the fireships away with long poles or just extinguishing the fires.  The landing party had left dozens of bodies in the river, looks like they got mauled coming out of the water, but they had numbers on their side and were in the process of flanking the defenders and overwhelming them.  Grigori was in the mix fighting with a staff like a lunatic – must mean he’s out of magic.  There are a lot of reasons to disdain magic, foremost among them is its limited nature.  My crossbow never runs out of bolts. 

“Ela isn’t that because of magic?”

Shut up you!  As I dashed for the shore I saw a fucking shark tearing into one of the bodies in the river.  A shark!  In a river!  Nobody told me there was such a thing as river sharks!  And you know what else?  It was right at that fucking moment that the spell failed and I belly-flopped into the water.  You know, where the FUCKING sharks are!!!  As you know I’m not a very strong swimmer and having a longcoat on certainly doesn’t help – and you know what else doesn’t help?  Knowing that there’s a GODS DAMNED SHARK IN THE WATER!!!

Thankfully I was close to the bank anyway and I was able to clamber back into land quickly before any sharks murdered me.  I wanted to lay there for a moment to catch my wind, people underestimate the cardiovascular demands of fighting for even a couple minutes, but things were looking dire.  As they say no rest for the beautiful.  I called upon my Stole and blasted the backs of the marines with a quick sea shanty the name of which I forget – it’s about salt and sea and womanizing shame but I suppose they all are.  I would have liked to stay back and done some crossbowing but unfortunately I have to get pretty close for the Stole to do its thing so I waded into the melee with the Baron’s Cane.  Just in time to turn the tide like a big damn hero. 

The Ulpine marines tried to retreat to their boat only to find that their boat was gone and also was on fire.  With no other choice they looked like they were steeling themselves for a last stand on the riverbank but I used my voice amplification once again and told them they should swim for it – we were granting them safe passage.  Once they were in the water I start shooting at them, as did the dwarf after a moment and one of the villagers who had a hunting bow.  One of the other surviving villagers, whose hand was mangled and bloody, ran over and asked in horror what we were doing.

“We’re killing those guys who came to murder you and your entire family.  What did you think we were doing?”

Regrouping, a good half of the villagers had been killed, but the dwarfs and the two casters were still alive and kicking although much worse the wear.  I saw the witch attending the wounded and healing them with her magic.  I turned to Grigori.

“Since when can witches heal people?”

“That’s one of the main abilities of witches.  The role of witches is smoothing out life’s little aches and pains and helping people with their day to day lives.  They’re like wizards for the common people.”

“Since when?  All I ever see witches do is turn people into pig-monsters and build weird huts in trees that look like screaming faces.”

“I think that you’re thinking of hags rather than witches.”

Before I could respond I was interrupted by a building behind me exploding – knocking me face-first into the dirt and showering the backs of my legs and ass with debris and splinters.  Which for the record I don’t care for.  When I managed to sit up, I saw the culprit – another ship had swung into position by the shore with a couple of ballista on the deck.  I didn’t know they had ballista bolts that would make buildings blow apart like they were filled with smoke power but I guess I do now.  I am confident beyond all reasonable doubt that the purpose of this fleet is to destroy the bridge to the north – they’ve probably been burning the boats of any village they come across along the way just as a matter of practicality.   And just for fun too most likely, military people being what they are.  But by standing up to them a little bit it probably pissed off the commodore or admiral or whoever’s in charge of a river force enough that he ordered the place smashed to the ground.  It’s a real bastard of a choice – let the soldiers fuck you up and hope that they’ll have some mercy or fight back and know that then they’re going to really fuck you up.

I staggered to my feet and waved the others forward “Time to go gents.”

The dwarf with the crazy eyebrows frowned at me “What’s wrong with your skin?”

I looked down and saw my tattoos glowing brilliantly, shining through my clothes as they like to do “Are you shitting me?!”

Montresor 18 Year 888 (New Imperial Calendar) part 1

Moments after my anti-climactic triumph over the forces of evil and chaos Grigori and I were back in the camp as if we had never left.  No comment was made by the woman who’s name I misheard, she merely dished up some slop from a kettle for Grigori .  I went to sleep on one of the bedrolls she had gotten from somewhere.  I assume she used witch powers.  It’s probably an accursed bedroll of heart piercing or something, witches being the way they are.  As I was drifting off I heard the two of them going at it hard – I was too lazy to peek over at what they were doing but they certainly were enthusiastic about it whatever it was.  When a wizard and a witch have a baby is that were warlocks come from?  If a war mage is watching is the baby a hexblade then?  And where do blood hunters come from?  Maybe I don’t want to know. 

In the morning we returned to Peacevast, although I’m not sure why Grigori and whatshername didn’t split since returning to the village where you were imprisoned doesn’t seem like a great idea to me.  My plan was to get a few supplies and then continue on my way to Graltontown.  But we all know how my plans go.  Everyone seemed peaceful in Peacevast, we walked right into town without taking notice right away or what was going on. 

What was going on was that on the river a score or so of fishing boats were on fire and listing this way and that.  You’d think that kind of thing would attract attention right away but it took me a moment before I noticed the flaming ships.  They appeared to be unmanned and drifting, although who knows if that’s because the crews were dead or if they were cut free and set aflame from the dock.  There were a couple early rising fisherman dead on the docks, riddled with arrows.  One of them had a Gods damned ballista bolt through him – looked like a kebab.   

Once my attention was firmly fixed on the river I noticed the not on fire boats.  I’m no boat expert (boatwright?) but I would guess that they were Ulpine boats, mostly because the people on them were Ulpinese.  I would further label these people as “raiders” rather than soldiers because of their lack of uniforms, although it’s a pretty thin distinction probably.  Once the axe is in your face it doesn’t matter much what the person who put it there was wearing.  At first a thought some of them were wearing helmets with crazy horns on them but after a moment I realized that those were just people that had horns growing out if their heads.  And by people I mean women, the horned ones were all female.   

They weren’t minotaurs or anything like that, they were just women with horns.  Or antlers maybe.  Somewhere in between horns and antlers.  The horned women appeared to mostly be doing boat stuff (something with ropes?) while the “normal” Ulpiners were attending the boat arson and killing with bows.  Once I took in the scene I saw that there were a lot of Ulpine boats – and some really big ones, although they were further down the river to the south.    I guess this means Fort Obrinth must have been destroyed, or captured maybe, I don’t see how else they could have gotten their ships up the river.   

I heard someone in the village yelling “to arms! To arms!” and bunch of people ran out to see what the hubub was.  That was not a good idea, there was a boat hanging out by the docks packed with bowmen who unleashed a volley of arrows on those eager listeners that cut them down like wheat (why is it always wheat?  Why not sorghum or corn?  Is wheat especially easy to harvest?).  I saw a gape-faced man ringing a handbell and shouting that the village was under attack.  I knocked the bell out of his hand and gave him a good kick for emphasis. 

“Shut up you idiot!  You see all those archers?”  I jerked my head at Grigori and his lady friend “You two, make with the magic, get rid of those bowmen.”  I gave them a shove “Go damn it!”  I grabbed the bell-ringer by the coat “You, find that guy yelling and shut him up!”  As they ran off I strode into the middle of the village enhancing my voice to titanic proportions.  “People of Peacevast your village is under attack, stay indoors until further notice.  If you have weapons now is the time.” 

A few arrows fell around me but were thwarted by my Greatcoat and various other protective charms.  I dashed to the building where I had seen the dwarf witch hunters and nearly got a crossbow bolt to the face was I kicked the door open to reveal the shooter standing guard while the one with the crazy eyebrows was buckling on his fancy armor.  They looked a little too rattled for professional murders if you ask me.  They should be used to this kind of thing.  Makes me wonder about their credentials. 

“Watch where you’re shooting that fucking thing!  You two get down the docks and start killing anyone who comes ashore.”  I could tell they were going to waste time saying something stupid so I grabbed a piece of the armor and hurled it out the door.  I cranked up vocal amplification so much it literally shook the walls of their borrowed hut. “NOW GODS DAMN IT!  I won’t ask again!” 

I ran from building to building giving orders – anyone with a weapon move under cover and get down to the riverbank.  Stay behind the dwarfs and support them, protect the spellcasters.  Anyone with a boat come with me, everyone else gather on the northeast side of the village and once you’re all together run for your fucking lives.  Stay together, head north and then cut over to find the road – head for Ardinit.  Stay together.  Don’t get separated, in other words, stay together.

With the fisherman trialing me like ducklings we took cover at a building closest to the water.  I saw that either the witch or the wizard had summoned a wall of wind that was turning aside the arrows of the attackers.  In response another boat was heading for the riverbank packed with marines.  I think that’s what they call guys with axes on a boat.  The two dwarfs and a handful of villagers were standing by to receive them.  I told the fisherman the plan – whatever boats were left set them on fire and get the out in the water.  Sadly but predictably they balked. 

“Are you kidding me?  Sorry buddy but you’re not going to be fishing on that craft ever again, it’s as good as wrecked already.  Burning your boats was a fine idea by these dirty Ulpinese dogs, but whoever turned them loose is a moron – they’re blocking their own fleet from advancing.  They can’t get close because those floating deathtraps might set their own ships on fire.  You ever hear of a fireship?  That’s what we’re doing here.  Get all of those boats out there in the river and on fire and do it now!” 

I grabbed a burning lanterns from my Greatcoat (magic you know) and hurled it into one of the bigger fishing vessels.  It went up like a . . . like a . . . something that burns easily.  This seemed to spur them to action finally.  Although for one of them that action was to try and coldcock me.  I clobbered him with the Baron’s Cane and was tempted to throw him into the burning scow as well but I decided there wasn’t time.  Also I probably wouldn’t have been able to shift him.  That strength belt I had was unsightly but I will admit that it was nice being as strong as a sort of strong man.  However, as they say, style over function.  I took out my crossbow partially to make sure my orders were followed and partially to start firing at the boarding party heading for the shore. 

Once all boats were burning and floating free I directed the fisherman to join their families and flee for their bloody lives.  I took a drink from my flask for magic fighting spirit (and just spirits) and got out my Belt-Sword as I dashed over to where the enemy was pointed to land.  They certainly were a spirited bunch, looked like they couldn’t wait to jump off that skiff and start the ruckus.  There were maybe a dozen and a half men standing behind the dwarves in the general area of Grigori and the woman who’s name I should learn with a ragbag of weapons looking not very excited.  I spun my sword about in a jaunty manner that I think I saw in a play one time, I doubt anyone does that in a real battle. 

“Cheer up lads!  This isn’t the Battle of Bloodmarch Hills, this is just a skirmish.   A little something t put some hair on your balls.  This isn’t the invasion, they’re just looking for a spot of fun on the way to the main event.  You just need to hold them off for a few minutes while your lovely wives and ruddy faced little bairns make for the hills.  You can do that can’t you?  I’d say you owe them at least that much as recompense for having such a sorry lot as you for their husbands and fathers.” 

A scattered laughter came up, largely forced but it will do.  The two dwarfs looked at me. I didn’t even see which once asked the question.

“Why are we doing this?” 

“We’re here, who else is going to do it?” I turned back in kind to the witch and the wizard “You two got any more tricks to pull out?” 

The two lovers clung to at each other and then nodded, whatshername looking back at me “We’ll do our part.” 

“Wonderful!  Lovely to hear it!  Looks like they’re just about here, how about we kill these fuckers eh?” 

There’s one advantage I’ve found being a woman on the battlefield.  If you’re not afraid that really stiffens the spines of a lot of men purely based on macho bullshit.  A man may or may not be able to ignore the judgement of his fellow men on cowardice and so forth, but they sure as Hells are not going to be outdone by a frail and fragile maiden.   

Now I’m not much a warrior was you folks well know, but one advantage that I normally have is that I keep my cool.   A lot of people lose their head once someone starts trying to stab them in the guts, which is the last thing you need.  Say what you want about old Ela, but once the hard words are over and it’s time to spill blood I normally keep a steady hand on the tiller.  Is it tiller or rudder?  Whatever you know what I mean.

But every now and then things go a different way.  I started pacing up and down the riverbank as the boarding party came closer.  They were near enough that I could clearly make out their faces but it seemed like it took them forever to actually get there.  Boats are slow and stupid if you ask me.  With the intensification of the cane and my own natural vocal talents I started cursing at the men in the boat, first generally then specifically.  Third from the left, your beard looks like the hairy ass of a goat.  Second row in the middle your mouth looks like a puckering asshole.  Oh you, first guy from the right, I’m definitely going to kill you and your secret sex lips first.  And so on. 

And as I was stomping around insulting them I was getting more and more worked up.  It started out as a show for the others, give them a little something to bend back the arms of fear from their throats, but after a little while I felt like a rock tumbling down an mountainside in an avalanche.  I was out of control.  I couldn’t wait for them to get to land, I wanted to get to scrapping right now!  I wanted my blade to taste blood.  All the frustrations of the last two years, and of my life maybe, were bubbling up and I couldn’t keep a lid on them.  Maybe I didn’t want to.   

No one knows better than me that heroics are unseemly.  Courageous fighters generally end up as courageous corpses.  There’s no credit given for being on the front lines, no one is keeping score, play it smart – this isn’t a duel of honor, it’s Gods damned war, you do whatever you have to do to stay alive and hurt the enemy.  Berserkers have their place on the battlefield, far away from me and the other reasonable people. 

But something had come over me, had taken a hold of me maybe.  Before they were ashore they started jumping into the water to wade after us.  I was going to go in after them, which is a very stupid thing to do, but one of the casters did something and suddenly I would walk on water.  Have you ever tried to fight someone while waist deep in water while the person you were trying to fight could walk on top of it like solid ground?  I wouldn’t recommend it.  I killed six men as easy as you like.  Well, the fifth one may have just lost an eye.  Not sure about that.  I definitely stabbed him in the head. 

There were probably four dozen men vomiting off that boat though so it hardly mattered, they flowed around me and onto shore.  Grigori summoned a quartet of hooting carnivorous apes who were led into the fray by his lady love herself, who had sprouted fur and fangs and claws.  Is she a werewolf or is that a witch thing?  I’ll ask later if I remember.  And if she’s still alive.  They joined the dwarf duo in hacking away at the attackers while the villagers smartly and cowardlyly stayed back and picked off the injured and the distracted.  

I ran into the boat they just came off of.  I don’t know is that was a stroke of brilliance or a very stupid thing to do.  I’ll have to ask a tactician next time I see one.  But in a situation like this do you need a navel tactician or a normal one?   

Montresor 17 Year 888 (New Imperial Calendar)

I wasn’t expecting Grigori to come through with much of anything.  I figured that at best he’d come back with some hallucinogenic bullshit for me to drink and then if I took it he’d claim that whatever I experienced was the dream quest against the nightmare witch.  But surprisingly he came through with some actual magic.  It wasn’t a big production of any sort either – wizards usually seem to need a lot of circles drawn on the ground and runes and silver powders and mummified alligator heads and all kind of shit to do their job.  Grigori just came back into camp sometime after the moon was bright in the sky looking even more haggard than usual.  Or at least what I know as usual for him.  He asked me if I was ready, I said sure, and he made with the magic words and hand waving and next thing I knew we were there.

“There” in this case being a complex that appeared to be made out of some kind of shiny purple stone.  I’ve never seen anything like it, but I suppose that should go without saying when you’re in the mind-fortress of a dream haunting nightmare beast from beyond time and space.  The general layout was a central large circle with four smaller circles bolted on in kind of a square pattern.  If you’re ever looked at an architectural drawing of a castle it was that same layout on a smaller scale – you got the middle part and then the four towers crouching alongside.  Anyway I suppose the design doesn’t really matter so much.  

I glanced over at Grigori “Are we really here or is this a dream?”

“Uhhh, both?  We’re in the dream realm.”

I scowled “But we were actually physically here or are we asleep and this is a dream?”

“The realm of dreams is not well studied.  Where we are is a demiplane of nightmares that exists beyond the dreamlands, where dark visions overlap into a strange reality spawned by the dreams of mysterious beings . . .”

“Don’t give me that bullshit!  I’m not in the mood for wizardly vagueness about realms and dimensions and the subjective nature of reality. “

He halfway smiled “Given where we are I think you’re expecting a little too much in requesting a straight answer.  What else can I say when we’re literally inside a dream?”

“What I expect is for one fucking magic user to know what is going on one time.  You people are bending reality and you don’t have any clue what you’re even doing.”

“Back off lady, you act like we’re alone in that.  No one knows anything.  Why does the sun shine?  Why does grass grow?  No one knows.  How does a ship float on the water?  Don’t act like we’re the only ones with no answers.”

“There’s some very basic science about why a boat floats.”

He snorted “Sure, science.”

Circle one was full of cages, crow cages I think they call them, where the cage just a set of bars joined together in a tube shape slightly bigger than a person.  They’re not cages for crows you see, you put people in there and I guess the crows peck their eyes out.  Why do birds love eyes so much?  Are they delicious or are they just easy to eat with their stupid beaks?  Get a mouth already birds so you can eat something good.  It was hard to tell how many cages there were because the front dozen or so were occupied.  The occupants looked for all the world like actors, I guess I say that because their clothing looked more like a costume than actual every day clothes.  You know how actors on stage always look a little off no matter what they’re wearing?  It was like that.  They didn’t reach out or beg to be rescued, they didn’t do anything – they just stared.  Their eyes were the only thing that moved, following me around.

I gestured “What’s this about?”

Grigori peered at them “Souls maybe.”

“I always assumed that soul stealers needed souls for food or used them as currency or something, why keep them here?” Grigori shrugged “Are they real?”

“I feel like if I answer that you’re going to get mad at me again.”

“Let me guess, you were going to ask me what real means.  Should we let them out?”

“How would we do that?  There’s no doors or hinges on those cages.  I don’t see any way to open them.”

I drifted away from the cage circle with the eyes of the soul remnants or whatever they were following my steps with the lifelessness of dolls.  The next circle over was a somewhat organized and somewhat chaotic alcove filled with trinkets and accoutrements, seized from her victims I assume.  The items ranged from cheap copper jewelry with clay beads to shining swords of adamantine and mithril with jeweled hilts that could bankrupt a lesser noble family.  There were common boots and “bracelets” made of twine mixed in with rich silks and platinum serving trays.  Most of it was junk, but there was some pretty good stuff in there too.  I had absolutely no desire to touch any of it.

Moving to the right at the head of the main circle (okay it was more of an oval I guess, kind of turtle shaped maybe) there was a clear pool of water and hanging above it was a large multi-faceted reddish-purple jewel, it strangely looked like a piece of junk costume jewelry for all that it was clearly very magic and important.  When I looked in the pool there was no reflection, or myself or of the jewel.   Every now and then the jewel would rotate slightly and emit a soft pulse of light.  I swear that I could feel it like a very light touch over all the exposed skin on my body.  It was . . . odd.

“So what’s this?”

Grigori was shielding his eyes as if the sun was blazing despite the room being fairly dim “That’s the main event, that’s the source of her powers.”

“How do you know what?”

“Magic.  Do you really want to get into another discussion about that?

“I do not.  So breaking this will kill her?”

“No this will strip her of many of her abilities, without this she won’t be able to travel ethereal.”

“What the fuck does that mean?”

“She won’t be able to enter your dreams anymore chiefly.  Probably it means her rivals will kill her too because she’s going to lose a lot of other magic stuff but there’s no way to know for sure.”

I looked around “This seems too easy.  Shouldn’t there be traps or guards or something?”

“I guess not.  We’re dealing with a creature that is basically a sentient nightmare, I’m not sure we can evaluate its motivations or speculate on what it might think is a good idea with any degree of accuracy.”

“That’s one of the most coherent things you’ve said to date.”  I retrieved my crossbow and pointed it at the jewel, then dropping it from my shoulder “I feel like I should say something here.”

“What do you mean?”

“You know, like the hero says before they vanquish the deadly supernatural threat ‘see you in the Hells!’ or something like that.  Not that, but something better.”

“What would be the point in doing that?”

“I don’t know, that’s what’s bothering me, she’s not even going to know that I’m the one that got her.  Maybe I could write something on the wall.  A taunt or some sort.  Do you have a pen and some ink?”

“Once you break that she’s probably not going to be able to get back her.  How about you just smash it and we get out of here.”

I raised the crossbow back to my shoulder “You have no sense of drama.”

In retrospect I’m not sure why I thought that a crossbow bolt was going to shatter the gem, although in my defense it did look very crappy.  The bolt knocked a shard off of it and then ricochet and almost hit me in the leg.  I was mildly embarrassed by the yelp I let out as I jumped out of the way.  I was startled is all.

Grigori peeped out from behind his hand “I don’t think that worked.”

“Thanks eagle eye.  Can’t you just . . .” I made a vague magic gesture.

“That’s not a good idea.  Besides, I thought you wanted to be the one to get the revenge.”

It was too far away to hit with the baron’s Cane so in the end I threw my trunk at it.  Good thing it floats.  It took three tries to smash the thing and trying to fish the trunk out of the pool each time was a pain in the ass.  It has to rank right up there on the list of the slowest and least graceful smitings of evil in the annuals of evil smiting.  Even after it was pulverized the dust and shards hung in the air above the pool, but the light stopped.

“Is that it?  Is she defeated?”

“No defeated, but her powers have been greatly diminished like I said before.”

“Huh, that wasn’t very satisfying.”

“That’s life for you.”