Montagem 14 Year 888 (New Imperial Calendar) Part 4

Certain religious types spend a great deal of their time trying to catalog all the different demons.  Maybe because they think it will help people avoid those demons but probably because they’d rather sit and write in a book than actually help anyone – charity and compassion are a lot of work.  Trust me I know where from I speak on that.  Gastronok the demon that makes people sick.  Dozzeth the demon of people who sneeze without covering their mouth.  Arrrrlizz the demon that makes pine trees get sick and lose their needles.  Sarthronothronoth the confuser of migrating birds.  Drolgalos the demon that makes you grab a lady’s thigh under the table.  Stiffrenillious the demon who makes you want to put your hand into a fire.  Sharbinith the demon who wants you to cut yourself.  Urzorich the demon of suicide by hanging.  Jag’than the demon that encourages people to flick their boogers.  The defiler of graveyards, the urge to jump off bridges, the desire to fart in someone’s hat, etc. 

You have to assume that most of them are made up right?  The priest that writes these who’s who books of demons, maybe they start off with a possession in Briartown where Snaxiskics the lord of blue flies took over the body of a young girl but after the first few they’re probably just freestyling right?  How would a priest even know about Phimsham the demon of inaccurate cartography?  Doesn’t seem like the kind of demon that would be involved in the kind of world ending plots that attract people’s attention.  My point is this, there’s probably a book somewhere that names and gives vital statistics on a demon for poorly made beds, and a demon for being woken up early, and a demon for crusty morning eyes, and a demon for harsh sunlight when you first open your eyes in the morning but I bet it’s made up.  I bet there are no such demons.  OR IS THAT THEIR GREATEST TRICK ?!?!?

Although to be fair I woke up mostly because I was hungry.  Isn’t that weird how that can happen?  You can’t feel hungry while you’re asleep, you can’t feel anything, but somehow it wakes you up?  Explain that.  Demon? As I tried to failed (failed to try really if we’re being honest) to get up I realized Martialla was sitting in the corner.

“Were you watching me sleep?”

“No, I was gazing at you while you rested.”

“Oh, well that’s not weird then.  I assume you were standing by invisibility to help me this morning in case things went south?”

“Of course, that’s the great thing about invisibility, you can assume whatever you want and it can be true.”  She paused for a moment before continuing soberly “You know your luck is going to run out one of these days if you keep doing that.”

I snorted “What luck would that be?”

“I’m serious.  It doesn’t matter how sneaky you are, eventually you’re going to run into someone who can’t be snuck.”

“Good thing you’ll be lurking about invisibly to get me out of hot water.  I assume you’re the one that roasted one of the belt buckle brigade.”

She nodded “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

“I’m sure it was.  You look around here?  Did Nilda leave anything good behind?”

“I found a folding bow that is actually really well made – normally those trick bows are garbage.  I think anyway, I don’t really know anything about bows.  That was it though, I think she was packed to leave at any time.”

“Smart girl.

“I did find a coded list that I think was people she was going to kill before you came along and solved her money problems.  If you ever want to finish that up.”

“In a way you have to admire a woman who resolves her money problems with contract killing rather than hooking, it seems commendable – but realistically shouldn’t be the opposite?  Making people feel good has to be morally superior to killing right?”

“Depends on the person.  Besides, no one pays you twenty five THOUSDAND gold for sex.”

“Depends on the person.”

She hooked her thumb towards the door of Nilda’s cottage “That guy who said you saved his life is out front, he’s been waiting to talk to you.”

“All this time?  Stalker.”

“Exactly, that’s why I was guarding you.”

“Sure.” I gestured imperiously “Send him in.”

Martialla nodded like the dutiful servant she isn’t and went to the door to escort in the tall fellow with the hammer belt.  He had acquired a hat somewhere, I think for the sole purpose of taking it off as he came in as a sign of respect.  I bet there’s a book that claims there’s a demon that makes people not take their hats off indoors.

“Sorry to keep you waiting my good man, what can I do for you?”

He wanted to thank me, which you know, whatever, and he wanted to tell me his tale – which wasn’t terribly interesting but I thought that it would have been rude to say so.  He had been indentured to one of the Duke’s military pals for seven years to do “lawful and reasonable works and labors” which covers quite a bit of ground.  One problem was that after the seven years was up they told him he had to work for them for another three years because of a clause in the contract about the condition of his boots.  When he complained to the authorities they gave him six months of hard labor for lying under oath.  Another problem was that the good Captain’s wife was something of an amateur loanshark and liked to send him out on collection jobs – and by collect I mean to rough people up.  Once she realized he was pretty good at that she started organizing “events” where he would fight other indentures or servants.  Also she started demanding sexual favors from him.  And when her husband found out she said she was raped.  There’s another five years on the tab there.  This is all in addition to the beatings and general humiliation.  Rich people do love their humiliations. 

“That must have been Sicar Gaudkroger, I remember hearing something about her little fight nights.  What a stone cold bitch.  I should probably kill her.”

Even though he was a strong man who’s clearly been in many battles and she’s hundreds of miles away he actually looked frightened at the mention of her name “I’m not sure she can be killed.” He trailed off, lost in thought for a moment “I was pretty shocked when I saw you last night, or this morning, whichever it was.  I feel like I have to do something to repay you.  You gave me my life back.”

“Well, and no offense, I’m not sure that skulking around in the woods ripping people off is that great of a life.”

“It’s a paradise compared to what I had before.  Now I’m free.”

“I understand that, sort of.  You saved me from your friends so I think we’re even.  Can you cook?’

He was clearly puzzled “Uh . . . what?”

I threw back the covers of the bed and stood up stiffly on my bad hip “I’m fucking famished, pardon my language.” I gestured to the kitchen “If saving me isn’t good how about this – if you can whip me up an egg dish all debts are paid.  I can’t cook for shit, pardon my language, and this one” I pointed at Martialla “is even worse.”

Martialla scowled “That’s not true at all, I can make food . . . of a sort.”

“Yes, well I admit that some of the things you’ve made have had some of the same qualities as food.”

Irori (as I learned his name was) glanced at the kitchen and then back to me “Uh . . . . what?”

I clapped him on the back “Don’t worry about it buddy, glad to do it, all part of the job, just passing through, think nothing of it, don’t mention it, etcetera and so forth.  I don’t mean to diminish the importance of your rescue or anything like that but let’s not make a big thing of it okay?  There’s no rewards for being a decent human being.”

Martialla grinned “She’s a humble heroine she is.”

“Shut up you.  I really am hungry if you can cook at all and there’s any food in here.  But there is something you can help me out with.  Because of certain events I put you and your friends on my list, and I don’t take people off my list – not ever, it sets a bad precedent.  But I don’t want to take you all out now that I know more of the story, so I think I need to amend the list a little.  Who was the guy doing the whipping?”

Irori pursed his lips “He’s the one what was barbecued last night.  Never cared for him myself.”

“Hmm, what about the guys that were doing the holding down for the whipping?  Keep in mind this isn’t a death list exactly, but something needs to happen to them.”

“Victor, Beharri, and Cebuano – they’re not the best, but they’re not the worst either.  I mean we are criminals, there’s no angels amongst our ranks.”

“Everyone’s a criminal in some way I’m sure.  Well, they’re going to have to go on the list, but the rest of you are off the hook.  And there’s nothing that says I have to cross them off the list right away.  I can save them for last.”

Martialla was rummaging around in the kitchen area “After a long draught you’ve really bulked up the list lately, you may not ever get to them the way things are going.”

“Time is the enemy of us all.  Seriously like a fried ham and cheese sandwich would be great, or a kabob, anything really.”

________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Funds: 53,040 platinum, 9,605 gold

XP: 923,451

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 Extraordinary Walking Stick, Ela’s Elegant Boots, Ela’s Extravagant Necklace

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 

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

Montagem 7 Year 888 (New Imperial Calendar)

In retrospect I guess I should have mentioned to someone that Auraluna knew that we were coming instead of just going back to sleep.  In my defense though I’m no military strategist, how was I supposed to know that she’d stage a counter-attack?  Wait that doesn’t sound right because we hadn’t attacked them yet.  What’s it called when you attack someone before they can attack you?  A preemptive attack yes, but I feel like there’s a specific name for it.  My first indication that something was wrong is when an arrow came through the tent and hit me in the elbow.  Have you ever been shot in the elbow?  I’ve heard people say that getting kneecapped is the most painful thing possible.  I’ll call bullshit on that unless any of those people have taken an arrow through the elbow and can compare the two.  Plus I was fucking asleep!  Waking up out of a dead sleep because you got shot?  In the elbow?  There was a moment there where if I had the means I would have amputated the arm just to stop the pain.  I guess it’s a good thing I don’t have an easy way to remove arms.  Who would have ever guessed I’d say that?

A good distraction from the pain was when the side of the tent was ripped open by one of those curvy elf swords and a grey skinned elf with coal-black eyes (it looked like that because it was undead you see) came in trying to kill me the way it killed my tent.  I rolled out of the way of its wild downward stroke with the bent elf-sword and it was such a powerful thrust that the blade got stuck in the ground.  I don’t know if these things are mindless, I suspect not since it cut a hole in a tent, but it wasn’t smart enough to do anything other than try and yank the it’s sword out of the earth.  I grabbed the holy symbol around my neck and thrust it into the ghoul’s face.

“In Adariel’s name I cast you out!!!”

This didn’t do a Gods damned thing.  I bashed it with my Walking Stick but I’ve learned that the walking dead are generally pretty resistant to blunt force trauma.  I assume because they they’re dead.  That seems like it makes sense.  The stupid undead elf was still trying to pull it’s sword out of the ground so I took a moment to slip my Sharpshooter’s Blade onto my Walking Stick and create the world’s shortest makeshift spear.  Even the undead tend to lose motivation when you impale them through the skull – and without motivation they just go back to being dead dead.  There’s probably a lesson of some kind there.  I don’t know exactly what happened next, either someone fighting outside the tent fell into it, or someone else (Martialla probably) inside the tent was also fighting and smashed into the side but the entire thing came down and I found myself trapped under all that magical canvas.

I know this is going to sound crazy but being wrapped up in that tent I think the closest I’ve come to dying.  I almost suffocated in there I did.  I tried the command word to make it “untent” itself but it must have been too ripped up to still work.  In the end I did manage to fight my way out before I choked to death, but it was honestly terrifying.  As soon as I got free I saw fighting all around.  Auraluna and her daughter (who looked great by the way, even better than before) and two other little spindly ashy looking broads were directing the attack of a score of undead elfs and festrogs.  It was a Hells of a melee for sure.  Baron Ridley and Kendrick had already slain (reslain?) half a dozen of the attackers and were rallying their men to counter-attack, which is the right term in this instance.  I saw the annoying Strider-priest call upon his divine power and disintegrate a charging pack of undead hounds instantaneously.  The strangest sight of all though was Ismail.  His arms had transformed into the freaky hook-things of a giant mantis and he was slicing his opponents in half when he was ripping bloody hunks of dead flesh off them.  That was a hideous sight for sure, it was like watching someone being ripped apart by a jigsaw.

While I was still on the ground half-suffocated, a festrog charged at me with its mouth hanging opening in a soundless howl.  Mostly by luck it impaled itself on my makeshift spear and I reached into my Vest and set it ablaze with a tindertwig.  Staggering away from the fire I was slashed across the back by another undead elf before I was able to whirl and stick it through the neck with my Stick-Blade.  This action however revealed the flaw in my jury-rigging because the Blade got wedged in the body and came off the Walking Stick pretty easily.  I’m probably the last person that should be improvising weapons, that’s pretty advanced murderology.  While I had a moment of not being almost killed I drank a Healing draught from the Flask and took a blast from my Tankard for fighting spirit (and booze). I picked up one of the fallen elf-swords but it was so awkward that I was much more dangerous to myself than anyone else so I abandoned it quickly.  With nothing else in the way of weapons I laid about at the undead with my Walking Stick for all the good it did.

As the fighting intensified I saw Auraluna take to the air (which hardly seems fair) and suddenly incinerate four of the Baron’s retainers with a massive blast of fire.  All that was left was their skeletons.  I know this because those skeletons remained standing, wreathed with fire and turned to attack the Strider priest with burning claws (which really doesn’t seem fair).  Next she swooped at me, absorbing my clubbing attack like it was a gentle breeze.  She slammed me to the ground and while in her withered state she was half as strong as she had been when she threw me around in Graltontown she was still plenty strong to dash me to the ground.  She bared her wicked fangs at me as she pinned me to the ground like a cruel child (so just a child really) with a bug.

“No machines now!  We’ll do this the old fashioned way!”

Remember that time that lake mermaid vampire tried to drink all my blood?  I do.  You don’t forget a thing like that.  I was just out for a pleasant walk and then a lake mermaid vampire tried to kill me.  Anyway, when Auraluna tucked into me at first it was a lot like that, like for maybe a second.  But then something very curious happened.  Curious in the sense that Auraluna recoiled in tremendous pain as beams of light issued forth from underneath her skin like some manner of holy force was burning her alive.  Which is what I figured was happening when I saw a massive light-wound appear on her chest in the shape of Adariel’s symbol.  The holy Symbol around my neck was hanging suspended in air as if held by invisible hands as light poured out of it into Auraluna’s body and light poured out of her body into the symbol – some kind of endless loop of destruction.  Well, not endless, it ended after about fifteen seconds when the symbol exploded – a piece of metal shrapnel digging into my stomach – while Auraluna simultaneously crumbled like old bread before my very eyes, leaving behind only a pile of black grit.

“Huh, that was something.”

Once Auraluna was dead the fight turned against team hag swiftly.  The other two dusty witch monsters were hacked to pieces quickly and all the various undead were sent back to their graves.  Auraluna’s daughter escaped but I’m sure she’ll just go somewhere far away and never trouble anyone again.  That seems likely right?  The survivors of the battle made their way to the village, which was decidedly less than jubilant at their apparent salvation.  Seems that Auraluna and her daughter had been there a while with some scaled down version of the Machine I saw in the Domiel manor basement-dungeon that they had been using on the village women to maintain Auraluna’s daughter.  And this wasn’t even the first village.  Remember that village the Baron ordered me to check out that had some manner of disease?  Turns out it wasn’t a disease, at least not in the literal sense.  The people there seemed sick because Auraluna was stealing their blood for her daughter.  Eventually they bled the entire village dry and then moved on to this place.  We arrived just in the nick of time, in the sense that only most of their young women had been killed instead of all.  That evening we bad a bonfire going in the middle of the town square enjoying the fruits of victory, in this case nothing.  Well that’s not true exactly, the villagers did bring us some fresh baked bread. 

I looked over at Baron Ridley “I suppose in the horrible monster hunting business this is what you’re used to right?  No joyous celebrations, no victor’s spoils, no fanfare, no warrior’s reward – just the slim comfort that there’s some traumatized people left to pick up the pieces.” 

“That’s a forbidding way to put it, but yes, our work isn’t the romantic quest of a knight errant.”

“Most knights as assholes anyway.  Speaking of grim business, when I was in Cauldron at the edge of the woods I saw some witches that had been nailed to trees and tortured.  Did you do that?”

He looked at me evenly “Yes.”

“Personally?”

“I had it done, that’s the same as if I pounded in the nails with my own hands.”

“Why?”

“Hags are hard to kill.  Sometimes extreme measures are necessary.  As you said it’s a grim business.” He was quiet for a while and I was about to say something but then he spoke again “You know what’s worse?  Finding men that are willing to do it.  Not just willing, but who do it without any qualms.  That’s what scares me sometimes.  How good I am at finding men who are skilled at doing atrocious things and don’t mind doing them.  I tell myself that at least thing way I’m using their violent desires for a good end, but I wonder if that matters.”

“Yeah, be careful with that shit, you’re one of the good ones – the world needs you to stay not evil.  He who hunts monsters and all that.”

He looked distinctly uncomfortable with these words and after a moment cleared his throat “Your friend and Kendrick seem to be hitting it off.”

I snorted “She’s a friendly gal.”

The good Baron seemed even more uncomfortable “I hope she’s mindful of his feelings.  For all his bravado and skill at fighting he’s rather fragile when it comes to those sort of things.  He plays himself as a bounder and cad but it’s just a way to try and protect himself.  Since we’re going to be parting ways I hope that things between them can end without any issues.”

“I’ll talk to her.”

“Your friend Ismail is quite a fighter.”

I shrugged “Yeah, I guess so.  That thing he did with his arms was pretty crazy.”

“I think we would have died without him.”

“Seriously?”

The Baron nodded “Yes.  He destroyed almost half of the attacking undead.  Even without that odd transformation of his body I’ve never seen anything quite like him.  He was perfectly calm, perfectly in control.  I’m not sure I’ve seen a more effective warrior.”

I looked around but Ismail was not in sight “Huh.  How about that?  Maybe I should start praying to a bug too.”

________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Funds: 28,040 platinum, 47,545 gold

XP: 884,921

Inventory: Flask of Endless Sake, Hat of Effortless Style, Ring of Disguise, Tankard of the Drunken Hero, Amulet of Dreams, Ela’s Traveling Outfit, Belt of Physical Might +4, Versatile Vest, Ring of Urban Grace, Black Marketers’ Bag (5), Tidy Trunk, Whiterock Family Ring (Ring of Binding), Ela’s Walking Stick, Meteoric Amulet, Ela’s Boots

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), assorted hag pieces 

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  

Montalan 19 Year 888 (New Imperial Calendar)

Seeing no reason to continue on to Arbeven at this point I told Autane this morning that he could stick with us or head for home as he saw fit.  He didn’t need to be told twice – he packed up and was gone in a few minutes.  I can’t imagine what he thinks of me.  Actually that’s not true, it’s pretty easy to imagine what he thinks of me, I’m sure he considers me quite mad.  I suppose he’s correct in that.  Maybe when I first woke up in that dirty alley in Graltontown you could say that a quest for revenge made sense.  But since then I’ve amassed quite a fortune, I could settle down, forget the whole thing with the Duke and live a better life than I had before.  The way things stand now, I’m unequivocally better off – I have my freedom.  So what can you call it other than madness that I still pursue this course?  I’d call it justice.  And justice is a harsh mistress (and not in the good way if you know what I mean).  Justice is like an orchid – it need as a lot of attention because it is utterly fragile.

Orchids need a certain temperature with little variance allowed.  They need the full sun in the morning and shade the rest of the day.  When you water them you need to allow the soil to dry completely before watering again.  Once a month they need to be fed.  They need to be sheltered and cared for otherwise they will wither and die.  Justice is the same, it doesn’t spring up on its own like a weed, it only comes about after careful husbanding (wifing?).  Is it madness to put so much effort into sustaining such a delicate thing?  Perhaps.  But that doesn’t make it any less rewarding.  Stopping now and living the high life would be satisfying, but nowhere near as satisfying as having the Duke broken before me.  I want him to beg.  I want him to offer me anything.  I want him to abase himself knowing that I’m going to kill him anyway but so desperately wanting to believe that he can supplicate himself one more second of life that he does it anyway.  That will be something very grand indeed.

Since Martialla has been skulking around these woods being a bandit for a while I assume that she’s knows the way around pretty well but I got the distinct impression she only halfway knew where were going as we set out.  I can’t judge her too harshly though since she was nice enough to take on my appearance so I could see what my hair looked like and fix it.  I’ll never get tired of seeing myself in profile – I should be on a coin!  You never really know what you look like just from a mirror.  Even if you’re ugly (which you probably are) I recommend checking it out if you ever have the chance to see someone magically disguise themselves as you.  Granted that usually happens right before you get killed by that person but it’s still worth it.  After we had been walking for a while Martialla had the poor grace to bring up the reason why I had left in the first place.

“I couldn’t help but notice that you returned with no adventuring party at your back ready to plunge into conflict for us.”

“Indeed, when I got to their dumb hideout most of them were dead.  Which made their hiring price much lower but it hardly seemed worth it at that point.  And get this, the ones that weren’t dead were too poorly off to help us at all.  I had to save them!  I was very put out.  It’s just impolite is what it is.  People have no manners these days.”

“You often say as much.  Where does that leave us then?  You said you wanted to go back to the Manor, shouldn’t we head to Obsis to see if they have some adventuring party there?”

“Oh, I’m sure they do, but what’s the point?  They’ll just run off after some crystal sword or something as soon as I hire them.  Or they’ll get killed by the demon lord whose daughter they massacred in an airship.  I don’t know what I was thinking trying to hire those sorts in the first place.  They’re useless.”

“So we’re back to what?  The two of us and our wits against the entire castle?”

 “You don’t have to say it like that, look where our wits have gotten us so far!  I was thinking maybe we head into Alleene and get a whisper campaign going about the Baron being subverted by Kostelos devils, see if we can get some manner of uprising going.  Maybe there’s some Kostelos hate-group we can get on our side.”

“That sounds unpleasant.”

“When did you get so squeamish?  You’re the bandit queen for the Gods sake.”

“And quite a queendom it is.  I’d just rather accomplish our goals without resorting to race-baiting if possible.”

I snorted “Baby.”

After we had been traveling for several hours while Martialla was telling me a very amusing story about a wizard at a joust we started to hear the sound of a bell ringing – not like a church bell but like the bell you’d put on a sheep or some such.  Assuming that it was a trap we decided to investigate – better the trap you know about right?  I had forgotten how sneaky Martialla can be when she wants to move unseen.  I tried to do the same but after a while she got frustrated and just cast an invisibility spell on me.  Without even asking.  The nerve!  I would have agreed had she asked, but it’s the presumption you know?  Ask me before you put a spell on me okay?  Thus inveigled we continued on to find a string of mules and pack-beetles being led through the woods by one lone fellow.  The mules and insects were laden with all manner of goods.  The man leading them was a tough looking fellow dressed plainly except for a long black and red greatcoat of quality craftsmanship.  I signaled for Martialla to dismiss her spell and then remembered she couldn’t see me.  Feeling embarrassed I whispered for her to remove the invisibility and we strolled out.

“Good day to you sir, what brings you to these parts of the wood?”

He was quite startled to see a pair of twins appear out of nowhere and whirled around for a moment as if expecting more of us to appear as well before speaking gruffly. “Nothing to see here ladies, this is official kingdom business.”

“How impressive.  And what business might that be?”

He flashed a badge at us “I’m a tax collector, interfering with my duties is a hanging offense!”

I flashed my badge back at him “We’re well aware of that.  We’re with the royal auditor’s office.  Chief Inspector Gamache, this is my associate Inspector Wexford.”

Martialla nodded brusquely “We’ve had our eye on you for a while.”

“Indeed we have inspector, indeed we have.  You’re quite a ways away from your appointed rounds aren’t you?  What taxes are you collecting out here exactly?  Nuts from squirrels?  Honey from bees perhaps?  Do the bears owe the Crown some salmon?  Do the sprites pay you in pinecones?”

His look became desperate “Now see here . . .”

“There’s only one reason that I can see you being out here in the woods tax collector.  Malfeasance.”

Martialla nodded “Misappropriation of funds.  Fraud.  That’s also a hanging offense isn’t it Chief Inspector?”

“No Inspector, it’s a capital offense, but they find much crueler ways to be rid of rogue tax collectors that a simple rope.  Normal people are expected to steal now and then so they get normal punishments.  But a tax collector forsaking his duty and lining his own pocket?  That calls for something . . . special.  An example must me made you know?”

“Ah, of course Chief Inspector.”

The man’s face had gone pale as the summer moon “No you’re mistaken, I just . . .”

“Don’t compound things by lying man, your goose is already cooked, don’t make things worse by pissing me off.”

Martialla shook her head sadly “The Chief Inspector has a terrible temper.”

“That I do Inspector, because if there’s one thing I hate it’s a man who betrays his country.  Diverting royal funds?  That makes me sick it does.  Now before you spew anymore lies lead us on to whatever forest-hole you’ve taking your ill-gotten gains.  If you cooperate with us things will go easier for you.  You might even save your life.”

Martialla affected a hopeful tone “You still have a chance to get out of this with your skin intact.  But you can’t hide anything from us.”

Terrified, the fellow lead us on a ways to an overgrown hunting cabin that looked long abandoned – it looked enough like the Whiterock cabin to give me a frightening flashback.  I could feel the Whiterock ring throbbing on my finger but it always does that.  As a last gambit our traitorous tax collector bade us to enter first but we politely declined.  There were no protectors within but he did have some crude traps protecting his stolen bounty – a bear trap in a cut-out hidden under a rug, a swinging axe-blade, a pitchfork rigged to fall on your head, that sort of thing.  We ordered him to disarm them and then had him march around the place just to be sure.  The goods were below, through a trapdoor leading to the cellar, the opening of which really gave me a powerful false impression of being back at the Whiterock cabin and with its history of horror.  Did the ring throb more painfully?  I can’t say that it didn’t.  The tax collector stood miserably in the corner with Martialla’s rapier on him while I climbed down to check it out.  There was some money of course but it was largely made up of luxury goods that could be stored in such a place relatively safely – fine clothing, semi-precious stones, spices, liquor, tobacco, that sort of thing.

Coming back up I gave the tax collector an impressed whistle “That’s quite a nest egg you’ve built for yourself, how long have you been at this to amass such an impressive fortune?  Don’t answer that.  Answer this instead, do you have a family?   A wife, a couple kids, that sort of thing?” He shook his head wretchedly “You should have said yes, I’m looking for a reason to let you live sir.”

“You told me not to lie to you.”

“Yes I did, and a good man you are for listening.  Well, I suppose pure altruism is as a good a reason as any.  You richly deserve death my friend, not only for stealing from the Crown but also for being stupid.  Don’t you know this forest is full of bandits?  Bringing your ill-gotten gains here is foolish in the extreme.  But I shall show you mercy for I have no desire to kill you today.  Nor to drag you back to the capital to be tortured – which is what would happen.  Have you ever heard someone say that if they knew now what they knew then they’d do things differently?  This is your opportunity to do that.  I’m giving you a second chance.  The deal is you hand over your badge, we tell everyone that we found you dead – slain by bandits – and the bandits had all this stuff, which they obviously stole from you.  In death you will be a hero.  You go somewhere far away and tell no one about your former life.  Start a new one.  Get a job as a clerk or something.  Find yourself a wife.  Do things differently.  Forget about the greed that led you to this path.  And every day when you wake up thank the Gods that you are still alive because a lot of other people aren’t. Think about how you still have the opportunity to make different choices and how people that have died wish they had that opportunity.”

He didn’t need to think long about that.  He handed over his badge and I had him leave his coat as well because I like it.  He unloaded the rest of his stolen goods and then mounted up one of this beetles and led his now cargo-less train due west.  Once he was out of sight I tossed the badge to Martialla.

“Here, this might come in handy.”

“Getting caught with a badge like this when you don’t deserve it seems like a handy way to get yourself executed too.”

“You’re already an outlaw, what do you have to lose?  Besides, my advice?  Don’t get caught.”

“That’s good advice, I don’t know why more criminals don’t think of that.  Can we take all this stuff or do your seemingly limitless magic pockets actually have limits?”

“I guess we’ll find out.”

________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Funds: 23,045 platinum, 52,143 gold

XP: 759,111

Inventory: Flask of Endless Sake, Hat of Effortless Style, Ring of Disguise, Badge of Last Resort, Tankard of the Drunken Hero, Censer of Dreams, Enchanted White Pathfinder’s Gear (effects as Iadaran Dress Uniform) Belt of Physical Might +4, Versatile Vest, Expedition Pavilion, +1 Human Bane Endless Ammunition Light Crossbow with Sharpshooter’s Blade, Ring of Urban Grace, Holy Symbol of Adariel (Sanguine Protection) Black Marketers’ Bag (5), white squirrel fur Slippers of Scampering, Tidy Trunk, Whiterock Family Ring (Ring of Binding), Ela’s Better Walking Stick, Meteoric Amulet, unknown gauntlets, mysterious staff, tooth-sword, Cape of the Mountebank, Sandals of Sprinting, +1 Agile Rapier   

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 (27), Saryah Phidaner gown, masterwork thieves’ tools, onyx (55) personal signet ring, tiara, masterwork red and black long greatcoat, lots of luxury goods  

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  

Myam 25 Year 888 (New Imperial Calendar)

I was distracted is what it was.  Although I can’t say what exactly was distracting me.  Is it possible to be distracted by nothing?  Maybe distracted isn’t the right word, perhaps unfocused is better.  The point is that I wasn’t paying close enough attention and by the time I knew what was happening the street had cleared out of all the “decent” people and I saw that I was surrounded.  Well maybe not surrounded, but at least encircled, I mean how many people do you need to surround someone?  There were six of them which doesn’t seem like quite enough for a surrounding, unless you count the buildings as part of the surround – which maybe you could, but the doors were probably open.  Plus there’s windows if you’re really desperate.  Unless they already took care of that by dealing with the people that own them.  Probably you need nine people to really surround someone? 

They were your standard roadway scum, long coats and kerchiefs and too many daggers and scars and all that stuff.  I recognized one of them as the fellow on the road with the mop of curly black hair and bushy sideburns although his smirk was gone which made his face seem seventy percent less punchable.  His fancy clothing was also gone of course on account of I took it, and he was dressed in the ragged fashion of the rest of his pals.  He had at the very least found himself a battered yet jaunty tricorn hat that had some manner of shiny buckle on it that looked like it was made of highly polished amber.

“I know you, you survived huh?  Good for you!  That’s really something.”

His eyes were grim “No thanks to you.”

“Well obviously, I’m the one who left you for dead.  Did you gut it out on your own or did your friends here find you and rescue you?”

He slashed his hand through the air angrily “None of that matters now!  All that matters is that I have you.”

“You have me?  What does that mean?  Are we betrothed now?  This is an odd way to go about it but I admit fully that I’m not familiar with the customs of this backwoods slum.”

He shook his head slowly “You had a real smart mouth before too didn’t you, but now . . .”

“Now you’re going to shut me up?  Yeah, I’ve heard that a time or two, I guess it’s not your fault for being derivative because you weren’t there those other times so you don’t know that it happened.  But really it’s kind of an obvious thing to say, if you want to have a snappy conversation you should think a moment about how tired your quips may be.”

“I’m not here for a conversation, I . . .”

“Look, I get it, you’re upset because I had my magic snake-stick bite you a bunch of times and left you to die, but look at it from my point of view.  You were very rude to me.”

“And so you tried to kill me?!”

“Yeah, what else was I supposed to do?  I mean consider the situation, consider the power dynamic.  If I told you that I wasn’t interested in your smarmy remarks what would have happened?  I’d wager you would have become even smarmier right?  Probably you would have put your hands on me eventually.  I mean I don’t know if you’re a flat out rapist or just an asshole, I suspect the latter, but regardless that was going nowhere good right?  Now I suppose an argument would be made that I didn’t need to come at you so hard, that I could have just bloodied your lip or whatever and left it be, and maybe that’s what should have happened – but I know this, for me and the position that I’m in if I come at someone I have to come hard.  Otherwise it just makes things worse.”

One of the other goons sneered “Things are worse!”

I nodded “Indeed so, most indeededly.  I didn’t figure you had friends, I thought being a highwayman was a solitary path, but maybe you’re a bandit.  So what do you want to have happen here?”

Curly hair grinned humorlessly “I feel it only fitting that we leave you the way you left me, naked in the middle of the road.”

I dropped him a sassy wink “Sure, who wouldn’t want to see that?  But there are two problems there, one is that I have an appointment to keep in a little while and that seems like a whole scenario, and two that means giving up my stuff and I need my stuff.”

“MY stuff you mean.”

“Oh no, I threw most of your stuff in the trash where it belonged.  I sold some of it, but all that shitty knife-jewelry you had, I had them melt that down because it was hideous.  I don’t know you really love knives or if you were just trying out a persona as the ‘knife guy’ or what but those pieces were junk.  I understand that as a dirty thief you kind of need to keep all your wealth on you because it’s not like you can invest it, but at least get something that looks decent.  What you did there was take an amount of gold and make it worth less by turning it into something stupid.  It’s like a silver chamber pot – all the time and effort that went into making it actually turned it into something less valuable.  Do you understand that?”

“Shut up!”

“Good point, very thoughtful and well-reasoned, I’ll really have to consider that.  But here’s the deal Curly Q, as a highwayman bandit robber I’m sure that you’re no stranger to the rough stuff, but really how tough are you?  I mean the key to robbing people is finding the ones that won’t fight back right?  As they say there’s old bandits and there are bold bandits but there are no old bold bandits.  So how much fighting have you really done?  I’m sure things don’t always go smooth and you’ve been in a scrape or two and come out the other side obviously, but if you’ll remember I handled you pretty easily before.  And yes, I know what you’re thinking, I caught you off guard and now you have all your buddies backing you up and all that but it’s not going to matter.  I don’t look very dangerous, I grant you that, but somehow things seem to work out for me.  I don’t really believe in luck or fate or divine intervention or anything like that, but I’m starting to wonder if there’s something going on with me.  Like maybe I’m magic somehow?

I don’t really know, I can’t explain it, but what I do know is that I always seem to come out on top – I mean I killed a dragon one time, can you even imagine?  It was a big sucker too.  Lots of people have tried what you’re trying right now and you know what?  They’re all dead.  Or most of them anyway, the one’s that aren’t dead aren’t happy.  So ask yourself is it really worth it?  Your pride is hurt and here you are all full of fire and vengeance, but it’s not going to work out the way that you want.  So why bother?  Instead of turning this into a blood feud how about it becomes just a funny thing that happened?  Maybe it’s a wakeup call, an indication that you should change your ways.  I don’t know if you go glad-handing around with your crossbow and sword because it’s fun or because your parents died or because of what, but why not settled down and start a family?  Take up hatmaking, I hear that’s a lucrative trade.  Or if you want to be crooked still sell drugs, people love drugs, of be a fence or something like that where you don’t have to put your ass on the line in combat.

If you and your friends all rush me you can probably get me the ground and strip off all my gear and then leave me the way I left you, but you know that I’m going to have to come after you then right?  And how do you think that’s going to go?  Maybe you’ll best me again, but I doubt it, either way though then you have that to deal with.  So you’re going to have to kill then if you want this thing to be over, are you prepared to do that?  Because then I’m going to have to fight even harder to stay alive and maybe then you won’t get me.  Not to mention which you’re taking a big risk just be being in the city right?  You must be wanted, and I’m sure you’ll be hung if caught.  The watch is probably on their way right now, I mean how long have we been talking?  Even if you grab me it’s going to take a couple minutes, and then what?  You’re going to take on the city watch also?  Those are even worse odds, since right now there army and all sorts of other people are in town on account of rioting and all that.”

He grunted “You talk too much.”

“Hey, you’re not giving me anything here man, I’m just trying to fill the empty spaces in the conversation.  Don’t worry about your pride buddy, I know that’s a hard lesson to learn but pride is useless, it’s worse than useless, it’s dangerous.  I used to have a boatload of pride and what did it lead to?  My downfall, and now here I am down in the muck with people like you.  Now I have no pride, and its fine.  Pride, honor, dignity, whatever it’s all stupid – what does it get you?  Nothing, in fact it takes things away from you.  You want me to cry and beg at your feet I’ll do that, I don’t care, and I’m great and seeming heartfelt when I do stuff like that.  It doesn’t cost me anything.  But I’m sick of fighting Curly, I really am, last night I bludgeoned a lady to death with a cup – it had to be done, she deserved it, but it’s made me realized how much I hate all this.  A year ago I couldn’t even imagine fighting anyone, and now I’ve done it so much that I can hardly stand it anymore.  So I want avoid a fight as much as possible here, so what can we do?  Let’s work together and find a way out of this.”

“I said what I want, I want you left like you left me – helpless and humiliated.”

“And ass to the wind as I recall, I’ll reject that opening offer, but this is good, now we’re in negotiations, now we’re using our words, now we’re getting somewhere.  You want money?  You must want money right, you’re a thief, how much is your wounded pride worth?”

“You can’t buy me off.”

“Oh come on, sure I can!  Let’s give a try.  I bet I can buy off your friends at least right?  Speaking of, you probably worry that if you don’t do something to me you’ll look weak in front of them, and maybe that’s true, but Curly if that’s the kind of friends they are , consider, are they really your friends?  Hmm?”

He stomped his foot like a child “Stop calling me Curly!”

“Well what’s your name son?”

“That’s not important, enough of this, grab her!”

A couple of the men took a few steps forward, but another one held out a restraining arm – a lean fellow with a hungry look dressed (sigh) all in black.

“Hold on a minute lads, lets here more about this proposed payoff.”

I smiled “See, this guy gets it.” I reached into my Haversack and tossed a handful of coins into the street, their eyes going wide at the sight of platinum. “And there’s plenty more where that came from, let’s make a deal here shall we?  There’s no reason for violence or petty name-calling is there?  I bet if we got to know each other we’d be good friends, why I’m sure tonight we’ll all be at a bar together sharing a drink and laughing about this whole thing.”

Curly raised his crossbow at me “Okay, the price is all the rest.”

“You drive a hard bargain sir, but if that’s what it is that’s what it is, you’ve got me at a disadvantage here – I’m helpless as a babe.”

I reached into my Haversack, tossing out another handful of coins but also palming my potion of invisibility.  The sight of all that platinum was too much, and one of the men rushed forwards to start picking it up, which made the rest of them all run forward to grab their share.  Curly yelled at them but he took his eye off me and in that moment I drank the potion.  It was just a moment but when he looked back I was gone.  His eyes darted around wildly as I stepped quietly up to him with my crossbow, shooting him through the neck.  Before he fell I stabbed him through the ear with the bayonet Blade as well.  He dropped to the ground, stone cold dead, as his fellow robbers looked up in shock, their hands still clutching their coins.

“I actually do hear the watch coming, you better get that money gathered up and get out of here.”

I was a little late for my appointment with Yanik but the big man didn’t seem to mind. He talked for a while before showing me the ring that Baron Redmynd had commissioned on my behalf but when he finally did reveal it the ring it was worth the wait.  It wasn’t like my old ring of course, there’s no way you could replicate it exactly from a description but it was very close and very lovely without being ostentatious or extravagant.  It can’t replace the ring that was lost, not really, but it’s certainly a fine substitute.  I was so pleased that I gave the sasquatch of a man a hug after I slipped it on and saw how pleasing it felt and looked on my finger.

“How did you get it done so quickly?  There’s no way this could be done in a few days, it’s magnificent!”

He chuckled indulgently/annoyingly “Oh, I have my ways.”

My expression soured somewhat “Magic?”

“Just a bit here and there around the edges, no magic in the crafting that’s all my skill, just a couple tricks to make the work go faster.  I take pride in my work, no magic can do so well.”

I held it out to look at it on my hand “Well, I suppose I can forgive you that just this once, it is quite a sight.”

“I couldn’t help but notice, and pardon me for asking, but is blood on your shoes?”

I smiled dreamily at my new ring “Yeah.  I cut myself shaving.”

He frowned “But . . . how would . . .”

“Oh sorry, I mean I walked past a slaughterhouse.  Thank you, honestly, this is wonderful work.” I clapped him on his massive back “Good on you sir, good on you.” 

________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Funds: 23,045 platinum, 19,788 gold

XP: 701,701

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),  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 (four cards used), Ring of Urban Grace,  Bewitching Gown, Holy Symbol of Adariel (Sanguine Protection) Black Marketers’ Bag (5), white squirrel fur Slippers of Scampering, Token of Summoning, Tidy Trunk, Whiterock Family Ring (Ring of Binding), Ela’s Better Walking Stick, Meteoric Amulet, Red’s Riding Hood   

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, masterwork thieves’ tools, onyx (55) personal signet ring

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   

Myam 24 Year 888 (New Imperial Calendar)

I heard her self-righteously clomping footfalls coming up the stairs before she even got to the door.  I considered at first ambushing her with a crossbow bolt to the face as she came through but in the end I decided instead to see what she was going to do.  And I know what you’re thinking “Ela you’re so Gods damned lazy, you just didn’t want to get up!” which I take exception to because it’s only partially true.  Like thirty percent.  I’m not lazy, I’m like a cat, I conserve my energy for when I need it.  Speaking of, remember that time I was a cat for a while?  What was that about? 

Anyway, she opened the door somewhat quietly and then closed it behind her, although not all the way, before coming to stand at the foot of the bed – resting a greatsword before her with the crosspiece right at tit-height.  I suppose I can’t blame her for her lack of stealth, it has to be hard to creep around slyly with a thirty pound hunk of steel like that.  She had cut off the rest of her nasty dreadlocks and put on a maid’s dress which is a pretty paltry disguise but the sad thing is it doesn’t take much.  Dress like a servant and hardly anyone looks at you – even other servants.

“Looks like you’ve upgraded from your hammer, makes sense, who’d want to drag that heavy thing all the way from Graltontown?” She started at the sound of my voice, obviously thinking that I was asleep but recovered quickly “How long were you going to wait there for me to wake up?  Could have been hours, and I tend to sleep late if we’re being honest.  You should have come closer to dawn if you were going to wait around for me to wake up before you killed me.  Since that is what you were going to do I assume you have a speech prepared?  I know I cut you short last time, which I apologize for, but I was in a hurry and there was no time for oration.  I’ll make it up to you right now though, I’ll listen to your rhetoric for as long as you like.”

She shook her head in the darkness “No speeches.”

“No?  Are you sure?  I bet you’ve got some good ones.  Something about how you are everywhere and we’ll never see you coming.  How you’re the people that we depend on, that there is no us without you. You’re the people who cook our meals, raise our children, nurse us when you’re sick, guard us, protect us, and so on.  A real barn burner of a speech about the rights of people and so forth.”

“You told me you were one of us and I believed you, and now you betray us.  I already know, but I wanted to ask, before you die, whose side are you on?”

I smiled, although I’m not sure she could see it “You see, there, right there, you fell for it.  I don’t blame you, most people do, almost everyone in fact.  You think there are sides, there aren’t.  Rich against poor, north against south, church against crown, Vieland against the Kingdom, whatever – it’s not real.  If you and your friends ever throw down the monarchy and slaughter the Queen and her son like the rich pigs they are what’s going to happen?  The same thing.  You’ll call it something else, but there will be people at the top and people on the bottom – those you have everything and those who starve and work.  It’s inevitable.  Redistribute all you want but there’s not enough to go around – and when you don’t have enough for your belly, or your children, or whatever – well, you’re the one with the sword right?  So who deserves the last loaf of bread more?  You, who fought and bled for ‘freedom’, or some other jerk who profited off your blood and sweat and sacrifice?  You do of course, and you’re the one with the sword so what can the jerk do about it?  So we’re right back where were started, haves and have nots.  There are no sides, you just do the best you can – and by best I mean you do the worst things that you can live with to get as much as you can and call it a life.”

“No, there has to be more to it than that.”

“Why does there have to?  Because you want it?  Because the alternative makes you sad?  That’s a pretty poor reason for anything.  You see the truth all around you, what the world really is, and you want it to be different, but what good does that do?  I can want the sun to be the moon, but it never will be no how hard I wish it to be so.  It is what it is.”

“I’m fighting to make things different.”

“Are you though?  When I first met you what were you doing?  You were going to smash the leg of some ponce because he was rich and your brother was poor and he got his leg smashed working in a warehouse.  That’s doesn’t make anything different that’s just revenge.”

“Not revenge, justice.”

“Revenge is justice, naked of pretense and stripped of finery.  Hanging a murderer, cutting off the hand of a thief, taking away the freedom of a poacher, what are those acts but revenge?  They say that justice is the process of making the victim whole, but that’s impossible – all that can be done is to take a bloody chunk out of the person who did it.  And that’s fine, I’m working on my revenge right now, but let’s not pretend that justice is anything else.  You want to bash rich people because you’re mad about your brother do it, I wish you luck , rich people are assholes by and large – but dressing it up as anything else is a poor use of your mental energy.”

“I’m going to make a world where what happened to my brother doesn’t happen to anyone else.”

“How?  Are there going to be no barrels in your world?  No warehouses?  How are you going to move your beer and pickled fish around without barrels?  How will you store them without warehouses?  Sounds like kind of a crappy world to me.  Someone has to do the shit work right?  No one wants to spend their life digging trenches and washing clothing but if you want trenches and clean clothes someone’s going to have to do it.  How’s your revolution going to change that?  Are we going to live in caves and eat berries from the forest?  There are not enough berries for too many people out there, so a lot are going to have to die, but then again that’s why you have the sword right?”

“I’m not sure why I even bothered, your words are meaningless.”

“I don’t know why you bothered either, killing someone in their sleep is much safer.  Although you might find this interesting, I’m actually the leader of your whole deal technically.  I’m the Bride or the Widow or the Maid or the Washerwoman, whatever you’re calling her now.  I did that whole thing in Graltontown on the hanging-day.  I recruited some ruffians to pretend to be revolutionaries and I gave a great speech and kicked off the whole thing.  If you gave me a minute I could probably remember why, some scheme or other I was working on.  And I don’t want you to get me wrong, I’m not saying this to belittle or mock your movement because it doesn’t matter how it got started, you believe in it, and that’s what matters.  I just thought it was an interesting historical detail.  I mean isn’t it funny?  I did that as cover for something else and here we are eight months later two hundred miles away and it’s turned into its own thing.  You can’t help but laugh about it.”

“Even if that was true, I was fighting long before that day.”

“Maybe, but I’ll wager I’ve been doing a lot more fighting since then.  When you first had your men grab me up so you could cripple me I have no doubt that you could have knocked the tar out of me.  Maybe I could have ducked and dodged and gotten away if I was lucky, but no way could I have fought you.  But things have changed eh?  Now?  Now I could challenge you in the coliseum of Pylna and I wouldn’t be worried at all.  And that’s even funnier than the other thing if you ask me.”

She actually did laugh shortly at that “You princess?  You think you can fight me?”

“Well, I doubt it’s going to be much of a fight.”

With that I flung the Censer at her from its place beside my bed, she ducked out of the way – people have a tendency to do that when you hurl something at their face – and by the time she recovered I had rolled up and leapt off the bed with a flying knee that caught her on the nose and eye socket with a nauseating crunch.  She collapsed to the ground with the massive sword I had jumped over still standing upright behind us.  I glanced back at it as she groggily tried to get to her hands and knees.

“Is this the same sword from the church?  It must be magic, does it do anything other than stand on its own like that?  You should have had it in your hands instead of posing like you did.  It did look cool but look how it turned out for you.”

She started to mumble something woozily but I grabbed my Tankard and smashed her in the mouth with it underhand style like I was bowling on a green, which in addition to knocking a handful of her teeth out stopped her from answering.

“This is magic too.  It can do other things but it’s also hard and heavy as a mace-head, which makes it good for bashing if you want.  I don’t know if that was intended or if it’s just a side-effect of the magic.  You never know with magic right?”

I don’t know how many more times I hit her in the head with the Tankard, not more than a dozen I would wager, but when I was done her head was mostly gone.  Well, that’s not true, it wasn’t gone so much as it was transmuted into a glob of bloody slime.  Once I was done I looked over and saw that two servants – a man and a woman were standing in the doorway with a lantern watching in shocked horror, frozen in place.

“Don’t worry, she’s not a real maid, I don’t treat domestics like this – honest.  She was just dressed like that to get in here.” I tossed the blood (and other stuff) smeared Tankard towards the man but he didn’t even react to catch it, it hit him in the stomach, sullying his shirt with gristle and then dropping to the floor with a solid thunk. “Be a pal and clean that off for me would you?  And can you please get the owner or manager or whoever runs this place?  I’d like to have a little word with him about security.  I expect a little better than this for the price I’m paying.  I don’t want to be a bear about it, but I think it needs to be discussed.  Oh, and also the bed is on fire, can you take care of that before the entire building goes up?  Some embers from the censer got spilled.”

________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Funds: 23,067 platinum, 19,788 gold

XP: 680,101

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 (four cards used), Ring of Urban Grace,  Bewitching Gown, Holy Symbol of Adariel (Sanguine Protection) Black Marketers’ Bag (5), white squirrel fur Slippers of Scampering, Token of Summoning, Tidy Trunk, Whiterock Family Ring (Ring of Binding), Ela’s Better Walking Stick, Meteoric Amulet, Red’s Riding Hood   

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, 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   

Muthuselan 30 Year 888 (New Imperial Calendar)

Last night was another restless endeavor.  I repeatedly had a dream where I was being pierced with nails.  Nothing was driving them in that I could see, they were just burrowing into my flesh on their own accord.  Even when you’re having the most horrifying nightmare possible it’s just images and sounds – you can’t feel anything because it’s not real.  But every time this happened I would start awake because I felt like someone was pinching my legs.  When morning rolled around I not only felt like I hadn’t slept, which I hadn’t much, but I was even more exhausted – like I had spent the entire night running for my life instead of laying quietly in bed.  All in all not a good time. 

Therefore I was already in something of a foul mood and it didn’t help that the common room was mostly full with patrons seeking breakfast.  I liked it better when this was just a place for Josta to get drunk and for me to come downstairs in my nightclothes if I wanted to – I really should look into getting some different accommodations.  There’s just something unwholesome about getting dressed before you have your morning meal.  It’s not right it isn’t.  I had a breakfast bottle of wine in Kalisha’s room and told her about my experience with the Dreamers last night, hoping that she might be able to offer some insight on the best way to manipulate drugged out whackos but all she did was say that talking about that kind of thing wouldn’t help her recovery and sthen he all but asked me to leave.  The fucking nerve of this woman.  She’d be dead in the Shiver den now if not for me and this is how she repays me?  I’ve said it a thousand times – people have no sense of gratitude.

Normally I’m pretty good a regulating, Hells I’m not pretty good, I’m great!  But today when I went to market to ditch the lumbermen’s goods I could tell that my bad mood was impairing my ability sweet talk people effectively.  And even though I realized it was happening I couldn’t seem to get a grip on it.  After the third time I blew a good deal with a sharp word I decided that I needed to take a break and clear my head.  I found a patio café where I could drink dark tea and watch the world go by.  Well not the world, but Beresford, you know what I mean.

I started thinking about the “art” of seduction.  People often think that it’s some sensual amorous thing with silk veils and fluttering eyelashes and heaving bosoms, but like always the truth is far less interesting.  At the core all it really consists of is having the patience to put up with someone’s bullshit.  Old Scatch is a good example.  As much as he wants the pleasures of the flesh what he wants even more is someone who will listen to his endless boring stories about the different stupid plays he’s been in and how HE should have been lead and how everyone else is a kiss ass but he’s got true talent and blah, blah, blah.  He wants someone to agree with everything he says and flatter him.  He wants someone to make him feel younger, more powerful, like he’s not a sad pathetic loser in a third rate acting troupe.  It’s not hard, but it is exhausting.

People like to imagine exotic foreign concubines training for years in the talent of pleasure but it’s nothing like that.  Don’t get me wrong, there is an art to it, but it’s mostly just lying, and lying is mostly just telling people what they want to hear.  The hard part is not letting your resentment for them biting on your lies show.  There’s a part of you that wants to scream at them “Why are you buying this?!  You can’t possibly believe that I think you’re this interesting and cool!  You simply can’t!  You know what you are!”  But as you might imagine screaming at someone about how stupid they are for believing you is not terrible helpful.  What you’re really preying on is people’s capacity for self-deception.  They want to be the kind of person who gets the attention you’re giving them so they make themselves believe.  That’s for men anyway, I assume seducing a woman is a whole different kettle of fish.  Some day when this is all over I want to spend some time in the illusion of a man and work it all out.  It would be a good thing to know. Or at least an interesting one. 

Before I knew it mid-day was upon me and I went back into the market to peddle my stolen wares.  Much calmer, I was able to get my customary good deals.  I have to wonder though about the economics of making a magic ax to clear trees.  It costs you seven thousand gold to make the dang thing how long does it take you to make that back just by cutting down trees?  Decades?  I guess magic items can last forever so over time it makes sense but who looks at things from that long of a point of view?  Elfs I guess and they don’t seem to love the idea of deforestation. 

After my transacting that I swung by the construction site where Rindol and Murdane were practically frothing at the mouth to tell me about their harrowing almost assassinations and the brave men that just “happened” to be nearby to save them.  The two of them talked for more than an hour about a fight that probably lasted somewhere around thirty seconds.  Which is impressive in its own way.  But the point is that the scam worked, they were now residing in undisclosed locations and were sticking to their bodyguards like maggots on meat.  It must take a lot of temperance to be a bodyguard – it’s probably bad for business if you throttle the person you’re supposed to be protecting yourself.  Now all I have to worry about is the two of them being killed from afar by invisible archers at the worksite.  But who ever heard of such a thing happening in Beresford eh?

Even though there were plenty of things that I could be doing there was nothing specifically I needed to do, so I took a turn around town, just to see what all Beresford has to offer.  It reminded me very much of the first day I woke up in Graltontown, walking the city that day.  Beresford is more settled, more polished, more refined than Graltontown but that’s akin to saying that it’s better to fall headfirst into a mudhole than a shithole.  It’s true, but it almost doesn’t matter.  It’s definitely the kind of place that I wouldn’t have wanted to be caught dead in a year ago.  In an extreme emergency the Duke may have stopped here while traveling but you can be sure someone would have heard about it.  And by heard about it I mean probably been executed.  Rich people can afford their whims, that’s why they have so many of them.

Walking around Beresford, seeing the Beresfordians going about their simple lives I did something that I hadn’t done in a while.  I took stock of those who’ve wronged me, took some time mentally to remember what they did and what’s going to happen to them because of it.  It was a pleasant reminder of all the good work that’s going to come in the future.  It’s easy to get so caught up in the day to day hustle and bustle of life that you forget what’s important.  It’s good to take a day here and there and remember the importance of the vengeance that you’re going to visit on those who’ve wronged you.  How the many indignities and humiliations you’ve endured will come back to roost on those responsible.  I don’t know exactly how it’s going to happen but I know that it will.  I am inevitable.

After getting my mind right I headed back to the Rest Inn Peace around sundown and the joint was really hopping with boozehounds.  I have to hand it to Stinty, the man knows how to run a business.  I’m curious what would have become of this place if I had left it entirely in Josta’s hands.  The two of them plus Kalisha were sitting at a table with the remnants of a good looking meal on the overlook watching over the happy throng below.  I made my way up the stairs to join them. 

“I thought the idea was to have a few customers to avoid suspicion but not so many that they got in the way of other business.”

Stinty waved his little hand “We can worry about that later, a few months down the road, right now we’re just playing it straight.”

“Oh, ‘we’ are are we?”

He chuckled “As straight as it gets anyway.”  He flipped a deck of cards into his hand and did some fancy shuffling “I was just trying to get the ladies interested in some cards here.”

Kalisha bit her lip “I was never much of one for games.”

I smiled “I’ve been known to play a hand or two.  Seems like a delightful way to spend the evening.  What’s your game?”

Josta leaned forward “Have any of you ever played kosakeln?”

I raised an eyebrow “A woman with fine taste in card games.  You surprise me again Josta.”

“I’ll try not to be insulted by that.”

“That’s very big of you.  I’ll deal.”

________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Funds: 50,874 gold

XP: 523,101

Inventory:  Noble’s outfit, Artisan’s outfit, collegium ring, Field Scrivener’s Desk, Deadly Kiss (dagger) Surcoat of the Night Wind, Belt of Incredible Dexterity +2, Endless Efficient Quiver, Ring of Invisibility, sunrod (4) Handy Haversack, +4 Armored Coat, Sergeyevna Kostornaia’s Light Crossbow, dreamtime tea, Flask of Endless Sake, Hat of Effortless Style, Walking Stick (Rod of the Viper), Masterwork disguise kit, covenant ring

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 

Muthuselan 26 Year 888 (New Imperial Calendar)

How long after the invention of speech did it take for meetings to form like the soap-scum on a wash basin?  Was it a lengthy process or right after people moved on from grunting and pointing to words did they start saying things like “We’ll need to discuss that over lunch next week.”?  I think we can all agree that the world would be a much better place if everyone just did what I said, but sadly no one seems to understand that, so meetings.  My first of the day was with Adrist Tomin, a priestess of Adariel.  The church of Adariel isn’t big on hierarchy, what with their goddess being all about niceness and good-natured doormattery, but I was able to gather that she was more or less the second in command of the church not only in Beresford but of all the communities south of the Baku Woods and north of the river.   She was a stern looking woman, which was incongruous with her Adarielistic congeniality and politeness.  There was a part of me that was hoping when I told her about the demon of the theater she would dispatch a church-party of demonslaying warriors and fighting clerics to take care of it but she did not.  She also wouldn’t hand over a small fortune right then either – she wanted to talk to Rindol first.  Another meeting!

Then I met with Fergus “Stone” Chane, some manner of labor organizer who (whom?) I was led to believe could get me the men Rindol needed to build his crazy contraption, assuming that I could get the money to pay them.  I considered just scamming the guy into doing the work and then skipping out on the bill, but I decided against it, although I reserve the right to scam him later.  We met in his clapboard house that was the size of a barn infested with children and women like woodlice.  Either this dude has a harem or he lets a lot of widows hang around.  I pretended to like some awful cake his washed-out looking wife dragged to the table while he rambled on about his days in the navy and then his time as a dockworker.  It was even more boring than it sounds.  You expect a navy man to at least have some good stories about hanging pirates or getting venereal diseases but old Stone was a real disappointment on that front. He said he would be able to get the men though, so it wasn’t a total waste.

After that it was time to meet up with the Macourek Theater troupe just to make sure they didn’t forget about their new friend.  Tedious, but necessary.  Speaking of tedious, the next appointment was to meet with Murdane, Rindol, and their fellows.  Sorry, I mean Fellows.  They gassed on for an absurdly long time about Rindol’s “invention” – I guess all you need to do to invent something these days is copy what you saw in a book and slap some new paint on it.  It took all of Vablis and my (mine and Vablis’s?) combined powers to get them off that snoozefest to start talking about going to Lord Wesel to beg him for the money.  I was able to maneuver them into going to beseech him for funds that very day, but then I realized that I was just about out of disguise magic for the day.  This was a conundrum, I didn’t want to let them pitch on their own, but the idea of waiting even another day made my teeth hurt.  In the end I let them go, hoping that Vablis could handle Wesel and keep these windbags in line on her own. 

Annoyed by this turn of events I headed towards the market intent on purchasing another item (you know like the one I already own and is being held hostage) that would give me more disguising ability, but on the way I was shocked to see a familiar face.  The last time I saw Kalisha Shaan she was wearing blue and white robes and carrying a stack of books as she followed the Duke around writing down his memoirs.  She had her blonde hair in a tight bun always – I never saw her with her with a hair out of place, let alone with her hair down one time in all those years.  She was never a great beauty but seeing her now she looked like a wreck – her clothing was little more than rags and her hair looked like a haystack, or it would if haystacks were capable of having big chunks of them missing.  Oh, and some big fella with frizzy hair of his own and a bit of a paunch had her by the front of her “dress” and was shaking her like a dog that had a chicken by the neck.  I walked up as he graduated to punching her in the stomach.

“Pardon me sir, but what’s going on here?”

His head snapped around like he was going to shout at me to mind my business but once he saw me he changed his tune and after looking me up and down managed to doff his cap while still holding onto Kalisha. 

“Beggin’ your pardon ma’am, I suppose I shouldn’t be carryin’ on in the street like this, we’ll take our business indoors.”

“Is this your wife?  She must have misbehaved quite badly to earn such treatment.”

His eyes bugged out “Gods no!  I wouldn’t have such a woman as this as mine.  No, this is simply a matter of commerce.” He gave her a shake “I paid this strumpet two silver to write a letter for me and she bodged the job!  All I want is my money back but she won’t hand it over.”

“Hmm, I don’t want to intrude, but it hardly looks like she has two silver to me.”

He grinned “Oh, I’ll get two silver worth out of her.  Um, beggin’ your pardon.”

“Yes of course.  Well, you seem like an upstanding sort, and I hate to see you so inconvenienced by a charlatan like this.” I pressed a coin into his hand “How about you take this and we’ll call it even?”

He glanced at the coin in his palm and finally let loose of Kalisha, she dropped to a sitting position like a sack of sugar.  He looked to me and back at the coin several times.

“For real ma’am?”

I touched him lightly on the shoulder “Certainly my good fellow, can’t have a salt of the earth type like yourself getting taken advantage of now can we?”

He ducked his head several times “No ma’am, no, we cannot.”

He ran off, and I mean that literally, clutching the gold in his hand he sprinted away like he was worried someone was going to take it from him.  I knelt down by Kalisha who seemed only vaguely aware of what was happening – and I could tell why, she had the wet eyes and twitching muscles of a Shiver addict.

“Gods, if you’re charging two silver a pop you must be writing hundreds of letters a day to keep yourself high, you should have picked a cheaper drug to get addicted to.  I mean what’s wrong with just being a drunkard?  If your only goal is to get shit-faced you can do it pretty cheaply.”

She mumbled something and seemed to blink about a thousand times through the hair covering her face “Do I know you?”

“I’m shocked that you’d remember me even if your brain wasn’t being melted by dream-spider venom extract mixed with whatever else they put in there, I want to say cumin?  We didn’t cross paths too much in the old days.  I’m not sure we ever even spoke to each other.”

He head lolled back and I had to grab to keep her from toppling over “Never forget a face . . . . who . . . who . . . . where am I?”

I stood up and took a drink from my Flask “Can you walk?  Let’s get you back to my place and chat.”

She thought she could walk but she was wrong, I give her credit for trying though.  Eventually I was able to flag down a coach to take us back to Josta’s.  Once there I had Archum carry her inside where I gave her some dreamtime tea and set her down in my bed for a couple hours. The place still wasn’t open for business but Stinty and company were putting on the finishing touches as Josta watched on.  She frowned slightly at me.

“Who was that you brought in?”

“Drug addict.”

“Is this a flop house for pipeheads now?”

“Of course not, she’s a Shiver addict.”

Vablis returned to inform me that Lord Wesel was interested in our little experiment but not fifteen thousand gold interested but she had shown some initiative and set up another little gathering the next night to try and rope in some of his rich friends – and investment scheme of sorts, only one with no possibility of  payout.  So a normal investment scheme I suppose.  After dinner a bewildered Kalisha wandered down the stairs and joined me at one of the tables in the common room.

“I thought I dreamed you.”

I winked “How many times have I heard that?”

“What?”

“You know, because I’m so dreamy?  Forget it.  Joking aside that has to be a hazard of being addicted to a hallucinogen though right?  How do you know anything is real?”

“It’s actually fairly easy to tell – if I’m unhappy it’s real.”

“That’s horrible yet accurate.  How did you make your way from the halls of power to end up a dirty drug addict living in the streets?”

“I had an . . . issue . . . with the Duke’s cousin.”

“Which cousin?”

“Lucien.”

“Really?  His standards must have really gone downhill.  No offense.” 

“No taken.  I didn’t say a word about it but I guess Lucien expressed something to the Duke and I was informed that my services were no longer needed.  No one in town would hire me for fear of displeasing the Duke.  I got to a pretty low place, no money, no place to live, and a friend thought that some Shiver would help me feel better.  After that it’s pretty hazy what happened.”

“Yeah, Shiver will do that.” 

“ I’m not even sure what city I’m in.”

“Beresford.”

“Gods.”

“Yeah, but at least it’s not Graltontown.”

“What?  Graltontown?”

“Forget I mentioned it.  Here’s all you need to know, the Duke and I did not part company on the best of terms.  It would please me if he were inconvenienced.  And I feel like you can help me with that.  Is that something you’d be interested in do I have to coerce you?”

“Me?  What could I do?”

“I knew the Duke intimately, I knew him better than most, but in a way I didn’t know him at all – you don’t confide certain things in your mistress.  But you were his personal secretary, you may not know all his secrets, but I would wager that you know a lot that can help me.  Assuming you haven’t completely burned your brain to the ground.”

She thought for a moment “I know a lot about the Duke and his dealings.  But what can we do with that information?”

I smiled my first genuine smile of true happiness in a good while “Oh, we’ll come up with something.”

________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Funds: 55,271 gold

XP: 523,101

Inventory:  Artisan’s outfit, collegium ring, Field Scrivener’s Desk, Deadly Kiss (dagger) Surcoat of the Night Wind,  Belt of Incredible Dexterity +2, Endless Efficient Quiver, Ring of Invisibility, sunrod (4) Handy Haversack, +4 Armored Coat, Sergeyevna Kostornaia’s Light Crossbow, dreamtime tea, Flask of Endless Sake, Hat of Effortless Style

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 

Muthuselan 13 Year 888 (New Imperial Calendar)

The remainder of yesterday’s travel was rife with suspicious looks and threatening glances between the caravaneers and the lumbermen but when it came time to stop for the day we formed a single encampment for the sake of safety – apparently there have been several attacks on travelers by redcaps on this road recently.  Honestly, is there a road in this Godsforsaken part of the Kingdom that isn’t being vexed by some bandits or stingmoggies or some other damn thing?  Aren’t there supposed to be road wardens to deal with these sort of problems?  The road wardens were probably all eaten by mantis bears.  The caravan guards are very protective of their ward, far beyond the loyalty that can be bought with coin – she must really have them wrapped around her little finger. 

Eventually though I was able to verbally shimmy my way past their defenses to speak to her for a few minutes.  She was pretty good at keeping up appearances and has a pretty solid gasp on the art of being evasive without seeming evasive.  I could have cracked her without too much trouble but I decided to stick with a light touch – no reason to stir the pot at that point.  I’m curious to see what play she’s going to make as we get closer to Beresford. 

It turned out to be none.  Today we traveled without incident (shockingly) and upon reaching Beresford around noon Cladarielle and I explained the situation to the gate watch who summoned some other official looking fellows and she was taken into custody with Fangere and Nogeta trailing along behind them like little brothers trying to catch up to their older sibling and their friends.  She must think that she can talk her way of the whole thing.  That takes some serious confidence, but then again, that is why they call it a con. 

I thanked Cladarielle for all her efforts and tribulations on my behalf, wished her luck in whatever nonsense her husband was mixed up in and we parted ways.  Before returning to the inn to check in with Stella I decided to see if I could track down Rindol and pay him a visit.  Turns out it’s much easier to track someone down as a fetching woman in fine clothing than it is as a fluffy black cat.  Who knew?  Less than an hour later I was at his house where I sang a quiet song to myself as I pulled a crowbar out of my secret pocket and used it to pry the door open. 

Rindol’s house was small tidy place with no sign of female inhabitation.  I had no expectations of what a scholar’s place would look like but it seemed right on the money once I saw it.  I found Rindol in the kitchen sitting at a table so engrossed in reading something that he didn’t notice I was there until I dropped the crowbar on the table in front of him with a thud.  He started from the noise as I sat down at the table across from him.

“You’re a smart guy Rindol, or at least your job is to be smart, I don’t know if you’re actually smart.  If you are smart maybe you can help me out with something.  I find myself in situations where people wrong me and I need to get payback but the issue is that I have trouble finding interesting and appropriate ways to get back at people.  Take you for example, I could have bashed your head in with that crowbar there, not being a man accustomed to physical activity of any kind I could probably take you down even if you were aware of me coming, which you were not.  I saw you out in the woods, I know we’re pussified.  But what good does that do really?  Then you’re just dead.  What did anyone learn from that?  Sometimes a revenge killing is the only way to go, but often times it doesn’t really fit the bill.  I mean where’s the suffering?  And it’s not like I can keep a torturer on staff is it?  How do you think torturers learn their trade?  Is there a school for that or is it an apprenticeship type of thing? Or do they just grab some asshole who likes kicking dogs and tell him he can work on people now?”

Rindol’s only response was to stare and stammer.

“You’re not getting the head-dress that you hired those people to steal for you, which is something, you’re going to be embarrassed in front of your scholar friends, but that’s pretty minor I think.  Obviously what would be best is taking away the thing you value most in the world but without doing any research on you, just off the cuff, I assume that what you value most is your intellect.  And even if I hired some goon to lobotomize you that doesn’t really cut the mustard because taking away your intelligence would also make it so you didn’t know what had happened.  It’s a real pickle.  So what do you think smart guy?  What’s the best revenge that I could get on you?”

After more stammering he managed to form a sentence “How did you get in here?!”

I chuckled “I just threw a crowbar on your table.  Maybe you aren’t so smart.  Now that I’ve had a moment to think about it probably the best way to get at you is cut off your funding.  Murdane said that you lot get your money to hire and send adventurers to their deaths from Lord Wesel, so that’s the angle I should take.  I need to talk to him anyway, so I’ll just tell him what an asshole you are and then where will you get your gold from for your expeditions?  Yeah, that makes sense.  Oh, and also I’m going to rob you.  Just for good measure.”

“What?”

I gestured “Come on, show me where all your valuables are so I can take them.  Or you can pick up that crowbar or grab a kitchen knife and try to stop me.  I would love that Rindol, I truly would.”

After visiting Rindol I returned to the inn where Josta was standing behind the counter nursing a beer more or less exactly the same as when I left.  If nothing else you have to admire her consistency.  Or wait, not admire, take note of I guess.  She glanced at me as I walked into “her” establishment.

“I’m sorry your Ladyship we’re not open at the moment.”

“Yes, I’m well aware of that Josta.”

Her eyes bugged out slightly as she recognized my voice. “You?!  You never told me you were a Lady!”

“The societal notion of being a ‘lady’ was a mindfuck from the get go Josta. It was a fun and easy way to make women socially and sexually second class citizens, while making them think that they were winning.  After all, what man would want a woman who is not a lady?  By shoving down our throats the idea the only way for women to reach their full potential, which of course is to marry a rich man, is to act a certain way and be ‘ladylike’, it creates a hierarchy of women.  Those that achieve the status of ladyhood are better than those that don’t right?   Being a lady means being classy, elegant, graceful, poised, demure, pure – and it means that you’ve bought into a system built on your own exploitation.  Don’t buy into it Josta it’s all a scam.”

She frowned “What?”

I winked “Don’t worry about it.  Josta good my friend, since I gave you this inn would it be too much trouble if I were to avail myself of one of the rooms for however so long I desire?  Have you gotten a maid yet?  Because I don’t like to pick up after myself.”

Before she could answer Stella came striding down the stairs.

“Good, you’re back, and also back to yourself.  I have some great news.”

“I love great news, Josta, a bottle of your finest please, we have great news to celebrate!”

Stella joined me at the bar as Josta poured drinks from whatever random bottle she hadn’t emptied yet.

“You’re free and clear.  I was able to quash the bounty that Glilcus and Stolo put on you and smoothed everything over with the Church of Vultur, they won’t be bothering you anymore.”

I raised my glass to her “Miss Blackrose you’re a credit to shady under the table operators everywhere.  Cheers.”

We touched our glasses together and I took a good long drink of pretty crummy booze.

“Am I going to get all my stuff back?  I had managed to accumulate quite a lot of stuff.”

“Yes, but there’s a catch there.  The watch has your possessions but before they return them to you the mayor wants a meeting.”

“I wonder what that slippery bastard wants, last time we talked he clearly stated he never wanted to hear from me again.  Small price to pay though, eh?  I suppose then you’ll be escorting me back to the Juost compound to continue my exile or whatever it is?”

“Only if that’s where you want to go.”

“Go on.”

“As I told you, I don’t work for the Juosts, I was just on loan to them to help you out of your legal issues.  Duke Lodvocka owes you a great deal.  The question is what do you want?”

I raised an eyebrow “Well, I’m not used to people that I help you being grateful and offering me anything other than abuse and cruelty in return.  I have to admit that I’m not familiar with Duke Lodvocka, he must be a real straight shooter if this is how he settles his debts.”

“He’s a man who believes in honoring his obligations.”

“I’ll drink to that.  Now what can you tell me about the relationship between Duke Lodvocka and Duke Eaglevane?  Are they pals, bitter enemies, are they nothing to one another?  What’s the nature of their relationship, Duke to Duke?”

________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Funds: 1282 gold

XP: 454,301

Inventory:  Extravagant noble’s outfit, collegium ring, spidersilk cloak, Field Scrivener’s Desk

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 

Mathanaya 22 Year 888 (New Imperial Calendar)

Turns out my long-held belief that magic is useless isn’t exactly true – it’s just really expensive.  So I wasn’t really wrong when you think about it.  Martialla found a wizard who was able to magically send a message to Tudos in Gibson with instructions to dig up Hardra’s body and meet us in Allene for just the price of a king’s ransom.  Well, not a king, but certainly a minor lord of some kind.  A baronet perhaps.  You’d think with all that money rolling in this wizard would have been able to afford a comb, or pants, or a robe that closed in the front but you’re be wrong.  The next order of business was getting me uncursed because for this plan to work we need to travel fast and that means horses.  Or flying cauldrons I guess but that ship has sailed.  The good news is we heard tell of a fellow in town by the name of Fynwar the Cursebeaker, which seems promising wouldn’t you say?

It didn’t take us long to track him down at the small Temple of Odobenine, a plain-faced fellow in elaborate robes sitting like a toad behind an even more ornate (and ugly) desk.  I explained to him what I was looking for and he said in a grave and somber voice that it could be done for a price, as is always the case with servants of the Merchant Lord.  We made arrangements to meet tomorrow to get down to the cash for magic exchange. Before we left I did have one question that had to be answered.

“I couldn’t help but notice that you don’t cast a shadow.”

“Yes, a hag stole my shadow.”

“That seems very similar to a curse, which I have to say puts a bit of an element of doubt to your credentials.”

“What good is a shadow anyway?  Why would I use any resources getting it back?”

“Hmm, I suppose.”

With little else to do that day Martialla went to find us some mounts while I decided to see what else you could do with severed hag heads.  For some reason most people seemed to find this topic off putting – particularly when I took the head out of the bag to show them I was serious.  And I thought they looked bad when they were alive.  I’m not sure why I kept pursuing this thread but I did and eventually found myself in the worst part of town talking to an alchemist who seemed likely to fall apart at any moment – in addition to missing a leg, a mass of facial scars, a metal hand, an eyepatch, and a mostly bald (from burning) he seemed to have trouble holding his head up exactly straight – it was like the muscles on one side of his neck were working too hard and pulling it over.  I asked him what you could do with the head of a hag and he was off to the races – what couldn’t you do with a hag head?!

I think he could have gone on most of the rest of the day if I had let him, but I interrupted his one hundred and one gross uses for a hag’s head speech and asked if he just wanted to buy them.  He did but he also wanted to pay me in manticore guts and troll eyeballs which isn’t the kind of exchange I was interested in.  Annoyed that I hadn’t thought of it earlier I tracked down the portly street-hustler with long sloppy hair who had offered to sell me unicorn parts, figuring that he would be interested in buying monster bits as well, he has to get them from somewhere right?  He was short on funds as well (why doesn’t everyone have tens of thousands of gold lying around?) but we worked out a much better trade for a wyvern skin robe that was quite fetching for one head.  I figure I can keep the other head in case I ever need to summon the great wolf of the air or whatever it was.

I’m pretty good at spotting illusions and seeing through disguises, and I’m very good at sensing when people are lying to me or just getting a general sense of what they’re thinking and feeling.  Where my perception isn’t as good is detecting ambushes.  There must be some trick to it that I don’t have the hang of yet – I should ask someone about that.  I’m going to give myself a break though, because one guy was hiding in a puddle in the street.  And I mean that literally.  I was walking along, minding my own business, when a full grown man leapt out of a puddle of water maybe six inches across and not even an inch deep.  It’s quite the trick, I tell you what.  I was more than a little startled by this turn of events.  I was even more started when he shot me in the sternum with his crossbow which was clearly poisoned as well, I started feeling weak almost instantly.

The other five people that sprang out at me were just employing standard hiding techniques so you can castigate me for not spotting them if you want but I’m having a real rough day all of a sudden so cut me some slack will  you?  A wild eyed woman who appeared to be wearing a blue wedding gown of all things seized me by the arm and I felt magic coursing into me, robbing me of my adroitness.  At this point four rough looking fellows started beating the shit out of me with cudgels.  It was nicely done, I’ll give them that, I had no opportunity to resist.  I was never exactly unconscious but I was certainly knocked for a loop.  I was wrapped up in something and carried off – maybe a rug?  You know for all those times a group of people is legitimately carrying a rug down the street in the middle of the night.  It was hard to breath in there whatever it was and I may have passed out. 

I heard the woman chanting again and was struck both blind and voiceless – these folks weren’t taking any chances.  The next thing I was cognizant of was being on the floor of a room with a very nicely woven carpet.  I think it was wool.  I heard a voice but my head was still ringing and I couldn’t make out what it was saying – I don’t think it was anything good though.  After a moment of silence my eyesight was returned as was my voice – revealing a small room, it seemed like it was one of those turret style rooms that you see from time to time.  The time honored tradition of turning a useful military fortification into an annoying architectural style. 

Standing before me was none other than of Fynwar the Cursebeaker who was now proudly displaying the symbol of Kralten the Spiteful, Lord of Revenge, Dweller in the Darkness, the Hated One.  At this side was wedding dress lady, some other woman I hadn’t seen who for reasons as inexplicable as wearing a wedding dress was clad in a black corset; and surrounding me were a goodly number of club-wielding ruffians. Fynwar gestured imperiously.

“Well, how do you respond?”

“I missed the whole thing you were saying.  I think one of your men bashed me in the ear, I feel like I have a burst eardrum or something.”

I tried to stand up and one of the goons came forward to kick my legs out from underneath me – sending me down in an even more awkward fall than usual.  I rolled over onto my back aching all over.

“On your knees wench!”

“Oi, how many times have I heard that?  Kneeling isn’t very comfortable, I think I’ll just stay here.”

Another goon came forward about to deal me a blow with his stick but Corset held out a restraining hand. “No, we need her alive!”

I leaned my head back to glance at him upside down “Yeah idiot, they can’t kill me if I’m dead.  Also you really need to trim your nose hairs – have some pride.  What would Kralten think?”

Fynwar’s face turned instantly tomato red with anger “You will not speak the name of our Lord!”

“You’ve got me all wrong Fynwar, I’m one of you.” I pulled out my holy symbol of Kralten “See?  I pledged myself to the Lord of Revenge a few months back, we’re all on the same team.  You know that’s the problem with a secret cult, you might be kidnapping other secret cultists without knowing it.  We should come up with some kind of hand signal or passphrase or something to avoid situations just like this.  We can bring it up in the next meeting.”

Wedding Dress sneered spitefully “We know who you are.”

“How?  I had one run-in with some Kralten people months ago and now you all seem to be on the lookout for me.  What’s your communication network?  It’s very impressive however you manage to do it.  Do you have like trained messenger birds or what?  Is it semaphore?  Do you have holy signal flags?”

“Since you refuse to answer . . .”

“I didn’t hear the question.”

“Since you refuse to answer, you shall be lain bare .  .  .”

“Wouldn’t be the first time you know what I’m saying?”

“Stop interrupting or you will have your tongue ripped from your blasphemous head!  You will be laid bare before Kralten and you will be sacrificed to the Hateful One.  Your soul will be consigned to him for eternal torment at his whim.”

“Eternal huh?  Sounds like a bad deal.  Before we get to the eternal damnation I’d like to join up.  I have all kinds of things I want revenge for, there are a lot of people that need to be taken down for what they did to me.”

“Why should we entertain that idea?”

“I don’t mean to tell you your business, but I believe you’re required to hear my grievances before you decide if I’m Kralten material.”

“That may be true, but . . .”

“Let’s get underway, there’s this butler in Graltontown that was very rude to me.  I definitely want to ruin his life, not kill him probably, but ruin him somehow.  There’s a group of so called adventurers that grabbed me and turned me over to the guard when I was robbing people, as is tradition there are four of them.  I don’t know a ton about them so I’ll have to do some more research before I can plan what I want to do with them but definitely at least one of them needs to die.  Two of them are women and two are men so the best case scenario would be that they’re two couples and I kill one half of each – that tends to put people off their feed.  But that’s just the beginning, then I would work to make the two survivors find comfort in each other’s arms and then really hit them with the shame factor on that, like they were betraying their dead lovers.  That can really fuck people up.  Then what I would do is . . .”

I went on for several hours cataloging the real and invented slights I needed to avenge.  If I’m being honest I was hoping that during this filibuster Martialla would burst in with some mercenaries and save me.  Which is a little galling, what has become of me that I was hoping that someone else would get my hide out of the fire?  Doesn’t make it any less true though.  I should probably ditch her, it’s not good to get dependent on someone else.  Assuming that I manage to survive that is.  I suppose if they carve out my lungs in the name of Kralten it won’t be an issue regardless.   Eventually I ran out of steam and the assembled Kraltenites voted on letting me into their club.  For some reason I didn’t even get one vote.  It hurt my feelings a little bit. Fynwar proclaimed that I would be killed in the name of the Lord of Hate tomorrow night.

“Why not kill me now?  For that matter why not kill me in the street?  Don’t you hate it when you’re reading a story and the villain has the good guy at their mercy but instead of killing them they put them in a death trap or something?  It’s just lazy writing.  Why is the villain always so stupid, giving the hero a chance to escape.  It would be more satisfying if the hero was able to defeat a credible opponent.”

“This isn’t a murder, this is a sacrifice – preparations must be made.  Besides, you’re no hero.”

_______________________________________________________________

Hair regrowth progress :  .036%

Curses – Marksman’s Malady, Unnerve Beasts, Melancholy, Maladroitness   

Funds: None

XP: 261,961

Inventory: Animal Totem Tattoo (Lion)

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