This has nothing to do with this blog but it’s cool. Before the pandemic I was working on a D&D campaign called Walking the Wastes – this is the map for that campaign. Now that all my pals are vaxxed to the maxx maybe it will become a thing.
She was stunning. Statuesque I’d call her. Or I would if I was the kind of person that would call someone that. I’ve heard that term before, but never had I seen anyone I felt deserved the moniker until I saw her. We were exactly eye to eye, but somehow she seemed a few inches taller than me. She looked a lot like me. A LOT like me. It wasn’t exactly like looking in a mirror because there were differences. Minor differences, but they were there. Her skin was nearly flawless but I could see one tiny white line from the corner of her mouth, it was artfully hidden with make-up, I doubt anyone who wasn’t examining what was almost their own face would notice it. Her eyes were really something. They weren’t cold exactly, they certainly weren’t friendly, they were hard – like diamonds. Never seen eyes like that.
Her clothing was odd to my eye, it was sort of what I think of from Robin Hood or movies like that with swords and stuff, but it wasn’t exactly that. They weren’t fancy clothes but they were extremely well made, some material I’m not even familiar with. It looked like what a queen would wear when she wasn’t dressed like a queen if that makes sense. Like a queen going out for a ride maybe. In particular she had longcoat of white and silver trimmed with black that was gorgeous. I have no idea what I would do with something like that but I kind of wanted it.
She had a cane or a walking stick made of a fine dark wood that was topped with an ivory cobra-head. The detail was insane. It looked like an actual cobra had been petrified and its head sliced off for the top of the cane. She didn’t hold it like a person that needed a cane, she held it like a staff of office, or like a pharaoh with that little crook thing you see on Egypt stuff. Or maybe she held it like a weapon. Point is she didn’t have it because she had a limp, she certainly didn’t need a cane.
The snake tattoo on the back of my hand, a souvenir from a night of drinking with sailors on leave, was tingling in a strange way. It was like pins and needles all across the back of my hand. The tattoo itself looked sharper and more realistic – like an actual snake might jump off my hand. It seemed like it could start moving at any moment and it kind of freaked me out.
She was examining me just as I was her and I got the sense that she wasn’t impressed, suddenly I felt self-conscious of my shabby clothing. Her voice was rich and resonate, she’d make a wonderful singer if she was so inclined.
She smiled almost imperceptivity “Blood stains? I had the same problem in the beginning. You need to get yourself a magically self-cleaning and self-repairing wardrobe, after I was able to do that it made my life much easier.”
“Is magic a thing?”
“Sometimes.” Even though we were nowhere that I could tell, she looked around “Your world does seem very dull though, perhaps there is no magic for you. That’s a pity my dear, magic is awful and common but I’ve found that it can do many helpful things. If you can afford it.”
I was at a loss of what to say “Nice coat.”
She looked at her sleeve “Isn’t it just? I took it off the body of one of those horrible Vulcari people. It was already enchanted but I took it to a craftmage in Barrinton and had more magic imbued in it. It’s saved my life several times, and it looks very fetching if I do say so myself.” She looked at me curiously “Do you have Vulcar here?”
“Uh, I don’t know what that is. Did you say you killed someone?”
Her smiled widened. People talk about shark smiles. It wasn’t that. Not exactly. It was something predatory, but nothing so obvious as a shark. It was the smile that comes before poison is fed with a spoon. It was the smile before the pillow goes over your face to smother you. I could see how most people would love for that smile to be directed at them, it was radiant, men especially would turn to butter under it – but it made me shiver. I’ve never seen a smile like that before and I hope I never do again. It wasn’t cold, it was otherworldly.
“Well aren’t you a peach? Are you truly as innocent as all that? Maybe you’re who I would have been if I stayed on the farm.” She laughed. “Yes, I’ve killed people. Many times. Revenge is a dirty business, my dear. You’re going to have to get your hands bloody if you want to get Duke Eaglevane.”
“This is quite an odd dream.”
Her smiled turned wry “You don’t know the half of it. I was plagued by nightmares for months sent by a wicked creature from beyond the stars that laid a curse on me. This is a walk in the park by comparison to what I went through on a nightly basis, I assure you. Although, I suppose without that particular magical infection I wouldn’t be here now. Koma played a part as well but without that seed . . . I wonder.”
“Uh . . . what?”
“Don’t worry your pretty little head about it dear. I’d love to stay and chat with you about the well of many worlds or other more interesting topics, but unfortunately I don’t have much time here so it’s best we get to business. I’ve come to warn you not to make the same mistake that I did. When I woke up in that pigsty Graltontown, I thought that I would head straight for the Duke and destroy him. But I kept getting distracted by this and that and every other little thing. Two years I spent running here and there and getting into one jackpot after the other and I got no closer to my revenge. Sure, it was mostly Martialla’s fault, but still . . .”
“Wait, Martialla? You know her? What is this?”
Her face barely changed but I could tell it turned cold, a shiver went up my spine “I’m trying to tell you, don’t interrupt me, it’s unspeakably rude. Don’t follow in my path. Whatever you’re doing right now that seems important, stop doing it, go wherever the Duke is and kill him. Don’t worry about anything else. Don’t go down the same path that I did. You must succeed where I failed.”
“I don’t understand. This isn’t real right?”
She smirked “Have you ever had a dream where you asked if the dream was a dream? Don’t get tangled in the details, just take my advice. No detours, no side treks, no distractions, just go straight for the Duke. Unless you want to end up like me.”
“And how did you end up? You look pretty spiffy to me.”
Her mouth tightened “Dead. Dead is how I ended up. If you jump into every situation that comes your way, eventually you run out of luck. I was so stupid, I see that now. I started with nothing and I got money and power, and I never made my move. I couldn’t see the forest for the trees.”
“I’ve never understood that expression.”
“Well say you have some trees . . . actually no, forget about it, there’s no time for lessons. Heed my warning, learn from my mistake. Don’t get yourself killed in some random ditch like I did, grab a horse right now and head for the Duke.”
“A horse? Why would I grab a horse?”
She rolled her eyes “Or whatever you have here, just get there as fast as you can is what I meant.”
“O . . . kay. So, uh, what’s the afterlife like?”
“Where you are? I have no idea. Where I am? Never-ending torment. Well, mostly never-ending, I’m not being tormented right this second so it did end once at least. Which is nice for me.”
“Oh. You’re in Hell? So you were pretty bad huh?”
She smiled pleasantly “Sweetie, I was the absolute worst.”
I’ve been thinking about doing another art commission because paying people money to draw me pictures is a good use of my paycheck.
My first thought was I wanted Ela in a jumpsuit like Bruce Lee wore in Game of Death. But then I realized that probably everyone would assume that instead it was a reference to The Bride from Kill Bill. Which is a fine film (the second part anyway) but I hate when my reference is mistaken for another reference! Because my life is very hard and challenging with many obstacles.
So the question is should I go with the game of death jumpsuit anyway? And if not, what sort of outfit would be better? Also I want her to be casually holding something to show how strong she is. A car is too much but I can’t think of something better. A safe? Something like that but not that.
Here’s another question, why can’t some talented comic book artist find my blog and love it and just draw me free pictures all the time? I mean is that so much to ask? That I get tons of free stuff all the time? I mean what kind of world is this?
My girlfriend really wants me to have a portrait of Martialla done and I do too, but I have kind of a specific image in my mind of what she looks like and I am terrible at describing what I want because I am terrible at describing things. Which is why I am a great writer.
D&D Ela was pretty awful, 70’s funkadelic superhero Ela is much less horrible but I kept some things – like her vanity and cattiness. Which worries me sometimes because it seems kind of stereotypical to portray a female character that way. When I first started this blog I had a “contact me” thing, which I did away with because it was mostly people scolding me for being a gross man writing a female character that they didn’t like. But my girlfriend thinks it’s funny when Ela makes mean comments about other woman so one woman is on my side so it’s fine. That’s how complex societal issues work.
I thought the title of that module was Midnight IN Dagger Alley but it’s not. It’s Midnight ON Dagger Alley. Which doesn’t make sense. Or does it?
As you all know, Wednesday is when I post world-building and background stuff for the funkadelic 70’s adventures of Ela 2.0. But I don’t feel like it today so I’m not gonna. In the old days of D&D Ela, I never would have dreamed of not posting EVERY day like I promised the zero people that read it. But these are new times where rules mean nothing. I’ve learned that the less I post, the more people seem to like it. I don’t take it personally.
“Jeremy what are you doing? Don’t you have another blog for random thoughts?” No, that blog is for deep personal reflection and is only for my dear friends and 8 (and counting) Russian bots.
I was playing DND (yay!) on roll20 (boo!) the other day and after the customary 7 to 99 minutes of fucking around, the game began with the DM letting out a huge sigh and saying “okay then”.
I thought in that moment “I think that’s how all my DND games have started”. Which is an exaggeration, it’s probably not even most, but maybe 30% of them have been something like that. It reminded me that as much fun as playing RPGs is, it’s a lot of work.
Sometimes my friends and I sit around and shoot the shit (before covid you know) but more often we’re playing a board game or a RPG. I often wonder how people that don’t game maintain friendships. What do they do? Talk to each other without any agenda? Awful.
It’s kind of a bummer though because it means that someone has a part time job that’s necessary for friendship time. Which I guess is okay because friendship is something that should require some work, but being a DM is kind of a drag. I love running games and obviously am the best at it in the world, but even I sometimes am just like “ugh, I don’t really want to do this tonight” but you sort of have to or you ruin it for everyone.
In the past few years, I’ve seen tons of “gmless” RPGs and “zero-prep” adventures, I hate-follow one blog where the blogman talks at length about how any adventure that requires any prep is utter shit and the person that wrote it should die. Being a judgmental old man, I turn up my nose at these things – damn millennials want to have the fun of DND without the work? In my day there were only two character classes and you had 8 STR and you got killed by a gopher and you LIKED IT DAMN IT!!!
But I get it. If you can have fun playing a game without having to bust your ass, why wouldn’t you?
What I’m saying is that I beat Zelda without the wooden sword when I was a kid and I thought that was great. But then the internet was a thing and I found out that tons of people have done that. So I guess my proudest accomplishment now is that I threw a 20 sided dice and turned off my friend Joel’s Nintendo from a legit 20 feet away when he was being a jerk and playing Dragon Warrior while we were all waiting for him.
That’s a lie, I didn’t do that, one of my friends did. But as I get older, I’ll start to remember that I did it because memory is stupid.
Once in a while other blog people say on their blog that people should read my blog. The people that read their blog never do, but I still appreciate the tiny crumbs of attention thrown my way like young crows like it when you toss them corn.
If you like wrestling or comic books or pop tarts, you should read this – https://swoproductions.com/home/ – they also talk about anime sometimes but nobody is perfect.
If you like seeing DND where a TON of work is put into making it look awesome, you should read this – https://storiesfromthewifeofadungeonmaster.wordpress.com/
If you like Shadowrun but hate its insane rules system, you should read this – https://doubleproficiency.com/
If you like goblins with ballistas, you should read this – https://goblinwithaballista.com/
And if you think that Stephen Amell should hire me as a writer on his new wrestling drama HEELS, you should read this – https://cultissuchanuglyword.wordpress.com/ and then badger him on social media.
Writing that title reminded me that I worked with a lady who said that she was the third smartest person in the world – her parents being the first and second. She didn’t seem that smart to me but the third smartest person in the world would be smart enough to not seem smart right?
Since I started writing on wordpress I’ve been reading a lot blogs about D&D and some about writing. A common topic people bring up is how playing D&D (and other roleplaying games of course) can help you become a better writer. Which is true. Character development, plot, worldbuilding, playing roleplaying games can really help you with those things. Among others.
But I’m starting to realize that it can be a double-edged sword.
I’ve done a lot of writing in my life. In college and the years afterwards I often wrote several hours a day. I don’t write nearly as much anymore but I still do some writing most days. It’s a toss-up if I’ve done more roleplaying or writing. There was a year where we played D&D every damn day for hours and hours and hours. Probably half my life I’ve had a regular weekly game. There were years when I had 2-3 regular weekly games. Then add in conventions and one shots and other stuff – that’s a lot of time roleplaying.
Tangent, when I first started online dating sometimes I would tell women one of my hobbies was roleplaying – boy were they disappointed when they found out I meant D&D and not sexy sexy sex times. I hate homonyms.
Before my writing was whatever I wanted. I have dozens of half finished “novels”, tons of partially written screenplays, hundreds of short stories, and thousands of blog posts where I talked about whatever was on my mind. I wrote until it wasn’t fun and then I stopped.
Starting the Ela blog, and later the Grace blog (hugely popular and read by millions) “forced” me to write about the same thing and it’s exposed some flaws. Chief among them, tossing out story hooks without any idea where to take them.
I think this comes from D&D. When you put together a D&D adventure sometimes you have everything planned out. But sometimes you just have a neat idea and you throw it out and see what the players do and react to that, “writing” on the fly.
Such as, one time my players found a cane that had a secret compartment in it. I had forgotten that they had found a similar item in the last adventure and they spun out a whole conspiracy theory around them. I had no such intention of that being a thing but as they were talking I was thinking “wow that’s a pretty cool idea, that’s definitely what happened now”.
Players give DMs way too much credit in terms of foreshadowing and callbacks and call-forwards and things like that – it’s that old chestnut about the human mind looking for patterns, and making them up even if they’re not there. Your players come up with all kinds of ideas as to what the DM may be up to, even when they’re not up to anything.
The collaborative nature of rpgs results in some pretty cool ideas. D&D is kind of like writing with several writing partners.
But since my “real” writing it just me, myself, and not Irene I really need to break myself of the habit of throwing out half-formed ideas that I think are neat because there’s no players to react to them and shape the narrative. Telling a story all by myself requires discipline.
The idea for the Grace blog came from How To Survive Camping, from reddit/no sleep. The idea of HTSC is that it is an interactive thing where the commenters act like it’s real and suggest ways to solve problems and the like. It’s a style that allows for collaborating in a way D&D type where you’re writing it but lots of people are adding in ideas. It’s a pretty cool concept. I wanted to do something like that. But since I’m old and scared of reddit because I don’t understand it I just did a “normal” blog.
The end. Good writers always say “the end”. Otherwise how would you know it was the end?
I swear I won’t ever do this again, I know how SUPER invested you all are in 70s Ela story. Ela Classic was written ad hoc based on random charts and whatnot, rules turned into a narrative, but I did wake up late one night and write this bit about her being forced into a battle in THE NORTH. I think I had it for more than a year waiting to fit it into the “story”.
I figured I’d post it because I’m lazy and clearly I have to stick to the pretend schedule I came up with of posting Monday, Wednesday, Friday.
Why was Ela forced into this battle?
Who is Keorl Thunderhand?
Is it still called polygamy if you have wives and husbands?
We’ll never know.
I’ve never seen a battle down south and I hope I never do, but from what I understand it’s quite an affair. Huge blocks of men lumbering around in ragged squares getting into lines. Banners and pennants and tents and guys with big hats and all kind of shit like that. I’ve heard that the reason army people get up at dawn is it takes them until lunch just to get everyone to the battlefield and ready to kill one another. There’s barely enough hours to even get on with the slaughter before it gets dark. And you can’t fight in the dark. It’s too scary.
Clearly things are a little more loose up here. People seemed to be milling about and wandering down to the front lines like it’s a county fair. Some people were already killing each other when I got up. Others were still asleep. Seems like it would have been the perfect situation to avoid the battle and just say you were there after the fact but I don’t think I can fool magic like that. Always the damn magic. So Instead of doing the smart thing and staying under cover until all the killing and dying was over, I went in search of Keorl Thunderhand, finding him in a heap with his wives and husbands.
I tossed a bucket of . . . something on him “Come on, the battle’s starting and it’s a race between which is going to freeze off first, my nips or my nose.”
Grinning, he disentangled himself from the pile and came out of his tent shrugging on a chain shirt and slapping on a helmet “That’s the problem with you southern women, too skinny. You need some blubber on your bones to stay warm.”
I rubbed my hands together and blew on them “I don’t see how you people get so big up here with the warmed up dogshit you call food.”
He laughed and led me over to the “cavalry wing” which was a bunch of dudes and horses just as disorganized and chaotic as the rest. He motioned for me to mount up on a grey and black beast that was eyeing me as dubiously as I was it. These northern horses are so small and shaggy they’re more like sheep than equines if you ask me.
“Shouldn’t I put on some armor or something first?”
He shrugged “Sure, grab that cmail and slip it on.”
I grabbed the pile of metal he gestured to and could barely lift it “Okay, never mind, point taken.”
“Yes, and a fine point it was too. Put on that helmet.”
I picked it up gingerly “Seems too big for me.”
He shrugged “Better than too small.” He surveyed the half-battle going on below as we mounted “Do you have any battle training?”
“How good a rider are you?”
“Good, that’s more important anyway. If you want to survive, and you’ve certainly made it seem like you do, there’s two things you need to do. First, stay mounted. That may seem obvious, but I need to emphasize this because footmen do most of the dying. You do not want to be anywhere near the earth in that mess. Mounted, you have two things someone on foot doesn’t – vision and mobility, and that’s what you use to stay alive. Don’t get near the middle, stay on the edges of the action where you can see what’s happening and react. React meaning ride away of course.
If you get knocked off your horse get back on immediately, don’t worry about anything else – get back in the saddle. If your horse gets killed, find another. I’ll deny ever saying this but if you have to take one from someone on your own side, do that. People tend not to expect their battle-brothers, or sisters in this case, to kill them and take their horse so you can catch them off guard. Your horse is your best armor and your best weapon. Keep it between you and the people trying to kill you. If you can, use it to crush them, if you can’t, let it take the hits for you. How do you feel about horses?”
“I love them.”
“Will that prevent you from using one to keep yourself alive?”
“No. I’ve done it before unfortunately.”
“That’s good. Horses are fine animals but they’re not worth risking your life over. I’ve seen men in the middle of battle trying to save a horse. You can imagine how well that goes. If someone wants to take time to murder your horse, that’s time they’re not using to murder you – let them use it while you find another mount. What you have to avoid is getting down in the melee with the foot soldiers. You may have heard some old veteran waxing nihilistic about the chaos and blood and horror of being in the press of combat and you may have dismissed it as bold talk – it isn’t. It is the absolute worst thing you can ever be involved with. Call it nightmarish, call it Hellish, call it whatever you want, just avoid it.
When you’re up on your horse, unless a man has a spear or a pike they’re going to have a hard time striking at you effectively. Once you’re on foot they won’t even need to bother, at your size you’ll get knocked down and trampled to death. It’s a risk for even a strong man – you got a dozen men behind you pushing you into another man who’s got a dozen men shoving him into you. You’re pinned together so that you can’t even fight unless you have a knife. Men trapped like that bite at each other like dogs. It’s no lie that in the crush of battle, you don’t even know who you’re attacking.
That’s first. The second thing is don’t take your helmet off. Not ever. It’s heavy and it makes it hard to hear and it cuts off your vision and it’s going to get so hot in there you’re going to feel like you can’t breathe. But don’t take it off, not even for a second. If your helmet gets knocked off, find it, or another, and get it back on as fast as possible. Don’t worry about anything else. If it gets knocked askew and you can’t see, don’t try to take it off and put it back on, just turn it around. If you can’t get it back right way around you’re almost better off being blind than taking it off, it’s a hard call.
There’s filthy weakling healers around that can heal you as long as you don’t get stabbed directly in the heart or in one of the main bloodlines in your thigh. You have a chance to survive most wounds long enough to get healed. What you can’t survive is getting your brains bashed in or an arrow through the skull. If you get hit in the helmet it’s going to make you dizzy, you’re going to want to pull it off – do not do this. If you lose your helmet and you can’t find another, you may be tempted to pick up a shield to protect your head. Don’t. If you can even lift it, you’re not going to be able to hold it high for long and then you’re just going to be tired. You’re better off shielding your head with your weapon or even your arm – even if you’re not wearing armor. You can live just fine with one arm, you don’t have a spare head. Not to mention you’re rich you can regrow a new arm magically.
Stay mounted, protect your head. Horse, helmet, that’s how you stay alive.”
“Got it. What about attacking the enemy?”
He laughed “I wouldn’t worry about that, you don’t look like you could break an egg.”
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?”
Sending a Vieland army to attack Three Rivers isn’t the most satisfying of revenge on the Lumber Consortium but I’m not confident that I’m going to secure any better. I’m reluctantly crossing them off the List while reserving the right to further avenge myself on them at a later date. I don’t feel great about it but they’re proving to be a tough nut to crack. Królewna & Bonifacja Trading Company was reckoned to be on be one of the movers and shakers in the Kingdom but I was able to completely ruin them without too much trouble. It helped that they were complicit in treasonous activity but even so they had a lot of clout in the halls of power and they still went down hard. The Lumber Consortium on the other hand I don’t think has any influence outside of the County, or very little, and they’re proving to be a far more stubborn opponent. Maybe the fact that their providence is smaller helps them? K&B most likely had people trying to drag them down I gave them the chance. Perhaps no one with enough power to do anything cares about the Lumber Consortium.
Point is I’m done with them for now. I tried to the road back to Narhold and that displeased the collar around my neck forcing me northward. And since the road north is crawling with Vieland soldiers (for some reason) I took off into the woods. That always works well for me. As you might imagine a gigantic warhorse is not well suited for picking your way through the trees and underbrush so I did significantly more leading than riding. I had to use my Beastspeech several times to keep the big lummox moving. In case you were wondering animals can be jerks. And this guy is. It’s probably not really his fault, I’m sure he was bred and trained to be like this, but that doesn’t make it any less annoying. I’ve heard tell that the savages that live out on the plains indulge in horse-fighting instead of civilized bloodsports like dog-fighting or bear-baiting. In my less charitable moments that’s where I feel this fellow belongs.
Since I can’t ride him and since he probably needs a ton of food and since I don’t really care about all that armor he’s carrying I was thinking about just turning him loose. But just about the time I was convincing myself to do that was also the time when I noticed a form in the underbrush stalking after us. Some folks call them stalhounds, others call them festrogs, they have many names – but a rose by any other name would smell as rotting. Whatever you call them what they are is undead wolves with slack limbs and empty eyes driven by the needed to slaughter the living – and not just kill, terrorize and dismember first. I would imagine it was keeping its distance on account of big hairy brute beside me, if I had been alone I’m sure it would have attacked.
Certain types, your intellectuals and academics and whatnot like to speculate on why the living dead spend all their time trying to kill us. Is it because they envy the living? Is it because of the dark magic that propels them forward? Is it to avenge their own deaths against the entire world? This is a great example of pointless conjecture – the undead want to kill us, does it really matter why? I can assure you when you have a zombie wolf eyeballing you (metaphorically, as they have no remaining eyes) you don’t worry about its motivations in the least.
The crossbow I stole from the commander was as huge and awkward as his stupid jerk horse. It makes no sense for an officer to have something like this, it’s not like he’s going to be standing shoulder to shoulder with a unit of crossbowmen firing at the enemy, he should have a smaller weapon that he can keep around all the time in case things go sideways. I managed to get it loaded once and fire at the skulking beast but I don’t think I hit it and I gave up on the idea of a second shot quickly. I can barely raise the thing to my shoulder. I suppose if it comes at me I can throw the crossbow at it, this thing weights thirty pounds it feels like.
The good news is with this murder-collar on me for once I can always make sure I’m heading essentially in the right direction – if I get turned around it lets me know by starting to kill me. The bad news is that as the day wore on several more undead wolves turned up the join the very slow silent “hunt”. Anticipating that they would eventually reach a critical mass where a single warhorse wasn’t going to keep them at bay anymore my first thought was to mount up and ride, despite the dangers of doing so in dense woods, but I quickly realized that was futile – the chances of enduring beyond the capacity of a living wolfpack is a tough prospect, and if there’s one thing the undead have going for them it’s that they don’t get tired and they don’t give up.
Unfortunately I wasn’t coming up with a second thought very quickly. It was hard to tell how many of the beasts there were as the day worse on since it was dark and they kept to the shadows, but I’m pretty sure there were at least six, and based on the stench there could have been more. However many they were they were emboldened enough to get closer. I think attack was imminent when I spotted a lumber camp in the distance. I leapt onto Stanger’s back and set him to as fast as a gallop as I thought prudent given the terrain. Still I was almost thrown away just by the force of him moving beneath me – it was a jolt to the spine when he started running in earnest. I don’t think he liked those creatures sneaking about any more than I did. They didn’t chase us, which is always unsettling. Whenever you run away from a deadly menace and it just watches you go you have to wonder what’s you’re running towards.
The camp was abandoned, what with the war and all, but there were six men in a line in the middle of the place – hands tied behind them. Five had been beheaded, one on the end had had his throat slashed, maybe the ax had gotten dull before they got to him but if anyone should have a good supply of sharp axes it would be loggers. They weren’t wearing uniforms but I think they were Vielanders. With that cheery sight revealed I headed for what is generally the most secure building in a place like this – the paymaster’s hut. I tied the reins over the saddlehorn to make sure they wouldn’t get in Stranger’s way, refraining from touching him as I used the Beastspeech.
“If those things come up here stomp them in the head, keep your back to the wall here, make sure they don’t get behind you.”
He horse-snorted “I don’t need you tell me how to fight wolves female.”
See what I mean? Jerk. I went inside and checked the hidden compartment that I know now is usually in these places – I’ve been in a depressing amount of lumber camps at this point. It was empty, the entire place had been cleaned out other than a massive desk that was probably too heavy to shift easily. Even the chair for the desk was gone. I took a seat to consider my options.
“I don’t remember inviting you in.”
The voice belonged to a shaggy wolfman that was couching in the corner. It was covered with dark fur that was matted and tangled in ways that looked painful. There’s no way I could have overlooked it but yet there it was catching me unawares. When I think of a werewolf I think of a full wolf-head with a long snout but this being wasn’t like that – it was more like a wolf-skin face stretched over a flat noseless human skull. It wasn’t a good look. Not helping the overall appearance was the fact that this was clearly dead – not only were its guts splitting out of its belly like an apron but it had deep gouges across both arms and the back of the neck. Whatever it was it was deader than a doornail, yet there it crouched.
“I let myself in.”
It made an odd coughing noise “Hasn’t anyone told you that’s very inconsiderate? What would your mother say? Not to mention it can be very dangerous as well, you never know who could be home.”
“Clearly. I thought that werewolves turned back into humans when they died, how do you end up a zombie werewolf?”
“How should I know?”
“Because you are one?”
It made a raspy wheezing noise that I think was supposed to be laughter, sounded like it really had to work to push out that rattle “Zombie werewolf, that’s a good one.”
The good thing about soldiers is that they’re used to following orders. Before his partner could get back Vanger and I tossed the body of his commander into the bedroom (you know, the onewhere I killed Wolcott that one time) and shut the door. When the other guard came running back with a confused lieutenant (is there any other kind?) he backed up my story that the shapeshifter had slashed at us with shapeshifter claws and then ran away after Vanger valiantly and bravely stabbed it, hence all the blood. Aside from being used to following orders he was probably also motivated by the desire not to be executed for murdering his commanding officer. I have no idea how well the shapeshifter defense works in a military tribunal but if he stopped to think about it I wonder what he would have done. Thankfully he didn’t. The lieutenant was all excited about rallying the men to find the escaped spy but I threw a blanket over that enthusiasm.
“Belay that order Lieutenant, think about what you’re saying for a moment, how do you suggest that we find a person or creature capable of changing form on a whim? What you’re talking about would be worse than a wild goose chase. We know one thing, right now, for certain, I am the real commander of this outfit. So I am going to issue an order and that order will be carried out no matter who seems to appear and countermand it. Gather up all the other officers and bring them here Lieutenant, I need to address you all at that same time. If you get back here and Vanger is not with me DO NOT LISTEN TO ANYTHING I SAY. From now on Vanger and I are joined at the hip, that way you know it’s the real me. We’d be holding hands right now if regulations didn’t say that we can’t. If you see me or Vanger alone that person is an imposter. Now hurry up damn it, we don’t have a lot of time!”
Vanger looked desperately like he wanted to say something but the other guard was there trying to look like he knew what was going on. A few minutes later the Lieutenant came jogging back with a handful of captains and a major or two along with some various other hangers-on.
“At ease men. A Kingdom agent with the ability to disguise themselves as anyone in the area. But that’s not going to be a problem because these two men can right here right now vouch that I am the true commander of this outfit. Here’s what we’re going to do. Our Ulpine allies have captured the Compass River and cut off Three Rivers from the rest of the county. But as usual they need us to do the real work. Get everyone ready to move and head up the road to Three Rivers to join the assault. In three days I want you across the river and in four days I want you to be inside the walls.”
A tall peacock looking fellow frowned “But sir our orders are . . .”
I gave him a look “I know what our orders are Captain. They no longer matter. As of right now our only priority is capturing Three Rivers. Forget everything else.”
A commander master sergeant with a rugged sergeanty jawline piped up “What about the prisoners sir?”
“Turn them loose, they no longer matter.”
Peacock’s eyebrows shot up “But sir, our orders . . .”
“Captain don’t make me tell you again, forget those orders. There is a Kingdom relief force heading here right now and we’re not going to waste any more time and manpower on this anthill of a village. Capturing Three Rivers is the key to securing this entire region. So that’s what you’re going to do, is that clear?”
He nodded, somewhat nervously but more in the way of a pouty child.
“Now the important part. I can’t have Vanger sitting my lap the entire way to Three Rivers to verify my identity. Which is why we won’t be going. I am issuing this order now, proceed to Three Rivers with all haste and attack. Major you are taking command of this operation. But all you of you men here in this room take heed – of the Major or myself or anyone else, up to and including the King shows up and tells you do anything other than proceed to Three Rivers with all haste and attack DO NOT LISTEN TO THEM. This is the order I am giving and nothing in the Heavens or Hells will change that no matter how reasonable it seems. If you see ‘me’ turn up in your camp place that person under lock and key. Is that clear? You are to proceed to Three Rivers and attack, this order cannot be countermanded by anyone. Is that understood? If the Major or anyone else gives a different order remove them from command and place them in chains. Any change in directions or tactics needs to be confirmed in the presence of the next man up the chain. I want each man here to say individually that they understand.”
Once all that rigmarole was done and they scurried off to start yelling and whatever else it is that officers do Vanger grabbed at me desperately.
“What are we going to do?”
I shrugged him off “Relax private, we’re in the clear, they’ll go off to attack Three Rivers and you can return home or back to your base or whatever it is soldiers do who get separated from their unit. You have to admit that’s a pretty good shapeshifter protocol I came up with there wasn’t it? Seems like something the army should train for. I think that’s pretty simple magic. It probably happens all the time, spies and whatnot.”
He hissed dreadfully in a whisper “But you’re the shapeshifter.”
I elbow him away “Back off me man, you don’t have to spit in my ear, I know. Look, you’re freaking out, just sit in the corner and don’t say or do anything and this will all over shortly.”
He slumped down in the corner like a man who’d been kicked in the head by an oxen. I finished off the commander’s whiskey while I ransacked his home. The man only had forty damn gold. What a rip off. I guess the Vieland armor doesn’t pay any better than ours. He had a suit of armor that weighed nine thousand pounds. Even mounted I don’t understand how they wear that stuff. I had Vanger help me load it onto the commander’s mount – a big ugly brute of a horse who looked at me suspiciously until I used my Beastspeech to chat with him and explain that I was his new best friend.
While Vanger was out messing with big hunks of metal armor it have me a chance to take a look at Wolcott’s secret stash, which I didn’t get a chance to check out last time. He didn’t have any gold in there for some reason – what kind of emergency stash is that – but he did have some useful items, including some scrolls and wands. Was Wolcott a magic user? I never got that sense. I guess some people learn how to use scrolls that other magic people make for them. Since there was nothing else to do I searched the rest of the place thoroughly while the Vielanders got themselves into marching order and Vanger sat in the corner looking traumatized. Some of these military types are shockingly fragile. No one they come back from war all crazy in the head.
It was only a couple hours until the Vieland force was ready to move, which I have to admit it pretty impressive. There were more them them than I expected, probably five hundred men –headed north on the road to Three Rivers leaving behind several dozen confused and bruised Gevudians. Vanger and I watched as they marched into the trees and out of sight. He looked at me urgently.
“What do we do now?”
I patted him on the shoulder “Don’t worry Vanger, I have a plan.”
I stepped out of Wolcott’s house/the commander’s post looking like myself, my disguise having well worn off by now, with a very nervous man in a Vielander uniform on my side. I beckoned all the Gevudaners over to listen to my pronouncement.
“Greetings fellow Kingdomers, I have negotiated your freedom. You’re welcome. I would suggest that you loot whatever is left here and get out of this area as soon as possible. Head north to Gib’s Tor maybe? There are not a lot of good options. You could head for Graltondown but I think that place is going to be sacked soon, and Three Rivers is fucked as well. Basically what I’m saying is that it’s everyone for themselves. I wouldn’t hang around in this forest for sure, there’s a lot of bad shit going down in here.” I leapt onto the commander’s horse “Anyway, goodbye and good luck!” I heard Vanger yelling behind me as I spurred my hoses away from the ruins of Gevudan.
When I first heard that Vieland had captured Gevudan I wondered why they would bother. Later on when I uncovered their operation with the traitors in the Lodge Woods it made a little more sense. When I first heard that my jailers/guards/minders were taking to Three Rivers by way of Gevudan I said “Isn’t that village in enemy hands?” I was assured that it had been retaken by the brave men of the King’s Army. Our first indication that the statement about Gevudan being back in the poxy bosom of the Kingdom might be incorrect is when a few miles away the guy who’s name I didn’t learn and who never said or did anything both said and did something. What he did was catch an arrow in the thigh and what he said was “I’m shot.” Very calmly as if saying “hey look at that bird over there.”
I had mentioned several times to my jailers/guards/minders that wearing the uniforms of the Duke’s Guard this close to enemy territory was perhaps not the best idea but as usual I was ignored. I’m no expert on fieldcraft but I feel that when you’re moving through a warzone it’s best to do so in plain clothes. Bolbec, Findley, and Cavnas ran for cover as another arrow snapped the unknown soldier’s head back by hitting him in the face. I’ve seen a depressingly high number of people get shot through the face in the past two years. Granted I shot most of them but still. I went the other way with it, I let loose a very convincing scream of terror and ran towards the Vieland patrol that was shooting at us. As if I was a captive escaping from my captors, which is what I was.
As I ran towards them one of the bowmen took aim at me, but I shrieked and threw myself to the ground and he held his shot. A couple of Vielanders ran out of cover to drag me back off the road. From what I saw the Duke’s guards didn’t have crossbows or any other missile weapons so there was no return fire, but the Vielanders were still cautious. A fellow with a cloak that looked like a pair of damn bat wings wearing a stupid pointy hat asked me what the Hells I was doing. I babbled in a frightened tone about how the Kingdomers had arrested my mistress Lady Krebuleus for treason on account of she was conspiring with Vieland and they grabbed me as well. I cried tears of relief at being “rescued”, the whole bit. Batwings Stupidhat dispatches one of his soldiers to run me back to town while they continued their standoff with the Ducal Guard.
Gevudan wasn’t much to look at to begin with, now the place looks like it has been flattened by the stamping feet of giants. The village has essentially ceased to exist aside from a couple buildings that looked like they had been half burned. It was just a place for a Vieland military camp now. For a such a small unimportant place it looked like the fighting have been vicious – there were still bodies lying about and discarded pieces of equipment being picked over by some dead-eyed cattlemen under the guard of Vieland soldiers. One of the buildings still standing was Wolcott’s home, which is where the soldier took me. It was weird to be back at the sight of what was probably my most cold blooded killing. It seemed like the right thing to do at the time, but in retrospect I probably could have some up with a better plan. It was all bit a much.
The Vielander who had turned the place into a command center of sorts was sour looking fellow with blonde hair that came too far down his forehead. He tersely asked me who I was and what was going on and then proceeded to interrupt with more questions a third of way into any answer I gave. The only time he let me talk was when I told him about the Ulpine fleet on the Compass River. After he questioned me about that at length he gave me a stern gaze, not a real one, more like a teacher who thinks a pupil is being “cheeky”.
“So what you want from me madam? Your mistress was captured, her plan failed. Many men died because of her carelessness, letting the plan be discovered. And you expect what? Asylum? To be sent home as a hero? You’ll find cold welcome for any Kingdomer there.”
“I don’t want anything from you, I was brought here against my will. I wasn’t coming here to speak with you, I just wanted to get away from my captors. Truth be told I don’t care a nonce for your war and I resent that my mistress has made me a traitor to my homeland. But a traitor is what I am now. If you leave me my to my business I’ll leave you to yours.”
He snorted “I can’t have you wandering around my battlefield like a ghost.”
“What do you propose to do with me then sir?”
“You’ll be my assistant. You can start right now by fetching me some wine. If you are disobedient you will be disciplined. If you serve well you will be treated well.”
I raised an eyebrow “Ooh, disciplined huh? Kinky.” I put my feet up on his desk “You know I’ve been here before. This house used to belong to a man named Wolcott. We had sex and then I cut his throat. It was part of a scheme I was working, framing another guy for devil worship. It was pretty convoluted. I was a little too clever for my own good back then.” I produced a dagger from my secret pocket “You want to see how I did it? The throat part I mean, not the sex part, that was pretty standard. I’m sure you can imagine what that looked like fairly easily.”
For a military man he reacted in a gutless way, even for an officer, instead of drawing a weapon to defend himself he ran into the back room and slammed the door, shouting for his guards. I guess it’s not totally unjustified, he probably thought that I was a doppelganger or a fey tricksteress. By the time two guards came running in I had taken his form and voice.
I gestured “Get this door down now! Be careful, she’s a shapeshifter, so whatever you see on the other side don’t get thrown off. Whoever is in there grab them.”
The two men picked up the desk and hurled it through the door, smashing it to pieces, then awkwardly dragging out their commanding officer who was protesting that I was imposter all the while. They kept a hold of him but they eyed me warily.
“She’s trying to fool you, but she’s right you know, you don’t know which one of us to trust. Until further notice you should disregard what either of us says. You, stay here and make sure that neither one of us leaves, you grab the first officer you can find and bring them here – they’re in charge until we figure this out.”
The commander was apoplectic at being restrained by his own man while the other ran off to obey my orders “I’ll have you court martialed if you don’t release me right now Vanger!”
I rummaged around in the wreckage of the desk and found an intact bottle of Cherrywood Select Whiskey, setting up the chair and taking a seat to have a pull “I tell you what, this day is not going the way I expected.” I shook my head “You can’t put anything past these Kingdomers can you? Shapeshifting assassins? What’s next I ask.”
He looked at me suspiciously “Why didn’t you call me Vanger?”
I smiled shortly “Sorry son, but I have no idea what your name is. I hate to break it to you but I don’t know the names of every man under my command.” I raised the bottle to him “I’m sure as Hells going to remember your name after this though. Is Vanger your first or last name private?”
The man in his arms shouted desperately “Casan! Casan Vanger!”
The soldier looked at the man in his arms and then let him go – only to slam a knife into his back. Blondie’s eyes widened comically as he was stabbed and slipped to the floor. Vanger retrieved his spear and finished the job of murdering his commanding officer. He looked over at me with a happy grin.
“I knew the real you wouldn’t know my name sir, but now you do.”
I took another drink and then spoke in my own voice “I like your initiative soldier, I really wasn’t sure what I was going to do when your friend came back. The bad news is you just killed your commander, which I believe even the Vieland military frowns upon. The good news is that I have a plan for us.”
I’m not sure I’ve ever see someone more crestfallen. And I know from crestfallen.