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“The Road to Mage’s End”
The wagons had barely crossed the threshold of the gate of the Keep before a commotion forced Josh Savage to bolt from his position in the rear of the formation down the length of the caravan. The gully dwarf in the lead had managed to entangle his horses with those of two wagons over-stuffed with pipeweed from Millshire. The halfling drivers cursed in disturbingly fluent orcish.
Barely able to speak coherently in one language, the gully dwarf spouted gibberish in return, waving a hand randomly in the air for added emphasis.
Josh rode in between the harsh words and almost-words, and raised his hand in silence until both sides subsided from shouts to grumblings, and then unhooked the tangled horses. He led the caravan's wagon around the covered wagons of pipeweed, and motioned for the caravan followed.
The gully dwarf giggled behind him.
Josh looked back and saw that Lufkin had grabbed a handful of pipeweed from one of the wagons as they bypassed the halflings. He should not have been surprised. When all the other drivers were checking and double-checking their harnesses and rigs, Lufkin had been checking his horses for rocks or other debris embedded in the soft part of the hoof. By sniffing them.
He deftly snatched the pipeweed from Lufkin, and returned it to its rightful place under the tarp of the tail halfling wagon.
“I could have probably used that myself, later,” Josh whispered to his steed. Buck, his dapple grey gelding by courtesy of the Order, did not answer as it trotted to a position between the pipeweed wagons and the caravan.
When he had left Praxis City as a detective of the Watch, he thought that joining the Order of the Broken Arrow would lead him to great adventure. He had imagined scouting Talon’s Rift, tracking a wounded owlbear or griffon, or ferreting out kobold warrens. Instead, he was managing traffic on Merchant’s Way.
As the tail wagon of the caravan passed him, he noticed Phaedo had not even stirred from his position sleeping among the bales of second hand clothing.
Apparently, Josh also had the distinct luck of being the only ranger to have summoned a narcoleptic animal companion. His newly acquired fleshraker’s scaly hide, sharp claws, and head-full of teeth were somehow less menacing when Phaedo was wrapped up in an embryonic position, snoring softly, and kicking his legs feebly like a puppy dreaming.
“At least he isn’t spooking the horses, right, Buck?” Josh said, and patted his mount’s neck.
Buck swatted at a horsefly with his tail.
He rode through the wagons, nodding at the caravan’s adept as he passed. Most caravans had guards, an entertainer, and a spellcaster. Being the maiden voyage of the House of Silverthorn into the caravan business, they had only been able to recruit a gnome adept instead of a wizard, sorcerer, or bard. Ivy’s specialty, as it turned out, was entertaining children by summoning cats and changing the colors of their fur to purple, pink, or polka dotted. That should suffice if the caravan encountered whatever wiped out the Umbertoe caravan and its escort of griffon-riding half-orc mercenaries, Josh thought sarcastically.
The caravan's crew should get upgraded as the caravan brought in profits. Josh imagined his wife Lia could replace the entertainer, and maybe Skye could find something as well.
Josh smiled, and thought of Lia. He could think of nothing better than feeling his unborn child child moving inside her round belly. “Yes, things could definitely be worse.”
He’s on the way, Celeste said, in that peculiar way ghosts spoke without moving their lips.
“Are you sure about this?” the Mad Necromancer asked. They stood in top of the abandoned tower, peering down at the sleepy village through the large hole the dragon made in the wall. “We’ve ran this ruse before. There are just so many fathers we can claim for your daughter and get away with it.”
Who says this a ruse this time? the ghost elf smiled, and flipped transparent hair away from her face. Mark my words, father. Josh Savage will be coming to Mage’s End to stay.
"The Road to Mage's End, Part Two"
The wagon hit another bump, and Jaik had to catch himself from falling off his seat. "By Nemesis!" he exclaimed. "You think they would try to miss the bigger rocks on occasion."
"Now, beloved, do we really need to call upon the the goddess of vengeance for a simple few bumps?" Lina asked, lovingly patting the back of his hand. Her death grip on her purse went unnoticed under the folds of her skirting, as did the trickle of sweat snaking down the middle of her back. "We should be thanking the gods that this passenger wagon is not full. We could have ended up sitting outside, on the back, enjoying the stench of horse manure."
"You are right, love," Jaik said. He arranged their luggage at his feet back to an upright position, and leaned close enough to her neck to smell jasmine in her hair. He lowered his voice to a whisper. "It would be alright with me if we had the wagon completely to ourselves. And for more than the usual reasons."
“Jaik Savage…” she whispered back, her cheeks blushing a fiery shade of red. She had been caring for baby Master Fikaris for so long, it had been a while since she had felt like anything other than a nursemaid. His insinuation brought her back to their days as newlyweds.
The wagon's other passenger sat with her hands in her lap, smiling entirely too widely, even for a gnome. She ignored both Jaik and Lina and continued a conversation with whom Jaik and Lina had guessed was an imaginary cat. "For the last time, Mister Whiskers, I have never been to the tavern there. I think they changed the name. Used to be The Marsh Hen, and now it’s The Dragon's Head. On account of them having a real dragon's head now. I don't like either name, but do they ever ask Ivy about such things? I would think NOT." Ivy's eyes were opened as wide as her eyelids would allow. Lina thought this was to contradict her smile, but Jaik was certain it served to compliment her apparent madness.
The sunlight peeking through the slates in the wagon’s wall began flickering with such intensity that Jaik felt a dull ache behind his eyes. He turned to the wall behind him, and squinted between the slates to outside. Large, twisted tree limbs covered the path, creating a canopy against the sun. “We are in the forest now. We must have already turned off Merchant’s Way. That means we are near the ferry, and close to the village.”
“Splendid! I am so much looking forward to this new beginning!” she admitted, releasing her iron grip on her purse, and finally smiling in relief. “I wonder what our accommodations will be like. You mentioned a cottage. Do you have any idea on size? Probably a single room, but, who knows, it could very well have an enclosed bedroom…” The twinkle in her eyes betrayed her line of thought.
Jaik thought of some alone time with Lina, and his wits absolutely failed him on thinking of anything witty to say, or anything else, for that matter.
“I do hope we are not too close to The Marsh Hen, Dragon’s Head, or whatever it’s called these days. The General Store would make a much better neighbor, though. Would you happen to know how close we will be to your employer?"
"I don't know," Jaik admitted. "I received a cryptic message from Snellsworth, the Hedgewitchers valet, which mentioned the tower had been wrecked by a dragon, the Hedgewitchers had slain said dragon and Lord Dor for good measure, and went off on another grand adventure, or something of the sort. Snellsworth said to check in on him at the tavern. He apparently has a room there."
“Is it true that the owner of the tavern is our very own Captain Stark? It would be nice to see a familiar face,” she smiled again, finding the more difficult part of relocating yet again to be making new acquaintances. Her smile was short lived, “I’ve also heard that Mage's End has been settled by retired bandits, who make up the Town Council. Is that so?” she asked, hoping the crime rate would not be driving them off their new home too soon.
"That's the story I have heard," Jaik said. "The Ghost Lanterns, led by the infamous Goblin Jack. It took both the Champions of Phaeton and the Imperial Knights of Nemesis to stop their raiding on Merchant's Way. They held the roadways hostage."
The wagon came to a sudden stop. They could hear calls of "Whoa!" down the line, and a few queries and exclamations in the guttural slang of the gutter dwarves.
Thinking of the crime rate and having their coach come to an abrupt halt did not go well together. Lina reached out and grabbed Jaik’s hand, giving him an inquisitive look, too afraid for words.
A courtesy knock came from the door at the back of the wagon, and Josh Savage opened it and peeked inside. "Hullo, lovebirds! Um, you too, Miss Ivy Nimble. Just wanted to let you know your wagon will be first on the ferry. No reason for you to wait on the cargo. We'll be there shortly."
"And why did we stop?" Miss Ivy Nimble asked, glaring at Josh.
"Just a few lizardfolk. Looks like they were returning from hunting," Josh said. "I stopped the caravan to let them pass. No harm in showing some respect."
"And you did not think to summon me?" Ivy pursed her lips and furrowed her forehead.
"If they required a purple cat, I would have surely called upon your services," Josh said.
The gnome looked as if she wanted to summon a hex on Josh, but did not know of one off the top of her head. They knew this because that is exactly what she proceeded to tell the unseen Mister Whiskers, and then started her litany of Things that Needed Improving in General that they had heard at least twice already.
"It's safe, right?" Jaik asked. "I mean, if you have need of my sword..."
"I would call upon you, brother, be assured of that. No, a small hunting party is mostly harmless against a well-armed caravan," Josh said. "But we need to get on the way, in case they return with more of their kind. They would likely just be looking for handouts, but you never want to identify yourself as a source of food for these guys. All it takes is throwing them some week old road jerky, and the next thing they are taking a horse or two. Lizardfolk are not known for their sense of personal property or good manners. And of course, the roads have been more dangerous as of late in general. Although not common, lizardfolk bandits are not without precedent."
Josh shut the door. They heard him give orders to the drivers to start moving again.
Jaik put an encouraging arm around Lina, and gave her a hug. "Well, love, I promised you adventure, did I not?"
"Well, Mister Whiskers, I guess you better go check things out," Ivy sighed.
Jaik and Lina felt a brush of air next to their knees, and the door opened and closed, seemingly by itself. They stared in shock at the door, and then back at Ivy.
"What? You thought I was talking to myself this whole time?" Ivy laughed and shook her head. "That would be crazy!"
“The Road to Mage’s End, Part 3”
Psyche Savage swung her shovel with both arms, and struck the nearest skeleton with the flat of the blade. The skull flew off into the graveyard, and the remainder of the skeletal warrior collapsed into the pre-dawn fog.
“Good shot,” Morik rested his arms on his shovel.
Psyche swung the shovel in wide arcs around her, readying herself for the other advancing skeletons.
“I count ten,” Psyche said. “Are you planning to help, or do I call on our friend from the Watch?”
Morik stretched and yawned. “I’d hate to disappoint her. She’s been following us all night.”
Captain Echo Savage stepped out from behind the gargoyle on the cemetery wall, and leapt to the ground as silently as a cat. “I suppose I could use the exercise,” the elf ranger drew a sword.
“Take Morik’s shovel,” Psyche said.
Morik held out his shovel to her. “Aye, skeletons are made for bashing. Sharp blades and piercing weapons do less damage.”
“Sage advice.” Echo ignored the shovel, sheathed her sword, and drew her mace.
The skeletons slowly completed their encircling tactic, and advanced on the trio.
Psyche yelled and bashed the closest one, and kept swinging until she connected with the next one.
Echo dodged a rusty dagger of an attacker, took out a femur with her mace, and then separated most of the rib bones and skull with a strong blow directly beneath the skull.
“Nice. You’d make an alright grave digger. With some work,” Morik said. He stepped back from an advancing skeleton, and swung his shovel low, knocking a skeleton’s legs out from under it.
“Maybe,” Psyche grunted, and then shattered another skeleton with a multitude of vicious blows.
“What does this increase in necromancy mean?” Echo asked. She smashed a skeleton in front of her, and on the rebound struck another trying to sneak up behind her. Where Psyche’s attacks were made of sheer force with a dash of shock and awe added for good measure, Echo’s strikes were precise, nearly surgical. “Should the Watch alert the Wizard’s Guild?”
“No. This is the pirate graveyard,” Psyche said, as if that answered the question. She grabbed the attacking arm of a skeleton, and separated the skull with an uppercut of the shovel handle.
“I fail to see why that makes a difference,” Echo said in her usual calm tone, devoid of any trace of emotion.
“Most likely, these restless undead mean someone tried grave-robbing,” Morik explained. “Pirates don’t like sharing their treasure, and they guard their buried treasure, sometimes from beyond the Pale.”
“Logical,” Echo said, and delivered her own uppercut with a backswing of her mace.
The bones were soon scattered around the graveyard, unmoving.
“Now comes the part no one sings songs about,” Morik grumbled.
Echo raised a quizzical eyebrow.
Psyche ignored her, and grabbed a humerus with the carpal bones still attached.
“We have to put them back in the ground,” Morik said. “And then consecrate the ground.”
“How do you know which grave is which?”
“Best guess,” Morik said, and scooped up one rib bone with another.
“Why are you following us?” Psyche stepped in front of Echo. She was at least a head taller than the elf.
“I need to ask a favor,” Echo did not flinch, despite the violation of personal space.
Psyche snorted, and went back to work. “Then ask. Without skulking.”
“Children are missing,” Echo said.
“You think we take children?” Psyche spun and faced the Watch Captain, her eyes blazing and hands curling to fists.
“I think you have valuable contacts that could help,” Echo answered. “You used to work with the Gideon House. We have reason to believe half-orcs may be involved, and after the…Late Unpleasantness… the Town Watch does not have the best relations with the Orc Quarter.”
“After supporting the tyranny of Lord Dor, who would have anyone with orc blood enslaved or killed in the street like a rabid dog!” Psyche snarled. “The Imperial Knights of Nemesis should never have supported that…that abomination!”
Morik spat at the name of the late Lord Dor, and he struggled to produce enough saliva for another for the abomination reference, but settled for placing his tongue between his lips and blowing a raspberry, or making an unvoiced linguolabial trill, as his Mother would have said. Mother Undervein knew a lot of big words, unlike her litter of hard-headed children, Morik pondered.
“Agreed,” Echo said quickly. “I cannot address the past, but can only act in the present. And in the present, children are missing. There is talk of half-orcs that can turn into rats. In all your work in the Orc Quarter, have you ever heard of any tales of shapeshifting?”
Psyche stopped in her tracks. “But that doesn’t make sense. He would never kidnap children. I’m certain-”
“Who? Who would not kidnap children?” Echo pressed.
Psyche scowled deeper.
“Can you take me to him? Psyche, please. We still may have a chance to save these children. I am sure I could work out a reward-“
“I don’t need a reward to save children,” Psyche snapped. “I do this, but you owe me a favor.”
“Done,” Echo said. “Now, who is this shapeshifter, and where is he?”
“You don’t want to know the favor?”
“The evidence is that I can trust you. You are Psyche Savage, cousin of Captain Josh Savage. Like Captain Savage, you are noble and passionate. More so, I would say. Regardless, the children come first,” Echo said.
“Very well,” Psyche nodded, and tossed her flask of holy water to the dwarf. “Morik, we have to leave you to clean up the mess.”
Morik shook his head, wagging his beard mournfully. “That’s where I thought all this was leading.”
“And we’ll need horses, and we need to leave immediately,” Psyche said over her shoulder, already walking to the exit of the cemetery. “His name is Kidymkus, and he is in Mage’s End.”
Mage's End is a real-time sample from the Doom Lounge Writing Group.
We hope you enjoy our posts so far.
If anyone would like to join in a slower paced way to adventure in a fantasy realm, or just interested in learning more, please drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We typically use a yahoogroups email list to post our stories to group members or fans.
“The Road to Mage’s End, Part 4”
As their horses turned from Merchants Way to the Sunken Path, a lazy summer drizzle fell from the sky.
Psyche pushed back the hood of her cloak, and raised her face to the sky. Not a drop of rain penetrated the thick canopy of limbs and leaves which crisscrossed over the wagon trail. She instead soaked in the bright green of the leaves, the smell of rain, and the music of the falling rain. Two black squirrels skittered across the mossy limb of an ancient oak, and disappeared around the trunk of a bald cypress.
“We can stop for a rest when you like,” Echo reminded her for the third time, from atop her magebreed black stallion. Like any military organization, the Town Watch preferred their riding horses to be the more easily handled mares or geldings. Echo had mastered the stallion, just as she had tamed her emotions. The steed’s prodigious muscles knotted and flexed with its every movement.
Psyche’s old brown mare sensed her owner was distracted, and took the opportunity to slow down again, and attempt to sneak a bite of marsh grass from beside the road. Psyche pulled the reins and squeezed with her knees, urging the borrowed horse to catch up with Echo. “I’m fine,” she grumbled, but it was only a half-hearted grumble. Echo could obviously tell she was not used to riding, and Psyche did not want the bald elf to know why she had avoided horses. Many believed horses did not like orcs, and even though Psyche was less than a quarter orc, she had initially feared this quarter horse would smell her hidden ancestry in her sweat. She soon forgot her fears, partially because she was distracted by the soreness in the unused portion of her leg muscles required for riding. Also, the elderly mare was so complacent, Psyche had no doubt the Town Watch had loaned her the horse they usually reserved for small, uncoordinated children.
Echo stopped in the trail ahead of them.
“You don’t need to stop for me to catch up,” Psyche scowled. “And I said I did not want to stop-“
Echo interrupted her with a quick hand gesture. She waited until Psyche had pulled beside her, and pointed at the trail ahead.
“Lizardfolk,” she said in a nearly a whisper.
Psyche squinted, trying to assess the situation through the shadows of the forest. She wondered if Echo’s heightened hearing or her skills as a ranger were the reason she detected the creatures first. Psyche could barely see that the scaly warriors gathered in the road, circling something. “What are they doing?”
“They have stopped a lone rider,” Echo said. “Shall we assume assistance is required?”
“I thought you’d never ask,” Psyche smiled, and drew her quarterstaff.
“The Road to Mage’s End, Part 5”
The sorcerer Del Rook was nervous. As a kobold living among hew-mons and other so-called civilized races, it was smart to be nervous. A little paranoia, even, was well cultivated from both the cobblestone streets of Praxis and the crowded marketplace of the Keep, as kobolds were generally loathed, hated, or, if Del was lucky, only greatly despised.
As they left Madame Koda’s brightly colored wagon and started down the Sunken Path toward the village, Del felt nervous for an entirely new reason. Other kobolds lived in Mage’s End. Del had heard they were treated as equals, or nearly so, and even held odd or menial jobs around the town. They were the exiles from the different Knavesmire clans, both Squidherders and Toadlickers. The kobolds of Mage’s End had fashioned a loose confederacy, a clan of their own, and called themselves Nightcrawlers. Del wondered if there were any from Rook Outpost, or more specifically, if anyone would recognize him as an ousted All-Watcher. To be fair, if he had exiled any of them himself, it was only because he had been forced to by Su’rella, his former consort and present chieftain, although he doubted the exiles would appreciate the difference. Even among kobolds, Del worried about being hated, loathed, and despised.
Athena, not feeling like Lady Fikaris at all, even when she wore layer upon layer of despised lady-like attire, fumed down the trail, absorbed in too many concerns at once. The most pressing, of course, being her immediate need to feed. She had decided upon arriving to The Keep, that she would not hunt where she lived – the town was too small to avoid suspicion. But in doing so, she had imposed an involuntary fasting which was completely dependent on her limited travels. Lady Reagan’s unexpected request for her to set up a Merchant’s Guild in Mage’s End had been a gift from the gods.
Her dearest Fafnir, chivalrous gentleman that he was, knowing that riding in direct sunlight would have been difficult for her, had made arrangements for a ride with Madame Koda.
The idea had seemed splendid until she found herself and her overwhelming layers of skirting stuffed in the back of the fortune teller’s wagon. Even in the soothing darkness of their compartment, all she could see was the elderly gnome’s jugular vein slowly beating down her wrinkled throat. Her host’s colorful personality was a mild distraction from the ache in her stomach, but she had been relieved to be dropped off and now walking out in the open with no other companion than Del. Not having to fend off her numerous offers for tea, something Fafnir had told her never, never, never to drink, was a relief as well. Looking back at the departing bright red wagon, she wondered if she should have attempted to peek into the false storage compartment she had noticed during their ride. Maybe she had been carrying something stronger than her menacing tea…
But back to her musings, her hunger, the aching pain from an over-tighten corset, and the extra weight from all the weapons she carried under and within her skirting, Athena’s attention had been impaired when three burly lizardfolk with spears rose from the purple-tinted hydrangeas in the marshes around the Sunken Path. They were accompanied by a blackscale lizardfolk, a huge, hulking brute with a wickedly spiked club.
Knowing Del was likely to speak some form of Draconic language they could understand, Athena nudged him with her elbow to get his attention towards them. “You best parlay with them and mediate passage, or I’ll be forced to destroy them. I’d hate to soil my dress before attending to our business in Mage’s End.”
“Um, hallo?” Del cleared his throat and stepped in between his Lady and the lizardfolk who seemed to be the leader…or at least standing slightly closer to them. His mind raced. Seeing a blackscale associate with common greens reminded him of the legends of the Empire of the Glith, where all scaled ones served a lizard king of the ancient green dragon. This camaraderie, though, suggested more of a brotherhood of ill intent than a kinship across clans. Del tried anxiously to remember what else he knew of lizardfolk, other than they would leave Rook Outpost alone if they gave them some of their hatchlings for slaves. He felt all eyes on him, and stuttered in draconic: “Kinsfolk! Yes, that’s it! We are all kin. Yes, kin. Do we not wear the same scales? We should be allies, and help each other, since we are, um, kin. Yes, that is our nature!”
The lizardfolk laughed, a deep, dark, guttural noise. The large one hacked at one of the many woody vines which climbed the trees, severing it with a sharp point of his club.
The lizardfolk in front of Del drew a scaly thumb across the blade of his spear. A drop of dark blood fell to the ground. “Nature? Nature, red in tooth and claw!”
“Alright, so I’m not really following this conversation so far,” Del said, speaking in rapid Draconic. “Do you mean you want to become blood brothers? Because I am a sorcerer, and you don’t want to blend your blood with mine.” He pulled out his wand to demonstrate. “Lumos!” he said, and a bright light appeared at the point of his wand.
The lizardfolk recoiled, and readied their weapons.
“No brothers,” the lizardfolk bared his sharp teeth. “Just blood!”
Athena could not understand a word from the exchange, but it didn’t take a wizard to know things were not going well. Leave it to Del to screw up a simple greeting. Without drawing attention to herself, she slipped her hands into the custom made pockets in the folds of her skirting and tightly gripped the matching daggers secured within. She should have started with them, but taking advantage of every situation to polish her diplomatic skills, now that she was once again in a position of command, seemed like the better choice. She had obviously been wrong, particularly as two horsemen approached.
“Fix this now or move aside,” she said calmly to Del, slipping one foot back to get into a better stance.
“We are very powerful!” Del yipped in Draconic, and dove behind Athena’s dress. Incidentally, those were also the last words of the former kobold Chieftain Slendertooth of the Toadlick Clan, but to those uncultured in local kobold tradition, the allusion, if intended, was lost.
Athena took Del’s move as her cue to attack. Cracking a smile without showing her extending canines, she brought out both hands, daggers palmed confidently, and she lowered her stance, waving her front dagger in an invitation to the lizard closest to her.
“As you were not able to resolve this conflict, you best have a spell to mend my dress when I’m done,” she growled at Del, pleased that at least she would be able mitigate her hunger with a little brawl.
Tooth, Claw, and their companions lowered their weapons at Athena.
“Spells!” Del’s eyes opened wide. He removed his hands from over his head, and stepped out from behind Athena. “You. Leave. Lady. Alone! FULGUR!”
Lightening streamed from the kobold’s wand, and struck Tooth in the chest. Although staggered and burnt as dark as the blackscale, Tooth was still standing. A shell necklace cracked and fell off his neck, and he dropped his spear to the ground. He raised his hand and pointed at them. In perfect common, he said “Kill!”
The other lizards moved forward, poking with their spears and smashing with the giant spiked club.
Athena wasted no time with a show of force, as they had. With as much speed as she could muster, while having to maneuver around yard upon yard of skirt and under skirt material, she drew near the front two attackers, slashing through the fasteners of the breast plate worn by the one on the left, and through the backside of the hand of the lizard on the right. Just as fast, she stepped back to where she had been standing. A second later, their breast plate and spiked club hit the ground with a dull thud. An awkward pause was followed by a teasing wink from Athena to Tooth.
The other lizard - named Nameless, oddly enough – let loose with a barbaric yowl, and charged towards Athena with its spear.
Without much of an effort, Athena side stepped the advancing lizard, turning her torso and slashing through his back from one shoulder to the other. He would not die from the deep cut, but would be unable to attack Del, who still hid behind her.
In quick succession, and in spite of the constricting nature of the bodice of her gown, Athena was able to slow down the advance of the following two lizards by using her daggers as throwing knives, and piercing their unprotected, but so valuable area of the inner thigh. In the lull of attack, accompanied by what she imagined could only be some good ol’ lizard cursing, Athena reached into her skirt pockets again, breaching the loose stitching at the bottom to reach for the second pair of daggers tightly secured to her garters. One pulled out just fine, but the second was snagged on the pocket stitching. Athena looked down to adjust the angle of the dagger, and when she looked back up she saw the inevitable coming straight at her.
The lizard blocking the path to Mage’s End had lobbed his spear at Athena.
A quick step back was all she had time for, but the simple action saved her from getting impaled in the chest by the flying spear. She couldn’t say the same for the bottom edge of her skirt.
“Dell! This one is on you!” she yelled back at the cowering lizard. “I have business to attend to at Mage’s End, and this tear will absolutely not do! For the good health of your hide, I sure hope you are able to fix this with your wand,” she added sternly, grabbing both daggers with her left hand to be able to firmly grasp the spear with the right and pull it out of the ground, through the hole in her skirt.
Before Del could remember the phrase to send a magic missile hurling from his wand, Psyche and Echo rode between them and the lizards. Echo used her stallion to run over one of the greenscale lizards. Psyche used her staff like she was playing polo, and Tooth’s head was the polo ball.
Tooth sank to his knees, and tried to mumble something in Common to the intended meaning of “you did not have to go and do that now,” but sounding more like “yaaaaanowwww.”
Claw, the blackscale behemoth, was the last one standing. She roared, and tried to pick up the spiked club which Athena had made drop.
“Veneficus absentis!” Although Del would deny it later, the magic missile which sprung from his wand hit Claw’s wounded hand more by chance than devious kobold design.
Claw howled, and stepped back from her club and her foes, nursing her hurt hand.
"Stop. We have no hostilities with you," Echo said, in perfect draconic. "Why were you attacking these travellers?"
Tooth rubbed his head, and Claw helped him to his feet. "Misunderstanding, Elf."
Echo's gloved hand lifted her eyepatch, revealing the gem wedged into her eyesocket. It sparkled with eldritch energy. "I would advise you to not lie."
The lizardfolk shrank away from her gaze, uncertain what to make of the elf or her gem. "It is true we leave. Now." Tooth said, bowing slightly. He snarled at Del. "Tell your hew-mon we'll see you later."
"And then you'll be seeing us as well," Psyche replied. "Be on your way."
After the lizardfolk had melted back into the field of hydrangeas, Echo and Psyche dismounted.
"Lady Fikaris, I am not sure you needed our assistance, but I am glad to have provided it," Echo adjusted the eyepatch over her eye again. "We are heading towards Mage's End, and your footprints in the path indicate you were heading that direction as well. I would like to escort you. Please, take my horse for the rest of the trip. I insist."
"No, take my mare," Psyche said, wincing a little. "I am afraid I am not much of a rider, and would benefit from walking. Del, have you missed me?"
The kobold had wrapped himself around Psyche's leg. "I am SO glad to see Friend Psyche Savage!"
“Well, it is a pleasure to see you both, particularly since Del here seems to be a bit rusty with his draconic. And, as much as I do enjoy a good walk, I may just take you on your offer, Psyche. If I do too much more damage to this cursed dress, I’ll have to cancel my trip altogether.” Athena looked down at the hole on the skirt and the mud starting to show on the bottom hem. “And what was that all about?” she waved in the direction the lizardfolk had departed.
"The lizardfolk bandits did not have any invisible items, illusions, and were not polymorphed," Echo replied.
"So, your gem is a gem of true sight," Del deduced. "My old clan would have given an eye for such an item! Or, um, any other assorted body part, so sorry! But it can also detect lies? That's unusual."
"I was bluffing," Echo said.
"You can bluff?" Psyche snorted. "I thought your vows of whichever high elvish order expunges emotions would have prevented you from lying of any sort."
"Not exactly," Echo said. "I understood you spoke sarcastically, but there happen to be several philosophies that encourage control of one's emotions. Perhaps I could teach you one day."
Athena’s eyes flew wide open, surprised Echo would provoke Psyche in such a way – then she realized the elf probably didn’t know about Psyche’s ‘problem’ with her temper, not that it was much different than her own...
“Yes, well, emotions can be quite overrated, if you asked me,” Athena interjected, taking a few steps towards Psyche in case she needed some help with her self restraint.
Psyche's entire face grew red. Her fists clenched. Then she busied herself with straightening the saddle blanket and tightening the saddle belt of her steed. The mare stamped its feet, protesting the sudden cinching of the strap around its stomach.
"I have a philosophy, too!" Del added helpfully. "It's called the Kobold Way. Very useful in the arts of surviving and scavenging."
“Obviously, not useful whatsoever for negotiating with other lizardfolk. I’m hoping your wand will be more useful in mending,” Athena picked up the outer layer of her skirt to allow light to show through the hole made by the offending spear.
"Oh, of course!" Del once again pulled his wand from his rope belt. He pointed it at the tear in Athena's dress. "Reparo!" he commanded. The dress instantly mended.
“Matilda will be pleased to know she has been spared the repair of yet another skirt. Shall we?” Athena asked, inserting her heeled boot into the stirrup and pulling herself up onto the saddle of Psyche’s horse effortlessly.
They walked and rode in silence. For a moment or two.
"Wait, did anyone want to hear about the Kobold Way? It is really quite enlightening," Del piped up.
"Del, quiet!" Athena and Psyche said.
And then they walked and rode in silence for quite a bit longer, away from the field of battle and hydrangeas, through the canopy of tree limbs and vines down the Sunken Path, and on towards Mage's End.
The main street of Mage’s End was churned mud. To their right, an open-air shrine of Charon stood in stark contrast to the rest of the wooden and thatch village, with smooth marble columns and roof over a reclining sarcophagus of a female elf. Whoever she was, her image was beautiful, and the statue-like relief on top of her tomb depicted her with long, flowing hair, like Jaik's cousin Psyche.
“So besides the creepy guy running the ferry, the first welcome to Mage’s End is a reminder of death,” Jaik quipped.
“Darling, if we’ll be settling here for a while, you best not be ill speaking about the local shrine. I know this odd structure does not compare to any of the buildings in the Street of the Gods at The Keep, but no sense inviting bad luck upon us as we’ve just arrived!"
"True, love, so sorry," Jaik flashed a smile. "Just hungry from the trip, I suppose. You are of course, right. It's odd, though. It looks like the shrine is honoring that lady more than the god of death and passage." He bent his head toward the shrine. "May our passage be well."
The first store on the left was a combined general store, furrier, and taxidermist. A few townsfolk scowled at them, and turned their heads away as they went about their business.
Jaik resisted the urge to make a comment about local charm, and concentrated on the tower behind the Swamp Trader. The short tower was battle-worn, with gaping holes in its middle and top floor.
“That’s where I was supposed to work,” Jaik said. “Still, it’s not every day you see where a dragon died.”
“Indeed. Thank the gods you were not working there when the dragon crashed into the building!” Lina commented, a slight shiver running down her spine at the site of Mage’s Tower, or what was left of it.
They approached the three other largest buildings in Mage’s End; stables with a blacksmith shop within, the Ghost Lantern Inn, and a tavern with a sign with a still-wet painting of a dragon’s head.
“That’s where we find the Town Council,” Jaik said.
“Will we be going there now?” she asked hesitantly, trying to straighten her ruffled skirting only to notice the blotches of mud staining the bottom lace of her underskirt.
"The sooner the better," Jaik smiled. "We have to get a key to our cottage. I wonder which one it is?"
Lina looked around the scattered surroundings, hoping their cottage would be centrally located. Something close to the general store and the stables would be ideal. Even though they led a simple life, Lina loved the hustle and bustle of a town’s daily life.
The Dragon's Head reminded Jaik of the Doom Lounge, especially the clientele. His eyes had barely adjusted to the light before he comprehended that the obese, long haired half-orc barreling down on them was Yarbo.
"Friends!" Yarbo chortled, and put his arms around Jaik and Lina and raised them both off the ground in a bear hug. "Oh, how I have missed you!" The folksinger's ale-soaked words sounded as if he may break down in tears of joy.
"That's enough!" A raven-haired elf helped pry them from his arms. "They cannot pay any of your bar tab if you crush them."
"Starla!" Yarbo protested. "How dare you sully this homecoming with accusations! As if Yarbo had anything but love in his heart!"
“Oh, thank the gods, a familiar face!” Lina sighed in relief, reaching out and having a difficult time finding a spot in his clothing that wasn’t too soiled to pat. “It is always interesting to see you and your noble heart!” she admitted truthfully, faithfully abiding by her mother’s golden rule – ‘If you have not something truthfully good to say, say nothing at all’.
"However, if you WANTED to help out one of your OLDEST friends with a few gold pieces, who I am to stop you?" Yarbo extended a sweaty palm.
"I've forgotten what a joker you are," said Jaik.
“Starla, a true pleasure to see you here,” Lina grabbed the pretty elf’s hand and squeezed gently. “Pray do tell, how have you been doing?” she asked looking around the tavern and thinking of the Doom Lounge back home. Not that she had frequented the placed, but just a few visits had branded a vivid memory in her mind.
"It has been a fresh start," Starla said. "I can now heartily recommend to anyone the joys of re-inventing oneself. Mage's End is a good place for new beginnings. I am so glad you are here!"
There was a dart board near the door, and several blow guns close by. The northern part of the tavern had a recessed round pit, and round tables occupied the room between the pit and the large bar on the southern wall. A leering head of a dragon was mounted behind the bar, with teeth bared, and ominously positioned downwards and pointed towards the door on the wall next to the bar. It was so prominent that one would almost miss the living Minotaur standing behind the bar, cleaning a mug with a rag.
Lina slowly glanced at all the unique details in the decoration until her eyes came upon the dragon’s head, the bar, and the familiar Minotaur who she had met at Captain Stark’s ship. If memory served her well, she was pretty certain his name was Mate. Lina smiled at him, waved shyly and turned to Jaik. “That dragon’s head is quite fierce. I can only imagine its effect on drunken patrons,” said Lina, not surprised at the amount of them so early in the day.
"That sort of mounting is called semi-sneak, right turn, if my former friend Griffin can be trusted- oh, sorry, Starla. No offense," Jaik blushed. "Forgive me, I was just rambling."
"Don't worry about it," Starla hugged him. "I'm happy, and I am doing quite well here."
“It’s lovely to hear that!” Lina chimed in. “I hope you’ll come and visit us once we are all settled in. I would like to hear all about your new life here,” she added, hoping to get the inside scoop on the town, its people and it’s challenges from someone she knew and could trust.
"We are supposed to see someone on the Council to get the key to our cottage, and check in with a Master Snellsworth," Jaik said.
"Well, Tyche is smiling on you," Starla invoked the goddess of luck. "Goblin Jack and Mister Snellsworth are close at hand. Would you like some frogmore stew, or some quail? I can bring you something to eat as you wait for them."
“It would be such a kindness,” Lina responded, also appreciating the kindness of her stomach not to grumble at this very inappropriate time. “I would be much grateful for some quail,” she added, always hesitant to eat frogmore stew at a new place. “And you, my love,” she asked Jaik, more with her eyes than with her words.
"The same for me," Jaik said.
They followed Starla across the tracks of muddy boots to the room next to the bar. A huge wooden table dominated the room. An intricate carving in the table's surface of Charon the Ferryman with scythe in skeletal hands was both impressive and intimidating.
"Do not worry, friend, you will not hear any secrets of the cult of Charon," Starla said, and showed them her silver ring, with a holy symbol of Charon in it. Charon's followers were renowned for protecting the order's secrets with deadly means, when required. "It's tradition for newcomers to eat with Goblin Jack in the council's chambers. We have a lot of newcomers who are....down on their luck, let us say. Looking for a new beginning. Jack likes it when they are intimidated, but there is no reason for you to be nervous. I recommended you personally. I'll have someone bring your food soon."
"May our passage be well," Jaik repeated the phrase many people used when asking Charon for safety on a journey....or the journey to the after-life.
Starla flashed them a smile, and left to arrange their meal.
In the quietness of their solitude, Lina’s eyes danced around the mysterious room and unavoidably landed on her beloved. She smiled shyly and dropped her eyes to her nervous hands. With courage beyond her known abilities, she took a step closer to Jaik, leaned her face in so that her mouth almost touched his ear and whispered, “I am…” - the grumbling that erupted from her stomach would have made Yarbo proud - “hungry…” she finished, her scarlet cheeks betraying her.
Jaik eyebrows knotted quizzically. She meant her stomach, right? Still, he was never going to let an opportunity slip by to flirt with his beautiful bride. He kissed her cheek, moved her dark hair away from her ear, and whispered. "I want...to satisfy you."
Taking advantage of the fact that, in their current position, he could no longer see her face, she leaned in even closer, and exhaled into his ear. “You always do…”
Jaik took her in his arms, and twirled her and dipped her slightly as if they were dancing. He was pulling her close, just about to kiss her when the door opened.
"Starla didn't mention there would be entertainment." The grizzled man smiled, but in a dangerous way. He was a little short for a human, and his black hair and stubble were losing the battle to invading gray hair. There was a scar on his left cheekbone, and he walked stiffly, with a little of a limp. "I'm Goblin Jack. And you are?"
"Jaik and Lina Savage, at your service," Jaik bowed.
Lina brought her hands to cover her flushed cheeks and curtsied slightly, not for his worthiness, but out of respect for his position as the de-facto mayor of the village. She’d heard that Goblin Jack was first famous for driving off the goblin hoards, but there had been a controversy about his men slaughtering goblin children that ended his military career. Even more that his well known ill reputation as a bandit, the possibility of innocents massacred made Lina’s stomach turn.
"Please, have a seat," Goblin Jack tottered to the head of the table, and took his seat. "Your brother and Mister Snellsworth are right behind me."
True to his word, Josh Savage entered the room, followed by a balding, slightly overweight man with a large nose, and dressed in a well-worn, overly formal suit, including a jacket with a long tail usually reserved for evening wear at a noble court. His chin and nose were elevated slightly in the air, so when he appraised Jaik and Lina, he did so by looking down his nose at them. His most alarming feature was his unruly eyebrows, which were long enough and curled enough to suggest tensile strength to lift small objects. "Master and Mrs. Savage." His nasal accent identified him as of Cadessi origins. "I am Monsieur Snellsworth, valet for the Company of Hedgewitchers, and Mrs. Savage's supervisor."
"Well met," Jaik said, and rose from his seat. He did not know whether to offer his hand or bow, so he just sat back down. "But don't you mean our supervisor?"
Josh took a seat across from Jaik and Lina, but Snellsworth remained standing. "There is currently no need for a steward for a ruined tower." He slipped a key and a small bag of coins across the table to Lina. "Here is the key to your cottage, and an advance on your pay for any expenses you may incur settling in your living quarters. Jessafine should appear on your doorstep after she has taken her breakfast. If she is not there before mid-morning, please send word to me immediately. I will be next door in my room at the Ghost Lantern Inn.”
Jaik's mouth dropped open in surprise, and he struggled to regain his composure. "But I was told.."
"Sorry, kid. I hear the stables are hiring," Goblin Jack offered.
"Stables?" Jaik said.
Lina stood up swiftly, grabbed Jaik’s hand and squeezed it gently, and then smiled at the man. “Monsieur Snellsworth, it is a pleasure to meet you. Thank you for your thoughtfulness on the advance. I’ll be sure to notify you if there are any issues with Jessafine’s schedule.” And with that, she curtsied and sat back down, pulling Jaik back into his seat.
Snellsworth smiled slightly, nodded his head, and left the room.
"Let me know if I can do anything to help,” Josh said sympathetically to Jaik. “I had your bags delivered to your cottage already. It's a nice place. The caravan's unloading, so I'm sure I'll be around for a few hours."
"You'll be around for longer than that," Goblin Jack said sharply. He lifted a wooden skull from its resting place on a small stool next to the table, and placed the odd gavel on the table.
Two kobolds came in with serving dishes, and placed quail in front of Jaik and Lina, and bowls of frogmore stew for Goblin Jack and Josh. Despite the name, the bowls were full of shrimp, sausage, corn, and little potatoes, but no frogs.
"Ree, get something to drink for my guests and me,” Goblin Jack address one of the kobolds. “Some of our local rum, please. Miss Savage, do you drink rum?"
“No sir, I do not, but thank you for the offer,” she replied. Even if she had enjoyed the taste of rum, she would not have shared a drink with the man, but he didn’t need to know that.
"Sir, although I appreciate your hospitality, my loyalties are to the caravan-" Josh said.
"No, I think your loyalties are to your daughter," Goblin Jack said, drumming his fingers on the skull.
Lina gave Jaik a puzzled look, but held her tongue. She knew Lia, Josh’s wife, was with child, but the gender of the babe would have been unknown until just a few weeks before delivery, even to her dear mother Madira, who could see what others couldn’t. And daughter or son, why would it make any bearing on whether Josh stayed in Mage’s End or returned promptly with his caravan? There would be much to talk about when they arrived at their cottage, if they made it safely out of this tense situation.
“My daughter?” Josh asked.
"So you knew," Goblin Jack says. "I can see it in your face."
Josh looked uncomfortable. "I learned that I had a daughter in Mage’s End only yesterday.”
"You have a daughter?" Jaik asked. He almost asked what would Josh's wives think, but held his tongue.
"And that's why Josh Savage will be our new sheriff," Goblin Jack said. "The Imperial Knights frown on abandonment of one's children, do they not? That's how we met, Sheriff. It was that business with the Imperial Knights. I have not forgotten you. I remember when you met Celeste, when you help negotiate the deal between the Imperial Knights and the Ghost Lanterns. And your gift of speaking to ghosts? Do you not see how that is the perfect fit for a town where Charonites have settled?"
"I'm not sure. I just took a position..." Josh stuttered. "How did you know of my....gift?"
Goblin Jack laughed. "If I told you the secrets of Charon, I'd have to kill you! And we can't have that, can we? Don't worry! I'll keep your secret as part of your conditions of employment. As for the caravan guide, don't worry about that. That contract is easy to declare null and void. We have some pull with the House of Silverthorns, thanks to the Hedgewitchers,” Goblin Jack accepted his mug of rum from a kobold server, and took a long draught, but never took his eyes away from Josh.
"You have a daughter?" Jaik repeated, a little louder.
"Celeste herself told me. Her ghost did, I mean," Josh said in a quiet voice. He did not look away from Goblin Jack's gaze. "I swear I never knew."
"Jessafine is very much like her mother Celeste," Goblin Jack said, his grim visage softening. "I know this was not in your plans, but this town needs someone of your talents, Josh Savage." He gestured to Jaik and Lina. "Your brother and his charming wife are already here, to tutor Jessafine. Bring both your wives. No one will judge you here for Esani polygamy. You don't have to hide, boy."
"I’ll be tutoring your Jessafine?! What a blessing! I guess we’ll have more family here than we expected,” Lina exclaimed, smiling at Josh and then at Jaik.
Josh smiled at Lina; her gift to look on the bright side was the true blessing. He stared for a moment at the dark rum in the mug in front of him, and then back at Goblin Jack. "I trust you have a place for my family to stay?"
"Next to their cottage," Goblin Jack nodded to Jaik and Lina. He sat back in his chair, and grinned widely, obviously pleased with himself.
Josh hoped that would lessen the blow when he had to explain to Lia and Skye that they were moving...and why. He raised his mug in to a toast to Goblin Jack. "Then it appears I am the new sheriff of Mage's End."
His father called him Grigsby. Whether it was his first name or his last name, the young halfling did not know. He was not even sure if it was his real name. He often suspected his father mistook him for one of his mates from The War. Everyone else called him Chicken Boy, on account of the curse.
“Stupid Chicken,” Grigsby launched a half-hearted kick at the ever-present chicken at his feet. The chicken cackled and fluttered at Grigsby. Trying to back away during mid-kick turned out to be too challenging of a maneuver for Grigsby, and he fell backwards into the muddy street, in front of an approaching draft horse.
The massive yellow dun Fjordhorse bolted to the right, and its cart of firewood – kindling or fat-lighter, actually, the hardened wood of old stumps used to start a fire – spilled out into the puddles.
The chicken sat on Grigsby’s knee, apparently surveying its handiwork.
“You!” a huge Northlander towered above Grigsby. His beard and mane were long and golden, his bare chest bristled with muscles and a clan tattoo, and around his waist above his trousers, he sported a strip of dire bear fur. Grigsby recognized him as one of Olaf Olafson’s sons, although he could not tell which one. To Grigsby, all three were identical, both in looks and ability to terrify smaller beings like Grigsby.
All three Olafson Boys surrounded Grigsby, and gestured with their muscled arms excessively, cursing in the thick Northlander tongue. Some words in Common Grigsby recognized, and some other words sounded Dwarven, but Grigsby could not be certain. The disdainful “Chicken Boy!” punctuated the end of every string of profanity.
One of the Olafson Boys drew a rusty, notched longsword, stained with dried blood.
Grigsby sighed and closed his eyes, preparing for the end. He decided his last thought would be to wish for there to be no chickens in the after-life, and prayed for the mercy of Phaeton to make it so.
“Stop bothering that boy!” Danika Hardwalker demanded. The halfling hedge-witch had a handkerchief tied around her head, large hoop earrings, and one blue eye and one green eye. She fearlessly walked between the Northlanders, and raised her hands as if she might hex them. “He can’t help that he is an idiot. Leave him be!”
The Olafson Boys kept yelling, gesturing to the muddy pile of fat-lighter and Grigsby for emphasis, so Danika began insulting them back, maybe in gnome, but possibly just babbling. Grigsby was not that good on languages.
The chicken hopped off his knee, and pecked at his leg.
"Kindling, Part 2"
Psyche led the horses and riders through the mud. She thought the sarcophagus of Celeste at the shrine of Charon looked a little like her, or at least in the depiction of her long curly hair did. She found the patchwork buildings and the ruined tower quaint, unassuming. Yes, there was something about this place that felt like kinship to Psyche, but she was unable to name the source of that feeling. “So this is Mage’s End.”
“At last,” Athena looked from the shrine on her right to the general store on her left, and down the main road past a large stable and a couple of inns, all the way down to what appear to be a swamp, and smiled. This quaint little town would be a good starting place for her Merchant’s Guild.
“There seems to be a disturbance,” Echo noted.
“It wasn't me!" Del said. "Um, I mean, I don’t see anything."
The Northlanders and two halflings were ahead of them, where the road started to curve back towards the swamp. The Northlanders had all drawn their longswords, the halfling woman held them at bay with a dagger. Her blade was dark, twisted, and dripped. The drops hissed when they hit the mud.
A halfling boy lay still in the mud, stiff as a board.
An odd chicken pecked at his leg.
“Before we engage, we would do well to-“ Echo tried to say, but Psyche was already walking over to them.
“We best follow promptly, or her temper could worsen the situation quickly. Psyche is not known for her diplomacy,” Athena explained, spurring her horse into a light gallop in the direction of the altercation. Her once perfectly coifed hair started pulling from the hair pins Matilda had so carefully intertwined between thin braids and thick curls of hair, and now long strands of her shiny raven hair trailed behind her like the tail on her horse. When she came to a stop between the woman and the Northlanders, the flowing strands came to rest over her shoulders and down to her waist, framing her face and torso.
“A moment,” Athena said pleasantly to no one in particular, while extending both arms out, palm out, in the direction of each of the offended parties. If she could stop any shed of blood until Echo and her skilled tongue arrived, they may all be spared.
"What she means is put your weapons away!" Psyche stood nose-to-nose with one of the Olafson triplets.
"This is not your fight," Olef Olafson said, snarling down at Psyche.
"Not your fight," Oleg Olafson repeated.
"Indubitably," Jormugandr Olafson said. He looked alarmed as his brothers scowled at him. "I mean, yeah."
“Gentlemen,” Athena started, looking at the attractive northern men with interest. “M’Lady,” she added, looking at the halfling with kindness. “I’m certain what Ms. Savage here meant to say is that we can talk ourselves out of this messy situation without any violence. As much fun as it would be to toss it out in the mud, I think it best if we just stand down, take a breath, and try to figure out how to pick up this spill efficiently to get everyone back on their way quickly. What say you?” she asked the woman first, and then looked back at the men.
Echo rode to them and dismounted as well. "Do you require assistance in picking up your firewood and moving on?"
"Seeing as we are done here," Psyche said. She modified her tone to match Echo's calmer confidence.
"Fine," Olef said.
"Fine," Oleg agreed.
"Concur," Jormugandr said, and then looked sheepish at the disapproving stares of his brothers. Perhaps to redeem himself, he tried to give Grigsby a kick to the ribs.
Psyche's quarterstaff pinned his boot to the ground before it could connect. "You are smarter than that," she said, slowing her speech to add emphasis to each word.
Jormugandr limped off to help his brothers recover the firewood.
Olef and Oleg waved off any attempt to help them, content to taking out their anger on each piece of fatlighter they threw back on the cart.
Athena dismounted, now that height was not needed to keep the upper hand in a possible brawl, and stepped over to the boy who still lay somewhat confused on the ground. “Up?” she asked, offering her hand.
Grigsby bobbed his head up and down, accepting the offered hand, and rising to his feet. He mumbled something in appreciation, but did not take his eyes off the bronze-skinned woman who had first come to his rescue.
The chicken pecked at the back of his leg, but Grigsby did not care.
Grigsby was in love.
“The Prince of Rats”
When Psyche received an affectionate hug from Starla, she thought she saw a strange look in Echo's eye. What was that, she wondered. Wistfulness? Envy? Psyche discarded the idea as her overactive imagination. She almost laughed at the idea. Echo feeling an emotion? Ridiculous! That would be like... Yarbo taking a bath. The reality of that idea assaulted her senses as she returned Yarbo's bear hug.
“You will never know how kind you are to my eyes!” Yarbo bellowed.
“And you will never know how rude you are to my nose!” Psyche answered. “Have you used up your spring bath already?”
Yarbo tried his best to look deeply offended. “Now, now, milady. You know even mention of the B-A-T-H word is bad luck.”
Echo arched an eyebrow. “You spell?”
Psyche scowled. “It is no longer against the law for half-orcs to learn to read, you know.”
“I know, and I did not agree with that law, Psyche. Please do not think poorly of me so easily. It is just uncommon in my experience,” Echo said.
“I excel in uncommon experiences. Maybe you need to follow me around more often,” Psyche punched Yarbo in the arm, and laughed when he howled.
“Yes,” Echo said so softly, even Athena’s supernatural hearing almost missed it.
As discreetly as she could manage, Athena looked from Psyche to Echo and cracked a wicked little smile.
“We need to see the Sheriff!” Psyche announced.
“How fortunate. We just happen to have a new Sheriff on hand,” Starla smiled mischievously. “Wait here, and I’ll get him.”
“Forgive us, Lady Fikaris,” Echo said. “It is here that we take our leave. We are here on official Watch business.”
“Well, then, many thanks for your escort,” she looked at Echo and nodded. “And for the use of your horse,” she then nodded at Psyche. “As you are probably well aware, travelling with Del is always an adventure. If your business keeps you in town until late in the evening, maybe we can share a bottle before you depart. I haven’t made arrangements for a ride back, so I’ll likely be spending the night. Farewell.”
“Lady Fikaris?” a dwarf at the bar perked his ears at hearing the name. He slide down from his stool, and walked over to Athena. His fingers were stained with ink, and his beard with tobacco juice. He squinted up at her, weak eyes that had spent too much time writing and reading by candlelight.
“It is I. Can I help you?” she asked, looking down at the diminutive man.
“Grundy,” he bowed in introduction. “Fafnir told me you were coming. I’m your scribe.”
“Splendid! I had no idea Fafnir made arrangements for me, but I wouldn’t expect any less of him. It is a pleasure to meet you.”
“Yes, well, I’ve got everything set up for you. Would you like to see your office, or would you like to get a bite to eat first?”
Athena tried not to smile at the mention of getting a bite to eat. If he only knew… “I think a quick drink will do. And then you can show me to the office. I would like to make arrangements for a detailed tour of the town so that I may get familiar with all the established businesses and assess needs in the infrastructure. I’d also like an appointment to meet with the local mayor and the sheriff. And I’ll need a room for the night and travel arrangements for tomorrow. Can you take care of all that?” she asked the stout little man.
“Aye," Grundy looked confused for a moment. He had thought he had offered for her to get her own meal, but apparently there was more work involved in this job than Fafnir had mentioned. Did he forget to mention that a scribe's primary function was writing things down? Typical Fafnir. He sighed, and sauntered back to the bar.
"Josh?" Psyche was surprised when she saw Josh Savage walking up to them. She grabbed him in a hug and lifted him off the ground. "Cousin! It is good to see you. I thought you were at the Keep!"
"Easy...on... the ribs!" Josh gasped and returned the hug the best he could. "I'm happy to see you, but I am surprised to see you here. What brings you to Mage's End?"
"We need to see the Sheriff," Psyche said.
"Lady Fikaris," Josh bowed deeply. He then noticed the bald elf with an eyepatch standing next to Yarbo. "Captain Startree," he said stiffly.
"Captain Savage," Echo said. "It is good to see that you are well."
Psyche studied Echo carefully. Just for a moment, she thought she saw a look of hurt in her eye, before the usual icy resolve asserted its dominance.
"What does the Praxis Watch and Imperial Knights want in Mage's End?" Josh asked.
"Forgive me, but protocol dictates that information is best discussed with the new Sheriff," Echo said.
Josh stood a little taller. "That would be me."
“Well, congratulations are in order!” Athena exclaimed, happy for Josh after his recent fall from grace. Memories of his public shame were still painfully recent. Thankfully, the tyrant responsible was now without power, and without his head, for that matter.
"That's fantastic!" Psyche said.
"Once again. Forgive me," Echo paused, and then continued. "I was just doing my duty."
A heavy silence hung in the air before Josh answered. When he spoke, his voice was softer. "I do, Echo, and...I understand. Really."
"I thought they were talking about the Sheriff remark, but now I think they are talking about the fact Echo took his position in the Watch Detectives when Josh was sacked and put in the stockades," Yarbo stage-whispered loudly to Athena. "And stayed with the Imperial Knights when they supported Lord Dor. Awkward!"
Psyche elbowed him in the ribs.
Athena would have slapped Yarbo on the side of the head if diffusing the current pregnant pause wasn’t more pressing. “Well, I’ve just been informed that I have an office in the premises. Would you care to make use of it to discuss your sheriff business, unless your office is nearby," she asked Josh, hoping some privacy would improve the conversation.
Josh rubbed the back of his neck. "Thanks. I am so new at the job, I don't know if I have an office or not, and where it might be."
“Then please, I insist. Grundy here can show you to the office.”
Grundy looked amazed as he handed Athena a glass of Cadessi red wine. His task list was only getting longer. He made a mental note to make a written note made mostly of profanity to Fafnir. "Follow me," he sighed.
Psyche noted the far side of town was in considerable more disrepair than the rest of the village, which is a lot to say, considering the tower that had been wrecked by a dragon. The ground was either disturbed as if recently plowed, or overgrown with weeds, yards overgrown, and shutters hung from the windows, or lay on the ground next to the buildings.
"That building matches the description of the target of our next search," Echo said.
"Hopefully Josh is having better luck," Psyche wondered. After telling Josh of their mission, they had talked to Starla for possible locations of Kidymkus. Josh had left to check out the Ratcatchers shop, Kidymkus place of employment, and Echo and Psyche had checked out the Cackling Kobold distillery, but with no success. The dark-haired man behind the counter offered that he may be staying at yet another building, so they had left to follow up on their only lead.
The building known as The Nest was the last structure before the path winded down into Knavesmire. According to their source, the building had been used as stables for swamp mammoths, furry creatures a little larger than horses, that were used to scout the swamps. However, the proprietor had gone out of business on account of misplacing his head from his shoulders, after some sort of misunderstanding that led to the nearby lizardfolk tribe attacking the village. The building had been taken over by the squatters who could not afford lodging.
They stepped through the open doors, and saw that individual stalls had been converted to rooms, divided by ratty blankets or worn pieces of canvas, all occupied by the disadvantaged and dispossessed of Mage's End. A baby cried in the squalor.
An elderly halfling called out as they passed. "Grigsby? Is that you?"
They walked one end of the building to the other, and out the broken back door.
"I didn't see him," Psyche said.
"We could ask some of the residents, but my personal experience suggests that they may be reluctant to provide us with any information. They can spot someone working with the authorities easily," Echo said.
"We are wasting time," Psyche fumed. "Those children are missing, and we are no closer to finding a clue to where they went than when we started. The more time goes by..." Psyche did not finish her thought. They both knew as more time passed, the chances of success dwindled. Slavers could have smuggled the abducted children to New Esani or even the islands before morning.
What Psyche had assumed was a pile of garbage groaned. "Keep it down, aye?"
Psyche pulled the wool blanket away from the voice.
A short half-orc lay crumpled in the mud, an empty jug of rum in his hand. He tried to turn away from them, but seemed to be too drunk to successfully complete that movement, and just swayed a little back and forth before giving up on the idea altogether.
Psyche tapped him with her boot, and received no response. "Captain Echo Startree, may I introduce to you Kidmykus, Prince of Rats."
"The Prince of Rats, part two”
Psyche dunked Kidymkus’ head in the swamp once more, and lifted him out by his long hair.
“S-s-s-stop!” he sputtered. “You…have my…attention!”
Echo watched, her arms crossed. “You do know that the only thing that assist in getting alcohol out of the system is time? Cold water or coffee will only increase his alertness, not his sobriety.”
“I’m fine with that,” Psyche shrugged, and dunked his head for a final time, before tossing him to the ground.
Some of the residents of The Nest peeked out of the building's door to watch. Psyche saw a kobold and a gully dwarf couple fade back into the shadows when they saw she her looking at them.
“I need you to focus,” Echo handed the half-orc her handkerchief. “Do you know anything about the missing children?”
“For the last time, no! Zeus’ bones! Why….why would you think I knew anything about missing children?” Kidymkus used the handkerchief to dry his face, and blew his nose loudly.
“Witnesses said there were giant rats, possibly were-rats,” Echo said, declining when Kidymkus offered her handkerchief back.
“You are the most knowledgeable person I know on the subject of rats,” Psyche added.
With some effort and Psyche’s assistance, Kidymkus lurched to his feet, and was able to stay upright by leaning his hindquarters against a tree. “Sylvis. This has to be her doing.”
“Who is Sylvis?” Echo asked.
“Someone…someone I rescued during Lord Dor’s reign of terror. He killed her whole family, and I took her in. I showed her the temple, and she took it over,” Kidymkus face tightened in anger. “After everything I did for her…”
“So, she is a half-orc?” Psyche asked.
“She’s human,” Kidmykus held the handkerchief to his mouth for a moment, and bent over slightly. “She was my… well, anyway, she took over my home, my gang. She can turn into a full were-rat hybrid form, while I could only ever turn into a large rat and back. I can still talk to rats.”
“What do rats tell you?” Echo asked.
“Now? Usually to bugger off,” Kidymkus lip wavered, and his face paled. “Now that they don’t have to listen to me anymore.”
“Wait. I don’t understand. This Sylvis? You told me once that you pass on your…ability to change into a rat to other half-orcs,” Psyche said.
“True. I cannot change others. However, the Celestial Rat had other ideas.” Kidymkus shut his eyes, discovered that was a bad idea, and opened them once more, focusing on the ground between Psyche’s boots.
“Sylvis has the Cobbler Shop,” he pointed to a nearby cluster of shops. “I’ll take you there, but, if you will excuse me, I need to expel the contents of my stomach.”
Possibly to distract from the sounds of retching, Echo noted, “He is very well-spoken.”
“For a half-orc, you mean?” Psyche frowned, and then lowered her voice. “Yes, he is. According to his mates, he is actually a quarter-orc. His father was a merchant or minor noble, and his mother was Mama Yaga, the witch doctor. That made him somewhat of a noble among half-orcs, relatively speaking. You’ve heard of Yaga?”
Echo nodded. “She is somewhat of a legend.”
“She tried to sacrifice Kidymkus to bind a demon to her power when he was still a lad,” Psyche said.
“That is tragic,” Echo said.
Kidymkus dry-heaved and spat.
“Why does Sylvis sound familiar?” Psyche wondered.
“I do not recognize the name from the Imperial Knights list of suspects in the Resistance,” Echo said.
“And was I on that list?”
“We can discuss that at a more appropriate time,” Echo urged.
Psyche advanced so she stood in Echo’s face. “I asked you a question.”
“Yes,” Echo replied.
“So your Imperial Knights had me on their list, and kept an eye on me? That time in the graveyard was not the first time an Imperial Knight spied on me, was it?” Psyche’s temper grew.
“Psyche, this is neither the time nor the place,” Echo insisted. “After this is done-“
“I want to settle this now,” Psyche insisted back, leaning in closer. Her anger was blunted by Echo's reaction; she had not expected that her proximity would cause Echo’s pupils to dilate, her eye to blink rapidly, nor the flutter of her nostrils.
Echo recomposed her expression quickly, her vulnerability disappearing under the sword-metal gray stare of a seasoned professional. “Of course you were, Psyche. Lord Dor hated your cousin, and kept an eye on all the Savages. And yes, that is how I knew of your work at the Gideon House with half-orcs. Lord Dor hated half-orcs, and anyone who helped them, even in acts of mercy, was suspect. I was wrong to follow the Imperial Knights after they sided with Lord Dor, and I regret all my actions, especially when they harmed the Resistance or innocents. But, Psyche. That is over. We can accomplish much more if we put that behind us. I am not your enemy.”
Psyche stared at her a moment longer, seeking another flicker of emotion from the stoic elf. “Then what do you want to be, Captain Startree?”
“Ladies, I am feeling much better now,” Kidymkus announced, and wobbled towards them. “Come on. I shall show you where she works and lives.”
Psyche abandoned the staring contest. “Fine. Let’s do this.”
Echo watched her give Kidymkus her arm to steady himself enough to walk. She took a deep breath, letting them take a few steps ahead of her, and then followed behind.
"The Cobbler Shop, part 1”
Painted signs hung above the doors of the shops in Mage’s End, displaying their type of commerce. Most were crude to the point of incomprehensibility, which Psyche took as a backhanded way of implying “if you were from here, you would know bloody well which building is the tavern.” The sign for Rowana’s Bakery had either a bad drawing a loaf of bread or decent picture of a cigar. The Blacksmith and Stables had a stick-figure image of a horse next to an anvil, both of which looked as if they had been cut into the board with a dull dagger, in a moment of anger. In contrast, the Cobbler shop’s sign had a very detailed illustration of a shoe being stitched by a white mouse.
“Who’s the artist in town?” Psyche asked the drunk next to her.
Kidymkus’ arm was over her shoulders in a mostly successful attempt to remain upright. “Dunno,” he mumbled.
“Is there anything you should tell us before we enter this shop?” Echo asked. “Any henchmen? Traps? Spellcasters? Number of were-rat allies?”
"Not sure,” Kidymkus scratched his chin. “Sylvis is crafty. Wary, too. She has shared the wererat curse with her followers, but they are spread out between here and Praxis City, and maybe the Keep as well. Definitely be careful.”
“That’s it?” Psyche asked. “Some allies, location unknown? You don’t have any useful tactical information as we walk through the door?”
“Hey, it’s not like she kept me around after she stole the power of the temple. And to be fair, how many of your ex-lovers do you maintain cordial relations?” Kidymkus laughed at the thought. “Sorry. Unfair. It’s not like YOU are cordial with your friends.”
Psyche let him fall to his hands and knees.
“See?” Kidymkus asked, still laughing.
“He has a point,” Echo offered.
“Did you just make a bloody joke?” Psyche asked Echo. She helped Kidymkus get back to his feet. “Let’s keep the humor to a minimum until we have checked out the Cobbler, alright? Then you two can laugh your bloody heads off.”
The door hit a small bell as Psyche swung it open. The shop’s walls were lined with shelves of work shoes and boots from average to good quality. The footwear included curved leather shoes with side laces and brass accents, poulaines,or pointed shoes, with leather laces, and durable Northlander-inspired boots with buckles and fur at the top.
A thin, small woman with long, stringy black hair sat behind a table. When she looked up from the shoe she was sewing together, her initial expression resembled false friendliness, which included eyes opened a little too widely, and an over exaggerated smile that revealed empty gaps between black teeth. “Well, hullo -“ she stopped abruptly when she saw Kidymkus, and her face twisted into rage. She jumped up from her stool, sending it crashing behind her, and pointed at him. “HE can’t come in here!” she screeched.
“Hi, Colette. Good to see you, too,” Kidymkus said.
“Calm yourself,” Echo said. “We are here to see Sylvis.”
"Imperial Knight!” the wiry Colette shifted her pointing finger.
“Citizen, be calm,” Echo said, a little more forcefully.
Psyche began to move forward, and Cosette bolted. She pulled a rug back, revealing a trap door. She pulled a rope on the far wall, which opened the trap door, and sent the shelves toppling over, sending shoes flying.
Echo was able to sidestep the shelves, but Psyche took a blow to the shoulder.
“Are you hurt?” Echo asked.
“I’m fine! Get her!” Psyche pointed to the trap door.
“Don’t anyone worry about Kidymkus,” said a voice under a shelf. “I’m alright, if anyone cared. Hello?”
Echo pulled at the rope again, and Psyche and she jumped down into the cellar.
“This is about the cordial remark, isn’t it?” Kidymkus asked.
Echo and Psyche found themselves at the beginning of a maze. In front of them, a large rough hewn statue of a pregnant rat greeted them.
“Phaeton’s chariot! What is that thing?” Psyche asked.
“The Etiwah called her the All-Mother,” Kidymkus voice said, coming from a large rat crawling down to join them.
“Who?” Psyche asked.
“Etiwah. The natives who were the original were-rats, before Praxis was settled,” Kidymkus explained. “I can’t believe she moved it from the Temple.”
They moved past the statue and into the dark tunnels maze. Due to the low ceilings, both Psyche and Echo were forced to stoop and crouch as they moved forward.
“Psyche, I do not mean to be indelicate, but do you require a torch?” Echo said.
“What do you mean by indelicate?” Psyche shot back.
“Allow me to rephrase. Elves have low light vision, and rats have been finding their way in the dark from the days the sun was smaller. Do you require any additional illumination?”
Psyche stared at Echo. Her orc heritage had given her enough dark vision to find her way through the maze, but Echo could not have possibly known she had orc in her distant heritage, could she? “I’m fine, “she said gruffly.
“She’s always had that chip on her shoulder,” Kidymkus added helpfully.
“Something’s coming,” Echo warned.
Three large dire rats rounded the corner, bearing down on them.
Echo drew her sword and drove it through one of the Rodents of Unusual Size, pinning it to the ground.
Psyche hit another with her quarterstaff so hard its jaw broke with a large crunching sound, and it sank to the ground.
Echo and Psyche looked at each with an unspoken question and shrugged. Echo drew her sword from the rat she had skewered to the ground , and chased down the last dire rat.
“Thanks!” Kidymkus gasped.
Psyche led the way, and was the first to hit the tripwire.
She felt a tug at her foot, and before she could warn Echo and Kidymkus, a net fell from the ceiling. Like the trap door, the trip wire also pulled over a box of marbles.
“Watch out!” Psyche said, keeping her feet anchored as the marbles spilled past, but not avoiding the net.
Kidymkus cleared his throat. “Before Colette joined Sylvis, her parents were trapmakers for the vaults of the Praxis noble families.”
“Now you tell us,” Psyche growled. She drew her dagger, and began cutting at the rope net. “Is there anything else you should have told us?”
“I did not know Colette that well. Her family was arrested for something, and Dor had them executed. It’s the kind of person Sylvis recruited, since-“ Kidymkus suddenly stopped rambling. “Is it just me, or did it just get incredibly cold in here?”
An incredible chill washed over them. Psyche found that her fingers were numb; she could not even feel her dagger in her hand.
“Taryn,” Echo said.
“What?” Psyche dug harder at the rope, having to use both hands to keep from dropping her dagger.
“Yeah, that’s Colette’s last name. Did you arrest her loved ones?” Kidymkus asked, taking a portion of rope to chew.
“No, Lord Dor’s Centurions handled the executions personally. The Taryn family were charged with providing magical traps to the Resistance,” Echo said.
“So….what…is making…the cold?” Psyche’s teeth rattled. She looked at the ground, and discovered several of the marbles were large, and had something brown sloshing around in them. She held up the net off Echo, allowing her more maneuver room. “Knock the brown ones away with your sword!”
Echo complied, swinging at the brown marbles with the flat of her sword, and knocking them back down the maze towards the dead dire rats. When the last once bounced down the hallway, the bone-chilling cold was gone.
“Brown mold,” Psyche said, and finished cutting their way out of the rope net. “Nasty. I hate the cold!”
“You better let me go first as I am more experienced with detecting traps- oh, Zeus’s Nipples!” Kidymkus had barely walked forward, before sinking on a pressure plate.
Psyche grabbed Echo, and dove to the ground. Five darts flew overhead, striking the earthen wall behind them.
They lay there for a moment, Psyche’s arms around Echo. Echo could feel Psyche’s strong heart beating.
“Um, ladies? I think it’s safe to get up now,” Kidymkus said. He had shifted back into half-orc form.
They both rose, and dusted off.
“Thank you, Psyche Savage,” Echo said.
“Think nothing of it,” Psyche said gruffly. “You would have done the same thing.”
Echo examined the darts, and the liquid dripping from their tips. “Amnesty Sea Anemone toxin.”
“It causes paralysis,” Psyche noted. “So these traps are meant to capture, not to kill.”
“So does that mean you think you can reason with Sylvis?” Kidymkus asked.
“No,” Psyche clarified. “It means that she was more interested in catching someone than killing them. It means the children are likely here.”
Echo nodded in approval. “A sound deduction.”
They navigated the maze and avoiding several traps, including a camouflaged pit. They found three dead ends, each with an identical statue of a large warrior were-rat. In short order, they came out of the maze into a large sweatshop. The top half of the walls were covered with ancient murals of were-rats fighting snake creatures, feasting, dancing, copulating, and doing whatever it was that ancient were-rats did. The dirt bottom half of the walls were riddled with small holes, the type a rat could easily escape. Seven children sat around a table, sewing together shoes. They looked up at Echo, Psyche, and Kidymkus, and then at Collette, and the woman standing next to her.
“Keep working, children,” she said. She had a round face, a high forehead, pale white skin, small, pursed lips, and her sky blue eyes were immeasurably cold. She held a hand crossbow, aimed almost casually at the intruders.
Psyche grabbed Kidymkus by the arm, and squeezed hard. “You said her name was Sylvis!”
“That’s the name she prefers to be called,” Kidymkus said. “And, ow! Stop it.”
“I do not understand,” Echo said, not taking her eyes off the slender woman with the crossbow.
“The Imperial Knights knew her as Sparrow, the vigilante symbol of the Resistance, and the self-proclaimed Avatar of Nemesis,” Psyche said. “Her real name is Marrina Rendik… and she is my friend.”
Four years ago....
“The End of Marrina”
Marrina looked down on the city of Praxis from the rooftop of the Manor adjacent to her former home.Smoke sputtered through a nearby chimney, smelling of Witch Elm and breakfast.She did not know when she had last eaten, but was sure it was before she had touched the giant jade statue of the rat.Time had escaped her as well; she knew not how many hours had passed since she navigated the paths of the sewers, alleys, and finally scaling a vine trellis to borrow the ladders of chimney sweeps to take a bird’s eye view and avoid the prying eyes of patrols, thugs, and murderers who infested the streets below.
Her blue eyes had watched impassively as a regal woman dispatched five thugs with a beast-like efficiency which was somehow both elegant and elemental, and left the blood-filled alley with a man draped across her shoulders.
Her round face did not quiver as a monstrous breed choked the life from a lone Centurion in a nearby empty street close to the Fikaris Manor. After all, all serving the House of Dor deserved the worst of fates.The thugs which spread like the plague under the rule of Dor deserved their fate no less.
Before, she would have swooned at the glimpse of blood or the gesture of violence.Now, since she had watched her family and Sylvis murdered on the very street she stood above, she knew the world was a dark place of unspeakable evil.Since the vision, she understood her role in the unfurling Hell below.
The ancient god Nemesis stood before her, cowled and masked.Two griffins lay at her feet.A heavy glove pointed to the house below.
She understood perfectly.
The door, her door, opened below.Her fists clutched with rage as three Centurions left her home with a casual familiarity acquired by claiming the Manor as the spoils of a war of soldiers against civilians.
No one watched the roofs, and therefore no one saw her as she stretched the flimsy chimney sweep ladder between the houses.
Heights had scared her before, but now she strode across the ladder, her arms outstretched for balance, moving only with the measured intent of purpose.
She let herself into the attic, and ignored the childhood memories of playing there with her friend Holly Odd.
Listening carefully, she slide the trapdoor open, and swung into the hallway below.The hallway looked much the same, although dust and mud covered the floor runners and wooden floor, and the portraits of her family were gone.A mirror smoky with age had been cracked, which Marrina felt was fitting.Bad luck to them, she thought without mirth.
She stepped quietly on the balls of her feet, avoiding the boards that creaked, moving silently as she had many times before, sneaking past her parent’s bedroom to the larder downstairs, or to large bedroom/study which had housed her beautiful tutor, and for a short time her husband and their second wife. Her hand reached for the doorknob, covering the keyhole she had pressed an innocent, curious eye to not two weeks ago, but which seemed like centuries past.She turned the brass doorknob slowly, and slipped into the room.
The room had been ramsacked. Mud and dirt and a broken bottle of Cadessi Rum littered the floor.The furniture was broken; no doubt the new residents had searched the place for things of hidden value, or simply destroyed things to amuse themselves.
Marrina moved past the trampled collection of Lia’s windcatchers and glass miniatures to the torn silk canopy of the bed large enough for Josh Savage and his two wives.She knelt before the empty chest in front of the bed, and leaned her entire body against it, pushing it out of the way. She then pushed down on the raised floor, and the secret compartment beneath revealed a much smaller, ornately carved wooden chest. Marrina had known Lia would not have enough time to retrieve it.And somehow, she knew the marauders who murdered her family would not have found this treasure.
She ran a hand over the symbol of Nemesis, and opened the lid slowly.
The were-rats stood tight against the wall.
“Marrina is inside,” Spider said. "Half my silver she’s bloody mad, Kid.”
“No bet,” Kidymkus said.“Zeus’ Bones, I think the others are coming back.”
The Centurions who guarded Manor Rendik had returned with an armful of pastries, most likely taken without payment from Ooda’s Bakery.
“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”Spider asked.
“That one of Ooda’s biscuits would be good right now?” Kidymkus asked.
“No. No I’m not,” Kidymkus answered sternly.
As the Centurions made it up the steps and opened the door, a loud crashing noise came from within.
Kidymkus and Spider sprinted across the street, through the door, and vaulted up the stairs.
Sounds of struggle came from above, followed by the sound of something heavy hitting the floor.
They entered a bedroom, only to find two Centurions looking at their fallen comrade.A small crossbow bolt protruded from directly between his eyes.
The Centurions were looking around confused, seemingly not comprehending what they saw, and barely paid attention to the fact two large rats stood at the doorway.
Marrina was nowhere to be seen.
A second Centurion’s fell to his knees, a crossbow bolt in his back.
Kidymkus and Spider attacked the remaining Centurion. He kicking and crashing into things, trying to dislodge them and draw his weapon.He stumbled into a small marble column and fell.
A third crossbow bolt shot from a dark corner of the room, embedding in the soft hollow where the Centurion’s skull and backbone met.
Kidymkus squinted in the darkness.
“No,” she said. Marrina’s slender form stepped out from the wall, looking very much as if she had been part of the shadow against the wall.The cloak she wore appeared to be made of shadows. She pushed back her hood, revealing her round face, but with look of deadly determination Kidymkus had not seen before. “Call me Sylvis.”
“The Cobbler Shop, part 2”
Colette began to shift into a large rat. Like when Kidymkus changed, her eyes changed first, become all black, and flashing yellow. Her hair stayed the same in both color and degree of unruliness. The term “lesser were-rat” came to Echo’s mind, which meant these were-rats were not able to shift into a hybrid form of human and rat. The elf ranger wasted no further time categorizing them, though. She had to keep an eye on both of them, and apparently Psyche as well.
“What does that mean?” Echo asked. “You are friends?”
Psyche held her staff leisurely, no longer positioning it between between Sylvis and her. When she answered Echo, she did not look at her. “You knew I was managing the Doom Lounge for a short time, right? I provided shelter for Sylvis, and a day job.”
“And I swept the floors,” Kidymkus added.
“The Resistance is over,” Echo said.
“Is it?” Sylvis pointed her hand crossbow at Echo. Colette drew a dagger, which looked more like a long sword, given her diminished size. The ruby rat, the Rat of Destiny, the source of power behind the Temple of the Rat, glowed behind them from its place on a cracked pedestal.
“Lord Dor is dead. And the Resistance never kidnapped children. For that matter, you claimed to have been visited by the Avatar of Nemesis,” Echo addressed Sylvis. “The Imperial Knights are the vanguard of Nemesis in her holy quest to rid the world of injustice. How does kidnapping children serve the will of the goddess?”
“Nemesis is also the goddess of revenge” Sylvis said. “My family was murdered in the street in front of my home. Yes, the Avatar came to me, and whispered revenge. But once I killed a certain number of Centurions, the Avatar stopped appearing to me. But I still had work to do. Lord Dor still ruled. His Centurions kept the town in terror, and your precious Imperial Knights allowed it. So I turned to the Rat of Destiny for help. But don’t be mistaken, Imperial Knight. You may think I am madder than an ogre, but I promise you this endeavor serves justice.”
Kidymkus and Psyche spread out towards opposite walls, and Echo found herself stepping backwards in order to keep an eye on them as well. Echo wondered if Nemesis would require penance for her sins, punish her for following the commands of the corrupt Lord Dor. “I am listening. Please explain.”
Colette and Kidymkus hung to the walls, and began heading towards the back of the room, towards the maze entrance, towards each other – and behind Echo.
“Look at these children. These are the children of noble families,” Sylvis walked slowly towards Psyche. “Privileged children, destined to never get their hands dirty. Noble families ruin things for those they exploit. They breed the likes of Lord Dor. Everyone of them was a potential tyrant, so I saved them from that. They are putting together shoes, contributing to a community instead of sucking its resources dry like a Chicoran leech. Psyche, you see this is better, don’t you? You have had to fight for everything you have ever had. These children did nothing to earn their life of luxury and power. Isn’t this better for their souls?”
“You never told me they were the children of nobles,” Psyche said to Echo, and dropped her quarterstaff, moving casually to stand at Sylvis’ side.
“Psyche!” Echo drew her mace so she had a weapon in each hand. “What difference would that have made? They are children. They do not deserve to be stolen from their parents because of the happenstance of their birth.”
“Do they deserve to rule over us, just because of they were born to a rich family instead of a poor one?” Psyche retorted.
Colette and Kidymkus stopped moving towards each other, and watched Psyche and Sylvis, waiting to see what to do next.
“You see, Knight?” Sylvis said.
“Yes, do you see? Sylvis is right, especially about one thing,” Psyche smiled with malicious intent. “She is madder than an ogre.”
And then she punched Sylvis in the face.
Josh had Grigsby bring Echo’s horse around, and instantly regretted giving the chicken-plagued halfling the responsibility of attempting to control a magebred stallion.
They stood outside of the small Sheriff’s office, leaning against a hitching post, watching as Grigsby struggled with the large horse. The children sat around in a circle on a nearby patch of dry grass. They played a game that involved placing each other’s palms over the palms of another child. The first child tried to slap the other’s hands before they could move them. They were excited, and chattered mostly what they would do when they got home, which most involved favorite toys or what they would eat.
“Are you disappointed?” Josh asked Echo.
“That she did not get to knock Sylvis out?” Psyche asked.
“You mean am I disappointed that Sylvis is not going back to Praxis to be tried? No, Mage’s End has jurisdiction,” Echo said. “I can see why a fortnight in jail and a fine could appear light-handed. She would likely have an appointment with the Hanging Tree, had she been tried in court in Praxis. However, it is not my place to judge. My task was to bring the children home and their kidnapper to justice, not determine the measure of justice."
“Mage’s End is a place for second chances,” Psyche shrugged. “Still, you have to admit the fine was pretty impressive. Not only did she have to surrender the deed of the Cobbler Shop, but the magic items confiscated to pay her fines should bring the town treasury a considerable amount of gold. An elven cloak, boots of jumping, a talisman of protection, an enchanted hand crossbow…even at less than market value, that’s a small fortune.”
“I wonder how many of our other former allies in the Resistance will also have a hard time adjusting to the peace,” Josh wondered.
“What about Kidymkus?” Psyche asked. “Do you know if he has had any luck with accessing the power of that ruby rat?”
“Yes, thankfully. It will be a lot easier keeping Marrina-.I mean, Sylvis- in the town jail since she can no longer turn into a rat. The Town Council offered him the Cobbler Shop. I guess he gets a fresh start, too,” Josh said.
They watched Grigsby struggled with the horse, while the children played.
“Well, let me go check and see when the caravan will be ready to take all of you home,” Josh said.
Psyche waited until Josh was out hearing range. “You really thought I would really betray you?”
Echo bowed her head. “I have to admit, you had me worried for a moment. You were very convincing. I am sorry…that I misjudged you, Psyche.”
"Damn straight,” Psyche said.
A child shrieked with joy as his hand was barely missed in the slap game.
“When we get back, would you like to be on the Watch again? You were an Inspector, once.”
“I’m not going back,” Psyche said.
“What?” Echo could not contain her surprise.
“I ‘m staying here. I like this village. Everyone here is here for a fresh start. Most of my family will be here. I could contribute more here than back in Praxis. Morik can handle burying the dead, and re-burying the undead. I want Mage’s End to be my future, or at least the next stop in my journey.”
Somehow, Grigsby had gotten his foot wrapped in the stallion’s reins. The massive horse had pulled him down, and was dragging him across the street.
“I have to admit, I am disappointed,” Echo said. “I had hoped we would continue to work together.”
A half-elf grabbed the reins of the horse. She wore the crest of the House of Silverthorn on her black padded armor, which identified herself as Aldaren Silverthorn, squire of Lord Elhorir.
“Why me?” Psyche asked.
Echo measured her thoughts carefully before speaking.
Aldaren scolded Grigsby, and secured Echo’s mount to a hitching post.
“I used to love dancing in the moonslight. I have not danced since the night my sister Candice was murdered. I dedicated myself to bringing criminals to justice, and the Path of the Stoic. I have never doubted or questioned my decisions…until I met you,” Echo said. “You are the embodiment of passion, or impulse. Of everything I have abandoned. You… remind me of dancing.”
The children fussed over whose turn was next. The best part was getting to do the slapping, apparently.
“You do the opposite for me. I feel great rage, most of the time,” Psyche admitted. “I look at you, and you are in this place of calm. You remind me of when I was in the Order of Idarian, meditating. I mean, I was never good at it. I miss the calmness, even if it was fleeting. I don’t know. I guess what I am trying to say is that maybe you could find a way to come to Mage’s End.”
Pleasant surprise flickered across Echo’s face, leaving a slight smile in its wake. “Maybe.”
Grigbsy pulled himself out of the mud, and headed back to the stables, with his chicken following closely behind.
“So what will you do?”
“Josh could use a deputy,” Psyche smiled. “Maybe that’s how we do it. You could be the Imperial Knight liaison, or whatever. I am sure they really want to get a representative here.”
“That could possibly work,” Echo admitted.
Around the table, one of the boys got his hand slapped hard by his opponent. He bared his teeth in anger, and his pupils expanded, causing his eyes to become all black, and then flash yellow. One of the girls slapped him on back of his head. “Not here, stupid!” she whispered. Giggling, they returned to their game.
Del Rook assessed the situation around the tavern from his corner round table, and decided things looked good.
Although his eyes were not the best in the bright lamplight, he could see the hogshead barrels with Cackling Kobold branded on the cask as a label. The wooden spigots were carved into the likeness of a kobold, for the grog to appear to pour out of its mouth.
He marveled that he could sit in the tavern by himself, and no one would bother him. Since he had left the Caves of Chaos, years ago now, he had encountered prejudice and hatred from the so-called civilized races. At Mage’s End, kobolds were equals; they were all low-lives here. He had heard Mage’s End described as a wretched hive of scum and villainy, but he decided it was as close to utopia as he would likely ever find.
He heard a familiar voice, and noticed Lady Fikaris was at the bar, talking to one of the Northlanders from the earlier incident with the firewood cart. They stood close to each other, and then the tall blonde hew-mon touched her arm. What was the difference between preening and threatening? Del wondered if Lady Fikaris would want him to intervene or not.
“You are new here.”
A female voice startled the kobold sorcerer from his thoughts. Before him stood a slender kobold female. Her adorably small horns indicated she was barely breeding age. She had vibrant green scales, shiny enough to look polished. Her claws had not a single chip, and were far too clean for burrow-dwelling. Del inhaled her scent, an intoxicating mix of wet dog and stale water. However, if he had to chose which feature impressed him the most, Del would have chosen her eyes. He could get lost in her burnt orange eyes, and live there, maybe take up gardening.
“Me Dell,” Del stuttered. “Sorry. I mean my name is Del Rook.”
“Is that your wand?”
“What? Oh, yes! I am a sorcerer,” Del raised his crocodile-like chin in pride, and wished he had enough sinewy muscles so she could tell he was trying to puff out his chest. “And you are?”
“I am loving magic!” she grabbed his arm in excitement.
Del could have swooned. “I’m sorry. Did you say your name?”
“I don’t think so.” Her eyes looked Del over, as she smoothed out his sleeve. “Are your robes magic?”
“Sorry, no.” Del lamented, fearful of disappointing her in the slightest degree. “Where were you born?”
She looked thoughtful. “I don’t remember, but I’ve always been told it was…from an egg!” she grinned widely at her joke, showing her perfectly white, perfectly sharpened teeth. “I was a Squidherder, but they made me leave.”
“I was at Rook Outpost, before I, um, had to leave,” Del said sheepishly. It was a hard balance, wanting to find common ground, but not wanting to discuss his fall from power. “Caves of Chaos?”
“Never heard of it. But I have never heard of many things,” she said, and leaned closer, as if to share something confidential. “We are all exiles here. We have our own rum! Have you tried the rum?”
“No,” Del felt as if he was struggling to follow the pace and direction of the conversation. “I saw the Cackling Kobold, though. It is rum, right?”
“I don’t drink. Well, not rum, at least. I like the idea of having our own rum. It’s named after Yipyap. Do you know Yipyak? He knows magic, too! The hexing type. He helped fight off the spiders. I hate spiders. Well, the giant kind that tries to eat you, at least. That’s why I don’t live in the warren with the rest. I live in the Nest. No spiders in the Nest. Have you seen the Nest? Will you show me some magic?” she said rapidly, not pausing to take a breath or wait for him to answer.
Del felt himself fall deeper into those gorgeous eyes. He realized she had been talking for several minutes, and he struggled to catch up. She was describing someone named Lumpy who liked her but she did not like him and his magic sucked. Del finally interrupted with the most romantic thing he could think to say. “I would so much like it if I could buy you a drink, and share some bugs with you.”
“When my shift is done,” she agreed, and turned to walk back towards the bar, holding her empty drink tray at shoulder level, oblivious that several patrons were trying to get her attention. “By the way, my name is Ree.”
“Ree,” Del repeated, smiling dreamingly. It would be some moments later before he would realize he could not recall actually ordering anything. He looked around, trying to remember what he was thinking before Ree fell into his life.
Lady Fikaris and the Northlander were not at the bar, and a quick look around the room indicated they have left the tavern as well. Also, he noticed Yarbo was looking at him. Yarbo had a silly, stupid grin on his face. The obese half-orc folksinger held a single finger up in the air, as if he had a brilliant idea, and winked at Del. He raised his lute, strumming it once or twice, before he began to sing:
“I fell in love in the springtime,
When I was foolish and young.
It was love at first sight when I saw her
Catching ants on the tip of her tongue.*”
((*From the poem “Lizards in Love” by Frank Ashe))
“A Grand Entrance”
Kernthallian pursed his little blue lips, and rubbed his bulbous bald head in consternation. “You missed the caravan? How daft are you?”
Griffin wrapped his wool cloak tighter around himself. He still couldn't seem to keep the shivers out.
"It's not my fault. I had important business to attend to, Ursula's business. Other than that, you really don't need to know." Griffin pulled himself up, chin held high, trying to look taller. "I really don't have to tell you things, all you need to do is get me where I'm going."
No one had to know the truth: he'd simply overslept. Griffin didn't even know how it was possible. He'd been with Ursula the night before, remembered her warmth and her closeness, but that was it. He had no recollection of the specifics of the night, only that he'd woken in a panic and realized that he was alone in a room that had gone cold - and that he'd missed the caravan.
The sitting room reserved for the Semi-Secret Arcane Order of Truth Seekers was an abandoned custodian lounge, with exposed rafters, slightly mildewed furniture, and a layer of dust over everything not recently sat in or walked on. The arrangement seemed to be a last resort or not very well thought out. Like their name. And their membership.
Kernthallian bent over, and began stabbing and slashing the floor with a piece of chalk. “I shouldn’t do this!” the paunchy, middle-aged wizard fussed. “I should let you answer to Ursula. Why she is with you and not me, I will never figure out.”
Griffin rolled his eyes and immediately wished he hadn't. The size of the cobwebs hanging from the rafters made his goosebumps grow until all his hairs were standing on end. Once again, he wrapped the cloak tighter, and kept it closed with a fist beneath his chin.
He cleared his throat before looking down at Kernthallian.
"What can I say, Ursula knows a good thing when she sees it. We have a special thing, we do. Ursula and me. I. I do. I mean, we do, together."
The very thought of Ursula together with a man like Kernthallian made Griffin's gut knot up. He wasn't jealous, that wasn't it at all, but why any woman in their right mind would want to be with an old wizard like Kernthallian was beyond him. And apparently, beyond any woman. But that was not something he could say out loud, or he would never get to Mage's End.
Silently, wiping his chin on his cloak, Griffin watched Kernthallian work his magic.
Soon, the wizard had traced two circles interlaced with runes on the floor. “There. A teleportation circle. This should get you to Mage’s End, or at least the vicinity. Remember your sack! Your job is to get a fair price from the general store, and see what things they want to trade. Get to know the town, and make some contacts. Remember you are a spy. Don’t be obvious, but find out about anything out of the ordinary, especially when it comes to THE ARCANE.”
Brow furrowed, Griffin stood rooted to the spot - the spot outside the circles. A deep sigh replaced the eye rolling. If there was one good thing about going to Mage's End, besides possibly seeing Starla again, it was that maybe he could get away from all this madness with wizards and magic circles and THE ARCANE. It was always THE ARCANE with Kernthallian. To Griffin it was simply crappy old magic. Why couldn't the man just say crappy old magic instead of making it sound so fantastic all the time?
One of the circles passed right by Griffin's toes, with half an inch to spare. He stared down on the white lines, suddenly wishing he'd made the caravan. All his life he'd tried to stay away from magic, now he was surrounded by it. Living it. Breathing it.
He looked up at Kernthallian again. Maybe the old wizard had some magic that could turn back the time to yesterday, so he could hurry to the caravan and not have to subject himself to unknown magic that might send his head to Shadowshore and his ass to Mage's End.
“Come on, now, step inside. We don’t have all day.”
Slowly, Griffin lifted one foot inside the circle. He hesitated, his foot hovering in the air for a moment, but nothing happened so he put his foot down on the floor. Still nothing. The other foot followed and finally Griffin stood in the middle of the circles. As cold as he was, he was sweating beneath his cloak.
Kernthallian began to chant, sweat dropping from his brow for the slightest of exertions. The runes and circles began to glow a dull green, and then brighter and brighter until tendrils of energy began to flow upwards, enveloping Griffin.
Griffin was dashed across the ethereal plane, tossed like a rag among raging rivers of smoke-like plumes. Up and down were concepts without meaning in this place, and concepts of oblivion and infinity came to mind, but did not wholly contribute to a meaningful description of his experience.
With an explosion that shook him from head to toe, Griffin found himself back in the real world, in the middle of a swamp. Falling.
He landed feet first and sank down in mud, all the way to his knees. The energy field had vanished and he could see again, but either the magic had sent his eyes somewhere else than the rest of his body, or he had landed in the wrong spot. He hadn't expected Mage's End to look like this.
Knee-deep in muddy water, Griffin tried to lift a foot and got a schlurping sound in response. He stepped back down and tried to lift the other foot. Schlurp. He let the bag on his back fall down onto the muddy surface and swiveled his head around. There was no city here. Only mud and water and bushes and rocks. So much for THE ARCANE.
"Excellent work, Kernthallian. Maybe this is exactly why Ursula is with me and not you." Griffin mumbled to himself while trying to free his feet from the mud. He flung the bag in front of him, and managed to lift his foot and take a step forward. Same with the other. Small steps, one at a time, through the wet and the slimy. He used one of the bigger rocks as a landmark and steered towards it, making slow progress.
Closer to the rock, the mud gave way to clearer water and he could wade more easily. The bag perched on his shoulder, with water up to his thighs and sweat running down his back, he was almost at the rock. Almost but not quite.
A white jagged tail swam in front of him and Griffin stopped in midstep. The tail disappeared into the murky water but Griffin didn't move. What was that? It had been too big to be a fish and there could be no spiders that lived in these waters unless it was some new kind that he hadn't heard of.
The hem of his cloak was soaked with water, making the cloak heavy, like it wanted to pull him down into the water, but still Griffin didn't move. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the white slowly circling him, round and round and round.
His heart pounded in his throat. Why couldn't he have learned just a little bit of magic? Something a little ARCANE.
Griffin turned his head around, as far as it would go, and watched as the spiked back ridges of a giant alligator rolled closer. His fist clenched around the bag on his shoulder and he panted like he'd just run all the way to Mage's End and back. Why did these things always have to happen to him?
As he stared, frozen in place, the alligator snapped its jaws and chopped a passing branch in two. Two red eyes stared at him from the milky white head, glowing with all the fires of hell itself. Griffin stared back, mesmerized.
Slowly, slowly, the alligator circled closer, until Griffin could see the jagged scar on the snout. Someone had fought her. Perhaps even won. Either that, or there were still bits of them digesting in her stomach. Griffin decided he wasn't going to stick around to find out.
"Aaia!" He gave up what he thought was a fiery battle cry, swung the bag at the alligator's snout with all his strength and made a run for it.
His feet flew through the water, his wet cloak billowing behind him, stomping across the little tufts of grass he could find, pulling at the bushes, climbing over the rocks. Panting, crying, flailing, all the way up, up, up, until his feet were no longer in the water but on dry ground. On high, dry ground. Only then did he stumble and fall flat on his face, scraping his hands on small rocks until he finally tumbled over on his back.
For a long while, he simply lay there, trying to turn his panting into breathing. His thoughts were occupied with white beasts and eyes of hellfire, of ARCANE circles and Ursula. Always Ursula.
Finally, he managed to lift his head and saw the swamp far down below, looking nothing more than a pond. Somewhere nice to go fishing, perhaps. Except for one particular lizard. He turned his head the other way and spotted something else. A chimney. With smoke rising.
Eyes locked on the chimney, he rolled over on his stomach and pushed himself up. So the magic had gone just a little way off then. Not much, only enough to have nearly killed him. But he pushed himself up on his knees and up on his feet. The chimney didn't look to be too far away, certainly close enough that he could walk there. Walk, find somewhere to rent a room and then pass out.
Straightening his clothes and wiping off the worst of the mud, he noticed a giant eagle staring at him from a nearby tree. Just sitting there, eying him with interest. Griffin picked up a rock and tossed it at the bird, missing by ten feet.
"What are you staring at? Shoo! Get out of here if you're not gonna help out!"
The bird didn't move.
Griffin picked up his things, rearranged his sodden cloak around him and strode toward Mage's End. He'd lost the bag to the alligator but he still had his life, as much as was left of it.
Had he still been watching, he would have sworn that the giant eagle shook his head dismissively at him, before going back to hunting swamp rabbits.
((Warning: Some adult content and vampire silliness!))
“The Opposite of Aplomb”
Grundy could not decide whether his expression should indicate he was really tired or really frustrated, so he tried both to see which fit. He then worried that Lady Fikaris would catch him in between expressions, and might assume he was practicing to tell dramatic bed-time stories to a litter of gully dwarves. So he abandoned those expressions entirely, and instead settled for whatever was the opposite of aplomb.
Across the bar, Yarbo strummed his lute, and launched into a song which contained borrowed rum, stolen rope, a medium-sized farm animal, and a not-too-distant cousin with a physical deformity, which is usually how his love ballads began.
“Someone buy that fat orc a drink!” Grundy grumbled. As he handed Athena the key to her room, he noticed that she did not mirror a typical newcomers’ reaction to Yarbo’s singing, which was a gradual transformation from morbid curiosity to offended horror to utter disgust.
Athena accepted the key offered and smiled. “Thank you. I would like to freshen up before having a bite to eat. How are we doing with the arrangements for the appointments I requested for tomorrow?” she asked, looking over to Yarbo with a chuckle – his singing had not improved one bit with the new venue, but it was a welcomed familiar noise.
"We can make the rounds to talk to all of the merchants, ma'am," Grundy said proudly, puffing up his chest a little. "I'll get word to all of them, as soon as that errand boy shows up. He was last seen guiding some newcomers to their cottage, or some such nonsense, I think. So, if they'll be nothing else for the evening..."
A tall Northlander walked into the tavern. Olef Olafson was still shirtless. He greeted Mate the minotaur bartender with a clasping of both hands, and looked back into the bar at his fellow patrons. He grimaced at the sight of Yarbo, nodded politely at Starla, and then he saw Athena. He held her gaze for a moment, and then scratched his beard in careful consideration. He said something to Mate, who motioned for one of the waitresses.
A kobold waitress scurried to Athena’s table. “The gentleman at the bar wants to know if you would like a drink.”
Athena salivated almost immediately. “Please tell the gentleman at the bar that I’ll accept the drink only if he brings it personally.” Still looking at the breathtaking specimen at the bar she addressed Grundy, “There will be nothing else for the evening. I’ll expect you at dawn for a quick report on the schedule for the day before we are off to meet everyone. Now off you go…” she spared him the shooing motion of her hand, as her interest was completely consumed by the size of the man at the bar.
Grundy sputtered at the mention of dawn, but he was too flustered to argue for a far more reasonable noon-time compromise. The dwarf jammed in a nearly fresh wad of tobacco into his cheek, and stormed away.
Olef laughed when the kobold told him the message, and he pointed to his drink and held up two fingers for Mate. A few moments later, and the smiling Northlander approached Athena with two flagons of rum. "By Odin, you have spirit!" Olef did not bother with asking for permission before taking a seat close to her.
Athena chuckled and thanked her lucky stars and whatever god had something to do with her finding such a perfect match for her. “I hope you don’t spook easily. The name is Athena. And you are?” she asked, reaching out for the drink he had placed on the table.
"Olef Olafson," Olef touched the tribal tattoo on his chest, and mock-bowed, an exaggerated bob of his head. "Maybe we not get off on right foot, with the firewood thing. I do not speak Common so good. Talarðu Northlander?"
Athena only picked up the word ‘Northlander’ but wasn’t bothered in the least by the possible communication problem. “Well, I do not speak Northlander at all, so I think we should order a bottle and see if we can communicate in some other way in my room upstairs. What say you?” she pointed to her glass and then up to the door to her room.
Olef's eyes rounded in surprise, but he did not hesitate nodding his head up and down vigorously in the affirmative. He could not find a waitress quickly enough, and sauntered back to the bar, and after a brief exchange with the mute Minotaur involving terrific hand gestures, returned with a decent elvish reisling.
"It's good?" Olef offered Athena his muscular right arm.
“Good,” she replied with a nod. Athena was so hungry and thirsty, she would have drank rotgut if he had brought some. Trying to keep it as civilized as possible in front of the other patrons at the bar, she gently placed her hand on his arm and rose from her seat. “This way,” she indicated towards the stairs.
When they reached the second landing, she turned to the right and directed them to the room Grundy had arranged for her. Upon reaching the door, she pulled her hand off his arm and reached for the single long key he had given her. “Please come in,” she invited him, walking into the room and waiting for him to follow and for the door to close behind him.
Remembering she did not have a change of clothes available to her, and that it was too late in the afternoon to purchase some, she let her fingers fly through the long column of buttons on her blouse, finishing with the last one as she heard the click of the door lock falling into place.
“I hunger. Do you?” she asked, turning swiftly and approaching him as a lion does its prey.
Olef's big hands landed right above her lips, and he lifted her to kiss her firmly, if a little sloppily. Although the spirit was willing, the flesh was obviously inexperienced. "I hunger for you! Give yourself to Olef!"
And this was exactly why she detested verbal communication in the bedroom. Completely unnecessarily, and mostly mood wrecking. Taking over, she pushed Olef against the bedroom door and intensified their kiss, sliding her hands over his taunt stomach and bulging pectorals, and resting them over his corded shoulders.
Before he could attempt to take the lead, she pressed her body against his, making sure he was very happy to be with her, and then raked her fingernails down the left side of his thick neck, drawing blood. She broke off their passionate kiss, and trailed kissed down his chin to the blood dripping down his neck.
“Yes,” she moaned, dragging her tongue from his collarbone all the way to the deep cuts she had made on his neck. With dexterous hands, she made quick work of the large buckle on his leather belt, and unfastened it, pulling it out and snapping it like a whip. Within a few moments his pants fell to the ground.
"Þú ert falleg!" he exclaimed, slipping back to Northlander in his excitement.
Athena latched on to the cuts on his neck without piercing him further and sucked deeply, trying to keep her moaning to a minimum while building up his moaning with her skilled hands.
Stumbling like a bear awakening from hibernation, Olef picked her up and carried her to the bed. With his large, callused hands, he fumbled beneath the maze of skirting and under skirting, seeking to find and remove her drawers as quickly as he could.
Athena was confused by his obvious inexperience, as a man of his looks and stature would have likely had plenty of familiarity with the ladies. But she didn’t quite care. His blood was thick and intoxicating, like red wine, and with careful guidance, his body would drive her to the same peak he would be reaching much too soon. She wasn’t ready to give up his vein, but her longing had been gnawing at her longer than was acceptable.
On this one occasion, her physical appetite trumped her blood lust, so she was forced to detach from his neck so she could help herself to the most mind blowing ecstasy she had experienced in months. His unintelligible curse, or benediction, confirmed he had reached the same place at the same time. With one last lick at the closing gash at his neck, she detached her body from his and rolled over to take some well deserved breaths.
Olef reclined on the bed, smiling like an idiot. He stretched his arms, and accidentally knocked over the bottle of wine on the bed stand. "Ah, Olef is clumsy after he makes loves with a falleg woman! I will get more!" He pulled up his pants, and headed out the door, smiling at Athena. Once in the hallway, he pat his pockets, and found them empty. "Olef will go get coins first! Be right back!" he yelled through the door.
Athena smiled at the childlike comment coming from the other side of the door and stretched like a cat, only then realizing she was fully clothed but for her drawers. This was probably a first for her – there were no rips on her clothing nor blotches of blood on her blouse! This man may just deserve a second round. Well, it would really be a first round, as the past few minutes could barely be considered an appetizer.
Still in need of more wine, and afraid her naïve bedmate could get lost between the bar and the room, Athena buttoned up the front of her blouse and stormed off the room in search of the bar. Both her man and her wine were prone to be there.
Down at the bar, Olef saw his brother the bar. "Oleg! Give me some coin."
"Too late, brother," Oleg said, lifting his mug. "All spent."
"Bah!" Olef said, and stormed out the bar.
"What is his problem?" Oleg asked Mate.
The minotaur, being mute, said nothing.
“Hello, stranger,” Athena greeted the blond god at the bar, still thirsting and hungering for him. “I hope you are ready for more,” she said, taking a sip from his mug and pulling on his arm to draw him to follow her.
Oleg did not look surprised. It was not as if Oleg had ever been picked up by a beautiful woman in a bar before. Despite this, he was cocky enough to be surprised this had not happened earlier to him, and he said so. "It's about time!" He wrapped an arm around her waist, and followed with single-minded purpose, oblivious that Mate was waving a cautionary hand at him.
The moment they cleared the threshold of her room and the door was slammed shut loud enough to rattle the teeth of the guests on both sides, Athena shoved her delicious prey right back on the bed, and knelt on top of him. Before he could say another word that could ruin the mood, she freed him of his belt and pants once again and straddled him at full force. Without a second thought to decency, she barked out her release to all the gods she knew, and with her body still riding the wave, she collapsed her body on top of his and sank her teeth into his neck.
His cries of pleasure did not change tone as she drew full gulps of his rich blood into her mouth. For a moment she thought he tasted different, but dismissed the thought as quickly as it had come. It was likely the weeks of thirst she had endured. When she started to notice his heartbeat slowing down and feel the muscles of his legs and torso starting to relax, she withdrew her canines and licked the puncture holes, which, surprisingly, were not on top of the scratches she had made earlier. As a matter of fact, there were no scratches at all! She wondered if the size, stamina and healing power of this man was based on magic…
“Olef, you were magnificent,” she admitted, rolling off him to catch her breath. Finally getting the blood her body craved, she could feel herself regaining her strength. She could have drank more to achieve full strength, but she was not sure of how much more she could take from the same guy without him growing sluggish and suspicious.
Maybe after he left her with his silly grin on his face she would freshen up and pick up a second one. She wasn’t sure when she would be coming back to Mage’s End, but what she took tonight would have to last her until then. Greedy was her middle name.
"Yes, I know," he put his hands behind his head. "And my name is Oleg. And Oleg made it with a woman! So much better than..." he then thought better of finishing that sentence. "Oleg is very happy. You want to come home and meet my father? Our camp is not far from town."
“I’m sorry, but I have no interest in meeting your father. And unless you are ready for round three, you best be going before I can’t help myself.” Athena was not usually this crass, but she was disturbed by the thought of being the only woman he had mated with. What else had he tried? And she could have sworn his name was Olef and not Oleg. Darned thick Northlander accent…
Oleg pushed himself off the bed, and walked out of the room, muttering something that could have been a compliment or a curse in Northlander. That was the trouble with a guttural, harsh-sounding language. Oleg would later reflect he probably over-reacted; the rejection should have been measured closer with his overall evening, which was pretty spectacular, especially in the copulation category.
He grabbed his trousers, and, upon realizing he was standing naked in the hallway, sensibly decided to put them on.
Athena was disappointed at seeing him go. She had hoped he would have agreed to a third round, but she was still impressed he had gone twice in a row without more than a drink break. The man, much like herself, seemed insatiable, and completely unaffected by his generous donation of blood. If only he had parted under better circumstances, she could have made arrangements for future visits. What a loss. He had had so much potential…
Her unquenchable appetite begged for more, and drove her out of bed and out of her room after straightening her dress and cleaning up some dry blood from the corner of her mouth. She could very well get lucky again.
Chuckling at the new song Yarbo was attacking the few remaining patrons with, she exited the Inn and walked in the shadows of the small town is search of one last drop. She passed on a few scrawny boys and a half-orc, more orc than human, and would you not believe it, she ran right into her insatiable man leaning on the darker side of a barn! Maybe there was still hope…
“Hey there, remember me? I really do want to apologize for earlier,” she started, hoping that his lower half would influence his upper half to agree to become her permanent fix while in town.
Jormugandr's paint stick was in his mouth, so he could only nod in surprise. There, on an easel in front of him, was a half-finished painting of the two moons. He looked at the painting in embarrassment. Most of the denizens of Mage's End had little use for his hobby, especially his brothers.
Finally figuring out a way to remove the brush without dropping his paint palette, he smiled shyly at Athena. "No hard feelings. It was the heat of the moment, yes?"
“Indeed,” she agreed, taking a moment to admire his artwork by the light of the two moons. “Pretty impressive,” she thought out loud, placing her had on his and thinking of how a few moments ago he had showed her the stars, and now he was showing her the moons…
"I....could paint you," he said. He felt her hand on his, and summoned every ounce of boldness he could muster. "You would look beautiful in the moons light. Maybe....you disrobe?"
Athena was flattered and utterly confused. Going from cocky in bed to sensitive before an easel at the speed of a galloping horse was not the norm for the common man. He was either a very complex man or simply daft. Her coin was on daft, but she remained optimistic.
“That is quite a proposition, and I’m tempted, but I’d rather disrobe for you in a more private place. Maybe you’ll let me taste you one more time, and we can make arrangements for a painting session at a later time,” she offered, lifting her hand from his to caress his smooth face and trail the throbbing vein running down his neck.
“Taste me one more time." Jormugandr meant for it to be a question, but the words inflamed his imagination as well as his libido. What did she mean? Did she refer to a poem? Was she a poet as well? Did she mean their passion was destined? Hands trembling too much to paint anyway, he gently touched her cheek, her neck, her lips with his hand, and then followed his hand's path with his eager mouth.
Athena was pleasantly surprised by his change of tactics. Maybe the third time was the charm. In an encouraging fashion, she grabbed his long blond tresses and pulled him into a tighter kiss, opening her mouth just slightly to prevent him from noticing her extending canines.
He guided her toward the back entrance of the barn, knowing of a bale of hay that would serve his desire well.
Charmed by his gentleness, she allowed him to carry her into the barn and softly place her on a sweet smelling bale of hay. His hands were calmer than before, exploring and caressing all the right places. Athena pondered on how nice it was to allow someone else to take the lead, and just sit back and enjoy the attention. There was no fumbling of rough hands with her skirting. It was more of an unveiling, as he rolled up each layer of fabric and carefully unfastened the buttons on her bodice.
Jormugandr used his hands as if he were playing an instrument, and his tongue as if it was writing a sonnet. At the moment they became one, he cried out in joy. Tears of happiness streamed down his face.
Yet again baffled, first, by his sexual expertise, which he had withheld previously, and second, by his current display of emotion, none of which he had shown before, Athena wasn’t sure of whether to take him home and chain him to her bedpost, or interrogate him about what he had done with his previous self. She went with the later.
“This is the third time we mate this eve, and I could almost swear you’ve acted like a completely different man every single time. Not that I’m complaining, as each time got better, but Why?” she asked, admiring his beautiful muscle ripped back as he knelt by her feet, working her drawers back up her legs.
Jormugandr cocked his head to one side. "Third time? Forgive my inexperience and indelicacy in this matter, but I cannot quite discern what you mean. Do you mean you thrice felt release in your loins?"
Bells went off in Athena’s head at the intonation of his voice and his choice of vocabulary, quite contrary to the previous man she had bedded. “Well, if you must know, it was twice. But that is not what I mean,” she started, thinking back to earlier in the day and the trouble they had found upon entering the town. There had been, indeed, three of them! “Do tell, have you two brothers? What are their names?” she asked, more agitated than she had intended.
"Oleg and Olef. And since we have not yet been formally introduced, my name is Jormugandr" he answered, and realization slowly dawned on his face. "Wait. Are you saying that this is not the first time this evening that you made love....to someone who looks like me? "
"By the cross-eyed goddess! I thought there was something different about you, but in the heat of passion I did not stop to examine closer! The three of you look identical, but your mannerisms are quite different!” Athena wasn’t sure whether to be outraged, or just tickled pink at the mistaken identity. Just imagine, three of them in her bed!
"You bed....both of my brothers?" Jormugandr struggled with the concept. He sat in the hay, befuddled. "Great Thor's Goat! Swear an oath to me that you will never speak of this with them! My brothers...are less reasonable than me. I fear they would resort to rash action."
“As scandalous and fun as it would be to admit to the world that I have bedded all three of you on the same night, I surely would not do so to upset any of you,” she assured him, patting his broad shoulder.
"Now that's resolved," Jormugandr smiled, rising to his feet, and offering Athena a hand. "Let's negotiate further. I would like to see you again. There is still a portrait to be drawn, on some other beautiful night, perhaps. If I could capture a mere reflection of you, it would be the definition of falleg."
“Falleg. I have heard this word before. What does it mean?”
"Why, beautiful, of course," Jormugandr brushed the hay off his backside. He wrapped Athena's arm in his. "May I escort you back to the inn? If we go now, I am certain we can avoid any conflict with my brothers."
So, of course, the first thing they saw when they exited the barn was Olef and Oleg.
Olef or Oleg threw the first punch.
Jormugandr gallantly stepped in front of Athena, but it only accomplished bringing his chin closer to Olef or Oleg’s fist. It was not like Athena was the target of their shared ire.
He howled at pain, shook in anger, and punched the other brother – the one who had yet throw fisticuffs - in the eye.
“She is with me!” one of them said, and then they began wrestling and throwing each other to the ground, a pile constructed of identical triplets at war.
Predictably, it became really hard to tell which brother was which.
Athena could have intervened and separated them with hardly an effort, but as she had managed to copulate with all three of them without bringing any harm to her dress, she would not be risking any tear or wear to the only gown she had in town. She made a mental note to pack a trunk of clothing and leave it in her new office for emergency purposes.
The brawl escalated, and those strong and sweaty bodies intertwined and pounding were making her hungry yet again. If only they would allow her to decide on one of them by their sexual prowess. She figured she could insist on having them all numerous times for weeks on end before announcing it was a three way tie. By then, they could be ready to agree to share like good little brothers…
An old man in rags came running from around the barn. His white hair and beard were wild and bushy, and he had a walking stick with a very elaborate skull carved in the top of it, and under that, some cruder holy symbols of Charon. He looked up at Athena, not understanding.
“Brotherly fight,” she explained, raising and dropping her shoulders as part of her description.
The old man pointed at the three Olafson Sons. "He who makes light of other men. Will be killed by a turnip!" And with that, he bounded off, like a wild animal.
Athena looked at the unusual man wobbling away for a few seconds before focusing once again on the great fight before her. If this was part of the male display of strength before a mating, it was definitely working!
One of them pulled the hair of the other, and another one of them drove his head into his stomach. They then lifted him, and threw him against the side of the barn. Seemingly unphased, he jumped up, and leapt back into the fray, throwing his body sidewise at them, and knocking them all to the ground.
What happened next was a display of the proficiency fighting unique to a warrior's arena or a lifetime of brothers fighting brothers. The distinguishing factor between the two is that the brothers seemed to have no regard for their own personal safety, or had devolved to a primordial berserker state. One brother lifted another on his shoulders, and spun them around until they both crashed to the ground. Then began the body slams, a variation of moves that included picking up and slamming each other to the ground, followed by the headlocks.
They were all in headlocks. their massive arms wrapped around each other's necks, when Josh Savage arrived, followed by the old man.
"Turnips, got it. Thanks, Jasper," the new Sheriff said, looking at the exhausted, but still fighting brothers. "Lady Fikaris, are you well?"
“I’m just fine, my dear Josh, although it seems the Olafson brothers cannot come to terms,” she pointed towards the pile of writhing extremities and bloody heads. “I’d try a bucket of water before attempting to get in there to separate them,” she suggested.
"Don't worry, I've got this," Josh said, and stepped forward to address them. "Everyone stop!"
The brothers did not seem to notice the new Sheriff, and continued trying to wrench each other's heads from each other's bodies.
"I said stop!" Josh drew his sword, and pointed it at them.
The brothers started kicking each other.
“A woman got them into this precarious situation, and I’m thinking it may take a woman to get them out of it,” Athena commented, thinking she may just have to intervene to preserve the sanity and wellbeing of their new sheriff, and the strapping beauty of the three boys.
Josh sighed, and returned his sword to its sheath. "I did not want to have to resort to this, but you have left me with no other choice. Stop this instant, or I get your step-mother!"
The boys ceased struggling, and laid back in the mud, panting.
“Like I said, it would take a woman! How did you know?” Athena asked.
"Jasper told me," Josh indicated the old man. "There is no brawling in the village, except in the pit. Apparently, local tradition allows you to solve problems with your fists, but only if people can bet on the outcomes. So they'll spend the rest of the evening in jail."
“Well, then, I’ll be on my way now. I do hope we can meet tomorrow to discuss some business before I return to The Keep. I’ll be meeting some merchants in the morning, but would love to treat you to lunch, if you are available. My future plans for the Merchant’s Guild in Mage’s End will require close coordination with the town sherriff,” Athena explained, picking up her skirt to walk around the pit up mud the boy’s wrestling match had made.
She's a vampire, Celeste said.
"Yes," Josh answered the ghost, otherwise not reacting to the spectral elf that had materialized beside him.
That could be problematic in a town of Charonites, don't you think?
Jasper looked at the Olafson Sons, and back to Josh. "Upon its noses strideth, Onward the Noseybum!"
"What he said," Josh motioned for the Olafson Sons to follow him to the jail.
As Athena walked back to the Dragon's Head Tavern and Inn, she had no ideas that Mad Wizard Druze watched her every step from the ruins of the nearby tower.
<<OOC: Welcome to the second installment of Throwback Thursday, where we re-post a story from days past that relates to the current plot and characters...or I just liked it a lot! This week's spotlight is on Griffin and Jaik, during their short stint as thieves. This post also is important because it was the start of the downfall of Griffin Hayes, and the curse which led him to Ursula Salming. This was originally posted on yahoogroups Doom Lounge June 2, 2004! Enjoy!>>
The shadows of the grand live oaks that covered the Nobles District offered ample cover for a pair of thieves; considering one of them was not talking incessantly.
“And Lina is more beautiful than a noble’s purse! And with Skye fawning over me, too, I’m not sure what to do. My first instinct is to pursue them both. I mean, I’m young, no one’s married or moved in, sorry, Griff, no offense, but Skye is Ojedan, and Ojedan’s are empathic,” Jaik spoke in a low voice, shooting out thoughts like a mad archer would empty his quiver. Under his thoughts, though, there was no doubt the majority of his attention was on Lina, not the exotic waitress.
Griffin wasn't even paying attention to what his friend was saying, he had other things on his mind. He couldn't wait to get this whole thing over with and go home again. He needed to talk to Starla, to make things right with her. He knew he had been mean to her and he was actually worried that she might have taken the whole thing too seriously. He didn't want to lose her. The thought crept into his mind over and over again, even though he tried to push it away and concentrate on the job.
They arrived at the high walls of a noble’s compound. A blood red banner flew above the wall, displaying a griffon in what was unmistakably a fighting position. “Pretty bold for a noble house named
Mudd, eh?” Jaik asked. “I would think brown would be more appropriate.”
Griffin didn't comment. Trying to get his mind focused, he rechecked his pockets to make sure he had everything he needed with him. "Where'd you hear about this place, anyway? I haven't heard anything in town." He left out the fact that he had been a bit distracted with Starla lately.
“Working at Fikaris Manor. When you run errands, you meet other couriers and errand boys. Each of them wants to impress you with what they know, trying to look more important than you. They are a great source of gossip, and love to brag about the defenses of their hosts. The House Mudd is in a little chaos, since the Countess Mudd was ousted by the Paladin Kerith at the Keep, what are you going to do when a town hero requests your job? , and it seems Countess Mudd likes the ability to come and go as she pleases, without her own guards keeping tabs on her. Take goodness for the rich and eccentric, huh?”
"Hmm," Griffin murmured. "As long as they keep us in business, they can do as they please. Anything particularly nice in there?"
“Nobles have the nicest things," Jaik repeated a street proverb, and shrugged. "One way to find out, right?"
Most noble houses had four entrances of their estate walls, each to the cardinal directions, and each with their own accompaniment of hired warriors. Hidden archers usually covered each of the entrances as well, which spoke considerably more highly over security over hospitality, despite the stone pineapples that adorned many of the entrances, a Praxis tradition that meant hospitality.
The House Mudd, though, was rather snug up against the House Manian on its northside, and only an alley separated the two walls. The dwarven house preferred only to employ dwarven warriors, and the occasional Northlander, and therefore was short of mercenary staff. Being forever practical in a dwarven fashion, they simply walled off their southern entrance - the alley was stifling thin for a broad-shouldered dwarf anyways. This left the unguarded entrance of the Mudd House, filled with a large, strategically placed bush.
Jaik began sliding through the alley, looking warily above for anyone who happened to be walking either of the walls.
Griffin followed Jaik carefully, noticing how much Jaik seemed to have learned about thieving lately. He seemed to be getting pretty good at this, Griffin nodded to himself approvingly. Griffin now moved behind Jaik with quick, light footsteps, trying to hurry. If someone looked down the wall right now, they would surely be seen, since there was no place to hide until they got to the bush at the entrance.
Nearing their goal, they could hear sounds from above. Steps. And the slight clatter of metal. "Go, go, go!" Griffin whispered behind Jaik, so close to him that Jaik could feel the breath on his neck. Jaik was moving as fast as he could without making a sound, which wasn't too easy in the tiny alley.
Griffin was almost running in place behind Jaik, when they finally got to the entrance and practically dove for cover. Jaik was in first, sweeping the thick branches aside and crawling deeper in under the bush. Griffin was right behind him, but when Jaik let go of the branches, they swung back and hit Griffin straight across the face with a smack.
"Oww!" Griffin almost sat straight down, still visible from above. One hand rubbing his cheeks, he seemed to recover quickly, and managed to crawl in after Jaik, cursing him in a low voice.
"Sshh!" Jaik hissed.”You’re really not yourself, today, Griff!”
The sound of footsteps past them, leaving Jaik utterly confused to the pounding he still heard, so close, until he realized that was his heart.
The two moved warily through the giant bush, trying to slip between the branches, making as little noise and stirring of the large plant as possible. If the Countess Mudd used this as a means of escaping her retainers, she must have an enchanted means of passing through this mess, Jaik thought.
And then they came to a blank wall.
"Great!" Griffin muttered, glaring at Jaik. "There's nothing here! You brought us all this way and there's nothing here? I have better things to do with my time, Jaik!" Griffin swung his arms around, frustrated and getting angry.
Jaik looked around, puzzled. There had to be a way in from here, he was sure of it. He ran his hands along the wall, trying to find something, anything to give him a clue.
Griffin was leaning against the wall and he suddenly kicked it with his foot, a hard, angry and frustrated kick, before he slid down to sit on the ground. Then a very low, rumbling sound made him look up again.
Jaik also looked up and then his face lit up. "Griffin, you found it! You found the secret entrance!"
"I did?" Griffin got up on his feet again, feeling slightly foolish. He should have known there would be a secret entrance. "I mean, of course... a secret entrance. All decent houses have them. It was just a matter of finding it."
Jaik shifted form, his form morphing slowing into a blonde haired halfling with eyes almost too big for his face.
Griffin looked at the new Jaik with a tilted head. "And what in the world are you supposed to be now?" he said, with just a tiny bit of sarcasm in his voice. He could not figure out how a figure like that fit into all of this.
"Why, the courier, of course," Jaik said, and darted in the darkness.
Griffin quickly followed him, this was no place to get lost on his own. It was totally dark at first, and he couldn't see a thing, only hear Jaik right in front of him. Then slowly he thought he could see something ahead, as the light was slowly increasing.
All of sudden Griffin realized they were in a hallway, definitely inside the house. He had no idea what sort of route they had actually taken, but they were finally inside. The hallway wasn't lit, but there was enough light so that he could see where he was going. Right now he simply followed Jaik, since he seemed to know where he was going.
Turning a corner, Jaik suddenly stopped and backed right into Griffin. "What..." Griffin started, before Jaik waved his hand in Griffin's face to shush him. Someone was coming.
A large, dark figure moved down the hallway, heading straight for the alcove Jaik and Griffin had retreated into. The shadows and the shuffling of the feet made Jaik think that this was not a man, but a creature, a tame monster of the House of Mudd, cultivated for the specific purpose of eating the bones of thieves. He completely forgot he looked like a courier of the house, and did his best not to move a hair - he was even holding his breath.
The figure lumbered closer, and abruptly turned down an adjacent hallway. The light from the hallway revealed a battle-scarred half-orc, a huge fellow at least seven feet tall and walking with a limp. What could hurt a creature like that, Jaik did not want to know.
"Let's go," Griff had to say to get Jaik moving again.
"Right," Jaik said, and crept down the hallway once more. Sadly, this was about the point his supply of acquired information ended.
The hallway was as dark as a crypt, and much cooler than the outside. Jaik and Griffin found their way slowly down the hallway, until they came to a large oaken door with a huge lock.
"Let me give it a shot," Jaik whispered. It was time he put Griff's training to use. It wasn't speaking elven, but it was still good to know, Jaik thought with a smile, as he pulled out his lock picks.
Griffin pressed his back against the wall, keeping watch for roving guards, like that half-orc beast that had just missed them. No reason in the world to take extra chances - this was already beginning to feel foolhardy.
The lock made a clicking noise that was infernally loud, but it opened. Jaik beamed proudly at his mentor.
"Yeah, you're a genius," Griff said gruffly, but still smiling proudly at his apprentice. "Now get a move on."
They entered the room, which was lit by an unsmoking torch – clearly magical. The room itself was filled with nothing but chests.
"Jackpot!" Jaik said, as Griff secured the door behind them. "Where do we start?"
Griff bent down to the largest chest in the middle, and began working its lock. He checked for traps, and disengaged a small needle, dripping with poison. "Nasty," he said, as he finished jimmying the lock.
Later, Griff would think back that he had been too confident. One disengaged trap did not mean others did not exist. At the time, he felt nothing but the euphoric rush of discovering treasure. The tingling on back of his neck was a part of the excitement, he had wrongly assumed.
The chest was full of jewelry and jeweled objects - clearly heirlooms, and all extremely valuable. Thinking of Starla, Griff pulled out a necklace first, and then moved on to the gauntlets and goblets that would make living easy for a few seasons, depending on how fast he could squander it.
Jaik opened a smaller chest, and emptied it of the Chicoran Trading Gems he found inside. In the bottom, he found an exquisitely crafted dagger and hilt, which seemed to have a slight glow, blue in tint.
"Enchanted, no doubt!" Jaik said, and strapped it around his belt. "Hey, are there any pearls in there?"
The tingling on back of Griff's neck would not go away, and an odd feeling at the base of his skull, spreading like a fever. He mistook it for intuition. "Let's go," he said, and closed his sack tightly.
"But we could take so much more," Jaik exclaimed. "I haven't even found a gift for Lina."
"I have a bad feeling," Griffin said, not even looking back. It was as if someone else was there, looming in the shadows. Or something...
"Oh," Jaik said, and closed his own sack. He carefully closed the chest, locking it behind him. Praxis City was as superstitious as the next town, and where magic and demons thread, it was best not to push one's luck.
They had barely made it back to the concealed exit when they heard the sound of armor and many footsteps.
"Must have been a magic alarm," Griffin said, a little pleased at his instincts. "Come on. If we can get to the alley, we are home free."
Jaik thought of the wall and the alley as an archer's practice range, but followed anyway. The thought that he could stash his items in a quiet place and pose as the courier did not occur to him until much later.
They dived out the entrance, and closed it behind them. Although the fog still concealed them to a point, Jaik thought he could make out figures moving on the wall, to block their escape.
"This is it," Jaik muttered to himself. "We're doomed."
Griff plunged into the over-sized bush, fighting his way to freedom. He burst out of the limbs on the other side, and dived outside the hole in the wall, with Jaik close at his heels.
And then Jaik understood. A few feet away, there was a sewer grate. The grate moved easily, and Griff and Jaik were soon ankle-deep in filth, but out of arrow shot.
"Your plan stinks," Jaik said, covering his mouth.
"At least we're alive," Griff said. "And shift back into your usual form. A courier of the House of Mudd down here is more suspicious than a courier from the Fikaris residence."
"Ah," Jaik said. He had completely forgotten he had assumed a different form. He concentrated, and slowly began shifting back into Jaik Savage, rogue extraordinaire. For the briefest of moments, his features twisted into something not quite human or half-elf, something grey in form, with large grey vessels protruding from its hairless form. And then Jaik was back, and the alien image erased. "Good call."
"Let's go down a few grates and get out of here," Griff said, weighing his sack on his shoulder as he walked. This had been a good haul, he thought. The tingling on his neck had subsided, feeling only mild discomfort.
Reagan Mudd stood in her treasury, surveying the area as Nok and several other large half- orcs searched the room.
"What did they take?" an ancient gnome woman entered the room, leaning on her staff.
Nok opened the large chest, revealing it to be mostly empty. The nearly giant half-orc picked up the chest, and showed it to Countess Mudd.
Reagan stepped over, noticing the magical runes inside were missing. She smiled at her major domo. "More than they bargained for, I can promise you that.
The ancient gnome shifted her stance, seeking a comfortable position her old bones denied to her. "Shall I alert the Watch, milady?"
"No, Daimon. The trickets were from a pirate ship, and not worth the attention of the Watch," Reagan answered. "And if I'm right, the thief that opened this chest will soon prefer a hanging from the Watch than what he or she will soon endure..."
Nok chuckled; a deep, troubling noise that echoed off the bare walls.
The Semi-Secret Arcane Order of Truth Seekers gathered in their secret chambers/former janitor’s lounge of the Wizard’s Guild.
A house-cat size beetle moved lethargically on the table in front of Kernthallian, Grace, Parzazian, and Bilge. It was a dull brown color, brightened by two glowing green-yellow spots on its carapace.
“Well, I brought the fire beetle,” Parzazian sighed. He rubbed the bridge of his nose as if waiting for a few moments was entirely too taxing. “Do you think we’ll find out this promised source soon?”
Kernthallian’s face turned red; the corpulent elf instantly became defensive. “She said we would, didn’t she? It would behoove all of us to wait patiently. It is not every day that the order gains a new source of power.”
They watched the fire beetle move its legs slowly across the table in the flicker of the candlelight.
“What do you think it is?” Grace asked.
Bilge shrugged. “Something extraplanary. Something that requires a higher level of conjuration, at least,” he said in his flat voice, emotionless except for a faint sarcasm.
“Do you think it’s safe?” Parzazian asked.
“Would it make a difference if it was not?” Kerthallian retorted.
It was Parzazian’s time to shrug. “I guess not.”
“Esteemed colleagues,” Ursula said, entering the room. “I see you are all here. Let’s begin.” She grabbed the fire beetle, and raised it above her head. It shrieked as she brought it down hard against the stone table, breaking its shell. As the luminous liquid leaked from the carapace, Ursula spread it quickly, making one circle, and then another, and then writing runes in between.
“See?” Bildge said. “That’s a summoning circle!”
Kernthallian put a short, stubby finger in front of his pale, thin lips, silencing his comrades as Ursula began to chant.
The candles began to dance and sputter, and fill the air with smoke. The smoke had an acrid smell, and left the taste of copper or blood in their mouths.
“Usually infernal smells of sulfur, and abysmal of…” Parzazian whispered.
“Hush!” Kerthallian stage-whispered.
“…despair!” Parzazian whispered back.
Ursula’s chants grew in timbre, reverberating off the stone walls of the former custodian lounge, and echoing so that it was hard to tell where her chanting ended and the echo began.
The air was rendered above the table, and an impossible blackness appeared in front of them. Inside the darkness to end all darkness, something moved.
“That’s the void!” Bilge said, half-rising to his feet.
“I don’t have a good feeling about this,” Grace said.
“Relax,” Parzazian drawled. “We are fine, as long as nothing breaks that summoning circle. Really, that’s elementary summoning. Ursula would not do this if it was not perfectly safe.”
And then Ursula scratched through the summoning circle with the dead beetle’s body. “Thool! Come and take them! I do this for you!”
Massive tentacles uncoiled from the darkness. Each wrapped around a wizard, and picked them out of their chairs.
A last tentacle reached for Ursula, and she fell to her knees, kissing it. “Master! I do this for you!”
“What does despair smell like?” Grace whimpered.
“Wait! You can’t do this!” Parzazian screamed.
“I told you it was extraplanary,” Bilge said smugly.
And then their eyes turned red, and all was silent. They were released back into their seats, and the tentacles slowly retreated into the rift.
“Thool! Master. Your Acolytes of the Void serve you.”
“Thool. Master. Your Acolytes of the Void serve you,” the Order repeated.
“Too bad Griffin missed this,” Ursula smiled, and stroked the tentacle lovingly before it withdrew into the Void.
"Crows in my inner sanctum"
Ree led Del by the hand. The kobold sorcerer held on tightly, having no clue where they were going, and having a hard time summoning any reasonable portion of precaution.
"I had assumed we would drink here," Del said.
"That was silly of you!" Ree mock-scolded, but did not explain.
"Yes," he could only agree. Bemused, the only thing that mattered to Del was holding onto her hand, to follow wherever she might take them. Del was so oblivious to anything else that he accidentally bumped into Starla's leg. "Excuse me!"
The bag on his hip squirmed with displeasure. "Sorry, Ted!" Del whispered to his tentacled stowaway in the bag of holding.
"No, her name is Starla," Ree said helpfully. "She's an elf!"
"Sorry, Starla Elf," Del said obediently, following her through a small crowd of dwarves playing a darts game called Goblin's Eye and onwards out of the door of the Dragon's Head Tavern and Inn.
Starla lurched suddenly, nearly collapsing on a table.
Zek Stark was at her side in an instant. His usual devils-may-care expression was gone, replaced with concern. "Are you alright?"
Starla let Zek assist her into a chair. She fought back the taste of bile. "Just got dizzy, I'm already better."
Zek fussed over her for a bit, and they agreed on some water and to sit outside for a moment to enjoy the healing properties of a proper evening breeze.
As soon as he left, she pushed back her sleeve, revealing eight small dots of descending size tattooed to her arm. For the first time in decades, they ached. They throbbed.
"I put a little honey in the water," Zek said, returning with a mug.
"Oh, good," Starla covered her arm, concealing the marks of a former Acolyte of the Void. She took an obligatory sip from the mug, hiding her expression. "I am sure all will be well," she lied.
Psyche prowled the perimeter of the village, making the shadows familiar…and hers.
For years, her routine had been a nightly patrol through Praxis City; it seemed only fitting to do the same at Mage’s End, learning the town, absorbing the sights and sounds, the barely perceived zephyrs of cause and effect.
She had learned the time the giant frogs began their singing. She had traced the path of the lone cow, its rope dragging the stake which had failed to keep her tethered, as she slipped down to the swamp’s edge for the sweeter grass. She noted the gathering crows, and pretended to ignore the sets of eyes which followed her.
Grigsby followed her from what he hoped was a safe distance. He ducked behind rain barrels and hid behind walls, peeking shyly as Psyche silently moved through the evening mists, his swamp angel.
The halfling boy had seen her pass between the swamp and the Nest, spying her through the boards of the walls of the former stall he shared with his father. He slipped past his mumbling father and the gully dwarves snoring in the hallway, finding her as irresistible as the beckoning light of a will-o-the-wisp, of the harpy’s siren’s call.
She paused to study the crows, and Grigsby slipped closer, finding a hiding place next to a gnarled knot on the trunk of a weeping willow.
“Crows in my inner sanctum
I cannot abide.
I adore the cardinals,
Marvel at my hummingbirds,
Greet the odd painted bunting,
Tolerate the rudeness of the blue jay,
Ignore the dishonest cowbird,
Make amends with the fat squirrels.
But I cannot abide
Crows in my inner sanctum.”
Grigsby tried to screech, but Jasper put a hand over his mouth. The gnarled knot was instead a gnarled old man, the mad Jasper.
Jasper moved his filthy hand when he finished his whispered poem, put a finger to his own lips, and then pointed at Psyche. “You see beauty walking the night?”
Grigsby nodded, cringing. Jasper’s breath smelled of dead things and rum.
The madman grinned, and leaned his head closer to Grigsby, a terrifying prospect, given the hygiene of a homeless person with mental problems. He whispered his secret to Grigsby. “I see our high priestess.”
The crows fussed among themselves and flew off into the night.
“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by
madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn
looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly
connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night” – from the Howl, by Allen Ginsberg
Thanks to triplet barbarian lumberjacks and a rat queen, every cell in the sheriff’s office was full. It was Josh Savage’s first night at sheriff, and he had to turn away Jasper, the crazed old man who muttered poetic nonsense from his usual bed in Cell Number 3.
Josh sat at his desk, weighing the pros and cons of the role of a village sheriff with that of his former position as a city watch detective. Although the positives included a refreshing lack of paperwork, the spectre of moving his wives to Mage’s End on short notice unbalanced his mental scales considerably.
He was lost in thought when a small figure appeared at the open door. Her white dress clung to her small frame.
Josh jumped to his feet, his heart pounding. He felt embarrassed; he had been haunted by ghosts no one else could see since he was a small child, and had taken apparently undeserved pride in assuming he was not easily startled.
“Young lady, what are you doing?” he almost said, but barely got half the words for his lips before he realized who this child was. She was a younger reflection of Celeste, just as he remembered her. Chin held high, proud cheekbones and sharp ears of elvish heritage, and long, white curly hair, spilling from her head in every direction. Her eyes were sky blue, the type you could believe could peer through your soul. Josh searched her face, and noted her eyebrows were thicker than Celeste’s, and she had a small indentation above her top lip – just like him. “Jessafine?”
“Did you hear it?”
“What?” Josh looked toward the cells. The prisoners offered no assistance. He knew he would meet his daughter soon, but had expected the conversation to make more sense.
“The howl.” Jessafine spoke the words slowly and clearly.
“Umm…no,” Josh admitted. He felt like he was failing on his side of the conversation already, and making a lousy first impression. He stood tall and adjusted his chainmail shirt by pulling it down slightly. “What howl?”
Jessafine looked crossly at Josh. Yes, those knotted eyebrows were definitely Savage. She held out her hand for his.
Powerless to do anything else, he took her hand and followed, looking back at the prisoners as if in apology.
After they had gone, Olef Olafson groaned.
“What is it?” Oleg asked.
“Now Olef is thirsty,” the Northlander squeezed a massive arm between the bars, and made a weak gesture at the bucket of water on top of Josh’s desk. “So thirsty…”
“Now Oleg is thirsty, too!”
“Stop whining,” Marrina said. She shifted into a large rat, and slipped between the bars. Turning back into human, she delivered the bucket and ladle to all three brothers, and returned to her cell in the same manner.
Josh and Jessafine stood at the edge of the swamp.
“I’m sorry, Jessafine,” Josh said. “But even if I did hear it, we could not go any further. The swamp is unsafe, especially at night.”
Jessafine crossed her arms. “I know that. I have lived in Mage’s End all my life. But something is hurt! We have to do something. It sounds so sad.”
And then Josh heard it. A long, low howl. Plaintive. Mournful, even. He placed an uncertain hand on Jessafine’s shoulder, and was relieved when she did not pull away. “Jessafine, I am so sorry to disappoint you. Really I am. But that could be a trick. More than one creature makes false noises to lure prey. In Praxis City, the Giant Haylett Spiders can sound like a child crying out.”
“We are not in Praxis City,” Jessafine pointed out.
“Yes,” Josh admitted. “But my point is that we don’t know enough to venture into the swamp. You have ogres, right? An ogre could injure a creature to lure others for a bigger meal. You know this, Jessafine. You have lived in Mage’s End. You know the dangers.”
They listened for awhile in silence.
“At first light, we will go and investigate,” Josh said.
Jessafine considered this for a moment, chewing on her lower lip, just as Josh used to do before he developed the habit of rubbing his bearded chin when pondering.
“Do you promise?”
“Of course,” Josh said. He saw a flicker of motion behind him, and smiled at the apparition approaching. Here was a way to rescue their first meeting, he decided. Finally, his unique ability to see and talk to ghosts would be more than just a curse. “Jessafine. If you could, would you like to talk to your mother?”
The ghost of Celeste floated behind them, looking at father and daughter with a knowing smile.
Jessafine turned and looked. “Oh, hi, Mom. You were right. He said I had to wait, too.”
“The Cackling Kobold”
The first thing Del noticed was their hand scales fit together like puzzle pieces, crafted for the purpose of holding each other.
The second thing Del noticed was Ree avoided the streets and pathways. She circled the buildings, keeping a wall next to them or running wildly between open spaces when she could not.
At first, Del had thought she was avoiding the mud, or perhaps this was her way of compensating from a life of living in caverns and warrens. However, her worried glances to the sky made him consider the other alternatives. They crouched next to a well, peering up at the night sky. “Is there something that could fly down and get us?” he whispered.
“Giant eagle,” Ree shared. “She could snatch up a kobold as easy as swamp rabbit, you know.”
Del’s eyes stayed glued to the sky, until Ree placed her hand on his cheek, and gently directed his gaze to her smiling eyes.
“We’re here!” she chirped. “Welcome to the Cackling Kobold distillery! It’s the first ever! Not distillery, I mean, there are, what? Hundreds of places that make rum. This one is the first that kobolds own and operate. Well, with the help of Councilman Westin.”
Some boards hung loosely from the walls, and the crudely painted sign of a barrel was a good breeze away from falling in the mud. The door fought the hinges as they entered the building. Inside was in a worse state of disrepair. Barrels lined the wall, some shattered, and a single mule walked around in a circle, tethered to a sugar mill. Next to it was a sugar cane press. Next to it was a pile of sugarcane.
A short, balding pudgy man with grey skin, and curious red eyes barked orders at three kobolds, which ran around the room. By the time he would get one on track, the other two would go astray from their task.
Del felt dizzy.
“Isn’t it grand? We call it the Cackling Kobold.” Ree helped herself to a mug from the floor, and dipped it into one of the open barrels. She sipped it, and offered it to Del.
Del could not refuse the fetching young kobold, and drank.
“What do you think?”
Del was saved from admitting it had a sweet aftertaste, but otherwise was like drinking muddy water from an old boot, when a canine yowl echoed from outside.
“Well, that’s wraps up this shift,” the human said. His red eyes darted nervously through the room. “Let’s go check and make sure the children are safe!” He pushed aside a rug on the far side of the room, and opened a trap door. The other kobolds followed him down, pulling the trap door down behind them. The rug was attached by a string to the trap door, and nicely scooted back over the trapdoor when it was shut.
“That’s the way to the spiders. Council Westin is one of them, you know,” Ree whispered, although as far as Del could tell, they were completely alone.
“He is a…spider?” Del asked.
“Aranea,” Ree whispered, and put her finger to her lips. “Secret!”
“Alright…” Del said.
“Let’s go hide!” Ree said.
They were barely outside when another howl cut through the night, louder this time. Not slowing down, they skirted the butcher shop, the cobbler shop, and came to a building that used to be a stable.
Ree ducked inside one of the canvas pieces replacing fallen parts of the wall, and into a hallway.
Del saw two gully dwarves huddled together in one former stall among heaps of trash and debris. Another stall contained a halfling lad, who attended to an elderly halfling resting on a cot.
Del followed Ree up a ladder to the hayloft, and into a large pile of pinestraw. The inside had been hollowed out and reinforced with mud. Pieces of different colored glass were stuck into ceiling, like stars in the sky. The mud on the walls had crude sketches of cartoonish roaches. Dead flowers were stuck into the straw parts of the wall in random places. A broken lantern, a backpack missing a strap, and a stuffed bear doll littered the floor.
Ree handed Del the mug of rum. She raised her arms in pride, squealed, and collapsed on the remains of a feathery mattress.
“Welcome to my home!” Ree said.
Outside threats included a giant eagle, something that howled, and people who were spiders. And, as always, Lady Fikaris. Lady Fikaris had no idea how to find him if she needed him.
The rum still tasted like muddy water in an old boot.
Del could not be happier.
<<OOC: Welcome to the third installment of Throwback Thursday, where I re-post a story from days past that relates to the current plot and characters...or I just liked it a lot! This week's spotlight is on Griffin and Starla, with Fafnir thrown in for a little fun!>>
"Plat-eye and the Lost Art of Courtship"
The bed sheets were as twisted as a hangman's conscience. Grimacing under intense concentration, Fafnir Savage slipped a booted foot slowly toward the floor. The springs creaked, and even the goose-feathers in the mattress crunched too loudly to Fafnir's ears. Holding his breath, he shifted his weight onto the floor, silently cursing at the creak of the wooden planks under foot. Still feigning sleep, Fafnir risked opening one eye to a narrow slit, fearing the worst.
The Widow Grimke was still asleep, her breath deeply drawn over her terse, thin-lipped mouth. Her sharp gray eyes darted under heavy lids, no doubt looking for something to disapprove. The center of her affections lay coiled up in her lap, an added protective measure against amorous intent.
The Chicoran Sloth Lizard pet was an unpleasant cross between a shedding furry iguana and a miniature dachshund with a narcolepsy problem. It watched him through one droopy, malevolent eye.
Fafnir relaxed, wondering what had gone wrong. He had followed Griffin 's advice closely, becoming a suitor only after carefully picking through a thoroughly researched list of well-to-do women. Margaret was still a handsome woman, of around forty summers. Gray had not touched her red temples and her figure, while no longer as full as a young maiden's, was still proportioned in a satisfactory manner, staving off the ravages of gravity and time.
The dinner had gone well. Fafnir was certain he had charmed at least half of the residents of the Manor Grimke, including her daughter Annabelle, and Margaret's former husband's sister Midge. The taciturn man-at-arms never so much as smiled at Fafnir's usual array of jokes, but you can't very well win them all. It would have been hard to detect a smile under that white walrus mustache anyway. Rastis was his name. The whole crossed-arms over chainmail and disapproving stare grew old quickly of course. Perhaps the elderly guard had grown used to being the man of the house. Fafnir took pleasure in imagining firing him, if he were to become lord of this manor.
Disapproving guardians aside, Fafnir had been sure he had been doing well. With grace, good manners, and a tidy fortune from her late husband, Margaret Grimke should have been the perfect match.
Perhaps it was the way she came to bed fully clothed. Even now, she wore not only her nightshift and stockings, but a full array of petticoats. She even wore a cotton night cap to bed, further concealing herself from her would-be lover, as if the board between them was not enough. The practice was called bundling, since it usually also involved sewing an unmarried couple in separate sheets as a pitiful attempt at birth control. It was an impractical practice of the Northern colonies, established by their religious zealot founders, and had no place anywhere lower on the coast than Innsmouth, in the better cultured Southern colonies.
Perhaps it was her disdain at his habit of sleeping with his boots on, or the fact his rapier was never too far from his hand. She also did not care for the artistic abandon of the rest of his clothes, strewn over the room in a strategic pattern, claiming a little of her otherwise well-kept room for himself.
Perhaps it was the smell of mustiness and mothballs that lingered in the house, as if the night air had never been allowed to invade its sanctum.
Perhaps it was the overabundance of useless but well-crafted mahogany furniture that cluttered the rooms and walkways, and their incessant habit of referring to them in Cadessi terms to make them sound more valuable. How many vanities, serving tables, chests, dressers, and ottomans does one family truly need? And what in the name of the Seven Kingdoms was a coiffeuse?
Perhaps it was the portrait of her former husband, glaring at him from above the chimney at the foot of the bed. The man had been quite large in life, and it seemed fitting the town's best barrelmaker was barrel-chested. The former caskmaker's unruly mustache was only outdone by the garish curl of his long bangs, reminding Fafnir of a catfish. One eye seemed larger than the other on that unpleasant face, and Fafnir could have sworn it seemed to be glaring at him harder the longer he looked at it.
What was it the half-orcs called the baleful one-eyed spirits, unburied dead frightening those from buried treasure?
As Fafnir reached for his white linen shirt, the word rose from his memory like a phantom.
He had learned the word from one of Yarbo's songs. Vampire Bards and the Dwarf Plat-Eyes that Stalk Them. Although usually he loved gathering information of any sort, he suddenly wished he had never asked what a plat-eye was.
Hastily tucking his white linen shirt into his breeches, Fafnir left his cravat dangerously untied, pulling his best waistcoat and coat from a nearby ottoman, as he tip-toed towards the door.
The bar was half-full.
Lanterns in the rafters cast the usual exaggerated shadows through the pipe smoke, and across the wooden floor.
Starla rushed between patrons, whose thirst seemed unquenchable this evening. Six orders of Blue Toad Ale meant she needed twelve silver pieces from Table Four, and she was certain Table Eight had not paid for their Snake Bite and Whiskey Chasers.
"When you get a chance," Grundy glowered, nodding to his empty mug of Gnomish Ale.
Starla gave him a terse nod, and began gathering silver. The grumpy old dwarf would have to wait. The only relief this evening came in the form of Yarbo, slumped over a corner table. His long tresses covered his face, and a small pool of drool or ale gathered at his lips. His snoring sounded like a lame mule trying to fight its way out of an Ogre's intestines, but was still a vast improvement from his folksong repertoire. Two silver coins lay at his head, donated by some grateful wag.
The smuggler Zek Stark walked in the door, running a hand through his prematurely white hair. With a sparkle in his purple eyes, he announced "Another round on the house!"
The bar cheered, except for Starla.
"What a time for Fafnir to take the night off!"
Griffin walked in after Stark, just in time to hear the crowd cheering and stomping their feet in appreciation. Normally Griffin would have joined the crowd to get his share of the free drinks, but he had better plans for tonight.
He made his way further inside, trying to locate his girl. His mind was made up and he was too excited to wait anymore. Nothing would make him put this off any longer. He quickly found her at the bar, loading up her tray for another round through the crowded room. She had her back turned towards him, but turned around before Griffin had a chance to say anything.
“Oh, it's you" Starla said. “Listen, let me take care of a few orders, and I'll get your rabbit stew.
“Baby, just wait a minute." Griffin sidestepped around her to block her way. He held out his hands in front of him, trying to keep her from moving away. “I want to talk. To you," he added hurriedly, not being able to hide his excitement. “I mean, we need to talk." He shook his head, trying to get his words straight. This had to be done right.
“Griff, this really isn't a good time" Starla said. Drink orders were being yelled from across the bar. The patrons reacted to the smuggler's offer of a free round as if it had a expiration time of a few heartbeats.
“Can't we go someplace?" Griffin tried to coax her. “Backroom? Just for a minute. I really need to talk to you." He smiled and looked her straight in the eyes, trying to bring out the boyish, charming side of him she had never been able to resist. “I'll make it worth your while, I promise."
"Go ahead, I'll cover." Skye brushed between them, carrying a serving tray heavy with drinks, and a mug of Blue Toad with her tail.
Starla hesitated, still not sure. She turned to say no, but then caught the glare of Burg, frowning over another tray of full drinks. “Alright" she shrugged. “But I can't stay long. Let me drop off this last tray first."
“Great!" Griffin nodded and watched as Starla delivered the drinks to a table full of thirsty customers, making sure no-one would detain her. His business couldn't wait, or he would lose the confidence to go through with this. When she came back, he put his arm protectively around her back, guiding her towards the room behind the bar.
Starla allowed herself to be led, in a tired daze. From Psyche Savage sparring with a customer to the inevitable rush of business after a good fight, it had been a long evening.
Griffin opened the door to let Starla enter first, carefully closed the room behind them. He knew this wasn't the best place possible for what he had in mind, but he didn't want any interruptions. The room was hardly romantic either. Both the floorboards and the walls were raw and unpainted. Boxes containing opened and unopened bottles alike were stacked around the room, the straw used to pack the boxes were strewn around the floor. The room was mainly used as storage, although sometimes someone would retreat to it for some privacy. And it wasn't as if Griffin and Starla hadn't used the room before for some of their more intimate encounters.
“What do you want, Griff?" Starla asked.
Griffin suddenly felt nervous. His lips were dry as he tried to think of how he should start. He'd had a whole speech prepared beforehand, but all of his ideas were gone now. He kept running his tongue over his lips, feeling the moisture drying away again instantly.
He stepped up to Starla and carefully took her hand in his, gently rubbing her fingers. She didn't pull her hand back and he took that as a good sign. “I know it's been hard for you," he started quietly. “You've been through so much, because of me." He looked up and saw her staring down at their joined hands. “I want to make it all up to you."
“You could wait a few tables," Starla said, with an impatient smile. “Listen, I've got to get back out there, luv. What are you trying to say?"
“I'm...” he started and then stopped again, swallowing. He hadn't known it would be so hard to make the right words come out. “I'm saying we should try again. You and me. I know we can make this work." He could see Starla was shifting her weight around a little impatiently, but he was anxious to make her understand. “I've never felt like this about anyone, ever. You're the best thing that ever happened to me." He was talking faster now, still gripping her hand in his. “I don't want to lose you Starla."
“What are you talking about? You're daft, Griffin Hayes," Starla said, trying to pull her hand away.
"I mean it, Starla. I've never loved anyone in my life. I didn't even know what it felt like until you came along. And I know you still love me, right?" He still held her hand, not wanting to let her go.
"Oh, Griff," Starla mumbled under her breath.
A loud knock on the oak door startled them both. A muffled voice from the other side called for Starla.
Automatically, the Elven waitress began moving to the door.
"No, wait a second!" Griffin quickly grabbed her elbows to stop her from moving away. "Listen. Just give me a chance. This will be perfect, I promise. We've even got Fafnir's blessing. I mean, I know how much he means to you, and he thinks it's wonderful," Griffin rambled on, trying to get to the point.
Something about Griffin 's instance made her remember the snake-skin, his writhing on the bed. Her feeling of discomfort was replaced by fear. "Stop," she said weakly, as she tried to wriggle through his grasp.
"Marry me, Starla." Griffin finally managed to get the words out, still gripping her arms tightly, feeling the panic rise. "I want you to marry me."
The door pushed opened. "Starla? Rache!"
"No! Wait!" Griffin hissed, annoyed at being interrupted.
Moving uncommonly fast, the Northlander erupted off his barstool, coming at Griffin as a large blur, mostly consisting of muscles and purpose.
Griffin quickly let go of Starla, desperately trying to fight Rache off, but there was nothing he could do as Rache simply grabbed him.
Rache carried the thief by the scruff of his shirt through the bar, dangling him as if he was a bad puppy, knocking against the occasional chair or table as he went.
"Rache! Don't!" Griffin tried to object. "You don't understand!" He tried to wrestle himself free, but there was no use, he could only helplessly be dragged along by Rache.
Rache climbed up the steps to Doom Lounge's entrance, and kicked open the doors. Effortlessly, he tossed Griffin into the barrel underneath the Red Rum Inn's rainspout, on the other side of the dock.
In the backroom, Skye held Starla tightly to her chest. "What's wrong now? I sense a different sort of panic."
"I.. can't....breathe!" Starla gasped.
"Sorry!" Skye shifted her grasp from around her neck. "He scared you."
"Yes," Starla said, remembering her irrational fear. She rubbed at her right eye absently, pulling her thoughts together. Was she now scared of Griffin ? Wasn't he supposed to be cured? Then why couldn't she see him, and think of the snake scaled demon had had almost become?
Rache settled back into his seat, accepting a fresh mug of mead without saying a word.
Fafnir Savage crept down the long hallway from Margaret Grimke's bedroom to the front door, silently cursing every creaking floor board, and when his scabbard clanged against the endless maze of end-tables that littered his escape path.
"I'm getting too old for this sort of shenanigans," Fafnir mumbled.
A door opened at the far end of the hallway, and Fafnir could hear the sound of rustling chainmail.
Fafnir froze in his tracks, willing himself unsuccessfully to blend into the shadows. Of all the residents to encounter in the house, it was Old Rastis that he most wanted to avoid. Desperate and unwilling to retreat back into Margaret's boudoir, Fafnir dodged an armoire, and slipped into the darkness behind a cracked door.
Fafnir listened to the slow, plodding footsteps of Rastis walk past his sanctuary, and down the hall.
"Mister Savage, is that you?"
"Annabelle!" Fafnir recognized the soft, syrupy voice, and breathed a sighof relief. "Listen, I can explain." Fafnir turned and squinted into the pale candlelight. Yet another furniture-crowded bedroom. Dozens of tiny, crude porcelain statuettes of cats peered down at him with painted black eyes. He recognized them as the work of Madam Hesting's shop, and remembered how he had often wondered who would buy such a useless knick-knack. Annabelle had enough of them to guarantee Old Woman Hesting would remain fed throughout the winter months.
"I knew from dinner," Annabelle said, her voice taking a slightly more husky quality. She was reclining on one elbow in her four poster bed, smiling demurely at Fafnir. With her mother's red hair, round face, cute pixie nose, and only twenty summers old, Annabelle was not unattractive. Nor was she thin; she had unfortunately inherited the barrel-like figure of her father.
"That I would escape?" Fafnir asked, wondering if this happens often to her mother's potential suitors.
"Escape into my room," Annabelle said, slipping out of the sheets.
Fafnir stopped breathing for a moment when he realized Annabelle did not inherit her mother's practice of over-dressing to bed.
"That's a small petticoat," Fafnir tried to say, before her strong arms pulled him into an awkward embrace and an even more awkward kiss.
"I've looked forward to this day since I was a little girl," she drawled.
Which was what, last year? Fafnir wondered. "Listen, Miss Annabelle...."
"We can be a little less formal," Annabelle giggled into his ear. "Fafnir," she said his name as if she was whispering a secret.
"Ah, yes, Annabelle, then," Fafnir said from within her tight embrace. "I'm afraid if we get caught..."
"I know. Isn't it exciting? That you would take this risk for me! It's just sooo romantic!"
"So romantic that I don't want to rush it!" Fafnir almost squealed. "I mean, you are a healthy - I mean attractive!- young lady of healthy social standing - yes, that's it - and as your, um, gentleman caller, to not enjoy every step of our....our..." Fafnir's silver tongue began failing him. In the back of his mind, he could not believe his skills at lying were so rusty.
Fafnir latched on to the word and repeated it before he gave thought to its meaning. "Courtship," he agreed, and stopped talking suddenly when her embrace tightened and his breathing stopped.
"You don't want to rush our courtship! Oh, Faffy!"
As Annabelle covered her new suitor with passionate kisses, she did not even notice his expression of utter, complete terror.
"The One That Howls"
“Weird as the moan of sobbing winds,
A lone long call floats up from the trail;
And the naked soul of the frozen North
Trembles in that wail.”
– from The Wolf Cry, by Lew Sarett
The howl echoed through the trees.
Psyche stopped at the edge of the swamp.
Grigsby took the opportunity to sneak closer, stepping carefully to avoid anything that may give him away. Halfings were renowned quiet sneak-thieves, and Grigsby was well-practiced in remaining unheard and unseen around the village.
The chicken that followed Grigsby everywhere, though, was not.
“What do you think you are doing?” Psyche asked.
Grigsby’s stomach turned into a knot of panic. He tried to decide whether fleeing was an option or not, but could only think about kicking the chicken.
“I am not going to hurt you,” Psyche promised.
“I heard, um, howling,” Grigsby said.
“I know.” Psyche kept her gaze on the dark swamp.
The howl sounded again, quieter, weaker, more resigned.
“Do you have a weapon?” Psyche asked.
“No. Not with me.” Grigsby had a rusted, chipped handaxe and a sharp stick, but both were hidden in their repurposed stall in the Nest.
“Take my dagger.” Psyche walked back to him, and handed him her weapon. She leaned in, close to his face. “But don’t use it unless I use my staff.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Grigsby said, holding onto the dagger with both hands, making sure the pointed end was aimed to the ground, and gingerly slipped it under his belt, where a hilt would have gone. It looked out of place, like a dress on a cow.
They walked out into the swamp, treading through black water as they sought higher ground. Although Psyche was barely up to her mid-thighs, Grigsby was more than waist deep. The darkness quickly surrounded them, but Psyche did not slow down.
Grigsby wished he had a torch or lantern. He wondered why Psyche could apparently see so well in the dark to guide them. Maybe she was just brazen. Fortune favors the bold, and all that. After all, his eyes were sharp for a halfling, but had barely adjusted to the light of the moons and the stars under the canopy of cypress, banyan, and swamp cottonwood trees, and Psyche did not hesitate at all.
“Does that chicken follow you everywhere?”
The chicken dogged their every step, fluttering from log to branch, clucking in disapproval.
“It’s a curse,” Grigsby said.
“Interesting,” Psyche said, in a most uninterested tone.
Something slithered past Grigsby in the water, bumping his hip.
“Eep!” Grigsby jumped, and into Psyche.
At Grigsby’s sound, something enormously large moved in the treetops above them.
“Stay still,” Psyche hissed. She steadied him by placing a strong hand on his shoulder.
A giant eagle settled on a live oak adjacent to them, and peered downwards at Psyche and Grigsby.
“Don’t worry. They eat giant frogs and swamp rabbits. Try not to look like a swamp rabbit,” Psyche told Grigsby.
“And kobolds,” Grigsby whispered back.
“We are looking for the hurt one,” Psyche said. “The one that howls.”
“Yes, of course we are,” Grigsby said. “Say, do you think the eagle will eat the chicken? Oh, you were speaking to the eagle! So sorry!”
The giant eagle studied them for a moment longer, and then took to flight, moving its large wings carefully to avoid the many branches.
Psyche sloshed forward, and Grigsby struggled to follow, fighting to navigate the water, branches, mud and darkness to follow.
It did not help the chicken lit on his head, and refused to be moved.
The howl sounded again, and they knew they were close.
The trees opened into a clearing. On top of a huge pile of dead tree branches, ferns, and mud, an injured wolf struggled to keep its feet.
Grigsby started to move forward, but Psyche placed her hand on his shoulder again.
“That’s an alligator’s nest. Where’s the alligator?”
Suddenly more alert than ever, Grigsby scanned the waters anxiously. He saw it first. The albino alligator was gigantic, and although Grigsby could not see it, he was certain it had a scar on its nose. Its red glowing eyes were fixed on the wolf.
“There!” he squeaked.
“Great Nemesis! What a beast,” Psyche said.
“They call it Scarnose,” Grigsby explained. “It once came into the village and got Missus Rowana’s goat. It took over a dozen villagers to fight it off.”
They watched as the alligator circled the nest slowly. The wolf hopped, avoiding putting weight on a hurt front leg, keeping her gaze locked on the alligator’s red, infernal eyes.
“Maybe we can feed it the chicken?” Grisby offered.
To Grigsby's surprise, Psyche grabbed the chicken, and threw it into the water in front of Scarnose.
The alligator turned toward the sudden splash and subsequent distressed chicken sounds.
“Come on!” Psyche grabbed Grigsby by his collar, and pulled him through the water, sprinting towards the alligator’s nest.
Feeling half-drowned, Grigsby found himself on the alligator’s nest, standing by an injured wolf, helping Psyche face off an alligator that probably considered him barely worthy for snack with its afternoon tea.
The alligator’s head rose from the water, circled by a gob of chicken feathers.
Psyche held out her quarterstaff towards the reptile. “We are leaving your nest! Give way, or face my wrath!”
“By the cross-eyed goddess!” Grigsby swore, and drew his borrowed dagger.
"Deus Ex Machina”
Grigsby began to mentally jot down his own set of proverbs. Number one: Don’t choose sides in a monster fight.
Psyche and Grigsby stood on the alligator nest, defending the wounded wolf. Thankfully, the large wolf had not attacked them. Canines of any sort, in Grigsby’s experience, were more likely to bite when wounded, not discriminating between friend or foe. The wolf, however, understood immediately that the bigger threat was the gigantic, albino alligator from hell.
Scarnose stared at them with red, cloudy eyes. If eyes were the windows to the soul, then this creature had none.
The second rule was not to fight on top of an alligator’s nest. The vegetation and mud was not only a precarious perch to wield a dagger for the first time, but Grigsby thought he saw something moving below the tangled vines and branches.
Before he could say anything, Scarnose lunged forward.
They struck, stabbed, and bite at the behemoth’s head while dodging out of the way of the terrific maw, a gaping hole of rows upon rows of maliciously pointed teeth. The alligator whipped back into the water, slapping at them with its tail.
The tail swatted Grigsby near his hip, and although a glancing blow, hurt worse than the time he was punched by a minotaur.
All three fell into the branches, swept off their feet.
Small white streaks lunged at them from below.
Grigsby first thought it was a snake – goddess, how he hated snakes – but quickly realized why Scarnose would do anything to get them off her nest. The spawn of Scarnose bit their arms and legs.
Later, Grigsby would learn that the case of death for a baby alligator was often an adult alligator. Mother alligators were protective over their nest and hatchlings for only a short time. Almost as soon as they left the nest, they were fair game as prey.
They fought to shake the baby alligators loose and untangle themselves from the vines, as Scarnose circled for another attack.
“This is it, we are going to die,” Grigsby moaned. He saw the chicken, watching from a nearby low-hanging branch. It was craning its neck forward and gawking at them, as if eagerly anticipating their pending demise.
Grigsby decided his last regret was that he had not learned a more impressive command of profanity, so he could at least die hurling scalding oaths at the fowl.
Chanting filled the air, but Grigsby could not make out the arcane words of power.
Between the nest and Scarnose, something rose from the swamp. A skeletal figure in dented plate mail lifted its broad sword with its one and only arm. Half of the bursting sun crest of Phaeton could be seen through the rust and slime on the back of the armor.
Scarnose surged forward, trying to overwhelm the new combatant, but the warrior pivoted and drove its broadsword into its side.
Spooked, Scarnose dove away, splashing wildly as it retreated.
The chanting stopped. The skeleton crumpled, as if someone had cut the strings on their undead marionette, and fell back into the water.
“What was that?” Psyche plucked the last of little alligators off her arm, and threw it into the swamp. She stood on the nest, watching where the skeleton had fallen. Nothing stirred.
Grigsby tried to pull himself upwards, and only succeeded in falling through most of the nest’s ceiling, hanging upside down. “Help!”
“Enough playing around. We need to get going before that thing comes back.” Psyche pulled the halfling up by his leg.
Grigsby pulled Psyche’s dagger from where he had dropped it.
Psyche held him suspended by the leg, as she plucked off the mini-fiendish alligators before putting him down.
To his credit, he had avoided stabbing himself or her with the dagger. He started to point this out to Psyche, but she was already bent over the wolf.
The wolf had collapsed from blood loss and exhaustion.
“She could really use a healing potion,” Psyche said.
“We can get one from Danika Hardwalker,” Grigsby suggested. “She’s the village hedgewitch.”
“Good,” Psyche said. “Can you swim?”
“Me?” Grigsby asked, and then felt stupid. “Well, no, not so much.”
“Fine. Hold on to my shoulders, then.” Psyche bent down, and Grigsby scrambled to put his arms around her neck, and held on for dear life.
Psyche then picked up the wolf carefully, made her way down from the alligator nest, and trudged through the deeper water, carrying them all.
As soon as the water was less than waist deep for her, she shrugged Grigsby off without a word of warning.
The ripple of her muscles reminded Grigsby of a horse dislodging a fly.
“Zeus’ Bones! Is that your chicken?”
Of course, the chicken was right behind them, hoping from tree branch to log to muddy bank.
“It’s the curse,” Grigsby said between breathes. He had to work hard to keep up, even though she carried a large wolf in her arms. “You can’t kill it. For long, that is. It always comes back. Also, it tastes horrible.”
“That’s a shame,” Psyche said. “And you have no magic? No divine powers?”
“No…..” Grigsby answered slowly. He had never had anyone ask him that question before, and felt a surge of pure joy at the possibility, followed by the crushing disappointment of knowing it was not true, not matter how hard he wished it. “Just a curse.”
“Then what caused the skeleton to return from the dead, just to defend us? I DESTROY undead; they do not fight FOR me. Is there a necromancer around here? Maybe with the lizardfolk?”
“No….” Grigsby thought hard. “The only necromancer I have ever heard of is the Mad Wizard Druze, and he was slain years ago. That’s his tower that lies in ruin-”
“I know the story of Mad Druze,” Psyche snapped. “Then what happened? What caused that fallen Champion of Phaeton to rise from the dead? And PROTECT us?”
Grigsby did not know the answer, so said nothing. He focused on following her through the swamp, back to the village, doing his best to match her pace.
“Dirt Dauber Lane”
Psyche and Grigsby followed the less travelled path that led north around Knavesmire. Psyche carried the wolf, and Grigsby shooed the pest of a chicken out from under their legs. They passed the Ratcatcher’s Shack and the backside of the Cackling Kobold. A sidepath cut back to the east.
Psyche hesitated for a moment. Dead trees lined the path. Nearly all of the smaller dead trees shorter than her height had animal skulls or fetishes tied on with twine. Beyond the dead trees were older white oak trees, their upper branches fat with clumps of mistletoe.
“Looks fitting for a hedgewitch,” Psyche said. She shifted the wolf a little in her arms to alleviate her tiring arms, and started to walk.
“They call it ‘Dirt Dauber Lane,’” Grigsby said. “Do you know Yarbo? At the tavern? Fat half-orc?”
“I know Yarbo,” Psyche said, a little crossly. She stumbled around the chicken. “Keep your fowl away from me.”
“Well, he called it ‘Witchy-Poo Path’ one too many times, and she hexed him mute for a night,” Grigsby prattled on. He scooped the chicken up, and tossed it into a bush. “It made her popular at the tavern for a weekend. She’s not really liked, usually. Especially after that time she kidnapped the toymaker.”
“She kidnapped who?”
“Milo. He’s a halfling, like me. Well, maybe not just like me, but definitely a halfling. He makes the toy wooden soldiers that can walk. Very popular at the Keep. She kidnapped him, because she was in love, or whatever. That’s why the heroes first came to town, and why they call them the Hedgewitchers.”
With much fussing, the chicken escaped from the bush, and raced after them.
The Hedgewitch’s Hut loomed above them, elevated from the ground on four, slightly uneven stilts. The bottom of the hut was filled with the cylindrical tubes of mud wasp nests, the pan flute homes of dirt daubers. The wasps were larger than usual, probably about the size of Grigsby’s hand, but thankfully unconcerned with human or halfling visitors, saving their paralytic sting for spiders, their preferred meal choice.
Underneath the hut were holes in the ground large enough for a rabbit or fox, and mounds of dirt covered with the small, circular pits of doodle bugs.
“Let me guess,” Psyche sat the wolf down carefully. “This Danika Hardwalker. She has some sort of guardian, right?”
Grigsby nodded. “The meanest frogs you’ll ever meet. You have to ring the bell.”
Psyche noticed a post next to the path, with a rope attached to a bronze bell. Although aged and not well-kept, she could make out the figures of cats on the bell: symbols of Bast, patron of spellcasters.
“Well, Master Grigsby, if you could do the honors.”
Grigsby’s heart leaped to his throat. She knew my name! He rang the bell three times, pulling vigorously in his excitement.
Some noise and possibly cursing came from above, before the front door to a sloping front porch opened. “Stop your racket!”
“We are in need of a healing potion!” Psyche announced. “Can you help us?”
Danika spied down at them, scowling. “Who’s hurt?”
Psyche pointed at the wolf.
“Don’t work with wolves,” Danika shook her head, and slammed the door.
“By Nemesis!” Psyche swore. She walked forward, before Grigsby could stammer a warning.
From the holes below the hut, yellow eyes peered out from the holes. Frogs the size of a cat poked their wizened heads out.
Psyche ignored them, and went to climb one of the poles.
A half dozen tongues struck out from a half-dozen malevolent frogs, and hit Psyche.
A wave of pain and heat radiated from each tongue that struck skin. She felt her muscles spasm and jerk, and then fell to the ground, unable to move.
She felt a great weariness come over her, and fought to keep her eyes open. The next time she blinked, she slowly opened her eyes, to see the chicken looking down at her. Her eyelids grew heavy, and the next time she looked up, Grigsby, the Hedgewitch, and a well-dressed halfling man with glasses stood over her.
“Is she daft, you think?” Danika asked.
“Um, no,” Grigsby said. “Just headstrong.”
“For a silver piece, I’ll give you the salve for the paralysis to wear off,” Danika said.
“Sweetheart, is that fair?” The other halfling had a streak of prematurely white hair, but otherwise his hair looked like he was trying to mimic a noble’s style with his extended, curly bangs.
“It’s business,” Danika said, not moving until Grigsby fished out the silver Josh Savage had given him earlier. “Folks need to know they can’t barge up whenever they please.” She began to smear a foul-smelling ointment on the red whelps on Psyche’s skin. “And you! You be calm, and you’ll get use of your limbs quickly.”
“Can you help the wolf?” Grigsby asked.
Danika looked at him with a withering stare. “No. I only have a small supply of healing potions, and that has to be kept for the villagers. Not my rule. Take it up with Town Council, if you don’t like it.”
“What’s with the chicken?” the other halfling asked.
Danika laughed. “That’s my handiwork. The Town Council had me curse the lad a few months ago.”
“How odd. Whatever for?” the halfling asked.
Grigsby motioned for Danika not to say anything, but she smiled wickedly at his efforts. “Well, that’s a story to itself, Milo. Let’s just say that’s what you get in this village for being a Peeping Tom.”
Grigsby considered running wildly into the frog’s nest, but he knew it would not be fatal.
“The Elf in the Woods”
Psyche, Grigsby, and an annoying chicken sat together in the middle of the trail. The wolf lay next to them, with labored breathing.
“What do we do now?” Psyche asked.
Grigsby had been busy thinking about all his alternatives to explain or deny the revelation about the whole Peeping Incident, so it took him a moment to realize she was talking about the wolf. “Um, we could go to the tavern and ask? A travelling cleric would probably be too much to ask, but maybe, just maybe, someone has a healing potion on them.”
Psyche sat for a moment or two in silence, and then nodded her head. She stood too fast, and stumbled a little, nearly stepping on the chicken as she found a dead tree to lean against. “Damn frogs.”
“Right,” Grigsby agreed, and dusted off his pants. “I’d just as soon as avoid that Hedgewitch altogether.”
“I imagine so, since she was the one that cursed you,” Psyche said.
Grigsby felt himself begin to panic. “It was an accident! I was foraging for food for my father! I did not realize I was outside Miss Rowana’s window until it was too late.”
“Rowana? The rather large baker woman?”
Grigsby looked down at the ground, flustered. “Accident! I’m not a peeper! And if I was, I would not stare at someone like her! I would have stared at…” he stopped realizing with horror that he was already gesturing at Psyche. He tried to bounce his hand up and down in the air, and looked up in the air, as if he was considering his choice targets of voyeurism. “Well, anyone but her! IF I was a peeper. But I’m not!”
A mist circled around them.
“Another one of your Hedgewitch’s tricks?” Psyche asked, wielding her quarter staff, and assuming a battle stance.
“I don’t think so!” Grigsby cried out, fumbling for his dagger.
An elf stepped out of the mist. His long, white hair, pale skin, and thinness marked him as a ghost elf, which was a race of elf, not a state of undead. Although with his grey cloak and sudden appearance, he could have easily passed for a ghost, in the mist. His purple eyes were penetrating, but also kind. The aura of quiet power was unmistakable. One hand rested on a white quarterstaff with skulls and other bones carved into it, and raised his other hand in peace. “I can help your wolf, if you like.”
“Who are you?”Psyche asked, not letting down her guard.
Grigsby, on the other hand, was just happy he had not wet himself.
“A friend,” the elf said. “If you like. May I?”
Psyche narrowed her eyes, did not relax, but gave him a curt nod.
He placed the staff down, and placed both hands on the wolf’s sides. “Near death. Well, we can’t have that, can we?” He focused, and said words that were indistinguishable between a spell and a prayer.
The wolf’s breathing slowed, but it was obvious she was still in great pain. “Now for the hard part.”
He chanted again, in words foreign to Grigsby.
His arms buckled, his muscles constricting, and then a cold power manifested, pushing his life force into the wolf, and accepting the pain as his own. The wound on the wolf’s side closed. A red stain formed under the elf’s cloak. His face contorted in pain, and he slumped to his knees.
“There,” he said. “It is done. A good night’s rest and she will be fine.”
Grigsby wanted to tell him that he looked like Zek Stark, but was afraid Psyche would think he thought all elves looked alike. He wasn’t rascist like that.
“What did you do?” Psyche said to the elf. “How did you do that? I have never seen that sort of healing.”
The elf smiled. “It’s one of many things I can teach you.”
“It was you, wasn’t it? It was you that summoned the undead creature at the alligator nest.”
“And as a protector of the undead, a servant of Idarian, you have never encountered white necromancy,” the elf said. “You and I are the same. We fight the evil undead. I just use their own power against them.”
“That’s impossible!” Psyche said. “Undead is evil! The Epics of Phaeton say that is a divine truth! You can’t use evil to fight evil without becoming evil. Without BEING evil.”
“There is…another truth,” he said. He whispered a word, and gestured toward the errand boy. Grigsby’s attention drifted away from the conversation, which, to be fair, only took the most gentle of nudges. “Idarian is the keeper of secrets. Do you ever wonder whose secrets Idarian kept? Idarian is just one name used by Amara, the protector of the passage to the afterlife. The natives call her the Crow Queen. You may also know her by Charon.”
“Why are you telling me this? If this is true, these are sacred secrets the Charonites…or whoever they are…guard with their lives!”
“Because Amara has chosen you, Psyche Savage,” he said, and whispered something familiar yet foreign to Psyche, with a wave of his hand. The Mad Wizard Druze clouded their perceptions to slip away into the night, as he did to move among the unsuspecting villagers, their unknown patron wizard.
Psyche sat on an old blanket next to the wolf, as Grigsby prepared a bedroll for her.
“I’m slipping into my night shirt,” Psyche said. “No peeking.”
“Right,” Grigsby blushed. He covered his father’s eyes for good measure.
“Thank you again for letting us stay here,” Psyche said, slipping out of her clothes.
“At your service,” Grigsby said, straining not to turn and look. It would be worth a flock of chickens, his thoughts taunted him, but he stayed his course.
Psyche pulled her night shirt over her head. “I’m done.”
Grigsby moved his hand from his father’s eyes, and saw that Psyche was looking around Grigsby’s home.
“I’m sorry,” he apologized for the hundredth time. “My dad and I don’t usually entertain.”
“You don’t have to apologize for generosity,” Psyche said.
The converted stall which once belonged to a marsh mammoth was outfitted with discarded, but serviceable furniture. Unlike the gully dwarf neighbors, this place was clear of junk and debris. His carefully collected supplies were stacked neatly in the corners or on homemade shelves. The chicken had made a nest on top of one of these stacks, and sat with its feathers fluffed out, eyes starting to droop.
The small bunk Grigsby had provided for Horace, his father, seemed out of place, a comfortable mattress, sheets, and blanket better than any in the inn. A small table and tray sat next to the bed, where Grigsby brought his father food and water.
Horace’s eyes sparkled when he looked at Psyche. “Momma. You were right about city girls and shire girls. The city girls were still fun, though. Just thought you should know.”
“Don’t mind him, he’s touched in the head,” Grigsby said softly. “Dad, this is Psyche Savage. And her wolf. They won’t let a wolf stay in the inn, so she is staying with us for the moment.”
“That’s a nice doggie, Momma,” his father said. “What’s his name?”
“Her name,” Psyche corrected. “Her name is…Lycas.”
"Surely even as thou liest dead in this tomb I deem the wild beasts yet fear thy white bones, huntress Lycas” –Ancient Greek grave inscription for a beloved hunting dog
<<Welcome to Throwback Thursday! Did you even wonder what type of nightmares haunt a man who sees ghosts? The following are excerpts from posts from the Doom Lounge Creative Writing Group on yahoogroups: “The Writing on the Wall,” “Scrying Eyes,” and “A Simple Errand,” circa 2003-2004. Special shout-outs the Edgar Tully, and Gage Tryshare & Tyst!>>
“Nonsense of a Wandering Mind”
Josh Savage stretched out on the cot behind his desk.His prisoners snored in rhythm, quickly lulling him into a deep sleep.
He dreamed of the Harvest Ball. Although he was newly awarded the prestigious Servant of the Dragon medallion for uprooting a Cadessi spy organization, he felt sorely out of place in his black leather Watch uniform, as the nobles and privileged merchants and their privileged families danced, as musicians played.
A beautiful nobleborn caught his eye. Her vivacious red hair spilled onto bare, pale shoulders. Her revealing red dress could only have been wore by a noble lady or a harlot, society tended to frown on those in between who showed so much cleavage, for all to see.
“Captain Joshua Savage?” she had said, a mocking smile on her improbably red lips.
“Ma’am?” Josh asked. She was of noble heritage; he was the son of a smuggler. It was his job to make sure the nobles were oblivious of the efforts of the town’s criminal element, and he rarely served any other function to the aristocratic families of Praxis. Except tonight. Tonight he was an oddity, a curiosity to be viewed by nobles, as if he was a gully dwarf with an extra toe. Curious, but of no consequence.
“Dance with me, kind sir,” she curtseyed in front of him as if he was the noble. ”If you please.”
And Josh pleased, all right.
Josh shifted on the cot. He skipped ahead in his memories, following the tide of emotion which swept him forward.
Del Rook, the kobold sorcerer, placed a crystal ball in the middle of a table, and packed a cloak around it to keep it stable. “Should we get this going, then?”
“Yes,”Josh’s father Fafnir said. “We are looking for those who would like to kill Edgar Tully.”
“Righto.” Del started the necessary incantations, including the spells that broke down the safeguards Thea Nightstalker had placed on the object. An amazing barrage of figures appeared on the ball, ranging from complete strangers to Psyche, Athena, the Guild of Midwifes, and an entire choir of female acolytes of Phaeton. “Perhaps we need to be a little more specific?”
Fafnir thought about it. “Show us those who have thought about killing Edgar Tully the most recently?”
Del opened his mouth to begin the incantations anew, when Josh interrupted them.
“Hold fast. Instead, sorcerer, show us all the assassins involved in plotting this week’s poisoning of Edgar Tully,”Josh spoke each word slowly and clearly, to ensure specificity. He idly touched the rose-shaped pendant on his chainmail, a gift from the noblewoman, a promise of finer things to come.
Del nodded, and began again. The images jumped around, as if the reception was bad. “Something seems to be interfering with us,” Del said. “Does anyone have anything magical on them?”
Fafnir and Josh exchanged glances.
“I have a ring that shields my thoughts from those who may pry,” Fafnir admitted.
“No, that wouldn’t affect the crystal ball. Different school of magic. Besides, you aren’t close enough,” Del said.
“Well, I certainly don’t have anything magic,” Josh leaned away from the crystal ball, which snapped back into focus. “That is, I don’t think I have anything magic.”
Del stepped away from the crystal ball, and said a quick spell. Fafnir’s ring, the crystal ball, and the small ruby pendant on Josh’s chainmail started glowing.
“That’s odd,” he said, and took off the pendant. “It’s a gift.”
“So you are seeing someone!”Fafnir said.
“Well, I would not say I am seeing her publicly,” Josh said absently, remembering their infrequent romantic encounters, the long periods the Countess was too busy to see him, the doubts he was just being used.“A broach of protection, perhaps?”
“It has to be of similar magic to interfere,”Del said.“Divination.”
Fafnir leaned forward. “Son.He means someone is watching you.”
The words echoed in Josh’s dreamscape, plunging him deeper as he remembered the shame, the anger, the betrayal.
The stalls of the Bay Market of Praxis City blended with more established storefronts of the merchants who tended to more expensive needs.
And like the events before Josh’s slumber, this part of his memories had a wolf.
"So, has Tyst been with you long?" Josh asked.
Gage Tryshare cast dark eyes at him. "Since I have come to the area. He took a liking to me...strange that an animal should, as most people don't."
The half-wolf Tyst padded along behind them, keeping a close interval, keeping his eyes on everything.
A horse-drawn coach thundered through the dispersing fog. Wooden wheels clattered on the cobblestones. The glossy pitch-black finish and the red silk curtains identified the coach as belonging to a Noble House. Before Josh could even make out the crest on the door, a gut feeling in his stomach told him who the occupant was.
Nok jumped out of the carriage first. The orc was freakishly large, at a towering seven feet. Long, curly hair covered portions of his knotted, veined muscles. The bodyguard suspiciously eyed Josh, Gage, and even the half-wolf Tyst with disdain.
"Captain Savage. I was wondering when I would run into you," Countess Reagan Mudd stepped out of the coach, not looking for anyone to offer her a hand out. "It has been too long since I have enjoyed your company. I was afraid you were not well."
Josh grimaced. He had been avoiding this confrontation, although he desired it at the same time. "You know why I no longer visit you."
The fact they were talking bedroom business in the streets of Praxis in front of Gage did not seem to bother Reagan in the least. "So you know.Pity.Your services were entertaining. Perhaps we could reach an accord. I am willing to pay for the information I seek. The information only a Watch Detective could provide."
Josh’s body tensed, and trembled in embarrassment and anger.“You horrible, despicable...”
"Be careful in the words you choose, Captain," Reagan was still smiling, but deadly intent flashed behind those eyes.
Nok placed a hand on the hilt of the battle axe on his back, standing ready.
“In the days to come, dear Captain,” Reagan stepped back on the step of her carriage.“You are either with me.Or against me.”
She laughed at him.The sound increased in intensity, and Nok, Gage, passer-byers, even the wolf laughed at Josh. Poor, foolish Josh, who thought he could have a noblewoman…
Josh woke with a start. “That’s not how it happened,” he whispered to himself. Reagan had not really laughed, had she? And Nok's vocal chords were severed. And a wolf, laughing? This was just the nonsense of a wandering mind at sleep.
“It’s alright,” he told himself, leaning back against the pillow again.“She’s not a part of my life.She’s long gone.”
And he discarded the memory, settling back into a more restive sleep.
"No Reason to Dawdle"
Madam Koda's colorful wagon bumped along the road, making a slow gradual turn from the well-travelled Merchant's Way to the Sunken Path leading to Mage's End. The two fat ponies jerked their heads and danced against their reins. However, their driver showed more resolve than they did, so they had little choice but to continue down the darker road.
The elderly gnome peered into the shade of the canopy of branches and vines, and snapped the reins again. Like her great-grandmother had told her, there was no reason to dawdle on the path to ruin.
She pulled a lantern from her feet to her lap, and said a small incantation. The lantern lit with small, flickering lights of many colors. Koda placed her hand on the lantern's door, and said, "Go swift, follow road, find foes."
She opened the enchanted lantern, and several blobs of light of different colors emerged. The lights flitted around like fireflies, circling each other before zipping off down the road.
Less than three hundred yards down the road, the lights began to circle around the heads of some lizardfolk. The bandits began cursing in Draconic, and swatting at the lights buzzing around their heads.
"Time for the magic!" Koda reached into her, chuckling a little. She drew a couple of round stones with red sashes around them, and a slender cylindrical object.
She threw one of the thunderstones. Although it barely went 20 feet, it struck a tree trunk and disintegrated with a nearly deafening explosion.
Koda then took the pipe from her mouth, and lit one end of the cylindrical object. It spat bright bursts of light from the other end, spewing orbs of blue, red, and green towards the would-be bandits.
A banging came from inside her wagon, followed by a muffled shout. "What is going on out there?"
"Nothing I can't handle!" Koda yelled back, and tossed another thunderstone. This one bounced against on tree and detonated against a log.
After the ear-splitting explosion, Koda could see the bandits retreating. She cackled in laughter, and sent a third thunderstone after them.
It missed her intended target of a mossy tree trunk, and splashes into the water, without so much as a loud splash.
"Ah, that was disappointing," Koda said to no one in particular.
The trapdoor behind her opened, and a fierce looking head of an orc emerged.
"I said I had it!" Koda barked. "The day Madame Koda can't handle a few miscreant lizardfolk bandit is the day I retire!"
The orc seemed unconvinced.
"Look for yourself!" Koda scolded. "See? No bandits! You're welcome!"
After a few more moments of vigilant scanning, the orc ducked back below, and closed the hatch, apparently satisfied.
"Oh, ye of little faith," Koda grumbled. "I have a good mind to charge you for the fireworks and the thunderstones, and not a fair price, either."
The wagon bumped around on the less-travelled road, and Koda had to smile. She was getting paid extremely well for this unplanned detour to Mage's End, and she got to harass someone, so it was a good day, by her reckoning.
"After all," she crooned to no one. "It's not every day that one gets to smuggle the Lady Reagan Mudd to a den of bandits."
She called back the fairy lights, and again sent them ahead to scout the way to the ferry to Mage's End.
Nysta felt the flicker of sunlight on her face from the carriage’s open window, and imagined the water she could not see flowing past them on the ferry to Mage’s End.
Most were blind, they just did not know it.
It was one of the first nuggets of wisdom Mentor had taught Nysta. She could remember sitting cross-legged next to the elderly Ghrom oracle, hanging to every word, learning about destiny and her destiny to define it.
Like all Ghrom, Nysta was a toad-like humanoid, about a head shorter than the average halfling. Unlike most Ghrom, she was far away from the village, traded to Reagan Mudd for the promise of protecting her people. Instead of her usual overstuffed pillow, she sat on luggage packed tightly in the carriage, across from Reagan and her bodyguard Nok.
Reagan gave instructions to Nok, describing the people they would encounter, with a focus on their strengths and weaknesses.
The Seer Nysta allowed her mind to wander, listening to the sounds of the marsh. She savored the song of the cicadas, which was steady and strong under the cacophony of crows.
As you gain the ability to see fate with your mind’s eye, you will lose your vision. Do not despair; it is a gift, and a boon to your people, Mentor had told her.
In her mind’s eye, she could see the water churning beneath them. She saw it with such clarity it was as if her vision had been restored, except it was in different shades of gray.
She must have made a sound of amazement, because Reagan asked her something, but she could not hear what she said over the rush of images. Spectral figures moved in the water, trapped in the current, the depths, all demanding Nysta’s attention, all whispering...
“What is it?” Reagan shouted, shaking Nysta.
The harder Nysta listened, the closer she felt like she would lose her mind. It was like seeing an impossibly large item or comprehending infinity; she saw something beyond her scale of understanding, and it scared her how small she really was. Nysta’s voice trembled:
“Pallid, grey water
Souls adrift, loss of memories
Ash bringers stand watch
Over the thinness of veils
Between this world and the next
Sight myopic, so all within
Hide under the wings
Of the feathered goddess
An alliance of madness.”
“What do you mean?” Reagan asked.
“I don’t know,” she said weakly. Nysta tried to find her own foothold against the vision storm, her mind’s eye searching far and wide for a stable reference point, an anchor back to reality. She saw another mind that the visions flowed through, and mentally reached out. She pleaded with the Other for understanding, some order in the rippling chaos. She felt the bearded human turn to her, and saw a smile tinged with madness.
In a sing-song child’s voice, Nysta repeated what the stranger told her:
“Crows in my inner sanctum
I cannot abide
I cannot abide
Crows in my inner sanctum.”
And the sound of the crow’s haughty laughter reverberated louder and louder and louder...
Reagan slapped her across the face.
Nysta found herself in the wagon again, shaking uncontrollably.
“Nysta, are you with us?”
“Y-y-yes, milady,” Nysta said.
“What was all that?” Reagan asked.
Nysta was too terrified to speak, and lay her head on Reagan’s lap, trembling.
“With a purpose, if you may”
Grundy’s ink stained beard rippled when he moved the wad of tobacco from one cheek to the other.
Athena tapped her long nails impatiently on the wooden table before her for a few minutes before she stormed up from her seat.
“Are you certain you delivered all the invitations to the town’s merchants?” she demanded, towering over him before she started pacing back and forth like a caged animal. The generosity shown by the Olafson brothers the previous evening had been splendid, but it seemed the rest of the town folk were not as hospitable.
Grundy rolled his eyes, secured the wad in a corner of his mouth to minimize spraying it across the table, and said. “Yes, mum. Like I told you the last two times you asked, I delivered all of the invitations as instructed.”
After no one had appeared for the first two scheduled meetings, Athena had instructed Grundy to move out the amenities she’d ordered to the main tavern area. She had been concerned that some of the merchants might have been confused to the actual location where to meet the new Guild Master. But after looking around the tavern, she was starting to suspect confusion was not the issue…
“I’m afraid we may have to take to the town to hunt down the merchant. Would you be so kind as to show us the way to the next appointed business?” she asked, donning her coloured glasses and heading for the door. “With a purpose, if you may...” she urged him, not waiting for a reply as she exited the tavern.
Grundy followed, working his jaw as he thought of what purposes he would have rather be serving. He stayed quiet when he realized he could not work drinking, eating, or sleeping into a witty retort. He squinted outside, shielding his eyes despite the deeply overcast day. The dwarf turned left, following his nose to the small group of shops. He came to a stop under a door with an overhead sign which was either a poorly drawn loaf of bread, or a fairly decent cigar. He stood aside, gave a sarcastic mock bow, and raised his arm to motion Athena into the door.
A large Northlander woman stood behind the counter with her arms crossed, and looked down at Athena and Grundy in a disapproving glare. Although obese, her long blonde hair and muscular arms resembled the Olafson Sons too much to be a coincidence.
"Ja?" Rowana said.
Athena’s comprehension of the Northlander language was virtually non-existent, but she did understand the one monosyllable uttered by the less than hospitable merchant. A ‘yes’ from the woman was likely the best they would get.
“Good morning. My name is Athena Fikaris and I represent the Merchant’s Guild in Mage’s End. I was wondering if we could purchase a couple of loaves of bread and if you would have a few minutes to talk about your business,” she asked, hoping the purchase may help her to open up to further conversation.
Rowana reached behind her, and pulled down one loaf of bread, and then another, placing both on the counter in front of Athena. "So talk."
Athena pulled out her coin purse and started placing coins on the counter while she talked. “I am starting the Merchant’s Guild here in Mage’s End, and I am trying to meet with the merchants in town to get a feeling for their current concerns regarding their business, and…”
"You want to buy shop?" Rowana interrupted.
“No. Just a couple of loaves of bread,” Athena replied, wondering if the woman had understood anything she had just said. Maybe she would need a translator to be able to better communicate with the baker woman.
“I want to sell shop. You find buyer, if Rowana joins Guild?"
“I can certainly try!” said Athena, smiling at her first member and turning towards her scribe. “Grundy, please be sure to write down her request for a buyer, and add her name to the list of members.”
Facing the large woman again, she added, “I’ll be sure to get in touch with you as soon as I have someone interested in your business. In the meantime, if you have any other concerns, please be sure to call on me. Grundy here should be able to reach me any time.” Athena extended her hand out, hoping a hand shake was appropriate under the circumstances.
Rowana accepted her hand, and shook it vigorously.
“I have to ask, are you related at all to the Olafson brothers? I met them yesterday in town,” Athena asked, remembering how well she had met all three of them…
Rowana's lips hovered between a grimace and a handful of other expressions of discomfort. "Ja. My little brothers. I raise them all, when Mamma passed. Until SHE came."
“Who would she be?” Athena asked puzzled, looking around the bakery to see if there was someone she had missed.
Rowana leaned forward. "Adonna. My brother's step-mother. Not mine. I don't need her. She is only my father's wife."
“I see,” Athena nodded her head in agreement, and looked at Grundy with a plea for relief. None came.
"Do you know she is a follower of Caliban? The moon god! Caliban is all work, work, work. Pain and suffering. Rowana says, that is only part of life. She should follow Northlander gods. Like my Vardar. Vardar is my husband. He asks to marry me, and I love him, but I say no! Not until he follows Northlander gods. He make shrine to my Loki, and we get married," Rowana proclaimed, raising her chin proudly.
“Lovely. Now tell me, why are you interested in selling your business?” Athena asked, hoping to steer the conversation back to something that would benefit her. If the baker, likely one of the busiest merchants in town, was hoping to get out of the business, maybe there was something grave going on in town that she was not aware of.
"Business is good; everyone eats Rowana's bread. But Vardar and Rowana want to start family," Rowana said. "Vardar is farmer. Rowana spends much time at bakery. Rowana wants to help Vardar at farm."
Athena exhaled a sigh of relief. “Well, then, congratulations are in order. We’ll be going now, but will get back to you as soon as I have an interested party. Be well,” Athena wished her, before grabbing the two loaves of bread and exiting the bakery.
Once outside, in the offensive warmth of the overcast morning, Athena looked down at Grundy and asked, “So, who’s next on our list? I’m thinking these loaves of bread will make a nice offering.”
"It's back-tracking, but I recommend we hit the Swamp Fox Trading Post next," Grundy pointed. "Maddy is a little odd, but who isn't around here?"
“I’m glad I’m not the only one who thought so!” Athena chuckled, thinking it might have actually worked out better for her to come out to meet the merchants in their own environment rather than the other way around. She could not quite see Rowana sitting in the room she had reserved at the tavern, drinking a glass of red wine with her while they discussed the Guild.
"Maddy and Goblin Jack have a 'thing,'" Grundy confided. "The Ghost Lanterns took her hostage when they invaded a caravan. She was a merchant's daughter, but too poor to pay the ransom. So they tried to release her, but she would not leave. Maddy hit it off with Goblin Jack; he liked her moxy. They were married to each other a couple of times, but it never lasts long. Both are spitfires. Too much alike."
“Well, then, let’s be off to meet Mad Maddy. If you help me to sign her up, you should have your pick of the shop as a reward,” she offered.
Grundy raised his busy eyebrows, and chewed on his lips. It was as close to a smile as he could muster.
The Swamp Fox Trading Post was a variety of houseware, food, tools, farming implements, and even basic adventuring gear. Every empty space was filled with a stuffed animal. Fox, owls, opossum, raccoons, fat black squirrels, and giant frogs with strange, human-like teeth were frozen in mid-attack, an excellent if a somewhat creepy display of taxidermy and excess. A dire moose head hung in the back of the shop.
"Watch the owl," the woman with closely cropped red hair said from behind a set of scales on the counter. "He's contrary today."
The whiskered screech owl had a round head with ear tufts, yellow eyes and a yellowish bill, and despite its outstretched wings and talons, was as inanimate as the rest of the stuffed animals on display.
“Thanks for the warning,” replied Athena, thinking back to the description Grundy had offered about Maddy a few moments ago, and thinking it mild. A little odd was not enough for this one.
"What can I do for you?"
Remembering her conversation with Rowana, Athena started again, “Good morning. My name is Athena Fikaris and I represent the Merchant’s Guild in Mage’s End. I was wondering if we could purchase some meat and if you would have a few minutes to talk about your business.” She smiled and then added, “Oh, and I bear gifts.” She placed the bread on the counter and waved her hand over it as if she were presenting an offering to a deity.
"Will a Merchant's Guild represent the shop-owners, even if that goes against Goblin Jack and the Town Council?" Maddy asked.
“The Guild would indeed represent the interest of the shop owners in town. That is the sole purpose to the Guild. I’m not sure how doing so would fall contrary to the concerns of the Town Council, but we would not be working for them, we would be working for you.
"Then I'm in," Maddy offered her hand.
“Welcome aboard,” Athena replied, shaking her hand firmly.
"Please accept a gift in return; I have some nice spare ribs from the Butcher Shop," Maddy said. "Since Grundy seems to be helping himself to them."
Grundy looked up in surprise. The rack of ribs was indeed across his shoulder. "I'm....but....she said I could!" he sputtered.
"It's alright. We do a lot of bartering here," Maddy said. "Just watch the owl on your way out!"
The sign to the Cackling Kobold Distillery hung precariously above the door of their next stop. The sounds from within mainly consisted of crashing and yelling.
Grundy looked at Athena expectantly, and seeing no indication given to skip this establishment, he opened the door for her.
Athena nodded her thanks and entered the dilapidated building, doing so only because she knew she could survive impending disaster if the building came tumbling over their heads. There was definitely a lot the Guild could do to improve this business!
Three kobolds stood around a broken barrel and a small lake of rum. A middle-aged man had his hands grasping the crown of black hair on his balding head. His skin was tinted gray, and odd red eyes stared at Athena.
The rest of the distillery was in similar disarray, with piles of work gear, barrels, sugar cane husks, and debris filled much of the room. A complacent mule stood patiently in the squalor, tied to a piece of wood that was tied to the mill.
The mule was so far the friendliest; everyone froze as if they had been caught the act of a crime.
“Good morning fellows. May I assume you are the manager of this establishment?” Athena asked the balding man, taking a few steps towards him.
The man nervously wrung his hands. "Did...did the kobolds DO something?"
The kobolds' mouths dropped open, and they competed with who could look the most offended or surprised.
“Not to my knowledge,” Athena replied, smiling at the poor kobolds. “My name is Athena Fikaris, and I represent the Merchant’s Guild in Mage’s End. I was wondering if I could purchase some rum, and if you would have a minute to talk about your business. As a member of the Guild, there would be much we could do to help you out. Oh, and these are for you or your employees,” she pointed to the slabs of meat Grundy held in his arms.
The kobolds squealed with joy and dived for the meat. Grundy was not prepared for a full frontal assault, and attempted to retreat by walking backwards. When the scribe tripped, the kobolds leapt on top of him.
"Alright, guys, take a break," the man said weakly. He clasped Athena's hand.
"Councilman Westin, at your service. And to answer your question, yes, you could say my duties include management of this establishment, although I daily wonder about my ability to do so. Employ kobolds! Imagine the savings!" Westin looked exhausted. He limped to the wall, and procured a large brown jug from a shelf. He handed it to Athena.
"Please...Miss....Fikaris, did you say? Pull up a chair -- not that one! That other one's fine, thank you - and tell me what a Merchant's Guild would do for me."
“Well, Councilman Westin, the Guild would help you with many aspects of your business. Besides the higher social status that comes from membership to the Guild, our members will benefit from added connections to other merchants, protection from undue taxes, and care of your employees when they get sick or are unable to perform their duties. We’ll also take care of member burials and their orphans. If any travelling is required by your business, protection will be offered to your horses, wagons and goods.” Athena paused to make sure the man was following along.
“In your particular case,” she looked around at the starved kobolds tackling Grundy and the meat, “it seems you may be able to use some floor management help, and possibly some additional workers. We could put you in contact with qualified people. Does that answer your question?”
"It sounds.....nice. My people have a way of taking care of our own, though. We have a hard time trusting others. I would have to get approval, you see." Westin's eyes darting nervously to a rug on the far side of the room.
Grundy crawled out from the kobolds and the meat, and pulled himself up, and dusted off his pants. "He means Ysti, milady. His people are Ysti."
Athena knew Grundy was referring to nomadic wandering people, gypsies of this world. They were said to be descended from a powerful exiled mage and were often entertainers. “Pray tell, Councilman Westin, who would approval come from? We are very interested in having your business in our Guild, and I would like to address whoever can make this decision,” she asked.
"That would be Arienne, wouldn't it?" Grundy asked. "She's their princess, or however Ysti matriarchal rank goes."
"I would have to get approval," Westin repeated, looking a little crossly at Grundy.
“Well, you do that and then get word to me through Grundy here. I’ll be more than happy to come back and meet with your Arienne, if needed. I’ll be in town, meeting merchants, today and maybe tomorrow, if I am not able to get through them all. Can I count on your prompt response?” she pressed, hoping Mister Councilman would be able to convey a full description of the benefits to their princess or leader.
Westin's eyes darted around the room again. In a lower voice, he asked, "You said you could get me help? To run this place?"
“Certainly!” she replied confidently, not having a single idea of who would be interested in running such an outfit, but certain that Fafnir or Josh would be able to provide some leads.
"Then, yes, I will try for a prompt response," Westin agreed, nodding vigorously.
“Excellent. As soon as you join the Guild, I’ll start sending you candidates for your approval,” she offered, making sure he was still very interested in getting her that membership. “Grundy, please annotate their specific need so we start looking for a lead as soon as they join,” she instructed, offering Mister Westin her hand.
"You mean I actually get to scribe something?" Grundy almost said, but before the sarcastic retort could roll from his lips, an annoying clicking sound filled the air.
“What could possibly be making that noise?” Athena asked to no one in particular, looking all around the large room, even in those corners where the common human or hafling would not be able to see.
The kobolds jumped up from the meat, grabbing a handful or two as they skittered up a ladder into the rafters. Grundy tried to follow them, but only made it half-way up the ladder.
Westin shook his fist at the kobolds, and cursed at them in a language Athena had never heard, while he grabbed an old spear from behind the counter. "Protect the den, you idiots!"
The clicking noise was coming from outside, and it was getting louder.
Athena’s instincts rang loudly in her ears, even when the noise did not. Quickly but quietly, she approached a dirt darkened window and looked outside, the sight making her reach for her daggers.
A man-sized burrowing lizard burst from the ground. Its maw was opened and hissing, and its short arms worked rapidly to propel it in Athena's direction.
“I’m thinking this massive lizard will be breaching this wall any second now. Is there anything worth protecting down at this level?” Athena asked Westin, suspecting there was something under the carpet at which he kept stealing glances.
"Yes," Westin confirmed. He stepped around Athena, and headed toward the door with his spear. 'We must stop it outside." Through clenched teeth, he said "Protect the den!" one more time to the kobolds.
The kobolds would not budge.
“Then outside it is,” Athena agreed, heading towards the door they had entered just a few minutes ago.
Westin ran outside, and stabbed at the charging click lizard.
Athena reached the door and could immediately tell that Councilman Westin had little or no fighting experience- it would be up to her to protect the den if she didn’t want to lose her next Guild member! Stepping around Westin, Athena took one piercing look at the lizard, lifted her hand above her head, and threw her dagger at the soft spot between the lizard’s left front leg and its left eye, piercing the skin and sinking the blade deeply into what could be considered its neck. She hoped this would slow the lizard long enough for her to strike at its vital parts while keeping her lady-like features.
Not waiting for an invitation, Athena ripped the ill-used spear from Westin’s hand and leaped forward, driving the end of the spear through the lizard’s skull, right between its eyes, and all the way into the ground. The lizard attempted to roll its body around, like a captured alligator, but the spear kept its head firmly attached to the ground. In a moment’s time, Athena ran all around the pinned beast, severing the joints of all four legs, and rendering the animal immobile. With one last mercy strike, she severed most of the head off with her spare dagger, and stepped off to the side to inspect her handy work.
"That was amazing!" Westin gushed. "That was simply..."
"It's none of my business, but I'd hush if I were you. Make sure the click-lizard wasn't traveling alone," Grundy said, from the safety of his perch.
The kobolds yipped their approval.
"Quite right," Westin whispered, and they listened.
No clicking noises could be heard.
"They travel either alone, or a bunch of them together," Westin finally broken their silent vigil. "I think we can assume this one was all alone. Now what was I saying?"
“I think you were pleased with the disposal,” Athena replied, pulling the dagger from the lizard’s neck and cleaning both on its hide before securing them in her skirting once again.
"Yes, well," Westin looked a little embarrassed. "I can assure you I will discuss your proposal with Arienne promptly."
“I’ll be very grateful for your recommendation. I bid you farewell for now and hope to hear from you shortly,” she nodded cordially and turned towards the main road.
“Grundy, with a purpose, if you may…” she urged him again, walking out.
<<Throwback Thursday: Before Mage's End, things were tough in Praxis City!>>
Josh hurt. His wrists and neck ached from the tight fit of the boards. The posts supporting the stocks, or pillory, was barely a foot off the ground. This arrangement was designed to encourage everyone to kick at him. Or worse. The humiliation had worn off long before midnight, but the dull throb of his back persisted.
Skye had wanted to bring him something for comfort, but he had refused for her to leave the safety of the Doom Lounge.
Doom Lounge. Safety. He smiled at the thought.
To keep himself occupied, he recited the names of the people who sat around the table of the Court of Dor. The fledgling resistance was not organized enough to attack Adolphus Dor directly. Yet. His sympathizers were another story.
Especially Reagan Mudd. He imagined her smug smile when she turned him over to Dor; her present to him so she could secure a place at his table.
Josh was so occupied with anger for Reagan, his list of names, his pain, and the thought of the warm bed and warmer wives he was missing, he did not hear the pair until they stood next to him. He startled, kicking his legs out purely in reflex, and cried out for the resulting pain.
A foul, tattered glove with the fingertips missing clamped over his mouth.
“I told you this was a bad idea,” a familiar voice whined.
“Hush. The guards might not be light sleepers,” a slightly better educated, but no less familiar voice answered in a hushed voice. “And, yes. I have no doubt I shall regret this.”
The hand left his mouth, and Josh could breathe again.
A click announced the lock of the stocks had successfully been picked.
The top board swung open, and Josh was pulled to his feet.
“Come on, mate,” Kidymkus whispered, throwing one of Josh’s arms over his shoulders. “Can’t be hanging about all night.”
Josh was speechless. He could not recall how many times he had locked up Kidymkus for petty larceny. This could not be good.
Kidymkus’ tumor-covered accomplice slipped his other arm over his thin shoulders. “Yeah,” Spider hissed. “They say it’s not safe out.”
“I’m thinking the same thing,” Josh mumbled back, silently cursing the lack of circulation in his arms and legs to mount a resistance. Being killed by two minor hoodlums was not part of the plan.
Kidymkus and Spider pulled Josh into a side alley, although there was little to avoid except for patrols at this hour of night.
Smoke hung heavy in the air. Josh grimly noted that the citizens of Praxis City were more likely to keep a home fire going in their hearth, a clear indicator of increased alertness. Security guards used to doze at this hour. Now, they stirred the fires in their hearths, and waited to alert the household when needed. Nearly everyone feared the minions of Dor crashing down their front door on real or imagined offenses to the Exalted House of Dor, and having their life's work squandered, as well as their lives.
The trio darted between alleys, taking no chances, heading vaguely toward the Bay Market.
Josh saw a pair of horses tied to a post below his old room at the Silversmith shop, their noses close together as if conspiring, but no other sign of life.
Kidymkus and Spider dragged him into another dark alley, and instead of certain death, offered him an apple.
Josh accepted it with a smile, appreciating the irony. “I can't remember how many times I’ve caught you borrowing Teaberry’s apples from the Farmer’s Market.” He chomped into the apple with relish, not even bothering to wipe it on his cloak first.
Kidymkus snorted. “You can lock us up when you are Watch Detective again.”
“And you can escape again as a rat the next time I’ve turned my back,” Josh said.
Kidymkus and Spider exchanged a surprised look.
“You have to eat, and I had to uphold the law,” Josh answered to the unasked question. “If you turned into a rat and slipped out after another meal at the Exchange, well, we’ve all done our part, right? So what’s our part tonight?”
“Ach!” Spider shook his head.
“I’ve missed your mettle, Captain Savage,” Kidymkus said. “And you’re right. We need your help, and quickly. Marrina has gone missing.”
“Not good,” Josh said. “Do you know of the path of patrols, I take it? Enough to give us safe passage to get the Manor Rendik?”
Kidymkus and Spider exchanged a worried look.
“You think she would go back?" Kidymkus asked.
"But the risk! She'd have to be bloody mad!" Spider sputtered.
“Well, then, so shall we. We have to start somewhere,” Josh answered. “But if we don’t find her, we may still be able to find answers.”
Spider moaned. "Dor's done give the Manor over to his men, you know he has!"
Kidymkus scowled. “We don’t have time for an investigation, Captain. And who are you going to question?”
Josh pulled his hood over his head, and stepped out of the alley, looking back darkly at the were-rat thieves. “The only other ones who might be looking after poor Marrina. The ghosts of her parents."
And then, Josh thought, we get the name of the sympathizers to the Resistance to take action, with Reagan Mudd’s name on top of the list.
Sheriff Josh Savage had woken early. He let the Olafson’s Sons out of their shared cell, and made sure Marina and Jasper had bread and water. Jasper, the wandering beggar, had wandered in sometime after midnight, let him into an empty cell, and politely closed the door behind him. As he was not one to question a man’s conscious, Josh let him continue snoring behind the unlocked door when he conducted his morning patrol.
As the month of Auger slipped away, so did his early morning light. He made his rounds in near darkness, watching Mage’s End stirring. Smoke issued from the chimneys at the Ghost Lantern Boarding House and the Bakery first, followed by a few cottages. Although only one floor higher than the tavern and the boarding house, the ruined wizard’s tower seemed to Josh to loom over the village, as if it was watching over them, a dark guardian.
Josh let the chill of the early morning air sink into his bones, increasing his alertness. He knew it would be short-lived; the humidity and oppressive heat of the day were close behind, end of summer or not.
The rest of the morning was spent trying out new routines. Josh took a late breakfast at the Dragon’s Head Tavern, groomed his horse and checked out a report of a click lizard attack near the Cackling Kobold. Seeing as the head was separated from the body by the time he arrived on the scene, he spent some time talking to Councilman Westin and learning about the infrequent but not rare click lizard threat to the village. He checked in at the Sherriff’s office, and met Psyche and her new wolf friend. Psyche took the bunk to rest for the nightshift, with Lycas curled up at her feet.
Josh set out for his second set of rounds when the brightly colored wagon pulled into the village.
“Kind sir! Kind sir?” the elderly gnome chirped from the driver’s seat.
Josh walked over, stepping around the two fat Shire Ponies leading the wagon. “May I be of assistance?”
“Yes,” Koda’s voice now cracked with exaggerated vulnerability to reinforce her advanced years. “Could you be a dear, and help my fare out of my carriage? I would do it myself, but it’s so hard to get up and down for me. I was spryer when I was only a hundred.”
Josh bowed formally. “I would certainly be glad to assist. Would you mind if I moved you closer to the Boarding House? Less mud there.”
“More Mudd here,” Koda snorted and laughed.
Josh smiled politely while he pulled the ponies to drier ground. Having spent many of his formative years on board a gnome trading ship, Josh knew that gnomes had an odd sense of humor, which mostly served to amuse themselves.
The carriage door opened, and Reagan Mudd had taken his extended hand before he realized the gnome’s joke.
“By the cross-eyed goddess!” he swore.
“And may Tyche bless you with good fortune, too, Josh Savage,” Reagan smiled wickedly. “You always knew how to make a girl feel welcomed.”
Nok barreled out of the carriage next, wielding a battle axe that most people would have trouble lifting.
“You can put that away,” Reagan said. “Captain Savage will see to our safe escort. Nok, be a dear and help poor Nysta. Our oracle is out of sorts, you see.”
“My correct title is Sheriff Savage now,” Josh tried to gather his composure, which is hard to do with a face so flushed his ears were red. “So when I ask what brings the Lady of the Keep to Mage’s End, it is part of my duty description to inquire.”
“Then Sheriff Savage Now, I have a meeting with the Town Council,” Reagan said. “You could help us with my luggage, perhaps?”
“I am certain your bodyguard can handle your baggage,” Josh said. “But I would recommend moving the carriage to the Dragon’s Head Tavern. The Ghost Lantern Boarding House is for residents, only.”
“And visiting dignitaries, at least this once. Goblin Jack’s personal invitation,” Reagan said. “Speaking of which, you can run along and let Goblin Jack know that I have arrived safely, and I will see him before tea time, as previously discussed.”
Josh had to bite his lip to avoid a sharp retort. “Milady,” he said as dryly as he could. He turned on his heel, almost running into a halfling.
“Watch it,” the female halfling said, dodging out of his way. “Big Feet!” she repeated a common insult for the taller folks.
“It will be added entertainment to torture that soul,” Reagan nodded toward Josh’s back. “Sheol! Well met. Your timing is impeccable, as always.”
The former assistant to Thea Nightstalker of the Wizard’s Guild did a quick curtsey in the mud. “I’m glad for the chance to work together again. I appreciate moving me to Mage’s End, but it’s a little slow here for my tastes.”
Reagan smiled. Sheol was here for the same reason Reagan was; scrying devices did not seem to penetrate Knavesmire or Mage’s End. Probably something to do with whatever had inflicted Nysta with visions, but that was a line of investigation that would have to wait until later. “I could use a right hand while I’m here, as long as you don’t object to being overpaid.”
Sheol grinned. “I think I’ll manage. How long will do you plan to stay?”
“Just between you and me, sweet Sheol, and much to the displeasure of that Big Feet Sheriff,” Reagan lowered her voice to a conspirator’s whisper. “I think Mage’s End will be my new base of operations.”
Sheol laughed. “Then look out, Mage’s End!”
"Tea at the Ghost Lantern"
Grundy stumbled bleary-eyed into the street. He was too exhausted to curse Fafnir Savage for setting him up with this job of assisting Athena Fikaris, but could only put insulting him on his list of things-to-do, as he was too tired to do anything else about it, other than stumble behind Athena and the kobold.
At the Cackling Kobold, one of the kobolds asked if the Merchant’s Guild would be able to doing anything about the giant eagle scooping up kobolds to eat, and Athena had insisted they ensure Del Rook, the bumbling kobold sorcerer, was safe and sound.
They had spent most of the rest of the day and the night searching for that cursed oaf, barely stopping to grab a bite to eat.
When they found him emerging from his apparent love nest in the top of the Nest, Grundy could have beaten the little kobold to death with his bare hands. If only he had the energy. As it was, he was too tired to spit tobacco juice at him.
Athena had spent a restless night, what little was left of it, pacing back and forth in her small room at the Tavern, waiting for the sun to rise over the horizon. As she did not need much sleep, the only ways she could burn some of her excess energy were either with a good fight or with good sex. To her dismay, the Olafson boys were still in jail and unavailable to help her break a good sweat, and she did not think it advisable to get herself into a brawl just to scratch her fighting itch.
So now she walked, sexually frustrated and with an itchy dagger hand, just begging for someone to look at her cross. And, of course, this was not the right attitude to be attempting to attract merchants into the Guild. Strolling with a doe eyed Del and a grumpy Grundy did not help.
As they approached the Ghost Lantern Boarding House, Athena noticed a face she hadn’t seen in a while, Lady Reagan Mudd, talking to a female halfling. She wondered what Reagan would be doing in the likes of Mage’s End, and being her usual blunt self, asked. “Good Morning, Lady Mudd.
What brings you to Mage’s End?”
"Lady Fikaris!" Reagan smiled. "I'd quite forgotten that I had given you free reign in these parts, Athena. How fortuitous! I am presenting the Town Council with a lucrative business venture. It is so important that this village does well, don't you agree?"
“Most definitely!”Athena consented, Reagan’s tone and mannerism alerting Athena to more than what was said. “I’m here to introduce the Merchant’s Guild to the proprietor and hopefully add another member.” Athena paused for a moment and then turned to a distracted Grundy, “Who are we meeting here?” she asked him, having lost track of all the names he had blurted during their brief morning meeting.
"Um, her," Grundy dipped his head towards the halfling.
“Well, then, hello there!” Athena extended her hand towards the halfling standing next to Lady Mudd. “My name is Athena Fikaris, and I represent the Merchant’s Guild. I understand you run the Boarding House, and I was wondering if you would have a moment to talk about how the Guild could help you,” she asked.
Sheol cocked her head, and curled her lip and an eyebrow. "Is she for real?" the halfling asked Reagan.
"Now, Sheol," Reagan said in a matronly tone. "You should hear Lady Fikaris out, don't you think?"
"I suppose," Sheol said, but crossed her arms and looked at Athena skeptically.
Del looked wistfully off in the distance, hoping to catch a glimpse of Ree. He had completely forgotten over his (justified) fear of giant birds swooping down and making a Del Rook-size meal out of him, instead completely fixating on the young kobold lass.
Grundy looked for something to lean against. His feet were tired, he was hungry, and ale had not touched his lips in what felt like an ogre's age.
"Wonderful. Would you care to go in and have a seat? I would like to buy some drinks for my companions,” Athena asked hesitantly, wanting to get out of the sun promptly, but hoping her intrusion would not scare the halfling away.
"The Boarding House only serves breakfast and dinner for the residents," Sheol said.
Del looked around nervously, not wanting to go indoors and miss a glance of his sweet Ree.
Grundy finally decided the hitching post would be the best place to lean, and shuffled that direction.
"Perhaps you have some coffee or tea you could share with Lady Fikaris and her companions. I know I would love some Chicoran Tea," Reagan said.
Sheol hid her impatience behind a thin facade of good manners. "Yes, ma'am, of course."
Almost to the hitching post, Grundy sighed heavily, and turned with exaggerated slowness to follow them.
Del looked back towards the Nest as he walked, and promptly ran into the back of Grundy.
Sheol led them into the Ghost Lantern Boarding House, past the desk and another halfling woman who eyed them with just as much suspicion as Sheol, and into the Common Room.
She offered them the largest table, and excused herself to instruct the kitchen staff.
Grundy sat down with a huff, and crossed his arms, and Del moved his chair so he could better stare at the windows.
"The residents of Mage's End definitely keep to themselves, do they not?" Reagan asked.
“It appears that way,” Athena agreed, the reprieve from the sun lightening her mood.
Removing her darkened spectacles, she looked around and smiled. “Quaint little place, isn’t it? Care to share the history?” she asked.
Grundy rolled his eyes, and made a sound of exasperation.
"I wonder if Ree knows kobold history," Del muttered under his breath. "Or the Kobold Way! I could teach her..."
"The Ghost Lantern Boarding House or Mage's End?" Reagan assessed the lovelorn kobold for a moment as she spoke. "Because the answer to either is intertwined, of course. Mage's End was the hermitage of the Mad Wizard Druze, a necromancer who was killed by the lizardfolk. The Champions of Phaeton found his ruined tower when they arrived to destroy him. When the Champions of Phaeton and the Imperial Knights united to bring the Ghost Lantern Bandits to justice, I offered them pardon and retirement in exchange for settling Mage's End. Many of the former bandits...the 'Originals' as they call themselves... live here in the Boarding House. Goblin Jack, Maddie, Zek Stark: all Originals. Everyone should have a second chance, don't you agree?"
Sheol arrived, and a serving maid - another female halfling - served them tea and coffee.
Athena would have preferred a whiskey to snap her out of her foul mood, but reached for the cup of coffee to keep up with civilized appearances. The head of a Guild should be prim and proper, and her sailor manners would have to be tamed to fit the occasion. She looked at her companions and then back at Lady Mudd. “Yes, indeed. Everyone does deserve a second chance. It’s that opportunity which allows our mistake to turn into lessons, bandits to turn into reputable business people. And talking about business, maybe we can discuss the needs of your establishment and how the Merchant’s Guild could help you, Miss Sheol.” Athena smiled at the hostile looking Sheol and took a sip of her coffee.
"I'm happy with being left well enough alone," Sheol said, her chin high.
Grundy made a sound of agreement, which was unfortunate, as he did not stop drinking coffee to do so. The sarcastic discharge of air from his mouth and nostrils sent hot coffee spilling from his cup.
"Sheol," Reagan gently reprimanded, ignoring the dwarf juggling the hot cup of coffee.
Del snickered, drawing a sharp look from Grundy. He tapped the saucer of his tea with his claws, and went back to looking out the window.
"Beg your pardon, milady, but we house the Ghost Lantern Originals. I can't see anything a Merchant's Guild could give us," Sheol said.
"Maybe another voice to the Town Council?" Reagan sipped her tea.
Grundy wiped his hands on his beard, and tried again to drink his coffee.
Sheol smiled wryly. "The Town Council mostly lives here, ma'am. We fluff their pillows, clean their rooms, keep their bellies full. What more influence do we need?"
"What if you wanted to expand into other business ventures?" Reagan asked.
Sheol raised an eyebrow in interest.
“The Guild, when fully settled in Mage’s End, will have all the contacts you could ever need to explore other business options, like Lady Mudd said. With the weight of the town merchants behind you, you may be able to do much more than you ever could now,” Athena added, thankful that Reagan was using her personal knowledge of the not-very-receptive candidate to influence her decision.
“Would you care to consider joining the Guild?” she offered, placing a firm hand on one very disinterested Grundy to bring him back to the conversation and ready to take notes, if needed.
Grundy flinched, nearly spilled his coffee again, and tried to summon a deeper frown.
Del's eyes sharply focused on Athena for a moment, but only for a brief moment before his gaze drifted off like a moth, in search of a sweet kobold flame.
"Maybe," Sheol finally said. "I'll give it some thought."
“Splendid! I’ll be in town for the rest of the day talking to other Merchants. If you have any questions, or when you are ready to sign up, please send word. Or if it would be more convenient, I can send one of my associates back later this afternoon,” Athena waved towards the love-stricken Del and the almost hostile looking Grundy.
Sheol looked skeptically at the two. "I'll send my own messenger, in my own time, thank you."
"Look at us, working together so well," Reagan laughed. "Like old business partners. I wonder what else we could offer each other. The kobold's a wizard, is he not?"
“Well, technically, Del's a sorcerer, not a wizard.” Athena replied, painfully remembering the long winded explanation Del had offered some time ago about the difference between the two; something about a sorcerer’s magic coming naturally from a bloodline, while a wizard had to study.
Nok entered the room. The orc seemed like a giant, ducking through the doorway, and intimidating even in his silence. He looked at Reagan.
"Right, Nok, thank you," Reagan rose to leave. "Lady Fikaris, Sheol, Sorcerer Kobold, forgive me, but I have a prior engagement. Athena, let's talk later. Perhaps there is more than we can do together, for the greater good of Mage's End."
“At your service. Please call on me when your schedule permits it,” Athena replied with a nod.
“Sheol, it has been a pleasure to meet you. Thank you for your hospitality,” she added, rising from her chair and following Reagan towards the door.
"Don't bother to mention the handsome dwarf," Grundy sighed into his coffee.
Del made a half-hearted effort to respond, his mind still very much on Ree. He had barely noticed Lady Mudd's sudden attention in him.
"Useless kobold," Grundy huffed, and stood to follow Athena to the door.
“Slippers next to Boots”
A chilly breeze stirred a pile of dead glimmer oak leaves, blowing several handfuls in front of Nok and Reagan. Even brown and crisp, the leaves still sparkled faintly, their fairy dust-like quality twinkling like mica in mud.
Reagan walked onward, following her large and silent bodyguard, glancing around, hoping to see Josh Savage. She imagined his expression to show at least some surprise, but secretly wished for horror. It was always so much fun to surprise or shock, and she was so very good at it.
He would have to wait, though. Business before pleasure, as always.
Nok led her through the muddy streets of Mage’s End, to a small gathering of shops. Newer boards replaced older boards, and mismatched thatch gave them all a patchwork look, even more than the rest of the village.
The large orc ducked under the sign of a crudely drawn shoe. When he opened the door inwards, it brushed against a small tin bell, announcing their entrance into the cobbler shop with a hollow tinkling noise.
The walls were lined with shelves of slippers next to boots, juxtaposition caused by a random sense of organization.
“You were able to press on, I see, with your labor source liberated and Marrina in jail,” Reagan said. “I am impressed.”
Kidymkus prepared an indignant retort, which remained tangled in his tongue when he recognized her. “Lady Mudd?” He stood, but offered little else to protocol. Scavenger were-rats did not cross paths with nobles very often.
“Not so formal, please. Call me Reagan.” she smiled graciously. “If I can call you Kidymkus, that is.”
To his credit, Kidymkus showed suspicion instead of surprise that she knew his name. After all, she knew about Marrina kidnapping noble children to make shoes. He assumed she was here for revenge, and took stock in the many escape routes he had built into the shop. “Then there is something I can help you with, I presume?”
Reagan approached him, and Nok stood his ground, crossing his massive arms and remaining a significant obstacle to anyone who would try to use the door.
Kidymkus decided the curtain behind him, to the maze beneath the store, was his best option, and braced himself to flee, staring to slip off the stool.
“Actually, I am here to help you,” Reagan said. She reached into her satchel, and drew a glass orb. Dark mists swirled inside.
Kidymkus mouth opened to ask a question, but before he could say a word, Reagan threw the orb on the counter in front of him. It shattered, and the mists expanded at a phenomenal rate, enveloping him.
He half-leapt and half-fell from the stool, landing awkwardly on all fours. He had to shift into a rat, had to escape. When he looked at his hands, though, he stopped abruptly. Instead of the sullen grey which betrayed a half-orc heritage, they were pink and human.
“I don’t understand. What did you do?”
Reagan casually leaned over, resting her elbows on the counter. “What do you know about your parents?”
Kidymkus scrambled around the counter to a short smoky mirror used for customers to admire their choice of footwear. He touched his face; he had always been close enough to nearly pass for a human, but now, there was not a trace of half-orc. His small tusks were gone, his forehead was no longer quite as broad. Also, he fancied himself as more handsome than ever. “My parents?”
“Did you think Madame Yaga, that unpleasant sewer witch, was your real mother? What real mother would try to kill you so many times?
Kidymkus turned and stared at her. “How do you know this? What do you want from me? I am no one to you!”
“No, Kidymkus. That is not true,” Reagan said. “You see, your father was noble-born, but his mistress was not, and his wife would not have approved. He gave you to Madame Yaga, who used enchantments to change you – quite a powerful polymorph spell, actually - hiding your true heritage and your father’s discretion. I know this because I acquired an oracle from the Ghrom, but even with her considerable divination ability, it took quite some time to find you. You see, I was not even aware I had a half- brother.”
Kidymkus jaw dropped open.
Reagan’s smiled in sly pleasure. There’s that look of surprise she cherished so much. “And you are right about one thing, though. I do want something. Just between you and me, I plan to stay in Mage’s End, and I want us to be the best of friends. Family, even. ”
“Why the Mayor Won't Leave His Porch”
Jack was called Goblin Jack, and the origin of that nickname haunted him.
In his fever dream, the former bandit leader was at the scene of the massacre again.
He flung his arms out, knocking both of his goose down pillows to the floor.
He saw the bare halfling feet of a military commander in the service of the Champions of Phaeton – his hairy feet- walking through the burnt out shell of the enemy village.
A nonsensical, shrill voice came from everywhere at once, as if Goblin Island itself was singing:
Morning and evening
Maids heard the goblins cry:
"Come buy our orchard fruits,
Come buy, come buy.”
The covers jumped up and down with his thrashing.
In his dream, he stepped around the bodies of soldiers and fallen goblins. Blood spread from good men and women , his broken soldiers, as well as dead goblin men, women… and children. The blood pooled in unrealistically prodigious quantity, swelling in unison with the rainwater and mud.
An old sergeant sat dumbfounded in the mud and the blood. Horace’s arms around his knees, rocking back and forth.
His singing was louder than screaming, reverberating painfully in Goblin Jack’s head:
“We must not look at goblin men,
We must not buy their fruits:
Who knows upon what soil they fed
Their hungry thirsty roots?"
Horace was the one witness who could clear his name, who could swear that he had not done this, had neither ordered the attack nor the slaughter of goblin children. And Horace’s mind had snapped.
Averting his eyes from Grigsby’s father, he looked down, and saw the rising pools of blood enveloping his feet.
Goblin Jack forced himself awake, and tore the quilt from his feet.
Prudence woke to the sound of scrubbing. The halfling lass sighed dramatically, and held a pillow over her head to drown out the sound. After a few heartbeats, she gave up, and slowly got up. She slipped into waiting slippers, and adjusted her night gown and ribbons in her long blonde pigtails first. She scooped Fluffy from his nest in his pillow. They called Fluffy a boneyard terrier, but the native species did not resemble a dog other than being a ball with fur with four legs. His face and nose were too flat, his tail a mere nub, and his eyes were too beady and red. Also, his mouth contained too many long sharp teeth to sensibly fit in that homely little head. But for whatever reason, Fluffy tolerated being carried around like a doll and spoiled like royalty, and that was good enough for Prudence.
She walked out of her room, and onto the porch of their cottage. Like the Hedgewitch’s hut, the house of the lead councilman was on stilts, but had more rooms and a grander porch. Also, the poles were wider, sturdier, and more even. The Hedgewitch’s hut looked like it could amble off into the swamp at any moment, or tip over in a stiff breeze.
Goblin Jack dangled his feet off of the porch. He stopped scrubbing them with the boar bristle brush. They were pink and sore and nearly hairless from the scouring, an embarrassment for any self-respecting adult halfling. “Dearest Prudence. Did I wake you?”
“Your feet are fine, Daddy,” she took the brush from his hands. “Cleaner than an angel’s intentions. Go back to sleep. You are worrying Fluffy.”
Fluffy snored in her arms, his long purple tongue lolling out the side of his mouth in oblivious abandon.
“Yes, I can see that,” Goblin Jack said. He ran his fingers through his white hair, and absent-mindedly traced the scar that ran from his temple to cheekbone. He looked back at his feet and scowled. There was still blood on them, he was sure of it. He just could not get to it properly. “How am I to run this village if I don’t want to set foot in the mud?” he asked himself.
Prudence was already shuffling back to bed. She yawned. “Do it from here. They can come to you.”
Goblin Jack smiled. “What a novel thought.”