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.” 

Montresor 16 Year 888 (New Imperial Calendar) part 3

Grigori the lying liar said that in order to force a final confrontation with the nightmare hag we had to wait until after midnight – since that’s the most magical time of day as everyone knows.  Or night I guess.  Whatever, you know what I mean.  He also said that he needed to do some “research” and wandered off (probably to get drunk in peace) leaving me with the woman that I rescued.  I thought she said that her name was Blossom but that can’t be right because no one would be named that.  Once the feeling had returned to her limbs she set about clearing away room for a campsite and gathering firewood and other such tasks while I sat against a tree drinking from my Flask and not helping her.  I saved her life, that seems like enough.

“So what’s your deal why did those dwarfs have you trussed up like a goose for the cooking?”

“I got the impression that they were witch hunters of a sort.”

“And?”

She gave me a strange look “I’m a witch.”

I raised an eyebrow “You really are?” I peered at her closely “Normally I’m great at seeing through illusions.  Or is this like a deal where you actually change your flesh like a mimic worm?  Is that why I can’t see what you really look like?    Does Grigori know?  That would be pretty funny if you reverted to your real form when you guys were making sweet, sweet love.” I couldn’t help but chuckle “That would be something to see!”

She stopped and looked at me with hands on hips “What are you talking about?  This is what I really look like.”

“Bullshit.  I’ve run into way too many witches to fall for that.  They’re all twisted and lumbering, the corruption in their souls is reflected by the wickedness of their flesh – a visage to match the growing horror within.  Some awful creatures have forms that are pleasing to the eye, witches ain’t in that group.”

She went back to working “You’re thinking of hags.”

“Witches and hags aren’t the same thing?”

“No.”

“Well?  Don’t keep me in suspense what’s the difference?”

“Hags are fey creatures like nymphs and satyrs, and like all beings of the first world they’re tied to primal forces of the earth.   Hags warped reflections of humanity that characterize nature at its most offensive.”

“Interesting, whereas you on the other hand being a witch are just a lady that sold your soul to the Lord of the Thirteen for magical power.”

She dropped her bundle of kindling in outrage “What?!  NO!  I never did any such thing.”

I gestured with my Flask “Well sure you probably didn’t talk to the Dark Lord Himself but one of his minions, like an imp or a demon or something right?”

She stomped her foot “I never sold my soul!  I’m just someone who can cast spells, souls have nothing to do with it.”

“So you’re a wizard?  Why do you call yourself a witch?”

“No, a wizard is someone who learns magic at a school like learning mathematics or engineering – I can just sort of do magic, I don’t get into magical theory and formulas or wizard stuff like that.”

I nodded “Okay, I see, you’re a sorcerer.  I had a friend who was like that, she was always going on and on about the difference between wizards and sorcerers.  She fell off a cliff and died on impact you know.”

“No, I’m not a sorcerer, they’re born with magic inside of them.”

I waited for her to elaborate, she did not “So then where does your magic come from?”

She didn’t answer for a moment “I made a pact.”

“With?”

“Look, some gain power through study, others through blood, but the people like me gain power from her communion with the unknown.”

“The unknown?  What the fuck is that supposed to mean?  So you’re like a priest who worships some weird God that’s about secrets or something?”

“No, I’m just an arcane spellcaster alright!”

I held my hands up “Hey, don’t get cheesed off at me lady.  I have nothing against soul selling, I don’t know why people get so bent out of shape about it.  Your soul is the one thing that you own yourself and no one can take away from you, you should be able to do whatever you want with it.  Demons should be allowed to set up shops where poor people can sell their souls for whatever they need.  It’s really not a big deal.  I’m not proud of it but I sold my soul once to get myself out of a jam.  I got it back though, which is nice.”

“I did not sell my soul!  I made a pact.”

“With whom?”

“An otherworldly power.”

“Like the Lord of the Thirteen?”

“No!”

“The Archfey?  The Lurker in the Deep?  The Raven Queen?  You’re not one of those people that draws on the power of the Old Ones are you?  Because I tell you right now I have had it up to here with those people.”

“No, I just made a pact okay!”

“How?  Making a pact implies that you agreed to something with someone.  How did it happen?  Were you talking to a cat or something?  I’m starting to feel like you don’t have any idea where your magic comes from, which sounds an awful lot like the kind of scam that the Lord of the Thirteen would pull to me.  Maybe you don’t know that you’re a demon worshipper.  I hear that happens sometimes.”

“I am not a demon worshipper!”

“Hey look, I get your reluctant to come clean, most people are going to react poorly if you say you worship the Dark One Himself but I don’t care.  That’s your business right?  I don’t get involved.  I’m more open minded than most people.  Religious freedom, I’m all about that.  I’ll grant you I have killed demon cultists by the cartload but that’s because they were trying to kill me.  Self-defense you know?  It’s not like I have a thing about killing demoniacs.”

After a long moment she spoke “Actually I am a sorcerer, I was lying before, there’s no such thing as witches.”

“There, was that so hard now?   

Montresor 16 Year 888 (New Imperial Calendar) part 2

“I’m not really a witch hunter.  I’m just an poor girl from a poor family roaming the countryside looking to put right what once went wrong.”

He shrugged “That’s fine, you’re the next best thing.”

“How so?  I admit that I do hate witches – one of them would be infesting my dreams with horror right now if I didn’t have magical wards keeping them out – but that hardly qualifies me to take on the somber duties of witch hunting. Isn’t that a government thing?  Part of the Royal Inquisition or some such?”

“Well you’re here so you’ll have to do.”

“Will I?  I don’t see any particular reason why I should care about your witch.”

“If you help me with your witch I’ll help you with yours.”

“Fair enough, but I would like to state for the record that I don’t believe you can actually help me do anything.  I think you suck at magic and I’m just going along with this out of curiosity.”

“Let the record so reflect.” He took a deep breath “Alright, we’ll go in a second, just give me a minute to catch my breath.”

“You’ve been standing here doing nothing, why are you so weary?”

“Trust me, I’m doing all sorts of magic things that you aren’t even aware of, it takes a toll it does.”

“I’m sure.”

We stood there wordlessly staring at each other and then after a minute he waved his hand and we crossed back over the bridge and headed downriver.  Despite taking a moment to rest he was wheezing like an old man.

“Why were you waiting for me on the other side of the bridge?  Also where are we going?”

“I thought you’d be coming from the other way.  We’re going to Peacevast, it’s a fishing village up the way.”

“Why are we going there?”

“That’s where the witch is.”

“If you know where she is what do you need a witch hunter for?”

He didn’t respond to that, not sure if it’s because he was too out of breath or because he had no answer for me.  Peacevast wasn’t more than a mile down the road, which makes you wonder why there was ever a need for a ferry crossing here in the first place.  It was your standard flyspeck of a village with one mildly interesting feature.  Outside of town (in as much as you can call two dozen buildings a town) there was a statue buried in the ground so that only the top of head was poking out.  The dirt covered it up about to the lips.  That protruding portion itself was a good two feet in height so based on that forehead the entire thing must have been massive.  My companion pointed at it with an incongruous tone of pride.

“No one knows who that’s a statue of, or how it ended up in the earth like that.”

“That’s King Harad the Fourth.”

He stopped in dismay “What?  How could you know that?”

“I’d recognize it anywhere, they have that same statue all over the place in Indlecastle and Paladore.  Municipal buildings and parks and such.  Even from just the top of the face I’m sure that’s what it is.  They made them out of a special kind of alabaster that I don’t think was ever used for anything else, that’s why it’s kind of sparkle like that.  Bit effeminate if you ask me but I think it’s supposed to be the shining of his moral righteousness or something.”

He stared at me like his entire worldview had been shattered “Well . . . how did it get in the ground?”

“I have no idea.”

That seemed to satisfy him “I didn’t think so.”

Once that odd little exchange was over we continued into the village and I saw the other distinguishing characteristic of Peacevast – the woman they had rigged up in the middle of town.  She wasn’t tied to a stake, as is tradition with witches, it was more like they had her hanging from a very large sawhorse.  Or a drying racking maybe.  You know what I mean.  Not like hanging upside down by the ankles, she had been lashed to the crossbeam (?) like a suckling pig on a spit.  It was hard to tell with all the ropes across her but she looked like a pretty normal woman in a gaudy purple dress.  Her dark hair hung down like a veil about her head, almost touching the floor.  The wandering wizard pointed.

“There she is.”

“Looks like they got her, seems like my job here is done.  Now for your end of the bargain.”

He shook his head “No, you need to set her free.”

“First of all you were looking for a witch hunter because you wanted to set a witch free?  Second of all I don’t even think she is a witch, she looks normal enough to me – witches are all misshaped and lumpy.  Third of all you’re a wizard and you can’t untie a rope?  I’m starting to suspect you don’t know what you’re doing.”

He sighed like this all just too much for him “Just get her down will you?”

I laughed shortly “Oh I’m sorry, am I inconveniencing you?  Somehow now I’m wasting your time?  Look at all that fucking rope, it must have taken them hours to tie her up like that.  I don’t want to undo all those knots.  Maybe we can burn the ropes off her.”

“How are you going to do that without killing her?!”

I scowled “You’re the one with magic!”

A weak voice came from the direction of the hair “Grigori is that you?”

He moved to kneel by the contraption and grabbed her bound hands “Yes my love, I’m here for you.”

“You two know each other?  Are you incapable of telling the truth?  Why didn’t you just say you wanted my help rescuing your lover?”

“You’re here aren’t you?”

“You are a nitwit.”

The hair quivered with fear “Grigori you have to get out of here before they find you. It’s too late for me, save yourself.”

He clutched more desperately at her hands “I’ll never leave you again, and don’t worry, I brought reinforcements.”

I walked over “That would be me.  As you can tell from my boots I’m very heroic and great.  Maybe if we lift the pole off this . . . whatever it is then we can slip it out and then maybe she can wriggle free of the ropes.”

Grigori glared at me “Why don’t you just untie her?”

“Why don’t you just untie her?”

“Oi, what are you two doing over there!”

That was the voice of a beardless dwarf with outrageous eyebrows (they looked like a waxed mustache) who was coming out of one of the buildings.  He was dressed in golden mail and he brandished some manner of sword/axe/thing that was longer than he was tall.  I think it was an elf curve blade.  I feel like this is the third time I’ve seen a dwarf wielding one of those.  What gives?  I thought dwarfs and elfs didn’t get on.  Maybe that’s why these dwarfs are exiles.  Coming out behind him was another beardless dwarf who was also hairless – his head looked like a fleshy boulder.  He was pointing a crossbow at us that looked like it was made of the finest darkwood with gold filigree and silver.  It was a beautiful looking killing tool aside from the fact that it looked like it had a long spyglass attached to the top.  What a ridiculous notion.

I gestured “We were just discussing the best way to untie this woman.  Would you mind not pointing that crossbow at me?”

His ludicrous eyebrows twitched like the antenna of a cave cricket “Untie her?!  She’s our captive!”

I nodded “Yes, and a fine job you did of it too my good sir. “I flashed my badge at him “I’m here to take her off your hands.”

“And who are you?!”

His back-up lowered the crossbow slightly so I would just be shot in the stomach instead of the chest if he loosed “What about our pay?”

“Marguerite Bennett, Captain of the Cathars Chapterhouse.  You’ll get the full amount promised you from Baron Harmenkar, you’ll just have to go get it.”

The crossbowman frowned and lowered his weapon a tiny bit more as eyebrows turned red in the face “That isn’t what we were hired for!  We were told . . .”

“Look, I’m sorry, but things have changed.  There’s been an organization reshuffling and you got caught in the shuffle it looks like.  It a bad hand but that’s what it is, no use bellyaching about it.  Baron Harmenkar is overseeing funding this entire region under the supervision of Colonel Tarl Ciarán.  You have a complaint, take it up with him.  I’m just here to remand your prisoner unto my custody.”

The crossbowman’s bolt thrower dropped to the ground in dismay “But what about our money?”

Eyebrows looked like he was about to grab me by the shirt “We need that money!”

I coolly moved his hands away from me with the Baronial Cane “Don’t get grabby with me sir, there’s no reason to turn this into something ugly.  You got a raw deal here but you’re still getting paid, it’s just going to take a little longer.  How about you act like professional instead of mewling children and roll with the punches?  If it will keep you from yapping I’ll write a letter to Baron Harmenkar suggesting that you be awarded additional funds for your trouble.”

Eyebrows growled “Who are you calling a child?”

A light came back into the crossbowman’s eyes “How much additional?”

I looked the angry dwarf in the eyes “Thirty percent.  You want the letter or not?”

Montresor 16 Year 888 (New Imperial Calendar)

I arrived at the Compass River today.  I’ve had bad luck with river crossings what with the pirates and monsters and undead beasts, so I was not looking forward to the ferry but when I got there I saw that a brand new bridge was ready and waiting for me.  I guess because of the all the troops moving through here (you know the war and all) they decided it made sense to toss up a bridge.  It’s startling when presented with actual proof that the government can accomplish things when they want to.  And building a bridge is no easy task – they must have really busted the asses of some indentured servants to get this completed so quickly.  I’d like to take this moment to remind everyone that slavery is illegal in the Kingdom. 

It wasn’t some rickety little country affair either – this was a Hells of a bridge.  I mean if you like bridges.  You could have marched a whole platoon (I have no idea how many people are in a platoon) across it with room to spare for their train of cooks, laundresses, bootleggers, nurses, prostitutes, and war profiteers.  Truth be told it was far more bridge than you would ever need on the road to a place like Graltontown but fighting wars is mostly about building bridges I’m pretty sure.  The ferryman’s little shack was still nearby but the ferryman himself was nowhere to be found.  I assumed he hanged himself once the bridge was completed and now haunts it at night, strangling travelers unlucky enough to be crossing under the light of the moon with the very ropes with once he made his livelihood. 

As I crossed over this new construction I passed a man pushing an overburdened cartful of cabbages accompanied by a girl dressed in boy’s clothing stooped under a pack bigger than her.  I think it wasn’t just dressed, I think it was supposed to be a disguise, probably as an attempt to dissuade potential rapists.  Surely they couldn’t have been planning on taking those cabbages all the way to Ardint but where else would there be to take them?  I was almost curious enough to ask them.  Almost. 

Aside from cabbages the other thing I wondered about was how I crossed this river the first time.  Five hundred and twenty seven days ago I woke up in that garbage-strewed alley in Graltontown being molested by a diseased mongrel.  What happened before that?  Was I whisked there by magic?  Was I bound and gagged and drugged the entire time, did the ferryman watch as the Duke’s goons manhandled by unconscious form onto his skiff?  Was my mind overthrown by enchantment and I was going there “willingly”?  I suppose before I finally kill the Duke I’ll wring that answer out of him, just for my own curiosity.

On the other side of the river a man was waiting for me, leaning against the bridgehead (is that a thing?) the kind of lean where you need support rather than want it.  He was mostly dressed in dilapidated traveler’s garb, several layers of such in fact, but had added a few items.  Some puffy culottes, a frilly light violet dressing gown, and a horribly clashing floppy red hat with a sad feather really added something to the ensemble.  What that something is I’ll leave for each individual to arrive.  He had a very unmasculine long neck and a disgrace of a beard.  About the only thing that recommended him was the bottle of Oldlaw whiskey he was working on as he leaned at an awkward angle.

“Aren’t you hot under all those clothes?”

He peered at me from under his hat as if trying to assess if I was real “I have a skin condition.”

“And sweating your balls off makes it better?”

He took a moment to consider that “Yes?”

“You also appear to be wearing women’s trousers.”

He took a drink before corking his bottle and tucking it away without offering me any like a real asshole “No such thing madam.  Women won’t wear trousers so there can be so such thing as women’s trousers, ergo and therefore all trousers are men’s trousers.”

“I’m a woman and I’m wearing trousers.”

He frowned and then leaned forward preciously to examine me for a moment “Yes . . . . it seems that you are.  Hmm . . . . this changes things.”

I carefully pushed him back into a more upright position before he fell on his face “I could go on at some length about your fashion choices but in the interest of brevity let me ask what it is you need from me.  It appeared you were waiting for me.”

“Yes . . .” he nodded as if he had just decided “Yes, I talked with a Shepard of the Wandering God and his disciples, he was called Dormus, and he told me of a meeting with a witch hunter by the name of Buckleuck.  It’s him that I was waiting for but it appears that you are him.”

“Good eye, most people would never peg me for Buckleuck since I look nothing like him and also he doesn’t really exist.”

“Existence is not as black and white as people think.  And appearances can be deceiving, I try not to rely on anything so undependable as vision if I have other options.”

“And do you?”

He nodded slowly “Oh yes, I’m quite a powerful wizard.”

“You look like a vagrant.”

“I’m that too.”

“I suppose you must be a wizard since here you are in front of me when the people you said you talked to yesterday are now far behind me.”

He looked around, confused “They are?  I admit that directions and geography aren’t something I’m good with, I have the bad tendency to get turned around.”

“That’s something we have in common.  I have to tell you my shabby new friend, I don’t get on with wizards very well.  They have a disturbing tendency to live in isolated towers where they can kidnap and torture women without being bothered by angry mobs.”

“I don’t blame you there, most wizards are real stiffs.  I can assure you that I have no problem with women.  I love women, why else would I pay them thirty silver to have sex with me?”

“You don’t look like you have thirty silver to spare very often.”

A sighed sadly “True enough, wizarding is not a very lucrative profession.”

“Disagree whenever I buy anything magic it costs a fortune.  I feel like you’re just a bad wizard and that’s why you’re poor.”

“Maybe, but it takes a lot of money to make those things too.  The overhead is substantial.  And it takes forever.  One measly little magic ring takes months to create.  It’s crazy I tell you.  Plus I never really mastered the art of crafting magic items, mine had the bad habit if not working which doesn’t do much for your reputation.”

 “That is pretty strong mark against any merchant – your competitors can say mean things like ‘at least my stuff actually works’ and what can you say back?”

“Exactly.  That’s why so many wizards get drawn into the tawdry and ugly world of adventuring, there’s just not a lot of other ways to get rich using your skills of setting people and things on fire at fifty paces.”

“But you can do other things with magic other than killing right?”

“You’d think so wouldn’t you?”

“We seem to have gotten sidetracked again, what is it you want from me?”

“I need a witch hunted, what reason would there be to look for a witch hunter?”

“Maybe you want one of those big hats they seem to love so much.”

Montresor 15 Year 888 (New Imperial Calendar)

In retrospect I’ve given Peronel too much credit when it comes to not hesitating to employ swift and blinding violence.  With his magic as back-up I think he had enough men to take out the Ardint city watch.  I’m pretty sure that was the entire city watch since last time I was here they didn’t even have one.  He could have killed all the law men in Arindt and then taken over the entire town – which you may remember as the plot of the Eight Cavaliers.  I enjoyed that book but I think people give it too much credit for having one of the “cavaliers” character be Kostelos. 

First of all that character gets very little attention and undergoes no development of growth throughout the story, and secondly the character also in no way presents a shred of authenticity about the Kostelos experience.  IF anything what it really represents is the same stereotype of the subservient mystic barbarian who helps out the very people who are destroying his way of life.  But more importantly, even if that character was well done and a good representation of the Kostelos people who cares?  How does that help anything?  Kostelos don’t read and if they did why would they give a shit?  Having a character in a book doesn’t give them their land back.  Nor give them any status in the Kingdom.  Nor make them be alive again. 

But they’re dirty barbarians anyway so screw them.  Peronell missed his chance (maybe being a drug dealer doesn’t mean you’re willing to engage in mass slaughter of the legal authorities and the flouting of the King’s sovereignty) and we were all taken into custody.  I figured that would be fine since the mayor and I are old chums but he didn’t seem to be around.  Instead there was some pinch-faced magistrate that looked like a schoolmarm (gender aside) who seemed to be in charge of the situation.  Whatever they were going to do it seemed like it was going to take a long time so in the confusion I changed appearance (Peronell’s anti-changing magic seemed to have worn off) and walked away from that mess.  Just to be on the safe side I snuck (sauntered really) out of town and slept under a hedge like a dirty knight errant.

That’s two times now (or three depending on how you account for it) that Peronell has managed to avoid being revenged upon by me.  It’s starting to get annoying.  Maybe he’ll get hung and I won’t need to worry about it.  Once upon a time I was very strict that I had to be the one that took care of people on my list.  I’m not so worried about that now, with some of them at least.  There are just so many people that I need revenge against and I can’t be revenging all day you know?  Maybe I should make two columns on the list – a premium tier of people who I need to destroy personally and a lower level of miscreants who need to come to a bad end but it doesn’t necessarily need to be at my hand.  Then I can start contracting out some of the lesser revenge jobs.  Revenger smarter not harder.

Traveling the road to Graltontown there was nothing much going on and I was feeling a bit blue so I entertained myself with one of my old games.  As I was traveling I would take on a different appearance and persona with each fellow traveler I came across.  A group of young fellows were out running the road, training for a long distance competition of some kind, I talked their ear off as Lemiel the stuttering ratcatcher.  Buckleuck a greedy witch hunter came across a scruffy priest of Strider and a few acolytes.   They claimed to be roaming the the land helping those in need but you and I really know how those Strider people really are.   Buckleuck regaled them with grisly tales of witches and the terrible fates of their victims while bragging about his victories over such demonic enemies. 

A veteran back from the front on the way to visit the family farmstead got into a blistering row with Leoet Violetteus a nobleman disowned for his drunkardness – and if you know anything about nobles you have to be fantastically drunkardly to get disowned for that.  I was in my own form when I came across a skinny fellow drawing the scenery.  I accused him of being a Vielander spy and he ran away.  So I must have been right.  When I was tired I sat down on the ground with nary a comfort to be had, retrieved some rations from my Greatcoat pocket and chewed on the vile “food” and felt sorry for myself.  You can’t indulge in that too much or you become melancholy and gross but it’s okay every now and then. 

Emotions need to be stuffed deep down inside where they can’t interfere with your decision making but every now and then you need to trot them out and give them some air otherwise they fester and grow like things that live in caves.  Mushrooms?  Some like that.  Mold maybe.  You need to drag them up into the sunlight every now and examine them to make sure that they’re not undermining your tower of self-control.  Emotions hidden TOO well have a way of insinuating themselves into your mind all sneaky like and making you react in unproductive and unpredictable ways. Not giving your feelings a good kick occasionally can impact your ability to make reasonable, thoughtful decisions.

Think about someone who know who’s a real disaster (if you can’t think of anyone it’s probably you). That person is at the mercy of their emotions. They feel abnormal, weird and avoid sharing them. They feel lost and don’t know how to pull themselves out of their misery.  Feeling sorry for yourself can be helpful, just don’t go overboard with that bullshit right? 

It’s okay to moan and groan and think that the whole world is against you. Just be mindful that you’re doing it, and teach it who the boss is. You can cry and whine for about twenty minutes and then you’re done.  If you do feeling lousy right it can be quite cathartic and energizing. But the path to change and feeling better is action, feel crappy for a little while and then get over it and crack on.

This ends Ela’s book corner and self-actualizing workshop.  Fifty gold please.  No refunds.

Montresor 14 Year 888 (New Imperial Calendar)

I hope Jonah got clear of that mess yesterday without too much trouble.  But also I don’t really care you know?  It’s like when you see a yak crossing a river frequented by dracodolphins, you’re cheering for the yak to make it across but if it gets slaughtered by a dragon-porpoise hybrid you just shrug go about your day.  You know what I mean?  I think you do.  I suppose either way Jonah’s career as a proxy duelist is over, which I think we can all agree is for the best.  He wasn’t cut out for that line of work.  The worst thing about that grand melee is that I lost my crossbow in the press.  Seems like every time I get a nice shooter something happens to it.  I guess that could be the one good thing about magic, no one can take it from you.  All they can do is break your hands and rip out your tongue so you can’t cast spells. 

I found the road today and was mildly taken aback to arrive in Ardint instead of Tybhurst.  I guess I got a little off course.  No big surprise there eh?  I arrived there just as the markets were closing down (a place like Ardint has no night markets) and was able to get a replacement crossbow and a nice bracelet as well.  Not bad for a quick shopping trip in a place like this.  I was surprised to find that the place wasn’t swarming with soldiers, since the last time I had been here I alerted them to a Vielander plot to infiltrate the Lodge Woods and conquer the entire region with the help of dirty traitors.  Maybe the soldiers all in the forest slaughtering Vielanders gloriously.  I didn’t even hear much chatter about the sacking of Malgareth.  For a town basically on the front lines the Ardintites don’t seem to be taking the war too seriously. 

After my hasty trip to the market I found the only decent inn in town – I believe it used to be student housing for the third rate university they have here so it was much larger and kind of an odd layout for a hostelry.  They had done some renovations to create a common room and when I walked in who did I see sitting at a table but the Missplitters – Peronell and his wife, who probably has a name.  Remember how bent out of shape I used to get about women being called just Miss Their Husband’s Name?  And now here I am doing the same thing.  Shame on me.  It’s undoubtedly the worst thing I’ve ever done. 

Since things didn’t work out for them in Three Rivers (you know because of me) they must be fleeing to Heathgrove to throw themselves at the mercy of Psyhundt and his hairy chest.  Peronell looked much the same, being a shabby wizard or alchemist or whatever kind of potion making schlep he is but his wife was dressed in common traveler’s garb.  Gone was the magenta lace and tulle gown and the crystal wine glass and she didn’t look happy about that fact.  I on the other hand took great amusement in that fact. 

When I spotted them I immediately took on a difference appearance but it was too late – they had both swung around and made me the moment I walked in.  I’ll give this to Peronell he’s a decisive fellow – he instantly ordered his drug addict goons and slovenly bodyguards to grab me.  They surged forward as I dashed out the door, swapped appearances again, and circled back around.  While they thugs were searching the area I walked right past them back into the converted dormitory.  I had forgotten how annoying this Peronell guy is though, even disguised he clearly knew who I was and did some sort of magic shenanigans at me – two things happened.  One I felt like I was punched in the chest, getting knocked against the wall and to the floor.  Two, my disguise melted away and somehow my ability to generate another was blocked.  Although since his goons only ever saw me in a different disguise anyway I’m not sure what good that did.

The ladywife Missplitter overturned a table and ducked before it for cover with shrieking in a most unladylike way for the remaining thug to “kill that little bitch”.  Which I take exception to, I am not little.  Said goon leapt into action at his mistress’s command and started whirling about a length of chain covered with barbs.  I’ve heard about these things but I’ve never seen one before.  Seems like a nonsensical weapon even for a gladiatorial performance, and those people use fucking nets.  A sword has a sheath, an axe you kind of just strap on your back, a spear you just hold but that’s fine because it’s like a walking stick – how the Hells do you even transport an eleven foot length of spiked chain?  Where do you put it?  And how do you “draw” it?  Seems like it would get tangled up ALL the time. 

Notwithstanding how do you even learn to use the damn thing?  Seems like the first time you swung it you’d rip your own face off and then maybe decide to get a real weapon.  This fellow, wearing a chainmail and leather number and possessing an oddly bestial face, had it all figured out however it happens.  He flicked that thing out like a dancer’s ribbon and caught me around the lower leg.  As he dragged me towards him the spikes dug into my ankle so far I could feel them touching bone.  I believe I said something like “Ah, my fucking ankle!”  I say things like that in combat far more often than witty quips.  I should work on that.  Winning is one thing, but poise counts too.

Peronell came over and stood directly over me like a jerk to cast a spell – didn’t seem to do anything.  That would have been a perfect time for a wisecrack about impotence but there’s just no time you know?  Instead I called upon the magic of my Stole and blasted him in the face with some razor shards courtesy of the refrain from “A Kiss At the End of the World”.  He fell back with a bloody face and his goon snapped the chain entangling me like a dockworker trying to shake out a knot and got the chain around my throat as well.  You know what’s worse than being strangled with a chain?  Being strangled with a chain that has GODS DAMN SPIKES!!!

I managed to get a hand up on the front of my throat to prevent a spines from going through my jugular (and whatever else important is in there) but they were still digging into the back and sides of my neck.  I didn’t care for that at all.  I expressed this displeasure by retrieving my Belt Sword and stabbing the chain wielder through the groin.  Which is what he gets for wearing a chain shirt instead of the full deal.  A groinful of rapier dampened his enthusiasm for chain swinging and I managed to wriggle loose.  I was gulping down some healing potion when the Missus clobbered me with a chair.  Looking up at her I’m not sure I’ve ever seen more hatred in a person’s eyes.  I guess that I of all people should know what kind of ire is stirred up when you’re dragged out of a life of luxury and prominence and thrown down to wallow in the mud with everyone else.

She swung at me again but I rolled out of the way and got a hold of her – she wasn’t much of a fighter she was just enthusiastic about bashing my skull in.  I got the tip of my sword under her chin as Peronell was regaining his wits, clutching at his horrendously bleeding eye with one hand.

“Alright, everybody be cool or the dame gets it.”

I halfway (maybe three-quarters) expected him not to care about the fate of his wife, but he seemed very concerned.  Peronell took a step back and waved off his goons as some of them came running back into the common room.  The chain wielding man remained bleeding and crying on the ground.  I’ve been stabbed a good many places at this point, but never the crotch.  I’m grateful for that.

Peronell’s one eye glared at me “What are we going to do here?”

“How about we call this one a draw?  Your wife and I are going to slowly back out of here while you and your men stay here and once I’m clear I’ll let her go.  Sounds good right?  We can conclude out business a later date.  Assuming that Psyhundt doesn’t skin you alive in the meantime.”

“What guarantee . . .”

“Do you have that I’ll let her go?  Let’s not get into that whole thing, you have no choice.”

It looked to me like he was starting to cast a spell but just then several watchmen burst onto the scene and started shouting for people to drop their weapons and such.  Their leader was quite a statuesque fellow.  He looked like the watch captain from a romance novel, in real life they tend to look more like human bulldogs.  Or disapproving tutors.  But this fellow was handsome as you like.  After quickly taking a measure of the situation he looked me in the eye.  His voice was strong and commanding, the kind that could make you weak in the knees if you let it.

“What’s going on here?”

“Would you believe that we’re rehearsing a play?

Montresor 13 Year 888 (New Imperial Calendar)

Thing’s didn’t exactly work out as I had planned.  Convincing Jonah to let me take his place in the duel took some doing but not as much as you might think.  As much as he didn’t want me putting myself in danger on his behalf (or at all) he really didn’t want to fight Brevoy either.  Once I had him convinced that there was no risk in this switch the rest of the convincing was a forgone conclusion.  He didn’t even raise the masculine objection of being ashamed of hiding behind a woman’s skirts once, which I feel speaks well of him.  Or maybe he’s just a total coward, but I don’t think so.  And I’m a pretty good judge of these matters.

The idea was that I would walk out with Jonah’s appearance and then once everyone was ready for the bloodshed to begin I would drop the disguise, Brevoy would see that it was me – the woman who had taken his hand and presumably haunted his nightmares ever since.  If necessary I would denounce him for the bounder, liar, and dastard that he is and either way he would crumble before my withering gaze, piss himself with terror, and surrender without a single blow being struck.  Sure there might be some moaning from the dueling purists but with Lord Brandymoore having selected such a pathetic blatherskite for a champion there wouldn’t be much he could do about it.  Unless he wanted to pick up a sword himself.  Which he most assuredly would not.  As you well know rich men prefer others to do their bleeding for them.

At first everything seemed like it was going to pan out exactly as I predicted.  The crowd was gathered, ready for blood.  Some bulky fellow with a massive white mustache blathered on about the rules of the contest for a while and then it was time to get down to business.  Brevoy took his position, I took mine with Jonah’s appearance, and then when I revealed my true form Brevoy completely fell apart.  His sword slipped out of the grasp of his fingers and he fell to the ground crying in a heap.  I proclaimed to everyone in attendance that his tales of glory were naught but filthy lies and that I had taken his hand to protect the world from his predatory actions.  People were disappointed they wouldn’t be seeing anyone slashed to ribbons but they were still entertained by this shocking turn of events so all in all they weren’t too angry.

What I hadn’t counted on is that once Brevoy was over his initial shock and fear that he would see this as an opportunity to reclaim his manhood.  Turns out that if you humiliate and maim someone, depriving them of their main source of self-worth, they may hold that against you.  Brevoy is a murderer and a rapist but that doesn’t preclude him from being able to gather up enough courage to do something about his reversal.  I should know better.  Bravery isn’t the providence of the just by any means, a fact which I am well aware of.  I’m tempted to say that I outsmarted myself but that’s not quite right, I just misjudged things.

I was made pointedly (pun) aware of this when Brevoy returned to his feet with sword in hand and executed what everyone agrees was a picture perfect thrust towards my heart.  I don’t know how much he’s been practicing over this last year with his left hand but his progress is pretty impressive.  I only just managed to get my sword in the way enough to deflect his stroke from a killing blow to merely a massively wounding one.  I got run through the belly with a spear once.  That was pretty bad.  Getting a sword through the chest, also not great. 

His second thrust would have gone through my neck if not for the fact that I collapsed to the ground on account of had I had a gaping chest wound.  I’m not sure why he expected that I would still be standing after that first attack hit home.  On the ground I pulled out an adamantine bolt and stabbed him through the foot with it.  He fell down next to me as I dragged out my crossbow as well.  He tried to roll and stab at me awkwardly from his side but a rapier is not a good weapon for ground fighting.  Neither is a crossbow really but I managed to get that bloody adamantine bolt loaded and shot him through the side of the head.  He didn’t die, not right away, but he did stop moving.

One mistake was underestimating Brevoy.   The other mistake was forgetting how seriously some people take dueling.  Trading places with someone in a duel under false pretenses is definitely not okay with these those people.  Nor is producing a hidden weapon.  Or using a crossbow in what was supposed to be a sword fight.  Fighting on the ground also not cool.   And the whole not being a man thing doesn’t help either.  I was still in the dirt guzzling healing potions as fast as I could and trying to avoid dying when several people stormed the dueling field to grab me.  Jonah and some other people counter-stormed and then the retinues of the two lords were in the mix and before you knew what was what it was a mob scene.

I know a little (far more than I want to) about fighting now, but I don’t know much about mass battle.  What I do know is that if you want to live you have to stay on your feet.  If you get knocked down you’re fucked.  If you’re on the ground you have to get back up immediately or you’re dead.  What they don’t tell you is that getting to your feet is pretty hard when you’re being kicked and trampled.  I had just managed to regain a vertical base when someone got a hold of my hair and dragged me back down to the ground.  If I had any idea who it was I would put them in the number two slot on the list right after the Duke.  What kind of human garbage would do something like that?  Drag a woman down in a riot?

I heard a veteran opining once that when you’re getting kicked the instinct to roll into a ball and cover your head is the worst thing you can do – that leaves you open to being attacked.  According to him you need to keep trying to evade and defend yourself.  But I think that advice only makes sense when someone is specifically trying to hurt you, in a scenario like this where it’s impersonal it seems like better advice.  I was able to get the Baron’s cane out and start swatting at legs, which worked okay to clear some space before someone I cracked on the shin fell on me.  I’m not sure I ever wanted anything more than I wanted to get out of that tangled mass of suffocating confusion.  I think the only thing that saved me is biting onto someone’s hand and being dragged up unintentionally by my fucking teeth.  The man who did it punched me directly in the face afterwards.  Hard.  I definitely would have fallen back down if I wasn’t pinned upright by the crush of the crowd at that point.  I think I was unconscious for a split second.

Eventually I managed to slither my way free of the main mass of . . . well fight isn’t the right word, it was more like the frenzy of fish caught in a net and being dragged onto the boat.  I ran towards the vendor stalls and a man on horseback tried to grab me as he rode by.  It was like being clothesline by a tree limb, and he didn’t even get a hold of me, I fell out of his grasp and the horse stomped on my thigh.  Have you ever had a horse stomp on your thigh?  It hurts. 

I crawled under the edge of one of the merchant tents and almost immediately was set upon by a snarling man wielding a cudgel.  I clubbed him in the groin first with the Baronial cane (probably the first time it’s been used like that) and then smashed him on the head until he stopped moving.  A terrified woman was sitting in the corner (some tents have corners) clutching several bolts of cloth to her chest.  He voice had that shrill thinness that people get sometimes when they’re so scared they’re beyond being afraid.

“What’s happening?!”

I spat out a gob of blood and reached for my Flask “I’m having a bad day.”

Montresor 12 Year 888 (New Imperial Calendar)

(Note – I suddenly became annoyed by the inventory and list at the end every post and moved those to their own page. For anyone who cares.)

After watching the elder statesmen (and one stateswoman and one statesrat) of a cult dedicated to sexual deviancy, human sacrifice, and cannibalism be devoured by a massive death worm I was tempted to spend a few days with the Halflings of the Shoddy Hills – seeing that kind of thing with your very own eyes makes you want to rest and relax for a while.  You know how it is.

But as they say, no rest for the gorgeous.  I didn’t get terribly familiar with the philosophy (is that the right word?) of the goat cult people while they were busy trying to kill me but as I understand it they believe they can live outside of the natural cycle by emulating the Dark Mother who is her own food and her own parent – some manner of cyclical self-cannibalism and incestuous restitution.  So maybe for them being eaten by a giant worm is not that bad of a way to go.  Best not to speculate on the motivations of such people.   

The Halflings shook their head in sorrowful reproof of my haste to leave.  One of the shirriff’s commented that we overly large folk are “Always in a big hurry to get from something foolish to nothing at all”.  Once again they’re not wrong, but revenge is a stern mistress.  And not the fun kind with leather clothing.  I asked them if they could lead me through worm-tunnels to Eree and they looked at me like I was insane.  They’re the ones that were snuggling up to a beast the Kostelos call “the Clan Eater” like it was a tame petting goat and somehow I’m the crazy one?  Typical.  They did lead me back through the hills on worm-safe paths and sent me off with several rucksacks full of sweetened dried fruit, aged sausage, hard sharp cheese, honey cakes, and a mixture of roasted grains, nuts, and molasses.  They believe that a full belly strengths your resolve – there’s a lot to like about these little folk.

Once the Halfling ballyhoo was ballyhooed I headed south towards Tybhurst, as was the plan before I got diverted by all this nonsense.  Sometimes I really do think that some God or Gods is taking measures to keep from ever making progress on my goals.  Mostly though I think Gods have better things to do.  What those things might be I can’t imagine, but they have to have them.  Right?  As I traveled I saw an owlbear prowling around at the edge of the hills but I stayed well away from it.  I have no desire to be ripped to shreds by one of those things.  How is it that replacing the head of a bear with that of a tiny bird somehow resulted in a creature that is stronger and more vicious?  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – magic is crazy.

I never found the road so I must not be heading the right away, or I’m misremembering the topography of this area, but despite that fact I still somehow managed to encounter a large gathering of people.  I must be drawn to them unconsciously by the longing in my soul for civilized areas.  The reason for this gathering in the middle of nowhere was odd, although I guess there isn’t a reason for a gathering in the middle of nowhere that would be normal. 

Dueling is illegal is most jurisdictions although enforcement is spotty at best – people love watching two rich guys hack each other to bits.  Those duelists that are concerned about getting in trouble with the law simply meet outside the city limits to carve each other into bloody chunks, unless a forest warden happens along who’s going to arrest you?  Two fellows from Caeptil who should be old enough to know better decided upon a duel on account of one of them cheated the other in a deal or some kind and then someone’s wife was dishonored and this and that and so on.  Word got around, as it does, and the mayor put his foot down – they would be no dueling in or AROUND the city.  In order to bypass this the rare show of law enforcement the aggrieved parties decided to head south of the Shoddy Hills to spill blood.

A lot of people had no intention of missing this duel so they also made arrangements so travel south of the city to watch it go down.  A group of wandering players heard about this and they decided they would turn up and put on a performance beforehand.  Then a traveling circus heard about it and joined in and next thing you know you’ve got yourself a festival going.  Usually they don’t end with two gentlemen stabbing at each other, but there’s a first time for everything.  Except things that never happen.  There’s not a first time for those things.

Normally these festivals are crawling with low class types but this was an upscale affair – after all it’s not like your average person can afford to go haring off at the drop of a hat to watch a duel.  The crowd was mostly compromised of merchants and the retinues of the two dueling lords – who did their part to support their lieges by giving each other dirty looks and stepping on each other’s boots as they waited in line for candied apples.  One such merchant was more than happy to let me borrow his fine pavilion and actual bed for the night while he slept under a tarp with his manservant.  I’ve gotten so skillful at talking people into acting against their own best interest it’s almost not even fun anymore.  Almost.  It was a delightful surprise to get the sleep in a fine bed in a decent pavilion rather than on the ground like a filthy mole. 

After securing my lodgings for the night I wandered the merchant stalls and other perused the offerings of the opportunist and then headed to the “grand concourse” to watch the players mount a decent effort at the first act of Dawnflower’s Gold and laugh internally at a singer that couldn’t hold a handle to me.  She was pretty, very pretty, but she couldn’t sing worth a damn.  I was leaving when I spotted a face from the past – one Jonah Hillless.

Jonah is cursed with one of those babyfaces, last time I saw him he was eighteen and looked like he was eleven.  Now all these years later he looks like he might be all of seventeen.  He was a pawn in the tradition of fostering that nobles sometimes like to do – the ritual exchange of hostages dressed up all fancy like to be something else.  Some lords take their duties as surrogate father very seriously.  Others play more into the hostage aspect and treat their wards little better than prisoners.  The Duke couldn’t be bothered to care about Jonah.  He was basically left on his on (sound familiar?) and was usually so meek an unassuming that people forgot he was there at all.  He probably would have starved to death if the kitchen staff and the servants in general didn’t adopt him as a mascot of sorts. 

He was wearing those same cheap spectacles that the girls used to tease him about.  He’s slightly cross-eyed without them but I don’t understand why he doesn’t buy a better pair.  His family has plenty of money.  He was one of the only nobles at court that was truly devoted to his faith – attending Adariel’s services religiously (pun) which served to make him all the more liked by the lower class types.  He was kind and generous and totally out place in the Duke’s court.  It’s a good thing he was so inconspicuous, if anyone took notice if him he probably would have ended up a pawn in someone’s game and then ended up dead shortly thereafter.   Even though his face was still that of a boy he had grown tall and athletic where once he was soft and weedy.  As he was heading back to a tent of his own I fell into step beside him.

“Fancy meeting you here.”

When he looked over her literally tripped over his own feet in surprise, but managed to avoid falling just barely “Ela?”

I held my arms wide like a magician revealing a trick “The very same.”

He was incredulous “But . . . how . . . everyone said that you were dead.”

“Oh I am, can’t you tell by the decay ravaging my body?  I’m a revenant you see, back from the grave for revenge.  Come kiss these rotting lips.” He blushed furiously at the very idea and took an involuntary step backwards.  I laughed good-naturedly. “Good to see you haven’t changed.  What are you doing all the way out here?  The Jonah I knew isn’t the kind to be interested enough in a little bloodshed to travel all this way.”

“Well, duty calls.”

“You’re not in service to one of these fools are you Jonah?”

“Not in the way you mean.  I’m here as the proxy for Lord Hovecraft.”

I was almost as surprised by that as he was to see me “You’re joking.”

He shook his head “I’m afraid not My Lady.  My family has fallen on . . . hard times.  The only asset we have at this point is my skill at battle.”

I put my hand on his arm “Don’t take this the wrong way Jonah, but I don’t remember you having much in the way of skill at battle.  Didn’t one of the kitchen boys beat you senseless with a broom one time?”

He winced “I’ve gotten . . . better . . . since then . . . somewhat.  My father’s sword is very powerful . . .” he shrugged helplessly “It’s all I can do.  Things . . . are . . . not going well.”

“Good Gods Jonah, how is you getting killed going to help your family?  If you have this great sword and you need money why not sell it?  I’ve learned that people pay a lot for that sort of thing.”

He gasped as if I asked him to sell his mother’s virtue on the street corner – even Jonah isn’t immune to the stupidity of the aristocracy.  Better to hang onto a family heirloom than your life.  I bet if I offered him money he wouldn’t take it either, because of “honor”.  What a bunch of crap.  These are the people we’re putting in charge of the world? 

He turned to enter his tent “It’s good to see you Ela, but I really need to rest up for tomorrow.”

I grabbed his shoulder “Wait a minute Jonah, is Lord Brandymoore fighting himself or does he have a proxy too?”

He gulped “Elkin Brevoy is fighting for Lord Brandymoore.”

“Wow, he must have learned how to fight with his left hand.  Good for him.”

Jonah looked confused “How did you know about his hand?”

“I’m the one who fucking took it!”

His confusion only deepened “What are you talking about?  After defeating Fenrir the Fearless Brevoy cut off his own hand because no one could match him and he wanted a challenge.”

“Ha!  Talk about spitting shit onto gold eh Jonah?  I tell you plainly that I bit off his hand and ate it.  It’s a whole story.” I put my arm around him and walked him into his tent “I’ll tell you all about it while we discuss the plan for the duel.”

Montresor 11 Year 888 (New Imperial Calendar)

Halflings tend to the same size of livestock as everyone else so why would they make barns that are half the dimensions?  They don’t have special Halfling sheep the size of dogs.  Or do they?  No, no they don’t.  Don’t get me wrong, a half sized barn is still pretty big, I’m just saying that waking up in one is a little disorientating.  Did I grow to twelve feet tall is what you wonder until you figure it out.  I suppose the explanation is that shirefolk being so much small don’t raise as many animals and therefore they don’t need as much room?  Yeah, that makes sense, giants (if they had barns) would make them bigger even though their animals would be the same size because they need more of them.  Excepting cloudgoats of course which are very large indeed. 

Normally I’d be pretty upset about being tossed in a barn but I have a little touch of a soft spot for shirelings.  They’re so little and everyone is so mean to them and yet they still just cheerfully go about their business and overcome through perseverance.  You have to admire that in a heartbreaking kind of way – they got the short end of the stick (not a pun) and they don’t bellyache about it, they get to getting.  Not unlike myself.  Despite the fact that I am impressively tall, I have a lot in common with the smallfolk.  Which is probably why when I ran until I collapsed they came upon me and stuck me in a barn.  Which I don’t blame them for doing, it’s not like they could drag me into their little badger-hole homes. 

Moments after I crawled out of the half-sized barn a smiling welcome committee of Halflings were there to greet me with overflowing baskets of tea-cakes, banana oat muffins, lemon poppy seed cake, toast with jam, jam with toast, and enough other pasties and sweets to choke a mongoose.  They assumed I was Baroness Saltwheel on account of I had the Saltwheel staff of office clutched in my hand when they found me passed out in the dirt – and on account of my elegant clothing and noble manner.  You can’t blame them really.  I saw no reason to correct them.  They surmised appropriately that I had fled from the Saltwheel country manor due to violent unrest.  They clucked their tongues about the foibles of the bigfolk – always fighting and feuding when we should be getting down to drinking and eating and making merry.  They’re not wrong about that.

We were having a gay old time until my tattoos started shining through my clothing like a brilliant star.  Should I be happy that I have these to warn me, or is their very presence what it making these abominable things come after me?  It’s a chicken egg situation.  I stood up from my cross-legged position on the ground and dusted crumbs off my jackets (lucky birds!).

“Sorry my friends, but trouble is coming and I need to be on my way.  I don’t suppose you have a fast horse around here do you?  A fast horse suited for someone of my stature?”

They did not.  Did you know that the word sheriff comes from Halflings?  I didn’t, although I suppose I should have known – Halflings live in shires, hence shire reeve, contracted to sheriff.  Although they say it shirriff.  When I suggested a hasty departure the little folk wouldn’t hear of it – if there was danger the shirriff’s would protect me.  They were four little men wearing feathered hats, jackets, and waistcoats each with a stout club.  One of them was wearing a cravat for the Gods’ sake.  Now I know why I so often catch people off guard when it comes to combat – you don’t seem threatened at all in fancy clothing.

I told them that I appreciated it but this was trouble they couldn’t handle.  They wouldn’t hear of it – what kind of hosts would they be if they allowed me to come to harm?  My plan was to ignore them and run anyway, but it was already too late just with that small amount of back and forth.  A field of darkness appeared in the hilly meadow and out of it strode three forms.  Two I recognized from the carnage yesterday.  One was the horned man, although I saw then that what I thought was a robe the day before was in fact more of a leather jerkin and kirtle type scenario worn over trousers.  In one hand he held a short crooked stick carved with sigils and topped with what appeared to be a still functioning eyeball.  His other hand already danced with magical flame.

The second familiar face was one of the women I saw stark naked and covered with filth yesterday – now heavily garbed in a blue and purple robe and dress combination.  Makes sense, you wouldn’t want your cult robes to be damaged in battle.  She was startlingly white, pale as chalk she was, and she had some kind of crude writing tattooed on her arms and face.  She held in her hand a long staff topped with the skull and horns of a goat.  The newcomer with them had the appearance of a young nobleman, handsome as you like and dressed to the nines albeit with clothing that was several seasons out of fashion.  His boots in particular were immaculate and shiny.  The only thing ruining the effect was that nasty little human-faced rat monster clinging to the lapel of this overcoat.

I turned to the Halflings who were standing in shock at the dramatic appearance of the devilish trio “You need to run my friends.  Run and hide.  And don’t come out.”

The horned man sneered and rasped in the voice if a nightmare “Yesssssss, run away little morssssssssels!”

The woman all but rolled her eyes at him and the dandy fellow smiled apologetically, he spoke in that slow sleepy voice that some nobles affect for reasons unknown “Don’t mind him, he gets excited.  No one needs to get hurt, just give us the necklace.”

“Are you kidding me?  All this has been about that stupid ugly necklace?” I tossed the chunky crude thing at their feet “Here, you could have just asked, there was no reason to attack the Saltwheel house with your freak legion.”

The woman smiled as the sharp dressed man picked up the necklace and tucked it into his vest pocket “Freak legion, I like that, what better name for the brave fighting men and women of the dark goat of the woods?”

“Sounds like you’re done here, best be on your way, I’m sure you have all sorts of rituals you need to conduct involving goat piss and the blood of virgins and so forth.”

The dapper dandy mirrored his lady friend’s smile “Well, being totally honest, retrieving the necklace wasn’t our only reason for coming here.”

At this point the horned man released his magic fire in a Hellsish vortex of fiery death that would have engulfed me and burned me to death if not for the fact that the gold stitching on my Greatcoat flared to life and cancelled out his magic.  I’m not sure if I knew that it could do that.  Good purchase past Ela.  The magic absorption made the jacket sparkle in a pleasing way, it would have been a great time for witty quip if I was into that sort of thing, but the problem with real life fights to the death is your opponents never give you time to banter.  In the novels when the hero is fighting with the big bad guy there’s always several minutes between thrusts for them to trade insults and explain whose great-grandfather stole whose land and so on and so forth.  Murdering people in the real world is sadly allows for far less exposition.

Although I was doing very little murdering.  I shot with my crossbow once, which was deflected by a gust of wind and then pretty much the rest of the time I was running for my life, dodging and ducking and diving as they hurled spells at me.  It hardly seems fair to send three spellcasters to kill one normal person.  I suppose that’s the point though.  The horned man flew up into the sky and was lancing out with burning shafts of light all around me.  I feel like I could have shaken them and made a run for it without him hovering above and spotting me like hunting bird out no matter where I ran.  The woman with the ram-stick preferred summoning bolts of lightning at me but the dandy dresser was the real jack of all trades.  He summoned a wall of spinning blades, he blasted me with freezing wind, he summoned a massive rain of sleet, he had all manner of tricks up his fashionable sleeves. 

It wouldn’t even really be fair to call it a fight, it was more like a fox hunt – and if you know anything about fox hunts it’s that the fox never gets away.  I’ve said this once before but I’ll repeat it now because it’s probably the best advice I can give you about fighting, aside from don’t.  Only morons die like heroes – accepting their fate with a brave face.  When you’re been beaten like a dog act like a dog – beg, grovel, whine for mercy, show your belly.  Do whatever they want, offer them anything they want.  Do whatever humiliating revolting thing you need to do to gain yourself one more precious second of life.  You wouldn’t think that would work with these lunatics but they found my abasement amusing.  They stood smirking as I pleaded for my life.  They laughed when I offered them my womb for their twisted monster-babies.  They sneered as I cried so hard I choked and blew big bubbles of snot. 

And then they died when the earth beneath them opened up and they plummeted into the forty foot wide maw of a Shoddy Hills land serpent, also known to some as death worms, and until that very moment not something I thought existed.  Looking down its throat (do worms have throats?) in total shock it looked like a striated flesh-cave ringed with thousands of shark-teeth the size of my head.  My tormentors and their dirty rat friend were shredded as they were swallowed alive, being ripped to bloody shards in a manner of seconds.  The creature’s emergence had been so swift and sudden it threw up a cloud of dirt like the water from a breaching whale. As shocked as I was by its appearance I was even more stunned by what happened next.  That massive worm-maw closed, making it look like just a huge brown leather rope and the Halflings emerged to start patting its hide like it was a prize pig!  I swear to you one of them fed it a bushel of corn!

It took me several tries to find my voice “What . . . what . . . . just what?”

One of the shirriff (sans club) looked over at me “Oh this is just Sally.”

________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Behind the curtain: Ela hit level 17 taking another level of Rogue, making her Rogue 15/Master Spy 2 is anyone interested in the details of her leveling up?  Nah.  I’ve been playing pathfinder forever and I just found out there’s a Noble Scion prestige class.  I’m thinking about rebuilding her for that.  If nothing else I can get another rip-off OOC post out of it.   

Funds: 53,940 platinum, 27,309 gold

XP: 1,329,951

Inventory: +3 Thundering Distance Light Crossbow, Ela’s Fashionable Belt, Cerulean Sign Tattoo, Hat of Effortless Style, Ela’s Wonderful Flask, Ela’s Dazzling Garment,  Ring of Urban Grace, Black Marketers’ Bag (5), Tidy Trunk, Ela’s Elegant Boots, Ela’s Extravagant Necklace, Headband of Subtle Misdirection, Antiquarian’s Monocle, Ela’s Stately Greatcoat, Ring of Eloquence, Cheating Gloves, Clothier’s Closet Rod, Singer’s Stole, Saltwheel’s Cane 

Noble’s outfit (5) collegium ring,  pocketed scarf, wrist sheath, signet ring (2) assortment of fake signet rings, silver chain set with moonstones, gold and emerald ring (2), garnets (631), gold necklace with jade pendant, ivory combs, tax collector’s badge, gold bracelet with ivory inlays, silver necklace set with rubies, gold earrings with jade inlays, silver and gold brooch, silver necklace with ruby pendant, disguise kit, covenant ring, tiny diamonds (26), Saryah Phidaner gown, masterwork thieves’ tools, onyx (55) personal signet ring, diamond and pearl lover’s knot tiara,  Turnbill blade of first forging (one of three), darkwood and platinum music box, silver bracelet set with bloodstones, platinum ring set with fire opal, silver and moonstone bracelet, holy symbol of Kozilek, dwarf journal

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