Tiressia

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UnArcaneElection wrote:
Poldaran wrote:

Formatted Linky

** spoiler omitted **

** spoiler omitted **

Spoiler:
Lyriana didn't see what happened in the darkness and failed her perception check to hear it clearly in the commotion. Due to her experiences, the Pokemon master thing isn't going to play out as planned by the player at the beginning of the session.

We're planning to work in a discussion of everything somehow, either by Terry telling Lyriana about it or by having a mysterious narrator explain things outside character(which would be a setup for something later).


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Formatted Linky

Deadly Comes in All Sizes:
Gregor took the locket back from Persephone and gave her a grateful smile. A small bit of blood ran from his mouth as his lips parted. “Oh,” the woman said, a bit of panic in her voice. “Um, Emily, dear, do you still have that healing gun?”

“Thank you,” Gregor said after Emily injected him. “I am thinking that my spleen may now be on the wrong side of my body. But I believe I will be fine now.”

“What’s a spleen?” Emily asked.

“It converts excess red humour into yellow humour and allows your body to get rid of it,” Burin said. He was simultaneously wrong, but also right in ways he shouldn’t have been.

Terry shook his head, possibly catching the same issues I had. “I’ll explain it later,” he said. “I read a lot about it in the magic mirror.”

“We have what we came for,” Greta said. “Let us make our way back to the hut and free Baba Yaga so that the usurpers can pay like they should.” Her mechanical arm flexed in anger as she said it, possibly remembering the torture she had endured at their hands.

I put my hand on the small of her back and she relaxed. “She’s right,” I said. “This is almost over. Let’s get back upstairs.”

We headed up and suddenly Terry froze. “What is it?” Burin asked, drawing his axe.

“Someone’s in the kitchen,” the assassin said.

Gregor nodded. “Let’s go.”

We made our way quietly into the dining hall, then into the kitchen. On the wall were the words, “Got you.” Written in Taldan.

Those definitely weren’t there before. But nothing else was amiss. Whoever had come in here to write that hadn’t even left tracks. It was like they’d flown through the room or maybe levitated or something. Perplexed, we began making our way back outside. But as we opened the door to the central corridor, Burin and Gregor stopped moving.

“What is it?” Anastasia asked.

“There’s something there,” Burin said.

“Let me see…” Terry said, walking through the door, then freezing. “Oh, s*#!. It wasn’t beavers,” he said. “It’s rats!”

I looked out into the hall and spotted what appeared to be a massive cube of tower shields. “Recon didn’t tell us there were this many!” a voice shouted from within the shield wall. “This is going to be fun, boys!” The shields shifted slightly and ratfolk hands slid out, pointing multiple tiny pistols. “SPRATAN-D, prepare for glory!”

“What is SPRATAN-D?” I asked as bullets began pouring down the hallway. Several of us took glancing hits, but the blasts engulfed us in fairy fire, which didn’t harm us, only marking each of us in different colors. I was marked in blue, Terry was in green, Gregor was red and Burin was yellow.

“SPecialized Rodent Artillery Troop, Armored Nemesis Division,” Cortana answered helpfully. I later learned that they were special soldiers commissioned by Typhon Lee, and this particular company was tasked with bringing in high value targets. Alive. Not a good thing, considering what had happened to Greta. Though I guess it explains with the bullets didn’t seem to draw blood, only striking with a lot of force.

Terry dropped prone and returned fire immediately, though those shields proved dangerously effective, especially as they shifted them closed again. Burin also reacted. “If you think you’re trapping us,” he said, “then you’re wrong. We’re trapping you!” He cast a spell and a massive wall of ice blocked off the exit behind the rats.

“Looks like they’re fodder for the slaughter!” the ratfolk leader shouted. “All fire on green!”

Terry was out like a light pretty much instantly as he took multiple shots all over his body. We had to do something quick, and Burin had given me an idea. “Can you cast another wall?” I asked.

“Yes,’ the dwarf answered as Gregor dragged the unconscious Terry back into the dining hall.

“Not beavers!” I heard the fighter tell the girls back in the room.

“Good,” I answered the dwarf. “Get ready.” I then unleashed the power of the storm within my blood, filling the hall around the rats with deadly poison – like mustard gas on steroids. Then I dove back through the open door.

I heard Burin cast his spell as Emily injected me with more nanites, healing my battered ribcage as Terry stirred. She’d probably healed him first, thinking about it.

“They’re trying to break through the wall and retreat!” Burin shouted.

“I can get us to the other side of them,” Emily said to me.

“Go!” Persephone told us. “I’ll give them something to occupy them on this side!” She roared as she transformed back into her “Normal” form after dashing through the door.

Emily teleported us to the main entry hall and I tapped into my power once more, creating a wall of force against our side of the door. There was no way they were breaking through that. Satisfied, we teleported back to our allies – there was the possibility they had backup outside, after all – just in time to hear Persephone be gunned down by the terrified rats.

“Mama!” Emily shouted, but was drowned out by the sound of an exploding rocket.

“They hid in a side room!” Terry shouted.

Gregor ran out into the hall and grew into a frost giant. “We’ll see about that!” he said. I was worried about the gas, but it had mostly dispersed into another door, which had been blown open by the rocket. Gregor dashed over and began pushing on the wall.

The wall began to groan as Gregor pushed it. I could hear the voice of the ratfolk leader from the other side. “Guiser!” he shouted. “You got us! But Typhon Lee sends his regards. We’ll be seeing you real soon, and Hell will be a much brighter place with you there beside us!”

The wall gave way and the rats died laughing as they were crushed under falling debris.

Emily immediately began crying as she rushed to Terry. “I’m sorry!” she said. “I used magic to try to protect you, but the spell didn’t do anything!”

Terry awkwardly tried to comfort her and I went to the girls in the back. “You alright?” I asked.

“We’re fine,” Anastasia assured me. “I think they killed Persephone.” She looked worried.

“Emily can resummon her. She’s not actually here. She died years ago.”

“That is a powerful girl,” the princess said. “What were you fighting?”

“Good question. Cortana, does Daddy have any files on SPRATAN-D?” I asked.

I heard Daddy’s voice respond. It was obvious he’d recorded a log. “Where to start with SPRATAN-D? Just one more example of Typhon Lee’s insanity. They’re experts on renditions, and their leader is an absolute madman. They call him ‘The Silver Platter’, after his shield. And they’re all alchemically altered. If you ever have the misfortune of seeing one, you’ll know it because they all have a third, mutant arm. They use it to reload their guns while still holding their shields.

‘They field twelve companies in all, but the most dangerous is Alpha Company, which uses weapons to mark their targets and prevent them from hiding using magic. Aside from that, their tactics seem to all be the same. Find a chokepoint, form their shield wall and begin raining a wall of lead on their foes with their magically non-lethal firearms.

‘That said, they do have weaknesses. If you can manipulate the terrain, you can open up their shield wall pretty easily. I keep a pit spell ready at all times in case Lee decides to send them after me, but walls of fire could work pretty well too. Barring that, they’re agile little bastards, but not the hardiest nor do they have the strongest wills. Attack them from the inside, either inside their bodies or their minds, and you should have little issue with them.”

As we listened, Emily and Terry joined us. “Don’t worry, kiddo,” he was saying. “You tried what you had. You just didn’t know how dangerous they were. I once saw Typhon drop two of their companies into the middle of an army with magic. They took down eight thousand men before the remaining soldiers decided getting out of range was smarter than trying to overwhelm them.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. At least it wasn’t Larvyn,” he said.

Cortana dinged and Daddy’s voice spoke again. “Larvyn. Now there’s a subject. If I do ever have to deal with Typhon Lee, that’s the part that worries me. How would I deal with Larvyn? I’m honestly not sure yet. Aerial Saturation Bombardment? Thermite and lots of it? I’m more prepared to deal with a Demon Lord than I am to deal with that monster.”

Oh wow. Yeah. I hope we never have to deal with that. I’m also more than a little impressed that Daddy is suggesting that he has a plan for dealing with a Demon Lord. Of course, that plan might be to let Mama and Aunt Kira deal with it, but still, that is technically a plan, I guess.

“I need to talk to your mom,” Terry said to Emily as I was engrossed in my thoughts. It took me a moment to realize what he’d said, and by then it was too late to stop her. Emily was already trying to bring back Persephone.

“It’s not working,” the girl complained after her attempt failed. She seemed really upset.

“It takes about a day for an eidolon to reconstruct its body after it gets destroyed,” I said. “But I promise she’ll be fine.”

“Oh,” Emily said. “Okay. But what do I do if we get attacked?”

“You might be able to summon lesser beings in her absence,” I said. “Cortana, does Daddy have a guide on summonable outsiders?”

“Yes,” the VI answered.

“Send it to Emily’s phone.”

The girl opened the file and read it. “I can summon any of these?!” she asked.

I glanced at the list. “Based on my estimation of your power level, you should be able to summon anything from this section of the list.” I pointed to the part I meant. “Or multiples of the two lists below it.”

“I’m gonna be a master!” she said excitedly. “Like no one ever was!” I felt like that was a reference I should have gotten. It was right there, but for some reason I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

It had been a long day.

Terry scooped up his daughter. “Come on, let’s get to the chicken house and get moving,” he said. “You can read while we walk.”

We met Gregor back in the corridor. He was surveying the damage to the wall. “I am surprised they were not beavers,” he said, sounding a bit disappointed.

“I know a creek where some beavers live back home,” Burin said. “I can take you there when this is over if it’s pelts you’re after.”

The fighter perked up. “And then my disciple and I will have to rebuild the monastery.” He was looking at Terry when he said it. The assassin looked away uncomfortably.

“I can talk to my father about getting some contractors to help,” I suggested.

“Thank you, but no. We must do it. It will be good training.”

Terry coughed. “Oh, look at the time. We really should get outside before it gets fully dark. You know how early it gets dark during the winter.”

We only made a few hundred feet out into the twilight outside before I had a bad feeling. And I wasn’t the only one. “Something feels…wrong,” Anastasia said, clutching her chest as the near panic I could feel permeating my body washed over her as well.

The whole world melted away and there was an old man there, shining in the blackness, a truly massive spiritual outline of a dragon glowing around him. “Terry,” he said with a sigh. “What am I going to do with you? I must admit, you’ve done better than I expected. I’ve received word that you somehow managed to defeat Rasputin. I am impressed. You always were one of the best. But, dammit, Terry, you always were an idiot when you panic. Why? Why didn’t you come to me when that b*%*~ threatened you? Did you think I couldn’t protect you, or was it that I wouldn’t protect you? No, don’t tell me. I’m not sure which answer is more offensive.”

He laughed, like any other old, sweet man. “My business partner is pretty ticked at you for breaking into her place and pulling out Emily. You really should have left her there, you know. I felt bad for my overreaction, so I’d asked her to make your wife and daughter strong enough to defend themselves without you. Sure, her methods are a bit… extreme, but they really would have been better off with her. Still, you cared enough about them to betray me. You cared enough about them to face off against a being so far beyond you as it to be laughable. She won’t tell me how you managed to get out. Something about sneaking and trickery. Impressive.”

He sighed again. “Terry, you broke my heart. Literally, see?” He opened his coat, revealing a patch of ice on his chest. “My other business partner – you know her as Queen Elvanna – has managed to finally repair what you damaged. And now that I’m no longer in an immense amount of pain, I’ve regained clarity and have decided to make you a generous offer. All of you. Turn over the doll. Give me the artifacts Sergei was hiding. And then join me. I promise you all places of honor in my organization.

“For you, Gregor, I will give you a hundred new disciples. You will train them for me, as Sergei should have. For Burin, your family will not suffer for your destruction of the demon. Why should they? You’ve done your people a great service. You should not be punished, but rewarded! Join me and put your skills dealing with threats from other planes to use for the good of the world! Daughter of the Runelord, all I ask is that you ask your father to stop interfering in my business. Indeed, I thought perhaps we would have to come to blows eventually, but instead I think this is an opportunity to become friends.

“And Terry, if you want to retire, safe from your relatives, I will make it happen. Once I absorb the old witch’s power, Melos will be mine, so you will all be safe. You’ve suffered enough. Make the right choice.”

The image faded and the world returned. “Did anyone else just see that?” Burin asked. “I mean, I imagine so, since he was talking to all of us. But I can’t assume.”

“I saw it,” I said.

Greta growled, drawing her axe. “We will not betray Baba Yaga to that piece of s%&!. Instead we will kill him, and I will eat his liver.”

Emily whimpered. “He always came to visit, when the cycles stopped. But he was scarier than anything else there. Even the ponies. There’s something wrong about him. He feels like a big empty, like no matter how much he eats, he’ll never be full. Not even with all the cakes in all the worlds.”

Terry set her down and deliberately drew his gun. “I always thought… You know, running away was always my first option. Finding someone big enough to protect me was second. But right now, I want to kill this dragon. Not for revenge, but because it’s the right thing to do. For you, and your mom, and Toby…everyone deserves justice.” He made a sour face. “Gods, that sounds so sappy.”

“As sappy as the tree you shot?” Burin asked.

“Leaf him alone,” Gregor laughed as he hit his fists together.

“He has to be pretty close, right?” Burin asked.

“I think so,” I said. “Probably between us and the Hut.” I handed Greta the doll and motioned for Burin to give her the keys. “Take Anastasia back into the monastery and keep her safe,” I said.

She looked like she was about to argue, but then just nodded. “Save me his liver,” she said. “Follow me, princess.”

I wanted to keep her safe, but more importantly, I knew she would do everything in her power to get to the hut with the doll and keys if we fell. Even if it meant abandoning Anastasia. Saving Baba Yaga was good for her people, and she’d get it done. But as long as we were still alive, she would fight with everything she had to protect the princess.

“I see you have chosen incorrectly,” the old man’s voice echoed in our heads. “A pity.”

The world shook as Typhon began transforming. I could see the light of the transformation from where we were, miles away. Holy crap, he dwarfed the forest. “Massive” doesn’t even begin to describe him. “Now would be a good time to summon helpers,” I told Emily.

“I’m not sure how. Summoning mom is like being a mirror. I’m not sure how to reflect these other things.”

I nodded. “The thing about mirrors,” I said, “is that what you see depends on the angle of the mirror. Just shift the angle a bit and see what else you see.”

She nodded. “That makes sense. And there are probably six different reflections I can have at a time.” Six? Oh…geez. Now I knew what she had been referencing earlier. The girl wants to be a Pokémon master.

“He is…very big,” Gregor said. “Will he be alone?”

“I doubt it,” Terry answered.

“Then I hope that he does not bring any more rodents.”

“It’s not the rats you have to worry about,” Terry said. “It’s the worms.” He summoned out his platinum dragon as Typhon finished his transformation. Zeus was…colorful. His front half was painted black and red, but the back half had a rainbow tail and doodles all over it. It was cute that he’d let Emily help, but it had the unfortunate appearance of business in the front, clown vomit in the back.

It wasn’t going to intimidate anyone.

Typhon Lee, on the other hand? His unearthly roar sent terror running down my spine from over a mile away. And then I heard heavy footsteps. “It’s Qilin time!” a man’s voice shouted as the no longer invisible man in the rhino costume slammed into Burin with his massive hammer. Gregor retaliated as the dwarf’s shield absorbed the bone-shattering blow. I could feel the shockwaves from his blows as the fighter instantly brought down his foe.

“Good job. That’s Typhon’s grandson,” Terry explained. “He has the power of a fat unicorn.” I decided to not try to explain that it was obviously a rhino at the moment. Besides, we had other problems. “Watch out. He’s never alone. His sister, Kuro, has the powers of the midnight crow.”

“Angles! I choose you!” Emily shouted, as several red and white balls flew from her hands. Where they landed, bralani azatas appeared. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to first explain to her that it was ‘Angels’, not ‘Angles’ or whether I wanted to explain the difference between an azata and an angel. It could wait until after the fight.

I cast a spell, turning Nebbie into a dragon of time. She’d be able to help guard me against this Kuro, if she came. And Typhon was still too far away to deal with, though he was in the air and heading towards us.

Then the lights went out.

You see, I can see in normal darkness. Even in deep caves where no light reaches, I can see. But this was different. This darkness beyond my ability to cut through. I heard fighting. Emily cried out in pain. So I tried dispelling the darkness by conjuring light. Only, something hit me and interrupted me. Felt like the strike from a shield.

Nebbie pushed me away from the source of the blow and got between us. Then I heard gunshots in the dark and the sound of rattling bones. I cast again, and the darkness was pierced. A bone devil was standing there, fighting an armored woman with wings of sable-black feathers. I think Emily had summoned it. It was a smart choice. Devils can see even in supernaturally powerful darkness. Whether she’d thought it through or simply acted on instinct, it was pretty impressive. But we still had problems.

Typhon had landed a few hundred yards from us. “I will snuff out the flame of your life, then I will plunge them once more in blackness, where they will die. Of course, it won’t matter to you. You’ve breathed your last.” His voice was speaking in my mind, the force of his will oppressive. Then he cast a spell, drawing all the air from my lungs.

And I had been worried for a moment. “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat.” That’s Sun Tzu. Daddy had quoted me that.

Typhon knew himself, but he obviously didn’t know us as well as he thought. If he had, he never would have wasted time trying to suffocate me. For every second he held his concentration trying to kill me in such a manner, we won. One more second, one more victory. Tick tock, time was turning in our favor.

And we would not waste it. I held him there, pretending to fight against his efforts while the others fought Kuro.

The bone devil went down and Emily conjured a replacement. This time, it was a succubus, who immediately brought her will to bear on the black winged woman. I saw the light in her eyes fade as she succumbed to the demon’s domination of her mind.

“Drop your weapons!” Emily commanded. She sounded angry but excited at the same time. I think the girl might have found her bloodlust. Also, I was kinda weirded out how the succubus looked like a cross between Nocticula and Persephone.

Kuro did as she was told and Terry shot her, a snarl upon his lips. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him that angry. What happened in the dark when I couldn’t see? It looked like Emily had been injured, but aside from some blood on her clothes, I couldn’t really tell.

Kuro managed to break free of the demon’s hold on her mind, but it was too late. Burin and the demon descended on her and tore her apart. She died screaming.

I stopped faking it, and tried to teleport Typhon out into the depths of space. He resisted and realized that I was still alive, somehow. “You should be dead!” he roared. “What are you?! WHY DIDN’T YOU DIE?!” I think the fireball that struck him while he was shouting didn’t do much to improve his mood.

Gregor charged in and got bitten in the process and I was struck by a mass of debris Typhon had flung at me with his mind. Emily dismissed the succubus and summoned azatas once more. Five of them appeared in their air forms, and began battering the massive dragon with blasts of wind where Gregor had struck him, scouring off the damaged scales near the icy heart in his chest.

Terry took aim at the exposed heart, exhaled and fired. The bullet struck true, shattering the heart. There was at first the dull sound of an explosion, like if you’ve ever set off fireworks underwater. Then cracks spread through the form of the dragon like spider webs, and finally it shattered, revealing only the man within, pale, coughing and vulnerable as he clutched his chest.

Terry shot once more, putting a bullet through Typhon Lee’s skull, and the old man collapsed. “Oh my,” Terry said. “Where are my manners?” He reached into his guitar case and withdrew something wrapped in a napkin, which he tossed next to the old man’s corpse. “Mister Lee…I forgot to ask if you’d like some cake.”

Note:
The holiday has screwed with our schedules again. Not surprising. I have one more segment to write, but then I'm out until we can game more.


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Formatted Linky

One Final Lesson:
A few seconds later, before Terry could get into what he was about to say, Gregor returned to us. In his hand was a strange box. I’d seen things like that in Daddy’s study. They were puzzles, meant to make it so you needed to figure them out to get what was inside. “We have to go to the monastery before opening,” Gregor explained, tucking the box in his pack. “We shall take cliff. It is good training.”

“That’s okay, I’ll walk the path,” Terry said, trying to talk his way out of it. “The cliff seems unnecessarily dangerous.”

“I can fly up after you and catch you if you fall,” Burin said, unfurling his dragon wings as he spoke.

“That settles it,” Gregor said, grabbing the back of Terry’s coat. “Come. We climb.” He the leapt halfway up the cliff and pressed the now terrified assassin against the rock face. Even from where I was, I could hear Gregor’s command. “Up or down is up to you, but either way… you climb.”

I glanced over and saw Persephone doing her best to hide her laughter from Emily, but the best she could do was keep it to an evil grin. I’m not sure I understand their relationship, to be honest.

Speaking of Emily, she made a disappointed noise. “Aww, I thought Dad was about to tell us a story,” she whined.

“This is where you were born, baby girl,” her mother answered. “Sergei took us in. Oh, it looks like your father is having trouble. Hop on, baby.” She then transformed into her manticore form and flew up, catching Terry just as he fell and carrying him up to the top, holding the back of his jacket in her mouth like a mother cat carrying a kitten by the scruff.

“We should follow them,” I said, casting a quick spell and turning Nebula into a vortex dragon – the fastest type of dragon Daddy’s research mentions, capable of flying through the depths of space at incredible speeds. She let Greta and Anastasia climb on her back, and together we flew up to the top of the cliff.

The monastery looked like it had taken some mild damage from a fire, but it was constructed mostly of stone and was none the worse for wear. So we made our way inside once Gregor was done giving Terry disappointed looks.

Once inside, we began working on the puzzle box. Only…it was impossible. Maybe Daddy or Juiz could have figured it out. But I even had Cortana run multiple simulations, and she had nothing. So, yeah, we were stuck, even after an hour of work.

Something had to break. I was about to suggest that we figure it out later and investigate first, but before I could, Terry pulled out his gun and tried to shoot the box. But Persephone realized what he was doing and struck him, pushing the gun away. His bullet struck the floor and ricocheted, grazing Anastasia’s forearm, causing her to drop the box, as she was the one holding it. Only Burin’s quick reaction prevented it from crashing to the floor.

You ever watch those forensics shows? Mama loves them. So I’ve managed to pick up a thing here and there about how blood spatters depending on the wound. And there was little statistical chance of it hitting the box. Trust me, I had Cortana run the numbers. The odds were something like one in four hundred thousand based on the location of the wound, the angle of her body and the placement of the box. It shouldn’t have happened.

Which makes me think that the box pulled in her blood. Well, that and the fact that not a single drop of blood seemed to hit the ground. Runes appeared on the box and it began to move on its own, turned and gyrating – jumping out of Burin’s hands as it did so – until finally it was open.

Terry couldn’t have looked more smug than he did at that moment. “See? Violence.”

“Hush,” Persephone chided as she and Emily finished tending to the princess’ wound and Emily had finished apologized for the actions of ‘the Doofopath’.

The open puzzle box levitated out of Burin’s hand, and the spirit of a man – he looked older, and based on what I’d heard of him, I was sure this had to be Sergei. Or maybe, it wasn’t a spirit, but a magical projection. A message, of sorts, as it didn’t really address us. It simply turned to Burin – the last person to touch the box – and began to speak. “Hello. If you are seeing this, then I am dead and you have been sent by Baba Yaga. How else would you have a drop of her blood? Please tell her that I have kept her artifacts safe, at the cost of my life. You are here to retrieve them. You will require one of my disciples. I have left instructions in the pages of my journal to open the key, and only they can decipher them.”

I looked at Gregor, but the fighter’s face betrayed no emotion at the sight of his old mentor.

The image continued. “If Gregor is alive, please give him the journal when you are done. He deserves to know of my failure.”

Then the image disappeared and tendrils of purple flame shot out of the box, and into the deeper monastery. They were gone in a flash, then the box clattered to the floor.

I turned to talk to Gregor, but he was halfway across the room, inspecting some damage to one of the walls. I walked over to him. “Are you okay?” I asked.

“I will need to repair monastery,” was his only answer.

Persephone was right behind me. She put a hand on his shoulder. “Your teacher was a good man,” she said. “He gave us a home when no one else could, least of all my own father.”

He didn’t respond, and luckily for him, he didn’t have to, as Emily came over as well. “Mister Gregor?” she asked, obviously embarrassed. “Um, is there a place that I can…um, you know?”

“Ah, you are looking for the latrine. Yes, you must run three miles down path outside. Take a left at the tree.”

Her eyes bulged in obvious terror that she’d never make it that far. Persephone shook her head. “That’s just for the older disciples,” she said. “There’s a place for the new kids that you can use. Come on, I know where it is.”

They were gone for a long time. Eventually, Burin walked over to the door to the room where the younger kids would bunk and called through the door. “You okay?” he asked.

“It’s magical!” Emily called back excitedly. Greta gave me a confused look, to which I retuned a shrug.

Thankfully, they returned a few moments later and explained. It seemed that Emily had spotted a hidden cache where someone had stashed some gear. One of the items they’d found was a pair of magical bracers. Gregor explained that they were used to help the new kids be a little better at fighting.

“I guess you’ll want them then,” Emily said, handing them to the fighter.

He handed them to Terry. “Your form is sloppy. These will help.”

Terry looked at them. “That’s okay,” Terry said, handing them to Emily again. “If I’m punching things, we’re dead anyway.”

Emily looked at them. “I don’t really hit things. Would they help you, Momma?” she asked, handing them to Persephone.

The woman looked at Gregor questioningly. “I believe they would help you fight,” he said after a moment.

“Then I’ll use them,” she agreed, putting on her new bracers. I used my magic to study them as she did so, and apparently they did nothing to help the kids fight. Instead, they protected the kids from injury a bit, like wearing armor might. I guess the rest was just told as a placebo, maybe? Either way, those really would help Persephone since she couldn’t wear armor as a manticore.

Back together, we headed in the direction the purple flames had traveled, and entered Sergei’s quarters. It was a mess, with papers and other objects strewn everywhere. But the most noticeable thing was a section of wall limned in purple fire, about the size of the door.

“Do you see a mechanism?” Gregor asked Terry.

The assassin pulled out his tools. “I’ll try to find one.” But no sooner had he inserted his picks between two stone bricks than purple flames shot out at him. He narrowly dodged, but his tools weren’t quite so lucky. They were completely melted. “That’s it, I’m shooting a rocket at it!” he said, but Persephone restrained him.

“Maybe I should try punching it?” Gregor then asked, not entirely sure.

“And let your hands melt like Terry’s tools?” Burin asked. “Shouldn’t we find the journal instead, like Sergei told us?”

“Yeah, Terry!” Persephone said. “Use your head for once!”

“I think what Momma’s trying to say is that this is your master’s sacred place,” Emily said. “And I think the box wants this to be a test of smarts, not muscle.” She handed him all the papers she’d been gathering up from the floor. “Maybe these will help?”

“Let’s split them up,” I suggested. “It’ll go faster if we’re all looking at them.”

We split up the pages and began reading. In a few moments, Terry whistled in triumph. “Found something,” he said. “This is definitely from a journal.” He then began to read aloud. “‘This thing is infuriating. Curse Katinka for leaving it with me. I told her she was sick, but she does not listen. She never listened.’ I guess he got a pet?”

“Terry,” Persephone chided.

“Fine,” he said, grabbing the next page. “‘It will not stop crying. I have tried everything. It is fed. It is clean. It is warm. Even when a disciple holds it, it still continues its wailing. It will only cease when I hold it, and that makes it impossible to train. I will grow fat from lack of exercise at this rate.’ I can attest to babies being like that. Emily would cry if anyone other than her mother held her,” he commented.

“That was just you she would cry for. She had no problems with Sergei or the disciples holding her,” Persephone. “Now stop being an ass and read the rest.”

“‘At last, peace. The thing has begun to sleep through the night. I have resumed my normal training. I can barely climb the wall, it has been so long.’” He held out the pages to Gregor. “That’s all the words, but there were doodles. Do you know what they mean?”

Gregor looked at them. “Those are forms. I do not recognize them. Perhaps he was working on a new fighting style. Still…” He approached the “door” and began going through the motions of the forms. As he did so, blue runes began appearing on the wall and moving as he performed each motion. It kinda reminded me of a combination lock, the way it was moving.

He finished the three forms and then tried repeating them, but the runes fizzled out. “It is as I thought. It appears we need the full set. Maybe fifteen or sixteen in all, I am thinking.”

“That’s probably why he said we’d need a disciple,” Burin said. “I looked at the papers and had no idea what those drawings meant.” He then turned to me. “Do you know of any magic that would help us find the pages?” he asked.

I shook my head. “Sorry. I could find pages of paper, but with so many around, I’m not sure that would help us.”

“Then we will search everywhere,” Gregor said, now fired up.

We next made our way to what had been the adult barracks. Within, we found a few more pieces of equipment. Most interesting was a shield that Emily picked up. “What’s it do?” she asked Gregor.

“It’s for practice catching arrows and bullets. The shield magically pulls them to it, so you know where the arrow will be.”

“Ooh!” Emily said. “Now Dad can shoot at us all day.”

Persephone looked at him and raised an eyebrow. “I was teaching her to dodge,” Terry said defensively.

Gregor ignored it and had the girl hold up her new shield. He then threw a shuriken at her, purposely throwing it off to the side. It veered through the air as though it was pulled by a magnet and bounced off the metal shield.

Terry then began speaking, using that tone of voice you use when reading. “‘I have begun teaching it as the other disciples. It is infuriatingly stubborn, refusing such simple tasks demanded of all children who train with me. Typhon Lee has suggested that he could take it into his care, but Katinka wanted it to stay with me, so I politely declined. I am not so sure I trust that man, anyway. I suspect him to be a wolf masquerading as a sheepdog.’” Terry laughed bitterly. “Yeah, you can say that again.”

“What else does it say?” Burin asked.

“‘It skinned its knees while fighting with one of the new disciples. There was hair pulling, so I shaved both of their heads and made them stand in the hallway holding water buckets. I returned an hour later to find that they had thrown the water at each other. The look on their faces was infuriating, but for some reason, I could not help but laugh as soon as they were out of sight.’ Is holding buckets of water that much of a punishment?”

“For a few minutes?” Gregor asked. “No. But if you do it for three hours, at the end of an extended arm? That is good training. I will have you do it later.”

“I think I’ll pass. Oh, look, there’s another page here. ‘The child has taken to drawing. Constantly, all day it doodles. I even caught it painting on the walls of the meditation room. I had to punish it severely for that, with a run around the monastery. It caught a cold. I did not tell it not to wear a coat, the fool.’”

“My little brother started doing that,” I said.

“Oh? What did your parents do to stop that?”

I laughed. “Mom thought he needed to be taught not to because it was bad for discipline, but Daddy pointed out that he’d painted the entire house in an advanced paint that would come clean of everything with a light spray of water and a quick wipe of a paper towel.”

“Anyway,” Terry said, holding out the pages to Gregor. “There are more of your dance moves. One looks a little smudged by a shoeprint, though.”

I looked at the print as the pages were handed over. “Those look like kid’s shoes. And the style isn’t consistent with the shoes made in this region. Whoever wore that came from pretty far away. You can get those in Absalom, but they can be found within five hundred miles of the city.” Everyone was staring at me like I’d grown a second head. “What? I like shoes.”

“The print is less than two days old,” Gregor pointed out.

“People passing through?” Burin asked.

“It’s possible,” Persephone agreed. “Maybe they got caught in a storm and stayed here for shelter?”

“Maybe,” Gregor admitted. “It does look like it rained or snowed in the last few days.”

We continued searching, making our way next to the adult baths. There were lots of those small footprints, all the same style of shoe. “I don’t think those were worn by a child,” Burin said. “Halflings, or gnomes maybe?”

Greta shook her head. “I smell a musk here. Like rodents.”

“Beavers,” Gregor said. “Were-beavers.”

He seemed really sure of that. “Were those a problem around here?” Emily asked, looking nervous.

“One of the older disciples warned me of them. And these things spent a lot of time around the baths. Just like beavers would have.” I had never heard of were-beavers and was starting to wonder if the older disciple had been messing with him, but didn’t say anything as Terry chuckled in triumph.

“You thought you could hide it from me?” he asked, opening a hidden cache and pulling out some valuables. “Ooh, that’s a pretty necklace.” He immediately handed it to Persephone.

“I’m not putting that on before someone tells me what it does,” she said sensibly.

“I’ll take a look,” Burin said. “Oh, it’s a powerful, but nasty little charm. While wearing it, your claws and other attacks will be considerably more powerful, but the magic will hurt you as well when you use it. Not as much as it’ll improve what you do, but you need to be careful.”

“Okay, I can do that,” she said, putting it on.

“There are more pages,” Anastasia said. “Though I can’t read them.” She offered them to me, as the nearest person.

I looked at them. Sergei had beautiful handwriting, by the way. “‘The child has once more been a burden on discipline. Today, it convinced Maksim to skip training and go exploring the woods outside of the monastery. When I found them, Maksim was half dead, mauled by wolves, and the child was crying. It was mere luck that I got there in time to rescue them. Maksim has sworn to redouble his efforts in training, so that it would never happen again, so that he could protect his friend. The child wept, and kept apologizing to me and him, burying its head in my chest as it did so. I could not even bring myself to punish them, only holding the child as it wept.’”

Gregor nodded. “Sergei warned us about exploring. The wolves have a taste for children.”

I kept reading. “‘This summer, the child shot up nearly a foot. I do not know what I fed it that caused such a growth, but I will determine what it was, that I might make sure my youngest disciples can benefit as well. It appears less like a child now. I can see Katinka in its features.’” That last line was written a bit shakily, as if Sergei was overcome by emotions or something. I kept reading the next entry. “‘She and Maksim had an argument today that threatened to shatter the very windows of the monastery, it was so loud. I do not know why they fight, as they have always been such good friends, but it seems like it was a trivial matter that did not deserve such hysterics from either of them.’”

There was a girl here? This didn’t seem like a place where there would be a lot of girls. Terry seemed to agree with my question. “Who is Katinka? And what about Maksim and this girl? I don’t remember any girls here when I was here.”

“I do not know,” Gregor said. “Sergei never mentioned any of them.”

“It does show Sergei gave some of the disciple special treatment, not just you.”

“What?”

“You got special training, and you seem to be his successor.”

“You’re mistaken. I had to train extra hard just to keep up. Why do you think I would be his successor?”

Terry gave him a look that said he thought Gregor was being stupid. “The ghost mentioned your name specifically. Oh my god! It makes sense! This is a setup! Why am I the only one who can see the dots?”

Burin tilted his head. “Sometimes when I push on my eyes, I see dots.”

Emily immediately began pushing on her eyes with her fingers. “I see dots too!” she exclaimed excitedly.

Persephone gave her a look and walked over to Terry, who was still ranting some strange conspiracy theory I couldn’t follow. “I’m doing this because I love you. I need five or ten minutes.” She pulled out a roll of duct tape and put it over his mouth.

From there, we went to the dining hall. The place was a mess. Something had gotten into the preserved food stores and there was stuff all over the place. Gregor began recreating the steps of what he was sure was a food fight, trying to figure out what had happened. “Three, no four, individuals. It started over there and escalated.” Eventually, he managed to produce a large pickle with a bite in it. “Beaver teeth,” he said, showing some satisfaction as he showed us the mark.

The whole time he had been doing it, Terry had been silently mocking him, culminating in Terry rolling his eyes when Gregor showed us the pickle, then doing his own investigation.

“It’s awfully quiet in here,” Gregor said with a bit of a smirk. Terry gave him some annoyed side-eye at that.

“Does Dad know he can just take the tape off?” Emily asked her mother.

“He loves me too much to do that,” Persephone answered. Terry responded by making a very rude gesture towards her back.

We then went into the kitchen, where we found that something large had torn open a barrel with its teeth. “See? It eats wood. Definitely were-beavers,” Gregor said.

Terry produced a tuft of hair he found and handed it to Greta. She sniffed it. “Is it from a beaver?” I asked.

“I’m not sure,” she answered. “I’ve never seen a beaver. But the smell is familiar…not quite the same, but it reminds me of scents I’ve smelled while visiting the homes of human slaves.”

Oh, right. Her country was pretty screwed up and she had probably not been kind to those slaves.

I didn’t want to think about it, and was relieved when Terry handed the closest person his next find – a few pickle-juice stained pages. Burin took the pages and began reading. “‘Young Vasily came to me today and told me that he had seen Sasha and Maksim sneaking into the tool shed out in the garden. I went to investigate, and I found them in such a state that I nearly beat Maksim until he could no longer stand. Only Sasha’s intervention cooled my rage, but even now I seethe thinking about what I saw.’ Oh my. That seems private. I’m not sure we should be reading this.”

Burin is far too ridiculously pure sometimes.

“Please keep reading,” I said, wanting to avoid having to touch those gross papers.

“Okay. ‘Maksim informed me that he was leaving. He said that he was going to move to the village near to the monastery, to aid his family at their farm after his father was killed in an accident. He is dutiful, I will give him that. Sasha tells me that she wants to go with him, but I forbade it.’ I wonder who Maksim is,” Burin thought aloud.

“Mister Burin, please keep reading?” Emily begged. “I wanna know what happened next.”

“‘Once more, Typhon Lee asks me to join him, to turn my back on Baba Yaga. And once more, I told him that I would never betray Baba Yaga. She was the one who gave me the monastery, and my sacred charge. I will never turn my back on her.’” He turned to Emily. “Sorry, that’s all that’s there. I’ll use my magic to dry these out, then we can put them with the others safely. Want me to show you how?”

“Yes, please!” the girl said enthusiastically.

While Burin had been reading, Terry and Greta left the room, returning after a few minutes to questioning looks from me and Persephone. “We were following the scent,” Greta explained.

“Find anything?”

“They spent a lot of time in another set of baths. We found these,” she said, holding up a bullet casing. At first I thought they were the ones Rasputin had left when he had come here, but Cortana’s analysis suggested otherwise. They were too primitive to be from early twentieth century Earth.

We looked at Terry, waiting for his analysis of what he saw, but he just pointed at the tape on his lips. Persephone rolled her eyes and reached up to remove the tape, but he dodged around her and slapped her ass. It jiggled rather nicely, I must say.

“Good!” Gregor said. “You’re using the training! Now for something more difficult to dodge!” He dashed forward and punched out faster than I could see. His hand went just close enough to Terry’s face to literally punch it off of his lips.

You ever pull off a bandage too quickly? It rips off hair. Well, that’s what people tell me. I’m basically hairless aside from my head and eyebrows. It’s another one of those mutations I inherited from Mama. Anyway, even then, if the adhesive is too strong and it’s pulled off too hard, it does pull off a thin layer of skin even without hair. Well, imagine that with high grade duct tape being ripped off your lips with a force capable of punching a dragon into submission.

Terry’s lips mostly came off.

He dropped to his knees in a mixture of pain and panic, too freaked out to even scream audibly. Emily left Burin’s lesson and went over to apply another nanite injection, instantly regenerating his damaged lips. Even Persephone comforted him. “I found more pages,” he said.

Persephone took them from him and began reading. “‘Late last night, Sasha ran away from the monastery. She has gone to live with Maksim. They are to be married, if what I have heard is to be believed. Perhaps it is for the best. This place is not a place for a girl, especially one who never wished to train, only to play and to draw and to fill the halls with the warmth of her laughter. She is so very much like her mother that it hurts to know that she is gone, but I think my dear sister Katinka would approve of Sasha finding happiness. I will not get in her way.’ Good for her. A girl should be allowed to go out in search of what she wants in life.”

“Yes, dear,” Terry said. “Freedom and all that.”

She shot him a look. Her face went pale as she looked over the entry. “Oh no. ‘I received word last night that bandits attacked Swindle. I sent my oldest disciples to the farm immediately. Maksim was dead. He died fighting to protect Sasha and his elderly uncle. The uncle was alive, or at least, had clung on to life desperately hiding the only one untouched by the ravages of the bandits. What he described as happening to Sasha…I cannot write it. I cannot even think it, for it causes my blood to boil so. I contacted Typhon Lee, asked him to send one of his killers. The bandits will pay for what they did to Sasha.’” Her voice broke as she read it.

“I can read the rest if you’re having trouble,” I said.

“It’s okay,” Persephone answered, taking a breath to steady herself. “‘Typhon Lee’s dwarf, Popovic, arrived today, his new apprentice in tow. I explained to him what I wanted, how all of the bandits must pay for what they did to my beautiful Sasha. He assured me that his apprentice would make sure they did, and that he would personally confirm it. While the young man talked with my disciples, I explained to Popovic that there was something else I needed. Sasha had worn a silver locket. It contains two portraits, one of Katinka, and one of her and Maksim. I told him there would be a bonus for its retrieval.’”

Terry raised an eyebrow at that. “Pops never mentioned anything about a girl or a locket. He just said bandits hit a town and we were supposed to kill them back. That was my first solo job, a bit before I met you. Remember, the vampires kept talking about it? It was pretty f@~&ed up. And it’s why I stopped working with Pops. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised he didn’t tell me anything else. A%~%~!&.”

Gregor looked over the forms. “We’re missing a page. But we have searched everywhere. I do not think I will be able to open it with just this much, but I will try. Let us return to the door.”

As he tried several random final moves, we pored through the pages again. There had to be something we’d missed. And there was. Anastasia found it. The pickle juice pages had stuck together a bit, and sandwiched between them was one final page. She held her prize in her hand and tried to read it…only to realize that she didn’t know that language. Nothing a little magic couldn’t fix. So I waved my hand and spoke a word, giving her the ability to understand.

She began reading it aloud immediately. “‘It is done. The bandits are dead and I have the locket. Perhaps, one day, when he is older, I will give it to Gregor, tell him about his mother. But for now, I will instead train him. She was not strong enough to defend herself. That was my fault. My mistake. I loved her too much and so I could not be as hard on her as I should have. I did not make her strong. I will not make the same mistake with Gregor. No matter how he suffers, I will not give him a single inch. He may think I hate him. If that is so, then it is a price I will pay. He will be strong, the strongest disciple I have ever trained, even if it kills him. I owe Sasha that much.

“‘And one day, when I am too old to continue my duty, he will take my place and train new disciples, as should have been Sasha’s role, had I not been so weak. He will understand then, perhaps, why I had to be as hard on him as I was. Why I could not tell him how proud of him I am. And perhaps one day he will tell his own children or disciples about me, and I hope he will do so fondly, knowing how much it hurt me to do what had to be done to make him strong.’”

Gregor took the page from her and we watched him as he read it silently for several moments, staring at it, seeming lost in the words. Then, just as silently, he handed her the page back and went to the door. He completed the full sequence, and the door opened. He charged through without even waiting for it to open all the way, and we ran after him.

He was so much faster than us. But we could hear a voice ahead. “Come. Prove you are worthy!”

We could hear sharp cracks – sonic booms? – as fighting commenced. As we finally reached the end of the winding stairway, we saw Gregor locked in combat with the ghostly form of Sergei, who was engulfed in that same purple flame. Each of their strikes was too fast to keep up with. I only know how many blows were struck by the sound of the air cracking at the sheer speed.

Gregor had the obvious upper hand, and even Sergei acknowledged it. “Your fists are strong! But now we must test your resolve!” He disappeared into a shadow, reappearing from the shadows behind Gregor and striking him with a deadly attack to the chest as Gregor spun around.

If it had been a kung-fu movie, Gregor’s heart probably should have exploded in his chest. As it was, the shockwave from the blow nearly knocked me from my feet. And I wasn’t the only one. Greta had to catch Anastasia.

But Gregor remained standing, his stance defiant as his master’s spirit drew up into formal stance before bowing. “You are worthy,” Sergei said. I could see Gregor’s eyes beaming with pride as he returned the bow.

The two raised their heads and shared one final look before Sergei’s ghost disappeared. In its place, a silver locket clattered to the floor. He picked it up and then walked to the far end of the room, where a chest stood. Inside, he found two objects. I got a look at them as he handed them to Burin. One was a miniature carving of the Dancing Hut. The other was an ancient portrait – around the size of a picture frame you’d put on a table, though it had to be hundreds, if not thousands of years old – that depicted a man, a woman and a child. The woman looked a lot like Anastasia, though their hair was different.

There were two of them. They had to be keys. And if the picture was of who I thought it was, then I was really curious as to where they would take us.

Terry walked up to Gregor and held out his fist, which Gregor bumped in triumph. “Machine of Death,” the assassin said approvingly. Gregor didn’t even notice that Terry had taken the locket from him during the motion. He probably wouldn’t have noticed for a while, but Terry immediately opened it. “Your mom’s kinda hot.”

“Terry,” Persephone said disapprovingly, taking the locket from him and looking at it. “You look just like your dad,” she said to Gregor as we all crowded around to get a look.

“Except the eyes,” Anastasia said. “You have your mother’s eyes.”

Damn. That girl had it worse than I thought.


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Formatted Linky

Chapter 20: Shadow Over Morast:
As the group made their way down the hallway, they heard shouting coming from one of the offices. “Y-You can’t be s-serious! The t-trial is being mo-mo-moved to t-tomorrow?!”

“Calm yourself Gustav. You know that after what happened yesterday, the people are ready for a burning.”

“Bu-But we’ve only gone over the pre-preliminary evidence!”

“Well, he was going to burn anyway. So, do what you can, I guess.” Kendra, who had been listening at the door, stumbled as the door opened. “Who are you?” the surprised man on the other side asked. Natalya recognized the clothing as that of a clerk, while the standing before the desk at the far end of the room looked like a barrister, complete with his court robes and powdered wig.

Kendra recovered from her stumbling and stood up straight and proud. “I’ve been sent by Judge Embreth to look into Bastien’s case,” she said, using the name she had personally given to the Beast since he seemed to have none. One she had neglected to mention to anyone else.

“Who?” the clerk asked, annoyed.

Before Kendra could answer, Stein stepped between them, holding up his hand to stop her. “Only what is necessary, remember?” he said before holding out the letter to the clerk.

The clerk – a normally dour man known by the name of Rodd Dych - read it and laughed. “It looks like you’re getting some help, Gustav. I’d hate to be in your shoes,” he said, giving Kendra a sympathetic look.

“T-This is an outrage!” Gustav protested. “I-I-I was ass-assigned to represent the Beast!”

“I understand,” Kendra said. “But with the trial being moved up, it was felt that a lone man would not have time to properly investigate all the leads.”

Gustav’s eyes narrowed. “Th-That is a f-f-fair p-point. Fi-Fine. F-Follow me.”

They followed in a silence as thick as the fog on an autumn night in Ravengro as the barrister led them to his office. Natalya had taken a measure of the man as he’d spoken and she was certain he would behave like a spoiled child throwing a tantrum for the entirety of their time working with him. Getting anything out of him would be difficult, assuming he didn’t actively sabotage their efforts to help him.

The situation had to change. But how? She could threaten him of course. But such measures were delicate. Exert too little force and he would resist, possibly steeling himself against further attempts. Exert too much, and there could be repercussions.

There was an old saying: You catch more flies with honey than vinegar. In the adventurer’s guild, it was taught that the old adage was incorrect. You’d catch more humans with honey than vinegar. But a fly is a distinctly different creature, and they love vinegar. The point being, that if you wish to sway someone, you had to first know them.

She didn’t have time to truly size up this man, Gustav Kaple, but she had taken a measure of him, and while he seemed prideful and stubborn, he was still a citizen of Lepidstadt, and she judged him simpleminded enough to be caught up in local legends. And of all the legends swirling through town, there was only one greater than that surrounding the Beast right now. It would be a risk, but it was worth a shot.

When they reached the office, she shut the door behind her and stepped up before Kendra or Stein could speak. “Look, Gustav, I’m going to be frank with you. There isn’t much time and things aren’t what they appear. But first, I need to know if you can keep a secret. Can you?”

Kendra gave Stein a surprised look, but he responded with only a single raised eyebrow. “I-What?” Gustav answered.

“It’s a simple question. We don’t have a lot of time, and I need to know if you’re one of the good guys. Can you keep a secret?”

He furrowed his brow. “I-I can. If it’s a s-secret that’s w-worth k-keeping.”

She nodded. “That will have to be good enough. You see, while we were officially sent by Judge Embreth, the truth is that she’s only acting as a cover for the one who truly asked us to look into this matter.”

He looked intrigued, drawn in by her hushed, conspiratorial tones. Even Kendra was leaning in, curious where she was going with this. Stein smirked, having already guessed the game. “W-Who s-sent you?” Gustav asked.

Natalya leaned in closer, speaking barely above a whisper. “Have you heard of Alvin?”

Gustav’s eyes grew wide. “Alvin the Hero sent you?! Can you get me his autograph?” His stuttered had noticeably vanished suddenly, such was his amazement.

Kendra managed to avoid putting her hand to her face. “He doesn’t believe in fame,” she answered. “He’s very humble.”

“Just as I imagined him,” Gustav breathed in awe.

“Anyway, now you understand,” Natalya said. “We can’t say exactly what Alvin is looking into, but he thinks that this might be related to the werewolf he battled. He just wants to confirm whether it was the werewolf himself who committed the crimes the Beast is accused of, or if it was the people who set the werewolf loose. And that’s why we need to keep it quiet. Can you do that?”

Gustav nodded. “I understand c-completely. Let me get my f-files.”

He gathered his notes and set them on the table and began separating them into three distinct piles. As he did so, Kendra spoke up. “Do any of your notes mention anything about grave robbing or mad alchemists?” she asked.

Gustav scoffed. “Surely n-nothing so uncivilized w-would be happening in Lepidstadt.” He finished sorting the piles. “Okay, s-so here’s the b-breakdown of the t-trial. The B-Beast has been accused of t-three c-crimes. The t-trial will happen o-over t-three days. Each d-day will c-cover one of these acc-accusations. T-The first will c-cover his supposed attack on M-Morast.” He pointed to the leftmost pile as he spoke. “I d-don’t think he’ll even make it th-through that one before being found g-guilty and b-burned.”

Kendra found the man’s attitude offensive. “I have a question,” she said.

“Y-Yes?”

“You’ve had six other clients before, right? And they were all found guilty? If you’re that terrible, maybe you should quit practicing law and join a circus. I know a guy who might be able to give you a job.”

Gustav’s lips curled in anger. “I-It’s not m-my f-fault! Th-They j-just k-keep giving m-me p-people who are g-guilty!”

Stein restrained her and Natalya stepped forward. “Calm down, Kendra. I know you’re concerned about the Beast-”

“Bastien!” Kendra snarled, causing the barrister to nearly wet himself in terror.

“Right, Bastien. But it’s no reason to take it out on Mister Keple. Alvin wouldn’t want you to act like that.” She shook her head. “Tempers have flared,” she said to Gustav apologetically. “Perhaps it’s best if we take these files to show Alvin so we can see what he wants us to do next.”

Gustav took a deep breath and tried to regain his composure. “Y-Yes. Y-You’re right. P-Please t-tell Alvin that i-if he needs me, I will g-gladly ass-assist in an-any w-way I c-can.”

“Thank you,” Stein said, collecting the files. “We’ll be sure to tell Alvin how much you helped us.” Even he wasn’t sure how he managed to say all of that with a straight face.

After taking their leave, they headed back into the cells to retrieve Heimish. “What happened next?” they heard the voice of the beast, his tone like that of a child as he begged for the preacher to complete his story.

“The dust from the Butterfly’s wings choked the abomination to death,” Heimish answered.

“Wow!” the Beast breathed, his chains rattling as he clapped.

Heimish looked up at them as they approached. “You’re back,” he noted. He turned back to the Beast. “Sorry, lad, it looks like I need to go. But I’ll come back as soon as I can.”

They made their way outside to a waiting carriage, as Stein had sent ahead word that they would need transportation. “That went poorly,” Kendra said, finally breaking their silence once inside.

“I thought it went fine,” Heimish disagreed.

“You didn’t see it,” Stein chortled. “Kendra nearly made the man soil his pants.”

“It just frustrates me,” Kendra said, answering Heimish’s questioning look. “Why play the game if you’ve already defeated yourself in your mind?”

Stein looked at her out of the side of his eye. “You don’t suppose he was chosen because they wanted to ensure a burning, do you.” It wasn’t a question.

“They couldn’t have found a better moron to play the part,” Natalya answered.

Kendra sighed. “Heimish, did you find out anything about the Beast’s ‘father’?”

“No,” Heimish answered, seeming confused. “Was I supposed to?”

“That’s why we left you down there,” Kendra said, frustration in her voice again.

“Oh. Oops. I got to talking about the Butterfly and I lost track of time.”

Kendra looked like she was going to say something more, but Stein interrupted her. “We’ve not much time before we reach Morast. We should read the case files.”

“I’ve never been to Morast,” Natalya said. “What kind of place is it.”

Kendra huffed, annoyed at being forced to put away her annoyance. “The people of Morast are considered pretty strange. They’re renowned for their strong constitutions. In fact, I’ve never heard of one of them getting sick and it’s said that they live twice as long as a normal human. Rumor is that they got that way by breeding with swamp creatures.”

Stein nodded. “I’ve also heard that when they die, their corpses never rot. I’ve always wanted to look into that.”

“Why?” Heimish asked.

“Curiosity, mostly,” Stein answered with a shrug.

“So, what do the notes say about the case?” Natalya asked.

“Well, it seems that ten people were carried off by a large creature that fits the description of the Beast. When we get there, we’ll have to ask the village elder. Apparently he was the one who reported it to the authorities.”

As they traveled, the well-worn dirt road soon became replaced with a track made of misshapen wooden planks kept just above the waters of the swamp in places by wooden poles. The sound of frogs and other swamp dwelling creatures echoed around them, like a strange chorus, with the rhythmic sound of the carriage wheels on the planks playing the part of the drumbeat.

Soon, they came up to a village. The huts were fairly crude, and many of them were up on stilts above the swamp below. The people watched them as they passed, and it was apparent that the rumors of the strangeness of the swamp dwellers had been no mere rumor.

Even in the tiefling ghettos, Natalya had not seen people as misshapen as these. Their limbs were a bit too long. Their eyes were a little too big. Their teeth were crowded and discolored. And they had strange miscolored patched on their skin.

The driver stopped the carriage in what could only be called the village center, and the group disembarked. Kendra walked over to an older looking man who was sitting upon a porch, carving something with a knife. She passed a rack on which the skin of some kind of red-scaled reptile hung to dry – not that she suspected anything could dry in this humid swamp.

“Excuse me, sir?” she said. “We’re looking for Lazne. Would you know him?”

The man’s eyes narrowed as he evaluated her. She felt a little creeped out by his gaze as it looked her up and down. He then spit, the saliva a brown color as it struck the porch. “Paw!” he called out, turned towards the door. “They’s some furriners heres t’sees ya!”

A man with greased back white hair stepped out of the door. “Whachoo yellin’ yer fool head off ‘bout, boy?” he asked.

The man on the porch pointed with his knife at Kendra. “Ah said that there’s some furriners heres t’see ya.”

The man with greased back hair turned to Kendra. He stared at her with focusing his right eye – which was just a bit bigger than the left – on her as he did so. He didn’t say anything for several uncomfortable moments, then spit, with little regard to the fact that it splattered onto his bare feet.

“Well?” he asked.

Kendra, taken aback, couldn’t remember what she was going to say for a moment. “Um, we’re investigating the Beast and wanted to ask what you know?” Her voice was barely above a whisper as barely managed to get out the response, clearly out of her element.

“What?” the man asked, spitting again.

Heimish stepped forward. “I’m sorry, sir. What my companion means to ask is if you could help us. We’re looking into the matter with the beast, and it would be a great help if you could tell us what you know.”

“Oh! The Beast. Why didn’t you say so?” He walked over to Heimish. As he passed Kendra, she smelled something foul on his breath, and barely managed to avoid gagging. He appraised Heimish for a moment. “You look like some kind of holy man,” he said. It wasn’t accusatory, exactly.

“Yes,” Heimish admitted. “I follow the Black Butterfly.”

“Taint never heard of ‘im.”

“I’ll be happy to tell you sometime.”

Kendra regained her composure. “Heimish, priorities,” she chided.

The man – Lazne, presumably – spit out some chewed up plant from his mouth and reached into his pocket, getting what appeared to be a fresh dose, which he popped into his mouth. He then retrieved some more and offered to Heimish. “Care fer some swamp weed?” he asked.

Heimish took the offering and put it in his mouth. It struck him as hard as a swig of rotgut, but he managed not to gag. “Smooth,” he said, his lips tingling where he’d sequestered the plant.

Lazne laughed and clapped him on the shoulder. “You know what, holy man? Yer alright. You and yer friends come on inside and I’ll tell you all ‘bout t’Beast.”

The inside of the home was just as crude as the outside, with several holes in the floor where the woven sticks and reeds had either worn thin or were purposefully left open, though the purpose of the latter wasn’t apparent until Lazne spit through one such hole. Given a million years, Kendra would never truly be comfortable in a place like this.

In one corner of the room, in a pot over a fire built on the only stone section of the floor, boiled a strange grey gruel that filled the room with a decidedly strange odor. “Those were some pretty interesting skins hanging out there,” Heimish said, trying to distract himself from the odor. “What kind of creature do those come from?”

“Blood caimans,” the swamper answered. “Not very big ones, those.”

“Still, they have very beautiful coats.”

A thought came to Natalya unbidden, and she spoke it without thinking. “I wonder how they taste,” she said to no one in particular. They looked like lizards, and she’d eaten lizards before. She wondered if they were more like the smaller lizards she’d eaten, or if they were like the dragon that some of her fellows at the guild had sworn they’d eaten.

Lazne grinned and walked over to the cauldron. With his bare fingers, he fished out of a piece of pale white meat and offered it to her. “Here, give this’un here a try.”

Natalya took it from him and popped it into her mouth. Considering the things she’d eaten in her life to survive, taking a strange morsel of food from the hands a man of questionable personal hygiene didn’t even make her top ten list of sketchiest culinary experiences. She chewed it for a moment, then swallowed. “It’s not bad,” she said. “Actually, it’s rather good. Reminds me of something, though.”

Of course, it wouldn’t be for another hour before she recalled that it was reminiscent of a dried sausage she had eaten with some of the others in the guild once. The guild’s leader was a renowned sausage maker, after all, prone to experimenting with all sorts of strange ingredients.

“You’re alright too,” Lazne said, slapping her shoulder.

Seeing Natalya’s reaction, Kendra cautiously asked for a taste. Lazne retrieved her some as well, and she took it gingerly, taking a small bite. It had a texture that reminded her of overcooked chicken and it tasted like fish that was just on the edge of going sour. She did her best to swallow it without gagging and offered Stein what was left.

The butler surreptitiously took a swig of an alchemical concoction, coating his tongue in flavor-blocking wax, then ate the meat without ceremony.

Heimish produced a bottle of liquor. “If you have some cups, let’s poor ourselves a wee dram and you can tell us all about the Beast.”

The swamper cackled with glee and grabbed the cups, then got to his tale. “Well, you see, we started hearing stories of something in the swamp. ‘Bout right near sev’n, maybe et feet tall. He’d come right out of the swamp, covered in swamp stuff.”

As she listened, Natalya couldn’t help but think that his description sounded an awful lot like a swamp troll. But she didn’t say anything, deciding it was best to let him continue.

“Each time, he’d get a little bolder. He’d come a little closer. Started taking people. Then, one day, he came into the houses. So we set us a trap. Set upon him as he thought he was gonna et him a baby. Chased him into that there swamp. Then he done got et by a caiman. Biggest I ever did see. The ones outsider are babes by comparison. Call that one the Lockneth Monster. Grabbed him by the shoulder and dragged him under.”

“If the caiman got him, then why report it?” Kendra asked.

“Well, y’see, I never seen his body, though I was shore he was dun fur. So he must have gotten away, though whatever happened tainted the boneyard. So, when I done heard he got nabbed by the ‘thorities, I went up to town to let them high and mighty offishuls know what he done.”

“Would it be alright if we investigated the boneyard?” Heimish asked. “Maybe we can see if we can determine what happened.”

“I ain’t got nothin’ agin it. Long as you don’t do nothing fishy,” he punctuated with a laugh at a joke that no one seemed to get, then stopped suddenly and spit at the hole in the ground. “Just give me a bit to get some boats. Fishin’ is slow today anyway, so I’m pretty durn sure I can scrounge up enough for your needs.”

Back at Embreth’s house, Santino sat at the door, whining. He’d been trying for hours to turn the smooth knob with his mouth and was just about to give up, no matter how much he wanted to go inside and find something to eat. He had been so engrossed in his task that he never saw the mysterious figure watching him from the roof across the street, nor did he see when it leapt away an impossible distance.

But he did hear the creak above him. He padded off of the porch and looked up, spotting the gardener, who was stupidly leaning off the side of the house, attempting to cut a tree branch with some rusty shears.

He wasn’t sure whether he hoped the man would fall or not. On the one hand, it would probably be pretty funny. But on the other, if they were dealing with the injuries of the help, he was sure they’d definitely forget to feed him.

Though he could just eat the man, he guessed. It was truly a quandary and bore more consideration. Unsure what to do, he flopped down on the porch and chuffed, trying to decide what he should do.

Note:
Reign of Winter post next week, probably. Then maybe another week of RoW if I get enough writing done next week. Then I have notes enough for a Giantslayer.


Finally finished writing a new chapter for this. Should hopefully have it up next week once the others have reviewed it. Will post...Carrion Crown, I think is the one I have something done for... in a few mins.


Note:
Szo and I are done with the move. Of course, we have to wait to see if they'll charge us anything for some of the stains we couldn't get out. That floor is terrible and Szo likes to sleep with his feet on the wall for some reason. Steve and Barnaby are mostly moved, but they have til the end of November for their leases to end, so they have time to finish.

Oh well. What's done is done and now I have time to put my wall scrolls up and open up/shelve all my boxes of DVDs and books. :P


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Unbearable Company:
“Strange,” Qumeel said. “The drums seem to be coming from only one direction now.”

Valbrand listened. “That’s the signal to regroup. Our side has done some damage, at least.”

“If they’re regrouping, they’ll all be in one place,” Kermit noted.

“Good,” Gwen said. “Then Rabus will probably be able to make it to the barricade safely.”

“I hope so,” Valbrand said, surprising the girl. “I intend to take him up on his offer of free drinks after this is over.” And just like that, she wasn’t surprised anymore. “Come on, he said to take what we wanted. Let’s see if there’s anything we can use.”

To Gwen’s consternation, Valbrand, Kermit and Lucky Days immediately began searching the shop for things to loot. She was about to chide Jazier for joining them, but when she went inside, she found him cleaning, rather than looting. In truth, she realized he was doing both, looting the bodies of the dead as he moved them to the side of the room near the door for Qumeel. She almost said something, but decided against it, instead helping Qumeel tend to the piling and burning of the bodies of the thugs they’d killed.

Inside, Valbrand kicked open the door to Rabus’ private quarters, and the trio began searching. They found a few useful objects in the pile of things Rabus had confiscated from rowdy drunks – Valbrand grabbed several well-made throwing axes – but the real treasure was found by Lucky Days. Under the floorboards, the girl found a hidden cache containing a fair amount of gold and silver coins, as well as other valuables.

Then she put the loot back and replaced the floorboards. They were there to take things that they could use to fight the orcs, not steal the man’s life savings. Valbrand might have tried to convince her that it was better they take it than leave it for the orcs to find, but he hadn’t noticed her find while he looked over the weapons.

Their looting was interrupted when Gwen came inside. “The drums are getting louder. I think they’re coming closer. We need to get moving.”

Valbrand tucked one of the axes into his belt. “Alright, let’s go.”

As they moved through the town, doing their best to avoid drawing attention as they did so, they began noticing several peculiar things about the bodies. The first was that many of the wounds were made by thrusting weapons and the tissues showed signs of frostbite, but other wounds appeared to be caused by the claws and teeth of some kind of animal.

“Dogs?” Lucky Days asked, remembering her earlier encounter.

“Those would be some really big dogs,” Jazier answered.

Valbrand shook his head. “I have seen wounds like this before. The orcs have tamed a bear, I would wager.”

The other peculiar thing they noticed was that, while there were quite a few bodies of men and even children, there were almost no women or girls among the dead. Gwen really didn’t want to consider the implications of that.

“Wait!” Jazier gasped. He rushed over to a body. “It’s Silvermane! I think he’s still breathing!” Qumeel came over and healed the man, whose ragged breathing became calmer, though he didn’t awake. “I’m sorry. I guess the assassins came for you too, huh?”

Silvermane didn’t answer, naturally.

“Should we take him back to the barricade?” Lucky Days asked.

“I do not believe we have time to tarry,” Kermit said. “But perhaps we can hide a tree in the forest?”

“What do you mean?”

The grippli pointed to a pile of corpses. “If we lay him among the dead, no one will be able to tell the difference.”

Gwen considered it. “It’s as good a plan as any, and we are short on time to act.”

“We should have someone scout ahead,” Valbrand said as he carefully moved the old elf. “Kermit, do you have any more of those invisibility potions?”

“I believe I do,” the grippli answered, fishing through his pouch. “There’s one.”

“Give it to Lucky Days,” the warrior said. “She should be able to scout quickly, see what the situation looks like at the drums, then return safely so we can decide whether to ambush them or sneak around.”

“I can do that!” the girl agreed. “But I have a potion already that I can use.” So Kermit instead gave her the skull bomb he’d taken from Brollerth. “What’s that for?”

“You’ll know the reason when you see it,” the grippli answered sagely. In truth, he had no idea whether she would need it or not, but he figured it was better to have and not need it rather than need and not have it. He just wasn’t keen on wasting the time explaining that.

“Coach was right,” the girl said, beaming. “You are really smart!” She tied the bomb to her belt and drank the potion, then bounded off towards the sound of the drums.

Lucky Days bolted through town, as swift and as invisible as the wind, making her way towards the sound of the drum. It was only by luck that she spotted a hidden figure in the shadows within a building she passed as she approached the tower that seemed to be the source of the sound. And it was only because of her invisibility and the booming of the drum masking her sounds that he missed seeing her.

She then spotted another figure watching from a hole in the wall of the tower. She made her way around the building to the other side and carefully opened the door, making her way inside. The room was dimly lit by the light coming from the stairs above, but she was able to make out the form of the woman – at least, she had a feeling it was a woman – by the small window as well as a number of bound and terrified women and young girls.

She wasn’t sure if she could get the women out safely, so she decided to make the most of her time remaining invisible and hurried up the spiraling stairway. Up top, she found six figures. In the center of the open area was hunchbacked orc, who was busy beating the drum. Watching him was a bear woman of some kind. The other four were humans dressed like the woman downstairs and appeared to be watching in all directions.

To her surprise, she recognized two of the black-clad figures. One was the man from the jail, but the other immediately drew her ire. Anger boiled right behind her eyes as she saw the face of the woman who had pulled down her skirt the other day. Didn’t the woman know how dangerous that was? What if one of the men had seen her underpants? Then she’d never be able to get married and her mother would disown her.

Deep down, she knew she should leave the five and return to her companions to tell them what was going on, but she had to do something before leaving. But what? The apparent leader of the group, the bear woman, was arguing with the hunchback. But even distracted, the bear woman looked far too dangerous to take on alone, even if it weren’t for the other four assassins.

Then it dawned on her. She carefully untied the skull bomb and slid it under the drum and lit the fuse. She would have maybe twenty or thirty seconds to escape. So she then dashed and leapt from the tower.

Magic is a funny thing. You see, if she had thrown the bomb at someone or something, her invisibility would have faded immediately. But she had simply set it down and lit it. So the cosmic powers adjudicating such an event decided that it simply did not count as an invisibility-shattering attack until it exploded and hit something, much to Lucky Days’ benefit.

She landed still running, continuing her sprint until the explosion happened and the drum stopped. Luckily for her, the others were just coming into sight at that time. “What was that?” Gwen asked.

“Women! Kids! Drum! Grenade! Bear!” Lucky Days panted as she struggled to catch her breath.

Back at the tower, the hunchback had been thrown back by the explosion. Of course, since there was no one else there to blame, he immediately began calling the assassins all sorts of unkind things as he got to his feet. Of these, “traitor” was perhaps the mildest.

But the bear woman – a skinwalker – wasn’t having it. She drew her axe across her claw menacingly, daring the hunchback to keep talking. Tensions were high, and it was a powder keg waiting for one more spark. A very distracting powder keg.

Lucky Days explained to the others everything she had seen as they made their way to the tower. It was Valbrand who came up with a plan. Once agreed, they all began to play their parts.

First, Kermit took his remaining invisibility potion and made his way across the clearing. Once he reached the door, Lucky Days and Qumeel bolted after him while Valbrand charged into the shop on the side of the road and began facing off with the lookout.

As Jazier and Gwen followed after them, one of the men in the tower – the very same man they had put in jail earlier – spotted them. “The target is here!” he said, drawing his shortbow and firing an arrow into Jazier’s shoulder.

Jazier panicked and looked for a solution. Immediately, his mind struck upon something. He faked a cough. “I’m sorry, Gwen, but I do not think I can go on. This arrow has struck a vital artery! I fear I am not long for this world. Avenge me!” he shouted as he stumbled forward and collapsed, conveniently falling behind the cover of the building’s walls.

“What is he on about?” Gwen asked, returning fire and injuring the archer. His return volley caught her in the arm. It wasn’t a deep wound, but it hurt and would make it difficult to shoot for a bit. So she dove behind the building with Jazier.

“Too obvious,” the wizard pretending to be a corpse whispered. “They’re certain to know you’re alive.”

Gwen ignored him as she bandaged her wound and reloaded her weapon with the wand Jazier was holding out to her.

The commotion proved to be the spark that ignited the powder keg, and the hunchback struck out at his “allies”, planning to make them pay for looking down on him. Unfortunately for him, he was outmatched and fell quickly, succumbing just as Lucky Days reached the top of the stairs. She dodged past the others and made her way straight to Asha, the woman who had wronged her, and slashed her in half with Sakura-chan. From the ground, all anyone could see was a spurt of blood that wafted to the ground like glistening cherry blossoms.

In the base of the tower, the assassin on lookout had noticed as Lucky Days ran past, and moved to the stairs to see what had run by. She didn’t even notice the arrival of Kermit before she felt sharp pain as the grippli tore her spine out and hit her aside the head with it.

“Sound the alarm!” the skinwalker roared. But before she could move on Lucky Days, Qumeel reached the top of the stairs and took down the archer that had been firing at Gwen and Jazier. In a moment of hesitation, she realized that her two remaining allies had both fled, leaping off the top of the tower. Qumeel slashed at the man near him in vain, and the assassin, whose name was Lupin, though none of his “allies” had bothered asking, made a clean getaway, though not before firing off a flare to alert his allies throughout the city.

This was not as true for the archer closest to Lucky Days. While she did manage to evade Lucky Days’ strike, it caused her to fall incorrectly, and she twisted her ankle. And more than that, she landed no more than a few feet from Valbrand, who was covered with the blood of her comrade from the storefront. She tried to attack him with her alchemical ice blade, but he simply encased his hand with frost from his enchanted armband and caught the blade. It shattered with a twist of his wrist and he struck her with his shield.

“You are bested!” he said. “I do not have to kill you. Stay down!”

She saw no other way out. If she tried to flee, he would kill her. So the woman, Varela, held up her hands. “I surrender!” she said, fighting back a tear of frustration that was hidden from the warrior’s view by her ebon locks as she dropped to her knees in submission.

The bear charged Lucky Days and tried to push her off the tower, but the horse girl used Sakura-chan to brace against the tower’s edge, avoiding being knocked off. She then dodged away and slashed, but missed. The movement also caused Qumeel’s thrown sword to miss the skinwalker, though it did manage to strike into the floor, skewering the still spurting torso of Asha as it did so.

“What do you see?” Jazier asked Gwen.

“Lucky Days is fighting some kind of were-bear or something,” the girl answered, taking a shot and scoring a glancing hit against the skinwalker’s tough hide. “Wait, something else is happening.” The door to the tower opened and terrified women and children made their way out, having been freed from their bonds by Kermit. Gwen stepped out of cover and sweeped the area with her gun, looking for dangers before motioning the women and children over.

They recognized her, of course and immediately began making their way to her.

As she watched, Gwen noticed something strange. Bright red hair. She had only seen hair like that once before. Had the woman her uncle wanted arrested as an accomplice been one of the prisoners? Then she looked closer. No, it wasn’t her. It was an elven boy, barely an adult. Either the idiots had mistaken him for a female, or… well, Gwen didn’t want to think about what other reasons they had for taking him if they knew he was male. Orcs were not known to be kind to elves.

But she didn’t recognize him, and she made a point of learning about all elves who came through Trunau. That meant he couldn’t have been there long. To arrive and get caught up in all of this suddenly had to be terrifying for him.

Up on top of the tower, Gwen saw Lucky Days take a glancing blow from the she-bear’s axe before dodging back swiftly. She could also hear Qumeel chanting a prayer, asking his god to bless someone. By the sound of the roar that followed, that someone was likely Kermit.

“Is it safe to come out now?” Jazier whispered.

“Oh for the love of – Help the kids!” Gwen said to the wizard.

The fleeing children, curious as to who she was talking to, went around the side of the building. “It’s Ruby’s magician!” one of them said.

“Not so loud!” the wizard chided. “I’m pretending to be dead.”

One child tilted her head quizzically. “You’re not very good at pretending, are you?”

Jazier quickly chanted a cantrip, giving himself discolorations like bruises and covering himself in dirt. “There, is that better?” he asked.

“A little,” the girl admitted as several of the other children began to mimic him in playing dead.

Up top, the she-bear’s eyes glowed – as did her bracer – as she swung at the charging Kermit, missing narrowly. Lucky Days saw her opportunity and dashed in, scoring a blow that missed anything vital, but still drew a lot of blood. The bear roared angrily.

Downstairs, a couple of the women were helping Valbrand tie up his captive. “A real warrior would be up there dealing with the monster, not dealing with a captured, defenseless woman,” the assassin said with a grunt as she was pushed to the floor and her hands bound.

Valbrand smirked. “My presence is unnecessary. You made a miscalculation. Our monster is much scarier than yours. Still, I guess I should head up to help with looting the corpses.” He looked to one of the other women. “I promised I would spare her life if she surrendered,” he said. What he did not say was that he had made no such promises for anyone else. What they would do was none of his concern.

Only the bound assassin caught his meaning. “My name is Varela. You would make a good Wolf,” she called after him, impressed in spite of the danger to herself.

Gwen noticed multiple flares throughout the city, answers to the one the fleeing assassin had fired. “This place won’t be safe for long. Lucky Days!” she called out. “I need you as soon as you get a second!”

“I’ll be down in a sec!” the other girl called back.

Gwen nodded, even though the girl couldn’t see her. “Round up the children,” she told one of the rescued women. “We’ll escort you to safety momentarily. We’re going to have to move quickly.”

“Is there a safe place?”

“A relatively safe one,” Jazier answered, his eyes still closed in feigned death, causing one of the children to laugh.

Up top, the she-bear had abandoned her weapon, going fully feral and attacking Kermit wither her claws and teeth. But his thick skin easily deflected one of the claws and teeth. Only a single claw struck true, and only did enough damage to catch on his hide.

Kermit answered by biting into the arm that grabbed him, tearing a massive chunk from the bear’s flesh. She let go and stumbled back. Surrounded by enemies, she made the only choice available and tried to flee, jumping towards the edge.

“Oh no you don’t!” Lucky Days shouted, dashing forward and slashing the woman midair. The blow pierced the bear’s back and went in through her heart, but did not stop her forward momentum. As she sailed through the air, her body reverted to that of a woman with pale hair, dark skin and glowing tattoos that were fading as she fell.

The body landed with a wet sound a few feet from the assassin, who was now on her feet and being led away. She noted the bite wound, how the entire bicep had been torn out. “I guess their monster really was scarier,” she whispered in amazement.

Lucky Days wiped her blade and hurried down to Gwen as Qumeel healed Kermit’s wounds and retrieved his sword. “What do you need?” she asked.

“Can you carry me and still run fast?” the half-elf asked.

“Um, not as fast as normal, probably.”

“Faster than I can run?”

“Oh! Yes, probably much faster than that.”

“Okay, you’re coming with me, then,” Gwen said. She turned to Jazier. “Lucky Days and I are taking the women and kids to safety. Have Qumeel show you to the Hopespring. We’ll catch up.”

“I know the way,” the wizard answered, though Gwen did not acknowledge it, already moving to lead the others to safety. She motioned for the women to follow her.

As they passed the alley where Jazier lay, still pretending to be dead, Varela smirked. “Well, at least we got the target,” she said to herself. “So it wasn’t all wasted.”

Once the others made their way down from the tower, the four men began moving forward. As they traveled, something became evident, though it was Qumeel who finally said it. “The stream that runs through town appears to be drying up,” the cleric noted.

“Do you think they dammed it up?” Jazier asked.

“If so, we will need to attend to that. The defenders will need water to continue on. We should hurry to the Hopespring.” As they traveled, they spotted a number of tracks, including those of a creature much larger than an orc. Perhaps an ogre, or some kind of giant. Just the kind of muscle one would need to quickly construct a dam.

But it was worse than they feared. The stream wasn’t dammed. No, someone had broken open the wall of the Hopespring, revealing a cave and causing the water to flow downward, rather than into the town.

Jazier looked around at the stone debris lying everywhere. “I hope no one expects me to clean that up,” he said, sighing. “Who am I kidding? Of course they do. Alright, I guess I’ll get started while we wait for the girls to catch up.”

Note:
We've almost completely finished our move to the new place. Yep, all 4 of us under a single roof. In fact, I go turn in the keys to the old apartment in about an hour(after retrieving the vacuum Szo left over there on Sunday). Theoretically, we should be able to find time to play more regularly now. Now I just have to get back to finding time to write at work.

Also, my GF(Steve's sister) will be moving in with us sometime in the next couple months. Which we'll probably be celebrating by starting a new campaign, because we're idiots. On a hilarious note, my character is a paladin who has some kobold slaves(it makes sense in context, it's just a legal thing, he sees them as a group of children too stupid to care for themselves but the only way the law would let him take care of them was to officially make them slaves). And my GF? She was talking about wanting to play a kobold, not knowing any of this. :P


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Formatted Linky

Chapter 19: On the Case:
That morning, Kendra woke up and – beckoned by the smell of cooking meats – headed downstairs. When she arrived, she found Natalya and Heimish already eating. Embreth was there as well, but she just had a cup of tea before her.

She sat down and Stein appeared from the kitchen, holding a tray with both a plate and a cup of tea, which he set before Kendra. “I’d like to meet this ‘Beast’,” she said to Embreth before she put a piece of bacon in her mouth.

“If you agree to look into this matter for me, I can arrange it.”

Kendra sipped her tea. “And I want everything you have on the experiments on Santino.”

“It will take time to search my library, but anything I can find is yours.”

“Okay, then. Make the arrangements. We’ll start looking into this after breakfast.”

After she was finished eating, Kendra went back upstairs and changed into her armor. She wasn’t sure she’d need it, but after the way things had gone the previous night, she wasn’t taking chances. It also helped that it made her look more intimidating. She had a feeling she would need all the help she could get.

As they went outside, Santino heard them and started hobbling over from the shed where he had been busy digging. “Sorry,” Kendra said, “but you need to stay here and rest. I promise we’ll be back as soon as we can.” He looked annoyed at being left behind, but was in no shape to contest her decision, so he instead went to the porch to take a nap. When he got there, he was surprised to find waffles in his bowl, which he ate happily.

In the town square, the group found that the locals had been busily reconstructing the Punishing Man. It was as if they had been at it all night. That was, in fact, the truth. Their excitement at the sport of seeing a convicted man burned had whipped them into a near-religious frenzy. If this kept up, it would be done in less than a day, perhaps two at the latest.

Luckily, human beings can only work so long before exhaustion forces them to rest. In truth, they would only be able to work a few more hours before needing a break. Others would take their places, but these would be much less enthusiastic individuals, so their work speed would be slow by comparison.

Among the crowd, the party spotted the Crooked Kin plying their trade and helping with the clean up where they could. A large group gasped in amazement at the sight of Trollblood doing some firebreathing.

As they made their way through the crowd, they heard snippets of conversation. It was mostly rumors about the night’s events, but it also included quite a bit of talk of the hero, Alvin. The legend Santino had started had completely taken on a life of its own.

Natalya couldn’t help but laugh comparing the reality of the acolyte with statements like, “When the bogeyman goes to sleep, he checks his closet for Alvin” or “When Alvin does a push up, he isn’t lifting himself, he’s pushing the whole world down.” She wondered what the “hero” himself would say if he heard such things. He’d probably faint at the pressure.

They reached the large, squat building just past the clock tower where the beast was being held. A pair of guards at the door moved to bar their way. “Step aside,” Kendra said. “We’ve been sent to-”

She stopped as Stein held a hand in front of her. “Say only what is necessary.” He produced a letter and held it out to the closest guardsman.

The man took it, and his eyebrows arched as he read the letter. “Alright, this seems to be in order,” he said, showing it to his companion. “Be careful in there.”

Stein took the letter back and they headed downstairs to the holding cells, but as they departed, Natalya heard the guards talking. “I thought he already had someone to defend him.”

“That guy? Might as well burn him now.” That didn’t bode well. If the beast was truly innocent, they might be his only shot at making it out of this.

The cells were dimly lit by small, barred windows near the ceiling – up at ground level – and the entire floor was damp and a bit musty. In the center of the largest cell, they found the Beast, and he was not what any of them expected, except perhaps Stein, who had long ago learned to expect everything.

You see, the beast was no normal man. Not even a deformed man. No, he was an amalgamation of several men, stitched together into a single creature. “A flesh golem,” Stein mused, “I must say that isn’t the weirdest possibility, but it’s definitely up there.”

The creature rocked back and forth, moaning as his heavy chains rattled. Heimish carefully checked for signs of vile necromancy, and once he found none, he relaxed. “I think you’re right. He definitely appears to be a golem, and not a risen undead.”

Kendra opened the door to the large cell and the beast raged, trying to tear free from his chains. Natalya drew her sword and jumped in front of her. “Watch out!” the girl shouted.

Heimish stepped in front of them. “There’s no need for that.” He turned to the Beast. “Calm down, lad.” His soothing voice seemed to be having an effect. “There we are. We’re here to help, but to do so, we need to know anything you can tell us that might exonerate you. Can you help us to help you, lad?"

”I-I don’t remember,” the Beast answered, his voice thick but guileless. “But I didn’t do it!” he insisted.

“Okay,” Kendra said. “I believe you… I’m not sure what to call you. Do you have a name?”

“I don’t understand.”

“You know, something others called you. Perhaps your creator had something he called you?”

The beast shook his head. “Father… didn’t give me a name.”

“What of your father?” Natalya asked. “Did he have a name?”

The Beast shrunk back like a scolded child. “Can’t tell.”

“Why is that, lad?” Heimish asked. “What would happen if you told us?”

“No, can’t tell. Have to protect Father.”

“It’s okay,” Kendra said, stepping forward. The beast panicked, terrified that the armored woman would inflict more torture on it. That she would try to elicit a confession like the others in armor had done before.

Heimish stepped between them again. “It’s okay lad. There’s nothing in my hands. Please, let me help you.” The beast calmed as the preacher approached. “These are terrible wounds, but they show little sign of healing or bleeding. I think he really is a flesh golem.”

“We need to talk to his barrister,” Kendra said. “And see what evidence they have against him. Let’s go.”

“I’m going to stay with him,” Heimish said. “The lad needs someone to reassure him.”

“Okay, but be careful,” Kendra said. “Let’s go.”

“Alright, lad, while we’re waiting, let’s chat. I know you can’t tell me anything, so maybe I should talk?”

“Okay,” the Beast answered.

“Has anyone ever told you about the Black Butterfly?” the preacher asked as the door shut behind Natalya.


UnArcaneElection wrote:
Poldaran wrote:
** spoiler omitted **
Win.

Kermit's just a nice dichotomy. Silly or deep some times, but a vicious machine of gory murder others.


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Formatted Linky

Barroom Blitz:
The temple acolytes who were defending the point had obviously gotten used to the eccentricities displayed by the pair, and were already moving to escort the scared women and children into the relative safety of the barricade. Omast took that as his cue and motioned for the guards to lay Jagrin’s body in an area away from the children.

Brollerth took one look at the body and cocked his head. “Is that, like, the captain? He’s still smoking. Uhh, did I do that?”

Jazier shook his head. “No. This tragedy wasn’t of your making.”

Gwen just sat by her uncle’s side, numbly staring at his lifeless face, barely recognizable from the fire damage. She was so out of it, she didn’t notice the strange stick Douglas had pulled out to pick his teeth with. Nor did she notice as Halgra began barking orders.

“I need a report,” she said. “And we need to get someone over to light the Inner Gate Beacon.”

“We already handled it,” Omast reported.

“Good. What of the Hopespring Beacon?”

“I don’t know,” Omast admitted.

“We need someone to…” She trailed off as her eyes fixated on the girl sitting there, lost to the world. “Gwen!” she said, her voice booming as she demanded attention. Gwen turned to look at her, but otherwise barely acknowledged the older woman’s presence. “I know it’s hard, right now, but I need you to focus. I need someone I can count on to go light the Hopespring Beacon.”

“Why me?” the girl complained.

“Because I will not have you sitting here, waiting to die. You are stronger than that, even if you don’t know it. You will either live, or die fighting. I need someone with that spirit. Someone who can save this town, and keep it from being taken by these a%#@@+&s.”

Unbidden, the words of the woman from the dream came to Gwen’s mind. “Your kids will likely be among the last generation of true half orcs, so there’s that.”

“No,” Gwen said so softly that no one could hear her as white-hot rage filling the emptiness in her heart. That was NOT going to happen. She stood up, her knuckles white from how tight her grip on her gun was. “Tell me what I need to do.”

“I need volunteers to go with her,” Halgra said to the others.

“You can count on me, Chief Chief,” Lucky Days said, reaching high into the air to make sure she was seen.

“I am ever at the service of those who would stand against evil,” Qumeel said.

Kermit hopped to his feet. “Tough times never last, but tough people do.”

Valbrand clapped Jazier on the shoulder. “If Kermit’s going, we’re going too.” Jazier, for his part looked resigned to the fate of being dragged along. He was probably going to die, but that was likely his fate here too. What difference did it make where he fell?

Douglas set down the stick he was picking his teeth with and retrieved a bag. “Uhh, uhh, hey guys! You maybe want a toothpick before you go?”

Valbrand looked into the bag. “These are wands!” the big man exclaimed. Douglas had so many of them. He knew he had little chance at guessing the value of the contents of the bag, but it was a veritable king’s ransom. He reached in and grabbed one. It was already chewed, but that wouldn’t affect the effectiveness of the wand, so he tucked it in his belt.

Lucky Days went ahead and grabbed one, carefully picking up one that hadn’t been chewed. As she carefully wiped it, she wasn’t watching where she was going, and bumped into Jazier, who stumbled back and slipped on the wand Douglas had set down, falling flat on his backside. “I think that one’s choosing you! You should take it!” Douglas exclaimed picking it up and holding it out to the wizard.

Jazier got to his feet and rubbed his sore back. “Thanks,” he said as he took the offered wand, carefully avoiding the parts covered in spit.

“Gwen, take one too,” the strange man insisted. “Never know when you’ll need one.”

The girl grabbed a wand as well, luckily getting one that was devoid of chew marks. If nothing else, she could use it to power her rifle, so she stowed it in her belt pouch. As she did so, Kermit began walking over, but was stopped by Brollerth, who held out a skull bomb. “This is much better than a toothpick. Make the bodies rain, frog man.”

Kermit nodded and took the offered bomb, inspecting it carefully. “Alas, poor orc, I did not know you,” he said before putting it away.

“Douglas,” Halgra said.

“Yes, boss?” he asked.

“Take Brollerth and go deal with the catapults.”

Douglas sighed. “A professional’s job is never done. Good thing I’m perfect. Let’s go, Brollerth.”

Gwen looked to her own rag-tag band as the pair left. “I guess we should get going too.”

Halgra stopped her. “Gwen, remember, the beacon is priority, but try to save anyone you can.”

The girl nodded. “Right.”

The group moved somberly through town. The stench of death assaulted their nostrils the entire time. Gwen felt physically ill. She had dealt with smaller orc raids, and the threat was a constant of her life, but this was on a scale she had never expected.

The others were similarly affected, all for their own reasons. It was easily visible on their faces, from the hard set of Qumeel’s jaw to the way Lucky Days’ eyes darted around, alert for the slightest motion – the first sign of arriving enemies. Only Kermit – face hidden behind the glowing mask of the Guyver – was unreadable. And only Valbrand seemed to be taking an academic interest in the affair. It wasn’t his first raid, though it was the first time he was on this end of one and was thus a new experience all its own.

The deafening amidst the din of battle was broken by the sound of a scream. “Agrit?!” Gwen gasped in recognition. But she had barely said it when Lucky Days bolted in the direction of the sound, quickly arriving at a burning home. She looked inside and spotted the dwarf woman doing her best to hold back a massive lizard that was trying to get at her and the lifeless form of another person trapped under a burning beam that had collapsed.

“Get away from her!” the girl shouted, charging forward and slashing at the lizard with Sakura-chan.

Outside, the others finally caught up. Valbrand hurried inside to help, but before the others could follow, Gwen and Kermit spotted several orc ambushers leaping up and preparing to charge. Gwen took aim and fired, but her gun jammed. It was a rare occurrence, and likely caused by her failing to take care of the weapon in the chaos of battle, and it terrified her.

But Qumeel stood between her and the charging orc while Kermit charged the chain-wielding orc coming from the other side. In a panic, Jazier used the wand he was given to coat the weapon of the orc facing Qumeel with magical grease. Gwen considered his action and drew her own wand, boosting the power of Qumeel and Lucky Days’ attacks by enhancing the sharpness of their weapons, using her position in the doorway to reach both targets.

The orc facing Qumeel swung, but changed the arc of his blow at the last minute, his axe biting deep into the cleric’s side. Qumeel crumpled from the blow, lying lifeless on the ground.

“Gods! He’s dead!” Jazier wailed, doing the only thing he could think to do and covering the ground underneath the orc’s feet with more grease. Gwen fumbled with her gun, trying to clear the jam and bring down the orc, but her hands were shaking from a combination of adrenaline and fear.

Inside the building, Valbrand leapt onto the lizard and swung with all of his might, his axe biting deep into the back of the creature’s skull. It twitched for several moments, but then stopped moving. “Please!” Agrit begged. “Help Sarah!”

Lucky Days nodded and cast Sakura-chan aside, lifting the beam with the entirety of her anger. Valbrand hopped off of the lizard and helped the dwarf pull the half-orc woman clear as the small but powerful girl dropped the burning beam.

Outside, Kermit bit into the shoulder of his foe as his claws slipped into the orc’s gut. The jagged talons pierced into intestines and he yanked them out. He then took the slick, rope-like organs and wrapped them around the orc’s neck, pulling tight until he heard the sound of his foe’s neck snapping.

“Kermit!” Jazier shrieked. “Qumeel’s in trouble!”

“I, Thundoor, dedicate this sacrifice to the chieftess!” the orc shouted as he raised his axe.

Time seemed to slow as Kermit charged the orc, and inside, Valbrand heard the sound of the wizard’s shout. He scooped up Agrit, who had collapsed from her injuries, and carried her with him as he ran outside, dropping her just outside the door.

Kermit slammed into the orc just in time to prevent the blow as Gwen’s bullet merely glanced the orc’s shoulder. The orc swung again, but the grease finally caused his axe to slip from his grasp. Desperate to take someone with him, he bit Qumeel, who winced in pain in his unconscious state.

“He’s alive!” Jazier said, noticing the expression. “We can still save him!” he launched a small bolt of electricity at the orc as he shouted.

Lucky Days finally got Sarah the rest of the way outside and noticed the sight. “Oh no! Qumeel is down!” she screamed. She dashed forward, trying to pull Qumeel’s unconscious body away from the orc, but the foe’s hold was too strong.

The orc reached his hands out, grasping the cleric’s neck. One quick wrench and it would be over. His brutal gods would count his death as a good one, having fought to the last to take one more enemy with him. His satisfaction shone in his eyes.

All Gwen could hear was her own heartbeat as she finished reloading and took aim. This was her last chance. Kermit was fighting with the grease Jazier had put upon the ground and couldn’t get a good blow in to stop the orc. Jazier was useless, Valbrand wasn’t close enough to get there in time and Lucky Days’ efforts to pull the cleric away might actually help the orc finish the deed. It was up to her.

She swallowed, blackness surrounding the edges of her vision as she focused on one thing, and one thing alone. She exhaled and pulled the trigger…

…and the orc’s skull exploded in a spray of blood, the shards of the back of his skull splattering all over Kermit.

Gwen collapsed to her knees as the adrenaline wore off. Jazier rushed to Qumeel’s side and began pouring a potion down the cleric’s throat, causing Qumeel to cough.

Lucky Days pulled out the “toothpick” she had been given and handed it to Valbrand. “Will this help?” she asked.

The warrior inspected the wand. “This will help a lot, actually,” he said, using it first on Qumeel’s wounds, then heading back to heal first Sarah, then Agrit. Unfortunately, it didn’t have many charges left. But it helped.

From where she sat, trembling, Gwen spotted the form of a goblin in the shadows down the street. But she was too worn out to do anything other than let the others know.

Jazier surveyed the battlefield as Qumeel started to get up. He pointed to the first orc Kermit had killed. “Why his intestines? Why not strangle him with his chain?” he asked.

The grippli shrugged. “His intestines were already in my hands.” Jazier could not argue against that.

Back on his feet, Qumeel used his power to heal everyone a bit. As he did so, Agrit took Gwen’s hand. “Thank you!” she said, blinking back tears. “You saved her. You saved us!”

Kermit came over, holding the axes he’d taken from the fallen orcs. “I hope you do not need these. But having and not needing is better than needing and not having.”

Sarah nodded. “We can make it to the nearest shelter. Any advice on where to go?” she asked Gwen.

“Halgra and Tyari have the survivors holding position at the barricade over that direction,” the girl answered.

“So Halgra made it?” Sarah asked. “What of Katrezra?”

Gwen shook her head. “Someone stabbed him to death in his cell.”

Sara’s jaw clenched. “I see. I’m sorry Gwen, but I blame your uncle for this. He hates our kind and lost his head.”

“But his head is still attached,” Kermit chimed in. “Technically, he burned to death.”

Sarah’s smile came unbidden at that, but she saw Gwen’s crestfallen face and felt bad. “Come on, Agrit. Let’s get to the barricade.”

Qumeel approached Gwen, the only one he hadn’t spoken to yet. “You have my sincerest thanks for saving me.”

“You’re welcome,” Gwen said weakly. “Come on. We have to get to the beacon.”

They continued onward, but it wasn’t long before they found more signs of malfeasance. People – humans! – were looting The Killing Grounds. From outside, the group could see multiple bodies, including that of Rabus Clarenston, the proprietor.

Only, Rabus wasn’t dead. Movement from his eyes made it clear that he was only playing dead.

Kermit drew out one of the potions he’d taken from the orcs and drank it. “I’m going inside to help him,” he whispered as he disappeared from sight.

Gwen nodded. “We’ll go in as soon as we see him moving Rabus,” she told the others.

Inside, the looters were laughing. “Look what I found!” one proclaimed, holding up the squirming form of a female goblin by the neck. They quickly set to work making a bit of sport, preparing to hang Tipi as she squirmed, unsuccessfully trying to free herself as they wrapped the rope around her neck.

Kermit reached Rabus and whispered. “We’re going to save you.” Rabus nodded slightly in answer.

Rabus rose into the air as Kermit lifted him, and Lucky Days charged in, Sakura-chan crackling with electricity as she struck one of the looters. As she did so, he let go of the rope holding Tipi. Lucky Days then swung instinctively at the falling goblin, cleaving through her neck in a single blow and sending blood wafting through the air in a spray like falling cherry blossoms.

As she hit the ground, Tipi finally released her hold on the doll she’d so desperately clung to.

“Ghosts!” one of the thugs shouted, not even noticing Lucky Days as he stared at the seemingly floating corpse before him. Kermit was making croaking sounds and filling the air with steam as he did so.

The others fell in short order, no match for the band of angry warriors they’d encountered, though one of the thugs died with a smile after getting a look up Lucky Days’ skirt as he fell. The girl stabbed him in the eyes with Sakura-chan. “It’s rude to look up there!” she shouted.

“Gwen, what’s going on?” Rabus asked the half-elf.

“You don’t want to know,” she said, ducking to the side as Qumeel flung his sword into another thug. The final thug tried to flee, but Lucky Days was in no mood to let him escape. He didn’t make it more than five feet out of the door.

“Well, thank you for saving me,” the proprietor said to the group.

“Can you make it to the barricade?” Gwen asked, giving quick directions.

“Yeah, I think I can make it. Please, take anything you want from the shop. And if we make it through this, all of you drink free here for life.”

Valbrand smiled at that. Free drinks sounded good to him. He then spotted something and knelt down, scooping up the doll. “Huh. I bet Rodd would like this,” he said as he tucked it into his belt pouch. He couldn’t help but laugh as he turned and noticed that Jazier had taken to cleaning up the mess.

Note:
Finally caught up with some work stuff and had time to write. Have this one and a Carrion Crown finished. So that'll be next week. Have notes to write one more each of CC and Giantslayer. Hopefully running a RoW next week.


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Formatted Linky

Interlude: The Tale of Terry: Lost Puppies:
“Now don’t embarrass me, kid.”

“I’m not.”

“This guy’s no joke. One of the best fighters in the nation. Maybe the best that Typhon doesn’t own. He’ll break you like a twig if you sass him.” Pops the dwarf gestured to himself. “Of course, I wouldn’t let him hurt you much, Terry.”

“No. Of course not,” I said, rolling my eyes.

Typhon Lee was Pop’s employer. A big time boss-part or all dragon, the rumors were-who some called a criminal mastermind and others a benevolent savior. Me? I didn’t really care. As long as he pays me what I’m owed whenever I join the syndicate, he can call himself whatever he wants.

I tried my best to zone Pops out, focusing on driving the carriage through the forest trail. A near full moon hung above us, partly obscured by heavy clouds. The true beginning of winter was a few days off, yet the first layers of snow and frost covered the land and the surrounding trees. My black coat pushed back most of the cold, yet I was still having trouble feeling my face and I was pretty sure an icicle was forming at the tip of my nose. Next to me, Pops was covered in thick layers of clothing and an ushanka hat he’d made out of an old grizzly bear.

He munched on some jerky and said through a mouthful, “Who knows. I might leave you with him for a bit. Let him whip you into shape.” The dwarf eyed me out of the corner of his eye. “You’re not always gonna have weapons at hand.”

“Says the dwarf with a weapon literally for a hand.”

He’d removed his prosthetic arm, covered it in blankets, and nestled it in between our baggage, though close enough so that he could just reach over, grab it and put it on in case of an ambush. It was his winter model, so the frost wouldn’t damage it. He’d made it, along with most of our weaponry. My own gun, a rifle, was tucked in a guitar case next to me. There were multiple levels to it. One for the gun and the one for an actual guitar, and a few side compartments for food, ammo, knives, explosives, and anything else that might come in handy. It was heavy, but after lugging it around since the age of six, I’ve gotten used to the weight.

“Pops,” I grunted. “Either tell me why we’re traveling all the way up here, or jump in the back and touch yourself until we actually get there. You keep hyping this guy up without actually telling me why we’re actually meeting him.”

Pops scratched his grizzled chin. “Personal favor,” he finally said. “And what’s the point of taking you in if you can’t be my personal valet?” He reached into his coat and pulled out a letter. He handed it to me and then leaned back, pulling the ushanka down over his eyes. “Sergei knows that I don’t do things for free.”

“Ah,” I said. “So he a noble? King?”

“Worse,” Pops chuckled. “Monk.”

“Monk?” I stared at him and then gestured with the letter to our dark, cold surroundings. “So we’re going through all this for what? Some fanatic’s blessing? Tips on how to light scented candles?”

“I’m sure if the job gets done well and proper he’d grant us both those things,” Pops said amiably. “But a favor owed by Sergei is priceless.”

I scoffed and began to read. The letter’s contents were short and to the point: Bandits. Nearly the entire village burned down with nine innocent people dead. Qualified bounty hunters needed.

I handed the letter back over to him. “Doesn’t say anything about you specifically,” I sneered. “Just bounty hunters.”

“Oh, well isn’t it just the damnest of coincidences that I just so happen to be one of the best bounty hunters who’s ever lived? Maybe the best,” Pops shot back dryly. He turned around and climbed into the back of the carriage. “Now just keep going straight. Big g#~@@#n monastery. Can’t miss it unless you’re blind or brain damaged. While you do that, I’ma just be back here sleeping-”

“Playing with yourself,” I interjected.

“Hey, I don’t tell you how to live your life,” Pops grunted.

“Yes you do,” I said under my breath. “Every single day of it.”

After that, besides repetitive grunts from the back of the carriage, the trip through the forest was a quiet one. It wasn’t until a few more hours had passed that I spotted the monastery off in the distance. Pops was right. It was definitely hard to miss. The building itself was situated at the very top and edge of a mountainous cliff. I spotted a trail curving up around the mountain, though it looked rocky and unstable. Just looking at it made my legs ache. Unless this Sergei guy was already waiting for us there, we were going to have to leave the horses and carriage at the base of the mountain. “Pops,” I called over my shoulder. “Pops!”

I leaned over and pulled back the blanket he’d crawled under. He was gone.

“Bastard,” I hissed just as a twig snapped to my left. I dropped the reins and grabbed for my guitar case. A blur of movement came from by the trees. I didn’t have time to draw my gun. I swung the case across my chest like a shield. It took the brunt of my assailant’s kick but the wind was still knocked out of my lungs. Next thing I knew I was flying through the air, towards a second thief.

My hand was already in motion, reaching into my coat. My fingers curled around one of three alchemical sound grenades Pops had given to me for my last birthday. I tossed it over my shoulder, hitting the thief in the face. A piercing bang filled the sky. It spooked both thieves, along with knocking one of them onto their ass. It also spooked the horses. They neighed hysterically and bolted forward just as I landed in the snow.

The first thief leapt towards a nearby tree, caught ahold of a low hanging tree branch, and swung himself towards me. He did all this in under a second.

Lucky for me, I got my gun out in under half that time. I shot him pointblank-but he managed to twist midair, taking the bullet to the shoulder instead of the head. I ducked and rolled forward. He flew over me and landed with a grunt of pain, painting the snow with his blood. I whirled around to finish him off.

A kick to the shins sent me to the ground. It was like being hit with a brick. I landed flat on my back. The thief I’d hit with the grenade pounced on top of me, wrapped his hand around my throat.

And I jammed my gun up into his groin.

“Your…move,” I sneered as pressure was applied to my windpipes. My forefinger danced on the trigger…If I was gonna die here I was definitely taking this guy’s package with me…

“ENOUGH!”

The thief immediately released my throat, jumped off me and stood at attention. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted his comrade get to his feet and do the same, his bleeding shoulder be damned. I scrambled to my feet and jerked my gun between the two repeatedly in case they tried something. I needn’t have bothered. Footsteps sounded to my rear. Shooting the thieves one last suspicious glance, I turned around.

I wasn’t particularly surprised to see Pops walking towards me. He had his metal arm on and was grinning ear to ear. With it he playfully nudged the man walking next to him up in the ribs. “Think I won that one,” he laughed. “Pay up.”

The man frowned down at the dwarf. “There was never any bet to begin with, Popovic,” he said, though his tone was a mildly amused one. He was a thickly built man, but old and lined. In his prime he would have been intimidating. A real monster. But age had brought along with it a slight hunch and a searching look to his eyes. As if he were constantly trying to see beyond what was right in front of him. He was also wearing a set of green robes. I noticed the thieves were wearing identical sets.

“You’re just saying that because your kids lost,” Pops pouted. He made his way towards me.

I aimed my gun at his head.

“Explain. Now.”

Pops gaped at me. “You wouldn’t!”

“Oh we both know I would,” I said evenly.

After a moment Pops nodded in agreement. “Yeah. You would.” Looking mildly sad about that harsh truth, he gestured around to the three men in green. “Meet Sergei and his disciples. Or at least some of them. Think of them like the welcome committee. Sergei wasn’t so sure about giving you the job so I told him to put his money where his mouth was-”

“It was a metaphorical bet,” the old monk said. “No actual money was promised.”

“-and pit his best students against you,” Pops finished. He gave me a metallic thumbs up. “And you fought them to a standstill. That’s winning in my book. Congrats.”

“Job?” I said. After a moment I lowered the gun.

Sergei approached his students. Now out of the heat of battle I got a chance to really look at them. They were maybe a little older than me but not by much. The one I’d shot had walked up to stand next to his comrade. His right arm was now completely stained with blood. Even then his eyes were unyielding, giving no sign that he was in pain.

Sergei spoke to him first. “Vasily, you grew arrogant in that precious last second before contact was made. Shifted your weight too eagerly, causing the tree branch to crack. Never consider a battle won until the last blow is dealt. Otherwise you have already been defeated. Understood?”

“Yes, master,” Vasily said.

Sergei turned to his companion. He was the larger of the two, with a blonde beard that reflected the moonlight. “I am impressed by your commitment, Hrein. Though the fact that you found yourself in such a compromising position shows that you’re lacking in experience fighting armed opponents. We will have to remedy that. Perhaps a few days of training under constant gunfire will do.” He looked back to Pops. “If Sir Popovic would be willing to provide the firearms.”

Pops beamed.

“Willing?” he laughed. “I love shooting kids!”

Hrein’s expression faltered under Pop’s smile. Yet it recomposed by the time Sergei returned his attention to him and Vasily. “I hunger for the challenge, master,” he said.

Pops rubbed his mismatched hands together. “Oh, boy, I am going to f$&& you up,” he cackled.

Color drained from Hrein’s cheeks but otherwise he didn’t react. Sergei sidestepped and gestured to the monastery beyond. “Go. Clean yourself, Vasily, and track down our guests’ carriage, Hrein. And afterwards see if young Gregor’s finally made it up the cliff, will you?”

“Yes, master,” they said unison and bolted past him. They ran with their arms hanging out behind them. It would’ve looked stupid if they weren’t moving so fast. I watched them go before turning my attention to Sergei. The monk was looking me up and down critically. He didn’t look impressed. But he didn’t look unimpressed either. Mildly bewildered would have been the right word for it.

“What?” I said a little defensively.

“Terrance Guiser.” He said my name slowly and clearly, as if trying it out on his tongue. His eyes flickered to Pops. “Has the boy joined Lee’s syndicate yet?”

“Not officially,” Pops answered.

Sergei nodded. “Very well. He will do.”

“Wait, hold up, pause, calm your horses, put a bookmark in it, yeah?” I looked between the two of them. “What the actual hell is going on?!”

#

“Bandits struck the town of Swindle near a month past,” Sergei told me. Hrein had come back with the carriage and we’d taken the long way around to the monastery. Apparently Sergei and his disciples just regularly climbed up and down the cliff whenever they were coming or going. Man, these guys were monsters. In hindsight Pops making me kill my puppy didn’t seem so bad. At least comparatively.

Sergei had led us through the monastery where a good number of under disciples trained. One of them couldn’t have been older than six or seven. The kid trailed after Vasily, who’d bandaged himself up, looking exhausted but eager for his next test. Vasily spotted me and Pops and shot a glare in my direction. I innocently scratched my cheek with my middle finger.

And I sometimes wonder why I don’t have any friends.

Sergei led us into his private chambers. There were lit candles everywhere but no bed or cot. The floor was stone and freezing to the touch. Even then Sergei sat down, legs crossed beneath him. Pops grunted as he plopped down across him. After a moment’s hesitation I did the same. And then Sergei began to explain:

“Swindle is a trading town. My students and I have done favors for it in the past. As with any place, there is darkness festering in its alleys. Yet the majority of the people there are good. Simply trying to make a living.” With a hand he gestured to the candles. “It’s where I get my candles from. At a decent price, mind you.”

“I thought monks didn’t believe in earthly possession,” Pops said.

“Yes,” Sergei said. “But with hundreds of students training day in and day out, the monastery can get quite smelly. I’m sure the God of Martial Arts will not mind the compromise.” He then carried on with his story as if he hadn’t been interrupted, speaking directly to me as he did so, “These bandits looted the shops, burning a few of them to the ground after they were done. A few of the survivors are currently being tended to as we speak.” He voice lowered slightly as he added, “Tended and chained down.”

I frowned. “Chained down?”

Sergei looked to Pops.

“What have you taught him of werewolves?” he asked.

“To run fast and not look back,” Pops and I answered in unison.

Sergei sighed. “I was hoping for more. Or at least something.”

“So I’m guessing these bandits are werewolves?” I asked. A chill of fear ran down my back as I said it. I’d heard stories. Men and women who could transform into wolves either by will or by the light of the full moon. And not just wolves. Some of them could transform into tigers, lions, or bears. Oh my. I’d even heard legends about a particularly nasty werechicken that had taken nearly fifty armed men to take down.

Sergei shook his head. “No. Just one. Their leader. Westina Kestral.”

Pops made a disgusted sound in the back of his throat. “B%&~*,” he said. “Literally.”

“Your master has history with Westina,” Sergei told me.

“He’s not my master,” I said at once. I then turned to Pops. “So what’s the deal with this werewolf lady? You sleep with her or something?”

“Please,” Pops said in disgust. “I have standards.”

“No you don’t,” I said.

“When it comes to her I actually do.” He leaned back up on his arms and stared up at the ceiling in recollection. “She was one of Typhon’s generals once. An active one. A real murder machine that one, especially under the light of the full moon. But she was smart. After every battle she’d have her subordinates round up the wounded and she’d give them a choice. Either die as a man or join Typhon as a freshly made werewolf.”

He shook his head. “People fear death more than anything else, Terry. And that fear can convince them to become monsters. Because of Westina, Typhon had his own personal faction of werewolf soldiers at his command.”

Pop’s lips pulled back into a snarl. “But then she got too high and mighty for her britches. She and her army of dogs tried to stage a coup. Typhon burned every single mongrel except her to the ground. And then afterwards he had all of her teeth pulled out and iron pressed into her gums so they wouldn’t grow back. So that she could never curse another soul again. Effectively neutered, he sent her off in shame. And that was the last time anyone in the organization had seen her. Walking off into the horizon with her tail between her legs.”

“Up until a month ago,” I said. I turned to Sergei, who’d been listening to Pop’s story in silence. “Any idea why she’d show up now? Hit Swindle specifically?”

“Of that I don’t know,” Sergei said a tad too quickly. “Yet I have sent a few of my students to scope out the town. Strictly for reconnaissance. No direct contact was to be made. Yesterday Vasily and Hrein returned. The bandits have set up a camp a day’s travel from here. All that they stole from Swindle is still with them. It is my belief that they intend to raid the town once more before departing.”

“Either that or Kestral’s going to try and recruit the townsfolk she cursed,” Pops said. “She told me once that it was much easier after they’d experienced the pain of the first change. That they’d do anything to make it easier, to be able to master the transformation.”

“Yeah but you said Typhon Lee took away her teeth,” I pointed out. “How is she changing people now?”

“Magic?” Pops offered halfheartedly.

“Speaking of Lee,” Sergei said carefully. “I respect the man but I refuse to align myself with his organization. So far he has honored my wishes. Yet I do not wish to press me luck, or risk the independence of my students, by owing him or those under his employ any favors.”

He looked pointedly at Pops as he said this. Pops scoffed and waved a dismissive hand.

“Yet if what Popovic says is true, then I will show no such hesitation in owing you, Terry, a favor in the future. That is, if you manage to eradicate these bandits and restore peace to Swindle.”

I stared at him, at a loss. It took me a second to regain my bearings. “Wait.” I pointed to the door. “You have hundreds of super monks out there. Why not send them?”

Sergei’s eyes fell to his lap. “Because they are my sons,” he said quietly. “And I’d rather them die a man’s death then potentially be swayed by that beast woman into becoming monsters.”

The sincerity in his words hurt my heart. Was that what having a parent would be like? Having someone care whether you lived or died. I knew Pops cared about me. But it was more like the way a kid cares about a toy. The moment I broke, he’d throw me aside and get a new one.

I exhaled deeply. “Okay. I’ll do it.” I got to my feet and hitched my guitar case up. “On the condition that, when I make it back,” I pointed an accusatory finger at Pops, “I can use this place to get away from him. At least for a little while.”

Pops pressed his metal hand to his heart. “Terry, that really hurts,” he whined. “And here I was considering getting you a new kitty for your birthday.”

“I hate cats,” I said coldly.

Plus you’d probably make me kill it anyway.

I held my hand out to Sergei.

Yet the monk hesitated.

“If or when you officially join Lee’s organization, I will not object to upholding this deal,” he said slowly and clearly, like one might read aloud a binding contract. “Yet if you bring chaos into my monastery, or I get any inkling that you are trying to recruit any of my students to his cause, I will show you no mercy, Terrance Guiser.”

“Life hasn’t shown me any mercy,” I told him. “Why should I expect any different from you?”

That actually brought a smile to his aged face.

We shook hands.

I had the monastery to my back as the first rays of dawn began to shine across the horizon.

#

Swindle had clearly been a wreck even before the werewolf lady decided to stop on by. The town itself was composed of thousands of colorful shacks, all decorated with tacky decorations, doodads, and all manner of merchandise. Even with the steady fall of snow, vendors were still screaming at the top of their lungs, showing off their wares to passerbyes who had the misfortune of wandering too close.

I was one such victim. A dark, elderly woman kept trying to sell me “performance enhancers.” No matter how hard I tried to get away, she just kept chasing after me, saying that it was my duty as a man to satisfy my woman. She screamed over me when I tried to tell her that I didn’t have a woman or any plans on getting one anytime soon. Yet the lady was persistent. I ended up coughing up seven silver just get her to shut up and leave me alone. I watched her go, jar of orange dirt in hand.

“You and I seriously have different definitions of ‘good people,’ Sergei,” I muttered, stuffing the jar into my coat. I’d give it to Pops. If I was lucky it’d do something potentially harmful to the perverted dwarf’s bits.

I then made my way towards the heart of Swindle. The deeper in I ventured, the more and more signs of vandalism I noticed. The heavy smell of smoke still lingered in the air even after a month. Shacks blackened. Some of them had caved in on themselves. Despite the cold season, I spotted a crow here and there picking at burned down tombs. Likely trying to get to the bodies that hadn’t been scavenged out yet. I drew a bandana from my coat pocket and wrapped it around the lower half of my face to ward off the lingering smell of death.

Near half an hour in was when I found the first claw marks in the street. I hunkered down and ran my fingers across it. Five marks. The width of each twice that of my thumb. More marks like it kept going down the street before abruptly stopping. I guessed that this was the point where Kestrel had changed back to human and rejoined her posse with the loot. I stood up and looked around. Any and all bodies had either been burned or buried. Any more clues I could have found had already been stripped from the scene, either by street rats or, maybe, a few members of Westina’s gang coming back to do clean up. Nothing more to find here. Yet there was one more thing I wanted to do before checking out the forest.

By the third person I asked, I knew were to go. Though it cost me three silver pieces each. Damn these people knew how to haggle! The shack in question was near the edge of town. Dream catchers adorned the walls and windows. They were well crafted and decorated with dyed bird feathers. Muffled cries sounded out from the back. Never much to mind manners, I let myself in and entered into the back room. A girl was lying on a cot, sweating profusely. She was shirtless except for bandages that covered her stomach and chest. A man and a woman, likely her parents, kneeled over her. The mother pressed a wet cloth to her daughter’s brow while the father stared on, looking dejected.

I knocked on the doorframe.

“Um, hello.”

The man and woman jumped. The woman immediately leaned across her daughter protectively while the man got to his feet. “What do you want?!” he screamed at me. “We already told you no!”

He moved to shove me. I sidestepped him, ducking further into the room. He stumbled forward and then whirled around, eyes livid. “She’s my daughter!” he screamed, charging at me, his fist raised. “Not a monster!”

He was emotional. He wouldn’t have noticed a cow if it had spontaneously appeared in the room and mooed in his ear. It was all too easy to duck his punches. I then grabbed both his arms and slammed him to the ground. I placed my foot between his shoulder blades and gave his arms a twist. Not enough to break them but enough to let him know that I could if I really wanted to.

“Are you Renn Wormwood?” I asked calmly while the woman sobbed.

“Y-yes,” he murmured, half his face pressed to the floor.

I looked to the girl. “And that’s your daughter. Bunny.”

“Yes,” he said again.

“A month ago she was attacked by a werewolf,” I said. “She and dozens other like her are about to change tonight.” I looked around the room and spotted thick, rusted chains in the far corner. “And you’re already prepping for it.” I let Renn go. He scurried away back to his wife and child, gasping. “Be easier to kill her.”

A nasty laugh burst from Renn’s lips.

“Easy?” he snarled. “She is my daughter!”

“And in a few hours she’s going to become a blood thirsty dog who’d likely rip both you and your wife’s throats out without a second thought accept, ’Ooh, this is yummy, where can I get more?’” I shot back.

The woman fixed me with a hateful glare.

“Who are you?” she asked.

“A traveling bard,” I lied, jerking a thumb at my guitar case. “And also a werewolf hunter.”

Their eyes widened in horror. I could see both of them getting back up and trying to attack me if I didn’t do damage control real fast. So I said, “Relax. I only kill wolves that have a red ledger. Ones who have already killed people. Your daughter’s safe. From me at least. To everyone else she’s a ticking time bomb.”

I showed them my hands. “But what I’m really after is the type of wolf who doesn’t hunt to kill, but to curse. A month back your town got hit by one such wolf. And I’m here to see if you had any information I could use to track her.”

“Her?” Renn repeated.

“Yeah. Her.” I looked between them. “Did either of you actually see your daughter get attacked?”

They shook their heads.

“No,” the woman said. She reached over and resumed wiping her moaning daughter’s forehead with the cloth. “Bunny liked to sneak out, scavenge. Steal food from other vendors. She knew we weren’t doing so well. So I think…” A fear rolled down her cheek. “She went looking for things to put on the dream catchers, so they’d sell better.”

“They found her among a pile of bodies,” Renn told me. “Clinging to life.”

Okay. Now we were getting somewhere.

“You told me that you’d already told me no,” I said. “Who did you think I was?”

“There are men and a young boy going around town, claiming to have a cure,” Renn said. “But they say the cure’s out of town, a least a week by horseback. All this past month they’ve been going around to the families of the survivors, promising free transport for those who choose to come. They even offered money to the families. They say they have resources to keep the survivors safe during a full moon. Keep them from hurting themselves or others…”
I saw the hope in his eyes. But Renn was a smart man. Even in his grief he knew that-

“It’s too good to be true,” I said. “There has to be catch.”

Renn nodded. He looked over his shoulder at his daughter.

“Three nights out of the month,” he said weekly. “Outside of that, she’ll be my daughter. She is my daughter…My baby Bunny.”

Part of me wanted to call him a fool. Wanted to go over and shoot the girl, put her out of her misery.

But I didn’t.

Whatever monster Bunny Wormwood became it was her parents’ job to deal with. And if they failed, I’d come back. And I would show her no mercy.

I returned my thoughts to the objective at hand. “Do you know where they were supposed to round up the survivors?” I asked Renn.

“A few hours north of here, by the waterfall,” he told me.

With that I thanked them and exited the room.

I was already outside and making my way down the street when his wife suddenly burst through the door. I stopped walking and turned, allowing her to catch up to me. She had a dream catcher in her hand. The yarn was black with dark feathers. She pressed it into my hands and said breathlessly, “Raven feathers.”

“…Okay?”

“The type of feather changes the specialty of the dream catcher,” she explained to me. “Not just dreams. Illness. Death.” Her eyes brimmed with tears, “A dream catcher adorned with raven feathers will cause even death to hesitate in smiting its wearer. If only for a second. And that second-”

“Can mean everything in a fight.” The dream catcher had a noose fashioned at the top. She watched me as I put it on and tucked it beneath my shirt. “Thank you.”

She stared up at me, eyes red and questioning.

Yet her voice was iron as she said, “Kill that b$$@+.”

“I intend to.”

And so back into the woods I went.

#

Walking through the snow, searching for werewolves, got my thinking about Zigzag. He’d been a mutt Pops had found in an alley during one of his missions when I was five. He’d brought it back home (a little pink cottage on a small island in the middle of the ocean) and given him to me to care for. The puppy was lame. Some scuffle with other, bigger dogs had left his hind right leg sticking out at an angle. He could still walk but not run. I’d named him Zigzag because of a lightning-shaped mark on his back.

I loved Zigzag. He was my friend.

Kept me company while Pops was away on missions.

And then one day Pops had come back to the island with another boy. Vincent. He resembled a weasel. It was loathing at first sight. The cottage was already crowded as it was with all of Pop’s inventions and weapons. There was also only two bedrooms, meaning Vincent and I had to share. Usually I cuddled with Zigzag in my arms.

Zigzag saved my life.

Vincent had stolen one of Pop’s small swords, stuffed it under his cot. He’d waited until I was asleep and tiptoed up next to me, sword raised. He would have killed me if Zigzag hadn’t jumped out of my arms and bit his leg, tripping him over. The fall had knocked the sword out of his hand. Instantly wide awake, I dove for the sword and aimed it at Vincent’s throat.

But then I froze.

He had both hands around Zigzag’s throat, squeezing the life out of the puppy’s body. Zigzag didn’t even have enough air to whimper in pain.

“Drop the sword, or I kill the rat,” Vincent hissed.

I looked from him to Zigzag.

And tossed the sword away.

That’s when Pops entered the room. Vincent immediately dropped the dog and pointed to his bleeding leg. “Terry’s dog attacked me!” he whined.

“I saw that,” Pops yawned, rubbing sleep out of his eyes. He turned to me. “After this little toad here tried to gut you, Terry. But then you had him dead to rights. Why didn’t you take it? Take revenge?”

My bottom lip quivered.

“H-he was gonna hurt Zigzag-”

I didn’t see the punch coming. If it had been from his prosthetic hand, the wall would have been painted with bits of my skull and brain. Yet Pop’s meaty fist still sent me to my knees, made me see stars. Next thing I knew he was standing over me, holding Zigzag over my face by the scruff of his neck. My puppy stared at me with large, brown eyes. He even tried to lick my face, to tell me everything was going to be okay.

“You sacrificed vengeance for this?” Pops asked incredulously. He dropped Zigzag onto my lap. He then went over, retrieved the sword, came back and forced it into my hand. “Kill the dog, Terry.”

I stared at Pops in horror. Vincent had slinked back into the far corner, grinning.

“No, Pops, please!” Tears fell across my cheeks. “But…but Zigzag’s my friend!”

Pops stared at me long and hard before taking the sword from me. “Follow me. Bring the dog.” He glowered at Vincent who quickly stopped smiling. “You stay here. I’ll deal with you later.”

Numb, I followed after Pops, clutching Zigzag to my chest. I followed him down into the workshop. There were other versions of his prosthetic, along with more swords, guns, and a lone guitar case in the far corner. There was a large, metal door at the far end of the room. Pops unhooked a ring of keys from his belt and unlocked it. He then walked in, gesturing for me to follow. The room’s walls were adorned with maps and volumes of books. I walked past Pops and turned around in a circle, staring at all the maps and books in wonder.

“You’re not leaving until you kill the dog.”

With that Pops closed the door on me. Leaving me alone in the dark with only Zigzag for company.

There was food. Wartime rations in case of an attack. Me and Zigzag shared them. There was no place to go to the bathroom. Eventually it began to smell. Every morning (at least I think it was morning, there was no way to tell time) Pops would knock on the door and call out, “Dog dead?”

Sometimes I pleaded. Sometimes I lied, told him that Zigzag was already dead. But somehow he always knew I was lying. I spent nearly two months in there.
I loved Zigzag. He was my friend.

But in the end it was either him or me.

#

The waterfall wasn’t too hard to find. Icy water flowed down from it into a ravine that ran through the forest. I approached at a slow, precise pace. In hindsight I needn’t have bothered being quiet. A kid’s incessant wailing drowned out whatever noise I would have made. I crept low and peaked out from behind a frosty bush. Quite a few people had gathered around the waterfall. A few of them wore bandages like Bunny and looked rather sickly. Some were kids, others were elderly. A few family members had come with them to say their heartfelt goodbyes. Either that or collect the money they’d been promised. Yet even the sickliest of the cursed victims wasn’t crying. No they were all staring at the boy a ways off, balling his eyes off.

He stood in between a pair of thugs. They were tall, ugly, and made of muscle. If at least one of them wasn’t at least part orc, than I’m a werechicken. They exchanged wary glances but didn’t comment as the kid continued to cry.

“This is soooo saaaaaaaaad!” he blubbered, rubbing at his puffy face. He was a skinny kid, on the cusp of becoming a teenager. His shaggy brown hair hung over his right eye while a grey sword tattoo marked the left side of his face. “F-families torn apart…I-I c-can’t deal with this!” Snot ran down his upper lip. “I...I…I think I’m gonna cry!!!!”

Neither thug pointed out to the kid that he was already crying.

I rolled my eyes and stepped out from behind the bush. I kept my arms in full view as I approached. Even then the thugs tensed. One of them, the likely part-orc, drew a curved blade from his belt. The kid hiccupped and immediately ducked behind the pair.

“W-who are you?” he squeaked at me.

“Travelling bard,” I told him. “And a wolf.”

“W-wolf?” the kid repeated, eyes growing large.

“Yup. Heard stories that you fellas had a cure.” I showed them my hands. “I’ve got the money and the time if you’re willing to take me in. I’m not so bad in a fight either, if you’re expecting any trouble.”

Hesitantly the kid stepped out from behind the thugs. “W-we don’t want any trouble, mister. We j-just want to help people.” His eyes began to brim with tears again. He rushed at me, arms out. I pushed down the instinct to send him sideways with a kick to the head. His scrawny arms closed around me. He buried his face in my chest, staining my shirt with snot. “Of course we’ll help you!”

“You go through the change yet?” the orcish thug asked, his eyes slits.

“Now, Brody, that’s so rude!” the kid cried. He dislodged himself from my person and clasped his hands together. “B-but he’s got a point, mister. Have you?”

“Kept waking up in the woods around my home, covered in animal guts every month,” I said. “Wasn’t so bad. But then last month I woke up in a farmer’s barn. Ate him, his wife, kids, and his cow. Would’ve been lynched if I hadn’t made a run for it.” I pressed a hand to my heart. “Honestly I’d be content to go on being the way I am if I didn’t have a sweetheart back home. I can’t go back to her a wolf…” My voice broke. “…A monster.”

Some of the women in the crowd who’d been listening in had begun to go teary eyed. Suckers.

“And so I came here, hoping-”

I stopped. The kid was looking up at me, face contorted into an emotional wreck. The sword on his face was scrunched up, now resembling more a crooked cross than a sword. “OF COURSE WE’LL HELP YOU!” he wailed again, throwing his arms around me again.

I’ve never wanted to hit a kid more in my life.

The thugs were clearly wary of me but they held their tongues. Instead the more human looking one called out, “Get your goodbyes out of the way. We need to leave before sunset!”

Final hugs and kisses were exchanged while the thugs went around giving out the money. Meanwhile the kid pulled me towards a trail leading away from the waterfall, deeper into the forest. “I’m Splott, what’s your name?”

“Emilio Abraxas,” I said. Nobody except me and Pops knew my middle name. It wasn’t in Lee’s records as far as either of us knew. As for Abraxas, I just thought it sounded cool. “Pleasure to meet you, Splott.”

“Y-you really mean that?!” he gasped, punching the air with excitement. “Making friends is fun!” Splott blinked and then rubbed at his shoulders anxiously. “I…I don’t have a lot of friends.”

Maybe it’s because you’re a f##&ing crybaby, I thought. Out loud I said, “Hey, Splott, we need all the friends we can get. How’s about we be pals?”

“Pals?!”

He hugged me again. What was with this kid and hugging?

Soon enough we were being followed by the thugs and the survivors. The part-orc followed at the rear of the group while his partner kept pace with me and Splott. Splott led the way, whining about how scary the forest ways, all the ways you could die, and how saaaaaaaaad he was about what had happened to Swindle. I half-listened to his ramblings, answering politely when he asked a question, always keeping my answers vague if I could, and generally just trying to control my homicidal impulse to shoot the kid in the face. While I did that, I scouted our surroundings. Carriage tracks appeared an hour into the trek, along with boot marks. They were fresh. By the look of them, I guessed that, besides Splott and the two thugs, Kestral had to have at least five or six more goons on her payroll.

This gave me options. My first instinct was to shoot Splott and the two thugs right here and now and follow the tracks back to Westina and the rest of the bandits. Yet I didn’t how long the trail went on for. If it took hours to reach their camp, then I’d likely arrive there after nightfall.

I glanced back to the survivors. They followed, cold, confused, but hopeful for a cure. Even if I managed to kill Westina, I still had them to deal with. I didn’t like the odds of me making it out of the woods with over a dozen fresh-faced, hungry werewolves on my tail.

“Hey, Splott,” I said casually. “People I talked to said you fellas had a way to transport us. Even after we’d changed.”

“Oh!” Splott thumped his forehead with the palm of his hand. He turned around and waved his arms back and forth. “Hey, e-everybody!” He called out. The thugs and the survivors came to a halt. Splott stumbled back under the combined force of their gaze. “…Um…I was…I was supposed to g-give you something…”

He reached into his coat and produced a wrapped package. With trembling fingers he unwrapped it. Revealing a series of small vials. He handed one to me and the rest to the thug standing beside him. “C-can you hand these out, Ivan? Please?”

Ivan took the vials and began handing them out to the survivors. There were a few vials left over, clearly meant for those who had decided to stay in Swindle. He then returned, handing them back to Splott. I looked my own vial over. It was a tiny thing, barely larger than a thimble. It was filled with a clear liquid.

“The cure?” I asked.

“Oh no!” Splott said hastily before the survivors could get their hopes up. He squeaked out to them all, “These are all r-really, really strong sleep potions! T-they’ll knock you out for a whole twelve hours straight. If timed c-correctly they’ll let you all sleep through the entire transformation.” He pocketed the vials left over. “But please take only what we give you. T-too much and it could kill you, so…please don’t steal…I…I…”

His face scrunched up again, his eyes welled with tears.

“I DON’T WANNA SEE ANYBODY DIE!”

Sigh…Have I mentioned that I really wanna kill this kid?

I touched his shoulder. “Splott, it’s getting dark,” I said gently. “Maybe we should get going, buddy?”

He wiped his face on his sleeve and nodded vigorously.

“C-come on! She’s waiting!”

It was at least another hour before we made it to the camp. The sun was dangerously low by this point, and the survivors were eyeing their vials of sleep potion apprehensively. I heard the rest of the bandits well before we saw them. A campfire had been set up, pushing back the falling snow with warm light. I followed close behind Splott, close enough to grab and use as a hostage if need be. Yet he then bounded forward out of my reach, nearly tripping twice, and called out, “We’re here!”

The bandits huddled around the fire, five of them, glanced over, curious. One was another part orc, probably the other thug’s brother or cousin, while the rest were simply grimy, tattooed brutes. One of them, a red-bearded man of maybe forty, had a rifle slung across his back. I made a mental note to take him out first the moment s*+& hit the fan. I wasn’t particularly worried about losing in a gun fight, but I didn’t want Red Beard providing cover for Westina and the others in case they decided to run.

Carriages were parked in the shadows cast by the campfire. Supplies and loot had already been loaded up, but that wasn’t what caught my attention. No, my eyes were drawn to the iron cages they’d set up. Designed like birdcages, they were covered in frost. Each and every one was the same size: just big enough to house you’re average person, give or take a little breathing room. I wasn’t the only one to notice the cages. The survivors had begun to murmur amongst themselves, with some pointing at the cages, clearly second guessing whether the cure was worth it.

A whistle rang through the camp, immediately killing the whispers.

Amongst the quintet of mean muscles and tattoos, I’d actually overlooked her. She was sitting atop a wooden treasure chest, roasting a slab of meat on a stick over the fire. I guess I’d been expecting an animalistic amazon or something. Instead she was kind of petite. The freckled skin of her face, neck, and arms was pale, shown off by the sleeveless red tunic she wore over dark pants and boots despite the cold. Reddish-copper hair framed her face, with a few tufts standing on either side of her head like dog ears. Half her face was sharp but pretty. The other half was a mess of pink scars. Apparently Typhon Lee had pressed the iron against more than just her gums. She wore an eye patch over her left eye, along with a pair of round reading glasses over both. Her glasses reflected back the fire’s light, making them shine like a wolf’s eyes at night.

Westina handed the stick of meat over to Red Beard and got to her feet. “Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to your salvation.” Her teeth shined silver as she spoke. Metal dentures I guessed. “I’m sure you have questions-”

“Mommy!”

Splott tackle-hugged her, nearly sending both of them falling over the treasure chest. Yet Westina regained her footing at the last second. A big smile spread across her face as she ran her fingers through Splott’s hair affectionately. “Whoa now, puppy, you trying to kill mama?” she laughed. “You really need to get a handle on those muscles of yours.”

“I-I’m sorry!” Splott said at once. He buried his face against her chest, crying. “I just missed you so much!”

“It’s only been a few hours, puppy,” Westina said tenderly, holding him to her, resting her scarred cheek against the top of his head. “But now we’re together. And you brought new members of the family.”

Her functional eye returned to the survivors. It traveled from one face to the next before finally settling on me.

“As I was saying, you all likely have questions,” she continued. She turned to Ivan and the half-orc who’d walked over to rejoin the circle. “Did you give them the vials?” The pair nodded. “Good, good.” She resumed speaking to the crowd. “Exactly a month tonight you were all attacked by a creature of unrestrained strength and ferocity. A god amongst wolves. The alpha of alphas. And yet you survived to tell the tale. You’re standing before me with that same wonderful power coursing through your veins.”

“Wonderful power?” one of the older survivors, a weathered man, said incredulously. “It’s a g~*&@&n curse!”

There were nods of agreement amongst the survivors. I watched on, trying to keep my face as blank and unopinionated as possible. Yet I couldn’t help noticing how dark the sky was now. The sun’s last rays of light were quickly fading. Soon enough the moon would be out. Full and ivory and the trigger to unleashing the beasts inside these people’s souls. I crossed my arms across my chest, keeping my hands as close to my guitar case as possible. All while keeping my eyes focused on Westina.

She gently dislodged herself from her son and climbed up on top of the treasure chest. “I speak now to all the women in the crowd. Those who’ve had lovers. Did it not hurt that first night? Did you not bleed? Yet eventually-well, if your partner was at least adequate at it-the pain was replaced by orgasmic bliss-”

“Mom, this is so embarrassing!” Splott whined, covering his ears. “I don’t like thinking about you having s-sex!”

“Shhh, puppy, mommy’s making a point,” Westina muttered out of the corner of her mouth. She then said to the crowd, “Pain is a part of change. We have given you each a vial to stave off consciously experiencing tonight’s transformation. You will each be given two more vials, one for tomorrow and the night after. Yet the following month there will be no such reprieve. You will experience the glory, the power of being a wolf.”

“B-but what about the cure?” one of the women called out.

Westina’s smile died, replaced by a blank, scarred stare as she said what all of the survivors had known all along to be true, “There is no cure.”

In unison the bandits by the fire got to their feet. Red Beard drew his rifle. A few of the survivors had edged back the moment Westina had made her confession, on the cusp of running. They hesitated at the sight of the man’s gun. A few of the survivors, not all of them women, had begun to cry. A few of them were glaring at Westina and the bandits.

I put on a sad face for show. The crestfallen expression of a lonely man who would now forever be separated from his lover blah blah blah. I even pumped out a single tear for dramatic effect.

Westina’s smile returned. “Yet that does not mean all is lost,” she assured the crowd. “We are taking you all to an isolated location, where you can all train to harness this power. Where there will be no chance of any of you harming innocents.” She raised a finger. “I will not lie to you and say that it will be an easy process. Or a quick one. But I will never give up on you. Of that I promise. For I will guide you into becoming the best that you can be.”

Her smile widened, flashing her metal teeth.

“As any mother should.”

The survivors exchanged glances amongst themselves. Gradually the fight or urge to run left their eyes. They gave in to despair. And this despair slowly convinced them to take this woman’s offer. To join her pack.

Ivan touched Westina’s shoulders.

“Ma, it’s almost time,” he said, eyeing the sky.

Westina nodded eagerly. “Right, right!” She pointed at the surrounding cages. “Now, everybody, jump into these transportation units we’ve set up for you. It doesn’t matter who gets into which. They’re all roughly the same. My men will lock you in, just to be on the safe side. And once you’re all inside, you’ll drink your potions. After that we’ll be off and you’ll all wake up to sunrise in no time.”

With no other options, the survivors did as they were told.

Okay, I thought. Now or never.

I couldn’t get into a cage. I just couldn’t. Even if I faked drinking the potion, they’d all figure out I was a fraud when I didn’t change. So I hung back, pretending to readjust my boot while the others climbed in. Red Beard eyed the crowd, clearly looking for the first sign of deserters. Eventually his gaze landed on me and his finger slipped over the trigger of his gun. I flashed him an apologetic smile and straightened up. But instead of heading towards the carriages, I approached Westina and Splott.

Splott was talking excitedly to his mother, talking about how scary the forest was, all the ways you could die, and how saaaaaaaaad he was about what happened to Swindle. Westina listened to his rambling, looking amused. “It was necessary, puppy,” she said gently, tracing his tattooed cheek with her thumb. “And look at all the new friends you’ll have now. New brothers and sisters. Won’t it be great!”

“Where do you think you’re going?” Ivan suddenly stepped into my path. He glowered down at me. Damn. Up close he sure was ugly. And his head was too small for his body. Or maybe his body was too big for his ugly face. Tomato, tomahto? “Hey, quit staring at me, pretty boy. I asked you a question.”

“Your head’s too small,” I decided. “Probably because you’ve got a tiny brain.”

His eyes became livid. He grabbed me by my shirt collar, yanking me a full foot off the ground, guitar case and all.

“Care to repeat that?” he growled, peppering my face with spit.

My hand was already in motion, reaching into my coat for one of the sound grenades, when Splott suddenly cried out, “Ivan, p-put Mister Emilio down right now!...P-please.”

Ivan glared at me a second longer before slowly lowering me back onto my feet.

He then stepped aside to let Splott through. The kid tackle-hugged me. Again with this kid and all the g&~%#&n hugging!

He pulled me over towards his mother, who watched us approach with a guarded but curious expression. “This is Mister Emilio, mom,” Splott told her. “He’s not from Swindle. He’s a bard. He ate a family and c-cow.” Splott suddenly looked up at me, mortified. “Mister Emilio! If there’s no cure, you can’t go back to your girlfriend!”

I put on a defeated but resigned posture.

“I…I guess not,” I said quietly. “But I figure she can do better than some outlaw wolf like me.”

“Don’t sell yourself short,” Westina said, looking me up and down with her eye. There was a hungry look in it that seriously creeped me out. She pointed at my guitar case. “Do you just play, or do you sing as well?”

“I don’t sing well in front of crowds,” I told her. “Not without at least a few drinks in me. And even then ‘well’ might be pushing it.”

That made her laugh.

“Mister Emilio and I are gonna be best friends!” Splott declared.

“Is that so?”

“Yup!”

Westina continued to smile as she looked around the camp. The last of the survivors had been locked up in their cage. That just left me. “How long have you been a wolf, Emilio?” she asked me.

“Like I told your son, not long,” I said. “Didn’t even mind it at first but…Well, you can’t unkill a family. Or a cow for that matter.”

“No. You can’t,” she said in a faraway voice. “And yet that fool Popovic sent you here to kill mine.”

Both semi-orcs jumped me from behind. Or they would have if I hadn’t grabbed Splott and swung him around, slamming his feet into their faces. He screamed out in panic while the thugs stumbled back, more surprised than in any real pain. Yet I barely paid them further mind. I drew a pistol from my back, tucked into the waistband of my pants, and aimed it around, locking it on Red Beard just as he trained his rifle on me.

“Mister Emilio!” Splott cried as I wrapped my free arm around his neck. “W-why are you doing this-Gah?!”

I tightened my hold on the kid, enough to shut him up. Westina’s bandits circled around me, weapons drawn. I couldn’t take my eyes off Red Beard without him shooting me. And I couldn’t reach for a grenade without letting go of Splott, who right now was my only trump card in this situation.

It was blurry and vague but I saw Westina cross her arms over her chest through my peripheral vision. “It’s been over a decade but I never allowed myself to forget that nasty dwarf’s stench,” she said. “Him or any of Lee’s other generals. So imagine my disgust when I smell this one-armed traitor enter this forest, walk alongside my son, with the obvious intent to kill me and all my kin.” Her voice raised an octave, became inquisitive. “But you’re no dwarf. And definitely no wolf. And I don’t smell the slightest trace of Typhon Lee on you. No matter how hard or often you washed, boy, that’s one scent you could never hide from me. You’ve never even stepped foot in the dragon’s presence, have you?”

“I’m my own man,” I said through gritted teeth. “Don’t work for any dragon.”

“Oh, is that so?”

She stepped around her thugs and into my line of sight.

“Then either you’re incredibly brave, Mister Emilio. Or incredibly stupid.”

“Not too stupid to figure out your game,” I said, tightening my hold on Splott. The kid’s wet eyes were bulging out of his head and face was going purple. “With your teeth gone, you can’t curse anybody. That’s why you let loose the kid here. He goes wolf in the middle of town, letting your band of thieves here loot the shops while everybody’s either panicking, running, or dead. Then you kidnap those bitten, luring them out with promises of a fake cure.

“You managed to catch a few new wolves this time, meaning you’ll have to use one of them to infect more people after I break your son’s neck.” I let the threat hang in the air for a moment before saying, “Unless you tell your thugs to back down. Now.”

Westina stared at me long and hard.

Her eye then flickered to Splott’s terrified, oxygen deprived face.

“Do as Mister Emilio wants, boys,” she called out. “Go. Ready the carriages and make sure our guests drink their potions. My son and I will join you shortly.” The corners of her mouth twitched. “In a fashion.”

Red Beard immediately lowered his weapon. The other men also lowered their weapons and backed off. A few of them were grinning as they hurried off towards the carriages. I kept my gun aimed at the back of Red Beard’s head, yet something didn’t feel right. I didn’t feel in control. Not one bit. I lessened my hold on Splott a tad, enough so as to keep him mildly alive for the moment. His head lolled sideways, eyes staring into the back of his head. Yet, even unconscious, the kid was still crying. “Mama…Mama…”

Westina ignored her son’s pleas. Didn’t move to help him. Instead she said, still wearing that almost-smile, “You’ve no idea who you have there, do you?” she chuckled. “Popovic would. Or at least, he’d have put two and two together. But if he’s really the one who sent you here to hunt me, so unprepared, then he’s one crappy advisor.”

Tell me about it, I agreed in my head.

Out loud I kept quiet, slowly dragging Splott back towards the forest. I doubted Westina or her thugs would let me get that far, but I at least wanted to get into a position where I could see them all, especially Red Beard. Some of the survivors were watching me and Westina from inside their cages, gripping the bars anxiously. I couldn’t tell who had and hadn’t already drunk their potion. If I was lucky they’d all be going unconscious in a few minutes. Otherwise…

“Let me tell you a little draconic history, Mister Emilio,” Westina began.

I shot her. Twice. In the chest.

And then dropped Splott and ran.

Hey, some people are willing to hold their ground and go down swinging, willing to die with honor rather than embrace their inner b%*$&. More than half of those guys end up in a grave. Me? I like living. Maybe I don’t like the particular life I was dealt, but I enjoy eating a good meal, taking a long nap, and pumping out a decent s@!* as much as the next guy. So for the sake of that next awesome crap I booked it the hell out of there.

Red Beard moved immediately, just as I’d expected. I ducked and rolled onto my back. His bullet grazed the side of my head. Warmth spread down along my temple. He was a good shot.

But I sent my bullet through his right eye. I think that’s more than enough to prove me the better marksmen. Especially with all the blood and bits of brain that splattered across the carriage behind him. His lifeless body slumped forward onto the ground.

Westina’s body had done the same, her glasses having been knocked off by either the first or second bullet. And for all her talk of being a “family” her thugs barely paid her or Red Beard a second glance as they boarded the carriages and ushered the horses into motion. Only Ivan looked back, specifically at Splott, still unconscious and crying on the ground.

And then he smiled at me.

You asked for this, that smile said.

I watched them head out, keeping my gun at the ready until the sound of horses died out completely, and then scrambled back to my feet, started running in the opposite direction-

The clouds parted, releasing moonlight across the camp ground.

Westina’s body shuddered. Her eye rolled around in its socket before finally fixing on the full moon above. Blood seeped from the bullet wounds in her chest. Accompanied by two muffled pops, the bullets I’d put in her were pushed out. A wicked smile spread across her lips as she front flipped back onto her feet. For a moment her face was hidden behind the curtain of her hair. Everything except for a glowing yellow eye.

“Next time, aim for the head,” she cackled.

My hands were already in motion, dropping my pistol and drawing my rifle from inside my guitar case and then aiming it at her face. “I’ll keep that in mind this time,” I said darkly.

Her smile widened, revealing fanged teeth.

“Oooooooh this is going to be fuuuuuuun!”

Before meeting the monks I would have been caught off guard by what happened next, shocked that a person could move that fast. She was already behind me by the time I got the first shot off. I ducked. Her arms grazed the top of my head as she tried to wrap them around my neck. With no time to turn around, I elbowed her in the chest, right where I’d shot her. It was like elbowing a wall. The woman was pure muscle. Nearly sprained my arm but it did make her stumble back, giving me enough breathing room to whip around and slam the butt of my rifle across her face.

Red spittle burst from her mouth and across my face. I managed to blink most of it out of my eyes as I jumped away again but my vision now had a nasty red tinge to it. I repositioned my gun in my hands and prepared to unload the whole thing into Westina’s skull.

But she was gone.

A sound that was half cackling and half howling filled the night air.

“Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuun!” Westina roared gaily. “God, you clever boy, it’s been soooooo long since I’ve felt that womanly urge. But you’re just bringing it out of me! Lay your gun down and I’ll let you lay me down. Fill me up with more than your bullets! Please say yes! Oh please!”

I whirled around, trying to gage out her location from her screaming.

“Considering all of those guys you’re travelling with, I seriously doubt you haven’t let them pass you around, Kestral!” I called out. “And I’m not interested in Ivan’s sloppy seconds, sorry.”

Westina’s laughter gradually died down. When she next called out to me her voice deeper, raspier but no less sensual. “Oh your sweetheart back home doesn’t have a prayer of matching me, Emilio. Or perhaps she’s just another lie you told my son alongside your promise of friendship. If that’s the case, then have you ever truly been in love? Have you known the softness of a woman’s skin or the heat of her sex?”

She sniffed the air extremely loudly for dramatic affect. “No…Ladies and gentlemen, I do believe we have a virgin! Ha-ha, oh, Emilio, that only makes me want to nibble on your bits even more!”

Despite the danger and insanity of the situation I felt myself start to blush.

“H-hey, well, you know what, lady…You can go f%$! yourself!” I yelled back. My voice didn’t crack. I swear!

I took another step back and my left foot bumped against something.

It was Splott, still out cold. His face was drenched in moonlight, with his sword tattoo darkest black against his skin. I frowned. The kid hadn’t started to change yet. Was he not a werewolf after all? Was lycanthropy not inherited from mother to child after all? Was it actually Westina who had cursed the townsfolk? Maybe not with her teeth, but with claws or something? Damnit, the b~$%+ was right!

Damn you, Pops! You’re a horrible werewolf-hunting teacher! Why don’t I know these things when they’re ACTUALLY RELEVANT!

Well maybe you should have done some independent studying, Terrance, a small, snide voice in my head said.

Shut up, I told the voice. Hate that guy.

“Who are you talking to, Mister Virgin?” Westina suddenly asked, bewildered.

Oops. Apparently I’d been saying everything I was thinking out loud.

Totally not embarrassed at all, I pressed the nose of my gun against Splott’s nose.

“Either you come out and take it to the head or your kid does!” I declared.

That same howling cackle of hers rang out. If I wasn’t drenched in cold sweat before I was now. How could she think herself in control of this situation with my gun literally pressed to her son’s head? Did she care for him that little? See him so expendable?

“…Mommy…”

The word was a haunted whisper escaping his lip.

I felt sorry for the kid. But hey, at least I’d been killing him in his sleep. Quick and painless.

“One!” I called out. “Two!”

Westina’s reply was to start whistling.

It started off low and disjointed. If I had been taking a simple stroll through the woods I might have mistaken it for a particularly noisy breeze. But the longer it lasted the more solemn the sound became. Solemn and beautiful and very much like a lullaby.

“…Mommy,” Splott moaned again. “…Don’t…want to…be scary…”

Westina continued her lullaby, whistling it louder. The tempo grew quicker, eager, seeming to fill the entire sky and the stars beyond. It was so loud I couldn’t even hear myself think, let alone scream out, “Three!”

My finger began pressing down on the trigger.

Westina Kestral’s lullaby abruptly became an animalistic howl of rage, sorrow and regret.

Splott’s eyes burst open. They were the same pulsing yellow as his mothers. But with one key difference: the pupils were slits like a snake’s.

The air around him spontaneously burst, sending me flying twenty feet through the air. I landed hard across the treasure chest Westina had been sitting on top of when I’d first arrived. It tipped over, spilling coins and precious jewels across the ground. All very pretty and probably worth a lot, but I barely noticed any of it or the pain spreading across my lower spine. My eyes were fixed on the nightmarish phenomenon coming to life in front of me and I just couldn’t look away.

Little Splott was getting bigger. He’d spasmed over onto his hands and knees. Primal noises burst from his mouth along with-I s~@! you not-small plumes of fire. The skin of his lips cracked while fangs forced their way out of his gums. A violent seizure shook his body, from the tip of his elongating nose to the tail tearing out of his back and through his trousers. His muscles broke down before then being shifted around and quadrupling in size. His shirt and the remains of his pants broke apart at the seams. That gave me a better look at the rest of his morphing body. It was covered in reddish-gold scales, with hot steam rising out of the breaks between them.

Little Splott was gone.

Eaten up by a giant wolf with the eyes, scales, and fire of a dragon. It pushed back onto its hind legs and let loose a draconic howl at the moon. A blast of fire exploded from its mouth, igniting the sky.

I looked from it, down to my gun, and gulped.

“I hate my life.”

And I only hated my life that much more when the wolf sniffed the air in my direction and then locked its eyes on me. Its lips pulled back into an animalistic grin. Hellish light seeped through its fangs.

Throughout all this I hadn’t noticed that Westina had stopped whistling. I caught sight of motion beyond the wolf. Kestral dropped down from a tree, caught hold of one of its branches, and swung herself over. She spun through the air like a dancer, weightless and free, before landing across her bestial son’s shoulders. If the steam coming off his scales hurt her she didn’t show it. No, Westina kept on smiling that wicked smile of hers, like she was the queen of the word.

She stretched out across the wolf’s shoulders lazily. She was almost tiny in comparison to the beast. It continued to glare and growl at me but made no move to attack. At least not yet. “As I was saying, Mister Emilio, you’re seriously behind on your draconic history,” Westina declared smugly, leaning over and kissing her son’s scaled brow. “Specifically what happens when a wolf and a dragon love each other very much and screw like bunnies on and off for years.”

I stared at her and the wolf, realization slowly dawning on me.

“…Splott’s Typhon Lee’s kid?”

I blinked repeatedly at the pair of them.

“How is that even fair?!” I screamed. “A-aren’t there, like, rules of nature against that kind of thing even existing?! I mean, f$$+, lady! I’m just a guy with a gun, guitar, and whole bunch of emotional b@#$&&~~!” I’d started laughing halfway through that last statement. Panicked, giddy laughter that usually only the most chaotic and stressful situations brought out of me. Just like this one. “Okay, seeing as I’m probably about to die no matter what I do, care to explain to a dead man how a dragon werewolf even works?”

Westina perked up. She swung her legs around so that they hung on either side of the dragon wolf’s head. She crossed her arms atop its head and rested her cheek against them. “My puppy’s a lot simpler than you’d think,” she said lovingly. “Since he was born a werewolf, it’s easier for him to transform whenever he wants, regardless if there’s a full moon or not. Or he could if he wasn’t such a timid babe. Yet he can only become a wolf. No more powerful than others of our kind.”

She raised a finger at me.

“EXCEPT on a night of a full moon. During a full moon his father’s side comes out to play.”

“So those people your guys took away,” I called back, slowly getting back to my feet. The wolf’s eyes followed my every movement. “They gonna turn into dragons too?”

“No. Unfortunately,” Westina huffed. “They’re just regular werewolves. Puppy’s dragon half isn’t infectious.”

“But it sure is hot,” I noted. “You and your thugs didn’t set half of Swindle on fire. That was just collateral damage from your bastard’s bad breath.”

Westina’s smile faltered.

“You really are a smart cookie, Mister Emilio,” she said, staring at me pensively. “I could use a man like you. But not as a man. As a true wolf.” She showed me her hands. “If you drop your gun, I will personally change you. But if you try to fight, I will sick Splott on you. And I assure you, his bite will go far deeper than mine.”
Her smile returned.

“So go ahead and choo-”

A bullet burst from between her eyes and whizzed over my head, the ghost of her last smile frozen on her face. Said face lost all traces of lycanthropy. Her lone eye lost its shine, her teeth shrank. And then Westina Kestral’s corpse fell sideways off the dragon wolf’s back like a ragdoll.

I didn’t get a chance to look at the body for long.

As if in reaction to its mother’s death, Splott the dragon wolf howled and rushed to kill the closest living thing in the area.

Lucky me.

No, but seriously, I was lucky that the beast was as big as it was. Its size kept it from moving as fast as its mother. It gave me time to swing my rifle up and shoot. My bullets shot straight towards its face, between its snake eyes-

Its mouth shot open and puked up a geyser of fire. The flames consumed my bullets whole. “S&$&!” I ducked and rolled to the side. The spot I’d just been standing in might as well have been struck by a bomb. A flaming crater and a few scraps of coin and jewels were all that remained.

Wait. Bomb.

I had one shot. This wasn’t a gun fight. I wasn’t going to win with bullets. And if the wolf managed to get its teeth in me I was a roast turkey at worst and looking forward to a lifetime of dog training at best. I reached into my coat, yanked out a grenade, and chucked it at the wolf. The sound from the explosion would distort its heightened sense of hearing and give me a chance to run.

That was the hope at least.

That hope imploded when I saw what I’d actually thrown.

It was the jar of performance enhancers.

“…No…”

The cry escaped my lips just as the jar smacked across the dragon wolf’s face. Its head lurched in my direction, mouth opening again to breathe fire at me-And then it rolled over, wagging its tail happily. It scratched at its own face and neck. A roaring purr filled its throat. It continued on for a few minutes longer before the fierce, indestructible, apex of apex predators, the dragon wolf rolled over and fell asleep.

I stared at the giant mass of fangs and scales, beyond confused.

“…The hell…?”

That’s when I noticed that the inside of my coat was wet. I reached in, past the two sound grenades, and came away with the remains of the vial Splott had given me. The stopper had come off. There were also bits of orange dirt in the same pocket. Apparently my fall had knocked the “performance enhancer” and the sleeping potion together, tainting the former with the latter. And I’d thrown this mixture at Splott by mistake…

“Maybe…” I licked my lips. “Maybe-”

“Maybe the gods don’t hate you after all, Terry!” a male voice laughed across from me, from inside the forest. After a moment a dwarf caked head to toe in mud walked out, a giant rifle slung across his thick shoulders.

“Pops?” I said, blinking repeatedly at him.

He beamed at me. Or at least I think he did. It was hard to tell through all the mud. “Good show, kid!” he said, making his way over. Even with the rifle, and the beast currently unconscious, he walked the long way around the dragon wolf. “Ridiculously dumb luck saved your ass at the end there, but you were doing swell before then. For the most part.”

My eyes became slits as I watched him approach.

“You were tailing me,” I hissed.

“Naturally,” Pops said. He gestured to himself with his prosthetic hand. “Next time, when dealing with werewolves, swim in mud first. It hides your scent. Makes it easier to get the drop on ‘em-”

“Thanks for telling me that NOW!” I roared. Rage and leftover adrenaline was making my hands shake. I wanted to hit him. No, I wanted to shoot him! But I didn’t trust myself to make the shot that I’d been dreaming of since I was five. “So what’s all this really about?”

“Westina,” Pops answered. He walked past me and ventured into the crater the dragon wolf’s fire had made. He shifted through the treasure that was left. He eyed a few diamonds and such before finally pocketing a small metal object, seemingly for the hell of it. “Mostly. Mostly for her. And partly to take the long lost prince home.”

“Splott,’ I said, looking towards the wolf. “…Is he really…? Is that really Typhon Lee’s son?”

“Y’know, until tonight that was in doubt,” Pops said, climbing out of the crater. “But thanks to you, kid, that’s no longer the case.”

“I see,” I said. “So I was bait.”

Pops didn’t answer. Didn’t deny it either.

He leaned in and smelled me. “Whatever you threw at Kestral’s bastard sure does smell delicious. After we chain him up, you’ll have to introduce me to that vendor lady-”

“No time,” I growled, looking around anxiously. “Kestral may be dead and the monster down, but her thugs are still out there. They might be back any second now-”

“No they won’t,” Pops said.

The finality in his voice left no question as to what he meant.

“You killed them,” I said quietly.

He nodded, beaming with pride. “And all the pups too.”

I stared at him. And as I did I recalled the sadness and desperation worn by those Splott had cursed. I recalled their hope that Westina had actually had a cure. And then the resigned despair when she had revealed it all to be a sham. I didn’t know them. Didn’t remember the finer details of their faces. But even though a large chunk of me knew that Pops had made the right choice to kill them, keep them from hurting anyone else, the rage in my heart doubled.

“…What about the others,” I asked slowly. “The ones who stayed back in town.”

Pops shrugged. “Figured we’d chain the kid up and finish them off on our way through town. Start with that little girl-”

I shot him.

Or at least I tried to.

He was faster.

He moved forward just as I raised my gun. And even though I saw it coming, the five-year old in me panicked, allowing his fist to connect with the side of my face. Now I’ve been hit plenty of times since our spat over Zigzag. Especially by Pops. But this time he didn’t hold back. The blow knocked me off my feet and my gun out of my hands. I landed across the scorched grass with a heavy thump. And then a second thump followed as Pops jumped on top of me, having dropped his own rifle. His eyes were hollow as he brought his fist back.

“No mercy,” was the last thing he said before beating me to the brink of death.

#

I woke up some time later in a bundle of blankets. A boy with a shaggy brown mop of hair was running a hot wash cloth across my face. I stared at him dumbly with my right eye seeing as my left one was completely swollen shut. Everything hurt, especially my head. I was in near agony as it took everything in me to move my lips and say, “…Hey…”

The kid stared at me while rinsing the wash cloth behind him on the stone floor. The cloth was stained a light pink. He opened his mouth to speak but a steady voice suddenly said, “Good. You’re finally awake. You may leave us, Gregor.”

The kid hurried back to his feet, bowed to whoever had entered the room, and left. I wasn’t too surprised when Sergei walked over to my side and sat cross-legged next to me.

“Hello, Terry,” he said gently.

There were so many questions I wanted to throw at him. How did I get back to the monastery? Where was Pops? Or Splott, Typhon’s dragon-werewolf son? Were you playing me this whole time, Sergei? Along with Pops? And what are you going to do with me now that I’ve caught on to your little game?

But I was in too much pain and too tired to try. I turned my gaze towards the ceiling.

“I’m sure you have questions,” Sergei said. When I didn’t make any gesture that I’d heard him he went on, “As do I. Two days past Popovic returned, with you bloody and beaten to near death. He told me that you’d killed Westina but that her band of bandits had cornered you. That they would have killed you if he hadn’t arrived in time. Does any of this ring true?”

Again I gave him nothing.

“Popovic left yesterday, to inform Lee of Kestral’s death,” Sergei said. “He asked me to look after you. And I gladly will. Beyond it being part of our deal, you did this monastery a great service, Terry. More than you know. Not to mention all the souls you both avenged and saved from that woman’s wickedness.”

Westina Kestral’s face flashed across my eyes. But not the bestial, cackling woman bathed in moonlight. Instead I saw the mother holding her crybaby son to her chest with love in her eyes. That mother was dead now. But what of her son? Had Pops killed Splott or taken him to dad…?

More questions that I just didn’t have the energy to ask and I was pretty sure Sergei didn’t have the answers to.

“All of your equipment is here, along with a hefty sum of gold Popovic took from the bandits. You can stay here for as long as you wish, until you see fit to return to your master-”

“…He’s not…my f$$&ing…master.”

It took everything in my being to pack in as much rage and hate into those words as I did. And even then it wasn’t enough. And it never would be. I’d been played like a sucker. And as I lay there, battered and beaten, I made a vow never to trust anyone again.

Not Sergei. Definitely not Pops. No one.

Ever.


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Formatted Linky

Familiarity:
That night, we hung out for hours, playing games together and mostly just relieved that Emily was okay. Even Anastasia had taken a liking to the girl. “Do you think your godmother can be trusted? Will she keep the girl safe?” she asked. “Even against one of these lords of the demons?” She was a heathen – I mean, a good, Russian Orthodox girl – and had almost no knowledge about the greater world outside of what she’d been taught back on Earth.

I could have had the same issues, but Daddy and Momma had made sure that I knew what I’d need to know before packing me off to Golarion for my little sabbatical that turned into trying to save the world. I felt bad for the princess.

“In the land of dreams,” I said, “there is no one who can keep her safer. Perhaps a god could threaten her, but I can’t imagine any of those will get involved.”

“I see,” the girl said, frowning.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“It is still much to take in. I… do not disbelieve you. But to think, everyone I know is dead. Even those who were not murdered have died of old age.”

“You do have a relative still alive,” Burin said cheerfully.

Anastasia sighed. “Yes, my grandmother, the witch from folk tales. And she is stuck in a doll.”

“It is not so bad, being alone. You get used to it. Also, we are working on freeing your grandmother,” Gregor said.

“How exactly are you working on it? I see nothing but idleness. You play cards, and yet you call that working?”

“We can do nothing while we travel,” Gregor said defensively. “So we must train. As the body is trained, so too must the mind. And the cards are part of that training.”

“They are games for children!” she countered.

“Games are training!” Gregor argued.

The two continued bickering like that for several minutes before Greta had enough. “Stop it, both of you!” she said, growling. “I have not torn out your throat out of respect for your grandmother. But it has grown annoyingly loud in here since you arrived.”

Things devolved from there, in general. I don’t think she expected Greta’s reaction to being called a b&++@ – it doesn’t bother her, as technically, well, you know. But what killed the argument was when she condemned me and Greta for “living in sin” and I told her suggestively that she was welcome to come discover what she was missing. After that, she stormed out to go sleep in the library. Gregor was angry with us for ganging up on her, though I think he was mostly annoyed that we didn’t leave the fight to him.

After she was gone, the boys continued their game with the Coffin Man while Greta and I went to bed. Getting into an argument had fired up my wife and she had some aggression to work off. I was more than happy to help with that.

I woke up early the next morning to a familiar sound from the living room. It took a few moments for my brain to register what I was hearing, but when I did, I quietly got up and crept over to the door, peeking out.

It seems that even here, no one wakes up earlier than children and old people. And so it was that I found Emily and the Coffin Man watching cartoons while the rest of the house slept. He was seated in a rocking chair while she was on the floor staring raptly at the screen, her mouth moving along with the words of the theme music.

Sometimes I forget that she’s younger than she looks, thanks to her body aging while her soul was trapped elsewhere. Her body might be around thirteen, but her mind is closer to ten years old. And I hadn’t been much younger when I’d watched that particular show with Daddy.

I quietly closed the door and got changed, my clothes taking the appearance of the costume worn by the show’s protagonist. I then crept out and took a seat in another chair behind the girl, motioning for the Coffin Man not to say anything. Then I watched along, waiting for the episode to finish. I was in luck. This was the one where the credits were to the opening theme instead of the instrumental ending because of certain events that transpired in the show.

So I sang along, waiting for the right moment to join in with Emily, who was already singing along. “She will never turn her back on a friend. She is always there to defend. She is the one on whom we depend…”

About that time, Emily turned around and noticed what I was wearing. “Miss Lyriana!” she gasped. “You’re…”

“An old fan,” I said. Not of the original. The animation was too bad for me even as a kid. No, I liked the remake that was released back in the summer of twenty nine. “I watched this show back when I was about your age.

“I… wow!”

I grinned. “So you like this one?” I asked.

“She’s a hero,” Emily said with a nod.

“I see…” So she was still serious about being a hero. “She’s also really good at magic,” I said. A thought occurred. “You wanna see a show about a girl who summons monsters to fight evil?”

Her eyes went wide. “There’s a show like that?!” she gasped.

Actually, I could think of at least half a dozen that loosely worked on that kind of premise. But I knew just the one. The main character was a princess, after all. It was perfect.

The Coffin Man took our choice to watch such kids’ fare like a champ. I mean, he was also traveling through time, so this was all new to him too. It was a little creepy how he identified with the evil spirit that had granted the main character magic through a pact, though.

Greta joined us about an hour later, kissing me on the top of my head as she came to see what we were watching. At that exact moment, the show introduced the main character’s second love interest – the cyborg. Greta stared at him for a moment. I couldn’t blame her. For an animated character, he’s pretty hot. And shirtless in that scene too.

“Is that possible?” she asked.

“I mean, yeah, I guess you could kill a dragon that big with that much plasma,” I said. “Maybe not a red or blue. But a black dragon like that wouldn’t have any immunity to fire or electricity.”

“No,” Greta said. “His arm…”

Oh. Right. The character had his arm replaced with a robotic one. I’d been waiting to talk to her about that, when I was more sure of myself. “I’ve actually been thinking of making one for you,” I said. “I just wasn’t sure I would be able to properly implant it, so I’ve been waiting until my magic headband made me a good enough surgeon that I could implant it with no trouble.”

“I could help with that,” Terry said from the door to his room.

I mean, he was a decent battlefield surgeon, but this was some delicate work. “You sure?” I asked.

“Yeah. I got something called a PhD now, so I think I’m qualified.”

“Wait, what?” I was mystified.

“I asked the mirror how to make money, and it suggested I get this PhD thing. So I did. I had to learn a lot. Not sure how it’ll make me any money, though.”

I just stared at him for a moment, then I remembered something Emily had said when we first revived her. “‘I’ve seen one of those before. But there were a lot of naked people in the mirror.’ She was remembering you studying anatomy, not watching pornography,” I said as realization hit. I was almost disappointed in him.

“Porno-what?” he asked.

“Never mind,” I said. “Back to the arm. It’ll be made of modern materials, lightweight and strong, with artificial muscles and everything. Also, I think we can make it shapeshift when you take your wolf form.” That part had surprised me, but Cortana had suggested it. Apparently it was based on something Daddy was working on, some kind of shapeshifting armor for someone he knew that was both a dragon and a paladin. Yeah, I don’t know.

But it would work for Greta, and that was awesome.

So I went over to the box and activated the crafting function. It had the specs for the last thing made still loaded – some kind of magic shovel. It was collapsible for easy storage and had what the specs described as a “point and dig interface”. It could excavate a hundred and twenty five cubic feet of dirt in six seconds.

Basically, it was an unlimited use magic wand capable of casting a first level spell. And Burin had created it for digging. Some things never change.

We scanned Greta’s other arm and used that as a template, then made the other one. It took only moments before we were staring at a perfectly crafted limb made of dull gray metal. The end was a mass of nano fibers, artificial nerves that hopefully would be woven into Greta’s own nervous system, allowing her to control the arm as if it were her own natural limb.

It all happened so fast. It took hours, but it seemed like only minutes later, Greta was lying on the table unconscious while Terry and I finished attaching her limb and injected her with several doses of nanites. And then the waiting began. We would have to wait for her to wake up, since we couldn’t use nanites to do it without risking interfering with the other nanites already at work.

To distract myself, I worked with Cortana to make Greta a new weapon. She’d used that big axe when I first met her, but I wasn’t sure she’d have that much coordination for a while. Something one handed, maybe. I browsed through the weapons catalog, until finally finding something I liked. The label on the file called it a Sun Blade. But it had some problems.

First of all, it was a sword, and my lovely barbarian wife seemed to like axes. That was an easy fix. The paperclip made that switch easily. Next came the hard part. You see, a sun blade is made to be wielded by Good creatures, like angels and paladins and such.

Greta… is a winter wolf. They’re not known to be Good. It’s possible she’s Neutral, but let’s be honest, she’s probably Evil. Which I can work with. I like bad girls just fine, and she’s always treated me well. But the weapon wouldn’t work for her. So that had to go. It was intrinsically linked to the weapon’s properties, though, so it had to be altered, rather than removed. So next it became an Evil weapon. Burin wouldn’t be able to wield it, though it would likely be useable by Gregor or Terry if they wanted, since I’m sure they’re both at least Neutral.

Altering the alignment had also altered the sunlight power, so instead of producing light, the axe made the air around it colder. That wouldn’t bother Greta or me, and everyone else was wearing gear that would protect them against such effects. So that was fine.

All that was left to have the weapon made. I told Cortana to begin. “Error!” the paperclip shouted as the process started. “Crafting unstable! Power draw greater than expected. Compensate?”

“Do it!” I shouted. Cortana looked at the clip and nodded.

I thought the box was going to explode, but moments later, there was a ding like a microwave timer and a burst of mist. When that cleared, there it was, a beautiful axe the size and shape of one of those larger ones the dwarves use and covered in snowflake filigree. I picked it up, and it was ice cold to the touch, and super light. Like, lighter than mithral. But it felt perfectly balanced. I didn’t dare swing it, for fear that would cause it to react negatively with my alignment. But I could hold it just fine.

After Greta woke up, we tested out her arm and I led her to our room so I could give her my gift. “It is beautiful,” she said. “Almost as beautiful as the one giving it to me.” I blushed as she swung it. “It is very light,” she said, her tone sounding perhaps a bit hurt and almost accusatory. Crap. I had failed to account for her feelings when I’d made it.

“It’s, well, I…” I raced for an explanation. “It’s made to be used one handed,” I said. “It’s just, well, you got hurt, and I was worried. So I was hoping you’d also use a shield.” It was the only thing my mind could come up with that would explain why I’d done it that way without calling into question her abilities. It was my fear – not her strength – that was the issue.

She regarded me for a moment, then smiled. “If it will make you feel better, then I will use a shield,” she said, testing the axe again. “Thank you for the gift.”

I hugged her. “You’re welcome. So, are you going to name it?”

“That is traditionally the job of the smith,” she said.

“Oh. Well, in that case, how does ‘Winter’s Kiss’ sound to you?” I asked.

She tossed the axe aside and pressed me to the wall. “That sounds lovely,” she said, pressing her lips against mine.

An hour or so later, we returned to the common room, where we found Gregor teaching Anastasia and Emily how to bowl in a sports game. It’s just as lame as it sounds. But I have to admit, he’s pretty good at the game. We ended up forming up teams and having a competition, and it was more fun than I expected.

Since there were nine of us, we split into three teams. The Guisers were on one team, then it was Burin, Gregor and Anastasia on team two and Greta, the Coffin Man and I on a third team. Terry, Gregor and the Coffin Man got really into the competition, while the rest of us were just having fun. All in all, Team Guiser won thanks to Anastasia’s low score, followed by Gregor’s team and finally ours, thanks to the penalty incurred for Greta breaking a controller with her new arm.

After that, we switched to boxing competition. Gregor lost his first match Anastasia, who was treating the game like a game, using short, stifled jabs to make the character attack inhumanly fast. Meanwhile, Gregor was performing proper combat maneuvers, which did nothing to benefit him in the game, much to his consternation. In the end, it was Emily versus Anastasia, and the younger girl won, playing the game the same way as Anastasia. She has the eye of the tiger, that one.

After his losses, Gregor stayed up drowning his sorrow in cranberry juice. Burin stayed up with him. From my room, I could hear them talking, and I admit that I listened in. “I find that I do not know what to do next,” the fighter was saying. “Tell me, Burin, what will you do now?”

“Probably return home after we save the world,” the dwarf answered. “I left a lot of work for my cousins. I guess I should get back and carry my share of that load, since I don’t have the demon to worry about. What are you going to do?”

“I… do not know. I am thinking perhaps I will rebuild Sergei’s monastery. Or perhaps travel the world to become stronger first. Freedom… is a daunting prospect. It is perhaps not good to have so many options available before me.”

“I’m sure you’ll think of something,” Burin said. “And if you can’t, I can always use help back at home. I’ve been meaning to rebuild the wall on the south end of our property for decades. An extra set of hands and a strong back might make the work go quicker, and having someone to talk to while I work will definitely make the work less tedious.”

Gregor laughed. “I suspect you will turn into a dragon and have the work finished in a week.”

“But then I’d have nothing to do,” Burin pointed out.

Gregor made a noise as though he were considering the dwarf’s words. “I will think on this for a time.”

The next morning, I was awoken by a knock at my door. When I opened it, I found Terry there. He was covered in paint and chomping on an apple. “I was just working on repairing and painting Zeus when I heard a noise. Then I went and investigated, and found our wives in the library. They were going at it pretty hard.”

I’m pretty sure my eyes went wide at his words. I mean, I know you know what I thought he meant. I know I almost fell running to the library, slipping on the wood floor in my socks. Then I threw open the library door to find…

A normal sized wolf and a manticore the size of a puma chasing each other around the library, attacking each other without doing any real harm to the other. “Oh!” Emily said from where she, Anastasia and Burin were watching the fight. “Sorry, Miss Lyriana, did they wake you?” Apparently she and Burin had cast spells to shrink Greta and Persephone to make better use of the smaller space.

I sighed, disappointed. “No, it’s fine.”

Gregor, who had heard the commotion, came in the room behind me. “Are we sparring?! Why did no one wake me?!”

That signaled the start of a whole physical fighting tournament. Gregor won that handily, though Burin gave him more trouble than he expected. Then Gregor and Persephone decided that Emily and Anastasia needed combat training.

Have you ever seen kids start martial arts classes? It was like that, but worse, somehow. They sucked. It was so bad that Greta left rather than continue watching. Eventually Emily gave up and went to go play games with the Coffin Man – they were working on getting their fourth gym badge, I think – and even Gregor gave up on training anyone, leaving to go eat.

But Anastasia wasn’t finished. She wanted to make some progress, so she and Persephone continued and I watched. But not because I wanted to see Persephone sweaty and grunting. They just needed someone keeping an eye on them. I was being altruistic.

After another hour, I could see Persephone was ready to give up. She’d been trying to teach the girl to fight with a sword – using wooden practice weapons, of course – and Anastasia just couldn’t master even the simplest of moves.

“Alright,” Persephone said. “One more round, and then we’re calling it a day. I’ll have you down in three seconds.”

Anastasia nodded, then took her stance. There was something different to it. Her shoulders were angled slightly differently from usual, and she held the sword with its tip pointed slightly lower than usual. At first, I thought she was just worn out. But then Persephone charged…

And Anastasia surprised both of us by dropping low and kicking the legs out from underneath Persephone. She wasn’t able to capitalize on the maneuver though, and Persephone leapt to her feet and still won the match. Still… it was pretty impressive.

“I didn’t teach you that,” Persephone said.

“I… saw Gregor do it during training.”

“Oh?” Persephone asked, her eyebrow raised as she shot me a knowing look. I caught the implication immediately. Oh my. “So you’ve been watching him train?”

“No, well, I…” the girl stammered. “There is nothing else to do here!” she complained.

Persephone put her arm around the girl’s shoulder. “There’s no need to be bashful,” she said. “We’re all girls here. And I think you have excellent taste. You can tell a lot about a girl by the man she watches.”

“By that logic…” I said, pointedly leaving it hanging.

“Hey!” Persephone said defensively. “Terry’s good. Well, kinda.”

“I do not know how I feel,” Anastasia admitted. “Everything is so confusing right now.” And Gregor was the most normal person here, all things considered. I understood where she was coming from.

“I understand,” I said. “But if you decide you do have feelings for him and want to make a move, we’ll definitely support you.”

“Really?” she asked.

“Of course,” Persephone agreed.

“Now,” I said, “let’s use a little magic and get you both cleaned up. It wouldn’t do to have the boys see you all sweaty.”

“I’m pretty sure that would just turn Terry on,” Persephone said. Ugh. I do not need to have something in common with that psychopath. I didn’t comment aloud. I just started using my magic to clean away their sweat.

No sooner had I finished than there was a commotion from the other room, so we ran to check on it. And you’re not going to believe what we found. I mean, really, I guess, it’s par for the course. We’re pretty weird. But still, come on, this was too much for us.

“I thought violence solves everything?” Persephone asked with a smirk as we all stared at Terry.

Terry flailed, trying to block Zorka’s broom swing. “I just haven’t applied enough violence yet!” he shouted. “Emily, go get my rocket launcher!”

“But I’m fighting the boss right now!” the girl complained.

“Let your friend have a turn and go right now, young lady!”

She rolled her eyes, but handed the Coffin Man the controller and ran off, only to be caught by the collar by her mother. “You are not using that thing in the house.”

Terry rolled his eyes – I wonder where Emily gets it, eh? – and kicked at the kikimora, who dodged back. “Fine! Zeus, sic her!”

The next few moments are a blur, but when it was over, Burin was a dragon – and covered in pudding – I had mashed potatoes in my hair, Zorka had retreated into her little magic hiding hole, Terry’s gun had been knocked from his hand, discharging at Anastasia but luckily Gregor was there to catch the bullet and Persephone was just staring at the chaos with a befuddled look on her face.

We were dead silent and near motionless for nearly a minute when the calm was suddenly broken by the exuberant shout of Emily. “I did it!” she shouted, accompanied by the sound of video game victory fanfare.

It was so absurd, all of it. Of course we all began laughing. And didn’t stop for a solid five minutes. Thankfully, I don’t need to breathe, because I would have passed out if I did.

The next few days were mostly uneventful. We played games. Persephone brokered a truce with Zorka. And we genuinely just rested, even if being stuck in such close proximity was getting a bit grating. And then the hut came to a stop.

Anastasia demanded to come along, and Greta wanted to come as well. With the former not remaining behind, we really couldn’t justify leaving the latter, even despite my worries that she might not be fully recovered. We even invited the Coffin Man, but he said that the terms of his deal with “his cousin” were that he had to remain in the hut. Which was fine, but the way he was looking over at the gaming console while he said it made me wonder if he was being completely honest.

And then we went outside, though Terry realized he’d forgotten something just before we exited and ran back to get it. So we stepped out into the crisp mountain air. Immediately, Gregor seemed surprised. I followed his gaze and spotted the Old Man, the one who had saved us against Typhon Lee so long ago.

“Wait here,” the fighter said grimly as he went over to talk with his temporary mentor, his “god of martial arts”.

As we waited, I looked around. The place was harsh, but peaceful. Even beautiful, in its own way.

We sat in silence, unable to hear the conversation over the winds through the mountain pass. We didn’t even hear the door open behind us. But we did hear Terry let out a whistle of surprise. “Huh. What are we doing here?” he asked.

“You know this place?” Burin asked.

“Yeah, we’re just outside of Sergei’s monastery. Though I guess we’ll want to take the long road, unless you all feel like climbing up the cliff face.”

Note:
The second anime was just crap I was making up, for the record. Obviously the first was a yet unmade Sailor Moon remake that will eventually come out because everything is remakes now.

Next week's special episode will be the story of how Terry first came to Sergei's monastery, which explains why I've been waiting to post it even though Terry's player wrote it months ago. :P


Ah. I don't really watch the news. Not since the time they seriously spent time speculating that the missing plane might have been sucked up into a black hole.


Spoiler:
Disturbingly familiar
How so? Dare I ask?


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Formatted Linky

Mob Mentality:
“I’m running low!” Omast shouted as he loaded another crossbow bolt.

“The orcs appear to be regrouping,” Kermit answered, pointing off in the distance. “But Rodd Rigez is up to something.”

Valbrand looked over where the grippli was pointing. He could see his friend, painted green and dragging the unconscious body of an orc behind him as if he was trying to help his “comrade”. The warrior could only imagine what his crafty ally had planned, but he knew it would be great.

“Something’s going on inside the walls,” Qumeel said. “Look there.”

The group looked and spotted a crowd forming down the road. They couldn’t quite make out what was being said, but they recognized one of the voices in the din of the crowd.

“Commander?” Omast asked. “He sounds upset,” he said to the others.

“Then we will investigate,” Qumeel agreed.

They approached and were able to spot the form of Jagrin within the crowd. He was holding a sword and ranting as he pointed the naked blade at the form of a woman standing on a stool. Kermit pulled out a potion he had taken from one of the orcs. “He is hanging that half-orc woman,” Kermit said.

The others looked, and could see it as well. It was Brinya standing on the stool, on the tips of her toes. It was clear that this was a lynching and that Jagrin had lost himself to his grief and fear. Indeed, his hair was streaked with gray and matted with sweat and dirt. “She took my son away from me!” the commander shouted. “And now she’s brought her brothers and sisters here to take away your sons and daughters! I won’t allow it! I will end her here and now!” It was clear that his words were whipping the crowd into a frenzy. They were afraid, and desperately wanted someone to blame.

“This isn’t right,” Omast said. “I have to stop him!”

On the edge of the crowd, one of the other guards stood in his path. “I can’t let you do that, Omast,” Lazlo said, his lazy eye looking off to one side. “Captain told us not to let anyone interfere.”

“This will not be reflected well in the tales,” Valbrand said. “There are enemies out there, and your leader attacks an unarmed woman. Stand aside.” His knuckles were white from how tightly he gripped his axe.

“Please,” Omast pleaded. “Get out of their way. I’ve seen them kill dozens of orcs. You will die too if you stand in their way.”

Another guard, Cuthbert, stood next to Lazlo. “Sorry, Omast, but this isn’t a good place to be. You can’t save her.” He lowered his voice. “But, maybe, if you find Halgra…”

Omast spat. “You’re nothing but cowards! He’s just a man who is letting fear rule him. You have to stand up to him!”

“Sorry, Omast,” Cuthbert said, lashing out with his shield. Omast deflected the blow with his forearm, but winced as he spotted Jagrin kicking the stool out from under Brinya’s feet.

“Someone help her!” Omast shouted, glancing back at the others. “Wait, where’s Kermit?”

The grippli was gone, but Valbrand charged. “Don’t worry about it,” the big man said as his shield crashed into Lazlo’s. “Friends!” he shouted. “This isn’t justice! Justice would be standing on the wall, facing an enemy who wields a weapon! You’re cowards, and people will DIE while you waste time here!”

The warrior’s voice carried over the crowd and caught Jagrin’s attention. Regret flashed in his eyes, but he scowled. “You will not get in the way! Men, do your duty and buy enough time for justice to be done!”

Qumeel closed his eyes and prayed. “Ragathiel, guide my blade,” he said, flinging his sword over the heads of the crowd. The burning blade flew true, slicing through the rope strangling the half orc woman and lodging into the door frame behind her. Brinya fell to the floor, motionless as the wood began smoldering.

Omast was pretty sure he heard an unearthly howl in the distance.

“That’s going in the tales!” Valbrand said in congratulations as he burst into a battle song. But Cuthbert was less impressed, and lashed out with his shield once more, striking Qumeel. A third guard, Rowan, shot an arrow, hitting Omast in the shoulder, which provided Cuthbert the distraction that had allowed him to strike the cleric. Valbrand responded by slamming into Cuthbert, knocking him to the ground with his shield.

Among the crowd, an unseen figure gently tore the rope from Brinya’s neck and poured a healing potion into her mouth. She awoke with a cough. “What?” she gasped.

“Shh,” Kermit’s voice whispered. “It’s not easy being green.” He heard footsteps behind him and turned his body to shield the woman. Jagrin’s blade bounced off the hard scales of his magic suit. “Run!” Kermit told Brinya as he rose and reappeared. He stared down Jagrin as the half orc got up and fled. “Now isn’t the time to fight among ourselves! Look, the enemy is coming over the walls!”

Jagrin’s sword fell from his hand as everything was falling apart around him. “I’m trying,” he said. “I tried so hard. But I failed you, my son.” He walked past Kermit into the building behind the grippli, which had erupted in flames. He pulled out Rodrik’s hopeknife. “I’ll see you again soon, Rodrik.” Then he cut his own throat.

Seeing their leader give up, the guards stood down. “Don’t be fools,” Omast said. “The walls need us.” He pulled the arrow from his shoulder and Qumeel healed his wound. “Thanks. Now, does anyone have any bolts?” he asked.

“I’ve got some,” Lazlo said sheepishly. “Come on, boys, let’s get those bastards.” As they began firing, Qumeel was pretty sure he heard voices, possibly those of women and children, approaching from the other side of the building.

Lucky Days saw the flames first, and ran forward to investigate. Tyari was horrified at the sight of the blaze. “That was where we were keeping our medical supplies! Commander Jagrin was supposed to be guarding it.”

As she spoke, Lucky Days reached the front of the building and spotted the sword. She tried to pull it out, but the heat coming from the blaze caused her to recoil. As she tried to consider what to do, she spotted a dead body in among the flames. Unsure what to do, she turned to run back to the others, but stopped as she nearly ran into Tyari, who had run after her.

As the priestess rounded the corner, she spotted a burst of ice as Valbrand used his magical armband, beginning to quench the flames with ice. “What’s going on here?!” she demanded of the large man.

“It is a very long tale. Perhaps, when we have time, I will tell it to you.”

“Why not now?” she asked.

“Take a look above you, consider the view. If you haven’t noticed, please do,” Kermit said, pointing at the orcs on the wall. He then powered down and hopped onto Lucky Days’ shoulder. “Shall we go?” he asked. Lucky Days didn’t answer, but sped towards battle.

Valbrand jumped forward, blocking an arrow that would have struck the priestess with his shield. His response was drowned out by the sound of gunfire as Gwen rounded the corner and immediately began shooting at orcs. She downed one as Kermit and Lucky Days crossed the distance.

At that speed, the grippli went flying over an orc as Lucky Days stopped to fight. He then powered up and tore another orc to ribbons. The orcs didn’t even wait to watch Lucky Days decapitate her foe before fleeing. Word of the terrifying monster that was Kermit in his suit had spread. The orcs weren’t staying around to face him.

Gwen watched with a mixture of satisfaction and disappointment as the orcs fled, happy that they had been repelled, but disappointed that she hadn’t managed to kill more of their foes before routing them. Then she noticed that the other members of the watch weren’t cheering. Instead, they seemed to have gathered around something she couldn’t quite see just outside of the smoldering building.

A voice was saying something. “He was doing what he thought was right. I just wish we could have stopped him.” She knew that voice. Omast noticed her and stood. He was holding something in his hand as he approached. “Commander Grath was not a bad man,” he said. “He was just a man, forced to deal with life’s traumas with no way to cope.” As he spoke, he placed the object in her hand. It was a hopeknife. Rodrik’s hopeknife. And it was smeared with blood.

Her heart nearly burst out of her chest in panic. She couldn’t breathe. “Was?” she managed to ask as terror gripped her.

The knife fell from the girl’s hand and struck the floor with loud clang as she rushed through the crowd. “Out of her way!” Lazlo called out to the others, who moved to allow Gwen to pass.

The dam holding back her emotions since the death of Rodrik broke as she looked upon the lifeless face of Jagrin Grath, her uncle, the man who had taken her in when she had nothing. Tears flowed from her eyes and the guards watched awkwardly, feeling guilty for their role in everything that had transpired as she wept over the man’s body, repeatedly asking “Why?” over and over.

Even Valbrand could think of nothing to say as he watched the scene.

A tear fell from Tyari’s eye as her heart broke for the girl, but she knew that they weren’t safe. Moreover, something was wrong. “I left you three at the barricade with the acolytes,” she said to Lazlo, Cuthbert and Rowan.

Halgra’s eyes narrowed. “We will discuss how you abandoned your post later. Get the body. We have to move.” She looked at Valbrand. “Call over your companions. We’re moving.” Valbrand whistled and Kermit turned to look at him, then the big man waved the grippli over. “Therese,” she said to one of the older women in the group as she collected the hopeknife from the ground.

The older woman nodded and went to Gwen’s side. She helped the sobbing girl up and moved her into the group with the children and they all began moving once more towards the barricade. The journey took some time, perhaps half an hour, but finally they were in sight of the barricade when Lucky Days, Valbrand and Kermit – the latter from the shoulder of the large man – noticed something strange in among the acolytes from their place in the party’s vanguard.

Sitting among the surviving townsfolk was the strange pair of guards, Douglas and Brollerth. They were surrounded by the decapitated heads of several dozen orcs. The orcs’ faces were all frozen in expressions of surprise and terror.

Douglas flipped his hair in acknowledgment of their arrival. “Ohmygod, like hey guys,” he said.

Omast looked at the duo with a combination of amazement and horror. “You two killed all of these orcs?” he asked.

“Well, uh, uh, these were just the ones we could carry,” Douglas said.

Brollerth looked up from one of the skulls as he finished packing it with explosives. “What? Like, where did you think I got all those mines from?”

Note:
Reign of Winter next week. And then a very special RoW related thing the week after.


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UnArcaneElection wrote:

** spoiler omitted **

Not intentionally, no.

Spoiler:
Setting things up for current campaigns or to future campaigns that aren't based on APs, on the other hand? That's intentional. :P

The baby is a future PC, for instance.


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Formatted Linky

In Dreams:
So, yeah, let’s start with the whole Anastasia thing. To say it was awkward might be an understatement. Things were said. Accusations were made. Apparently, trying to explain that there’s a difference between a witch and a wizard was the wrong choice, especially with Terry standing there agreeing with the princess’ arguments. Thank God for Persephone. She was finally able to get the girl to calm down, even if she didn’t entirely trust the woman she’d seen turn into a manticore.

The weirdest part was that Burin didn’t manage to say anything to make things worse. Not for lack of trying to “help”, in his earnest, dwarfy way. But luck was on our side, and Anastasia was too freaked out to listen to him.

Once that issue was handled, I sat down and started to relax, but quickly realized that the group of us stuck in such close proximity was a recipe for flaring tempers. We needed something to keep our minds occupied. But what to do?

Well, Cortana had a suggestion. And it wasn’t a bad one. So it was that I set up a projector and an old gaming console in the common room and had everyone playing old videogames taken from a list Daddy had put together.

Surprisingly, Emily didn’t play much. She mostly slept. In fact, I’d begun to suspect something was wrong with her even before the time Terry came running out of his room half naked demanding we wake Emily back up. I’m guessing he and Persephone had been having sex when Emily passing out caused Persephone to disappear.

Like I said, I’d already suspected something was wrong with Emily. That maybe she had a cold or something. But it was then when we realized something was really wrong.

You see, Emily wouldn’t wake up.

She wasn’t dead. No, she was definitely breathing. And she didn’t seem to be in a coma. No, her eyes were fluttering like she was dreaming. And if she was dreaming, that meant we could talk to her, and maybe find out if something was wrong.

“You don’t think a demon’s involved, do you?” Burin asked.

I honestly wasn’t sure. “I can’t rule out the possibility,” I said. It was a valid point, especially considering what I suspected about Persephone. “I’m thinking of traveling to the Dreamlands and entering her dream to see if I can find out what’s wrong.”

“I’m going with you then,” Burin said. “In case you need backup.”

I looked at the others, to see if they wanted to come along. “I’ve spent years in my daughter’s head. I’m not sure I need to go back in there,” Terry said.

“I will keep an eye on you while you sleep,” Greta agreed.

I was about to ask Gregor if he wanted to come, but I could see Anastasia wasn’t okay with being left alone with Terry, Greta and the Coffin Man. Or, from her perspective, the crazed assassin, the monster and the grim reaper. So I didn’t even ask.

I used the connection from the mantle of the Black Rider to locate Burin. From there, I planned to use the connection between the two of them to find Emily. But something was blocking it. Strange. So we were forced to look for her the hard way.

Luckily, it wasn’t hard to find Emily’s dream. After all, I’m familiar with the Dreamlands now, I know the place like the back of my hand – hey, have I always had that mole on my pinkie? – and even in the strangeness of the Dreamlands, pastels stick out.

Yeah, you heard me. We went through the pastel yellow doorway and found ourselves in a meadow that was absolutely beautiful, aside from looking like something Easter threw up. Even the sky was a pastel blue with fluffy pink pastel clouds. They were shaped like bunnies.

I like cute things, but it was sickening.

We heard a giggle and looked at the source of the sound. About a hundred yards ahead of us, there was a corral next to a cottage. In the center of the corral was a small herd of ponies colored various pastel shades. Sitting on top of one – colored pastel pink with cherry red hair, and yes, I realize I’m using the word pastel a lot, but there’s no other way to get this across – was a young girl in a yellow sundress. Like, Peep yellow.

“Emily, is that you?” Burin called out.

The girl didn’t react, but the ponies turned towards us and stared, their faces fixed with rictus-like grins and unblinking eyes. Slowly, and in unison, they chewed the grass they were eating just once. The cherry pony began making its way towards the cottage and the others began heading towards us.

On the breeze, I could smell the inviting scent of breakfast wafting from the house, but that was quickly replaced with an acrid scent as the ponies – actually Nightmares, of course – breathed smoke at us.

In the smoke, Burin got bitten – of course he did – and I took a kick to my gut before Nebbie clawed at the nearest pony. Burin roared as he grew into an entirely too massive dragon and bit back. I then touched the power within. The magic created a glowing glyph of the Thassilonian symbol of wrath on the ground and threw back the ponies with a wave of force.

The ponies tried to attack, but Burin protected me and their attacks were useless against his thick hide. I was entirely done screwing around and reached my hands through the dreamstuff, ripping it asunder and calling out to the eldritch entities that live on the edge of terror. The ones Godmother had sat down for a conversation about never messing with me after one particular incident we won’t be talking about. Oh, and boy did they respond.

Tentacles emerged from numerous holes and began tearing ponies apart. Some of the ponies tried to flee, but Burin slammed two directly into the ground with his tail as I sent one into the airless ether and burned two more to a crisp with dream-enhanced flame.

I heard a sound from over at the cottage, and turned to see the cherry pony “clapping” with its front hooves as it stood on its hind legs. The girl was gone, likely having disappeared into the house.

Burin wasn’t having any of its smirk and charged, biting the pony with his massive jaws, tearing out a large chunk. The pony didn’t even notice. “So eager to join the feast, are you?” it asked sarcastically.

“Who are you?” I asked.

“My favorite little girl named me Scarlet,” the pony answered. Burin snapped at it, but the pony dodged. “Hold your horses. My mistress invites you enter, offering you sacred hospitality due to guests.”

I looked at my friend, then at the door. “Sorry, Burin won’t fit,” I said, weaving a magic spell and disintegrating the wall.

Inside the cabin was a girl, definitely Emily, coloring at a table. In the kitchen was a woman with crimson hair holding a different baby girl. “That wasn’t very nice,” the woman said, stirring her pot as the baby started crying. She turned around, and her face looked oddly like Persephone’s. But that definitely wasn’t Persephone. “Please, stay for breakfast,” she said.

I felt the pressure of her words as a command washing over me. I resisted it, but Burin immediately began stomping over to the table to have a meal. I stood defiant in the face of the demon’s will.

She tsked at me. “Come now, Daughter of the Runelord. Join us so we may get to know you better.” I felt her will upon me and this time couldn’t resist as my mind was filled with the most pornographic images to ever grace my mind.

I’ve been horny before. All the time. But this was different. I couldn’t stop thinking of all the things I wanted to do to this woman, and all the things I wanted her to do to me. I didn’t do what she told me, staying where I was, but I couldn’t wrest my thoughts back and was stuck where I was, the most lurid images filling my brain. I feel dirty even remembering them now.

And based on the power of her mind upon mine, I’m confident this was no normal demon we were dealing with. This was definitely a demon lord. And for her to be after Emily made no sense, unless… but how the hell was a demon lord allied with Typhon Lee?

“How many did we lose?” the woman asked Scarlet.

“Six, I think,” Scarlet answered. “One disappeared, so I don’t know what happened to her.”

“Find more,” the woman said. “And get some rope for our guests.” The thought of rope sent my mind in a whole new and horrifying direction.

Burin tried to grab Emily and run, but the woman made a disapproving sound. “Mister Burin, please put Emily down,” she said. He set her back down and plopped down on his tail at the table, unable to resist the power of her will.

The woman began setting plates on the table. “The last Burin – I’m surprised you managed to destroy Amgorath, by the way – and the daughter of the Runelord. What friends Guiser has made. You fascinate me. I almost admire that. How do you like your steaks?”

“I prefer shovels,” Burin answered, completely serious.

The woman twitched. Apparently Burin’s literal mind can affect demon lords as easily as it can me. “Rare it is.” She sighed. “Lyriana, why are you still standing there? Why do you fight so hard for a girl you barely know?” You may feel like you owe Guiser, but –“

“Wait!” Burin interjected. “Were you talking about meat? I thought you meant tools!” He was completely serious. He’s ALWAYS completely serious.

The woman twitched again. “Fix that chair you broke while I finish your food,” she told Burin.

“Where’s the hammer? I only have a shovel.”

“Scarlet, forget the other stuff for a moment and help Burin.” She turned back to me. “You may feel like you owe Guiser, but compared to you, he has no light in his heart. He’ll betray you like he betrayed my beloved Dragonlord. He destroys everything he touches.” She smirked. “He’d make a great demon, if I’m being honest.”

She set the food on the table and commanded Burin to eat. Literal minded as usual, he pulled food from his bag and began eating. I’m not sure if he was resisting or just being his normal idiotic self.

“I’m not sure what you did to Guiser’s beloved to keep her from continuing her transformation, but I will not give up on Emily. I will make her immortal. Leave her with me and I’ll make her wondrous.” Dammit. I knew something was going on with Persephone. We definitely needed to have a talk.

Emily looked at me and I saw her shudder as she recognized me. She stepped towards me. “Thank you, Miss Lyriana. You were the big sister I wanted, but I’m not worth it. I’m not a princess. I’m just me. Go, save the world and don’t worry about me anymore.”

My heart broke at her words and I began breaking free of the lurid thoughts filling my mind, but I struggled as they tried to reassert dominance. As I fought, I noticed something. The color of the grass had changed. No longer was it pastel, but a verdant, natural green. And that wasn’t the only thing that had changed.

Everything was now naturally colored save the cottage’s interior. I couldn’t really parse what that meant, as I was too busy fighting with the thoughts running rampant through my brain.

Suddenly, mashed potatoes struck the woman in the face. She blinked in disbelief as the baby in her arms laughed. She reached up and wiped the potatoes from her face. She looked incredulously at Scarlet, who looked absolutely different. No longer did she have the wounds from before, and no longer was she pastel.

She was a vibrant bubblegum pink – her mane and tail a darker, chewed bubblegum color – and was smiling genuinely. There were colorful balloons tattooed on her flank. “Do you need me to clean that?” Burin offered.

“Kill that horse,” the woman commanded.

“Right away,” Burin said. He reverted to his dragon form and bit at the pink pony. The pony dodged easily and struck him in the head with an amazing roundhouse kick.

The woman’s form shifted, revealing her true form – that of the demon lord Nocticula – and she waved her hand. All the silverware turned into force and flew towards the pony. She moved her front hoof, deflecting the energy easily. She then laughed and the ground beneath Nocticula’s feet turned into mashed potatoes, swallowing her up to just below her arms. The ground then turned into a solid potato.

Annoyed, Nocticula grew a pair of bat-like wings and she flew up out of the ground. She flew towards Emily and I reacted by creating a wall of force between the girl and the demon. As the demon slammed into the wall, that broke the spell on Emily. She screamed and teleported behind me, holding onto my leg.

“Glad to have you back, kid,” I said to her.

Time stopped and I couldn’t move. But somehow I could see it. Probably because it was the Dreamlands. “You think you’ve won?” Nocticula asked me. She turned to Emily, who was thankfully oblivious. “There’s nowhere to hide. You’ll never have a good night’s sleep. You’ll never be safe. And one day, when you realize what monsters your parents are, you’ll come back to my arms, little princess –“

The pony was gone and suddenly Godmother was next to Nocticula. She slammed her fist into the demon lord’s gut, knocking the wind from her. “You talk of thresholds?” Godmother said. “You talk of safety? THIS. IS. MY. HOUSE.” She delivered a roundhouse kick to Nocticula, sending her flying. To the demon lord’s credit, she cradled the baby, protecting her. “You’re the one not safe here.”

Nocticula stood as time resumed, wiping the blood from her lips. “You win this one for now. But there are so many children in the world. You can’t save them all.”

“Save them all?” Godmother scoffed. “I’m not here for anything so silly. I’m not here to pick a fight. But you interfered with those under my protection. Do not do so again, or I will end you.”

Nocticula looked like she was going to respond, but thought better of it and disappeared with the baby. “Who is that?” Emily asked, indicating Godmother.

“That’s my Godmother. Her name is Samantha and she lives here in the realm of dreams. As long as she’s here, you don’t have to fear anything in dreams.”

“Oh,” Emily said. “Are we not going to save Gabby?”

“Who is that?” I asked.

“I… don’t know.” She thought. “I thought she was my sister, but I don’t know who she really is. She’s just a baby.”

Godmother tousled Emily’s hair. “Sorry kiddo. I don’t know where Nocticula is. She left the Dreamlands.” She waved over at Burin, who was picking himself up off of the ground. “You coming?” she asked as she opened a portal.

“You hit really hard,” he noted.

“Sorry, you were a dragon. Had to hit you pretty hard.”

“It’s okay,” Burin said. “I can take it.”

We stepped through the portal and found ourselves in the space station my godmother had given me. “Wow, this place is cool!” Emily exclaimed.

“This is Lyriana’s place,” Godmother answered. “From now on, you’ll come here whenever you dream. You’ll always be safe here.”

Emily nodded and looked out at the stars. She began talking to herself. “Gabby, I will find you. I will save you.”

Behind me, I heard Godmother mutter in her best Liam Neeson impersonation, “And I will kill you.” I stifled a giggle. What? My parents love that movie.

After a moment, Emily turned to me. “Miss Lyriana, I don’t want to be a princess anymore. I want to be a hero.”

Burin turned to her. “Why not both?” he asked.

Suddenly the door burst open and half a dozen of the red skinned beings who crewed my space station rushed in. They were wearing sombreros and ponchos and one was playing the Mexican Hat Dance on his trumpet as they hoisted Burin on his shoulders, cheering as they did so. They began dancing out into the hallway, carrying off a protesting Burin.

Emily shot me an alarmed look. I smiled and shrugged, then held out my hands, willing a pair of maracas to appear in them. I gave them a shake and handed them to the girl. She laughed and began following them, playing along with the music.

I was left alone with Godmother. “Thanks,” I said.

“Of course,” she said. “Any time.”

“Is there anything we can do for her mother?” I asked.

“I’ll look into it, but no promises. She’s already pretty far gone, even if she’s halted the progression somehow. And that’s assuming we can get her back. She’s not in the Dreamlands.”

“I understand,” I said.

“If I can’t do it, you might try to ask your father’s bowling buddies if they can return her to normal.”

Wait. What? “Daddy bowls?!” That was the lamest thing I’d ever heard.

“He owns a bowling alley in Wisconsin,” she answered. “It’s just there so he can hang out with those two guys he met in the land of the dead. Your god said they can visit as long as they pretend to be normal people and not interfere while they’re there.”

That just left a number of other questions. “Who are they?” I asked.

“Just a drunk and a dwarf. But I repeat myself.” She laughed at her own joke. “They’re alright. Your aunt likes them, so I’ll be nice.”

I still couldn’t get over the fact that Daddy bowled. “Is he any good?” I asked.

“He has a one eighty eight average,” she said. “Anyway, time for you to wake up. I’m sure your friend’s worried about his daughter. Oh, and don’t worry about Nocticula. She’s very shortly about to have a very bad day. And the people who are going to inflict it on her don’t even know they’re going to do it.”

I woke suddenly and went out to the main room. As I walked in, there was a commotion from the table. “THAT IS IMPOSSIBLE!” Gregor said angrily. “HOW DO YOU HAVE SUCH CARDS?!”

Terry and Anastasia were laughing and even Greta seemed amused as the Coffin Man smirked. So much for being worried. I guess they had faith that Burin and I would be able to handle it. They had to have.

I’m sure they wouldn’t have been playing Uno otherwise.


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Formatted Linky

Chapter 18: Fascination:
Stein left to attend to Kendra’s wishes, but returned only a few moments later. “I’m sorry to bother you, but your presence is requested in the library,” the butler said.

Kendra strapped Santino’s sword across her back. “That’s fine,” she said. “I’ll be down momentarily.” He nodded as he left. She reached down and scratched the dog resting on the ground behind the ear. “Just rest,” she said. “Until you’re better.”

Natalya was waiting for her at the top of the stairs. “How is he?” she asked.

“Still resting,” Kendra answered. “I’m sure he’ll have just as many questions as we do when he wakes up. Assuming he can still talk.” She laughed bitterly. “Even if he can’t, he’ll probably tell us when he’s awake.”

They headed down and greeted Embreth in her library. “Please, join me,” the older woman said, indicating the chairs around the small table in front of the fireplace.

“Thank you,” Kendra said.

No sooner had they sat than the door opened and Stein appeared, holding a tray. On it were cups of tea, each prepared perfectly to the liking of each person, with the right amount of sugar and cream. “Thank you,” Natalya said as she took her cup last, as well as a small cookie filled with jelly in the center.

“Of course,” Stein said, bowing slightly.

Embreth took a sip. “I’ll get to the point,” she said. “There is a situation here in town that could use a bit of a, shall we say, outside touch.”

“Does this have to do with the Punishing Man?” Kendra asked.

“Yes. It is related.”

“How long will it take to rebuild that?” Natalya asked.

“Not long,” Embreth said. “You’d be surprised what a mob can do when it sets its mind to something. Especially with ‘festivities’ of this kind.”

“So what’s the problem?” Kendra asked, refocusing the conversation.

“There have been a number of crimes, and a suspect has been accused.”

“The Beast of Lepidstadt?” Natalya asked.

“The very same. It’s a poor, pitiful creature, and was caught at the scene of a crime at the University. It was a break in. An artifact was taken. But that wasn’t the only thing it’s accused of. It’s also being accused of the Hergstag murders, swamper killings in the Morast and the burning of Doctor Brada’s hospice.”

“Have you spoken to the accused?” Kendra asked.

“I am one of the three judges presiding over the case,” Embreth responded, sipping her tea.

“I see.” She considered it. “It’s strange that this Beast has already been convicted in the opinion of the public. Have the other judges made their positions known?”

“Not exactly,” Embreth said. “However, Ambrose Khard, the second judge, is harsh, to be kind. He hangs people for crimes big and small, having on numerous occasions hung people for contempt of the court.”

“Yes, that seems like someone who will not give the accused a fair shake. What of the remaining judge?”

“Kasp Aldaar is merciless, even by the standards of Ambrose. Kasp was once a general, and is infamous for the times he impaled deserters, even without a trial.”

“I see,” Kendra said. “What of you?”

“I don’t care about mercy. I only wish to see that the accused is given a proper and fair trial. If the beast is guilty, then it shall get what is coming. But I wish to be sure of guilt before I pass judgment.”

Natalya listened mostly in silence as they continued talking, contemplating everything that had happened that night while sipping her tea. She still couldn’t wrap her mind around what had happened with Santino.

She had just thought his name for the first time in context of the events of the night when she heard a noise from upstairs. The tiefling looked at the other two women, but neither of them had heard the noise.

“So,” Kendra said, segueing into another topic, “what can you tell me about the people who attacked my brother?”

Embreth raised an eyebrow. “Your brother?” she asked.

“My brother. Santino. Or maybe it’s more appropriate to call him Jiminy now.” She gasped. “Wait, you were the one who sent my father those notes! Was my father experimenting on people?”

Embreth shook her head. “No, not people. Things, yes. Animals, most definitely. But never people.” She sipped her tea. “If you see one of those things as your brother, then you are most peculiar, child, and I feel bad for you.”

Kendra brushed off the woman’s pitying tone. “What was your relationship with my father?” she asked.

“We are colleagues. There was potential that it might have been something more, once, but nothing ever came of it.”

“Tell me. What is meant by ‘Our daughter is of the flesh’? Did that have something to do with me? Am I… am I like Santino?”

“No. Your father and mother created you in the traditional manner.”

“Then… does that mean I have a sister?”

Embreth drank the last of her tea and set the cup down. Stein was immediately on hand to take the cup to be refilled. She then turned back to Kendra, her eyebrow raised in thought. “If you consider ‘Santino’ your brother, then I guess that it wouldn’t be inaccurate to consider the other your sister.”

Natalya was having trouble wrapping her mind around the whole thing. But Stein appeared next to her with a plate filled with finger sandwiches that gave her something to take her mind off of everything. She picked up one and took a bite. It was soft, white bread with a creamy cheese of some kind and sliced fruit. She grabbed a couple more at Stein’s insistence.

As she chewed, she began to wonder about Heimish. Where had the preacher gone? Perhaps after she ate, she’d ask Kendra if it would be okay for her to go searching for him. He didn’t move quickly, so he couldn’t have gotten too far.

Heimish was closer than Natalya suspected. “And that’s when I paid the woman to relieve the horse of his pent up frustration,” the preacher said.

“Fascinating!” Professor Crowl said. “And did it work?”

“Of course,” Heimish said. “After that, he was the gentlest horse. Never kicked another farmhand again.” He then changed the subject. “Anyway, back to the Black Butterfly.”

“Ah, yes! It is an interesting coincidence that the Black Butterfly is associated with the Dark Tapestry. You see, the Sea Sage Effigy also seems to be tied to the Tapestry.”

Heimish frowned. “I worry that this artifact could be dangerous. Tell me, where did you find it?”

“I am unsure. It was at the university when I joined the faculty. It has always fascinated me, but I must admit that I have been unable to find much more about it in my years there.”

“You must be careful. Fascination with objects tied to the Tapestry can warp your mind. It is subtle, often manifesting as strange dreams long before you notice other changes.”

The professor nodded gravely. “I had heard of such things as well, so I have been taking herbs to avoid dreaming at all. I can get you some, if you want?” He produced a couple vials.

“Thank you,” Heimish said, thinking that they looked like what Stein had given him before.

At that moment, they had arrived at their destination. “Hello, good man,” Professor Crowl said to the doorman. “I have come to speak with the good Justice, and deliver this man who was supposed to meet with her as well, on behalf of a man named Lorrimor.”

The doorman nodded and opened the door. “While you were not expected, your arrival was not unprepared for. Please, come in.”

The door opened and Heimish saw a pitiful looking dog dragging itself down the stairs. It looked horribly malnourished. He hobbled over to the dog, whose head perked at his presence. “Poor thing,” Heimish said. “You look half starved. Here, let me help you down the stairs and I’ll see about getting you something to eat.”

The dog made strange sounds, as if it was trying to speak but couldn’t form the words. Heimish pitied the poor thing all the more, sure it couldn’t even bark.

Behind him, Crowl’s eyes lit up. He tented his fingers and couldn’t hide his excited grin. “Fascinating! Is this what I think it is? I did not believe I would see it. Come here, hound, and let me get a better look at you.”

The dog warily kept Heimish between himself and the professor, and barked weakly, mustering all the strength it had. In the next room, Kendra heard the sound and rushed from her seat. She spotted the dog and ran to him. “Santino!” she scolded. “What are you doing out of bed? You should be resting.”

The dog whined at the scolding.

“We have more guests,” Embreth said, with Natalya and Stein behind her.

Crowl smiled. “Fascinating! You must be my good friend Heimish’s companions! It must be fate that you happened to be where we were going already.”

Kendra ignored him and turned to Heimish. “Where were you?” she accused. Deep down, part of her wondered if Heimish could have prevented what happened to Santino.

“I had a vision,” Heimish said.

“From the Black Butterfly?” Kendra asked.

“Yes!” Heimish said, excited. “Does that mean that you’ve come to believe?! Shall I prepare a sermon?”

Stein barked a laugh. “You walked right into that one.”

Kendra ignored the butler. “I’m not in the mood for a sermon,” she said. “My brother got turned into a dog.”

Crowl regarded the dog. “Fascinating! But I don’t detect any signs of lycanthropy.”

“Focus, Montagnie,” Embreth said. “I’ve asked these people to help you look into what happened at the university.”

“I see! Fascinating! I think good Heimish was tasked to do so by his goddess, so we’re in luck! So, are you going to introduce them to the Beast?”

“If I can convince the other justices to agree to let me, and if there is time, I will arrange it.”

Suddenly, the dog, now standing by the front door, whined once more and began to urinate on the ground. Kendra frowned. “Oh, Santino. I’m sorry. You were trying to get outside to pee.” She opened the door. “Go ahead,” she said, in case he needed to do more than that.

“I will attend to the mess,” Stein said. “Please, everyone, do not wait here on my account. I will meet you all back in the library.” The others did as he suggested, but Kendra waited behind, watching Santino out in the yard.

“What do you make of all of this?” she asked the butler.

“I must admit, the notes make more sense now that I’ve seen him like that.”

“Did you ever know Jiminy?” she asked.

“No, he disappeared before my time.”

She sighed. “I don’t know if I trust Embreth and Crowl,” she said. “They’re hiding something.”

“Everyone associated with your father has something to hide.”

“Fair enough,” Kendra said. “I’ll see you back in the library.”

He nodded. When she was gone, he called over one of the guards. “Don’t let him out of the yard,” he instructed the man, who nodded his understanding.

It wasn’t too much of a worry, since Santino was too tired to do much more than walk around for a moment and flop down on the ground by the gate.

Inside, Embreth was continuing to explain the situation with the beast. “Unfortunately, the Beast has been given the representation of Barrister Gustav Kaple. He’s a good man, but… to put it bluntly, he’s inept. If the Beast is to have a chance at fairness in his trial, you all will need to determine the facts for us.”

“I’m more worried about the missing Sea Sage Effigy,” Heimish said. “The Black Butterfly wants me to look into it, so I suspect that this artifact cannot be good. If this Beast wasn’t the one who took it, then whoever has it may be up to no good.”

“Investigating the Beast and searching for this sausage thing he supposedly stole aren’t mutually exclusive goals,” Natalya said. “If we find it, we’ll know more about whether he took it or not. And if we look into the crime, it should yield clues about both the artifact and whether the Beast took it.”

“Just so,” Crowl said. “Though it is called the Sea Sage Effigy, not ‘sausage thing’.”

“You will want to begin first thing tomorrow,” Embreth said. “The actions of ‘Santino’ have likely enflamed the public’s ire. We will likely have to accelerate the pace of the trial.”

Natalya nodded. “I’m going to bed, then.”

“I have one more thing,” Kendra said. She pulled out the journal and showed it to Crowl. “Professor, what do you make of this?”

“Are these your father’s notes? They’re fascinating! This… could work. But it’s not quite right. It needs something. YES! A self sustaining energy core! But what would one use? And then you need a vessel, or no. Not a vessel. A host! Yes!”

“Um, what happens to the host?” Kendra asked.

“If the process were perfected, then the host would be overwritten entirely. But the process is imperfect. Parts of the host would remain, in conflict with the entity.”

“Entity? Like a ghost? Would my father have put a ghost into the body of my dog?”

“No. Not a ghost. You need something more powerful. Like a djinn, or maybe a psychopomp.”

“I see. Thank you, professor.”

After bidding the others goodnight, Kendra went outside to keep an eye on the creature she couldn’t decide whether to call Santino or Jiminy. She was sitting on a chair on the patio for almost an hour before Heimish came outside as well. He sat in another seat and looked the the wretched creature lying in the dirt.

“What have you gotten yourself into, lad?” he asked. Santino responded to his voice and slowly made his way over, nudging the preacher. Heimish patted the dog’s neck. “Alright, lad, let’s go get some food in you.”

“There’s no need,” Stein said from the door. He was holding a bowl of food and more tea. He set the bowl down in front of the dog.

As Santino ate, Heimish studied him for lingering traces of magic. “Did you find anything?” Kendra asked.

“No,” Heimish said.

“I could get my tools and we could do a more thorough examination,” Stein said.

“No,” Kendra said.

Stein shrugged. “If you say so,” he answered. “Heimish, would you join me for a drink? Embreth has offered us some of her fine whisky.”

“A nightcap before bed is just what is called for,” Heimish agreed.

“And you?” Stein asked Kendra.

“I’m gonna sit out here with him a bit longer. You two go ahead.”

Note:
My apologies for the tardiness on this. I've been working a non-stop two week period and have been too tired to even post(at one point, microwaving pre-cooked bratwurst sounded like too much of a chore to my rest-deprived brain). I'll be back on my normal work schedule in a week or so, so hopefully back on my writing game.


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Spoiler:
More or less, yeah. Either them or other characters from other campaigns have potential involvement in any subsequent adventures. Samantha's attention was mostly drawn by Ragathiel's involvement, though she's observing because of another reason too(related to an NPC, which I can't say anything further ATM).

And one of the PCs has actually met a member of the family O'Halloran. Which PC and how is a revelation for much later, though.


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UnArcaneElection wrote:
** spoiler omitted **

Revelations:
Yeah. It's obvious knowledge to the players, so I don't mind sharing. The dream half-elf is Samantha, Lyriana's godmother. Her old boss is Ragathiel, as she was a paladin of Ragathiel before things happened and she fused with a large fragment of the soul of something akin to a Great Old One or an Elder God. And the Silver Champion is Obrek, the "Hand of Iomedae", a half orc and the goddess' greatest champion on our version of Golarion. He's also the son of the former chieftain of a tribe of orcs, and he had to kill his father and take his place to save the tribe from demons.

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Formatted Linky

Chapter 12: The Young and the Dead:
Gwen groaned as she opened her eyes. She blinked repeatedly in disbelief at what she saw. “I must be dreaming,” she said, surveying the verdant garden around her.

“You are,” a voice answered. Gwen looked in the direction it came and spotted a beautiful half-elf with golden hair standing there. “I must say, though, I am disappointed.”

“Disappointed?”

“Yes. Hit by a rock? Really?”

Gwen felt offended by the remark. “I was saving a child!” she protested.

The woman’s expression turned neutral and she clapped mockingly. “I’m sure that will impress the orcs.” The woman grabbed a sheep and sheared it of its wool with a single swipe from a bastard sword. “I bet, when they find your unconscious body, Throg will turn to Brog and say ‘No, we leave this one alone. She was a good girl and got hurt saving a kid.’”

Gwen pulled herself to her feet. “So what? Don’t save anyone?! Is that what you want me to do?” she asked angrily.

The woman tilted her head, her lips pulling back in a wolfish grin, revealing impossibly white teeth. “Of course not. I’m just saying that you’re not strong enough to be Obrek. So stop acting like him.”

Gwen was confused. “Who is Obrek?” she asked.

“Oh, right. You never met him. Sometimes I forget that you people don’t know everything I know. Okay, so quick explanation. He’s a paladin, and he is constantly putting himself into danger to save others. But he is the toughest person I’ve ever met. He can take it. You can’t.”

The woman had a point, but Gwen still didn’t think her decision had been wrong. “So what do you suggest?”

“You have several options. You could choose to be faster. Get the kid out before the rock can hit either of you. Or you could choose to be smarter. You saw the rock hit the building. You might have known that it would keep falling and end up rolling down the hill. But if you cannot be that, you must be more calculating. Your town needs defenders. What if you save that kid, but the town falls because you weren’t there to help? You’ll just have consigned him to a life of slavery instead. Is that what you want?”

Gwen could not think of a worse fate. That was her greatest fear, to be captured and made a slave of the orcs. She wouldn’t wish it on her most hated enemy. “No,” she said.

“I thought not,” the woman said, smiling genuinely as she tossed more wool on the pile she was working on.

“What are you doing?” Gwen asked.

“My shepherds are still busy rebuilding their world. Someone has to attend to the sheep, lest they become naught but food for wolves.”

Gwen considered what she said. “Are we the sheep? Are you going to help us?”

“Sorry, no. My old boss asked me not to interfere. I’ve only brought you here to amuse myself at your misfortune.” She motioned over to a nearby table. Gwen walked to it. On the table was a giant, hand drawn map. It was easy to see that it depicted Trunau and the surrounding area. On the map were hundreds of small figurines, and each of them was moving on its own.

There were primarily two colors of figurines. One set was grey, and it was easy to see that those were the villagers and other defenders. The other set was green, and obviously the orcs. There were just so many green ones. Possibly hundreds. “This isn’t just a raid,” Gwen said.

“No. They’ve come for conquest.”

“What will happen if we lose?”

“I think you know. For you… well, I don’t think you’re going to die. It happens in many of the possible futures. But in most of them, you live, and wish you had died.”

Gwen gasped, fighting back tears. “No…please…”

“I didn’t say losing was inevitable, only that was what would happen if you do. If it makes you feel better, if you lose, the one behind the conquest of Trunau will become arrogant, and will draw down retribution on herself.”

“What do you mean?”

The woman’s eyes glowed with golden light as she answered, her voice reverberating with the power of prophecy. “Great silver birds will darken the skies over Belkzen. The orcs will have squandered the last chance to prove themselves redeemable, and his hand will sweep across the orcish nations. In his wake, all that will remain is death and devastation. Within a year, there will be no more than a dozen full blooded orcs remaining on all of Golarion, and those that survive will only do so because of kinship to the Silver Champion.”

“I don’t understand.”

The woman’s eyes returned to normal. “Trunau won’t be the last town to fall to orcs,” she said, smiling. “But in five hundred years, no one will even remember what orcs looked like. Of course, there will be some half orcs remaining for a time, but eventually their orc blood will dilute and their people will be nothing more than a memory. Your kids will likely be among the last generation of true half orcs, so there’s that.”

Gwen got angry again. “I will NOT be a mother to those misbegotten things!”

“Well, then you only have two choices. Either win, or…” She tossed a knife at the girl’s feet. “You can choose not to wake up. I trust you know the motions. Make the cuts, and I promise you will never awaken.”

Gwen picked up the knife and considered it. She shook her head and offered the knife back to the woman. “No. My cousin wasn’t a coward, and neither am I. I will fight.”

The golden-haired woman smiled. “Good. It’ll be more entertaining that way, no matter the outcome.”

Something on the table caught Gwen’s eye. It was a bright flash. “That’s a beacon! Someone lit another one!”

“My old boss is cheating to help your people out. Not much, but maybe you have a chance. Personally, though, I can’t wait to see what that one does,” the woman said, indicating the lone red figurine, moving from the village into the orc lines outside of town. He appeared to be heading towards one of the catapults, and none of the orcs seemed to notice him.

“Who is that?” Gwen asked.

“A wildcard,” the woman said, grinning. “No one planned on his presence. Not my old boss, not that demon wench… no one. But I saw him coming. It will be most interesting to see what he does.” She then looked at the board, touching one figure in general. “Huh. My old boss has no hold over this one. He literally couldn’t say anything if I happened to give it a nudge in the right direction. I mean, her boss might get mad, but I doubt she’ll even notice. Perhaps I can help you a little, after all.”

Pain wracked Gwen and the girl cried out. “What… What is happening to me?!”

“Ooh. Ouch. Yeah, it’s time for you to wake up. Getting healed by that spell isn’t terribly unpleasant while you’re awake, but if it hits you while you’re here… well, the pain is your incorporeal dream-self turning into a devil. You’ll be fine. It just hurts like Hell.” She giggled at her own joke. “Be careful out there,” the woman said. “And if you have to die, try to make it entertaining.”

As Gwen dreamed, Valbrand, Kermit and Qumeel joined up with Omast to continue fighting. The first order of business was the orcs on the inner wall who were securing ropes so their comrades could get inside. And Valbrand had a plan. He quickly pulled his grappling hook from his bag and handed it to Omast. “What am I supposed to do with this?” Omast asked. “We have a ladder on this side. We don’t need to scale the wall.”

“Throw it at that guy,” Valbrand said, pointing at one of the orcs. “Then we’ll pull him off the wall and you can stab him with your sword.” He then turned to Kermit. “I’m going to throw you at that guy,” he said, pointing at another orc. Kermit nodded and powered down, then hopped up onto Valbrand’s shoulders.

“And what of me?” Qumeel asked as he recovered his sword from the blazing beacon.

“Climb the ladder and start cutting ropes.”

“Understood.”

Valbrand was not a particularly stealthy individual in the best of cases, and right now he was so keyed up from battle that he wasn’t even trying. In fact, he was shouting to make sure he was heard by the others. So, of course the nearest orc – Kermit’s target – heard them. He turned, spotted the group, and grabbed his javelin. He then hurled it. Poorly. So poorly that he unbalanced himself on the narrow ledge and began windmilling his arms so he wouldn’t fall face first ten feet into the ground not far from apparent foes.

Valbrand noticed that the orc was young and mostly unscarred. This was no warrior, or at least, he was an untested warrior, likely fighting in his first real battle. He was young, callow, and no real threat. A quick glance at the two nearest orcs on the wall told him that the same was likely true of those as well.

The orc overcorrected, stumbled backwards and went tumbling over the waist high section of palisade behind him. Even through the din of battle and the wall between them, the group of defenders could hear the orc’s hard landing. Omast visibly winced.

The nearest orc heard the fall as well, turned to investigate and ran towards the ladder, shouting a battle cry. Omast forgot the plan and drew his crossbow, shooting at the orc and grazing him. Valbrand, however, didn’t forget the plan, only adapted it since Kermit’s original target was down. Thankfully, a new one had run close enough.

Valbrand hurled the grippli. “GUYVER!” Kermit shouted, transforming as he flew. He slammed into the orc, biting deeply into its shoulder. The orc shrieked in pain and surprise, and only an already empty bladder prevented it from wetting itself.

From Kermit’s vantage point, the grippli noticed one of the catapults launching a boulder. Only, the catapult’s arm snapped mid-motion and the boulder lobbed high into the air, landing directly on another catapult and destroying it as well. And that wasn’t the only siege engine that was destroyed. Most of them appeared inoperable. He’d thought the shots had become a lot less frequent, but had attributed it to a lack of ammunition.

Omast picked up the grappling hook and went to play his part in the plan. He tossed it, and it landed on the hard ground with a clang. Only, the orc he’d been aiming at didn’t notice. Not only was he oblivious to the sound of battle, he had missed an attempt on his own life. He was an idiot, and Valbrand gaped. Men like that did not last long on the battlefield.

Kermit let out a shriek as he tore his target apart. Most of its torso went flying over the wall into the crowd below and he held up the orc’s legs, one in each hand, as if to say, “Who wants to be beaten to death with the remains of your friend?”

Several of the orcs on the ground below bolted at the sight, but the ones on the rope weren’t so lucky. They hadn’t seen what Kermit had done, and the grippli yanked the entire rope up with two surprised orcs hanging on it. He then grabbed the closest orc’s skull with one of his claws and squeezed.

The orc’s head exploded with a sickening crunch, and the orc below him, now covered in blood and brain matter, let go of the rope and fell about ten feet, landing on the spear of an orc below, impaling himself and breaking the arm of the unfortunate and surprised spearman.

The sound of Kermit’s shriek – completely unlike anything else on the battlefield – finally drew the attention of the painfully oblivious orc, who turned just in time to see the grappling hook miss him by inches and then the recovered javelin Valbrand had thrown smash into the wall far below him. He took only seconds to take in the scene and immediately bolted. Omast shot at him with his crossbow as the orc fled, managing to lodge a bolt in the orc’s calf. It slowed him, but he continued his retreat.

Qumeel finally reached the top at about the same time and hurriedly moved to cut the nearest rope. The orcs on it fell hard onto the ground and one was knocked unconscious, though none died. “What now?” the cleric shouted down to Omast.

“We defend this wall until I can come up with something better to do!” the guard shouted back.

Valbrand brandished his axe. “They’ll keep coming for a time,” he said with a grin. “There will be plenty to do.” Omast stared at him in disbelief. Was it possible the big man was enjoying himself?

Back at the commons, Gwen groaned as she awoke. Jazier was standing over her. “I am sorry,” he said. “I healed you, but I must tell you that the devil’s blood I used to fuel the spell will never come out of your clothes. They are ruined.”

“I can get new clothes,” the girl answered, accepting his hand as he helped her up. “Thanks.”

“You are welcome,” he said with a nod. He felt a tug on his sleeve and turned to see Ruby standing there. “Yes, child?”

“My mom’s hurt. Can you help her too?”

Jazier looked and noted Halgra’s injuries. Her leg was obviously broken, snapped at the knee and twisted at a horrifying angle. And her arm had been absolutely shattered by the impact, and was covered in terrible, black burns. The wizard hesitated. It was likely beyond his skill. “Go,” Gwen told him.

He nodded. “I will try.”

As he tended Halgra’s wounds, Pearl was doing her best to calm the crowd. It wasn’t working well, since the Commons was supposed to be their place of refuge and it was currently on fire. “Where are we supposed to go?” one woman asked. But Pearl had no answers.

Lucky Days got up and joined everyone once more. She found Jazier healing Halgra. The woman was screaming in pain as her shattered bones slowly knitted together. “Just be glad it was not a bear trap,” Jazier said seriously. “You would be as good as dead.”

“Do catapults throw bear traps?” Lucky Days asked. “Do you think we should go check on Mister Qumeel?”

Halgra, remembering the reports, laughed bitterly in spite of her pain. “Please, Halgra, tell us where to go,” a panicked woman begged.

The Chief Defender had no answer. Things had gone absolutely wrong. The enemy had known where to hit them and had hit hard. This could easily spell the end for Trunau. She was about to answer that she didn’t know, when a voice rang out from the gate in front of the Commons. “We have made a safe place at the southern barricade,” Tyari Varvatos said, her voice ringing out like a pure silver bell. The crowd turned and spotted her, along with the paladin Brantos at her side. “We’ve gathered all the supplies we could and will make our stand there. It will be as safe as anywhere in town. But getting there will be dangerous. There’s no way for us to move this many without attracting attention.”

Halgra looked and caught Gwen’s eye. The girl nodded. “We’ll get everyone there,” she said, chambering a round in her gun. “Everyone gather up. Get the kids to the center of the group. Lucky Days, you and Sakura-chan will be our vanguard. Jazier and I will stand at the outer edges. Tyari, please help Halgra and keep an eye on the rear.”

No one argued. They just prepared as best they could while Tyari tried healing Halgra’s wounds as best she could. It was clear that the woman would need serious magical healing – beyond even Tyari’s skill – if they were to ever have her walking without a limp again. But her wounds were no longer at all life threatening.

They began moving, painfully slowly, through town, and were at the bridge with no incident not long after. It was there that they saw – or perhaps better put, heard – their first orcs. From under the bridge came a voice. “Stop fighting!” it barked. “Or I’ll go get five more of my best men and I promise you they won’t be nearly as gentle!”

There was the sound of a woman weeping, which was more than enough to cause both Gwen and Lucky Days to immediately spring into action. Lucky Days was closer – and faster, obviously, and she charged under the bridge. Once there, she found a red-headed young woman pinned down by an orc. Her dress was torn, exposing her left breast which had a large bruise from where she had been grabbed roughly, and the bottom of the dress was yanked up, exposing her bare lower section.

The orc on top of her did not seem to have gotten his trousers down yet, which Lucky Days was thankful for, as that meant she wasn’t too late. And another orc was watching, a mocking sneer on his face. It was apparent that he had been the one talking. As he was the closest, Lucky Days charged him and slashed with Sakura-chan. The orc cried out in surprise and his companion leapt to his feet, releasing the poor girl, who ran in the direction Lucky Days had come from.

Gwen spotted the girl, tears streaking down her freckled face and her hand covering her exposed breast, at the same time she saw the orc Lucky Days was engaging. She knew the girl. It was Aleril, a girl a couple years younger than her who helped her parents run a stall at the market. She was such a sweet girl, and everyone liked her. And those…THINGS… had put their hands on her. The girl ran behind Gwen, cowering.

Seeing red, Gwen raised her weapon. At the same time, she heard Jazier chanting a spell and her gun began to crackle with electricity. She glanced at him. “Don’t miss,” the wizard said.

“I won’t,” Gwen replied, taking aim and hitting the orc dead in his shoulder. The wound crackled with the spark of lightning contained within the bullet.

From the back of the crowd, Tyari heard the fighting, but hesitated at leaving the flank unprotected. “I can handle it,” Brantos said.

Halgra nodded in agreement. “Go. Redeem yourself in Iomedae’s eyes.”

Tyari nodded and rushed through the crowd, getting close enough to see the girl cowering behind Gwen, and Lucky Days being flanked by a pair of orcs. The girl had been slashed, and while the wound was not fatal on its own, it did not bode well. “Iomedae, even if you hate me for my transgressions, please, grant me the power to aid these people in their time of need,” she prayed. Healing energy flowed through her and a burst of healing light erupted, healing the injuries of both Aleril and Lucky Days, but not touching the wounds suffered by the orcs.

Gwen fired again, hitting the first orc in the head. The burst of lightning exploded within his skull and blood spattered all over Lucky Days. “Eww!” the girl said, focusing on the remaining orc. Watching her, he didn’t notice as Tyari charged up behind him until it was too late to dodge her attack.

The cleric slashed him with her blade, which was polished to a silver sheen and appeared to never have seen use in combat. The wound wasn’t deep, but it got his attention, and he turned his back to Lucky Days, who moved at an impossible speed and drove Sakura-chan into the small of his back, screaming in anger as she did so. The blade sparked as it struck, having also been enchanted by Jazier as she’d fought. She then yanked the blade upward and it cut all the way up his spine before coming up out of the base of his neck, missing his skull by inches. Gore and viscera splattered all over her, but did not touch Tyari.

“Oh, Kurgess!” Lucky Days shouted, spitting. “My mouth was open! Yucky!” Tyari cleaned then sheathed her sword before moving to tend to the girl’s wounds. Jazier moved in as well, and immediately began cleaning her with magic. “Thanks, Jazz Hands,” the horse girl said.

Gwen turned to Aleril. “Are you okay?” she asked.

The sobbing girl clung to her. “He didn’t get me,” she swore. “Please believe me.”

Gwen hugged her. “It’s okay. It’s not your fault.” But she noticed the blood drying on the girl’s leg. They may not have completed the deed, but Aleril was definitely not unscathed. “We made these ones pay for hurting you. And I promise, we’ll keep killing them until they learn to leave us alone. And maybe a few more after that for good measure.” Her voice was filled with quiet rage.

The girl nodded, but sobbed quietly in Gwen’s arms. A few moments later, Tyari came and tended to her wounds, then one of the elderly midwives took her into the relative safety of the crowd.

After gathering the orcs’ weapons and distributing them to the crowd, they got moving again. “Should I scout ahead?” Lucky Days asked Gwen.

“Do it,” Gwen said. “But keep within sight of us so we can help you if something ambushes you.”

“Can do!” Lucky Days answered, already dashing ahead. She made it about seventy feet away and peered down the side street. There were dogs. So many dogs. And they were going systematically from building to building, as if they’d been trained to search for survivors.

One of the dogs spotted her. It bared its teeth, but then turned and ran off. Not sure what to do, Lucky Days then ran back to the group and reported what she’d seen. “Everyone get ready for combat,” Gwen said. If those dogs had been trained to find survivors, they were likely trained to go get their master. There was no telling how many they’d be facing.

It didn’t take long for them to find out. A woman’s voice spoke as a figure emerged from an alleyway. “Where do you think you’re going?” the orc asked. She was wearing a bearskin hat and several chains that matched those worn by the dogs. Dogs which had now surrounded the group of survivors. “Don’t you want to play with my dogs?”

That a woman would be involved with what was going on enraged Gwen. She knew that the orcs were rapists and murderers who took what they wanted, but part of her had believed that surely the women couldn’t be that bad. Surely they were victims of the aggression shown by the male orcs. But her last shred of hope for the orcs washed away in that instance. The whole race was irredeemable, and the world would be better if every last one of them was gone.

Lucky Days let out a battle cry and charged. The woman was not at all expecting that kind of speed – naturally, the dog had not exactly been able to explain that part – and the orc narrowly avoided an instantly fatal blow only because of the chains wrapped around her torso. Gwen spun to her right, firing and injuring one of the dogs as another on the other side of the crowd charged Jazier.

The wizard frantically cast a spell, and it went off just as he grabbed the dog’s head in a desperate attempt to keep it from biting him. Lightning arced between his hands, straight through the dog’s brain, killing it. The dog Gwen shot managed to bite her leg, but she kicked free, reloading as she stepped back and shooting it once more, felling it.

Another dog bit one of the midwives, who had put herself between the dog and the child it was charging. The wound was deep, and it was likely that the woman would lose her arm, even with magical healing. Tyari prayed, beseeching Iomedae to send her someone to help protect the children.

As this happened, Lucky Days fought with the orc woman. The woman wielded a two-headed axe of orcish design, and fighting against it wasn’t something the girl was used to. She managed to block one blow with Sakura-chan, but the other head spun past, slashing her. The wound wasn’t life threatening, but it really hurt.

Another dog attacked Gwen. She was bitten once more and she stumbled backwards. She might have fallen if one woman hadn’t caught her. One of the women in the crowd held that dog at bay with one of the orcish short swords they’d taken as Gwen reloaded and fired once more.

The dog attacking the midwife bit down harder, severing the bone of the woman’s arm and dropping the appendage to the ground. Jazier cast his spell again and rushed the dog, but it jumped back out of his reach and looked warily at his hands, which crackled with electricity.

Tyari finished her prayer, and a massive, fluffy white temple dog appeared, glowing a slight blue in the smoky haze. “You haven’t forsaken me,” Tyari breathed, thanking her goddess as the dog howled and charged the orc woman, coming up behind her.

The dog facing Jazier bit him, but that was a fatal mistake. Lightning coursed through his body, and the connection the dog made caused it to discharge, electrocuting the beast. It also caused spasms which made the dog bite down harder, which didn’t surprise Jazier much. It was a factor of his curse, was all.

The temple dog bit the orc’s calf and righteous holy judgment surged through its bite, causing a massive amount of pain. The orc spun to face him involuntarily, giving Lucky Days the opportunity she needed. She finished it with a stabbing blow to the woman’s back, severing the base of her spine and causing her to crumple lifelessly to the ground. Wisely, the girl had kept her mouth shut this time as she dealt the finishing blow.

The dog facing Gwen tried to escape once its master fell, but there would be no escape on Lucky Days’ watch. The girl caught it not far down the road and ended its existence with a heavy swipe of Sakura-chan.

Tyari knelt, praying to her goddess, offering heartfelt thanks as healing energy washed over the crowd. The midwife’s arm remained severed and would not be healable, but she was no longer in life threatening danger. As she did so, the white dog bounded over to the crowd and nuzzled one of the children as several others petted it for a few seconds before it disappeared.

Mustering their strength, the group continued forward, with Jazier tending to Lucky Days’ clothes once more as they moved. The children were obviously scared, but the presence of the capable adults and proof of Iomedae watching over them helped. It was only a matter of time before they reached the relative safety of the southern barricade.

As they moved, they passed near the jail. The doors were open and it was strangely quiet within. “I’m going to check on Coach!” Lucky Days said, already running inside.

Inside the building, she found all of the cell doors thrown open. All of the cells were empty. All save one. In the far cell, she found the body of a dead half-orc. He had been stabbed dozens, or perhaps hundreds of times, and the wounds were covered in frost. Remembering the ice blades of the assassins that had attacked Jazier, she knew that there had to be more of them in the city.

She ran back outside. “Did you find anything?” Halgra asked.

“The cells are empty,” Lucky Days said, crestfallen. “And Kat-man is dead.”

“Who?” Halgra asked.

“I think she means Katrezra,” Gwen offered. She was starting to understand the strange girl a bit.

“Then…he was innocent after all,” Tyari said, a tear welling in her eye. “We will send someone to collect his body for proper rites once everyone is safe.”

“Keep going,” Brantos said. “I’ll get him now. He was never very heavy, and he does not deserve to lie there alone for one moment longer than necessary.”

Note:
Working on writing up a Carrion Crown right now, but it might be another Reign of Winter next weekend if I don't finish it in time.


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Back to the Shack:
As I stood there, waiting in vain for the doll to respond, Terry approached Gregor. “So, how does it feel to have finally killed the man who murdered Sergei?” he asked casually.

“For ‘man who could not die’, he came back surprisingly few times,” Gregor answered.

“It’s not like you were alone,” Persephone said. “I helped.”

“Yeah,” Terry said. “You, uh, certainly contributed.”

Persephone smacked the jerk playfully and he feigned injury. Then she walked over to me, Emily in tow like a duckling. “What’s the situation with the doll?”

I shrugged. “She’s not answering,” I said. “I suspect it’s difficult for her to speak in there.”

“Do you think it’s really her?” she asked.

“It is good question,” Gregor said. “Last one was imposter, after all.”

“I’m not sure,” I said.

“Maybe the Hut will be able to recognize her?” Burin suggested.

It was as good a plan as any. I was about to say as much, but Persephone’s attention had turned to Terry, who was busy piling up kindling on Rasputin’s body. “Terry. Murder time is over. It’s time to go.”

He looked crestfallen as she walked over to Emily, who was yawning. “I’m sleepy,” the girl said. She really sleeps a lot. It’s kinda strange.

As we started to leave, I heard Gregor whispering to Terry. “We start fire as we leave,” the fighter said. “It would have been bad to trap ourselves inside anyway.”

“You’re no fun.”

“If you want fun, we could always spar.”

“Yeah, no. Maybe we can talk after I fix my dragon.” There was a popping sound as he uncorked a flask of oil. “Besides, I think I can make this work.”

Persephone stopped suddenly. “Wait. You have a dragon?!” she asked. Terry didn’t answer, just grinned as he carefully poured oil behind him as he made his way to the door. “Hey!” she called. “Come back here and answer me!”

Once we made it outside, Terry shot the trail of oil with a magically flaming bullet. The oil ignited. At first, the movement of the flame was slow, but it sped up, and soon the whole cathedral was ablaze. Only the stone would remain when it was over. “I do good work,” Terry said.

“See?” Persephone interjected. “Compromise is a good thing.”

Once we turned from the fire, we noticed something strange. Burin was the first to point it out. “Weren’t there a bunch of celestials and fiends fighting out here a while ago?” he asked.

I shrugged. “I guess the celestials won and cleaned up the evidence,” I said. And they did good work. There was no evidence that anything at all had happened out here aside from the mayhem we’d personally caused.

On our way back to the hut, we stopped by the graveyard. Dmitri was gone, but Polina was still puttering around, digging for bones. Emily waved happily at the sight of the creepy little fey, and Polina ended up waving back. “We killed the bad guys!” Emily announced happily. “Oh, and my mom ate your goat.” Persephone buried her face in her hand at the girl’s excited revelation.

Polina cocked her head to the side. “How did you get in, then?”

“Miss Lyriana’s magic mirror knew what to do.”

“Oh, then where is Little Grandmother? Don’t tell me you were too late.”

“I think Miss Lyriana has her.”

Polina looked at me, and I produced the doll. “She seems to be trapped in here. At least, we think it’s her.”

The fairy took the doll and examined it. “That’s very powerful magic,” she said. “It would definitely hold even Little Grandmother. Let me look closer.” She brought the doll just an inch from her nose, and focused intently. I noticed that the others seemed to be holding their collective breath as she did so.

I might have been too, but, you know, no breath and all that.

“Well?” Terry asked, finally.

“Yes, I think that’s her,” Polina said as she handed the doll back to me. “How do you plan to get her out?”

“I swear I will shoot someone if anyone suggests a solution that involves a goat,” Terry said.

“Terry… we had goats on the farm. What is your problem with them?” Persephone asked.

“Yeah, we had goats on the farm, and look where that got us.”

“I like goats,” Emily said. “Especially the baby ones. They’re so cute!” Terry made a disgusted sound.

“They really are,” I agreed with Emily. Then I turned back to Polina. “I haven’t figured that part out yet,” I admitted. “I’ll research my father’s notes and see if there are any clues there. And if not, then maybe Godmother will have a suggestion.”

“Ah, good. It’s smart to ask for help when you don’t know what to do.”

“Besides,” Gregor said. “If the solution really does involve a goat, we will not need to seek one out. The goat will find us. They always do.” He was grinning at Terry, whose hand was twitching and involuntarily reaching for his gun.

“So, what are you going to do?” Emily asked Polina.

The fairy eyed her as if it was an unnecessary question with an obvious answer. “I’m going to dig,” she said.

“I knew I liked her,” I heard Burin say to Gregor.

“Perhaps you are two of a kind,” Gregor suggested.

“Gods no,” Terry said. “We do NOT need two Burins. One is plenty.”

“I must ask,” Gregor suddenly said. “Can we not just break doll to release Baba Yaga?”

“It seems to be an artifact of great power,” Burin answered. “Those are nearly impossible to destroy unless you meet very specific conditions. That might end up being what we need to do, of course, but we will need to research the doll before we can find those conditions.”

I nodded. “And to that end, we should probably get back to the hut and figure out what our next step is.” After all, we still needed to get back to our own time. I just hoped we didn’t have to free Baba Yaga to make that happen, as we could be stuck here for weeks, or even months if that was the case.

Emily hugged Polina. The fairy looked startled, but not unhappy at the gesture. “Should you really let her do that?” Gregor whispered to Terry, who just shrugged.

“Do I look at all like I know what I’m doing when it comes to parenting? Ask Persephone,” he whispered back.

“It seems okay,” Persephone answered.

Emily came over to me after saying goodbye to her new friend. “So, we’re going back to the future now, right?”

“As soon as we figure out the key,” I said.

“The key has been in plain sight the entire time, and remains with every iteration of the hut,” the voice of an old woman said weakly. “It will take you where you need to go next.”
We pondered that for a bit as we walked, but even when we returned to the hut, we didn’t have an answer. We sat down in the common room with Greta and the Coffin Man - who had decided that he was going with us, at least as far as the hut’s next destination - and tried to brainstorm answers.

But even after hours, we hadn’t come up with the solution. I was getting frustrated, and we’d tried asking Baba Yaga, but she was either too tired or unwilling to answer us.

And then, suddenly, like a bolt out of the blue, Terry began laughing. He stood up and rushed from the room. The rest of us exchanged worried looks. “Emily, wake up,” I said, shaking the sleepy girl.

“What is it?” she asked.

“We might need your mom,” I said.

“Oh.” She summoned Persephone.

“Where is Terry?” she asked.

“We are about to find out,” Gregor said, leading the way to catch up with him. Persephone shot me a worried look, then followed the fighter.

We found Terry in the room with the cauldron. He was still laughing as he held a struggling Zorka above his head. She was swatting him with a broom. “Cut that out!” Terry said.

“Let me go!” the kikimora shrieked, striking him again.

“Terry! What are you doing?!” Persephone asked.

“What Baba Yaga told us to do!” he said as he shoved the struggling Zorka into the bubbling cauldron, with only her arm remaining. He held her under for a few moments, the rest of us too shocked to act, until her arm went limp.

“That wasn’t a good thing!” Burin said. “Pull her out!”

I wasn’t sure if CPR would work on a creature like Zorka, but Momma had insisted I learn before going. Gregor rushed over to the cauldron, pushing Terry out of the way. “You guys are overreacting!” Terry complained. “It’s fine!”

“You killed her!” I said. “How could you?! Gregor, hurry and get her out.”

Gregor looked at me, his face stricken. “She is gone,” he said.

“What do you mean?” Burin asked. “Is she dead already?”

“No, she is-” but he was interrupted as the house lurched, beginning its dimension hopping journey once more.

Terry grinned. “See? I told you it was fine. Remember, violence solves everything,” he said, strutting out of the room. “Emily, let’s get some cake,” he called back.

“Yes, sir,” Emily said, dutifully following her father to get her treat. That girl is going to end up so incredibly screwed up by the time she reaches adulthood.

And speaking of screwed up childhoods, we soon realized we’d forgotten something when we eventually followed them back to the common room. I mean, it was obvious, but we’d had a lot on our plates, so it’s not our fault that we forgot. We’re in the middle of saving the world, okay?

I just hope Anastasia will forgive us for kidnapping her and dragging her over a hundred years into the future, eventually.

Note, re: Terry:
Violence solves everything. It's not always the right solution, but technically it is always one solution. And if it doesn't seem like a solution, then you aren't planning on applying enough violence. :P


UnArcaneElection wrote:
** spoiler omitted **

Spoiler:
Considering she pretty much failed every shot where Precise Shot might have helped, I thought it was fitting for her to put in a paragraph of practice. :P

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Formatted Linky

Chapter 11: Chariots of Fire:
As they returned, Douglas and Brollerth were surprised by the sound of the jail. Or perhaps, more precisely, they were surprised by the lack of sound. They entered and cautiously looked around. The large man in the armor looked like he had been bitten, but both goblins were unconscious. Even that pair of idiots didn’t take long to figure out at least part of what happened. “We, like, owe you a drink,” Brollerth said to Valbrand.

Valbrand laughed. “Ha! I am always thirsty, my friends. I will gladly accept!”

Gwen ignored that. “Did you two find Hubert?”

Douglas didn’t look up from the reflection in his kukri, but nodded dismissively. “Chief Chief will be glad to know Othdan’s okay,” Lucky Days said. “We should head back. I want to go for a run in the morning and it’s getting late.”

Gwen nodded. “Yeah, I’m definitely tired. Let’s go rest.”

“Come on,” Lucky Days said to Valbrand.

“You two go ahead. I’m going to catch up with Rodd Rigez for a bit,” the big man said.

“Okay. Bye Coach!” Lucky Days said with a wave as Valbrand pulled a stool next to the bars.

Rodd Rigez chuckled. “You should go with the black ones tomorrow,” he said. “They won’t show up sweat and tomorrow is leg day.”

“Coach!!” Lucky Days gasped, scandalized.

Gwen rolled her eyes. “Just ignore him,” she told the other girl. “He’s just trying to get a rise out of you.”

The two girls arrived to find the others having a bite of dinner. “Hungry?” Kermit asked.

“I’m starving!” Lucky Days said, her stomach audibly growling. “Let’s eat!”

Gwen went to the Longhouse’s cook. “Just some bread and cheese for me, thanks. I’m gonna do a little target practice before it gets any later.” The older man nodded, handing her a small sack containing what she asked for, as well as a ripe apple, another favorite of hers.

She went outside and set up her targets, but this time in a new configuration. She put a smaller target overlapping a larger one, almost – but not quite – covering the center of the larger target. Then she began practicing her shots, doing her best to hit the big one in the center without hitting the small one. During the day’s fighting, she realized that she was too worried about hitting her allies and had been overcorrecting, so she needed to practice enough that she could confidently make the shots in the heat of battle. After more than an hour of practice, it was clearly paying off, but she would have to wait until the next time she fought for real before she would be able to confirm the effectiveness of the practice.

The next morning, she was awoken by a knock at her door. “Who is it?” she asked, pulling on her tunic.

“It’s Kurst,” a voice answered.

She quickly crossed the room and opened the door. She hugged her cousin. “You look better,” she said. “Did you finally sleep?” He was wearing his dress clothes and had shaved. Definitely an improvement.

“Yes,” he said with a nod. He sat down on her bed. “I… talked to father. He told me what you found at the Plague House, and how there’s no way Rodrik killed himself. Thanks, cousin. I’m glad at least one of us could keep her head.”

She nodded. “You did the same for me when Mother died.”

He nodded back. “Fair enough. How was it?”

She considered how to answer that. “There were ghosts. Also, have you ever had to get a man’s leg out of a bear trap?”

He laughed at the exasperation in her voice. “Well, not a bear trap, exactly. But there was this one time Brollerth stepped on one of his own landmines. Took us an hour to carefully get a rock heavy enough on there fast enough that it wouldn’t explode. Granted, Rodrik did most of the work.”

Gwen laughed. “That’s right. He told me about that one. Uncle chewed all three of you out for that, as I recall.”

“He made Rodrik clean out the stables for a week,” Kurst reminisced. “I got lucky and was only stuck cleaning the barracks.”

“And Brollerth got double guard duty for a month.”

“In hindsight, that might not have been the best decision Father ever made. That’s when he started hanging out with Douglas.” The two erupted in a fit of laughter at that. “It feels good to laugh.”

“It does,” Gwen agreed.

“I’ve moved the ceremony for Rodrik up to today. Around noon. I don’t think Father’s in any shape to go, but will you be there?”

“Of course,” Gwen agreed.

“Good. Now I just need to find Hubert and tell him. He and Rodrik were close, after all.”

“Last I heard, he was going to see Halgra.”

“Strange, Halgra told me that when I found him, to tell him to come see her.”

What? “But Douglas and Brollerth… those idiots never found him,” she said in disbelief. They had lied to her! “He was taking Othdan to his mother’s house.”

“That’s what Halgra said. I stopped by there and Othdan’s mother said he still hadn’t come home. I didn’t mention that he had been found. She thought I was investigating the disappearance.”

Gears began turning in Gwen’s head. “Something’s wrong,” she said.

“What do you mean?”

“We missed something! There has to be another conspirator. Please, tell Halgra! I need to go find Hubert and Othdan!” she said, panic in her voice as she put on her shoes.

“Cousin! What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know!” she said. “But the town could be in danger!” They had missed something. There were more conspirators, but what they were after was unclear. What if they intended to overthrow the town? Kill the men and drag off the women to… no, the thought of it was too horrifying.

“Okay, I’ll go,” Kurst said. “If it will make you feel better. But promise me you’ll come to Rodrik’s funeral.”

“I’ll be there,” she said. “But the safety of the town comes first.” Kurst left as she finished getting ready. Gwen then hurried to the dining hall. She hoped at least one or two of her temporary companions were there. She would need help to find Othdan and Hubert.

She was in luck, as three of the others were there. Kermit and Jazier were at a table playing some kind of game involving making marks on a three by three grid while Glenn watched while he sipped his coffee. “I told you,” Jazier said. “I am cursed.”

“I’m starting to consider that a strong possibility,” Kermit agreed. “Statistically speaking, you should have at least managed to get a draw by now.”

Gwen ignored those three and went to Qumeel, who was sitting in contemplative silence as he ate his breakfast. “What is it, young Gwen?” he asked as she sat down across from him.

“Something has gone wrong,” she said. “We might all be in danger. I need help.”

“See?” Jazier commented to Kermit after overhearing that. “Cursed.”

“Indeed,” the grippli agreed.

Gwen ignored them and explained her concerns to Qumeel. “That does sound like an issue. I will go to the jail and question Douglas and Brollerth, then look into the location of Hubert. As I recall, his home is not far from the jail.”

“I’ll go with you,” Kermit said. “Valbrand is probably still over there. If things do turn bad, we’ll want him close by.”

“Thanks,” Gwen said. “I’ll go wake up Lucky Days and make sure Halgra knows we’re looking into it, then I’ll stop by Othdan’s house, just in case he arrived home sometime after Kurst’s visit.”

“She’s already up,” Kermit said. “She went for a run.”

Gwen cursed internally. As fast as the girl was, she could be anywhere at this point. Then she had an idea. “That man, Rodd Rigez, he’s her coach, right?”

“Yes,” Kermit said with a nod.

“Did you and Valbrand have a way to contact him if you got separated? Maybe he taught her your signal and she’ll come running if we use it.”

“Ah, yes,” Kermit said. “Glenn?”

The man in the pelican suit fished around his pack, producing a strange firework and offering it to Gwen. “Thanks,” she said.

“Just light it outside and aim it into the air. If he taught her about the signal, she’ll come.”

“Thanks,” Gwen said as the trio left for the jail. She went outside and was surprised that Jazier had followed her.

“I’m not staying here by myself,” the wizard said nervously. “I’ll go with the two of you.”

“Okay,” she said. “Light this, please.”

He held out his fingers and chanted. The fuse lit immediately and a small ball shot out of the end of the firework, producing almost no light and making a strange sound that Gwen was having trouble placing. Seconds later, Lucky Days appeared from around the corner, running impossibly fast. “MOO!” she shouted as she arrived, looking around frantically.

“So Rodd Rigez taught her the signal after all,” Jazier commented.

“Signal?” the girl asked, confused.

“You know, the sound of the firework?” Gwen asked.

“What firework? I came because I heard a cow! I wanted to pat its head!” That was it. That was what the sound reminded Gwen of. It sounded like the mooing of a cow. She explained the truth to Lucky Days, who looked disappointed but agreed to come along. “I was really hoping for some milk,” the athletic girl grumbled as they set off.

They reached Halgra’s home and found her oldest daughter, Pearl, teaching Ruby how to throw knives. “Good morning, Gwen. What brings you here?” Pearl asked.

“I’m afraid I need to speak to Halgra. Something’s wrong, and while we’re looking into it, I think she needs to be updated.”

“That’s… not a good idea. Mother’s in one of her moods. It’s best to steer clear until she’s had time to calm down.”

“I wish I could,” Gwen answered. “But I fear it could relate to the safety of Trunau.”

“I see. I wish you luck. You’re going to need it.”

As Gwen and Pearl talked, Ruby approached Lucky Days. “My brother said he saw you running in town. He thinks that you’re almost as fast as a horse, but I told him that couldn’t be true.”

“It’s not,” Lucky Days answered. “I’m much faster than most horses.”

“Wow!” Ruby exclaimed.

“What are you doing?” Lucky Days asked the girl.

“I’m practicing. I can almost get it in the circles every time. Want to try?”

“Sure!” Lucky Days said, taking the offered knife. She then dashed, covering the fifty foot distance in less than three seconds and stabbing the knife dead center into the target. The movement caught everyone’s attention.

“That was amazing,” Pearl said. “But you’re supposed to throw the knife.”

“OH!” Lucky Days gasped. “Sorry, she didn’t explain that part.” She pulled the knife out of the target, dashed back to where Ruby was standing, then spun and flung the knife, once more hitting the target dead center and embedding it up to the hilt in the wood.

“We could use someone like you helping defend the village,” Pearl said.

“Sorry, I’m just here because Coach said it would be good training. Once I’m done, I’m gonna go back to racing horses.”

“Oh, so you’re a horse rider?”

Lucky Days shook her head. “I don’t ride horses. I race them.”

“If you don’t ride horses, how do you… Huh.” Pearl looked amazed as the implications finally hit her.

Gwen took the opportunity to butt into the conversation. “Lucky Days, Jazier, we need to head inside.”

Jazier sighed. “Let’s get this over with,” he said, following her in, but not before watching Pearl and Ruby struggle and fail to remove the knife embedded in the target.

The atmosphere in the home was pretty tense. People were talking in hushed whispers, desperate not to be the ones to attract Halgra’s attention. Gwen felt decidedly like she was marching into the lion’s den. But it was necessary. It had to be done. And she knew that if Kurst had come here to find this situation, he would have decided to come back later, so there was a good chance Halgra still hadn’t been informed.

The approached the door to Halgra’s office and knocked. There was no answer. Gwen flagged down another of the woman’s children, confirming that she was indeed inside, and decided to make her report to the door. After about a minute of explaining, Jazier just opened the door, revealing Halgra asleep at her desk.

He then walked over and checked her pulse – assassins had tried to kill him, after all – while Lucky Days put a blanket over her. Gwen, while mission-focused, was not suicidal. She jotted down a quick note explaining her suspicions and detailing her planned course of action, and left it right in front of the sleeping woman’s face.

Then the three left, quietly shutting the door behind them. They only stopped for a bit outside to explain to Pearl what had transpired before heading off to begin their investigation proper.

As Qumeel and Kermit approached the jail, they heard the sound of screaming. It was muffled, but it was definitely angry rather than scared screaming, so they were not overly concerned. It was a jail, after all. “Sounds like they’re having fun,” Kermit said.

“This man inside, Rodd Rigez, he’s a friend of yours, right?” Kermit answered with a nod. “Is there anything I should keep in mind about him?”

“The number three,” Kermit said sagely, heading inside.

Inside they found that someone had hog-tied the goblins and suspended them from the ceiling. They had been gagged as well, and were still screaming in rage. The assassin looked pretty calm, having grown accustomed to the sound. And Katrezra looked to be attempting to meditate and put the sound from his mind.

But the half orc they’d taken as a prisoner looked terrified. He was pushed all the way back into the corner of his cell, trying to make himself appear small in apparent hopes that anyone entering the jail would overlook him. Qumeel wasn’t sure what to make of it, but, after all, the man didn’t appear to be in any worse shape than when they’d captured him, so it wasn’t likely due to mistreatment while in the jail.

They found Valbrand lazing on a stool next to the cell where Rodd Rigez was hanging upside down. The large man greeted them heartily, raising his mug in salute. “What brings you here?” he asked.

“Young Gwethlantithwen believes we have a problem,” Qumeel answered, explaining everything about the missing men and the suspicious nature of events. “By the way, where are Brollerth and Douglas?” he asked. “Weren’t they supposed to be here?”

Valbrand shrugged. “No idea. They left while I was napping.” He turned to Rodd Rigez. “You observed the town for a bit before you got caught, right? Any insight into where we might find this guardsman?”

“He seemed the punctual sort. And definitely a good fighter, well respected by the other guards. Definitely reliable. If he’s missing, that is indeed odd. My suggestion is that if you want to find him, seek out the drunk. He seemed to be trying to help the man, so if anyone knows where he is, it’ll be him.”

Valbrand and Kermit exchanged glances. “Omast?” Kermit suggested.

“Omast,” Valbrand agreed.

“Well, there you have it,” Rodd Rigez said. “I suggest you get looking. It’s my experience that if you don’t find these people within twenty four hours, it’s likely you won’t find them.”

Valbrand stood and gathered his pack, handing the heavy stuff over to Glenn, who sighed silently. Before they left, Qumeel had to know. “What’s so important about three?” he asked Rodd Rigez. The hanging man looked surprised, then turned to Kermit, who winked.

“Who can say?” Rodd Rigez answered.

“Have you found four yet?” Kermit asked.

“Not yet,” Rodd Rigez said, sounding annoyed – not at the question, but at the failure of his search.

“Okay,” Kermit said. “By the way, we used your firework. Have any more?”

“Sure. Give me a sec.” He popped his arm out of its socket again, rooted around in his pants and tossed another firework to the grippli. “There you go.”

“Thanks, Rodd,” Kermit said.

“Anytime, bud. Now you all should get going. I need a nap anyway.” But before they could leave, there was a loud but dull thud and through the prison bars, they could hear the sound of hundreds of voices as well as what sounded like the beating of drums. In his cell, the half orc whimpered in fear.

Outside, the first evidence that something was wrong was when Gwen spotted a giant boulder flying overhead. Then it hit a building and all hell broke loose. The trio looked around them, and from where they were on the bridge, they could hear screaming. “What do we do?” Lucky Days asked.

“The beacon at the Commons – Halgra’s home – needs to be lit,” Gwen said.

The other girl pulled out a torch and held it out to Jazier. “Light, please!” she said. The wizard did so with a word, and the girl sprinted off impossibly fast.

“What do we do?” Jazier asked.

“We should follow her. Halgra will know what we should do. Probably run orders and find a position to defend…” she turned as she spoke, noticing a throng of women and children running their way. “Off the bridge!” she shouted, and the two sprinted to the far side and leapt out of the way of the panicked crowd.

From that side, they scanned the area, looking to see if anyone was pursuing the group, but found no one. It was just general panic, and not an imminent threat in the inner part of the town. So they followed the crowd heading up to the commons.

Meanwhile, Lucky Days had quickly made her way up there, found the tower that contained the beacon and climbed up, which took a bit longer as she was holding the torch. From her position, she saw the crowd, and also an army of orcs surrounding the village. There were numerous orcs scaling the outer walls.

She lit the beacon and turned just in time to spot a boulder flying right at her. She jumped down from the tower and landed just in time to spot the boulder clip the tower and fly into the roof of the house. Halgra, who was standing outside the door, looked dazed and was having trouble trying to answer the panicked crowd that had surrounded her.

“Look out!” Lucky Days shouted as the boulder rolled out of the front door. But it was too late. It struck Halgra and sent her flying. The boulder continued its roll, hitting several women in the crowd who were desperately trying to protect the children. From her position, Lucky Days saw the last victim struck, a young woman with blue hair who had dived into the crowd to push aside a small child. The boulder then came to a rest against the wall of a building. Thankfully the wall was stone, so the flaming rock didn’t ignite anything.

Wait. Blue hair?

“Gwen!” Lucky Days shouted as she dashed over to help.

Back at the jail, Valbrand assessed the sound. He and Kermit nodded at each other, and the grippli summoned out the power of the Guyver once more. The large man turned to the suspended Rodd Rigez, who chuckled. “Sounds like it’s going to be a hell of a fight,” the hanging man said.

Valbrand bared his teeth in a bloodthirsty grin. “It does. I hear catapults. And drums. It’s time for you to stop being lazy and do your thing.”

“Just like that time with the angry Keleshite governor?” Rodd Rigez asked as he easily slipped out of his rope.

“That’s exactly what I was thinking!” Valbrand said with a laugh as he drew his axe.

“We will be up to our ears in grateful maidens when this is over.”

“I will be. I suspect they’ll stack over your head,” the large man joked.

“It’s a good thing I can hold my breath, then,” Rodd Rigez said as he sucked in his stomach and easily squeezed out through the bars on the window.”

Kermit flexed his claws. “Let’s get moving,” he said, dashing out the door.

“Right behind you,” Valbrand said, though he stopped as he noticed the assassin and half orc. He realized that if they were involved, it would probably be a smart play to kill them now, before their allies could spring them.

Qumeel noticed his gaze. “I’m not entirely sure what you’re thinking,” the cleric said. “But I have a suspicion. Ask yourself if you have time to deal with that right now, or if your time would be better spent dealing with the more pressing threat.” Then the cleric left. It wouldn’t have been right to let the man execute the prisoners out of hand, but at the same time, he also knew that he didn’t have time to deal with it. There were more pressing matters for him as well.

“Dammit!” Valbrand cursed. He turned to the imprisoned men. “If I catch either of you outside of here, understand that I will not hesitate to end your lives,” he threatened, then charged after Qumeel.

Glenn, who had witnessed all of this, was surprised. Perhaps the cleric would be a good influence on the infuriatingly brash man. Not sure what else to do, the pelican suited man opted to wait a few minutes. They were close to the town’s inner wall. It was best to wait for Valbrand and Kermit to clear out the danger.

Outside, the three spotted a pair of guards fighting a quartet of orcs at what Qumeel knew was the town’s inner gate beacon. It needed to be lit to allow the townspeople to know where to escape to in the event that smoke clouded vision.

One of the guards was fighting like a madman, but was overpowered by his foe, taking a blade to his gut. As he fell, they recognized his face. It was Omast. The other guard saw how outnumbered he was and immediately retreated.

Kermit roared, the unearthly sound filling the air as he charged the nearest orc. Valbrand followed, shouting, “Gorum!” as he ran. Qumeel drew his blade from its now-smoking sheathe, and it burst into flame with the blessing of his god, and charged as well.

One of the orcs intercepted Kermit, slashing him and leaving a shallow wound which dripped a small amount of an unearthly pale liquid. “I hit you!” the orc said in disbelief. “That should have killed you! Why aren’t you dead? I’ll make sure you die on the next one!” As he had spoken in Orcish, Valbrand was the only one who understood him. The large man just laughed as Kermit clawed into the orc. He then charged in to help, but his blow glanced off the orc’s armor.

A second orc quickly quaffed a potion and disappeared from sight while a third aimed his short sword at the down, but still alive, Omast. “Surrender or I will kill your friend!” the orc commanded in broken Common.

Qumeel calmly strode forward, channeling healing energy, stopping the bleeding of Omast’s wounds, but also healing the injured orc a bit. “I have healed your friend. Step away from mine,” the cleric demanded.

The orc laughed. “I like you. I will enjoy killing you,” he said, pulling his sword away from Omast and pointing it at Qumeel.

“I don’t need your pity!” the injured orc shouted as he swung at Qumeel, who easily blocked the blow with his shield.

“Gorfus, you a*#+!+~,” the invisible orc said under his breath as he moved to help, but it was too late. The injured orc’s movement took his attention away from Kermit, who immediately capitalized on the inattention and tore out the orc’s kidney, dropping him, then he charged the orc nearest Omast.

The invisible orc reappeared as he struck Kermit, who weathered the blow.

“He was an idiot, but he was OUR idiot!” the now visible orc shouted in rage.

Valbrand laughed as he engaged the warrior. “Face me!” he roared in challenge.

Qumeel tossed aside his shield and held his blade high. Holy light enveloped him, and his body burst into golden flames, becoming almost incorporeal as it did so. He quickly ran past Kermit and Omast, holy energy infusing both of them as he passed and healing them.

Kermit easily downed the second orc as Valbrand fought the third. The fourth orc, who had spent his time trying to tear apart the beacon – he wasn’t sure what it was for, but it looked important – turned to the fighting and launched a javelin, which bounced off of Valbrand’s shield.

The fourth orc then pulled out a toad. “Trunau is not as undefended as believed. Tell Skreed to send in Crusher!” he said in Orcish. The toad began to hop away, but Kermit was more than familiar with the hopping movement of toads, and jumped after it.

Omast awoke and pulled the dagger from his gut, then quickly made his way towards the beacon, trying to put it right. Valbrand took enough of a blow that he knew he needed healing, so he leapt back and cast the spell quickly. The orc pursued. “Face me, coward!” he shouted.

Kermit caught the toad. “Let go of Mister Cricket!” the orc who had spoken to it demanded. But alas, he had spoken in Orcish, and Kermit did not speak that language. So the guyver’s jaws opened wide and bit the toad clean in half. The small creature disappeared in a puff of smoke.

The orc fled, leaving his companion all alone as Qumeel charged at his exposed back. “Please!” Omast wailed. “I need help lighting this!”

Kermit chased after the fleeing orc, and the sounds of his brutal death were Glenn’s signal to come outside. He made it out just in time to see Qumeel’s charge complete. It was punctuated by a swing of his blade from low to high, continuing in a circular motion over his head. He let go of the blade at just the right angle, sending it flying through the air and embedding itself into the pile of wood next to Omast.

The dry wood caught immediately and the beacon erupted in flame, providing the light of hope for the defending townspeople as the men immediately began moving to intercept more orcs on the town’s inner wall.

Note:
Not sure what'll be next week. But my evil side thinks something non-Giantslayer because cliffhangers.


UnArcaneElection wrote:

** spoiler omitted **

Spoiler:
I may have mispoke. She knew he wanted him dead, but she didn't realize how important it would be to see the body.

Spoiler:
Yeah, she absolutely missed how bad Gregor wanted to kill Rasputin.


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Formatted Linky

Doofopath:
As we stared at the old woman, I noticed Emily instead walking around trying to study the magic in the room. She was touching the walls as she chanted her cantrip, marveling at the flow of magic throughout the room. It’s interesting watching a child see things they’ve never seen before.

As she did so, Burin walked over to help up Baba Yaga, helping her rest on what remained of a bench. We’d all just been staring at her – well, all but Emily – until he did so. “At least someone remembers his manners,” the old woman said, allowing the dwarf to help him up.

“I’m sorry,” Terry said. “It’s just, we weren’t expecting to find you until after we faced your son, is all.”

“Well, you don’t have to worry about that. He got what was coming to him.”

“That’s great to hear. So, I was wondering, since we came all this way for you…” I was worried where this was going. “So, my daughter and this dwarf are entangled by some kind of magic and can’t go too far from each other. Do you think you can untangle their existence? I will personally be in your debt and will gladly spend my life repaying you after I slay my dragon. Unless you want to help me with that to speed it up, of course.” He flashed a smile and a thumbs up at Persephone.

As he talked, Gregor slid up next to me. “If this is the past, just how long could she have been here? Shouldn’t we have been able to get here just after she did?”

Daddy had once given me a three hour lecture on time travel. But I really don’t understand it, even then. “I’m not sure. The hut may have weird limitations where the time has passed as long here as it has in our time since the hut was last here. There’s no way to tell without getting information on when it last left and what day it is now. I think Cortana can figure out the latter for me based on the movement of the stars, but we have no data from the former.”

Gregor nodded, satisfied. “I see.”

Persephone saw Terry’s gesture and spoke up. “Don’t forget to ask about Toby,” she said.

“Oh, right, and if you could revive my dead son, that would be great too,” Terry said to Baba Yaga.

The witch laughed acerbically. “I believe we can come to an arrangement. But I will first need to get to the hut to heal my injuries and get supplies to work on it. Once I have determined the difficulty of what you ask, then will negotiations begin. Now, take me to the hut.”

“I want to see the body of Sergei’s killer first,” Gregor said.

“Do you not believe my word?” the old witch asked.

“Honor dictates that I see the corpse of the man who killed Sergei, so I may visit Sergei’s grave and tell him that he has been avenged, even if not by my hand.”

Baba Yaga sighed. “I can see that I will not dissuade you. Dwarf, be a dear and help me walk,” she said. Burin got under her arm and helped her stand. She rested her weight on him and gave him a kiss on the cheek. “Such a good boy,” she said. “Obedience to your elders is a virtue.” Few humans could say that to an adult dwarf, but she was definitely one of them.

“We also have this special gun which might help with your wounds,” Terry said. “It’s really effective at healing injuries. I’m not entirely sure how it works, but it has something to do with tiny machines.”

She seemed intrigued. “We can give it a try,” she said, beckoning him over.

Terry approached with the nanite gun in hand, ready to treat her wounds. As he prepared to inject her, there was a motion. It was nigh imperceptible and super-fast, but thankfully Terry caught it and managed to dodge back before Baba Yaga snatched the tool from his hand.

The movement betrayed the lie. She was neither old nor injured. In a simultaneous motion, Terry holstered the nanite gun and drew his rifle. He took aim and squeezed the trigger, but missed as the “old woman” bit his arm. “Dammit!” Terry cursed. “All old people are evil! You hear that Emily?”

“Yes, sir,” Emily said.

The old woman cast a spell, hitting Terry with necromantic energy and sapping his strength and simultaneously unleashed a spell that filled me with a sense of overwhelming despair. And I wasn’t the only one. “Her magic is too strong,” Burin wailed. “We’re all doomed since no one has the power to stop her.”

Persephone transformed into a manticore and moved in to help and Emily cast a spell to try to enflame our foe’s emotions and prevent her from focusing enough to cast, but it was resisted. I had to push pretty hard to overcome it with the force bolts I’d unleashed, so it was clear that the woman had resistance to magic.

And I knew why. As she’d cast, the glamour around the woman faded, revealing a terrible creature. She was an Erodaemon, a creature of Abaddon who personify death by heartbreak. And Gregor was definitely feeling heartbroken at the moment. “I knew he couldn’t be dead,” he said, half-heartedly striking at her with tears in his eyes.

Terry was clearly unaffected by the emotional manipulation. He was just seething with rage. “You shouldn’t have f#&%ed with my emotions!” he raged as he took aim. “That’s a one way ticket to pain town!” He squeezed the trigger and a bullet shot forth, straight through the daemon’s skull. She collapsed like a ton of bricks. “Machine of death!” Terry shouted before devolving into a fit of coughing from the necromantic attack he’d taken. There was blood on his hand from his injuries.

After the fight, Gregor was sitting with his head in his hands. “We struggled this much against her. How can we possible kill the man who would not die?”

Terry patted his shoulder. “Come now. Would Sergei be acting like a b!!%@? No. He’d get up and fight. If he wasn’t dead, I mean.”

“Sergei did not get back up,” Gregor said, his head in his hands. Terry had no idea how to deal with that.

It took a few minutes for us to feel better as the magic faded. We were left with only one person feeling sad. “What’s wrong?” I asked Emily, who was pouting in the corner.

“It didn’t work,” she said. “I tried to use magic to make her angry, but it didn’t work!”

I hugged the girl. “Some enemies are resistant to magic. You’re still learning. I’ll teach you more about how to push past that when we have time.”

“Feeling better?” Persephone asked both of us.

Emily nodded. “I just need practice,” she said. “Dad was pretty cool, though.”

Persephone laughed. “He was, but sometimes I don’t know what I see in him. I have trouble telling if he’s a doofus or a psychopath.”

“Maybe he’s a doofopath?” Emily suggested. I had to fight not to laugh, because she looked completely serious.

Instead, I walked over to Burin. “How are you doing?” I asked.

“I’m okay now. But I was unable to think about anything but the future of my clan for a bit there,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“Without the demon to contain, we’ll lose our position among our people. It will take time, but we’ll likely be destitute if we don’t find a solution.”

I hadn’t considered that. But I knew someone who would know what to do. “When we’re done here, we can talk to Daddy. If anyone can give you some good suggestions on how to keep your family from falling on hard times, it’s him. He’s amazing at making money.”

“That’s a load off of my mind,” Burin said. “We don’t mind hard work. It’s just that I have no idea what we could do. I worried that I might have doomed my entire clan.”

Persephone had snuck into the next room as we had wallowed in our misery. When she returned, she was carrying some kind of book. I didn’t get a great look at it, but it kinda looked like a Russian Orthodox bible. I hope she wasn’t planning on converting. My parents would never let me be friends with one of those heretics.

“So, just to confirm,” Persephone said as she tucked the book into Emily’s bag, “that wasn’t the right old lady, right? What now?”

Gregor cracked his knuckles. “It means that Sergei’s killer is still alive. So we go kill him.”

Terry grinned. “Now you’re speaking my language.”

I saw Persephone roll her eyes, but she said nothing as we made our way through the monastery. It was a bit treacherous considering the fact that it was ancient and in clear need of renovation, but we made it through pretty easily. After all, when you’ve faced an army of dragon riding aliens on a frozen world, it’s not like a few weak boards were that big a deal.

Also, I cheated and flew over everything that looked dangerous. Emily copied me and did the same.

After stopping to let everyone marvel at all the lightbulbs, we reached, at long last, a large set of double doors that no doubt led to the main chapel. We could see flashing blue-white light coming through the doors. “He’s here,” Gregor said. “I can feel it.” He tensed his muscles as he spoke, and immediately shifted into the form of a frost giant. Not necessarily the best idea in this decrepit building, but the floor held.

Terry put away his gun and pulled out his rocket launcher. Persephone became a manticore once more. I cast a defensive spell in case Terry was told to kill me again. And Emily tried a spell we’d worked on, hastening all of our movements. “Now we can be better at killing old people!” the girl said proudly as the spell worked.

Terry beamed with pride. “That’s my girl!”

Persephone just looked annoyed.

Meanwhile… Burin walked over with a completely guileless look on his face, threw open the door, and said hello. That dwarf will be the death of us. I’m sure of it.

Rasputin was floating in the center of the room, surrounded by Tesla coils and all sorts of “mad-science” type stuff all over. Electricity was arcing between him and the coils, and there was a pale green shell around him, like a force field. I recognized it as magic that would prevent living creatures from approaching him. It wouldn’t stop me, with my celestial heritage, nor would it stop an eidolon, but it would prevent the others from walking up to him. It was a smart play.

“Welcome fools! You are too late! I have sucked out almost all of my mother’s power! Soon, I will take her throne and will conquer this and all other worlds!”

Terry sneered. “Sucked out her power? How? With your lips on her saggy, old-lady teet?”

Rasputin unleashed a spell without a word, striking us with unholy energy. After the instant of pain subsided, I felt ill, and Emily didn’t look any better, but the rest were minimally affected. Then he instantly unleashed another, commanding Terry to attack me. Called it.

What I didn’t see coming was that Terry actually resisted the command. He fired a rocket at Rasputin, but missed due to a magical field of distorted probability, and the rocket went past the mad monk before exploding. Of course, it was a rocket, so the explosion still clipped Rasputin, causing him to wince in pain.

As the explosion cleared, Emily teleported Persephone into the fray, behind Rasputin – I guess she hadn’t figured out that Persephone could fly right through. With the distraction, Gregor charged straight at the green shell, the teleported at the last second, appearing within. He then began punching the hell out of the floating Rasputin.

Rasputin could cast quickly, I’ll give him that. But two could play that game. I drew on the power of the storm surging within and began hitting him with fireball after fireball. As I did so, I watched as first Terry, then Burin, wandered off, following a bunch of shielded cables through a door into the next room. In a moment, I heard an explosion as Terry began trying to wreck whatever machine was inside, then casting as Burin joined him.

After unleashing a blast of lightning and healing the wounds he’d received, the mad monk began preparing another spell. Gregor punched Rasputin with all his might, and the monk’s neck snapped to an odd angle. He looked dead.

It didn’t last. In a mere few seconds, the monk snapped back to life and unleashed more spells, he cast a powerful spell, but Gregor shrugged it off and kept fighting. “I will kill you as many times as I have to,” Gregor growled.

“I only need to kill you once,” Rasputin quipped back, healing himself again and unleashing another blast of energy at Gregor. I kept weaving fireballs, but Emily ran off after Terry and Burin.

Gregor struck Rasputin again, once more killing him, but the monk came back with a laugh. “I will kill you once for every one of my brothers!” Gregor shouted as he continued fighting. It was clear that the deaths were taking their toll, but we had to end this soon. I was running out of magic.

So I tried something I’d never tried before. This time, instead of pulling on the magic of the inner storm to cast faster, I tried pushing the magic into the fireball itself. The fire burst forth from my hand, white hot and struck Rasputin. For the first time, he cried out in pain.

Once more, his wounds healed due to his magic, but Rasputin now saw that Persephone – who had been constantly clawing at his back – and I could not be ignored. So he unleashed a spell upon Gregor. “KILL HER!” he commanded. Not sure which of us he meant.

“Oh, I’m killing someone,” Gregor said. His hand shot out, his fingers pointed like a knife. His hand tore through Rasputin’s chest and he ripped out the monk’s still-beating heart.

Terry and Burin came running out of the room just in time to watch as Gregor roared in fury with his foe’s heart in his hand. The monk’s body crumpled and the electricity in the room faded. As my eyes adjusted, I saw that Emily had been standing there next to Rasputin. She’d probably tried to teleport Burin over to the monk, but the stubborn dwarf had refused. She later told me that the room was dangerous and she was trying to get him out, but he’d insisted on staying and continuing to smash the machines.

It was over. We healed up and began dismantling the machine, piece by piece, and feeding it into the box. There were some really valuable things in there. As we worked, I heard Terry asking Gregor about how he felt, but Gregor said little.

Eventually, the machines led us to a bunch of small matroshka dolls. The way they were set up, they almost looked like batteries. Gregor eyed the one in the center. “I have seen this before,” he said quietly. “He took it from the monastery. This thing is why Sergei was killed.”

He reached out and picked up the doll. A voice rang out in my head, and from the reaction, Terry, Gregor and Burin heard it too. “So my Black Rider is dead, and he sent you in his place. No wonder it took so long. Now, take me to the Hut. Once there, I will give you instructions on how to free me.”

Terry snatched the doll out of Gregor’s hand and pulled out his gun. Persephone, perplexed but knowing her husband, grabbed it from him. “Hey! I was going to threaten that egg!” he said.

Persephone then gave it to me and I looked at the doll carefully. It was filled with an INSANE amount of magic. “Baba Yaga, I presume?” I said.

Note:
I have a backlog of write ups, but I'm going to be dipping into them as I transition to my new job and don't have time to write(until I'm settled). Hopefully I have enough to make it there. I think so. Almost certainly Giantslayer next week.


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Formatted Linky

Chapter 17: Show-Stopper:
Heimish looked up at the fire and something caught his eye. There was a spark from the fire, fluttering about as though carried by the breeze. Only, it wasn’t quite right. It was more like it was flying on wings. Then he saw it. Next to the spark, there was a complete absence of light in the shape of butterfly wings.

The spark wafted down towards him, then fluttered off away from the town square. Heimish felt like he had to follow, so he did, hobbling after the void-winged spark.

Kendra watched in disbelief as Santino began climbing the wooden construct. Well, not disbelief. She believed he would do something like that. She just couldn’t deal with it at that moment. “Stein, we should do something about Santino.” There was no response. “Stein!” she called out, poking her head out of the carriage.

They had parked on one side of the road, but Stein was nowhere to be seen. Annoyed and unsure what to do, she walked over to a nearby general goods store to watch the scene from a window.

In the crowd, as she heard the people begin shouting about the presence of a werewolf, Natalya knew she had to do something, or the crowd would tear Santino apart. She didn’t have time to consider what she would personally do regarding the man, only that she had to at least make sure it wouldn’t blow back on Kendra.

She remembered the adventurers she’d seen, and immediately flagged them down. She then displayed her guild crest. “We have to get the crowd out of here quickly, without inciting a panic. Even the guards will have trouble dealing with such a threat, but you know what will happen if a werewolf gets into the crowd!”

One of the men nodded. “Right. You heard her, lads, let’s get these people out of here.” The men began shouting, directing traffic and urging people to leave.

It worked too well, however, and people began fleeing in a panicked mass. Natalya quickly looked back, and saw that the carriage was out of the center of the street, so Kendra was likely in no danger. She turned back to the sight of her companion, up on the burning effigy. Getting him down safely was going to be difficult.

“I don’t want to be this!” the man roared, his voice reverberating through the square as he clawed at his chest, tearing away skin and revealing the raw muscle below. There was a slightly eerie red glow pulsing below the exposed muscle. “Set me free!”

Out of the corner of her eye, Natalya saw motion on a nearby rooftop. She turned and saw a dark cloaked figure looking up at Santino. The figure’s cloak fluttered in the breeze and Natalya saw a shiny obsidian mask with glowing blue eyes underneath. In her mind, Natalya began referring to the figure as Mask.

The figure tensed, and in that moment, Natalya saw Mask’s legs flex in a way that seemed unnatural for a human. It may have just been a trick of the light, but she had seen legs bend like that with some more tieflings who favored their fiendish heritage. It was also common for catfolk’s legs to do the same, though she couldn’t tell if the figure had a tail or fur due to the long cloak.

In an instant, Mask shot through the air with impossible speed, clearing a distance of over sixty feet in the leap – and that was only horizontal distance, as there was a ten foot height distance to cover as well – and kicked Santino dead in the chest. The dog-faced man shot off like an arrow from the impact, sailing over a building and most likely landing in the alley below, then Mask leapt after him.

Kendra, who had witnessed the blow, was sure that the impact would have killed a normal man. But her brother was tougher than most. He had to be okay. She even said it aloud to herself as she ran out of the shop.

The remaining crowd was cheering as she got outside. “The hero, Alvin, has come to save us from the werewolf!” a man shouted. Up ahead, Kendra saw Natalya look in the direction of the shout and run through the now-cheering crowd, heading towards a side street that led in the direction Santino had flown. Not knowing what else to do, Kendra followed.

Santino was barely coherent, but found himself in an alleyway, lying in a puddle. A short distance away was a strange figure, who stood on one leg as it watched him. He leapt to his feet with a snarl and charged, but he slipped on the wet ground and his snapping teeth missed their mark.

Mask swung the raised foot, sending Santino flying into a wall, though this time not as far as he’d been knocked from the Punishing Man. As he struck the wall, Mask saw his shadow in the light of the red glow. The shadow was inhuman, with a pointed tail and great forked antlers. The shadow appeared to be trying to tear itself free of the body.

“Creatures like you shouldn’t even exist!” Mask said with a voice that echoed unnaturally, as if altered by magic – perhaps in the obsidian mask itself.

Santino, blood and spittle dripping from his maw, roared in anger and crimson flames erupted from his body, exploding outward and singeing Mask, who did their best to use their cloak to block the brunt of the flame. The fire also struck the shadow, which rippled, and great black bat-like wings appeared within it, and the flame coalesced in the shadow’s face, appearing as two burning eyes.

The shadow growled incoherently in the language of the blackest pit. Mask understood only a few words, and it seemed to be cursing the body as it continued clawing at the connection between it and its corporeal anchor.

Mask’s foot began to glow with the same pale blue light that shown from its eyes and swept at Santino’s leg, right where the shadow was trying to claw its way free. The blow struck both the body and shadow, and Santino fell to the ground on top of the shadow.

In the distance, a figure entered the alley. “Get away from him!” Natalya shouted, brandishing Faith menacingly.

Mask ignored her and turned back to Santino, whose chest glowed bright red with the light of his exposed heart. The shadow’s wings unfurled beneath him and wrapped around the man, who cried out in pain. The shadow roared in anger. “If I have to be trapped, SO. DO. YOU!”

Inky blackness enveloped Santino, and when it faded, there was an unconscious white mastiff lying there. It looked brutalized and malnourished. Mask regarded the dog curiously, almost pitying it.

Then there was a strange laugh from above, and a second figure, wrapped in shadows, dropped down next to Mask. Due to the nearly shifting nature of the outline around him, Natalya mentally dubbed him Shade. “This would make an excellent specimen!” Shade said, his voice mirthful. “But, alas, time is of the essence. Come!” he said. Mask hesitated, then nodded and both Mask and Shade bounded into the air, jumping well over two stories in a single leap.

Natalya reached the pitiful and unconscious dog. It was breathing, if barely. She then heard footsteps behind her, and turned in time to see Kendra enter the alley. She could also hear the sound of voices somewhere in the distance. She wasn’t sure, but she thought she heard them saying something about following the werewolf, but she wasn’t sure.

Kendra reached her, and gaped at the sight of the dog. “I’m not sure what happened,” Natalya said. “But I think that Mask turned Santino into a dog.”

“It can’t be,” Kendra said, dropping to her knees and cradling the dog. “But it is him. Daddy said he had died. But here you are. Jiminy, the puppy I lost when I was little girl.” Tears streaked down her face as she spoke.

Several guards entered the alley. “What happened?” one asked Natalya.

She had to get them away from Kendra and Santino. So she spouted the first lie that came to mind that answered everything. “Alvin and the werewolf were fighting in here. Alvin kicked the werewolf into the wall. He knocked into this poor dog, who I think this woman was looking for. Then, the werewolf leapt up onto the roof, and Alvin leapt after him.”

The guard looked up. It was rather far up. But this was Alvin and a werewolf they were talking about. “The roof? Well, I guess it started up there. Understood. You ladies need to get off the street. It’s not safe with a werewolf about.”

“We will,” Natalya said. “But as a tiefling, I don’t have to worry about the werewolf’s curse.”

“True as that may be, his teeth and claws will kill you same as any human. You look competent with that blade. Can you get this woman and her dog to safety?”

“Yes,” Natalya agreed, and the guards left.

As they spoke, Kendra pulled out a vial of dark liquid. It looked like blood to Natalya, but it was, in truth, a magic oil – though blood had been one of the oil’s ingredients. She anointed the dog with it, and it whimpered softly as its wounds began to heal. Natalya thought the girl was chanting a spell, though in truth she was praying that Pharasma not take him.

Once the guards were gone and the dog’s wounds were healed, Kendra regained her focus. “Natalya, please gather my brother’s things.”

The tiefling nodded and grabbed his pack and sword as Kendra picked up the dog. It was surprisingly light, despite its massive size. The tiefling then followed the woman as they made their way out of the alley.

Elsewhere, in fact, not sure where he was, Heimish continued following the butterfly. As he did so, the world began to fade away, and everything became a great black void. The only thing he could see aside from himself and the butterfly was a pale green light in the distance. It appeared to be the butterfly’s destination, and it led him there unerringly.

As he reached it, he realized the light was coming from some kind of idol made of pale green stone. The idol depicted something unearthly, though Heimish was unsure what precisely it was. Identification was made more difficult as the idol undulated, blurring its form even more. Then it opened, revealing a writhing mass of tentacles, great webbed wings and arms reaching out.

Heimish could not make sense of it, so he turned to the butterfly and bowed. “What would you have me do?” he asked. But the butterfly did not answer. Instead, Heimish watched as four shadowy figures appeared, picking up the idol and taking it, disappearing from sight as they moved a few feet away.

The butterfly then landed on Heimish’s shoulder and he felt a cold but comforting sensation where it touched him. Then the blackness faded away, and Heimish found himself on a street, in front of a building, in a part of the city he was definitely unfamiliar with.

Across town, Kendra and Natalya made their way back to the main square. Up ahead, they spotted Stein and a woman they did not recognize conversing with a guard. Most of the crowd was dispersed and the guards had managed to get the fire under control. The woman said something to the guard and he nodded, then walked away.

Kendra, upset, walked up to Stein. “Where did you go?” she asked, her tone accusatory.

“I was taking care of business. This is Embreth Daramid, Justice of Lepidstadt.”

“Nice to meet you,” Kendra said curtly. “But I have business to attend to.” She then began walking towards the carriage, but was stopped as the woman held a hand in front of her.

“Pitiful creature,” she said, examining the dog. “Is this the vessel he chose for his experiment?”

Kendra’s eyes narrowed. “If we are going to discuss my father, we should find a more private place to talk.” Her voice was still filled with anger.

“Wise, child,” the woman said. “And there is much business to discuss. We can speak at my home.”

“We’ll take my carriage,” Kendra said. “If Stein can manage to remain with the carriage this time.”

Stein ignored the barb and ushered Kendra inside, Natalya following close behind. Stein then took his seat as the driver, with Embreth joining him.

“I am aware that you have another delivery to make,” the older woman said to the butler. “But they can wait until morning. We have much to discuss, after all, and so little time.”

“Indeed,” Stein agreed, cracking the whip to get the horses moving.

As they were setting off, the dumbfounded Heimish continued staring at the building, trying to decipher the Black Butterfly’s message, when a voice spoke to him. “You seem to be lost,” the man’s voice declared.

“That is not entirely accurate,” Heimish responded. “It is true that I don’t have any idea where I am, but I am certain that I am precisely where I am meant to be.” He turned to see the man standing next to him. The man was older, balding a bit, but dressed well in the style of scholars. “Can you perhaps tell me where we are?”

The man laughed. “I see! Most interesting! You, friend, are at the University of Lepidstadt.”

“Is that so? I am not sure what I am meant to do here, perhaps it was to meet you. I am Heimish Realta, who might you be?”

“I am Professor Montagnie Crowl, good Heimish. Does that illuminate your purpose here?”

Heimish considered. “Yes! I believe it does. I know your name, from a task I was given, by my dear departed friend Petrus Lorrimor. I am supposed to deliver some books to you, though I must admit that I left them at the carriage, and I must further admit that I do not know where the carriage is right now.”

“Ah, those books! I must say, they are quite tardy. Quite tardy indeed!” he said with a laugh. “But that is okay, considering Petrus’ untimely passing. I will not assess him late fees, in deference to the dead.” He laughed again at his own joke. “Come inside, Heimish Realta. After I attend to my business, we can perhaps decipher the mystery of your missing carriage.”

Crowl opened the door and Heimish noticed the mess within. “I had heard that scholars were often untidy, but I must admit that I was not expecting this,” Heimish admitted.

Crowl laughed. “Tidiness is the duty of students. But this mess is not the work of forgetfulness or neglect. There was quite the to do when an artifact was stolen recently, and with all the investigators about, we have not had time to deal with the fallout.”

“Something was stolen?” Heimish asked, but he spotted a sunken in area where the object likely sat.

“Yes, a strange artifact. Probably worthless, definitely strange, and really just taking up a lot of room. But nonetheless, most fascinating. Here, I think I have some drawings of it,” Crowl said as he rooted through a desk. “Ah yes, there it is.” He handed a book to Heimish. “It was called the Sea-Sage Effigy. Someone was caught, luckily, but we have not recovered it.”

Heimish thumbed through the book, then found the drawing. The image startled him so much he nearly dropped the tome. “That’s it!” he said.

“Friend, you’re white as a sheet,” Crowl said.

“I was granted a vision by the Black Butterfly. In my vision, I saw this object and witness a number of people stealing it. I think I’m supposed to look for it.”

“The Black Butterfly, you say? Most interesting! I’d suggest you interrogate the culprit, but the Beast of Lepidstadt will most likely be unable to answer your questions,” he said, laughing again at a joke Heimish did not quite understand. “Now, I have what I came to retrieve. About the matter of your missing carriage, let us go speak to a friend of mine. Judge Embreth Daramid will know who to talk to in order to find what you seek. I’m sure of it!”

Heimish blinked in surprise. “Embreth Daramid?” he asked.

“Yes. You know her?”

“I know the name,” Heimish answered. “She is the other person I’m supposed to see while here. That cannot be a coincidence.”

As he locked the door to his office, Crowl turned to Heimish. “Do you think the Black Butterfly has a connection to this artifact?”

“I do not know. But I’d be happy to tell you all about her and perhaps you will see a connection I cannot.”

“Splendid!” Crowl said. He then opened his mouth to speak again, but was interrupted by a knock on the door. “Please check that while I grab one more thing?”

Heimish nodded and went to the door. He opened it, but saw no one. “Strange,” Heimish said. “No one’s here.”

Then he heard the sound of someone clearing their throat. “Down here,” the voice said.

Heimish looked down and spotted a gnome. “I have a delivery for Montagnie Crowl,” the gnome said, holding out a parcel.

Heimish took it. “Thanks. I’ll give it to him,” he said, then shut the door, almost hitting the hand the gnome was holding out for a tip.

“Well, it’s a good thing I only brought the left ones,” the gnome said, annoyed. “Maybe I’ll get my tip when I bring the rest next time.”
Inside, Heimish gave the package to Crowl, who opened it and pulled out a jar of eyeballs floating in a sickly green liquid. “Splendid!”

“What are they?” Heimish asked.

“Ritual eyes, plucked from the skulls of witches,” Crowl answered as he put them on a shelf. Heimish noticed that the eyes seemed to follow him as he moved. “Come, let us get going. Embreth’s home is a good walk from here, and I suspect it will take you longer than most.”

“True enough,” Heimish said. “Though that will just give us more time to discuss the Black Butterfly.”

“Splendid!” Crowl said, clapping his hands once more.

Across town, Kendra was in the room she was given to freshen up, looking out of a window. The white mastiff was laying on a nest of blankets, whimpering. Stein stood at the doorway. “Embreth is ready for us. We can look for Heimish tomorrow.”

“I’ll be there in a minute,” Kendra answered curtly.

“As you wish.”

“Stein.”

“Yes?”

“Did you pack my armor?”

Stein cocked his head to the side, an eyebrow raised in surprise. “I did. But I thought you swore you’d never wear it again.”

“Things have changed,” Kendra said, gently patting the dog’s neck. “Make sure it is ready for me in the morning. And my shield as well.”

“I see…” Stein said. “Shall I procure you a weapon?”

Kendra walked over to the bed and picked up the sheathed sword laying there. Santino’s sword. “No. I already have one.”


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Formatted Linky

Chapter 10: Reporting In:
The party finished the sweep of the building and headed outside. They made it about thirty paces away from the building when an icy chill ran down their spines and they turned back to the building. All except Jazier, who was used to feelings like that and paid no heed to it.

In the windows of the building, they spotted ghostly figures in the windows – the spirits of those who had died in the building. Lucky Days shivered. “P-p-pirate ghosts!” she gasped. Qumeel looked at her, confused about the non-sequitur.

Gwen made a sign warding against evil. She wasn’t nearly as superstitious as most of the town, but she was seeing living – well, not LIVING – ghosts right there. Of course it scared her. Valbrand, noting the girl’s fear, saw another chance to try to impress her. “You cannot show fear when dealing with ghosts,” he boasted. He grinned and struck his fist to his chest in salute to the dead. The ghosts mostly dispersed, save for one, that of a child, who returned the gesture with his own grin.

Up ahead of the group, Jazier realized he was alone. He stopped and turned. “Are you guys coming?” he asked.

Lucky Days breathed a sigh of relief. “You know, I don’t think those were pirates after all,” she said to Qumeel.

“I believe you are correct,” the cleric answered with a knowing smile. “Come, let us keep moving. It is late.”

They continued on towards the town proper, and Othdan whined the entire way. He wanted to go home to see his mother. After putting up with it for what felt like an eternity, Gwen snapped. “You want to go home? FINE.” She spotted another guard, Hubert, and motioned him over.

“You look like hell,” he said.

Valbrand barked out a laugh. “You should see the guy Kermit killed,” he said.

“I think that was a girl,” Lucky Days pointed out.

“It was a troll. Male or female does not matter,” Valbrand argued. Kermit just shrugged.

Hubert ignored them. “What did you need?” he asked Gwen.

“We found Othdan trapped beneath the Plague House,” she said. “Can you see to it that he makes it home safely while we report to Halgra?”

He made a sign against evil, but nodded. “I can do that. Make sure you go wash the curse of that place off of you. Flowing water does wonders on that kind of nastiness. Maybe add some salt for good measure.”

“After I talk to Halgra,” Gwen said. “She needs to know what we found.”

“Fair enough. Come along, Othdan, let’s get you home to your mother.”

They continued on, making their way to Halgra’s home, where she and Jagrin would most likely be discussing everything that had happened within the confines of the woman’s spacious office. At the door, they found Douglas and Brollerth keeping watch. Or, at least, as close to that as the two could manage.

Douglas was busy looking at himself in the reflection of his blade while Brollerth was squishing ants between his fingers and declaring himself their “angry and vengeful god”. They barely made note of the arriving party.

“Aren’t you going to ask why we’re here?” Gwen asked.

“Like, we were told not to let anyone through unless they were with the watch. You’re a member of the watch and they’re with you, so you can go through or something,” Brollerth answered, picking up another ant. It bit futilely at his leather glove.

Gwen sighed. “Right,” she said, walking past them.

They entered the building and headed towards Halgra’s office. As they approached, they began hearing the sounds of an argument. “I’m tired of waiting!” Jagrin shouted. “We should get this over with! He’s obviously guilty. He and Katrezra used the goblins as a distraction!”

“Stand down!” Halgra barked. “I’ll make my decision once your niece returns from her investigation. We cannot allow this matter to sow discord in the town. We need evidence.”

The shouting caused Gwen to hesitate. They sounded really angry. She had never been very good at dealing with shouting people. She fretted a bit. Should they knock? Maybe go back and have Brollerth come announce their arrival?

Valbrand noticed her hesitation and decided to take matters into his own hands. He kicked the door open and walked in. “We have returned victorious!” he roared jovially, tossing the unconscious man on the table. The man groaned in pain. “Glenn, bring your sack as well!”

Gwen, mortified, followed after and found quite the sight. Halgra was standing, mouth agape, while Jagrin was backed up, sword in hand ready to attack what his sleep deprived brain considered a threat. And all around the room, paintings and decorative weapons had fallen from the walls when Valbrand had kicked the door.

“I don’t think tea is going to help fix this,” Kermit observed upon entering the room.

Glenn set the sack on the desk alongside the unconscious man. Halgra looked from one to the next, finally settling on Gwen. “Explain. Now,” she said, glaring.

“Um. Hi,” Gwen managed. “So, uh, we found some people below the Plague House plotting something. One was a troll, I think. Kermit kinda mangled that one beyond recognition. And we also found a body. I think they were digging for something. You should question the unconscious guy.”

Halgra gave her a pained look. “And you just decided to throw them on my desk?”

Gwen floundered. “I-I didn’t decide anything,” she said, gesturing to Valbrand and Glenn.

Jagrin regained his senses and lowered his sword. Then he grabbed Gwen by the ear and began chewing her out for “not controlling this pack of wild animals”. The girl was on the verge of tears as it went on.

Jazier noted the condition of the room and sighed. “They’re probably going to make me clean this up,” he said in a resigned tone as he began picking the decorations off the floor and putting them back on the wall.

Halgra pinched the bridge of her nose to fight back the headache that was rapidly coming. “That’s the last time I trust Douglas and Brollerth with anything. I’d fire them if I didn’t need every able body on the wall.”

“I’m pretty sure Mister Brollerth would like that,” Lucky Days said. “Qumeel tells me he likes fire.”

Halgra gave her blank look, then decided not to respond to that. “Lucky Days, please step into the hallway and take Kermit, Valbrand and Glenn with you.”

“Okay, Chief Chief!” Lucky Days said cheerfully.

As they left, Halgra turned to Jazier, but noticed that he was cleaning and decided against ordering him outside as well. Any work he did was work she wouldn’t have to worry about later. She turned instead to Qumeel. “Please gather Brollerth and Douglas for me?” she asked.

“Of course,” the cleric answered, leaving immediately.

Finished with his lecture, Jagrin inspected the half orc on the table. “He’s still alive,” he noted. “But he looks like he got mauled by a bear.”

“Worse,” Valbrand said from behind the cracked open door. “A frog.”

Before anyone could respond, Qumeel ushered in the two guardsmen. “Take this man and put him in a cell,” Halgra told them. “Remain there until you are given other orders.”

“Like, okay,” Brollerth said. “Douglas, put away your knife and get his feet.”

“But, I’m just so beautiful,” Douglas complained as he complied. The two moved surprisingly quickly, as if they were used to carrying things like that.

“Please shut the door,” Halgra told Qumeel. “What can you tell us about all of this?” she asked the cleric, noting that Gwen looked too upset to answer at the moment.

“The corpse appears to be wearing the robes of an orcish tribal god. We also found a lot of onyx on him, which suggests the possibility of necromancy. Valbrand suggests that perhaps they were going to raise corpses to continue their digging.”

“Were you able to hear anything before confronting the conspirators?” she asked.

The cleric shook his head. “Lucky Days heard the sound of talking and sprinted off to investigate. By the time I caught up, Kermit was already in the process of disemboweling the troll. They are a spirited bunch, when it comes to combat.”

“I see,” Halgra said.

“What of my son?” Jagrin asked, wild eyed. “Did you find any evidence of his killer?”

Gwen wiped away a tear and sniffed. “We found this,” she said, pulling the hope knife from her belt. “I’m pretty sure it was Rodrik’s. It suggests that the hope knife we found on him was planted.”

“Which means he didn’t kill himself!” Jagrin said, triumphantly. “I knew my son wasn’t a coward!” His expression went cold. “But that means his killer is still here somewhere. We will determine who did it and I will cut him into so many pieces no necromancer could animate him.”

Jazier stopped cleaning for a moment and was about to point out that a necromancer could probably animate the pieces separately, but thought better of interjecting and instead began using magic to get a wine stain out of the rug underneath the desk.

Jagrin squeezed Gwen’s shoulder. “You did good,” he said softly. “Your mother would be proud.” He then marched out of the office, ignoring Halgra’s attempts to stop him.

Halgra gave up on that and called in the people waiting in the hallway. “And that’s when I said to the shopkeeper, ‘But I don’t have any pants,’” Kermit said as they walked into the room.

Lucky Days gasped. “That makes so much sense!” she exclaimed.

Halgra decided she did not want to know what they were discussing and instead focused on what was relevant. “Lucky Days, Qumeel tells me that you were the first person into the room with the troll and half orc. Did you hear anything relevant?”

“Sorry, Chief Chief. I ran in to ask what they were talking about and they attacked me. Othdan seemed pretty scared of whoever was in there, though, so I had Sakura-chan out and was ready to defend myself.”

Halgra blinked. “Othdan? You found him?”

“Yes. He was locked in a room that we got into by killing a big blob of jelly. Well, that was mostly Kermit. But you know, it made gross squishy sounds and I didn’t want to touch it.”

“That boy’s mother has been bugging me for three days to find him.” She looked at Gwen. “You didn’t think to bring him with you in case he had relevant information?”

Gwen’s face fell. “But… he kept whining about wanting to go to his mother… and then there were the ghosts… and Rodrik…” The stress was clearly getting to the girl. Tears were actually welling up in her eyes as she spoke.

“You should have brought him with you. There are six of you.”

“Seven,” Jazier corrected quietly as he lifted Glenn’s foot to clean under it.

“But… should we have dragged him kicking and screaming with us?”

“As long as no one slammed him on my desk, yes!”

Gwen looked at the group around her. “There’s no way I can promise that wouldn’t have happened!”

“We left him with young Hubert,” Qumeel interjected, not wanting the argument to continue. “I am certain that he is safely with his mother and unharmed.”

Halgra sighed. “This is such a mess. The assassin you captured swears Katrezra hired him. Katrezra hid because he’s certain he’d be blamed, though he professes his innocence. Jagrin is certain Katrezra had a hand in it.” She was pacing as she ranted. She stopped and marched up to Valbrand. “And you! Apparently you’re going to be a father!” she shouted.

Valbrand had no idea what she was talking about. He looked over to Kermit, who just shrugged in answer.

Halgra took a breath. “And to make matters more complicated, now we have crazed goblins who seem to be obsessed with killing the most suspicious man I’ve ever met. A man who keeps trying to escape from prison, I might add.”

“Oh, he’ll definitely succeed,” Kermit said.

Valbrand laughed. “If you keep catching him, he’s trying to tell you that he’s insulted by the disrespect you’ve shown him by your lackluster prison arrangements.”

“Of course he is,” Halgra said with another sigh. She turned to Qumeel. “I’m sorry for disregarding you earlier. I’ve had a lot on my plate. You were trying to tell me something?” Qumeel explained his vision, emphasizing his belief that it was a warning from Ragathiel. “No offense, but I really hope you’re wrong and this was nothing but a dream you had while unconscious.”

“The faithful of Ng teach that one must sleep to dream,” Kermit said. “If he was unconscious, then it could not have been a dream, so it probably was a true vision.”

“Right,” Halgra said. “Okay. I have a couple more things I need you to do. I need a few of you to take this corpse to the sanctuary for me.” Valbrand immediately thought of the beautiful young cleric he had laid with and grinned as he began raising his hand to volunteer. Perhaps she had calmed down from whatever had upset her and would be amenable to spending more time with him. “NOT YOU,” Halgra snapped.

Valbrand shrugged. “That’s fine, I guess. I’ll go check in on Rodd Rigez then.”

“Ooh! I want to go check in with Coach!” Lucky Days agreed.

“Glenn and I will go to the Sanctuary,” Kermit volunteered. Glenn’s shoulders slumped in defeat, but he didn’t argue.

Jazier considered the two groups and their destinations. He would be safer at a house of worship than a prison, and if they were attacked, he definitely wanted Kermit nearby to kill whatever attacked them. “I’ll go with them,” he volunteered.

“I shall accompany them as well,” Qumeel said as Glenn picked up the corpse. Halgra nodded as the four of them left.

“I’ll go with Valbrand and Lucky Days,” Gwen said. “I’ll make sure to have someone get Othdan for you as well.”

“Thanks,” Halgra said. “And Gwen, your uncle’s right. You did a good job.”

The others left and Halgra was alone in her office. She looked around, startled. “Wait. Was the rug always that color?” she asked. It had been in her office since before she had come there, and it had always been a dingy brown. But now it was white. That caused her to look around and notice that Jazier had cleaned EVERYTHING in that short time. “He does good work,” she mused.

At the Sanctuary, they found the main temple empty, but could hear something in the room where the dead were prepared for their final rest. It sounded like a woman crying. Concerned, Qumeel knocked on the door. “Priestess, are you in there? We’ve come with a corpse we found and were hoping you could take a look at it.”

The crying stopped and there was the sound of someone sniffing to fight back tears. “Please, come in,” Tyari Varvatos said, her voice wavering slightly.

The young woman knew Qumeel, had met Jazier as well, but she was not prepared for the sight of Glenn as he walked in wearing a pelican suit and carrying a sack. She gawked at the sight, and completely missed Kermit’s arrival. In fact, the body was already laid out on a table before she noticed the grippli, and only did so after he spoke. “We are sorry for bothering you so late,” he said.

She jumped at the unexpected voice. “It’s fine,” she said. “Tragedy knows no hour. Tell me, where did you find this body? It looks to have been dead for some time.”

“In the Plague House,” Qumeel said.

“Which was devoid of any plague, by the way,” Jazier interjected, his voice sounding almost bitter at the misnomer. He seemed offended that someone would call a place that without any disease being present.

Tyari either didn’t hear him or didn’t think to respond. Instead, the thought of the Plague House caused her to think of those who had perished there. Tears welled up in her eyes. “So many people died there,” she sobbed. “Iomedae! Did you forsake them?” She whispered then, “Have you forsaken me? Please, forgive me for my indiscretions! Tell me what I can do to earn penance!”

Qumeel took in the sight of the young woman’s distress and realized something. It was a leap, but the evidence pointed to it. He put a hand on the girl’s shoulder. “Think of this as a gift,” he said. “He seems to be a fine young man. Perhaps your goddess sent him to bestow this gift upon you, a new soul to raise in her service?”

Tyari sniffed and looked up at him. “Thank you, though I fear my sister will not see it that way.” She swallowed, trying to regain composure. “Please, tell me more about this body.”

“We found evidence that either he or someone else who was down there was a necromancer,” Qumeel said. “Do you know anything that might be relevant to that and tell us why he was down there?”

Tyari considered it. “Well, there might be one thing. Centuries ago, a giant known as Thaddius the Death Seeker lived near here. He raised armies of the dead as fodder against his enemies. But I doubt this is relevant to the dead man, as this corpse appears fresh, no more than a couple weeks old, and Thaddius has been long dead.”

“That is not always dead which can eternal lie,” Jazier said absentmindedly as he studied a fresco of the goddess Iomedae, barely paying attention to the conversation.

“Right,” Tyari said warily. “I’ll look into what I can. Perhaps there is some local lore I haven’t heard yet that might shed light. However, I fear that it will be for naught, as the people of Trunau bury the past to make it seem more like progress is being made.”

“Thank you, priestess,” Qumeel said. “We should probably get going, but let us know if you find anything. And be careful. Ragathiel warns that danger may be looming for the town.”

“I will,” she said. She then called out as they began to leave. “Wait!”

“Yes?”

“D-Did Valbrand come with you?” she asked timidly.

“I’m sorry,” Qumeel said. “He wanted to come, but Chief Defender Halgra forbade it.”

“Oh, I see,” she said, tearing up again.

Kermit smiled at her. “Buck up. If life were easy, it wouldn’t be difficult,” he said sagely. “Come along, Glenn.” Jazier just scowled at him, trying to make sense of the grippli’s words as he followed him out of the temple.

As the others approached the prison, the sound of shrieking grew louder and louder. “That sounds like it would get really annoying,” Lucky Days commented.

“Rodd probably doesn’t mind,” Valbrand commented. “He’s good at ignoring distractions.”

“That’s a lot of focus,” Lucky Days marveled. “I wonder if I’ll ever be able to focus like that. It would help me compete even better.”

“I’m sure Rodd can give you pointers.”

“I’ll ask him later,” the girl said.

They entered the jail to find almost every cell filled. The goblins – who had been put in separate cells – were shrieking and trying to get out so they could attack Rodd Rigez, who, for his part, was smiling beatifically as he hung from the ceiling. He was upside down and was wrapped from head to toe in rope, swinging gently and humming to himself.

Douglas and Brollerth were trying desperately to get the goblins to quiet down. It was so bad that Douglas couldn’t even focus at looking at himself. They looked desperately at Gwen to save them from the noise, so she obliged them. “You two go find Hubert and have him bring Othdan to Halgra,” she said. “Then come back here.”

It was a momentary reprieve, but they were grateful for even that and rushed off without argument. Valbrand walked over, past the cell holding the assassin who was nursing an obvious headache, and tossed a bottle of alcohol to the suspended Rodd Rigez.

Rodd Rigez twisted slightly, and there was a loud pop – it could be heard over the shrieking goblins – as he dislocated his shoulder and freed himself from the rope enough to catch the bottle. He opened it and took a swig – one handed and still upside down – then let it drop gently to the floor before putting his arm back into the rope and popping his joint back into place.

“Appreciate it,” the suspended man said to Valbrand. “I was getting a bit thirsty.”

Valbrand grinned. “I thought you might be.”

Lucky Days walked over towards Rodd Rigez, but as she passed the shrieking Tippi, the goblin stopped for a moment and sniffed, looking offended. Lucky Days wasn’t sure why, so she stopped to see what was going on. Meanwhile, Valbrand walked over and grabbed the male goblin by the head. He then tried to pull back and slam the creature’s skull into the bars to quiet it, but his arm got stuck.

“That’s why I don’t build my muscles up,” Rodd Rigez said with a laugh as the goblin began trying to chew on Valbrand’s mailed arm.

It began to hurt as the goblin managed to bite into the metal, so Valbrand activated his armband, freezing the goblin solid. He then yanked hard, freeing himself and simultaneously smacking the goblin’s head against the bars. Several of the creature’s teeth came out and remained in the large man’s arm as the goblin collapsed to the floor, unconscious.

Valbrand pulled the teeth free and used a bit of magic to heal his wounds. “Finally,” the assassin said. “It’s finally quiet.”

“It wasn’t so bad,” Rodd Rigez said. “But if it was bothering you, why didn’t you break free? This jail is laughably insecure.”

“Waiting on backup.”

“Oh? Interesting.”

“Yeah, someone will come pay my bail.”

“You’re accused of attempted murder, right? I don’t think anyone’s gonna get you out by paying a fine.”

Meanwhile, Tippi and Lucky Days were sizing each other up. “What’s your problem?” the girl asked the goblin.

“You smell like a horse,” the goblin said angrily.

“I’m a horse girl.”

“Horses are bad no good monsters and should all die.”

Angrily, Lucky Days smacked the goblin with the butt of Sakura-chan. The goblin’s eyes rolled back in her head and she collapsed. Lucky Days snorted. “Don’t like horses? How rude.”

Gwen just stared in shock at the entire scene, unsure of what to do. At the very least, she decided not to chastise the two for striking the goblins. It was probably for the best. Maybe it would be better to put some kind of visual barrier between them and the suspended man.

As she contemplated it, the quiet figure in the far cell called her name. “Gwethlantithwen?” he asked. “Is that you?”

She walked over to the cell and stood before the old half-orc. “Katrezra,” she said.

“How are you?” he asked, his tone concerned. “You look like you’ve come from a long fought battle.”

“I’m okay,” she said. She wasn’t sure that was true, but she knew she would be, given time.

“That’s good to hear. I’m scared,” the old man admitted. “I’ve tried to be as compliant as possible, so that Halgra and Jagrin will realize that I’m innocent, but that man over there keeps insisting it was I who hired them. I swear to you, I’ve never seen that man in my life.”

He seemed sincere, but the girl didn’t know what to believe. “We’ll see what information we can get out of the new prisoner,” she said. “If you’re lucky, new information will prove your innocence.” She wasn’t ready to commit to believing him, but she had enough compassion to hope that the old half-orc truly was innocent. He had been a friend of Rodrik’s and she didn’t want to believe that her cousin had been foolish enough to trust someone who would betray him.

“Who is he?” the old man asked.

“We found him underneath the Plague House, meeting with a troll. There was evidence that they or someone else was digging down there.”

“What could they hope to find down there?”

“I don’t know,” she admitted. “Jazier and Valbrand think they were planning to use undead to continue their digging though.”

“Jazier?” the old man asked, saddened at the mention. “That poor man bears a heavy burden. I hope that he finds what he seeks and can at last know peace from the dark cloud hanging over him.”

Gwen blinked at the words. He seemed absolutely genuine. He truly felt bad for the strange wizard. But that didn’t make sense. It just truly made no sense at all for him to care about Jazier. But it was clear he did. If Katrezra really was the mastermind, then why would he have hired assassins to kill Jazier?

The girl hadn’t wanted to believe that the old half-orc had been the culprit, for Rodrik’s sake, but deep down she considered it a strong possibility. He had run, after all. Now? She wasn’t so sure.


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Miscalculations:
I was just finishing getting dressed again – for the record, we didn’t wake up Anastasia – when there was a knock on the door. I quickly cast a cantrip to fix my hair and opened the door. Persephone was there. “Do you have a moment?” she asked.

“Of course,” I answered. “What’s up?”

“I wanted to thank you for everything you’ve done for us. Terry told me how you brought back Emily. I don’t know how I can repay you.” I could think of a few ways. “Also, I wanted to apologize to you.”

“For what?”

“Knowing Terry, I’m pretty sure he’s threatened, or maybe even attempted, to kill you at least once. So, I’m sorry for that.”

Ah, that. “It’s fine. He’s obviously pretty paranoid. One of these days, I’m really gonna have to tell you all about him and the warden.” She gave me a confused look. “It’s a long story. In his defense, his body was going through puberty, or at least, I’m pretty sure that was part of that. Speaking of which, you might want to talk with Emily. I did what I could to help Terry deal with it, but I don’t think anyone’s spoken to Emily about the changes her body will be going through.”

Persephone laughed. “I’m sure Terry hasn’t said anything about it to her. I’ll take some time to talk with her.” She sighed. “I’ve missed so much.”

“You have time to make up for it now,” I said, giving her a comforting hug. I absolutely wasn’t copping a feel. I was being nice.

“Thanks,” she said. “By the way, I was hoping I could speak with Greta?”

Greta walked over to where Persephone could see her. “Yes?” she asked.

“Well, it’s just… you’re a Winter Wolf, right?”

Greta nodded. “I am. What of it?”

“It’s just, I was hoping you could help me. When I’m turned into the manticore, I feel like there are two parts of me. I have my monster side, which feels fierce and angry. Then I have my human side, which is horrified by that part of me. I fear I haven’t been as effective in combat because of it.”

Greta looked puzzled. “I do not have that strange dichotomy. I would suggest that you stop fighting your nature. Your instincts for combat will be your strength. Do not fight them. Relish the power of your body.”

“I see…” Persephone said, considering it. “Thanks. Perhaps we can practice and you can show me how to fight with my natural weapons sometime?”

“That could be fun. I’ve probably been getting fat sitting around here.”

“Only in the best places,” I said, nuzzling my wife’s neck.

“Thank you,” Persephone said, this time reaching out the correct hand to shake Greta’s remaining arm. Greta reached out to take her hand, but Persephone suddenly disappeared. I looked over and saw Emily asleep at the table, a fork full of cake in her hand.

Laughing, I pulled up my phone and checked to see if the plans were complete for what we’d need to stabilize the monastery so we could get in. The weird googly-eyed paperclip informed me that it had been finished.

I sat the others down and explained to them what we would need to do. Basically, it was pretty simple. The clip – Clippy, it called itself – had calculated out where the devices would be, so we didn’t even need to figure that out for ourselves. Then all we had to do was get there, plant the device and move to the next. Once they were all done, I would just tell Clippy when we were ready to go in and it would take care of the rest.

I’m not sure how the devices would work, exactly. I know nanites were involved somehow. And something about spooky quantum stuff. The word muons was in there too. Look, I’m not a physics person. My nerd-level study of things stops at magic. I can write a doctoral level paper on the differences between the schools of magic. I can create new spellforms from scratch to do things I need – obviously this takes a lot of time and work – but I don’t know quantum physics from a hole in the ground. Maybe it’s something I’ll have to learn eventually. But give me a break, I’m far too young to be that knowledgeable about more than one subject, no matter how much Daddy says I could do it if I tried.

For their parts, the guys understood the mission. “So we fight to the marked buildings, push this little box onto these world anchors and press the button?” Gregor asked.

“That’s pretty much it,” I affirmed.

“Question, will explosions nearby damage the anchors or these devices?” Terry asked.

I posed the question to Clippy. “Both the World Anchors and the quantum stabilization bridges are made to withstand a theoretical blast of fourteen megatons or more at point blank range,” came the answer. Fourteen megatons? I wasn’t sure how that ranked exactly on the hierarchy, but we were talking nuclear bomb magnitudes of energy.

“It should be fine,” I told the others. No need to explain the finer points of nuclear warfare to them. It was already getting late again, and we needed to get moving.

“Okay, cool,” Terry said. “I’ve been reading up on some of the cool stuff your people make and it sounds like a lot of it is pretty delicate.”

I nodded. “Fair enough,” I said. “Any other questions?”

“That’s really all we have to do?” Burin asked. “Dealing with magic of this nature is really complex. It seems too simple.”

“It’s pretty complicated, actually,” I said. “It’s just that the box has made devices that do the hard part for us. If you want, you can have Clippy explain what it’s doing to you.”

“I might do that,” he said. “How long before we go?”

I looked at the sleeping Emily. “Let’s give her twenty more minutes, then we should get going.”

We fought our way through the work camp around the monastery once more. We took out another group of snipers. The highlights of that fight include Gregor catching a bullet, Terry killing two of them nearly simultaneously firing from the hip while chatting with Persephone and Burin flying high into the air and doing a falling axe slash on “the one wearing the red cap”, which ended up covering my shoes in blood.

At another point, we were ambushed by another group of yetis who were growling and snarling at us. Gregor did kind of a flash step thing so he could kill as many as possible before Terry had a chance to ruin the skins.

And then Nebbie told us what they had been saying. Apparently, the other yetis we’d killed had been their mates, and they were out for revenge. I felt kind of bad about that. Gregor and Terry didn’t seem to care. Burin… well, his response was, “They said all of that with a few grunts and snarls? The subtleties of language never cease to amaze me.”

And then we got attacked by some crazy lady in the weirdest spiked armor. I mean, it was seriously hideous. I mean, socks and sandals level bad. Yet Gregor seemed interested in figuring out how to create a new fighting style that utilized something like that. He figured he could kill enemies just by somersaulting at them. Weirdo.

And don’t even get me started on the bleeding stone golems. No, I mean literally bleeding. The damn things had stigmata. WHO MAKES SOMETHING LIKE THAT?

And, while I’m ranting about things… why did Terry and Gregor feel the need to light EVERYTHING on fire? Even Persephone noticed. “Is it always like this?” she asked.

“No,” Burin answered. “Sometimes, there’s no logic behind what they do. Don’t worry though. The rest of us are normal.” And then he opened a nearby door, peeked his head inside and shouted, “Hello?!” into the dark room. Part of me kinda wishes something large had bitten him for that.

We approached the front of the monastery just after nightfall, and the ghostly image of Rasputin appeared before us. Terry immediately, and possibly reflexively, flung a blini at him. It sailed right through his incorporeal image. The Mad Monk looked annoyed. “I can’t hit him,” Terry said. “Anyone else want to try?”

“It’s not good to waste food,” Burin chided.

Rasputin ignored our insanity. “You have proven yourselves dangerous fighters. But I grow stronger as my mother grows weaker. In a short while, I will be unstoppable! And there’s nothing you can do about it! Primitives like you will never reach me, because you could never comprehend the genius of the great Tesla, and Radimir made sure you’ll never resurrect Miloslav!” He began to laugh as he gloated, certain in his superiority.

I was rather annoyed. I’d been dealing with my friends’ b$*++*&* all day. I wasn’t dealing with Rasputin’s as well. “First,” I said, “We have your daughter.” I wasn’t certain, but it was a bluff worth playing.

And it paid off. “I will take her back shortly, once I have taken my mother’s throne. Which you will never st-“

“AND SECOND,” I said, pulling out my phone as I interrupted him. “Cortana, do it now.” Primitives? I WOULD SHOW HIM WHO WAS PRIMITIVE. He had the knowledge of Tesla on his side. I had the knowledge of Kyle O’Halloran on mine. We would see who had the last laugh.

Nothing happened for a second. Then there was a crackle of electricity as purple lightning arced from the World Anchors to the ghostly monastery. “THIS IS IMPOSSIBLE!” Rasputin shrieked. “You’re primitives from one of Mother’s little project worlds! There’s no way you can defy the technology of Earth!”

“You’ve miscalculated,” I said, grinning as the monastery completely stabilized before us.

“KILL THEM!” he roared.

Three figures came out of the door to the monastery. Burin charged to intercept. “Keep your minds focused! They’re nosferatu!” he warned as he slashed at the one at the fore. Terry fired over his head and embedded four bullets in the vampire’s skull, killing it as my fireball scorched the other two.

One of the remaining nosferatu, shocked at his comrade’s fall, sped past Burin and pointed at Terry. “Kill that witch!” he commanded, pointing at me as the third attacked Burin.

Oh, crap.

Persephone transformed into a manticore and did what she could to get between me and Terry, whose eyes had glazed over as his mind lost the fight with the vampire’s domination. “Get the vampire!” she told Gregor.

Gregor nodded and quickly dropped the dominating vampire. Rasputin cast two spells, first ordering Gregor to attack us – he resisted – and then zapping Burin with powerful necromantic magic – he did not resist, and I could see him in a ton of pain.

With the vampire down, Terry barely managed to resist the ongoing command and narrowly missed shooting Persephone as the gun went off while he swung it towards the ground. Whew. That was close.

Persephone wasn’t taking a chance and tried to grasp him with her tail, but he managed to dodge. “Percy! It’s fine!” he shouted.

Gregor dashed forward, teleporting to help Burin. The two of them dropped the final vampire in seconds. Rasputin, shocked by our capacity for violence, tried finishing off Burin, but cast the wrong spell, leaving him barely alive. Burin smirked. “I’m okay,” he reassured us.

Rasputin growled. “You think you’ve won?! I still have an edge! On this world, only people who are from here can invite in the denizens of other planes. I’ve made a pact with a Szuriel, the Horseman of War, in preparation for my ascendance to power! She has agreed to provide me with armies for my glorious conquest of innumerable planets! I cannot use them here, as the god of this place will protect the natives from outsiders, but you’re not from here and he won’t lift a finger to help you!”

He raised his hand and several hundred daemons – genthodaemons, the foot soldiers of Abaddon’s armies – appeared around us. We might have been in trouble. But then I saw a glow, that appeared to be coming from my forehead. “Lyriana?” Burin asked. “Why is there a glow that looks like two perpendicular lines on your forehead?”

“That is the mark where the priest anointed her forehead with the Oil of Catechumens during her baptism,” a voice said. There was an angel standing next to me. It was a powerful one – a planetar, the generals of celestial armies. “It marks her as a native of this world, though I must admit, I cannot find her on our rolls. Nor can I find the resonance of the soul of the priest who anointed her.”

“That’s a long story,” I said. “I haven’t been born yet. And I don’t think he has either.”

“What?” the angel asked.

“We came here through some weird time travel via the Dancing Hut of Baba Yaga.”

The angel considered my words. “I see. I am willing to accept that, especially from one of such unparalleled beauty.” I found myself blushing. Mom had warned me that all angels would find me extremely attractive for some reason due to our family lineage, but it was weird having such a glorious being say so in person.

“Thank you,” I said meekly. I’ve been complimented and hit on by literally hundreds of people, but that might have been the first time I really felt embarrassed by it, at the very least since I was young girl. It was a new and weird feeling.

He drew a horn and blew it, causing an entire legion of Movanic Devas wielding great flaming swords to appear. “We cannot interfere in whatever it is that is transpiring between you mortals. But leave the daemons to us. This is Earth and they are not welcome here!” the great angel shouted, with the other angels roaring in agreement.

I thanked the massive angel with a kiss on the cheek – because when do you ever get a chance to do that? – and we headed inside. “Your planet is weird,” Terry said, once we were inside.

I couldn’t argue. It probably was, in the grand scheme of the cosmos.

Emily went over to Burin. “You don’t look too good,” she said to him.

“I’ve felt better,” the dwarf admitted.

“I’m sorry,” Emily said, hugging him. Before my eyes, he began looking better. I think she had cast another spell without thinking about it. Terry grabbed out the nanite gun and injected him a couple times. He immediately began looking hale and hearty once more.

Before we left the vestibule, I cast a spell to surround myself with illusory copies. If Terry got mind controlled again, I wasn’t risking getting shot. Then we headed inside.

Well, it turns out that my paranoia paid off. We entered and faced off against a ghost. This particular entity was of a type known as a crucifixion spirit, and with a point of its finger, it ripped Terry’s soul from his body and began crucifying it.

So I hit it with a barrage of spiked balls of force. Which obviously irritated it, because it then pointed at me. Or, well, not me, but one of my doubles. So Lyriana one, crazy ghost zero. It didn’t get another chance because Gregor then punched the ghost to death. Or second death. However that works.

We healed up – Terry was pretty shaken – and moved deeper into the building, coming to some kind of chamber that had to have been beautiful once, but was terribly run down. There were alcoves along the walls with large statues of various saints. The only two I recognized were Boris and Gleb, but in my defense, it’s not like my parents raised me Russian Orthodox. I mean, we’re Roman Catholics, after all. Also, most of the statues were pretty worn down.

I looked up the room, noting cracks and dirt along the beautiful mosaic on the floor, but my eyes fixed on the form of someone seated in the corner. It was an old woman, sweat dripping from her brow and blood spattered all over her clothing.

“It’s about time you got here,” she said. “Your distraction was most timely. My fool of a son turned his back. I’d been waiting for that for days. Now be dears and help me up. I fear my ordeal has left me a bit weak. I am an old woman, after all.”

Note:
Giantslayer next week, then probably a Carrion Crown(the one where we realize that Heimish playing Skyrim while the rest of us are playing something else) the week after.


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Chapter 9: Clerics Check In, But They Don’t…:
The group stared at the young man for a minute. He was covered in coal dust, but shivering in the cold damp of the basement. “Othdan?” Gwen asked finally. “What are you doing here?” He was too young for wall duty, often spending his time doing odd jobs for merchants to make money for himself and his family.

The shivering young man sniffled. “I was looking for goods of my own to sell when I was attacked from behind by a half orc.”

Valbrand grinned. “Attacked from behind in the dead of the night? That could be an epic tale! Come friend, sit with me. I will feed you and you will tell me all about your adventure!”

Othdan took the dried meat the warrior offered. “Well, it’s not much of a story. I was upstairs and he came up behind me. I noticed him at the last second, so his hit wasn’t a clean knockout like he wanted, so we struggled for a bit. He was bigger than me, so he ended up pushing me down the hole above.” He pointed up to where there was a hole in the ceiling. “The fall knocked me out. When I came to, I was still trapped in here, with no way out. I thought he was going to kill me!” His eyes grew wide. “I hear voices! He’s come to finish me off!” He began twitching, dropping the cheese the big man was trying to hand him.

“It will be okay,” Qumeel said soothingly. “We are here, and we will get you out of this place.”

Kermit and Lucky Days were trying at the door. It was locked. “Can we not just go back the way we came?” Jazier asked, indicating the formerly secret passage.

“There could be treasure, or even a good fight beyond the door,” Valbrand suggested as he began helping. Between the three of them, they managed to open the door. Lucky Days immediately took off running. “Wait!” Valbrand called after her. “It’s not proper to try to get a share of the loot before we get there!”

“I hear rasping gurgling!” she called back as she continued rushing to investigate.

That changed everything. “A fight?!” Valbrand asked, drawing his axe and running after her. Somewhere behind him, the shoulders of a man in a pelican suit slumped as he sighed.

Lucky Days was running so quickly that the bear trap she triggered managed to miss grabbing her leg, and she sped into a room where she found a strange pair chatting. “I thought you only had one prisoner,” the troll accused. “Are you holding out on me?”

“I have no idea who that is,” the burly half orc answered as Valbrand and Kermit arrived behind Lucky Days.

“Then I can eat them,” the troll said, licking her lips as she charged.

Gwen rounded the corner and spotted the trio fighting the troll. “That’s a flood troll!” she called out. “Their skin hardens when it dries out. If you can douse her with water, she should be easier to hit!” Not sure what else to do, she conjured a magical snowball and hurled it. Once more, she found it difficult to hit the enemy since she was not used to aiming at foes that were too close to allies, and once more she over-corrected, missing. She would have to do something about that, and soon.

Kermit shredded the troll with his claws. She reacted to her grievous wounds by glaring at the half orc. “I knew Skreed shouldn’t have trusted you!” she screeched accusingly.

“It wasn’t me!” the half orc wailed as he began to flee.

“He’s getting away!” Valbrand said, bashing the troll with his shield.

“No he’s not!” Lucky Days answered. She sped off back into the room where Othdan had been trapped, then through the secret passage – hurdling over the still bubbling corpse of the gelatinous cube – and easily made it to the stairs ahead of the fleeing half orc. All this despite her path being more than twice as long as his. She was moving so quickly that her passing caused Glenn to spin in place three times.

He narrowly avoided vomiting in his pelican beak due to the dizziness.

“Stop!” the girl commanded, brandishing Sakura-chan.

“I’m just the messenger!” the troll wailed, backing into a corner to try to escape Kermit’s onslaught. He answered her by glaring. She could see her death in his glowing eyes.

Jazier walked past the fight and spotted something on the floor. It was another one of those white sword marks. Without even thinking about it, he began grumbling about the demons and started cleaning the mark. It took him several moments to notice that Qumeel – who had given chase after the fleeing – was standing just down the hall, his leg caught in a bear trap.

The wizard ducked reflexively as a bullet ricocheted past him. Gwen was still having trouble firing at enemies near her allies. Kermit didn’t even notice, tearing the troll in half and sending her entrails spraying around the room. Jazier sighed at the mess and went to go help Qumeel.

“Catch the other one alive!” Gwen told the others. “I’m sure Halgra will want to interrogate him.”

Kermit dashed past the trapped Qumeel and Valbrand charged through another passage, narrowly avoiding another bear trap. Meanwhile, the half orc desperately tried to get past Lucky Days, first poking her in the eyes then drinking a magic potion and becoming invisible just in time for Kermit and Valbrand to witness him fading from sight.

He had nowhere to go, so Valbrand activated his armband, covering the ground with ice to make it harder for the man to get past him and Lucky Days while Kermit struggled to locate and subdue him. Back in the hallway, Gwen and Jazier tried to free Qumeel. But the jaws of the trap were too strong, and Jazier ended up with nothing but cuts to his hands for their effort.

Qumeel took Jazier’s quarterstaff and tried to use it as a lever to pry open the trap, but it cracked and splintered at the effort. Jazier gave him a sympathetic look. “You better get used to living here, man,” he said, defeated.

Too stubborn to give up, Gwen pulled out some oil and began oiling the cleric’s leg while Jazier tried thinking as he contemplated the half-cleaned graffiti. “Don’t just stand there!” Gwen said to the wizard.

“I’m thinking!” He considered for a moment. “I’ve got it!” he said, turning. “I’ll use magic to create repeated sparks to heat the metal. It will expand and he’ll be better able to free himself.

“That would kill Qumeel.”

“Why?” he asked, before noticing the smell of the lantern oil. “Oh, right. Flammable.”

“Just take what’s left of the staff and pry while Qumeel and I try to pull his leg free.”

It took several moments of struggling, but eventually they managed to get the cleric free. His leg was pretty mangled by the jaws, but healing was his specialty and he was quickly able to deal with that. “I thank you,” he said. “Both of you.”

Othdan, who had watched the entire struggle, was not sure whether he should applaud their victory or console them for how long it had taken them to complete such a simple task. He could tell Gwen was pretty annoyed by it, and was already adding it to the list of inadequacies in her training that would need to be soon rectified.

From down the hall, they heard Valbrand roar in triumph. “That’s what I thought!” he shouted.

“What happened?” Gwen called out.

“We managed to knock out the bad guy,” Lucky Days called back cheerfully as Valbrand tied up the unconscious foe.

Kermit returned to where Qumeel and the others were. “Oh,” he said. “I see you’ve managed to get it. Sorry I left you here.”

“It’s fine,” Qumeel said. “I did not give up hope, though I cannot say the same for others.” He looked at Jazier as he said that, but the wizard didn’t notice, as he was once more engrossed in cleaning up graffiti.

Valbrand and Lucky Days returned, the large man holding a hog-tied unconscious half orc by his trussed up limbs. He would be waking up sore. That was for certain. “Now what?” he asked.

“There’s a door over there,” Lucky Days suggested. “Maybe there are more prisoners?”

“Or treasure,” Valbrand agreed.

They didn’t find prisoners, instead finding a small swarm of angry, shadowy rats. But Kermit tore them apart easily. They also found a rotten, sickly smell, which turned out to be emanating from the corpse of a dead half-orc dressed in strange robes.

“Those appear to be the robes of a priest of the orc blood god,” Qumeel noted.

“We should take the robes to Halgra,” Gwen said.

“And the body for burial,” Qumeel agreed.

“I’ll get a sack,” Kermit said, leaving the room to go find Glenn.

As they searched the body, they found a pouch full of gems. “That’s a lot of onyx,” Jazier noted.

“Does it mean anything?” Gwen asked.

The wizard shrugged. “Onyx is used as a component in animating corpses,” he answered.

“Perhaps they were planning on raising some corpses to do some digging for them,” Valbrand suggested. “It looks like they were doing a lot of digging in here.”

“I’m not sure if that was their plan, but you’re right about the digging, at least,” Gwen agreed. “Halgra will want to know about this.”

“Should we go back to Chief Chief then?” Lucky Days asked.

“Let’s do a quick sweep of the building to make sure no one else is hiding around here,” Gwen said. “Then we’ll go tell Halgra what we’ve found. I don’t like this. Something is going on.”

Kermit set the now full burlap sack on the ground. “Glenn, grab the sack. We’re heading out.”

The pelican suited man wasn’t sure whether to be relieved that they were leaving or disgusted that he would have to carry the decidedly rancid and squishy bag. But he made no sound, silently picking up the bag with a grimace as he followed after the others.

At least Valbrand was carrying the prisoner, so his task was just gross, not ridiculously heavy this time.

Note:
The title is a reference to an old roach motel commercial/slogan. Don't think about it too hard. :P


UnArcaneElection wrote:

"Runelords High School" brings to mind 3 possibilities:

1. (Most straightforward) A high school group playing one of the Runelords APs.
2. (More devious) High schoolers have to go up against the Runelords.
3. (Most devious) A campaign exploring the Runelords' high school years . . . .

4. (Actual Idea) Me writing up a high school comedy/drama with characters from our Runelords playthrough as the students/teachers. Aurora is a high school student athlete(equestrian or jousting club, maybe). Kyle, Lenn and Geo are teachers(Lenn teaches Home Ec, btw). Ameiko, Aldern and several others are Aurora's classmates. Karzoug is the principal at a rival school. And it's a strange, schizo world with Earth level tech but people from both Earth and Golarion. You know, that kind of thing.


Yeah, I thought someone would get a kick out of that. :P

Speaking of Kyle, Isekai Quartet is really making me want to revive my "Runelords High School" project that I've been playing around with for a while.

It might be something to work on when I have weeks where I finish the write up early.


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A Menagerie of Princesses:
The kids were afraid of us. Not surprising. I mean, we’d found them in a room with a kyton and his victims. There was no chance they’d be calm after that. So we’d need to find a way to earn some trust.

But how? I wasn’t sure. Should I talk to them? I mean, pretty girls are usually less threatening, especially when we considered the other three I’d been traveling with. They were covered in blood and were either frightening looking or so inept at social interaction as to be likely to inadvertently appear to be a truly terrifying monster just by accident.

But that was discounting our newest party member. There was one person who could be less threatening than me. “Terry,” I said. “Wake up Emily. There’s someone I want her to meet.”

He looked at me quizzically, but apparently decided that I knew what I was doing. He went over to where Emily was resting. He gently nudged her. “Hey, time to wake up,” he said. She stirred, but remained asleep. Considering it further, he pulled out a piece of cake from his guitar case, unwrapped the muslin cloth around it and held it before her nose. She sniffed and awoke, immediately taking a bite and getting frosting all over her chin.

“What happened?” Emily asked, her mouth full.

I was carefully keeping an eye on the scared kids, and realized their interest in the cake was overwhelming their fear, if only slightly. Excellent. Good job, Terry. “Do you have any more cake?” I asked.

Terry realized what I was getting at and rooted through his stuff, eventually pulling a couple pieces of cake and holding them out to Burin. The dwarf grabbed them and brought them over. He approached, his posture completely non-threatening as he did so, and held the cake out for the kids. The boy snatched it from his hand and shared it with his older sister, eyeing us warily as he did so.

I gave them a moment, then called Emily over. “There’s someone I want you to meet.”

She took the cloth Terry held out and wiped her face, then came to me. “Who are they?” she asked.

“Princess Emily of Melos,” I said, having done a little research on my phone as I waited, “it is my pleasure to introduce you to Tsarevich Alexei and Grand Duchess Anastasia, the prince and princess of this land.” To save having to repeat myself in multiple languages, I had Nebula say it so everyone would understand it at the same time. “Alexei and Anastasia, this is Emily, princess and probable heir to the kingdom of Melos.” If they asked, I would tell them that Melos was an island nation that was near Greece. Thankfully, they never asked. And they took the talking cat in stride.

“I’m sorry,” Alexei said. “My sister is still upset by what happened to us. Is it possible you have more of that cake? We haven’t eaten in so long.”

Burin carried over an entire cake that Terry had produced. He then spoke to them in Aquan, startling the kids. “He says hello,” Nebula explained.

“Is there something wrong with him?” Alexei asked.

Terry just laughed at the question. “We definitely don’t have long enough to sit around and give you an enumerated list,” he said.

Anastasia was still pretty scared eyeing the corpse of the kyton warily, as if it would get up and come after them again. Emily finally noticed the corpse – she’s seen a lot in her short life, apparently – and looked at it confused. “What is that?” she asked. “Did Dad kill it?” She turned to the kids and asked Nebbie to translate. “I’m sorry. My dad and his friends are good at murderizing things. So you’re safe, unless you’re an evil demon. If you are, they’ll probably kill you too. But you don’t seem like demons, so you’re probably okay.”

Terry looked proud at the way Emily had both reassured and threatened the kids simultaneously. “Are you guys okay? Were there more of these things? If there are, we can kill them too.”

Oh yeah. Killing things. “Hey, um, so we still need to go find that goat.”

Terry flinched. “Hey, Emily, can you call out your mom again?” He turned to me. “I need to talk to my Lion-Wife.” It was pretty obvious he was trying to put off going after the goat.

“I’m not sure,” Emily answered. “But I’ll try.”

“I can help,” I said. “Let’s do it outside so we don’t have to make another hole in the building to get her outside.” I then had a thought. “But before that, I’m gonna set up the box. Burin and Gregor, see about some new clothes for the kids? It’s fairly cold out and they won’t be comfortable in what they’re wearing.”

“I will make sure they are warm,” Gregor agreed. “We have all those new skins.”

“Keep an eye on him and make sure they don’t come out looking like yeti-skin eskimos,” I whispered to Nebbie. “And make sure they’re careful. The boy’s a hemophiliac.” The cat nodded.

I stepped just outside with Emily and Terry, keeping in the doorway so I wouldn’t go out of reach of Nebula. “What do I do?” Emily asked.

“Calm your thoughts, and focus your mind,” I told her. “The magic is part of your very being. Just reach within and pull at it, willing it to flow out. Call for your mother as you do so.”

It took a few minutes, but eventually the sleeping form of the manticore appeared before us. Terry walked over and began to wake her, the same way he had with Emily, though he did not need to resort to cake this time.

Persephone yawned and stretched. “Why am I a monster?” she asked, looking at her paws. “What’s going on? Where am I?”

Terry grabbed her face. “Percy, we’re in a bind. It’s mostly, but not entirely my fault. Here’s the short version.” He had her complete attention. “There’s a bad guy we’ve gotta kill. Our daughter is some kind of wizard now. And I have cake if you’re hungry.”

She took it in stride. Being married to Terry must have had its share of strange situations. “On a scale of one to ten, how f$&~ed are we?”

“Thirty two.”

“Well, s%+&.” She sighed. “Is Typhon here? Is he gonna help us?”

Well, that was an interesting thing to ask. Terry averted his eyes, not answering my gaze. “Um, no,” he answered softly. He looked desperate to change the subject.

“We’re going to turn you into a person again,” I interjected. I had been walking Emily through the process again as they were talking. “Go ahead, kiddo.”

Emily nodded and walked over to the manticore. “I don’t think this is gonna hurt, Momma, but it might. I’m sorry if it does.”

“It’s okay, baby,” she said. Emily carefully unleashed the spell and her form shimmered, becoming human once more. A very naked human. A very attractive naked human. Damn, Terry. You DO NOT deserve that. She finally noticed me. “Hi,” she said, approaching. “I’m Persephone, Terry’s wife. For some reason, I get the feeling I tried to eat you?”

My mind was still rather in the gutter. “You can eat me anytime,” I murmured.

“What?” she asked.

“Oh, nothing,” I said, recovering. “I said it’s fine. Don’t worry about it.”

“You’re probably used to it, I guess. Weird things happen around Terry,” she admitted.

I laughed. “One of these days, I need to tell you about the cake and the tree.”

Terry choked. “Um, shouldn’t we get her some clothes? Not that I mind, but you’re probably cold, aren’t you, Percy?”

Persephone considered the situation for a moment. “Mom’s vision said that the castle of sand would lose a lion. I thought it was a metaphor.”

“I believe the creature is called a manticore, not a metaphor,” Gregor said from the doorway. He was holding some clothing for Persephone. “I figured you would need this.”

“That’s a good call,” I said. “But it’s just gonna tear when she transforms back. Unless…” I rooted around in my bag and pulled out a pair of bracers that would allow the clothing to be transformed. That would allow the clothes to be changed into something manticore appropriate when she changed.

“How are the kids?” Terry asked.

“They’re fine,” Gregor answered. He sighed. “I need a new Barnaby.”

“We should probably prepare them for Percy’s other appearance,” Terry said. “I’ll go.”

I walked Emily through turning Persephone back so the clothes change could be done consciously rather than rip when she wasn’t ready for it. Then I went inside. “Okay, they’re ready,” I said, putting the box away.

“Okay,” Terry agreed. “Now remember, she looks scary, but she’s very nice.”

“Just don’t make any sudden movements,” Gregor joked. Terry scowled at him.

When we went outside, Emily was giggling as she swung from Persephone’s scorpion tail. Burin was watching, telling her to be careful so she didn’t fall and hurt herself. He looked strangely comfortable at the role. His family was supposed to be pretty large, so I’d bet he had siblings or something.

Emily and Alexei ended up riding on Persephone’s back, with Alexei in the front. They were chatting as if they were old friends, using Nebbie to translate while they rode. Anastasia walked with Gregor between her and the manticore.

“So, you’re going to be the king, even though you’re younger?” Emily was asking.

“It’s how things work,” Alexei answered. “How do you not know that? Aren’t you also a princess?”

“I didn’t find out until a little while ago. Speaking of which… Momma, why didn’t you tell me you were a princess?”

Persephone turned to Terry. “How much did you tell her?”

“It wasn’t me,” Terry said. “She found out from the magic mirror. Blame Lyriana.”

Persephone didn’t ask what he meant. I had a feeling she was going to have a lot of questions later. “I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want to be a princess. I wanted to be a hero.”

“Oh, okay,” Emily said. “Is Dad a hero too?”

Terry laughed. “Nope. I like killing people too much to be a hero.”

At that moment, there was a sound of gunfire and Burin took a bullet to the face. He sprouted his wings and flew into the fray, slaying the offending soldier. Gregor spun, flinging his hat and killing two more soldiers. Terry fired from the hip, killing another soldier, and I struck yet one more with several spiky balls of force.

All in all, we barely reacted. Alexei thought that was pretty cool, but Anastasia and Persephone were weirded out, though I could tell that Anastasia was impressed by Gregor’s throwing and catching his hat-shield. “Is it always like this?” Anastasia asked nervously.

“No,” Gregor said. “Sometimes it actually gets exciting.”

“Oh, are you from here?”

“Not exactly,” Gregor admitted with a chuckle.

“Are you a soldier?”

“No, a monk,” he said.

“You don’t dress like a monk,” Anastasia said.

“Wrong kind of monk,” I clarified. “Think more like a Chinese monk.” It would make things easier if she understood better.

“Oh!” she said, understanding. She then began asking him about what it was like growing up in the monastery.

I motioned for Terry to come over. “Hey, so how long are you planning on waiting before you tell her about the whole body thing?”

Terry blanched. “I was thinking a few years. Or maybe never? I like never.”

I noticed that Persephone was watching us out of the corner of her eye. Crap. I hoped she hadn’t noticed. “If people are going to be shooting,” she said, “Maybe it would be best if we got the kids down instead of up where they’re easy targets?”

“Right,” Terry said. “Oh, and you should probably know standard combat procedure. Gregor will punch things. I’ll shoot things. Lyriana will light things on fire. And somehow Burin will end up in something’s mouth.”

“What?”

“I don’t know how. But you can count on it.”

She looked to Burin, who shrugged as the wound on his cheek healed thanks to a poke from a magic wand. “It does keep happening for some reason,” the dwarf admitted.

The camp where we’d been told we’d find the goat began looming close, and Terry stopped to pull out his rocket launcher. “What is that?” Persephone asked.

“It’s a bigger gun. You can’t be too careful when it comes to goats.”

“Goats?”

“They’re dangerous,” Terry answered, completely serious.

“You’ve changed,” Persephone said. “What happened to you?”

“He did have that encounter with the warden,” Burin said, thinking aloud.

“Hush, you,” Terry chided.

The camp was surprisingly empty, but we spotted the goat standing in a small corral, chewing on something or other. A lantern was hanging from its neck. Definitely a Lantern Goat. All we’d need to do is kill the goat, take its lantern and go find the body. Then the guy could be brought back to life and we’d be able to use his help to get into that ghostly looking monastery.

Or, at least, that had been the plan. No sooner did she spot the goat than Persephone’s eyes glazed over and she immediately charged. Before any of us – even Terry – could react, the goat was gone, disappeared down her throat. After she was done, she just looked at us, her expression telling us she was completely confused as to why she’d just done that.

“If you were hungry, you could have just said something,” Terry said with a laugh. “Though I approve of you taking out the goat before it could take us out.”

“I wasn’t hungry,” Persephone answered. “I… don’t know what came over me. It was like my will wasn’t my own.” That was odd. Why would she feel like that? Maybe because the goat was carrying a soul and she was probably part demon?

I don’t know. But that left us a problem. “We need that lantern,” I said.

“Perhaps there are berries nearby that will make things move along?” Gregor suggested.

“Maybe we could just reach in there and fish it out?” Terry suggested. “As long as it’s definitely already dead, I mean.”

“It feels like it’s further than you could reach already,” Persephone said. It was obvious she didn’t like that idea.

“Then we’ll send someone in, tied off with a rope.”

“Terry? What happened to you?” she asked again.

“He hasn’t been the same since he took that teleporter ride with Hatch,” Gregor answered.

“Quiet. It can work,” Terry said. “If only we could make her bigger…”

“I think I can do that,” Emily said. “If we really need the goat.”

“Good,” Terry said. “Now we just need a volunteer. Someone who has experience being eaten.” He was obviously talking about Burin, as he was looking directly at the dwarf.

Burin sighed. “Okay. I’ll go.”

As I was helping Emily prepare to enlarge her mother, I heard Gregor whisper to Terry. “Are you sure you want your wife to develop a taste for Burin?

“Everything else does.” He then walked over to Persephone. “Okay, Emily’s gonna make you bigger and Burin’s going down your throat to pull out the goat.”

“Do I not have a choice in this?” she asked.

“Not really. If you didn’t want to swallow the dwarf, you shouldn’t have eaten the goat.” He said it as if it were obvious to everyone that that would be the consequence.

“Terry, what happened to you?” Persephone repeated.

“There was that one time with the skeletons,” Burin said. I wasn’t sure what he was talking about. Maybe something from before I’d met them.

“Hush. Let’s do this.”

I’ll spare most of the details, as it was fairly disturbing to watch. That said, there was a strange look of ecstasy on Persephone’s face when Burin touched her tongue, and she looked sad when we pulled him out. Wordlessly, I used magic to clean all the drool and other fluids off of Burin. And then turned to deal with the real problem.

A bloody, crushed corpse of a goat lay on the ground in front of the upset looking Persephone. It had a new hole in its head – Terry wanted to make sure it was dead – and Gregor was complaining that the skin was ruined. Anastasia and Alexei seemed strangely unfazed by what they’d seen.

And, most importantly, the lantern was shattered, the glow from the soul gone.

“That can’t be good,” Burin noted.

“Can we bring the guy back without that?” Gregor asked.

“Sorry,” Persephone said, clearly embarrassed.

I didn’t know. I was just done. Exhaustion hit me finally and I just sat down. Too exhausted, I couldn’t even cry. Was that the end? Were we done? Was there no way to get to Baba Yaga and save the world?

“I wish Daddy was here,” I pouted. Then it hit me. I didn’t have him here, but I had an entire library of information he thought would be useful to me in my pocket. I pulled out my phone. “Cortana, is there any information on how to get into that monastery?” I asked, showing her with the phone’s camera.

The phone ran a loading cursor for a moment and then a paperclip with googly eyes appeared on the screen. “It looks like you’re trying to stabilize an interdimensional rift. Would you like assistance?” the clip asked.

“Um, yes, please,” I answered.

“The following document details all steps necessary, as well as the tools you will need. Would you like to save the document for further reference?”

“Yes,” I said. I breathed a sigh of relief. Even over a hundred years and half a world away, I could always count on Daddy. “Okay, we have a new plan. Let’s drop off Alexei and Anastasia at the hut with Greta and we’ll try dealing with this ourselves.”

“The magic mirror had an answer?” Terry asked.

“Yeah.”

“I love that mirror,” Terry said. “See, babe? It’s all good. You don’t have to feel bad anymore.” Persephone looked relieved. She’d apparently been really worried that she’d really messed things up.

We made our way to the hut – killing more soldiers, who had probably been the people living in the camp, as we traveled. It only took twenty minutes, so that wasn’t too bad.

There were a number of destroyed tanks sitting around the hut. Apparently it had been busy while we were gone, picking at least three different fights. Strange that Rasputin would believe that mere tanks could take on his mother’s enchanted house. I mean, maybe Daddy could build some tanks that could do it, but these were ancient models from World War One. There was no way they could handle it.

The hut eyed us as we approached, but recognized us pretty quickly. One by one, it checked us out. It greeted us more or less indifferently for the most part. Then it was time to introduce it to the new arrivals. First was Persephone. The hut regarded her with the normal indifference. Then came Anastasia. It leaned in and sniffed at her – at least, I think that’s what it was doing – and then nuzzled her warmly. Strange.

But we didn’t have time to think about it. Because the hut’s reaction to Alexei was the exact opposite. It immediately stood up and well, growled, maybe? I tried to get it to calm down, and the others insisted that we go inside, but then the hut reared up and kicked the boy as hard as he could.

Alexei went flying through the woods. I could hear the sharp crack as a tree shattered from his impact. There was no way he survived that. Not as frail as the boy was said to be. Still, Burin rushed over to help him and Emily teleported – she was getting good at accessing her magic when she needed it in a rush – over to help him. Persephone flew off after her.

Terry hit the hut in the foot with his rocket launcher. No, not firing it. He just smacked it in the foot with the device itself. “Bad!” he said.

The hut ignored him, and was obviously agitated, so Gregor ran up the side and began trying to restrain it. I will never understand the logic of these two. “Should I just punch it til it calms down?” the fighter asked.

“Maybe we can have the box make a giant bag for you to put it in so you can forget to feed it for a few days?” Terry suggested.

“Don’t put a dimensionally compressed object into another!” Burin chided from out in the woods. He wasn’t wrong. That could get explosive.

I heard a roar from the woods near where Burin and the others were. No, not one roar. It was three distinct roars. “Momma! No! Don’t hurt him!” I heard Emily scream. What the hell was going on? “The monster did this to him!”

Terry turned and fired into the woods in that direction. His rocket hit a tree between him and whatever he was aiming at, exploding harmlessly. Well, maybe not harmlessly. Burin made a sound like he was hit. But it was Burin. He was fine.

I had to know. What was there? I flew up into the sky like a bolt.

There was a giant, three headed dragon over there, and I could see Persephone carrying a struggling Emily away. The girl was protesting that she loved Alexei and no one understood him but her. I’d had a friend go through that phase in high school. I almost laughed.

Gregor could see the dragon from his vantage point. He looked down at Anastasia. “Hey, is your brother supposed to be a dragon?” he asked.

That was the straw that broke the poor girl’s sanity. She began gibbering. “It’s a gorynych!” I called to the fighter, weaving a spell to hit it with an explosion of acid. “You need to keep hitting it with acid!”

Gregor flexed his fists. “Easy enough!” He charged down the side of the hut, teleporting just before hitting the ground and arriving where “Alexei” was fighting Burin. The dragon went down to a powerful flurry of Gregor’s blows.

It took only moments before Gregor was already skinning it. Terry went to help Persephone with Emily while I dealt with Anastasia. I was forced to put her to sleep and left her with Burin while I went to check on the Guisers.

Emily was screeching at her parents for killing Alexei. “That wasn’t really Alexei,” I told her. “That was a special kind of dragon. They use magic to warp the minds of those they want to control.” I looked at Persephone. “I think that’s why you attacked the goat. He must have clouded your mind.”

“That makes me feel better, and worse at the same time.” She tried to comfort Emily, who pushed her away.

I nodded. “And Emily, he used magic to make you fall in love with him.” Gorynych were known to voraciously chase down and bed young maidens. She was too young for that kind of thing, so I’m glad the hut caught him. Which brought up another thing. “Terry, don’t forget to apologize to the hut for hitting it.”

“It’s not like I actually hurt it.”

“Terry…” Persephone said, pained.

“Fine,” he pouted. “Oh, and we need a longer lasting solution if we’re gonna take Percy inside. I don’t think we want her growing huge inside the hut.”

I nodded. “The box will have an option if you have the funds.” I began setting it up while Persephone took Terry to make sure he apologized. I sat down next to the crying Emily. “You okay?”

“I know it was a lie,” she said. “But it still hurts.”

“Welcome to being a teenager,” I told her. “Come on. Let’s dry those eyes. Your parents look worried about you.”

“Do you think they hate me? I said some really mean things to Momma.”

“Hate you? Never. Look, this isn’t the last time you’ll act like a little monster to your parents. And boys will usually be involved. They’ll never hate you. It’s important that you remember that. They will always love you, no matter what you do. They might not LIKE you sometimes. But they will always love you, no matter how much you fight.”

She hugged me. “Did you fight with your parents?” she asked.

“All the time. Daddy was a master at letting me make myself look like an idiot. Now go tell them you’re sorry.”

She did as she was told and then we made Persephone a magic hat similar in function to the amulet Greta wears. When she transformed, it became a tiara. It was rather cute.

After that, we had Gregor wrap up his skinning and we went inside. I had Burin put Anastasia on my bed. Then we went back out to the main room, where I saw Emily and Greta talking. “So you are fine, after all, child,” Greta was saying.

“Fine. And a princess,” Emily responded, her tone confrontational, or perhaps gloating.

Greta shrugged. “Whether you were a princess or not, I was not concerned.”

The Coffin Man laughed. “Is that why you were halfway out the door when your cute wife called you?”

Greta shot him a withering look. “I was simply going outside to see if the naughty child was hiding.”

“Right.”

Greta changed the subject. “Who is this woman?” she asked, regarding Persephone.

“This is my wife,” Terry said. “Emily’s mom.”

“Strange that you would find her on a world so far from your own and back in time.”

“Emily summoned her.”

“I’m a princess AND a wizard,” Emily said, sticking her tongue out at Greta when she thought no one was looking.

“Hello,” Persephone said, holding out her hand to shake Greta’s before realizing her mistake after noticing the missing limb. “Sorry,” she said, holding out the other hand.

“It is fine,” Greta said. “I have become used to it. Though I will one day find Typhon Lee and return the favor, tearing HIS arm off before beating him to death with it.”

“Why would Typhon do this to…” Persephone turned to Terry. “Terry, where’s Toby?”

“He’s somewhere warm,” Terry said evasively. “Even I’m not stupid enough to bring a baby somewhere as dangerous as this.” He laughed nervously.

“Terry…”

“Okay, can we talk in private?”

They went into Terry’s room, having to kick out Zorka who was complaining about the untidiness of the room, emphasizing something about cake stains. As they did so, I went into my room to pull out my phone and eavesdrop.

Greta followed me in. “You fancy Terry’s wife,” she said lovingly.

I set down my phone. “I do find her attractive,” I admitted. “But I’m not going to pursue her.”

Greta cocked her head. “Why not?”

Wait, what? “I’m confused. You want me to cheat?”

She hugged me. “Despite the fact that you’re clearly in heat, I have been unable to impregnate you. Thus, I have resolved myself to the realization that one or both of us will be required to lay with some other man so we can have children. So thus, I have come to terms with the thought that you will lie with someone other than me. As long as you return to me every time, I can live with it.”

“I’m in heat?”

“Your scent is screaming it,” Greta said. “Your body is shouting as loudly as it can that it is ready for someone to reproduce with you.”

“Oh.” I forget how good her sense of smell is.

“By the way, what’s up with the girl in our bed?”

“I need you to keep an eye on her,” I said.

“She will not disappear on me?”

“I don’t think so,” I said. “But no promises at this point.”

“Who is she?”

“Another princess,” I said.

“Fun.”

“Also, there might be more.” It was only a suspicion. But I couldn’t help but voice it. “In the future, there are rumors that the queen had an affair with a spiritual advisor of hers. There are even songs about it. It’s not impossible that she’s his daughter.”

“Who is this spiritual advisor? You sound as if it’s important.”

“It might be. His name is Rasputin. And he’s Baba Yaga’s son.”

“Then she’s…?”

“Baba Yaga’s granddaughter? Yeah, maybe.”

“I will keep her safe.”

“Thanks, babe. Now, I hope I haven’t missed anything important.” I picked up the phone and activated my backdoor program, listening in on the next room through Terry’s phone.

“Terry,” Persephone said. “Just tell me what’s going on. And why was that woman so mad at Typhon? He’d never do something like that.”

“Typhon’s… not our friend anymore.”

“Why not? He’s always been so good to us. He’s kept us safe. He kept my family away from us.”

“Percy, you’ve been dead for three years. It was Typhon’s men that killed you.”

“That can’t be right,” Persephone argued. “You’re wrong. It had to have been my father.”

“No, but he does have a bounty on Emily, apparently. Or so Pops says.”

“So I died. I still don’t think it was Typhon, but okay. Then you’ve been taking care of the kids while I was gone?” She sighed. “I’ve missed so much. Where’s Toby?”

Terry took a deep breath. “Percy. You… and Toby… and well, Emily too… you didn’t exactly survive when Typhon’s men came.”

“Explain faster.” Her tone was dangerous.

“Okay, long story short. I took a job to kill Typhon. But I didn’t check the body. He was still alive. He was mad, so his men killed you, kicked Toby into the fire, killed Emily and then he personally shoved my soul into Emily’s corpse.”

I could hear pacing. “Why would you betray him like that?!” Persephone ranted. “What could have possibly possessed you to do that?! He was like a father to us!”

“Your sister found me,” Terry said softly. “She gave me an ultimatum. Kill Typhon or she’d bring your father’s entire army to kill you and take the kids. So I had to choose between killing the dragon or facing down an entire army. I did what I thought was best to protect you.” He sounded ashamed.

“HECATE!” Persephone said softly, her voice filled with rage. There was a sound of struggling, as if she was trying to hit Terry in a rage, but he had restrained her.

“It’s okay, Percy. You’re not alone,” Terry assured her.

I could hear her crying. “I’m okay,” she said. “I’m not human anymore. But I have you, and Emily.”

“Yes.”

“And she’s magic, like Mom. If she died, how did she come back? And what about Toby?”

“Lyriana helped. It took a lot of money. But now she’s back. And Lyriana thinks we can bring back Toby, but it’s gonna take a lot of work, and probably some very expensive magic.”

“I’ll be sure to thank her later.”

“She’s a good kid. Both her and Gregor.”

“What about Burin?”

“Well, I guess he’s better than Pops,” Terry admitted grudgingly.

Persephone laughed. “He did manage to get inside me, so he’s certainly got that on Pops.”

“That tiara looks cute on you,” Terry said after a moment. “You want to have sex?”

“Okay.” Ooh, now it was getting good. “You look bigger than I remember.”

“Lyriana sculpted me a new body. She probably had to guess since it’s not like I showed her what I looked like naked.”

“I’ll definitely have to thank her later.” Oh, I could think of a way for her to thank me.

Greta took the phone from my hand and turned it off. “Hey! It was just getting good!” I complained.

“If you have time to listen…” she said suggestively, kissing me. Oh.

But there was a problem. “Anastasia’s right there,” I protested.

“Then you’ll have to be quiet so you don’t wake her.”

I guess we could spare half an hour.


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Spoiler:
There's getting caught with your pants down and then there's... this. Something like walking into the middle of an elementary school and deciding NOW is the time to begin your streaking career.


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Formatted Linky

Hold Tight Because the Show Is Not Over:
The group walked into the marsh solemnly and followed the trail as far as they could. It was perhaps a half mile before the tracks disappeared below the now ankle deep water. And it was more than the lack of visible tracks that was causing them trouble.

The muck was hard to traverse on a normal day. But for the pair of men with issues walking, it was an absolute nightmare. And they weren’t the only ones having issues, as Santino was veritably twitching at the sound of the mosquitoes flying around his ears.

The only member of the group having minimal trouble, Trollblood spotted a patch of high ground, clear of the reed-choked swamp and covered in smaller flowers. “Hey,” he said. “Does it look to anyone like something got dragged through here?” He pointed at a patch of crushed flowers.

Before anyone could look, they were interrupted by the sound of a woman’s cry. “That doesn’t sound quite right,” Stein said.

“Yeah, it’s like when I’m faking a girl’s cry,” Santino said.

“What?” Stein asked, looking at the man.

“What?” Santino asked as if he hadn’t just said something weird.

Trollblood listened. “There it is again.”

“That came from a different direction,” Heimish noted.

“It sounds a bit like Aleece,” Trollblood noted, making a superstitious sign against evil.

“That was from somewhere else again!” Stein hissed at the third sound.

“It’s probably a trap,” Santino said. “Instead of going straight at it, let’s circle around…” As he talked, he had been moving in the direction he was suggesting. Then he stopped as the sound called out directly in front of his path. He stopped talking and drew his sword.

The other three followed behind him. Just as they got off of the mound, suddenly a massive spider with the eerie face of a human appeared and bit at Heimish, who just barely managed to dodge. “S%&!e!” the preacher shouted as he cast a spell.

A burst of light – known colloquially to those of the adventurer’s guild as a magical light grenade thanks to one particular wizard – exploded out from a point in front of the creature’s face, both blinding it and burning it.

The spider reacted by disappearing, shifting from the material plane into the ethereal. “You scared away my newest girlfriend,” Santino pouted. The face wasn’t half bad looking, after all.

“It’s a phase spider!” Heimish said. “We haven’t seen the last of it.”

The others readied their weapons, and as soon as it reappeared, they struck as best they could. Santino and Trollblood charged in – as difficult as that was in the muck – and Stein loosed a readied bomb, which missed as the spider lunged at him. It bit him and lifted him from the ground.

He felt poison surging into his veins, but he shrugged it off. He had dealt with worse back in his early days working with Lorrimor. “You’ll have to do better than that!” he shouted, swinging his cane. The blow glanced off the creature’s thick exoskeleton, doing no damage.

The irony of his words and his ineffectual attack were not lost on him. And, unfortunately, Heimish’s blast of magical iridescent light did little to the spider, as it shrugged off the magic.

Trollblood, however, was a bit more successful. He swung his massive crude hammer and struck a crushing blow. The hit destroyed one of the spider’s legs and cracked the chitin on its abdomen.

Santino, still not quite in range, did something else entirely. He was filled with rage and now seeing red. The water next to him was bubbling. It had been for some time, though it was gentle enough that only Stein had noticed, and only just barely. Now, however, it was a rolling boil.

“LET GO OF MY SISTER’S BUTLER!” Santino roared, pointing his sword. From the depths of the marsh, a spiked chain shot out and wrapped around Stein, wrenching the butler from the spider’s grasp.

Terrified and reeling from the damage, the spider fled back into the ethereal plane.

Santino helped Stein up as the chain disappeared. The butler was shaking in supernatural terror at the touch of the hellishly warm chains, but was unharmed by them. Of course, he had taken damage from the spider’s bite, which Heimish attended to immediately.

“There, there,” Santino said, inappropriately caressing the man’s cheek.

“Why didn’t you tell us you could cast spells, lad?” Heimish asked Santino.

“I didn’t know,” Santino answered. “This was my first time doing it.” He laughed. “I guess I popped my spell cherry.” He looked at Stein. “Was it good for you?”

Stein, regaining his composure, just rolled his eyes.

“The creature hasn’t returned,” Trollblood noted.

“We probably hurt it too much,” Santino said. It was mostly him who had done all the work, of course.

Santino started walking ahead of the others. “What are you doing?” Heimish asked.

“Shh… I’m bait.”

“Do you know any other spells?” the preacher asked.

“I don’t know. Didn’t know I could cast that one.”

“Well, I’m proud of you for coming into your power. Your magic will be a great force for good.”

“Okay,” Santino answered noncommittally.

Back at camp, the three men who had pranked Santino decided to put on a juggling act for Kendra and Natalya as way of apology. “This is rather good,” Kendra said to Kaleb.

“This is our trade,” Kaleb answered. “Once Aleece is found, we’ll be heading to Lepidstadt. There’s some kind of shindig going on there, with plenty of commotion. Commotion means people, and people means money.”

“Fair enough,” Kendra said, returning her attention to the show.

Then, all as one, the three men stopped and grabbed their stomachs. Natalya heard an audible, high pitched groan emanate from the bellies of the three men. What should have been three sounds came out as one singular noise as they dropped the balls and looks of horror crossed their faces.

As they ran off, Kendra looked at Kaleb questioningly. “Something they ate, I guess?” the ringmaster said.

Natalya looked around, and most of the camp’s occupants looked ill. Alarmed, she quietly motioned with her head. Kendra spotted the motion and looked, spotting what she had spotted.

“I don’t think they’re the only ones,” Kendra said, pointing out the others to Kaleb.

“I’ll look into it,” he said. “One moment.”

After he left, Kendra leaned in to Natalya. “I think I know what happened to my brother’s missing candy,” she whispered.

The group in the marsh continued on, and while they heard more noises, the spider didn’t dare approach them. They walked for a bit longer before Stein spotted something. “There!” he pointed. “Are those bodies?” he asked.

They moved to investigate, and Santino found something familiar. “Hey, big guy, is this her?” he asked, yanking the half-eaten corpse from the muck.

“Aleece,” Trollblood wailed, his voice cracking as he dropped to his knees and cradled the body.

“Take all the time you need,” Heimish said, putting a hand on the man’s shoulder. “We’ll look around and see if there’s anything else here of import.”

He had been hoping to find a still living victim, but all he managed to locate was a small box of brass weights like those used by merchants to measure the weight of goods on scales and a magnifying glass that appeared to be made of silver.

It was late afternoon – perhaps an hour before sunset – when the party returned to camp with the body of the young woman. The stomach ailment that had afflicted camp was mostly over, thankfully, so the Crooked Kin gathered around to mourn their fallen.

But Santino had something more important to do. “I need to find wood,” he told Kendra.

“What for?” she asked, following along. Natalya followed as well, uncomfortable around the grieving performers.

Santino picked up a large piece of scrap wood and handed it to Natalya. It was too heavy for her and she dropped it. He frowned and picked it up. “I need to make a sign.”

“What kind of sign?” Kendra asked, visions of rather inappropriate possibilities flashing through her mind.

“A warning. There’s a dangerous monster out in the swamp.”

“That’s surprisingly reasonable.”

“Yeah, I don’t want anyone to go out there and end up killing her before I can sleep with her.”

There he was. There was the Santino Kendra expected. “Oh, I see.”

When he was finished, Santino had made a rather decent sign. It even had a doodle of the monster. “Danger: Phase Spider. Don’t go into the swamp, stoopeed.”

“You spelled that wrong,” Natalya pointed out.

“Oh!” Santino said. “I always get those two mixed up.” He crossed out “Phase” and wrote “Faze”. “Much better. Thanks.”

“Um, anytime,” the tiefling answered as she noticed Kendra shaking her head.”

The trio returned just as the sun set and the Crooked Kin lit the funeral pyre for Aleece. They watched solemnly as the people mourned their fallen friend.

When it was over, Kaleb approached them. “Thank you for your help resolving this. Of course, we wish things had turned out different, but we’re grateful for your help.”

“Of course, Kaleb,” Kendra said.

The pale man sighed. “Well, I guess it’s back on the road in the morning. We can’t afford to delay any longer.”

“About that,” Kendra said. “We’re going the same way on a personal errand for my late father. Maybe we can travel with you?”

“You and your friends are a capable group. We’d be glad for the company. Good night, all of you.”

After he was out of earshot, Santino turned to Kendra. “He’s vulnerable. You should get a piece of that.”

Exasperated, Kendra rolled her eyes. “Santino…”

“What? You don’t want him? Can I have him?”

“Santino, get back in the carriage and go to sleep.”

“Fine,” he said. “Wasted trip, lost all my candy,” he grumbled as he walked off to do as he was told.

“About that,” Stein said, appearing from the shadows. “Was everyone in camp sick?”

“Yeah,” Kendra said. “We should probably not say anything about my brother’s missing candy.”

“Probably for the best,” Stein agreed.

They traveled through the next day, finally arriving at the town of Lepidstadt in early evening. There was a decided air of mirth and excitement as they arrived.

“Is there a festival going on?” Heimish asked. He regretted not finding out what Kaleb knew before parting with the troupe at the gate.

“I don’t think so,” Kendra said as they rounded a corner to the town’s main square. In the center, the people were erecting a massive wooden effigy and all around it was kindling.

Kendra had heard of this. This was something the people of Lepidstadt did to punish criminals. “I’m going to go find out what’s going on,” Santino said, jumping out of the slowed carriage before Kendra could stop him.

“I hope he doesn’t do anything reckless,” she said.

“Stay with the carriage,” Natalya said. “I’ll go keep an eye on him.” Kendra would be safe enough with the carriage and the two men. And after all, while protecting the young noblewoman had become a bit of a cause for the tiefling, it wasn’t like she needed to keep an eye on her all the time.

“Thanks,” Kendra said.

Natalya did her best to tail Santino as he pushed his way through the crowd. At one point, he grabbed a man. “What’s going on?” he asked.

“It’s the Punishing Man!” the gap-toothed man exclaimed. “We’re gonna burn the Beast of Lepidstadt!”

Santino let him go and the man ran off to go find more kindling. “Well, if you’re gonna make a big wooden statue, you have to make it right,” Santino said to himself, grabbing a log. He slung it over his shoulder and bounded up past the guards.

He then climbed up and tried to jam the log into the effigy’s crotch. “What are you doing? Get down from there!” a guard called out.

“You didn’t make it complete!” Santino shouted back. He thought he’d done it and let go so he could admire his handiwork. But the large, makeshift manhood fell off of the wooden man. “Damn,” Santino swore. That thing had been heavy.

He noticed that half of the people in the square were staring at him. Drunk on the attention, he climbed higher, all the way to the top of the sculpture.

Natalya looked around desperately, trying to find a way to get him down without killing him or further angering the agitated guards. But she couldn’t find anything. She spotted a few men wearing the crest of the Adventurer’s Guild and began heading their way in hopes that they might be able to help somehow.

But she stopped in her tracks as she heard Santino shout from his perch. “DOWN WITH THE BEAST!” he roared, raising both arms into the air in triumph.

Flames engulfed Santino and ignited the massive wooden sculpture. But they did not seem to harm him. Indeed, the flames didn’t touch Santino, instead, they seemed to do something else. They were revealing him.

On the top of the flame, Natalya could see Santino, completely different than he had been before. No more was his head that of a man. Now it had become more like that of a dog, though it retained some partial features of a human. And his torso still remained that of a man, though his legs had become more like those of a dog as well.

In all, he looked like a cross between a man and a giant mastiff.

He then looked at the horizon, where the moon was rising, and let out a bloodcurdling howl that silenced the entire crowd, who now stared, slack jawed and terrified.

“It’s a werewolf!” one of the guards exclaimed. He grabbed his horn and blew it. Natalya could hear the sounds of several other horns answering in the distance. The guards would be closing in soon. All of them.

What the hell was she going to do?

Note:
Yeah, I'm pretty sure we're gonna die.


UnArcaneElection wrote:

** spoiler omitted **

Spoiler:
I think we're at the "that's another department" stage when it comes to actually saving people. :P

UnArcaneElection wrote:

** spoiler omitted **

Spoiler:
And take away Terry's opportunity to murder them all? :P

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Formatted Linky

Stealth? What Stealth?:
We walked past a cemetery – or at least, what had been a cemetery before the trenches had been dug through it – as we made our way to a nearby building. From the outside, it appeared to be some kind of barracks, but it was padlocked on the outside. That piqued Terry’s interest, so he started to pick it. “I’ve never seen locks like this,” he said. “The inside is more complicated than what I’ve seen before.”

“It’s my world,” I reminded him.

“Right, you people complicate everything.” He focused for a moment. “There. Got it.”

We cautiously opened the door and peered inside. We weren’t prepared for what we found. There were maybe thirty men strapped to their bunks. They looked horrible, as though they had been tortured. And I think the torture had broken their minds, as they were moaning and babbling incoherently.

Terry walked over to a nearby bunk to inspect one of the men. The man screeched and tried to grab him, but Terry dodged back out of the strapped down man. “Too slow!” he said. The man didn’t seem to even notice his words.

Gregor walked over to a particular individual and Burin followed behind him. “You don’t seem to be as far gone as the others,” the fighter said.

“You’re… not with them? I’ve never seen you before,” the man answered.

“With who?” Burin tried to ask in Aquan, which Nebbie translated for me.

“With who?” Gregor asked, this time in Russian. As they talked, I noticed Terry was counting the men in the bunks and had begun setting out bullets for each of them. It was clear he intended to put them out of their misery.

“The Brothers Three,” the man said. “Vile nosferatu. They have kept us here as cattle to slake their thirsts.”

“And what happened to the others?” Gregor indicated the other men around them.

“They’ve been here longer than I. Their minds have been broken by the repeated feedings. Please, I will tell you everything I know. Just help me get out of here. I don’t want to die as fodder for blood sucking vermin.”

Gregor looked dubious. He turned to me and Burin. “Is it safe?” he asked in Taldan. “Is there not a chance he could turn into a vampire himself?”

Burin looked the man over. “He looks fine to me,” he answered.

I thought for a moment about what I’d read in Daddy’s notes. I’d been kinda interested in vampires for a bit when I discovered they were real, and even more interested when I found out a few had been found to still be on Earth. “I don’t think so?” I said, not entirely sure. “I want to say I remember reading that nosferatu don’t have the ability to create spawn. Assuming that he’s correctly identified them, that is. But nosferatu supposedly look really different from other vampires, so it might be hard to mistake them.”

Gregor nodded. “Good enough for me.” He turned back to the man. “What’s your name, friend?”

“Dmitri,” the man answered.

“We’re going to untie you. Don’t make us regret it.”

“Understood,” Dmitri answered. “Thank you.”

“What about the others?” Terry asked. “Can any of them be saved? Or would it be better if I put bullets in each of their heads?”

“I fear they are too far gone,” Dmitri answered. “A quick death would be a mercy.”

“Okay,” Terry said, starting to load his pistol.

“Wait,” I said.

“What?”

“Won’t that be loud? Won’t someone come to investigate?” I was confused that no one had come after us already. It was possible that they hadn’t realized exactly where we were, so I was hesitant to risk letting the others draw attention to our location.

Terry thought about it. “Good point,” he said, holstering his pistol. He pulled out his kukri. “This will be much quieter.” He began to whistle as he cheerily began slashing the throats of the men.

In horror, I grabbed Emily and covered her eyes so she wouldn’t have to watch her father happily murder so many men, even if he was technically doing a good deed. The girl struggled at first, curious to see, but ended up giving up fighting.

The men Terry was killing didn’t even react as he cut them down. That’s how far gone they were. I felt nauseous as I watched, and was grateful for the distraction when Emily spoke up. “Miss Lyriana?”

“Yes?” I asked the girl, looking at her and away from the horrible scene.

“Do I have to get shot every time I want to call on Mama?”

I considered what I knew about summoners. “I don’t think so,” I said. “You just need to focus, though it will probably be easier to summon her when you’re scared.”

“Oh, okay.”

Gregor asked Dmitri what he knew about the floating monastery. “I do not know much. You might ask the fairy who lives in the graveyard.”

Gregor nodded. “We’ll do that. It’s on the outskirts of the camp, so we can leave you there.”

Terry finished his grim business. “They’re all dead, but I saw a few gold teeth. Give me a few minutes.”

Annoyed, I took Emily outside. Burin and Dmitri followed me, but Gregor stayed inside to help.

A few minutes later, the two men came outside. “What’s that smell?” Burin asked.

“If Dmitri is wrong, I am not going to risk them rising from their graves to hunt us,” Gregor said. “So I set the building on fire.”

What? “That’s going to draw a lot of attention!” I protested.

“We’re going elsewhere, so it’ll be fine,” Gregor answered with a shrug. “Let us go.” Terry and Burin both nodded at the logic.

What was wrong with these people?

We made our way to the cemetery as quietly as we could. Behind us, the small fire turned into a full blaze as flames engulfed the roof. It wouldn’t be long until someone came to investigate, but maybe it would at least take attention off of where we were and where we were going. But I still would have preferred not drawing any attention at all.

As we entered the cemetery, we found the fairy in question. I’m not sure how to describe her other than to say she was small, with grey skin and large black eyes. Kinda like a one of those grey aliens that were all the rage in popular culture back when I was a kid. They made so many movies about those. I loved them, but I was terrified that they’d come get me and had trouble sleeping for the entire summer when I was eight. At least until I finally said something to my parents and Daddy pointed out that Juiz would never let something like that happen.

Well, okay, that’s not exactly a perfect description. The eyes were smaller, and more round than like almonds. And she had pointed ears, like an elf. And I’ve never heard of a grey alien digging with a shovel.

That shovel attracted Burin’s attention. Strangely for the dwarf, rather than calling out to her, he drew his own shovel and walked over, respectfully tapping her shovel gently with his. “NO!” she said, looking at him. “These are my bones! You find your own!”

“Sorry,” Burin said. “I don’t mean to impose or anything. I just wanted to show my respect to a fellow digger.” Of course, he answered everything she said in Russian by speaking in Aquan, so Nebbie translated it for him. Later, I found time to ask him why he kept trying to speak to everyone in Aquan and he explained. “Well, you see, most of the world is covered in water, so Aquan is the most common language.”

I hate that I can’t fault that logic. It’s the stupidest, most Burin thing I’ve ever heard, but at the same time, it makes a weird kind of sense.

“Yes,” Gregor added. “We’re not interested in bones. Skins, maybe. But not bones.”

“We’ve come to see if you know anything about Rasputin and that ghostly monastery up there,” I said.

“Ras who?” she asked.

“The Man Who Will Not Die,” Gregor said.

“I don’t know who that is.”

“Baba Yaga’s son,” Burin suggested and Nebbie translated.

“Oh! The one who seeks to steal Little Grandmother’s throne!” She looked at us suspiciously. “Why do you want to know?”

“Please, anything you can tell us might be useful,” I said. “We need Little Grandmother’s help to save an entire world from her daughter’s ambitions, but since she’s in danger, we have to save her first so she can help us.”

She regarded me for a moment. “You truly wish to save Little Grandmother?”

“We need her help,” I said. “I do not know if we would be involved if we didn’t. But there’s no other way, so we must save her.” I had the feeling that honesty was the right path to winning her trust. Fey creatures are capricious, but they always act in their own interests. If she understood that saving Baba Yaga was in our benefit, then she would understand why we could be trusted to do so.

“I see,” she said. “Then you will need to find your way into the church but not a church that lies halfway between this world and the world from which I come.”

“How do we do that?” Terry asked.

“You will need to find a way to deal with the Anchors of the World.”

“The what?” Gregor asked. She shrugged. “Okay, you don’t know the specifics. Is there someone who does?”

“You must seek the one who made them. But that will be difficult.” She leaned in conspiratorially. “The goat has his soul,” she whispered.

Terry threw his arms into the air. “DAMMIT,” he said.

I looked to see if Emily was reacting to the mention of the goat, but she wasn’t paying attention. Instead, she was crouched down by a nearby tombstone, muttering to herself. I strained a bit and I could just barely make out “I’m a princess.” being repeated over and over.

That kid was a little weird.

“We can’t just fly up to it?” Terry was asking the fairy when I turned back.

“It isn’t there, even if you can see it.”

The assassin sighed. “Okay. Fine. Where do we find the goat?”

“The goat is being held by the soldiers in the camp.”

“This sounds like a lantern goat,” Burin noted. “It won’t be an easy foe.” Of course, he was still talking in Aquan, so Nebbie translated. I’d heard about those. They were undead creatures who looked like goats and used the captured souls of mortals to fuel their powers.

“Gregor gets to fight it,” Terry commented.

“No, you will fight it,” Gregor said. “With your bare hands. For training.”

“B$%*!%&*,” Terry answered. Gregor just smiled.

“If we retrieve the soul, we’ll be able to talk to him?” I asked the fairy.

She shook her head. “No, you’ll need his body as well.”

“And where’s that?” Terry asked.

“Not sure,” the fairy shrugged. She sniffed the air. “I think he was near the fire.”

Gregor pointed to the smoke rising from the fire he’d set. “That fire?”

She shook her head. “No. Older fire. The goat started it so it could steal his soul.”

“Just great. Now the goat starts fires,” Terry grumbled. Gregor laughed at that. Terry ignored him and turned to Dmitri. “Where is this camp she’s talking about?”

“On the far side of the compound. A group of Cossack mercenaries is there. Their leader is a headless monster. Be careful of him.”

Gregor flexed his forearm. “We’ve already met. He did not come out the better for the fight.”

“We’ll head through the town and see if we can find signs of a fire,” Burin said, finally speaking Taldan once more. “Thank you, Miss…” he left it hanging.

“You may call me Polina,” the fairy said. “Bring me the goat’s lantern and the body, and I can return the man who made the Anchors of the World to life so you can save Little Grandmother.”

She was going to bring him back? That didn’t bode well, since tombstone fairies could only bring back evil beings. Not that Baba Yaga was a saint either. I guess if saving the world meant working with a few bad guys, the lives saved would be worth it. At least I hoped.

“We’re going, kiddo,” Terry said to Emily.

“Coming,” she said, standing up and running over to us.

As we made our way through the compound or whatever you want to call it, we made a half-assed attempt at stealth. It was obvious they knew we were here, so it’s not like we would benefit from completely hiding our presence. But it would still be best if they didn’t know exactly where we were.

As we passed a building – it looked like a barn or something – we noticed a strong odor. It smelled like, well, I don’t know. Have you ever been around wet cattle? It was kinda like that, only different. It was definitely an animal odor.

Burin went over and opened the door, peering in. “Hello!” he called out guilelessly.

Animal screeches answered him. They sounded similar to the sound of silverback gorillas, maybe? “Screw this,” Terry said, whipping out his rocket launcher and firing into the barn before I could even point out the amount of noise that would make.

Emily similarly jumped into action. “I’m a princess!” she said, her voice filled with determination. “Momma! Help Dad!” she shouted.

The manticore appeared once more and charged into the barn. I looked inside after it and watched as it began tearing into what appeared to be yetis. It was too late to bother with stealth, so I lobbed two fireballs into the barn to help kill the monsters before they could attack the manticore. It – no, she – was still injured, and as an eidolon, if she took too much damage, it was possible that she might drain life force from Emily to sustain herself.

“Behind us!” Gregor called out.

I turned to see what he was talking about. Sure enough, our noise had drawn attention. There was a sickly yellow fog rolling in, and there were signs of movement within the fog. There was something off about the cloud. I could smell it from where I was, but I didn’t make the connection in time. Before I could react, Burin took a deep breath and plunged into the cloud to attack whatever was inside.

Gregor chased after him. “It’s poison!” I called out to him. Worse than poison, actually. It was corrosive mustard gas. If that stuff was around, we were going to need gas masks. Even my lack of breathing wouldn’t quite protect me.

The fighter stopped just outside of the cloud and began punching it. I’m not sure if that’s crazy or not considering what we’ve seen, but it was pretty nuts. What was even crazier was when his fist connected. One blow after another struck the cloud, with a strangely solid impact. Three or four punches later, and the cloud lost cohesion and began to disperse.

“You just punched a mustard gas cloud to death?!” I asked, incredulous.

Terry spun and fired a rocket at the now visible zombies that had been hiding in the cloud. The ones standing right next to Burin and only a few feet from Gregor. I wanted to ask him what he was thinking, but I knew he wasn’t. He was just acting on instinct.

Burin just took the explosion, and the zombie next to him died in a puff of gas that seared his skin.

A few moments later, the zombies were destroyed and I turned my attention back to the barn. Emily had walked inside and was gently holding the manticore, who was glaring at everyone outside, coiled and ready to strike if any of us tried to approach her daughter.

“Play her song, Papa,” Emily said to Terry. “It should calm her down.”

“Okay,” Terry said nervously, putting away his rocket launcher and pulling out his guitar. He strummed several notes, and my jaw hit the floor.

“What’s wrong?” Burin asked me.

“I know that song,” I said. It was one of Daddy’s favorites.

Terry was nervous and hit a wrong note, causing the manticore to growl, startling him and causing him to lose his concentration. It was obvious. He was terrified that the woman he loved was right there and he was afraid he wouldn’t be able to talk to her. I pulled out my phone. “Cortana,” I said. “Play the instrumental of ‘Wanted Dead or Alive’ by Bon Jovi.”

The music began to play and the manticore began swaying slightly to the music. Her body, which had been tensed and ready to strike, began to relax as she listened. But most notably, her eyes stopped glowing, revealing the deep hazel hidden below the light. She blinked and looked at her daughter.

“See, Momma,” Emily said. “They’re okay.” She reached out and touched the manticore, unconsciously casting a spell as she did so. The manticore’s shape warped and twisted, becoming the naked form of an incredibly beautiful woman. I was instantly turned on by the sight of her.

And she was WAY out of Terry’s league. I’m not sure if I’d say she or I were more attractive, but it was close. If I weren’t married, I’d definitely be trying to seduce her. Hell, I was wondering if Greta would be up for some extra company as it was.

She looked directly at us, shock in her eyes. “Terry?” she asked.

“Persephone…” he breathed, his voice quavering as he spoke.

Before she could respond, Emily smiled and fainted. Gregor was there in an instant, catching her before she fell. She had overexerted herself using magic she was unfamiliar with. And as Emily lost consciousness, Persephone disappeared.

Gregor brought Emily over to Terry. “Here,” he said. “I must see what furs in there I can salvage. Most of them are burned.” He seemed pretty annoyed by that, glaring at both of us as Terry took the girl from him.

“Are you okay?” I asked Terry as Burin went to help Gregor.

“I will be,” he said. “Somehow you’ve given them both back to me. Thank you.”

“Terry, there’s something I need to tell you…”

“What is it?” he asked.

I tried to steel myself to tell him about the possibility that Persephone was a demon, but I just couldn’t do it. I chickened out. “There is no way you deserved to marry a girl that hot,” I finally said.

“I know that better than most,” he said, laughing.

Gregor returned a few moments later, he was covered in blood. “You don’t normally get that messy skinning,” I pointed out.

“One of the beasts was with child,” he said. “I wanted to see if it was formed enough to have a skin.” He frowned. “It was not.”

Right. Wordlessly, I quickly cast a spell to clean him off. Burin returned

As we continued on, we heard a sound from a nearby building and went in to investigate. Inside, we encountered a kyton – creatures from the realm of shadows who believe pleasure and pain to be two halves of a glorious whole, making them natural sadomasochists – who had skinned nearly a dozen men and strung them up all over the room. I was really glad Emily wasn’t awake to see that. She spent the entire time we were in the building asleep just inside the door.

He wanted to make us his next victims, so we killed him first. Then we discovered that the men he’d been playing with were still alive, and even further beyond saving than the victims of the nosferatu had been. So we quickly killed them, to end their suffering.

We were just about to leave when the other three suddenly stopped. “What is it?” I asked.

Gregor held a finger to his lips, but Burin called out. “Hello?” he said, looking at a freestanding closet at the far side of the room. I thought I heard a muffled sound from within. Terry aimed his gun while Gregor and Burin cleared the debris away from the front of the closet’s door. Then Gregor swiftly pulled the door open, revealing the contents.

There were two people inside, a young woman of about sixteen or so dressed in a ruined lacy dress, and a boy of perhaps twelve or thirteen dressed in a child sized military dress uniform. I gasped when I saw them. I knew those faces.

Daddy was going to flip when I told him about this.

Note:
AKA "The One With The Murderhobos"; Also, apparently I have two RoW. Neat. I thought I'd already posted this one.


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UnArcaneElection wrote:
Spoiler:
Somebody should tell Santino they're getting into the kind of mission where you really can't afford to get caught with your pants down . . . .

So, um...

Spoiler:
This week, the excrement has impacted the oscillating air current distribution device. Our next CC session is going to be insane.

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Tangent101 wrote:

It could be unbalanced dice. If your dice aren't transparent, they can have bubbles in them. You can test them with a bowl of salt water - you need to stir in enough salt so that there is salt on the bottom of the bowl. Then your dice will float in there.

You then spin the floating die. If it keeps going back to the same number over and over again, then the die is unbalanced.

We have tested ours. And Barnaby's work fine most of the time, just not when it's Terry's time. :P


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UnArcaneElection wrote:

** spoiler omitted **

Hopefully this will explain it better. :P


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Formatted Linky

Chapter 8: Signs and Portents:
Qumeel suddenly felt pretty tired. His wounds had been healed, but he needed a moment to rest. So he sat down against the wall, leaning forward and resting on his sword. His eyes closed and he only half paid attention to what was going on.

“This is a rather warm welcome,” Rodd Rigez joked, grinning at the armed men pointing their weapons at him in a generally menacing fashion. “No one’s tried to put their blade into my throat yet.”

That was the last thing Qumeel heard before sleep took him. He then awoke with a start, and everyone was gone. The sky had gone pale and everything looked washed out. The very air was hazy – less like fog, more like the haze from smoke, though he could not smell any fire. “Douglas,” he said, rising to his feet. “Wildfire?” he asked, less sure.

But no one answered. He looked up on the wall, and none were standing watch, so he climbed back up and continued his vigil. On the other side of the wall stood a number of shadowy figures. They seemed incorporeal, not entirely real. He heard them murmuring, but strained to make out what they were saying, all in vain.

“Who goes there?” he asked. The shadows turned and stared at him for a moment. They had no eyes, but he could definitely tell that they were peering right through him. After a few moments, they stopped staring and returned to their hushed conversations.

They weren’t doing anything other than talking, so he glanced into town. There were more of the shadowy figures peering up at him from windows and open doors throughout the town. He then spotted another figure, one that glowed crimson. He slapped himself, trying to awake from what he now realized was a dream thanks to the strong feeling of déjà vu that ran down his spine.

The shadows all around him chittered a strange laughter and he heard footsteps. The crimson figure was moving towards him. It was not rushing. No, its steps were deliberate and measured. It was coming, but he could sense no malice.

The shadows within the town were now watching the crimson figure, which was now clearly an immense dog – at least as tall as Qumeel himself – with smooth red fur. He wasn’t too sure about dog breeds, but Qumeel thought it looked like a mastiff. As it passed, the doors and shutters were drawn shut, the shadows hiding from its presence.

Qumeel realized what he was seeing. He knelt before the dog. “What wisdom have you for me?” he asked.

The dog’s maw opened in a toothy grin. “You did well,” he answered, though his lips did not exactly move as he spoke. Instead, Qumeel heard the voice reverberating in his chest. “That was one of the more interesting fights I’ve seen. And I’ve seen my fair share of fights.”

“I’m not much of a fighter,” Qumeel admitted humbly.

“Yet you continue returning to this place, where fighting is inevitable.”

“These are good people. Even though they do not follow the same faith that I do, their gods are good and just. If I can help protect them against the chaos at their gates, then it seems like that is a worthy use of my time.”

The dog laughed. “Come, I have something to show you.”

He followed the dog through town, and they came to the town’s spring, much faster than Qumeel thought they should have, had he been walking in the waking world. They also had not needed to stop to rest, though they had stopped for a moment as they passed the golden figure of a woman. She had smiled wistfully at the mastiff and it had nodded in solemn acknowledgment of her presence before she disappeared. Qumeel did not know who she was, but he got the feeling that the two had known each other well.

At the waterfall where the spring reached the surface, the mastiff sat before the water and motioned with his head, bidding Qumeel to look more closely. The cleric did so. What he saw was terrifying. The water ran red with blood. His nostrils were filled with the smell of smoke and he saw the reflection of flames in the water. He turned and saw the town ablaze. He also heard screaming, and the shadows were running through town in terror.

The mastiff stood next to him. “A storm is coming,” the voice said. “Horrible things will happen to Trunau. But this is not the true threat. Save who you can, but you will continue from here to face the greater danger.”

Qumeel nodded respectfully. “I will do what I can.”

The dog tilted his head in acknowledgement. “I will give you what aid I can.”

Qumeel genuflected. In his hand, his blade was now wreathed in flames. He looked up and the dog was gone, replaced by a tall being with wings of crimson flame. His face was grim but determined and his eyes shone with fierce intensity.

Looking up into those eyes caused Qumeel to awaken with a start. “…these goblins,” Jagrin Grath was saying to Douglas. “They had a leader, yes?”

“Ya know, he was riding one of those, uh, big naked rat things goblins like. Then he, uh, told them to attack and ran away.”

Qumeel rose to his feet and Jagrin noticed his movement. “Ah, Qumeel, glad to see you’re okay,” he said. “Perhaps you can give me a better description of what happened.”

Qumeel noticed that Halgra was interrogating the strange man but focused on answering the question. “The goblins rode up, demanding we turn over someone they called ‘The Hated One’ or they would attack. Then the young guardsmen convinced them to walk over to where Wildfire had set up some kind of traps. There was an explosion, then there was a fight.” He smiled wryly. “I missed part of it thanks to an arrow piercing a section of my armor. I believe I owe Wildfire for reviving me.”

Jagrin nodded. “Douglas and Brollerth said that this ‘Hated One’ is a man known as Rodd Rigez?”

“I believe one of the goblins said that during the fight, now that you mention it. But I believe there is something else you need to know.”

“Great,” Jagrin said, annoyed. “Just what I need. More complications.”

“How did you get into town?” Halgra asked Rodd Rigez. “My watchmen have no record of your arrival.”

“I snuck in, of course,” Rodd Rigez answered. “There are no fewer than fourteen holes in your town’s security. I’d be happy to show you what they are and give you advice on how to close them up.” He winked and pointed his fingers at her like a pair of guns. “For a modest fee, of course.”

Halgra sighed. “And why precisely are you here?”

“I like to watch,” Rodd Rigez answered.

“…and that’s why I think it would be wise to bolster the watch,” Qumeel finished. “We should do what we can to prevent this calamity.”

“Qumeel,” Jagrin said, pained. “When you said you had more to tell me, I didn’t expect you to tell me about your weird dreams. Keep them to yourself.”

The cleric could tell that the man was too stressed to hear the truth of the vision Ragathiel had given him. He would find someone else. “Understood,” he said.

Jagrin walked over to Halgra. “Should I lock this man up?”

“Perhaps,” Halgra answered.

“First, a question. Where were you the night before last?”

“Oh, here and there,” Rodd answered noncommittally.

“Where exactly?”

“I believe this place is called Trunau,” Rodd answered as if it was the only proper answer. “I would have thought you knew that.”

Jagrin snapped and grabbed the man by his shirt. He slammed him into the wall of a nearby house. “Do you think you’re funny?! I’m going to throw you into a cell!” he snarled.

“No new holes in my flesh AND a free place to rest? This really is the most welcoming town ever,” Rodd Rigez answered with a grin.
It took Halgra and two others to keep Jagrin from wringing the man’s neck right there.

The male goblin prisoner awoke and bared its teeth at the sight of Rodd Rigez. “HATED ONE!” it shouted as it squirmed, trying to free itself from its bindings. Douglas dropped on it with his elbow, knocking it unconscious once more.

“Heh heh, that’s like, two points,” Wildfire snickered.

Halgra shook her head at the young men and turned back to Rodd Rigez, but before she could speak, she was interrupted by the cheery voice of a young woman. “COACH!” Lucky Days squealed. “You’re here!”

Halgra turned to see the young woman looking at Rodd Rigez. “You know this man?”

“I do, Chief Chief. This is Coach,” Lucky Days said, turning to address Halgra. “He’s helping me train.”

Suddenly, Halgra realized that the strange man was squatting behind the young woman, his hands groping her left thigh. She hadn’t seen him move at all. Lucky Days reacted instinctively, kicking backwards and sending him crashing into the wall with immense force. He collapsed face first onto the ground. “Even stronger than I remember,” Rodd Rigez wheezed.

Before Halgra could react, she was once more interrupted by the sound of boisterous laughter. “There you are!” Valbrand said jovially, jogging over and lifting Rodd Rigez from the ground before giving him a brotherly bear hug. Halgra thought she heard a loud popping sound as the force cracked the man’s back.

“Thanks,” Rodd Rigez said. “That kick dislocated something and that was just what I needed. Though I’m going to be seeing spots for a bit. Hey Kermit.”

“Hello, Rodd,” the grippli replied.

“You also know this man?” Halgra asked the two new arrivals.

“This is Rodd Rigez,” Kermit answered. “He’s what you call a ‘Jack of All Trades’.”

“Rodd of All Trades,” Rodd Rigez corrected him. “I hate the name Jack.”

“I see,” Halgra said. She had not gotten nearly enough sleep to be dealing with this person right now. “Keep an eye on him,” she told Jagrin.

“Better keep two eyes on me,” Rodd Rigez said. “I’m pretty good.”

Halgra shook her head and looked away in disgust. She spotted the guardsman, Omast, pressuring the wizard Jazier into helping clean up all the blood from the battle. For his part, the wizard was complaining, but started helping anyway.

Halgra spotted Gwen coming up behind the others and waved her over. As the girl approached, she heard Rodd Rigez talking to Jagrin. “You know, if you’re that worried about why the goblins are after me, you should probably ask the goblins.” He snickered. “You guys are really bad at this, you know?”

Halgra sighed. “Did you sleep?” she asked Gwen.

“Not as much as I would have liked, but enough,” the girl admitted.

“Good. Today is going to be a long day.”

Gwen took a look at the goblins and the strange man they were interrogating. “I can see that.”

“Is Coach in trouble?” Lucky Days asked Jagrin.

“He’s suspicious, and today is not the day to be suspicious.”

“Oh.” The girl considered it. “Has he been lying?”

“I have told no lies,” Rodd Rigez scoffed. “Look, sir – can I call you sir? You have bags under your eyes. You’re obviously tired. I have a potion for that, and I’d be happy to give it to you for a modest fee.”

Jagrin grabbed the man by the throat and slammed him into the wall. “My son is dead,” he growled. “I am not going to put up with your b~&~%$*$ today.” Rodd Rigez just snickered at that.

Halgra noticed that the goblin who had been knocked out was awake again. “Quit your squirming,” she commanded it. It paid her no heed.

“I can show you how it’s done, if you’d like,” Kermit offered.

“Sure, why not?” Halgra said.

Kermit nodded and went into Guyver mode. He grabbed the goblin and turned it to face him. His eyes glowed fiercely and hot mist coalesced around him. “You will be still,” he said softly but dangerously.

The goblin’s eyes grew wide and it immediately messed itself. It then collapsed into the fetal position and began gibbering softly as its fear overwhelmed it. But at least it had stopped trying to wriggle free.

As this was going on, Gwen noticed that the other goblin had awoken and was squirming a bit, trying to get to what appeared to be a doll made from an old wooden spoon that was lying on the floor near her. The girl walked over and picked up the spoon-doll. “Is this what you want?” she asked in a friendly tone. “I’ll give it to you if you’ll just tell us exactly why you’re here.”

The goblin – Tipi – didn’t trust her and just growled in response. Gwen shrugged. “I tried,” she said, returning to where Halgra was thanking Kermit for his “help”. “So, what do you want me to do?” she asked.

“Continue your investigation. Take this band of weirdos with you and get them out of my hair.”

“Understood,” Gwen said. She took Kermit and went first to gather up Lucky Days and Valbrand, who were still standing around chatting with Rodd Rigez.

“I’m going to put you in a cell until we can figure out what’s going on,” Jagrin was saying.

Rodd Rigez nodded. “Of course. But first, someone should reach into my left pocket and relieve me of my dagger.” He shook his head. “You’re really bad at this, you know?”

“Someone bring me some rope,” Jagrin growled.

“You’ll probably need more than that,” Kermit – who had returned to normal – noted.

Rodd Rigez guffawed. “Yeah, they use more than that on me at the brothel.” Gwen must have been making a disgusted face, as he turned to her. “You see, I just have so much love to give, but I only want to pay for the one. So they always try to keep me in the one room I’ve paid for.” He winked. “‘Try’ being the operative word, of course.”

Valbrand let out a belly laugh at that.

“Let’s go collect Ruby’s magician,” Gwen said to Lucky Days and Valbrand, then get going on our investigation.

“Okay,” Valbrand said. “I’ll bring you a beer later, Rodd.”

“Appreciate it,” the man being led away with his hands bound said. “I knew I could count on you. And Lucky Days, before I go, your arms are still flabby. Work on that.”

“I will, Coach,” the girl promised.

“Good kid.” He stopped suddenly after a few steps, causing Jagrin to bump into him. “Oh, and Lucky Days… pink is a good color on you.”

It took her a moment to understand what he was saying, then she turned a very bright red herself as her entire body blushed. She wanted to just crawl into a hole and die from embarrassment. Gwen decided not ask what was going on and instead just headed over to Jazier. “Ready to go investigate the Plague House?” she asked.

“I have a thought on that,” he said, but first turned to Omast. “You sure you don’t want to come with us?”

“No, that’s okay. I’d like to stay out of Hell today, thank you,” the guard said, making a sign against evil.

“You have no idea what Hell truly is,” Jazier said. “This is likely not to be all that bad.”

“The cleric I trained under told me all about Hell in depth,” Qumeel interjected. “I’d be happy to tell you what I’ve been told.”

“No, that’s okay,” Omast said. “Thanks, though.”

“Of course,” Qumeel said. He then left to catch up with Halgra.

“So, what was your thought?” Gwen asked Jazier.

“Well, this place is called ‘The Plague House’, right?”

“Yes.”

“We should invest in a potion to cure ourselves of any diseases we pick up while there.”

Gwen considered it. She hated wasting time, but he had a point. “We’ll hit the bazaar before going to the Plague House, then.”

“Thanks,” Jazier said.

Qumeel caught up with Halgra. “Chief Defender, a moment of your time, if you would,” he said.

“Of course, Qumeel,” she answered. “What is it?”

“I was given a vision by Ragathiel. I believe the town is in danger.”

“The town is always in danger,” she answered. “Look, I don’t have time to deal with visions at the moment. My plate is pretty full. Tell Gwen about it and she’ll fill me in on the important parts when I have time later.”

“Understood,” the cleric answered. He jogged to catch up with the party leaving the other way. “Miss Gwen,” he said. “The Chief Defender asked me to fill you in on a vision I was granted by Ragathiel.”

She nodded. “Tell me about it while we walk.” It took him several minutes to fill her in on the details. She furrowed her brow as he talked. “I see.”

“Could this be connected to the efforts of the demons?” Jazier asked.

“Demons?” Qumeel asked, startled.

“We’re investigating strange goings on,” Gwen said. “They seem to be related to my cousin’s death, and Jazier here thinks demons were involved.”

“That is always a possibility,” Qumeel admitted. “And where do your investigations take you now?”

“We’re stopping by the market, then going to the Plague House.”

“The building that burned but is still standing?” Qumeel asked.

“That’s the one,” Gwen affirmed.

“Then I shall accompany you. That building is too similar in nature to my vision to be a coincidence. I believe that Ragathiel wishes for me to aid you.”

She nodded. “I’ll be happy to have your help.”

At the market, there was a bit of commotion when one of the traveling traders desperately tried to convince Glenn to sell him his pelican suit. The strange man responded by slapping him away, which only made the trader more desperate. Kermit ended up having to chase him off in the end. Aside from that, the market was uneventful. They grabbed what they needed and headed to the Plague House.

The building was made from charred stone and was imposing, even under the full light of early afternoon. A few of the stained glass windows were still intact, adding a gothic and slightly off putting vibe to the whole structure.

Valbrand took point as they climbed up to the doorway that had once had wooden stairs. As he entered the building, it was dark, so he cast a spell, causing his shield to glow with clear white light. “Why hasn’t this place been torn down?” Jazier asked Gwen as the girl climbed up.

“We tried rebuilding a couple times, and something keeps happening, from fires to other issues. So now everyone thinks this place is cursed and is too afraid to be involved in the demolition, afraid they’ll be cursed as well.”

Lucky Days opened the first door to the right inside and investigated what appeared to be an infirmary, though she couldn’t tell very well in the dark. “Can I get some light in here?” she asked.

Valbrand obliged her and followed her in, as did Kermit. “Well, that’s strange,” the grippli said. “There appear to be coins under the beds.” He hopped over and began picking some up.

He managed to gather three of the coins when there was a ghostly shriek and burnt corpses appeared in the beds. The ghostly sound filled first Lucky Days and then Kermit with supernatural dread, and they began running at full speed out of the room and ultimately out of the building. Valbrand resisted the shriek at first, but as he began to laugh, another filled him with the same magical dread, and he had to flee.

But he was not so terrified that he was unable to realize how that would look to the pretty young woman in the hallway. He managed to focus himself as he ran, hiding the fear in his voice as he shouted. “Come back! It’s just some ghosts!” he called to the others as he followed after them.

“At least it’s not demons,” Jazier said as he walked into the room and zapped one of the ghosts with magical lightning. Qumeel followed him in and channeled holy energy through the room, beginning to cleanse the evil spirits. Gwen switched out the bullet in her gun for a magic wand, hoping the blast of magical acid would at least be able to harm the ghosts, then charged in and attacked.

One more hit from Jazier, and the haunt had ended. “See if there’s any other magic in here,” Gwen suggested.

“One moment,” Jazier said as he lit a torch. They searched the room under torchlight as they waited for the others to return. After a few moments, the wizard held up a small object. “I think you’ll want to see this,” he said.

Gwen took the object and examined it in the firelight. It was a hopeknife. “For Rodrik, my love,” she read aloud, her voice catching as she read it. This was Rodrik’s hopeknife! He must have encountered the ghosts and dropped it as he fled. He should have told her. She would have come with him to recover it. So would Kurst! “Thank you,” she said to Jazier as she took the knife, carefully tucking it into her pack.

They gathered up several other mementos of those who had fled this place before the others began to return. “Sorry,” Valbrand said. “I wanted to make sure that my friends didn’t hurt themselves as they ran away.” He was obviously lying, but no one called him on it.

Kermit and Lucky Days were behind him. It was the first time Kermit had seen the girl really run full out. She had made it nearly halfway around the town before the fear had subsided. And Rodd Rigez believed he could make her faster? Well, if anyone could, it was Rodd.

“That scared the beKurgess out of me,” Lucky Days admitted.

They continued forward, finding their way downstairs. Qumeel stopped at one point to fix a longsword that was askew from where a statue had been holding it, and the party continued forward, eventually coming to what appeared to be a mausoleum, filled with the skulls of the honored dead. “Remind me to tell Rodd about this place,” Valbrand whispered to Kermit.

“Will do,” the grippli – who had returned to his Guyver form for safety – acknowledged.

They noticed that a statue – depicting Jingh, one of Iomedae’s celestial emissaries – had been recently moved, so they pushed it aside, revealing a hidden passage guarded by a gelatinous cube. Kermit destroyed it easily, with a small bit of help from Valbrand and Lucky Days, and they continued forward.

Beyond the passage, they found what appeared to be the building’s old furnace room, where piles of coal littered the ground all around, but that wasn’t the most notable thing in the room, and was certainly not the first thing they noticed.

As Valbrand entered the room, a small, half-starved man with blonde hair looked up at him, first in terror, then in relief. “You’re not him! Thank the gods! I’m saved!” he exclaimed excitedly at seeing the approaching adventurers.


Barnaby wants me to let you know that the reason

Spoiler:
Terry is rolling poorly is because Persephone has stolen all of his luck. She got three nat 20s during that session.

I still think it's because he sits next to Szordorl and that confused the dice gods, who hate Szordorl with the anger of a thousand suns.


UnArcaneElection wrote:

** spoiler omitted **

Spoiler:
Usually it's Szo who rolls rather low, but Terry's been on an unlucky streak, which hasn't affected Emily or Persephone. But it only affects him on attack rolls and perception checks, which are kinda the two things he's built to do well. :P

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So...

Latest Session Spoiler:
Terry cannot roll above a natural 1 on an attack roll.

That is all.

Note:
I just finished writing up another RoW. The guys will need to review it, so probably Giantslayer uploaded this week, but next week should be a Reign of Winter upload.

Despite my inclinations, I did not title this one "Once Upon a December."


1 person marked this as a favorite.

Spoilered Linky

Chapter 7: I’m Very, Very Sorry For This:
It was the hour just before dawn when the goblin leader called for a halt. “We have almost reached the hiding place of the Hated One!” he shouted from the back of his trusty goblin dog steed. “He hides in a walled place where many dogs and horses wait to stomp and bite us! But we must press on, to take back what was stolen and avenge the honor of the kween!”

“For da kween!” shouted the other goblins in response.

Yarek was pleased as he surveyed his goblin followers, a dozen in all. They were each painted red, the fierce color most loved by Kween Ekkie, as befitting her most elite troop, Da Kween’s Knuckles. “Now, are there any questions before we continue?” One goblin raised his hand. “Yes, Moug?”

“Who farted?” the goblin asked.

Yarek scowled at the question. He had been expecting a more serious question, sure folly when dealing with other goblins. Before he could answer, another of the Knuckles sniffed the air. “Smells like Iboula.”

Iboula looked offended. “It wasn’t me!” she shouted before trying to bite the one who had disrespected her.

“Calm yourselves!” Yarek shouted. “Save it for when we find the Hated One!” The others hissed at the mention of their foe, forgetting their quarrel. “Good, now we continue onward! That…” he looked around, trying to remember which direction they had been headed moments before.

As he tried to get his bearings, he heard Moug whisper to the goblin next to him. “He does not know the way!”

“Shut up!” Yarek yelled. “I know where we’re going!”

“I do not believe him,” Moug whispered to the other. “He does not know the way. Do you know the way?”

Yarek swung his stick, striking Moug upside his head. “Shut up!” he yelled again. “We go that way!” he pointed, only missing the direction they had been heading by about thirty degrees.

Back in Trunau, Qumeel arrived at the wall at dawn, as had been agreed. “Ragathiel bless the rising sun, that purges away the darkness,” he prayed solemnly as he climbed to the top of the tower. The guardsman who he would stand with was already there, as was the one he was relieving. “Joyous morning, Douglas and Brollerth!” Qumeel said with a smile on his face. These men were perhaps not the best guards, but they stood their watch nonetheless and thus had Qumeel’s respect.

“Well, ah, ah, good morning, Qumeel,” Douglas said, looking up from the reflection in his Kukri.

Brollerth Wildfire was covered in dirt but he greeted Qumeel warmly. “Like, good morning or something.” – No one knew actual last name, but everyone was pretty sure he had been kicked out of his old community for his fascination with fire, hence the name. But he had not done anything mischievous with his pyromania, instead contenting himself to think of new and inventive ways to burn orcs, which the town’s leadership approved of.

“You appear to have been busy,” Qumeel noted.

“Like, I, um, set up a minefield or something?”

“A what?” Qumeel asked.

“Well, you, ah, know,” Douglas answered. He pointed to two rocks. “If any orcs walk into that area there, they’ll step on one of the places where Brollerth buried the traps. Then they’ll ah um explode?” He sighed. “Gods my face is beautiful.”

“Right,” Qumeel said, sorry he had asked. Still, someone might want to warn the watch captain so he could warn the others not to walk over there. He would do so immediately after his turn at watch. He was sure it could wait, since it was certain that the watch captain would have his hands full after the fighting that had occurred at the halfling’s inn the previous night.

He wondered if he would be called upon to escort the strange wizard from town for starting the fight. If so, he would have to be on his guard. There was something foul in the air about that one. The taint of demons lingered on the man, as though he had been long consorting with them.

“Well, like, I’m gonna get some breakfast or something?” Brollerth said. “Have a nice life- wait, what’s that?” he asked, pointing.

Qumeel looked where he was pointing, though Douglas just continued carefully cleaning his teeth by the reflection of the blade. In the distance, Qumeel spotted a group of goblins marching towards the town. There was one – clearly the leader – riding on the back of a starved goblin dog as well as another walking next to him carrying a crudely drawn banner depicting what appeared to be a female goblin wearing a crown. Eleven others marched next to them, with no formation nor disciplined cadence to their movement. Only goblins could be so truly and utterly disorganized. And the weirdest part was that they were all painted red.

The goblins came to a halt in a jerking fashion. The banner carrier fumbled to pull out a horn which he blew. It produced a stuttering, squeaking sound. If it hadn’t been for the sharpened dogslicers and horsechoppers the goblins carried, Qumeel would have found the scene entirely comical. Even their mismatched armor crafted of various pieces of refuse added to the ridiculousness of the scene.

The goblin on the mount waited until the other finished blowing the horn, then shouted his demands at the wall. “In the name of Kween Ekkie, you will immediately turn over to us the Hated One! Any who stand in our way will face our wrath!”

Douglas and Brollerth were whispering to each other, the latter giggling as they spoke, but Qumeel did not ask the content of their conversation. Instead, he focused on the threat. “We are unaware of whom you speak,” he called back. “We will need to contact the town’s leadership so they may discuss it with you.”

“You may have one hour to bring the Hated One to us, or we will burn your town!” the goblin boasted.

“Okay, while ah ah Qumeel looks ah into it,” Douglas said. “You guys should move over there. The light is ah better and you’ll ah look more intimidating.” Brollerth did his best to suppress his giggles as his friend spoke.

Several guileless goblins immediately began doing what Douglas suggested. “What are you doing?!” Yarek howled. “Come back here!”

“But the light is better there,” said one of the goblins.

“We are going over there,” another answered. “Over here smells like Iboula.”

“I DO NOT SMELL!” Iboula screeched as she chased after the four that were leaving.

Qumeel could only watch in horror as the four goblins marched headfirst into the minefield. And then the first one stepped on a mine. After a loud explosion, Moug – or what was left of him – came falling from the sky and struck Iboula. The impact knocked her down onto a mine, causing her to explode as well. Then other two immediately began panicking, shrieking and running through the minefield. It was only a matter of seconds before they both met an explosive end as well.

Qumeel disapproved of the entire thing, but he still had to hold back a laugh at the absurdity of it all.

Yarek wiped the goblin entrails from his face and shouted. “REVENGE!” he roared. “CHARGE!”

“FOR DA KWEEN!” the other goblins shouted. Several of them began firing with crude short bows while the rest charged the town’s wooden palisade, ready to begin scaling. Behind him, Qumeel heard the sound of the alarm horn blowing, likely in response to the sound of the explosions.

“They’re, ah ah, on fire!” Douglas shouted as an arrow grazed him.

“Shut up, Douglas,” Brollerth said. Qumeel deftly turned aside an arrow with his shield.

“You’ve allied yourself with Rodd Rigez!” Yarek roared. “DIE!”

“They’re, like, shooting at us or something?” Brollerth said, pulling out a flask of alchemist’s fire and debating whether to use it to cauterize his new arrow wound or throw it at the goblins.

“That almost hit my face!” Douglas wailed, nursing his own wound.

“Shut up, Douglas, gawd! Do the thing!”

Douglas immediately knew what to do, pulling out a bottle of oil and dumping it over the goblins climbing the wall below his position. He took another arrow in his shoulder for his trouble and dropped behind the wall. Qumeel cast a spell to grant his companions the blessings of Ragathiel that their attacks would strike true.

Then Brollerth chucked his flask down on the closest goblin. The oil caught fire and the goblin – now a corpse – dropped from the wall and onto the goblin below it, knocking her down. The goblin kicked the corpse and began climbing just as Brollerth and Qumeel each took a dangerous hit from an arrow and had to crouch behind the wall.

“I have to get Uncle’s skull back!” the goblin yelled as she scrambled up the wall.

“Yes, Tipi! Keep fighting!” Yarek shouted, gently nudging his goblin dog away from the wall a bit, preparing to run. No matter how he rationalized it, they weren’t going to win this fight. But he could not return to Da Kween unless they had given it their all.

On the wall, Douglas readied his Kukri. “Just try to come over that wall!” he shouted. “We’ll ah f+~! you up!” He smiled at the reflection in his blade. “Man I’m pretty today.”

“Shut up Douglas,” Brollerth said, readying his spear.

“Don’t hate whatchu don’t got!” Douglas retorted.

“KEEP FIGHTING!” Yarek shouted, kicking his goblin dog into a full retreat.

On the other side of the wall, Clancy, Omast and Hubert arrived to assist, just in time, allowing Qumeel to focus on using his magic to heal himself and the others. It had been pretty touch and go for a moment there, but thanks to a healing potion Brollerth had, the samsarran would make it out of this alive.

From a nearby alley, a passing civilian spotted the scene. “Well, now, what have we here?” he asked. He walked up the steps, his hands still in his pockets, and approached the unconscious form of Tipi. He crouched down and inspected an object in Tipi’s belt, a crude doll constructed from a discarded wooden spoon. He considered taking it, but it wasn’t his kind of thing.

The others had finished fighting, so the man asked, “What happened here?”

“They, like, had a vendetta or something?” Brollerth said.

“Oh, really?”

“Yes,” Qumeel answered. “They seek to find one they called Rodd Rigez. From what I can gather, they’re very angry with him.”

The man let out a low whistle, then his lips parted in a wolfish grin. “You don’t say? Well, now that is interesting. Allow me to introduce myself. Rodd Rigez, at your service.”

The guards immediately pointed their weapons at the newcomer, though Qumeel did not raise his bastard sword. On the ground next to him, the unconscious Tipi growled angrily at the introduction.

“My, my. It seems I’ve gotten myself into another sticky situation,” Rodd Rigez said with a chuckle.

“Hey guys!” Douglas shouted. “My face is okay!” Qumeel alone turned and shook his head at the man.

In Case the joke flies over your head:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tJp_3-VZZjI

Yeah. This was my fault. The devil on my shoulder turned this particular session into this.


Tangent101 wrote:
Stuff

Thanks for that. I have plans for Nadya coming up later and I wasn't looking forward to having to completely rebuild her to make her more interesting. I mean, I'll still need to level her a bit to be a challenge for a party comprised of a Witch's Doll, a Redcap and another character whose nature shall remain unnamed for the moment, but it saves me a fair amount of work for later. :)


UnArcaneElection wrote:
** spoiler omitted **

Spoiler:
I have no idea, tbh. I'll talk with Barnaby about it next time I see him and get back to you.

All I know for sure is that Aven(my monk, or at least I think that was the name I gave him) is already on the boat when they meet him.


1 person marked this as a favorite.

A preface:
So, as mentioned, this tells a bit of what happened to Santino's box babies. As you might be able to tell, it's the character backstory/chapter 0 for a campaign. It's just a short, three session thing a couple of the guys want to do when we can't all four of us get together. I'm playing an undine monk for that.

Because Steve and Barnaby saw Aquaman and wanted to do an underwater campaign. Not sure how well that's gonna work with a catfolk and a changeling(sea hag variant), but we'll see what happens.

Also, one of the characters mentioned will be a character when we do Strange Aeons after we finish Carrion Crown. If we ever get that far. Damn work schedules. I just need to win the lottery already so we can all quit our jobs and game full time. In case you're wondering, I'll be playing a Leshy Druid in Strange Aeons. Look for it sometime in Smarch of 2025.

A GOLARION TAIL:
They started out as a group of fourteen orphans, more boys than girls, with a mix of different races. Their numbers had dwindled down to seven over the course of fifteen long, harsh years, with each year being harder than the last. Yet they’d survived the winter and spring had finally arrived, meaning it was time for Fievel to go. With literal catlike tread he climbed up to the roof of the abandoned clock tower he and his siblings called home and awaited sunrise. His boots hung over the clock’s ruined face as he leaned back on his clawed hands and released a deep breath. They’ll be okay, he told himself over and over again. His nerves made his grey cat ears twitch regardless. They’ll be okay.

Fievel’s yellow eyes reflected back the full moon’s light. Of the fourteen children, he’d been the only catfolk. He hadn’t always been the oldest. He’d had an older sister, Pony, a goblin. But she was reckless, as her kind is apt to be, and gotten herself killed. Even a decade later her death still hung over Fievel. As did the ghosts of the other six siblings he’d been unable to save. Most of them had died to starvation or illness. And it was Fievel’s fault. He was the oldest. He was supposed to get his family the food and medicine they needed.

This obligation was why he was setting off at the crack of dawn.

And why he was terrified to leave.

None of the others were as good in a fight as he was. If they got into trouble and he wasn’t there…

“Up here trying to convince yourself to stay?” a sad but pretty voice chuckled beneath him. Fievel leaned over and spotted his brother, Bailey, climbing up to meet him. Bailey was too pretty to be completely human. His pale blonde hair stuck up at random angles, and sacrificing a few meals here and there so the others could eat instead had left his face gaunt. Yet when he put on the charm, his skin seemed to almost glow, and when he spoke his voice took on a dreamy hum. Bailey was the best beggar of the group, the de facto diplomat, and Fievel’s number two.

“Yo, Bailey.” Fievel scooted to the side to make room for him.

“Figured if you weren’t up here then you were already gone,” Bailey said.

“Not yet,” Fievel said. “Just thinkin’.”

Bailey nodded.

“You’re still not gonna say goodbye?” Bailey asked, his pale blue eyes scanning the surrounding city. “You know that’s gonna kill Seras.”

“She’ll survive,” Fievel grunted. “They all will. Saying goodbye’ll just make it harder for everybody. It’s better if they just wake up with you in charge.”

“Until you get back,” Bailey added, his tone hard. Despite being the diplomat, he wasn’t a slouch in a fight and could get dangerous if he wanted to. He’d never managed to beat Fievel but that didn’t matter. Fievel trusted his little brother unconditionally with his life and those of their family. If he didn’t then leaving wouldn’t have even been an option.

“You need to be hard,” Fievel said. “Especially with Lotso and Liam. Those orcish idiots are starting to forget about Pony. Taking stupid risks. They won’t listen to words, even yours. They talk back, you hit one of them. Hard. That’ll usually straighten out the other one out too. At least for a while.”

Bailey nodded.

“And Seras is still a little sick, so hold off on putting her on corner duty until it gets warmer,” Fievel went on. His cat lips curled up saying his baby sister’s name. The only gnome, she was a tiny thing. He’d miss her most. “I snuck an apple under her creepy doll. Make sure she gets to eat all of it. She’ll offer to share but knowing Lotso and Liam they’ll just end up taking it from her.”

Bailey nodded again. “What about Mamie?” he asked, his tone careful. Though they couldn’t be sure, based on their looks (same pale skin, blonde hair, blue eyes), she and Bailey were at least related, if not actual biological siblings. “She says she’s willing to take one for the team.”

“No,” Fievel snarled, His eyes became glowing slits. “No sister of ours is a whore. If she does stupid stuff ‘cause of love or crap like that, that’s one thing. But-”

Bailey raised his hands. “Got it. I’ll keep an eye on her.” He sighed. “And that just leaves Flint.”

Fievel released an identical sigh. Flint was a sweet, gentle guy who just so happened to be seven-feet tall. He had a big heart and a stomach to match. Usually Flint followed Fievel around whenever other gangs tried to push into their turf, but that was just for show. The half-giant didn’t have the temperament of a fighter, and he was too intimidating looking to be a beggar. But he still had to eat. “Keep up his training,” Fievel said. “Guy’s got it in him to be a beast. You bring that out, and there’s nobody who’ll be able to hurt the family.” Fievel shrugged. “Pair him up with Mamie. He’ll keep a#@!!*$s out of her pants and maybe she’ll finally wise up to the big lug being head over heels for her.”

Bailey snorted. “Yeah,” he said. “Hopefully.”

They sat in silence for a while after that. Two brothers simply enjoying each other’s company for what could, potentially, be the last time.

Finally Fievel said, as the first rays of sunrise began to peek across the horizon, “You’ve got this, Bailey.” He got to his feet and his tail stretched out behind him. “Soon enough it’ll be like you were the one in charge the whole time. Hell, you’ll probably do it better than I ever could.”

“And I’ll be all too happy to rub it in your face when you get back,” Bailey said with a sad smile. He held out his fist. Fievel bumped it with his own. “So just leave already so you can come back rich quicker.”

“Aye, aye, captain.” Fievel took in one last deep breath atop the clock tower, his home. By the time the sun broke through the horizon he was already well on his way, leaping across rooftops with catlike tread.

#

It took him most of a month before he finally reached port. The air was salty, the vendors were rude and loud, and Fievel nearly got into a skirmish or to within the first hour of arriving. All this brought a sly smile to his lips. It was early morning, meaning he’d attract too much attention by sticking to the rooftops. So he slinked through the alleyways, ducking out only to snatch a piece of fruit or a low hanging fish from an oblivious vendor. He munched contently on his latest steal, a fat sunfish, as he maneuvered closer to port, towards the ships.

Now or never, he thought, his heart quickening with nervousness and excitement. He needed to get on one of those ships. If not this whole trip was for naught. He tapped the toes of his boots against the ground as he walked, readying to kick them into high gear if need be. But which one?

As he was wondering this, he heard a sinister cackle from around the corner. Curiosity getting the better of him, Fievel slinked on over, just to see. Three large men, all big, all ugly, and all grinning ear to ear, were standing around a small girl. She was slinking back against the alley wall, clutching at the red coral necklace she wore around her thin neck. Now Seras was adorable, but this girl was giving Fievel’s sister a run for her (sadly metaphorical) money. Her giant eyes were different colors, one amber and the other violet, and her long hair was a beautiful midnight blue. She was dressed in a buttercup yellow coat with a matching top hat that was almost too big for her head. Her mismatched eyes darted back and forth, looking for a way to get past these three thugs.

One of the thugs leaned in, making her flinch, “Now we wouldn’t be in this mess, sweetheart, if you hadn’t gone and hurt my feelings by calling me an a*&+@!%,” he said. He was still smiling but his tone was dangerous.

“B-but I didn’t!” the girl squeaked. “P-please! I don’t want any trouble-”

“Then why’d you have to go and break his heart by calling him names,” one of the other thugs chimed in.

“Yeah, yeah,” the first thug said. “Now, if you really feel bad about it, then don’t you think you should compensate me, huh?”

“C-compensate?” the girl asked. Fievel didn’t blame her. He was beyond surprised that the thug actually knew what “compensate” meant. “Please, m-mister, I don’t want to hurt you-”

That made all three thugs burst out laughing. The combined sound of their laughter made the girl shrink in on herself, eyes brimming with tears. She began whispering something to herself but Fievel couldn’t make it out through these idiots’ cackling.

The smart move would have been to just turn and get back to his own life. Yet Fievel hated bullies, especially those who got off on beating up those younger than them. Another factor was his homesickness, mostly missing Seras’ hugs and kisses. All this drove him to slink back and look around. He spotted a nearby window. He jumped, caught hold of the ledge, and climbed up. He then jumped again and pulled himself up onto the roof directly. The sun was high, making Fievel’s shadow splay out before him. He made sure it didn’t give him away as he hunkered across the rooftop, waiting and watching…

The first thug’s hand shot out and grabbed the girl’s hat off her head.

“Let’s start with this,” he laughed and then frowned down at the ground. A lone clam had fallen out of the hat. “What the hell’s this? Lunch?”

The girl quickly squatted down and snatched the clam back, holding it to her breast.

The third thug who’d mostly kept to giggling until now spoke up, “Check it out. Maybe it’s got a pearl or something inside.”

“No!” the girl cried.

Grinning, the first thug lunged for her and the clam.

Only for a furry shadow to fall in between him and uppercut him across the chin. The thug’s eyes rolled up into his head as he landed flat on his back.
The hat went flying out of his hand. Fievel quickly plucked it out of the air and forced it back down on the girl’s head. Then, while the two other thugs stared on in shock and bewilderment, Fievel grabbed her hand.

“RUN!”

Now on a normal day, Fievel wouldn’t have been averse to sticking around and teaching the two thugs a lesson, no matter how big they were. Knocking skulls together and dishing out black eyes was good exercise in the morning. Yet there was still the chance that the girl in yellow could get hurt, which would have defeated the point of Fievel intervening. So he yanked her forward, past the thugs, and out alleyway. She was heavier than she looked, and stumbled a few times as they ran, but when Fievel glanced back he saw that they’d managed to lose the trio of idiots.

They continued to run a ways more. The docks were actually in view by the time they slowed down. Fievel released the girl’s hand and leaned over, panting. It was a few more minutes of them catching their breath before Fievel finally looked sideways at her, said, “Hey. Hi. I’m, uh, Fievel.”

She didn’t respond right away. She reached up and readjusted her hair under her hat, shoving the clam back inside it as she did so. She then wiped sweat off her brow. “…Thank you.” She stepped away and began making her way across the docks.

Fievel frowned and followed after the girl, keeping a gap in between them so as to not spook her. “…So you got a name?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said, not looking back at him.

“Mind telling me what it is?” Fievel asked.

She hesitated but then shook her head. “Thank you, Mr. Fievel, but please stop following me.”

“Oh, I’m not following you,” Fievel said, glancing around. Grungy, sunburnt men were running off and onto the nearby ships. The nearest was a pearl white construct with pale blue flags. “Just thinking about hitching a ride. What about you? You definitely aren’t from around here, otherwise those idiots wouldn’t have seen you as easy pickings. You looking to set sail, too, Ms…?”

The girl sighed. Maybe it was Fievel’s imagination but he would’ve sworn he saw the hat twitch on its own. “Abalone,” she finally said.

“Abalone,” Fievel said, tasting the name in his mouth. “Abalone…Abby? You look more like an Abby to me.”

She didn’t reply.

“And what’s your pet clam’s name?”

Abalone stopped walking. She slowly turned and fixed Fievel with her mismatched eyes. “Mr. Fievel, please leave me alone. I really do appreciate your help, but you need to get away from me. It’s for your protection.” Unconsciously, she placed a hand over her coral pendant. “Bad things happen around me. Really bad things.”

“Uh-huh,” Fievel said skeptically. He gestured to himself. “Do I look like someone who’s been strutting through paradise lately? I’ve handled more than my fair share of bad since I crawled out of dad’s box.” He showed her his hands. “But hey, if you want me gone I’m as good as gone, Abby. Wish you and your clam the best.”

He walked around her and started scanning the ships more closely. He didn’t have a lot of coin on him, meaning bribing his way on board was a longshot. But if one of the crews could use an extra pair of hands…

“Your father kept you in a box?” This time it was Abalone who was following him.

Smiling inside, Fievel slowed down so as to let her catch up. “Yeah. Me and my brothers and sisters. We were all babies.”

“Were you all poor?” Abalone asked.

“Not sure if he was,” Fievel answered bitterly. “He managed to buy all of us after all. But then one day he just left. Didn’t look back even once.” His hands balled into fists. “What I wouldn’t give to ring that bastard’s thick neck…”

“Is that why you’re seeking passage?” Abalone asked, staring up at Fievel from beneath the brim of her hat. “You’re trying to find him?”

“Nah,” Fievel laughed. “Bastard can rot in the lowest levels of hell for all I care. I’m just trying to make money. Money to send back to my family.” He then added in a sad, soft breath, “Those who are still alive anyway.”

Abalone bit her lower lip, clearly deep in thought.

“What about you?” Fievel asked. “You got any family?”

“No,” she answered. “…I mean…I don’t know.”

“Ah. Make’s perfect sense.” Fievel scratched his chin. “So what do think? Any of these ships catch your eye?” No reply. Fievel turned and saw Abalone wandering over to the edge of the docks, staring off into the ocean. The sea air made her hair flutter. She breathed it in deeply, eyes fluttering closed. “Abby?”

“Oy!” a voice called from down the docks. Fievel turned. A young, tan boy was hurrying towards her. His arms were covered in crudely drawn tattoos and his nose looked like it’d been smashed in once or twice. And he was twitchy. His fingers constantly curling and uncurling, as if he was trying to grab something that wasn’t there. Fievel distrusted him immediately. “Oy, miss!”

Fievel immediately bounded forward, placing himself between Abalone and the approaching man, claws at the ready. The man slowed to a halt, his slanted eyes sizing the cat boy up.

“Thought cats didn’t like the water?” he said, his voice reedy.

“Goes to show how much you know,” Fievel said dryly. He gently reached out and touched Abalone’s shoulder. She started and turned, surprised. “You okay?” Fievel asked her.

She nodded hurriedly, looking from him to the man.

“Who’s this?”

“Don’t know,” Fievel confessed.

“Name’s Callaway,” the man said. He reached into the back pocket of his patchy trousers and produced a leaflet. He held it out towards Abalone and Fievel but neither moved to take it. “Captain sent me out to find customers seeking passage.” He pointed at Abalone. “Judging by how you were reacting, I bet you’re just itching to get out onto the open sea, huh, miss?”

“How much?” Fievel asked before she could answer.

Callaway shot him annoyed look. “Ten silver, mate.”

Fievel grimaced as much as his cat face would allow. By his standards that was steep. Not unreasonable, but he needed to try and haggle this guy down.

“Where is the ship sailing to?” Abalone asked hesitantly, seemingly unperturbed by the cost.

“?” Callaway answered.

Abalone and Fievel exchanged looks.

“Is that where you’re headed?” she asked him.

“Honestly I’m not too picky at the moment,” he confessed.

She nodded and then reached into her coat, producing a small bag. The intoxicating sound of coins shaking filled the air as she shifted through it. She then reached over and gestured for Fievel to hold out his hands. Confused and in mild disbelief, Fievel did so. She pressed fifteen silver pieces into his hands and then quickly tucked the bag back into her coat.

“Think of it as payment for…aiding me,” Abalone explained to a stunned Fievel. She shrugged. “And if it helps you feed your family than it’s a good investment, I think. And there should be enough extra for you to get a proper meal or two.” She smiled apologetically. “You look like you kind of really need it, Mr. Fievel.”

Fievel wanted to hug and kiss her. Instead he turned to Callaway and declared, “Guess I’ll take you up on that offer.” He then draped a hand across Abalone’s shoulders. “We both will. A bodyguard can’t go anywhere without his charge, eh?”

Callaway’s left eye twitched but he put on a yellowed grin and gestured for them to follow after him. “Come on then, come on. The Pearl Heart’ll be setting sail within the hour. Best you meet Captain Blueford before then.”

After carefully plucking Fievel’s arm off her shoulders, Abalone and the cat boy followed after the sailor, towards the white ship with blue sails.

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