It hurts to set you free

Remember the opening scene in Star Wars when all the guys in beige pants and giant helmets hug the walls in that hallway and fight the Stormtroopers when they breach the wall?  Is that the only scene in those movies where the stormtroopers actually hit anyone?  Imperial marksmanship really took a nosedive after that initial victory.  Of course, shooting at main characters will do that to your aim.  Plot armor is hard to negotiate.  I had an idea once for a movie where a James Bond minion-type figures out that he’s in a genre movie and instead of going after the protagonist and dying, he sidesteps the situation and runs off.  I don’t know what happens then though, so it’s not much of an idea. 

Maybe Martialla and I should have taken cover at the end of the hallway and stood our ground.  There’s no cover for anyone coming in that way.  Maybe we should have tried to pick them off as they came through like Stormtroopers coming through a hole in the side of a ship.  Or maybe that would have been a terrible idea.  Two handguns against an assault rifle?  I’m no tactician, not even an armchair one, but that may not have been a winning move even with cover.  Plus who knows how many more men they had above?   They could have flanked us and come in the back way (if you know what I mean).

We already had all the supplies ready to move anyway, so what would we have been fighting for?  The facility itself.  Maybe leaving was the worst mistake we’ll ever make.  Maybe control of a facility that still has working geothermal power is the most valuable thing in this new world.  I’m not sure what we could have done with it, but maybe someone else could.  Then again even if that was true, what are the odds that if it was valuable that we could have kept control of it with just the two of us anyway?  Once the word got out, someone would have taken it away right? 

One thing that I am sure of, there’s plenty of free time to second guess yourself after the world ends.  We didn’t try to fight.  We went out the back of the facility to the employee parking lot and slid/fell down the hill to what used to be a road.  Attached to the back of the facility was a shed/garage thing sheltering an overgrown truck of some kind that Martialla later said was a “unimog”.  I wanted to check it out but she waved me away.  Even if it still ran, any fuel would have been long gone she said, making it a giant ugly useless slab of metal.

There was a steep little road out of the employee parking that I think used to connect to Rock Creek Road and take you to the El Dorado Freeway.  I think.  I don’t know this area well.  And it doesn’t really matter because the road was completely overgrown.  The “road” was a bed of little leafy plants and twisty vines.  Kudzu?  Is there Kudzu in California?  You could only tell where the road was because there weren’t trees there, I mean there were, but not big ones anyway.  In amongst the nettles and twisted roots we found chunks of pavement, and by found I mean tripped over, but not a lot.  What happened?  What makes pavement disintegrate?  I mean time conquers all but rocks last thousands of years right?   

My instinct was to cut south cross-country since the road was useless but Martialla said that we should stick to the road.  She asked how we would stay headed south without any landmarks.  Plus she said because of all the vegetation covering the ground, it would be easy to walk into a defile or crevasse without a road to follow.  I have no idea if she knows what she’s talking about but I didn’t fight her on it.  What difference could it make when you have no destination?  Might as well follow the road.   

I thought I was in pretty good shape.  I’m an actress right?  I have to look a certain way.  I’m no iron(wo)man triathlete or anything but I’m out there getting it done.  Monday, fifty hanging ab raises, fifty rope crunches, fifty incline sit ups with a forty-five-pound plate, repeat with thirty-five reps, repeat again with twenty-one reps.  Tuesday, ninety-minute cardio dance class.  Wednesday, hot yoga.  Thursday, spin class.  Friday, same as Monday.  It’s just that easy!  I mean that plus starving yourself.  I haven’t had a piece of bread since I was eleven. 

I now comprehend the difference between being in shape and being in condition.  I played a boxer’s wife in a TV show once (No Mickey don’t do it, you got a family!  If you go out there tonight don’t bother coming home!  I’m taking the kids to my sister’s) and the real boxer technical advisor dude on the set told me about how being in condition is a full-time proposition so you don’t do it all the time.  The eight weeks before a fight it’s all you do, you’re either sleeping or training.  If you’re in shape, you’re a man waiting for a beating.  You need to be in condition to fight.

Not to mention which, I don’t normally work out with a filter mask and a heavy awkward backpack pushing my way through dense foliage that is seven thousand percent made of burrs.  So that didn’t help.  Maybe I need a more practical workout routine.  An hour in and I was sopping with sweat like a fat senator being grilled about an intern in open court.  Another fun issue is that the air is filled with dirt.

Like literally.  You sweat and then all this dusty crap in the air sticks to you and quickly you feel like you’re covered in expired peanut butter (don’t ask how I know what that feels like).  I couldn’t imagine doing it all day.  And how far did we get really?  Maybe two miles?  That mask was a nightmare, but taking it off was even worse.  Neither of us ever really stopped coughing after that first time we wandered outside without them and got a snootful of the future.  The air is like that of a poorly ventilated woodshop.  I mean I guess, I’ve never been in a woodshop.  Without the mask you can actually feel the particles hitting your tongue and throat.   

After the fifth or sixth time Martialla told me to be careful after I stumbled, I snapped at her and she pointed out something that I should have known.  Turn your ankle on a hidden chunk of pavement or a root or whatever and there’s a decent chance I could die out here.  This is the state of nature.  What happens when a gazelle hurts its little hoof?  There’s no gazelle hospital.  Maybe if it’s really lucky it heals on its own but most likely it gets eaten by a mountain gorilla coming out of the mists to smash its little antelope head in.  Sad, but true.   

I need to adjust everything I do, I can’t operate like I did before.  It’s just me and Martialla and whatever we have on us.  There’s nothing else. 

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?

Muthuselan 19 Year 888 (New Imperial Calendar)

Stinty made some kind of healing sludge from leaves and dirt and whatnot that he said would help with me ear.  I figure I’m going to need magical restoration anyway so why not try it?  Aside from the possibility of infection and blood poisoning of course.  There are a lot of things to hate about nature.  Insects.  Mud.  Itchweed.  Bogs.  Wildebeest stampedes.  Man-eating porcupines.  The sun.  Malaria.  Dirt-worshipping boneheads.  Bone-worshipping dirtheads.  Lakes of fire.  Land sea serpents.  The list goes on and on.  But one of the worst things about nature is when you’re attending to certain necessary business – you know the kind I mean – and a bird flies down and looks you dead in the eye.  And it just sits there, staring at you.  As happened to me this morning.  And it wasn’t a cute little bird either, it was a razorcrow the size of a Taxfeast turkey – the branch it landed on creaked like it was going to break.  Somehow that makes it worse. 

I flipped a hand at it vague “Shoo, get out of here you greasy son of a bitch.”

“We need to talk.”

I sighed “Does every talking animal in the world just come directly to me?”

“You have to do something for me.”

“No, what I have to do is pull my pants up.  Then I’m going back to my campsite forget that I saw you.  I don’t have time for this shit right now.”

And that’s what I did.  But of course the bird followed me.  I was hoping that Stinty would be there to throw a rock at it, I’ve heard Halflings are good at throwing rocks, but he wasn’t – probably out scouting again.  That little guy is truly paranoid.  I made an exaggerated show of laying down on my bedroll and closing my eyes.

“Follow me if you want but I’m ignoring you.”

The shiny black bird flapped over and landed right by my head “We have your son.”

I snorted “I don’t have a son, nice try though.”

“Whoever that kid was who was at this camp, we grabbed him.”

“You mean Stinty?  He’s not a child he’s a Halfling.”

“I don’t care what he is, we have him – and unless you do what we say he’s going to die.”

“Okay.”

“Okay?”

“Yeah, tell me what you want me to do.”

He cocked his bird head to the side “I thought it would take a lot more convincing.”

“Sorry to disappoint you, so what’s the deal?  What do you want from me that’s worth kidnapping over?”

“There’s a farm not far from here.  There’s many humans there, it’s a gathering, I need you to go there and poison the male human with the blonde braid.”

“Alright, where’s the poison?”

“Don’t you want to know why you’re poisoning him?”

“No.”

The bird led me to meet with one of his cabal of plotters – a vaguely man shaped clump of rotting vegetation with antlers.  I don’t know if the antlers were part of it or if they were just discarded antlers that got caught in its festering rotten head-mound.  One thing I can tell you is that it stunk with the fury of a thousand dead skunks in the summer sun.  It’s a good thing I hadn’t had anything to eat that day.  The compost heap turned it’s “head” to the razorcrow and spoke is a burbling voice that was somehow even more gross than its odor.

“Is she the one?”

I snapped my fingers “Yeah, yeah, I’m the one, you’re the poison guy?  Give me the thing.”

The rotting mass raised its “arm” and dropped a big asymmetric furry looking plant into my waiting hands – or it would have if I hadn’t pulled my hands back and let it drop to the ground.  I nudged it with my foot.

“What am I supposed to do with this?  Are there berries on it that are poison or is there sap or something?”

The bird spread its wings momentarily in what I imagine was a display of anger “He needs to eat it.”

“The whole thing?!  This is like a branch.  How am I supposed to trick him into eating this?  What part of it is poison and how much do we need?  I feel like you’re not answering me because you don’t know.  Do you even know what you’re doing?”

The vegetable man’s “face” turned into an exaggerated scowl “We know exactly what we’re doing!”

“Do you?  Do you really?  Look, let’s not get upset about this I don’t want to bicker, are you just trying to kill this guy or is there some specific reason you need him to eat an entire small tree?”

The bird and the stink-pile looked at each other “He just needs to die.”

“Well then get me a knife and I’ll cut this throat, you can save this tree limb for a rainy day.”

The bird cawed like a normal crow before speaking “Garic is a great warrior!  You’ll never defeat him in combat!”

“I’m not going to fight him, I’m going to uses my wiles and take him unawares.”

“You don’t seem very wily.”

“Do you have a damn knife or not?”

The bird led me back the direction of the campsite and then to a small low cave filled with bones – including human skulls.  The bird gestured with one wing.

“What?  You want me to go in there?  Won’t I be killed by the giant centipede or whatever turned all these people from alive into piles of bones?”

“There’s nothing in there, this is just were we keep our bones.”

“Of course.”

“Dig around in the pile and you’ll find a weapon.  Probably.”

Yeah, that’s exactly what I wanted to do today.  You can now add to the list of things that I never thought I, or anyone else would ever do, that I have done – ploughing through a pile of bones.  Thankfully they were picked clean, no gristle or anything clinging to them.  That is where my level of thankfulness is these days – that at least the bones I’m handling are clean.  I was worried about pricking my hand on whatever sharp things might be in the pile I was using a long bone to kind of poke at the pile in a not very efficient manner.

The bird stomped its little bird foot angrily “Come on, we don’t have all day!”

“What’s the rush?”

“The gathering may end!”

“So what?  I can kill this guy whenever.”

Eventually I did find either a long dagger or a short sword.  I’m no expert on these things but it looked superbly made even though it only had an edge on one side.  The metal looked slightly blue, which probably means something to people who know about metal – it just made it look pretty to me.  By this time the bird was fuming.

“About time.”

“Cool your beak bird.”

The bird took the lead again, barking at me to go faster the entire way, taking me into a cleared valley where instead of forest there were fields and buildings and other farm stuff.  There was a main building that was decked out for festivities and there was a bonfire out front around which several drunken partygoers stood slapping each other on the back and laughing at what were probably dumb jokes.

“So the guy is down there?”

“Yes, the one with the blonde braid.  Kill him and return to me with proof and your son will be returned to you.”

“I told you he’s not my son, he’s like sixty year older than me.”

“Just go!”

And go I did.  I was fairly sure that it was a wedding feast and when I got down there I saw that I was right.  I also saw a couple humping in the dirt behind one of the grain storage huts.  Why is it that you never walk in on anyone that you want to see having sex?  It’s some kind of universal rule.  As I walked to the main building several people hailed me heartily as if we were good friends – that’s the kind of goodwill you get at these kind of parties.  The beer probably helped with that as well.

Inside there were flower garlands and a blushing bride and the whole thing – not to mention several tables dangerously overladen with enough food to feed an army.  A small army but still.  Sitting at the head table beside the aforementioned blushing bride (in a BLUE dress, you know what that means) was a burly jovial fellow who was crass enough to wear some kind of military outfit for a wedding who happened to have his long blonde hair in a braid.  Which is even worse if you ask me.  I approached the table of the laughing drunken wedding party and popped off a quick courtesy.

“Congratulations you two.  I hope you have many years of happiness.  But getting down to the nitty gritty here a bird sent me here to kill you.  I don’t know what kind of beef you have with a bird but I would take care of that if I were you.  Anyway, the bird has kidnapped a friend of mine so would you mind if I cut off your stupid braid and took it to him so as to make him think I killed you?  Otherwise I’ll have to kill you for real.”

After a brief pause they all burst out laughing uproariously as only drunk people can.  It took me a little while to convince them I was serious but only because they were so drunk.  This valley used to be home to some fey creature that now is trying to get revenge and the bird works for him and so on and so forth.  It took me even longer for me to convince the bridegroom to let me hack off his braid but here the booze worked in my favor.  What really made him cave in was the bride’s drunken admission that she thought long hair made him look like a maiden.  He truly looked wounded by this drunken candor, some of which was the drink in him, but some of which was that I think he really took pride in his hair.  And why shouldn’t he?  It was a good head of hair, it just belonged on a lady. 

I hacked off the braid and stayed for a while to eat, drink, and be merry.  I even favored them with a few songs – accompanied by a fiddler who wasn’t half bad.  Wedding songs are all dreadful, but you have to give people what they want.  Well you don’t have to, but you know what I mean.  I caught the bouquet – you know what that means, seven more years of war!  For not murdering the groom on his wedding day they gifted me with a very fine women’s surcoat.  Black isn’t really my color but it would have been rude to refuse.  Wishing everyone the best of luck, I returned to the woods where I found the razorcrow waiting anxiously. 

“What took so long?!”

I tossed the braid at his bird-feet “How about a little gratitude?”

“You did it?  He’s dead?”

“As dead as dead can be, now for your part of the deal.”

It was dark by this point so it was hard to follow a jet black bird flitting around, but his insults and abuse helped me pinpoint where he was.  He led me into a forest clearing where Stinty lay in a circle of weird glowing mushrooms.  Outside the circle was an array of hodgepodge beasts – something with the body of an egret with the head of a meerkat, a reindeer with the head of monkey sporting a single horn, a humanoid with the head of a sperm whale, a falcon with some bits of jellyfish and sea urchin on it.  And those weren’t even the weird ones.  The bird flew into the middle of the gathering.

“Garic the Despoiler is dead!”

The assembly made a cacophony of hybrid animal noises that I sincerely hope never to hear again.  Once that awful noise died down the egret-meerkat gestured with a wing-paw and whatever magic was holding Stinty down was dispelled.  He jumped up, looking around wildly, before hopping over the mushroom circle and running over to me. 

“Alright freaky beasts of the forest, good luck to you and your war against humanity.”

Stinty looked like he wanted to dash off into the night but since neither humans nor Halflings can see in the dark I set a more sedate pace.

“I went to a wedding today, what did you do?”

________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Funds: 79 gold

XP: 466,301

Inventory:  Artisan’s outfit, collegium ring, spidersilk cloak, Field Scrivener’s Desk, Deadly Kiss (dagger) Surcoat of the Night Wind

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