Rick hacked up a wad of phlegm from the depths of the back of his throat and spat it onto the dusty floor. Outside, the wind began to howl and the rain beat hard against the loose windowpanes of the cabin. A storm was brewing.
“So then what happened?” Asked Roderick.
“Hold yer horses, I ain’t finished yet” said Rick “This is a tale that’s needed tellin’ for six years. It can’t come out all at once…” Rick’s non milky eye took on a glazed, faraway look. He began his story again, telling it to a point on the ceiling just above and to the right of the group.
“As I said, it all started when I was chasing the trail of some deadbeat. He’d made a wager with Shifty Fourfingers –they just called him Shifty Boththumbs back then- betting on the outcome of the Southern Thief-Off Championship. The bet was outrageous, even for someone who claimed to be an eccentric nobleman. Ten-thousand rubles! Shifty was the only bookie in South Gluehorse who could have covered a bet so large. He didn’t wanna, but the guy’s representative was able to present cash and the payoff wasn’t too big. Shifty’d rake in more than that easily over the course of the championships; it was the illicit-sporting event of the decade. This was back when Fancy Dan was at the top of his game, setting records with a .800 Snatching Average and the Competitive Thieving Commission wasn’t in the pocket of the Shadow Government…”
Roderick, Nynalama and Fluvio rolled their eyes. Rick paid them no attention.
“Anyway, Fancy Dan was a shoe-in to win… Except…”
“Except he didn’t!” Nynalama crowed from the back corner of the cabin. She had been sitting with her chair tilted against the back wall, absently flicking her butterfly knife open and closed during most of Rick’s story. Now all four legs of her chair were on the ground and she was sitting up straight, her bright eyes focused on Rick’s hunched form. Rick stared back at her.
“I won that competition! The first one I ever won in Geldwain.” She grinned. Her gold fangs sparkled in the candlelight.
“Right.” Growled Rick “Some young pup who’d just fallen off the banana boat from the slums of the New World-”
Roderick talked over Nynalama’s objection “-showed up outta nowhere and literally stole the championship right out from under Fancy Dan’s fingers. Bad day for Thief-Off enthusiasts, they lost hundreds of thousands. Good day for bookies. Except for one bookie. Shifty Twothumbs. He thought he’d make a few bets of his own, preemptively reinvest some of his soon-to-be earnings. Fancy Dan was his man after all. He lost a lot of money. A lot of money. It almost bankrupted him except for one ray of hope: the mysterious northern nobleman. The ten thousand dollars he’d lost on Fancy Dan would be more than enough to cover Shifty and keep him running in the black. Except one problem…”
“He skipped town!” completed Grumblepig.
“Exactly…” said Rick “So Shifty sends his best man… me” he jabbed his chest with his thumb “to go and track the guy down. He’d made his bet through a proxy. He hadn’t left an address or a name, except he called himself ‘the Count’. That was all I had to go on. That, and the proxy. He’d skipped out as soon as the last whistle blew and it wasn’t Fancy Dan’s arm the ref was holdin’. He had a couple days head start, but I sniffed out his trail. I tracked him through twenty five counties as he made his way north. I was always just a few hours behind, sometimes less. From the Great Forest, across the Plains of Despair, beneath the Sawtooth Mountains, over Death Canyon-”
“So then what happened?” Asked an increasingly impatient Roderick.
The expression Rick shot Roderick could have curdled milk. He hocked up another lugie and spat it into the corner, then continued.
“So I tracked him all the way up to this gigantic mansion estate overlooking a sleepy little village in Parageldanya. I had him cornered. I knew this was the home of the reclusive deadbeat. I’d beat the guy up, grab the ten thousand –plus a little extra for myself- and bring it back to Shifty for a huge reward… At least that’s what I thought… before I met…” Rick paused extra long for effect “The Spectre!”
Lightning flashed and a deafening thunderclap split the air at that exact second and the party leapt out of their seats with a yelp. Rick stayed as motionless as a rock, eyeing them cooly.
“A spectre?” Fluvio asked, now giving Rick his undivided attention.
“A spectre.” Rick confirmed in a gravelly growl. Thunder rumbled softly over his words.
“It stalks the grounds of the manor. I thought it was just a beggar at first, but when I saw its face, it looked like me!”
Thunder rumbled again and the group shivered in spite of their skepticism. Fluvio continued to listen closely.
“Just seeing it made me feel weak as a kitten. It said things to me and showed me things that broke my heart. If I had stayed in its thrall for another minute I’m sure it would have killed me, or worse. Luckily, I kept my wits about me to the end. I knew it was a cursed creature and with the last of my strength, I was able to dig into my pockets and bring up a handful of silver coins. I flung them at the spectre. It let out an unearthly howl and lashed out its arms at me. Wherever it touched, I burned and bled. I drew my falchions and slashed at it. They passed through it like smoke, but with each blow I felt stronger. I thought I’d beaten it back, but just as I was about to turn and flee, it struck me across the eye. That’s how I got this…” Rick pointed to his milky eye “I escaped, but I was struck with fever and night terrors for thirteen days. When I finally regained my strength and returned to South Gluehorse, battered and tired and without the bounty I’d promised, Shifty gave me this…” Rick pointed to his other eye that barely peered out from behind the scarred flesh of his cheek and eyebrow “But slashing my eye didn’t do him any good when it came to money. He was bankrupted and ended up having to borrow money from himself on credit.”
“And of course he couldn’t repay!” said Roderick.
“So he really did cut off his own thumbs!” Said Nynalama “I always thought that was just advertising.”
“You still worked for him after he scarred your eye?”
“Yeah. But there’s no love lost between me and him. He finally got what he deserved…”
“What’d you do to him?” Asked Nynalama, eager to hear news of Shifty Fourfingers’ misfortune.
“I left a package with Buck and gave him directions to deliver it to Shifty Fourfingers after I’d left, then to get as far away as possible.”
“What was in the package?” Asked Roderick.
The group gasped.
“ It took me months to gather up the right materials. And to rig the trigger so that it wouldn’t go off until someone opened the top of the box.”
“Where’d you learn to make a bomb?” Asked Nynalama.
“You learn things when you’re a bo… A bounty hunter.”
The group sat and considered Rick’s words. Grumblepig asked the question.
“So you think that we’re heading to the same manor where you lost your eye?”
Rick growled in his throat “I’m not sure, but I suspect it is. This time I intend to pay that evil spirit back for what it did to me.”
“I’m afraid you’re too late.” Said Fluvio.
Everyone turned to look at him. Rick’s candlelit face was a floating mask of shock.
“Yer crazy, what do you mean?” Rick demanded “I’ve been dreaming of getting revenge on that monster for six years!”
“I know.” Said Fluvio “And I’m sorry, but the creature is already dead. The manor home of our mysterious sponsor and the one from your tale are no doubt one and the same.”
“How can it be dead? It’s an evil spirit!” Said Rick.
“I faced it when I approached the manor myself. It changed its shape and tried to weaken my spirit, but wizards are trained against such supernatural monsters. I was able to seal it away with a spell of banishment. The spectre is as good as dead.”
“It must have been a different spectre.”
“I doubt it, unless such creatures are common in Parageldanya, which they’re not.”
Rick was silent. He’d spent the better half of a decade plotting his revenge against the monster that had crippled his sight. This was the first time he’d even summoned up the will to tell the full truth about what had happened since he’d told the story to Shifty six years ago.
“But take heart. The master of the manor is as much a victim as you! The spirit held him hostage there for years, he was so grateful for my help, he agreed to hire us all for a huge salary!”
Rick grunted. He knew Fluvio believed what he said, but he couldn’t believe that such an evil creature could be dispelled so easily, especially by such a young man, magician or no.
The storm continued to rage outside and the group settled down to wait out the storm. There was no firewood for fire, so they huddled together for warmth. Nynalama shivered especially and scooched herself in close underneath one of Grumblepig’s tree-trunk like arms. They passed the time with other stories or card games (the games would always go to either Roderick or Nyna and the others stopped playing when it devolved into a cheating competition). Rick stayed separate from the rest. “Gotta keep alert” he told them, then proceeded to follow a curious and unsettling ritual of alternately hiding from and staring intently out of every window and crack in the wall. Eventually the others just tuned out his strange dance with the invisible watchers.
That afternoon, the storm finally subsided, and within minutes the sun was out and shining on the damp and disheveled forest.
The party gathered their things and set out again, fast at first with Grumblepig at the front, but settling once again to Rick leading the way, followed closely by Fluvio, who Rick bombarded with every question he could think of about the Spectre and its nature.
Rick startled everyone when he stopped abruptly in the middle of the path and shot his arm out straight to catch Fluvio. Grumblepig skidded to a halt behind the pair and Nyna and Roderick plowed into the back of him.
“Hey what the hell!” demanded Nyna, untangling herself from Roderick and straightening her cap.
Rick just pointed a finger in the air, signaling Nyna to be quiet. Finally, he spoke.
“To what end do you hope to accomplish?” he asked.
“Who, me?” asked Fluvio, suddenly very nervous.
Rick raised both his hands into the air.
“I ask again… To what end do you hope to accomplish by pointing that arrow at my head, my dear friend?”
“Nobody’s pointing an arrow at you…” said Grumblepig. Nyna and Roderick both exchanged a glance and made “crazy” circular motions with their fingers. Rick just stayed stone still, reaching for the sky. After several seconds of silence, the bushes off to the side of the path rustled and a figure stepped out onto the path.
It was a woman, she was tall and raven haired, clad in the rough furs and leather of a lifelong forester. She was carrying a seriously mean-looking composite bow. A Fletcher Bros. Mk V. by the looks of it, though only Rick could have picked it out, or maybe Roderick.
“This is a tungsten-carbide tipped armor piercing high velocity arrow. It could go through all five of you like a knife through butter. I suggest you drop your weapons.”
“Come on, Anenka, you know me.” Started Rick, but the woman only drew her bow tighter.
“The Rick I know wouldn’t have let me sneak up on him so easily.” She said “Back when you were a ranger, you would have sniffed me out a mile away.”
“Two miles away.” Said Rick, not taking his eyes off the arrow “You’ve been following us since the cabin.”
Anenka drew the bow completely taut and the party flinched, even Rick betrayed a little twitch. She held it there for a half second, then eased her draw and lowered the bow to her waist. She broke out in a huge smile. Rick smiled too (it looked scary on his harsh features) and the pair collided in a warm bear hug.
“Um, excuse me.” Fluvio raised his hand “Who are you exactly?”
Anenka, still smiling, disengaged from Rick and walked over to the others. She reached into her furs and pulled out a large, golden badge fastened to a thin chain that hung around her neck. “Forest Ranger” it declared in raised letters.
“Anenka Diresnow. I’m the ranger for this part of the forest. Everything between the north end of South Gluehorse to the river.”
“Fluvio Shatterwind, pleased to meet you.” He extended a hand.
“Shatterwind!” Anenka exclaimed “So you’re from the Obsidian Empire! It’s so nice to meet someone from the Motherland!” she proceeded to rattle off a sentence in rapid Obsidine. Fluvio just grinned stupidly.
“I’m sorry.” He said “The family name is Obsidine, but I was born and raised in Geldwain.”
Anenka’s smile faded a little, but not much “Your heart will always belong to the Motherland.” She said, then turned to the others. Roguish Roderick had jumped to the front of the line and had already extended a hand “A pleasure to make your acquaintance, mon cherie.” He said, tugging the bottom corner of his eyepatch with one hand and raising Anenka’s hand to kiss it with the other.
“Spasiba.” Anenka replied, and patted him on the cheek.
She turned to Nynalama next and extended a hand in greeting, when Nyna took it, Anenka shifted languages again “Shilthuvien var thalathalanana.” She said. Nyna’s expression was as blank as Fluvio’s had been.
“Oh, I’m sorry, did I say it wrong?” asked Anenka, looking a little distressed, she started to repeat herself, but Nyna stopped her.
“I’m sure you said it right.” Said Nynalama “I just don’t speak any Elvish… except for maybe the swear words…”
“Oh!” said Anenka “How rude of me!”
“Don’t sweat it.” Said Nyna “If my grandparents couldn’t make me learn, it doesn’t really fall on your shoulders.”
“I suppose not…” said Anenka. She looked over Nynalama’s shoulder at Grumblepig, who had hung back from the rest of the group.
“Oh! And Who is this handsome man, hiding in the rear, so bashfully!”
Grumblepig blushed “I’m Grumblepig. Pleasure to meet you, miss.” He said.
“The pleasure is mine. And it’s Anenka.” She extended a hand, Grumblepig shook it, her grip was much more firm than he had expected“I’ve already had two strikes today, so I’m not going to ask you if you speak Orcish at all. Even if you are from Orcland, humans don’t usually bother to learn-”
“Thurok gurok gurrr.” Said Grumblepig, a little timid.
“Oh! So you do speak Orcish!” she exclaimed.
“I learned it from an old friend…” he said.