I’ve chased you to embrace you, like the sun chases the moon

In my old life, which was a few days ago and/or a hundred years ago, sometimes at night I’d have a bad dream.  I’d dream that I was being chased by a giant spider with my dad’s head or I’d be trapped underwater or I’d be alone in the frozen wilderness, snow falling with nothing around for thousands of miles.  But I’d wake up.  The dream would be over.  A wave of relief would wash over me.  I wasn’t being chased or drowning or freezing, I was in my warm soft bed with my Egyptian cotton sheets and my Frette linens.  Everything was fine.  No, everything wasn’t fine, everything was great!  I was rich (well maybe not rich rich but I was doing well). I was an excellent actress and a fantastic singer, I was world renowned (well maybe not world but I was doing well) and most importantly of all I was pretty, so very very pretty.  Everyone said so.

Now it happens the other way round.  In my dreams everything is okay and when I wake up it’s a nightmare.  The bad things are true and those other things are just in my head.  I smile in my sleep sometimes, I can feel it in my cheeks.  But then I wake up.  No matter how tightly I close my eyes and will myself back to the dream, I can’t make it happen.  Those nice things I dream about are gone.  The hard ground underneath me is here.  The ache in my legs and back and shoulders is here.  Why does walking make my shoulders hurt?  It makes no sense.  I wake up and it all comes back.  I wake up and everything is not great.  Everything is not fine.  I am nothing and no one.  

Martialla has been eating about half as much as I have.  She probably thinks I don’t notice.  She’s not as sly as she thinks.  I wish could speak up.  I wish I could tell her she needs her strength too, more than me probably.  I wish I had the lady balls to say “I’m only going to eat as much as you do”.  But I don’t.  I feel like I’m starving and what I really want to do is not sacrifice nobly and share, what I want to do is eat her food too.  A couple energy bars and a handful of mungloaf isn’t enough.  I want to want to be fair and stalwart about the distribution of food but what I really want is to grab the food out of Martialla’s hand and gorge myself like the Cookie Monster.

Martialla saw me eyeballing her as I groaned my way awake “Thinking about seizing all the food and devouring it like Jaws?”

I shook my head haughtily “No not like Jaws at all, I was just thinking about that guy I shot.”

She nodded “Yep, you shot the hell out of him for sure.  Took away all he’s got and all he’s ever going to have.  Took him away from everyone that loved him and put an end to any good he would ever do in the world.”

I bolted upright, which hurt my stiff muscles more than the time I cracked my pelvis playing volleyball in eleventh grade “Jesus Christ Martialla, are you saying he didn’t deserve it?”

She shrugged as if it didn’t matter “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bullet that only hit people who deserved it.  Living a good life isn’t an effective bulletproof vest, the best way to avoid bullets is to be the one pulling the trigger.”

I felt a shiver run through my guts “When did you get so grizzled?”

She gestured around at the broken landscape “Uh, I’m going to guess when you dragged me out of my popsicle tube and the world was all blowed up and my husband and my parents and everyone I ever knew besides you was long dead.  Also I was mostly just paraphrasing Unforgiven, plus a little bit of Copland.”

I nodded “That did sound kind of familiar.”

“This isn’t the movies though, this is apocalypse now . . . not the movie, I mean it’s the apocalypse and it’s now.  Sorry, that was confusing.  You know what I mean.  It’s all gone, it’s just you and me here on the raggedy edge.”

“What are your chances do you reckon?”

Martialla looked around again as if assessing “Not good, but all is not lost.  We’re smart and we’re resourceful, if we work together I think we can get through this.”

“And what does that mean?  What are we getting through to?  That’s what I’m having the hardest time with.  What’s the goal?  Staying alive?  To what end?  Doesn’t there have to be something to fight for?  You need something to be planning towards right?”

She shrugged “I’m not sure what else there is at this point.  Maybe finding something to live for is goal one.  Start with that.”

“Searching for meaning at the end of the world huh?  That’s some kind of philosophical thingamajig if ever there was one.  You remember Tim Kragt?”

She frowned “The stunt coordinator?  I’m the one who introduced you to him.”

I frowned back at her “So you remember him then.  We were training one time and I was feeling pretty saucy about myself and my ‘skills’ so I asked him what I should do if someone attacked me for real, you know, what move I should use.  And he said that if a man ever attacked me in earnest, what I should do is run.  I didn’t like that answer.  I goaded him into ‘sparring’ for real.  He didn’t even hit me really, it was more like a shove, and I flew back like I was nothing.  He told me that wasn’t even half his strength.  He told me if someone wanted to hurt me, I should run as fast as I could.  And if I couldn’t get away, then beg them not to hurt me.  It really stuck in my craw.”

“Why are you bringing up Tim Kragt now?”

“Last night I watched you hack a man to death with a tomahawk, and then stomp another man’s skull in.”

“And?”

“And that’s what it made me think of.  Tim Kragt telling me to beg for my life.”

She stared at me for a long time and then shook her head slowly “Jesus Christ Ela, this isn’t some feminist roundtable, this is survival.  It’s not some action movie either, this is real god damn life with real consequences and real death.  Running away is a great idea!  I wish I could have run away but I couldn’t leave you there asleep, now could I?”

My face got hot “So what, it’s my fault?  Is that what you’re saying?!”

“I’m not saying anything, you’re the one who brought up fucking Tim Kragt for no reason!”

December 20, 1973 – It says here that you left your last job because your boss was sleeping with your wife?

I’ve never really been on a job interview before.  Because I’ve never had a job.  A job job you know.  I remember one of my friends going for a job interview for a job where you sold nails over the phone or something stupid like that.  He was reading an article about what to do or not do, and it said that you should wait to light up until the person interviewing you did so first.  The advice for women was not to wear your fancy diamonds because then it would look like you didn’t need a job.  I assume the first question an interviewer asks a woman is “So are you gonna put out or are you a stick in the mud?” 

I don’t suppose that experience would be transferrable to putting together a super-team for a covert op anyway.  How many words a minute you type is unlikely to come up.  Maybe I should watch the Dirty Dozen again to get in the zone.  Or the Devil’s Brigade.  Of course I’d need a TV for that.  Or you know, access to electricity.  While I was intensively considering such things (or daydreaming about food and clean clothing) a couple applicants came and went without me noticing.  When I brought my attention back around, the guy in front of us was in a black leotard thing and had big guns on his forearms with a kind of metal framework.

“Where did you get that costume?”

He gestured vaguely with his gum-forearm “There’s a guy that makes them.”

“Give me his address, will you?”

“Sure, but it’s pretty expensive.”

“Thanks.  So . . .  it looks like you’re just a guy with guns?”

He gestured again with his gun limbs “Well as you can see, I have an exoskeleton to support them but mostly, yes, I’m ‘just’ a guy with guns.  I do also have combat luck.”

Blue’s tongue flicked out in confusion “What’s combat luck?”

He replied deadpan “It means I’m lucky in combat.”

Martialla shook her head “Even if that was true, how would you know you had that power?”

“Hmm, I guess I wouldn’t.  Maybe I’m just lucky.”

I snapped my fingers “Hey, are you that guy that killed that bird man in Chi-Town?” He nodded “I knew you looked familiar!  I saw your picture in the paper.  What exactly is the point of having a mask on your costume anyway?  I know you’re the guy that did that.”

“But you don’t know my name.”

“I wouldn’t know your name anyway.”

We looked at each other for a while and then Blue broke the silence “Was that a hit or what was that all about?”

“He was sleeping with my wife.”

I raised an eyebrow “So you shot him fifty times?”

“Yeah.”

“Isn’t that murder?”

“I mean, yeah.”

Martialla leaned forward slightly “Why did you kill the guy?  Isn’t your wife the one that betrayed you?”

“It’s complicated.”

“Why do you want to be on a crime fighting super-team if you’re a murderer?  Are you the reformed villain?  It’s always good to have one of them in the mix, people love that stuff.  Redemption arcs are big.  That would help with the press release.”

He frowned slightly “Crime fighting?  I was told this was for a heist.”

“Well yeah . . . it is, but we’re the good guys.”

“If you say so.”

The next guy up had a very similar looking leotard, only it was red and blue instead of black and it had a big blue eagle on the chest with the wings stretching onto the shoulders.

I shook my head “No, no, sorry, I’ve had my fill of Statie super-soldier assholes.  Why are there so many of you here?  This is like a helter skelter amount of USA super patriot people in exile or on vacation or whatever.  Sorry but I just can’t do it.”

The only part of his face that was visible frowned “I’m from Kansas City, why would you think I’m from the states?”

“You’re wearing a red and blue suit with a giant eagle on it.”

He looked down at himself “It doesn’t really look like a flag though.  I have the eagle because I’m Eagle-Eye.”

“What about the red and blue?”

“It was the only suit they had.”

“Okay, so you have really good vision?  Is that it?”

“All my senses are enhanced.  Plus I have the extrasensory ability to perceive stress points, fracture planes, or weaknesses in people or objects – combined with my martial arts skills, this makes me able to deliver devastating blows.”

“Aren’t everyone’s weak points pretty much the same?”

“Uh . . . no.”

I looked over at Blue who just shrugged “I lived in Kansas City when I was kid, what high school did you go to?”

“John Burroughs.”

“No shit, I went to Parkway Central, do you remember that time . . .”

Martialla glared over at me “What does this have to do anything?”

“I don’t hear you asking any questions!”  Martialla shook her head and crossed her skinny fish-arms “Okay how about this question, why are you in Madripoor?”

“I’m on the run from the mob.”

“Like the mafia in New York?  There’s no mob in the CS.”

“Yes, there is, the Kansas City mob, among others.”

“What?!  There’s no mob in Kansas City!”

“Actually there is.  The DiGiovanni brothers came to Kansas City in 1912 from Sicily and . . .”

Martialla threw up her slimy webbed hands “Jesus Christ!”

December 15, 1973 – Never going home

I loved my grandmother.  She taught me everything.  But I cannot deny that she was a hard woman.

Sitting on the promenade of a beachfront hotel, leaning back in a chair I stole from a nearby bistro, smoking just the worse cigarettes (every time I think that things can’t get worse I find some even cheaper crappier smokes) I thought about what my grandmother would say.  We never discussed murder in detail.  For some reason it didn’t come up. 

I’m pretty sure what she would say is that if you feel like you need to take the life of another human being, if you’re sure, that if you’re going to set those actions in motion that are going to take a person off the earth – that you should at least be there to see it.  If you’re not going to do it yourself, if you’re going to lay that burden on someone else, you have see the results.  I think that’s what she would have said.  You can’t pass responsibility to someone else, that’s a very dangerous precedent to set, makes things too easy.  As Shane said in the movie Shane, killing is a brand, even if it’s justified.  Something like that.    

Based on that, I was thinking that it wouldn’t be okay to send Blue and Martialla to kill this guy while I sat under our home/tarp and tried not to think about it.  But the idea of standing there and watching a man die makes me queasy.  We’re talking about cold-blooded murder.  I don’t even like thinking about the two guys that I might have killed fighting.  I soothe myself with the sweet lie that they could be okay, that maybe they pulled through and learned the error of their wicked ways.  But even if they didn’t, I was just defending myself.  It’s amazing what you can justify when you paint yourself as the victim.  They attacked me, so of course I hurt them. 

Since I couldn’t stomach the idea of murder, I thought “well that probably means you shouldn’t do it then eh?” but then I thought about that poor girl.  I don’t know if I “talked her down”, maybe she wasn’t going to jump anyway, but I feel for her.  How can I help her?  It’s backwards how having super powers makes you feel powerless.  Before, I would have been bothered by a situation like this of course, but I wouldn’t have thought I could do anything about it so I would have just gone about my day.  But now I’m a superwoman!  So I feel like I should be able to do something.   

It’s like a trick.  Or a trap.  Or a joke.  It’s something.  It’s like if every time Superman caught a woman falling out of a plane a guy popped up and told him “Hey while you were doing that an earthquake in Chile killed a thousand people, where were you?”  Whatever you can do, it’s not enough.  I was struggling with this issue, by which I mean I was turning the same thoughts over and over in my head and accomplishing nothing, when a fellow in a jaunty red and white helmet scooted up to me on a Solo Electra scooter.  It was none other than my old pal Alcazar. 

“Sweet ride.” 

He grinned “Isn’t it though?  I can get this baby up to thirty kilometers an hour.  You’re a difficult woman to find Miss Ela.” 

“Well I’m technically homeless so that’s probably true.  You should come over to the tarp some time for a fondue party.  I made a new very interesting friend since we last talked.  How long ago was that?  Three years?” 

“Like two months.  Seven weeks really.  I need your help.” 

I covered my face “Jesus was it really that recently, that feels so long ago.” 

He eyed my pile of cigarette ash next to my chair “Yes, you’re clearly working very hard here.” 

“Do you want to hire me to sing at your cousin’s wedding?  Fifty bucks and all the hot dogs I can eat and you got yourself a deal.  I won’t sing ‘At Last’ though, I love Etta James but that song has been sung at too many weddings, it’s lost all meaning it has!” 

He looked at me closely “Are you high right now?  Let me see your eyes.” 

“I wish.  What can I do for you, my Caribbean friend?” 

“Remember how I told you that I’m not in the CIA?  Well I’m really not in the CIA.  But I’m sometimes involved in things.  In that . . . in that area.  Intelligence I mean.  I’m working on an operation that requires a certain ability and my guy isn’t available.” 

“Why not?” 

“Because he’s dead.  It’s nothing to do with this though, he was killed for something else, the op is solid.  I need someone with enhanced strength and I saw from your file that you’re plenty strong enough to do the job.  You do this for me and I’ll get you out of here.” 

“I thought you said you couldn’t do that.” 

“No, what I said is that I wouldn’t do that because the Shadow Lords would kill me if I did.” 

 I raised an eyebrow “And now?” 

“And now I’m willing to risk it.  This is a matter of critical national importance.” 

“By way of payment, would you also be willing to take on a former sex worker as your assistant?” 

“Sure, as long as she doesn’t mind not getting paid.” 

I blew out a long plume of smoke “I should probably check with Blue on this, I’m starting to lose track of all the balls we’re juggling.  We have a pimp to kill, we need to raid Baron Illyana’s island, we need to kill Mr.X, I’ve got that thing with the Shadow Lords, there’s a lot going on.”

He squinted “You mean Baron Iorgu?  That’s actually where I need you to go.”

“What a fun coincidence.  In that case I’m in, now what’s the status on those hot dogs?” 

October 4, 1973 – SUPERFIGHT!!!!

Editor’s note – I know what you’re thinking “Jeremy, the Kool-Aid Man character didn’t come out until 1974 you moron!  You’re the worst writer ever.”  Well I am the worst writer ever but you’re forgetting that this is an alternate history deal.  In this world the Kool-Aid Man commercials started airing in 1972!  The changes that led up to this alteration and the staggering ramifications of it will be explored in my forthcoming graphic novel Kool-Aid: 1972.

A quarter of the world’s maritime trade passes through the Malacca Straits.  Half of all seaborne chemical and gas shipments pass through. So of course the area is infested with well-organized, well-armed, and ruthless pirates.  When they aren’t chased off by local brutal corporate-sponsored hired goons anyway. It’s estimated by people that estimate things that over one hundred ships a year go missing around Madripoor.  Hijacked and redirected to another port.  This does not include the innumerable others attacked and raided on their journeys.

When I first heard people in Madripoor talking about pirates, it threw me for a loop.  I never hear anyone in the CS talking about pirates.  The word pirate makes me think of ships with sails and guys with swords.  But I guess, thinking about it logically, there’s no reason for pirates to have gone away.  If you can’t stop people from stealing your shit, they’re going to steal it.  That’s a rule of some kind.

Grain of salt because it’s all rumors, but I understand that it’s sometimes part of an insurance scam.  You got a shipful of hot pants headed for Africa and suddenly hot pants aren’t cool anymore.  They’re just going to take up room in your warehouse in Johannesburg.  So you get in touch with your fixer who knows a pirate boss.  They “attack” the ship, you get the insurance, and they get some ransom money.  You dump the hotpants into the sea and everyone wins.  Except the insurance company.

I figured that pirates wouldn’t be afraid of the Shadow Lords and also could get me out of here.  You may be thinking “Dealing with pirates, Ela?  That sounds like a terrible idea.”  You happen to be right but where were you yesterday asshole? 

In my defense I’m a singer, not a . . . person who deals with whatever this situation is.  Whatever Steve McQueen would be if he was a real badass and not just an actor.  Whatever that is, I’m not that.  I’m all alone here and I don’t know what’s going on.  Plus, you don’t understand what kind of place Madripoor is.  If you were here you’d think that buddying up to pirates was perfectly normal.

Elvis’s friend Say likes to party so we went to a couple bars, a couple clubs, a couple parties, and it just so happens that I managed to rub elbows with a couple people in the piracy world.  Sidenote, about twenty percent of the men here are super into me because I’m white.  And about twenty percent think I’m super gross for the same reason.  It’s interesting. 

I met a guy I thought was named Preman.  I learned later that “preman” means gangster in Indonesian.  Although it’s actually from the Dutch language and means rooster.  Language is complicated.  “Preman” and I hung out a few times, smoked something like weed, drank some weird booze, and got to know each other.  Once we were good pals, he said a friend of a friend of a friend of his could help me out and wasn’t scared of the Shadow Lords and I should meet him at a restaurant the next morning to talk details.

It was a set-up of course.  What I didn’t know then is that the Shadow Lords were basically the seaside agents of the local pirates when the first came to Madirpoor.  The pirates would steal the stuff and then pass it off to the Shadow Lords as the middlemen.  Not only that, but most of the pirates around here are groups that grew out of the Hukbong Bayan Laban sa Hapon, a resistance group from the Philippines that fought against Japanese occupation.  The Huk and the Shadow Lords both hate the yazuka so they bond over that.  The point is that the entire idea was more or less the worst thing I could have done.

“Preman” and a friend came in to the restaurant, we sat down, and next thing I know someone is behind me and has a rag over my mouth.  Here’s the thing though, with my new metabolism nothing like that seems to affect me much.  I don’t know if the Shadow Lords didn’t warn them or if they didn’t know. 

I grabbed the ragman’s arm and flung him across the room like I was tossing a Frisbee (or a bag of rags, a ragbag if you will).  When I swung him around, I felt his arm come out of the socket.  Which was a little nauseating, but if we’re being honest it felt good too.  I was angry and frustrated and it felt good to hurt someone.  Does that make me awful?  I don’t know. 

“Preman” got the hell out of there but his buddy went for a gun.  I flipped the table into him and the gun fired.  You always forget how LOUD those damn things are.  As he raised the gun again, trying to get disentangled from the table, I tried to yank the gun out of his hand.  Instead I crushed them both.  The gun and the hand.  I never heard a human being make a noise like he did as he fell back against the wall cradling his hand to his chest.  It was truly chilling.

I took a hold of his forehead in one hand like Jackie Moon palming a basketball.  I wanted so badly to squeeze it.  That’s all it would have taken.  One little squeeze and a man is dead.  It would have been no more effort than checking the ripeness of a peach.  Just a little squeeze.  I wanted it more than I wanted any cigarette or any drink.  A part of my brain told me it would make everything better.  It would make all the pain go away.  No one would ever fuck with me again.  He was a bad guy, wasn’t he?  Why did he deserve to live? 

I wanted it. 

But I didn’t do it.  Just as I let the guman go, their ace in the hole came smashing in.  And I mean that literally.  He crashed through the wall like the Kool-Aid Man.  I have no idea why, the door was wide open.  He was easily over seven feet tall and he had electric blue scales.  It was like the skin of a technicolor crocodile on acid.   Only you know, on a big dude.  He didn’t look like a rhino but something about him made me think of a rhino.  Maybe just because he was massive and leathery and mean looking.

He came charging at me like a bull (a bull rhino) and I threw another table at him.  He batted it aside like he was swatting a volleyball.  I managed to leap out of the way of his crashing tackle and he slammed into and through the other wall out into the street.  I hope this restaurant is owned by the pirates or the Shadow Lords, because I’d hate to think some innocent people got their place wrecked just because this is where some assholes chose as their kidnap location.

As the blue alligator rhino man was getting back to his feet in the wall-hole, I grabbed him around the waist and hurled him back over my shoulders like a sack of grain.  It feels weird when you can throw someone ten times your size, but I knew from working on the docks I could lift him easily.  He slammed into the ground hard enough to shake the building.  Which was getting pretty shaky already from being run through on both sides.  I think I saw “Run through on both sides” on the marquee of a movie theater once.  You know the kind I mean.

I was ready to rumble but I saw that blueman’s head was twisted at a funny angle.  Not funny ha-ha but funny “oh shit I just killed a guy”.  I won’t lie, I stood there staring, mouth agape for a moment.  I’m not a murderer you know.  But while I stood there I heard a crazy crackling, snapping, popping noise and his head jerked back to the right way and his eyes opened.  I guess he can heal super-fast.

Since he wasn’t dead, I went outside and pushed the building down on him.  I should have grabbed something to drink before I did that.  Fighting is thirsty business.

Macendamandel 19 Year 888 (New Imperial Calendar)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Go away Ela!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I know that.”

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

“I never thought about it.”

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

“The only one I’ve ever had.”

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

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

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

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

“What will happen if you don’t?”

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

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

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

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

________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Funds: 6922 gold

XP: 1,196,951

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

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

Mantelderith 18 Year 888 (New Imperial Calendar)

Warning – this post is super duper sexy and erotic. Anyone with a heart condition or women who are pregnant or may become pregnant should not read it!

I heard the necklace hit the ground and then felt the chain sliding against my neck after the fact – like I was experiencing time in reverse for two seconds.  It made a chiming sound like tapping on a crystal glass with a silver fork.  Which doesn’t make sense, the floor is wooden.  It shouldn’t have made a sound like that.  The sound should have been flatter and lower.  There was a kind of a thumping sound when the clasp unlocked as well – a sound like when you close a book.  Not slam it shut, but when you just close it a little harder than you meant to.  Kind of a soft slapping sound.  That also makes no sense, but that was sound was magic so you can forgive that, there are no rules for magic.  But the necklace hitting the floor I can’t explain that.  I’ve dropped necklaces on wood floors before, that’s not what it sounds like.  I don’t know what that sticks in my mind. 

My first instinct was to run, to get as far away from Juost manor as possible.  The only reason they found me the first time I rabbited on them was because of the necklace that isn’t a problem now.  I’m pretty hard to find when I want to be.  Not to mention which it would take them time to start looking.  Their first assumption probably wouldn’t be that I was the murderer.  Matter of fact they may never come looking for me at all.  While the desire to run is natural when you find yourself sitting by the bed of a dead guy covered with blood that only makes you look guilty.  If someone turns up dead and you’re riding away on a horse in the middle of the night that’s a confession.  There’s no reason anyone would suspect me, so running would be the worst thing I could do.  And yet I was a fraction of a second away from doing just that.  I had all but decided to get up and flee the scene before the rational part of my mind raised its hand.

The smart move is to merely return to my room like nothing happened.  Even if anyone saw me come in here, which I don’t know if they did, what reason would they have to suspect me?  The only people that knew I was coming here were my friends.  Well, not my friends, but one friend and two hirelings.  Rakhaj I think I can count on not to rat me out, Belzegara on the other hand is more of a question mark.  All I know is that she’s in it for the money – if she thought that there was more money to be made in snitching on me there’s no reason I see that she wouldn’t.  I could probably make sure that retraining me as a paymaster was the more attractive path for her to go down.  To be totally safe I should kill them both.  But I can worry about whether or not to kill them later. 

I certainly hadn’t come here expecting to kill anyone.  In the morning I had sent Martialla and Belzegara to pick up some things for me while I took Rakhaj with me to the old church to look at some of the records they had been telling me about.  The old clerk they had mentioned turned out to be fairly hale.  Don’t get me wrong he was old, but I tend to reserve calling people old for people that are enfeebled by age and he seemed to get around fine.  It was mildly amusing to see Rakhaj pawing through crumbly old documents with his giant hands – he’s got a surprisingly delicate touch.  This was mostly to kill time but it never hurts to get more information about the problem you’re trying to deal with.  I was hoping at that point that the necklace would come off later in the day but I wasn’t sure.  I certainly never thought that the millstone around my neck would be released the way it was.

After I had lunch with the gang we spent the afternoon shooting the shit.  Rakhaj seems a lot more comfortable around women just talking and hanging out than a lot of men.  Maybe because he’s not interested in them sexually.  His tales were as gruesome, as you might expect from a gladiator, but some of them were actually pretty funny.  A mark in his favor is that unlike a lot of men who hack people’s arms off for a living he hasn’t totally lost perspective of what’s amusing to normal people who aren’t desensitized to violence.  Or at least people like myself, Martialla, and Belzegara who aren’t totally desensitized to violence.  I’ve found that a lot of those types mistake grisliness for entertainment value.  Rakhaj understands that a story about a guy getting his head chopped off isn’t funny in and of itself, the guy has to be naked or something.  Belzegara is a much better weaver of a story, but for someone who was in the army and then became a bounty hunter she had a surprising dearth of good material.  Maybe she just saves the good stuff until she knows you better.  Some people try to win you over with their best stories right off the bat, but some people hold back the good stuff until they feel you deserve it.

In the late afternoon I took a nap to make sure I would be well-rested for my rendezvous with destiny.  After I woke up I took a nice long bath and then while everyone else was eating dinner I started my preparations.  I usually skip eating in this scenario because you don’t want to be bloated when it gets down to business time.  At least I don’t, there’s probably some weirdoes out there that do.  I know what you’re thinking “the meeting with the Baron wasn’t until midnight!” but here’s the deal, I’ve told you this before, beauty takes time.  Obviously I’m gorgeous no matter what, but the ultimate beauty of a diamond only comes out after you polish it and set it on the right ring the right way you know.  This was an important event, there was no reason not to look my absolute best. 

 And I say this without a hint of ego – I was looking ravishing.  The queen is reckoned to be a great beauty, but that’s all blowing smoke – I know who the truly eye-catching women are in the Kingdom are and on that night there’s only a handful that could have held a candle to me.  No brag, just fact.  About an hour before midnight I took a little wine – not enough to get tipsy (although it takes quite of bit to get my tipsy these days) but enough to kind of smooth things out you know?  I’m not one of these people who advocates getting stinking drunk before having to do something you don’t want to do, but a couple drinks never hurts the situation.  Calm the nerves a little bit, nothing wrong with that.  Twenty minutes before midnight I spritzed on a little scent – that’s enough time for it to dissipate enough not to be overwhelming, what you want is just the hint of the perfume.  Or a suggestion of the perfume if you will.  Martialla and Belzegara hadn’t been able to find any of my usuals in town but what they brought back was good enough.

A few minutes before midnight I made my way the Baron’s bedchamber.  It really is too bad that no one saw me (probably) as I made my way through the halls because as I said I was looking very fine indeed.  It’s the kind of thing that really should have been captured in a painting.  For posterity.  A hundred years from now people are going to want to know how great I looked on this night.  And yet, sadly, they cannot.  It’s a real shame.  When I went through the door he Baron was already lying on the bed with the possessive/dismissive/admiring/degrading smirk that men like him always have in situations like this.  I’m used to it, but there’s a part of me what would love to wipe those smirks of all the faces of all these men in the world.  I guess I did this time, although I didn’t know what then.

When I first got saddled with his surveillance necklace I thought about seducing the Baron as a way to get it off but there was just never time.  Is it ironic that in the end he called for me?  No, but it’s something.  Serendipity?  No, I think that’s for good things.  I’m sure there’s a word for it. 

It’s been a while, but I fell back into the old routine easily.  After all, this is what I do.  Or did anyway.  I brought him his booze, I lit his flayleaf, I tittered when it was appropriate to titter, I was demure when it was time to be demure, and I was bold and provocative when it was appropriate to be so.  Nothing I hadn’t done many times before, it was all old hat for me and probably for the Baron as well.  Or maybe not, maybe he’s mostly just dragging his maids in here and hasn’t worked with a pro.  I suppose we’ll never find out now.  Which is fine.

He told me to undress for him.  This is a pretty standard thing but it’s one of the steps in the dance that I’ve come to loathe.  Which isn’t to say that I’m not good at it, I’m fucking great at it!  It just reinforces the power dynamic – it’s not enough that you’re going to have sex with them first you have to perform for them.  And that performance better be just what they fucking want or there’s going to be trouble.  The only thing that I hate more is when they ask me to sing for them.  Thankfully that’s pretty rare, most men don’t have time for that nonsense. 

Everything was going great up until this point, it was a by the book affair that promised to culminate in what I expect would have been by the book sexual congress.  But I noticed that as I was undressing sensually for him that I wasn’t getting quite the reaction that I was expecting.  I told you, I am GREAT at this.  I didn’t expect him to sit up and pant like a hound, but I know the (not) subtle signs of when a man is getting what he wants and they were just a little off.  I didn’t think much of it though, no big deal right?  It was about to turn into a very big deal.  Once I stood before him in my fully glory – and I don’t mean to belabor the point but there was a fuckton of glory to be beheld – he didn’t seem pleased.  In fact he seemed to be scowling slightly. 

My first thought, honest to Gods, was that some monster was behind me.  Given all the crazy shit and bad luck I’ve had lately when I saw his face what I envisioned was that there was a giant spider monster on the wall behind me.  Or that Wesel ghost had raised out of the ground rotted face and all.  Or a skin hag had flown in the room.  Or Kartak was standing there with a sword in hand having just climbed in the window.  Something along those lines. 

“What’s wrong My Lord?” I asked while subtly trying to turn my head and look for monsters with my peripherals.

He made a face like someone who’s been served an inferior bourbon and is going to drink it anyway because what are they going to do?  Not get drunk? 

“Oh, it’s just your body . . . it’s not quite what I was expecting.  I can deal with it though.”

I still didn’t understand at that point.  Without trying to be obvious about it I tried to look myself over for some weird magic mark or a hag’s brand or something like that – some bizarre magic blemish or mutatation that had just appeared on my body or that I had somehow managed to overlook.  It seems strange to say that perhaps, but it’s easier to overlook an odd thing on your own body than you think.  Even if you stand in front of a mirror nude you don’t get the same view as someone else – and who the Hells stands in front of a mirror nude?  I asked him what he meant.

“I thought you were a proper lady.  But you have sun lines on your arms and neck like a peasant girl.  And you have scars.  Did you father do that do you?  How did you come by all those scars?  And you have . . . . muscles.  I can see them on your stomach and on your legs.”

He said muscles as if that was the most disgusting thing that anyone could ever possibly observe – like in the totality of the universe.  Honestly he put more revilement and repugnance into that one word than I have ever heard before.  I doubt he could have found it more grotesque if live snakes had been slithering out of my pussy onto the floor.  I was stunned and shocked and astonished and speechless and whatever other word you want to put in the mix.  That was not a reaction I would have ever anticipated in a thousand lifetimes.  In a million lifetimes. 

Don’t get me wrong, I know full well that with all the physical activity I’ve had over the last year that my physique is a little more athletic than the courtly ideal (which I assure you I nailed on the noggin before).  And yes I do have a few very tiny scars that you can’t really notice.  The tan lines thing I’ll give him but when you’re outside all the damn time there’s not a lot you can do about that. 

I’ve been poised before, and drugged.  Not to mention the times I’ve been rendered insensible by magic.  A handful of times I’ve gotten drunk enough not to remember what I did.  Although it’s never happened to me, I’ve been in enough fights to understand battle-rage or “wearing the bear shirt” as the Northmen call it.  But up until that point I never really believed the people who claim that they blacked out and murdered someone.  Someone claims that they sliced up their wife and tossed her in the bog but they don’t remember it?  I always called bullshit on that before.  And maybe most of the time it is bullshit. 

But what I can tell you is that I remember standing there in front of the Baron completely paralyzed by his words and the next thing I remember is sitting in a chair beside his bed with a knife in my hand and the necklace falling off.  There was blood on the knife, there was blood on me, there was blood on him – the bed was soaked with blood.  And I mean that literally, it was so saturated with blood I could hear it dripping through onto the floor underneath.  The Baron was dead as dead can be.  I’ve seen a lot of dead people over the past year and I can unequivocally say that he was the deadest dead guy I’ve ever seen.  I must have stabbed him fifty times, well after the point where he was dead.  He was deader than fuck is my point.

After the necklace fell off I said to no one “Well that was easy.”

You probably think that I killed this man out of pure vanity.  And maybe I did, I can’t say what was going on my mind because I can’t remember.  But I don’t think so.  I think that was only part of it, that was the trigger maybe, but I think what was really behind it was everything.  The Duke’s wife getting me thrown out of court.  The Duke tossing me aside like garbage, leaving me in an alley to die.  All the shit that’s happened since then.  All the trauma, all the horror, all the violence, all the schemes and the lies and the scams.  And probably, if you want to get philosophical, it was all the stuff that happens to me before I even went to court.  Leaving my family at a young age, the training, the struggle, life at court itself, all of it.  My whole life.  I don’t think this was me murdering a man because he said I wasn’t attractive enough for him, not entirely.  I think it was me murdering a man because of all the things that have happened to me.  His words released a dam.  Or an avalanche.  Whatever metaphor you want to use. 

I stabbed a man to death, apparently quietly enough that he didn’t scream and bring everyone running.  And then I kept on stabbing him.  Based on the blood on my legs I climbed into him and was stabbing him like that at one point.  And then I sat down on a chair.  And I don’t remember any of that.  This is troubling.  I don’t think this sort of thing is likely to happen again, a straw can break a camel’s back only once right?  And even if it were to happen again I doubt it would be a regular occurrence.  But I don’t know that.  And in any event it doesn’t feel good to know that you were out of control for a moment even if it never happens again.  I don’t know what you do about that.  How to you combat your own mind?  Maybe I need to be more in touch with my feelings?  I don’t know.

The Baron?  Who gives a shit.  He was an asshole anyway.  And at least I the necklace is off now.  All things considered it could have gone worse. 

________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Funds: 53,040 platinum, 21,660 gold

XP: 1,147,551

Inventory: Flask of Endless Sake, Hat of Effortless Style, Tankard of the Drunken Hero, Ela’s Dazzling Garment, Belt of Physical Might +4, Ring of Urban Grace, Black Marketers’ Bag (5), Tidy Trunk, Whiterock Family Ring (Ring of Binding), Ela’s Elegant Boots, Ela’s Extravagant Necklace, Ring of Counterspells, Brooch of Shielding, Cloak of the Hedge Wizard (Abjuration), Headband of Subtle Misdirection, Antiquarian’s Monocle, Unbalanced Scales, +1 Glorious Undead Bane Short Sword

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 (700), 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, tiara, masterwork red and black long greatcoat, 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

Myam 18 Year 888 (New Imperial Calendar) Part 1

I should have known.  I should have known that as soon as I asked Stionty for back-up what I was going to get.  What other kind of violent lunatics are going to be available on short order to go on a wild goose chase?  I knew as soon as I walked into the Rest Inn Peace, as soon as I laid eyes on them I knew – adventurers.  Where do they come from?  Any time a settlement reaches a certain size you get these types of troublemakers hanging around.  It’s like some kind of immutable law, like there’s a certain threshold number of people that if you go beyond that adventurers starting springing up like mushrooms.  Some day I’m going to found my own town and grow it just to measure when the adventurers show up so that I can present these findings to the Queen or whomever so we can put some kind of counter-measures into place. 

I suppose it’s a symptom of the fact that for as settled as the Kingdom is there’s still so much wilderness out there – bugbears and dire wolves and giant plants that bite you and other crazy shit – that’s going to cultivate a certain sort.  I suppose I should be grateful, without monsters to slaughter these people would all be serial killers.  Makes you wonder what’s going to happen when the last monster is slain and all the wild places are tamed.  What becomes of these people then?  A plague of madmen slaughtering their neighbors?  Once I asked one of these hoopleheads what made them different from any other murderer and she said “I know the difference between the monster that need to be killed and those that are just monsters because of what they are.”  I have no clue that that means but I didn’t like the way she was looking at me when she said it.

When I walked into the RIP Stinty was talking to the four of them, there are always four, it’s some kind of natural law of adventurers.  Four must be the sweet spot where you have enough people of varied abilities to murder and solve riddles (monsters love riddles) and disarm traps and have enough people to carry all the treasure.  But any more than that and you start fighting amongst yourselves.  It’s like a wolfpack, too few and you can’t take on the mighty elk, too many and there’s not enough elk to go around.  No, not wolves, wolves are too noble to compare to adventurers – lets’ say a pack of rabid mongrel dogs.  The kind you throw rocks at if they come to near your farm. 

Two of them I actually recognized, one from Gisa’s band of treasure hunters – I recognized the ridiculous fur-lined coat he was wearing.  That thing is what you’d need up North, not down here – it has to be sweltering in that thing and he’s a big fellow so he doesn’t need any extra help sweating his balls off.  He probably uses some kind of magic to keep it cool which is utter nonsense.  The other fellow I recognized as one of Captain Charum’s men from my escapades along the Compass River, a scrawny fellow with a shaved head that looked ill.  The other two were an unassuming fellow with a maniacal grin who was dressed more like a basketweaver than a warrior and a Halfling that was all duded out in a way that combined with his small size made me think of a fighting cock – the way he was strutting around all aggressive like probably contributed to that sense as well.

“Stinty, normally I would lecture you about bringing these types on as my bodyguards but you’re going to get away with this time.” I clapped Gisa’s fat wizard on the back of his ridiculous coat “I happen to know a couple of these fellows and their solid reputations.” I nodded at Charum’s soldier “What’s your deal?  Did you muster out of the army or did you desert?”

He looked around wildly “Desertion!  Who said . . . . I mean . . . I wouldn’t . . .  you see . . . what had happened was . . . ”

I chuckled “Don’t make no matter to me son, just making conversation.  Well let’s mount up and go, I’d like to get there and back again today so let’s not waste any time with your ridiculous backstories, I’m sure they’re all appropriately tragic and laden with pathos.  Or is it the other one?  I always forget.”

The basketmaker frowned slightly “Don’t you want to discuss our fee?”

I clapped him on the back companionably as well “Not in the slightest!  I’m sure Stinty has everything all worked out, he’s a very industrious fellow you know.  Whatever he said will be fine.”

The basketmaker shrugged uncomfortably “But I . . .”

I gestured dramatically “To the stables!  Sharbus awaits!  I assume you procured a mount for me as well.”

They hadn’t, but I was able to borrow a steed from the stables for a nominal price – a placid chestnut mare with the odd name of Bund.  I prefer a more spirited mount but what can you do?  The Halfling, Dondarian Saltfoot looked even sillier mounted on his battle pony but despite appearances he was obviously the most accomplished rider by a wide mark and was the most interesting conversationalist to boot.  The smallfolk often seem to be blessed with the gift of gab.  When I asked the former solider what news he had of Captain Charum he got all flustered and tongue-tied again and moved his horse to the back of the pack top get away from me.  Gisa’s man didn’t have much to say and the other new guy mostly made snobby comments about art and hummed annoyingly the entire time. 

We had a little bit of trouble getting out of Beresford even though Baron Redmynd had given me special dispensation to do just that and we had to wait almost an hour while various messengers ran here and there and everywhere, but even so once we hit the road we were in Sharbus before mid-day.  Dondarian and I were laughing and having a grand old time, such that Aurisks the humming art lover, told us to keep it down.  We ignored him.  Sharbus is the kind of nothing little village that you find around larger communities like a tick clings to the buttocks – a couple dozen farmer families and four buildings and not much else.  The reeve Adriane Dekros was there to meet us – how she knew to expect us I have no clue – and she was pretty disappointed when I told her we were just there to check out the cabin and not to take Nacario with us back to Beresford.  She was very anxious about having a murder in her custody and wanted to get rid of him as soon as possible.

“Huh, so there really is a Nacario?  I assumed the whole story was made up.”

She frowned deeply “What?  Why would anyone make up a murder?”

“Oh, you’d be surprised.”

“Do you want to talk to him first?”

“Nah, let’s go out to the cabin and get the ambush over with.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Just lead the way will you?”

It was a mere twenty minutes to reach the cabin in the woods, Adriane talking breathlessly the entire time about taking Nacario into custody and what had happened that night as if she was seeking reassurance that she had done the right thing.  The cabin itself didn’t look to be in great shape and Adriane explained that the cabin was built more than eighty years ago by the Whiterock family and no one had lived there for years.  They paid some of the Sharbusians to keep the place in good order but until Nacario and Rosalee came there hadn’t been anyone staying at the place for years.  It would have been pretty nice if it had been kept up better, in addition to a parlor and a lounge there were two bedrooms and a full kitchen – most people don’t live in a place as large and well equipped as this “cabin”, these Whiterock people must be fairly rich.  I poked around a little but it all seemed neat and tidy inside.

“Everything looks to be in order here, if you found Nacario wandering around outside what makes you think the murder even happened here?”

Adriane pulled back and rug to reveal a trap door in the floor “The blood is in the cellar, that’s where he must have killed her.”

I nodded “That makes sense, hide the cultists down there for the ambush.”

“Why do you keep talking about an ambush?  Did I do something to offend you, I don’t . . .”

I waved her concerns away “Don’t worry about it.  Alright folks, this is it, head down the ladder and . . .”

Adriane looked worried “It’s pretty cramped down there, I don’t think it makes sense for everyone to go down, there’s not a lot of room.  You won’t be able to look around very well if you’re all down there I don’t think.”

I chuckled mirthlessly “Oh, of course, I should go down there alone right?  Undefended and vulnerable?”

Adriane was getting annoyed “I don’t understand what you’re talking about.”

Aurisks and Gisa’s man both twiddled their fingers and did some wonky chanting, telling me that their magic didn’t detect anyone down in the cellar.

“Wait, you’re both wizards?  That’s all wrong.  You already have two warriors and now you’re telling me you have two mages as well?”

Aurisks piped up “Actually I’m not a wizard, I’m a sorcerer.  Eldritch energy runs through my veins.”

“What’s the difference?  Nevermind, don’t care.  Alright Donadrian, let’s go – there should be enough room down there for me and one Shireling right?  Plus you seem to be the only one in his group worth much of anything.”

The deserter was offended by this “Hey, that’s not fair, you . . .”

“Shut up.” I gestured to the hole “After you Master Saltfoot.”

With a grin he pulled out his tiny sword and an even tinier buckler – you know how small a normal buckler is?  Now imagine that for someone not even four feet tall.  It wasn’t much bigger than a playing card.  How does that even make sense?  Wouldn’t a smaller person want a bigger shield so more of them would be protected?  With a spring he jumped into the hole, ignoring the ladder and plunging into the darkness.

“I admire his enthusiasm.  Now that I think about it I should have sent one of you lot down there to get killed instead.”

________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Funds: 27,817 platinum, 44,850 gold

XP: 635,101

Inventory: Flask of Endless Sake, Hat of Effortless Style, Ring of Disguise, Badge of Last Resort, Stone of Good Luck, Tankard of the Drunken Hero,  Censer of Dreams,  potions of cure moderate wounds (5), potion of invisibility, Enchanted White Pathfinder’s Gear (effects as Iadaran Dress Uniform) Belt of Physical Might +4, Versatile Vest, Campfire Bead, Expedition Pavilion, +1 Human Bane Endless Ammunition Light Crossbow with Sharpshooter’s Blade, Deck of Curses (two cards used), Ring of Urban Grace,  Bewitching Gown, Holy Symbol of Adariel (Sanguine Protection) Black Marketers’ Bag (5), white squirrel fur Slippers of Scampering, Nymph’s Favor, Token of Summoning, Tidy Trunk

Courtier’s Outfit, 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 (700), severed hag head, 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, glass vials of something awful (8), disguise kit, covenant ring , tiny diamonds (27), Saryah Phidaner gown, bottle of elfen absinthe, masterwork thieves’ tools, onyx (55)    

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