The Plains of Tears

Part 12

By Shootthesea

The brush ahead of them burst with a crash, as a host of figures burst forward. Monstrous wolves, scar-faced bandits, hideous beings they had never seen before. Nenka and Rick took out maybe ten or eleven of them and Nynalama got one or two (Grumblepig almost certainly gave some many-horned creature a mortal blow) but it was obvious that they would soon be overwhelmed.

“Wait, look!” Cried Fluvio, from the top of the boulder upon which he had scrambled.

“What do you mean, wait!?” yelled Roderick as he stabbed a bandit in the foot and rolled back behind another boulder.

“They aren’t attacking! They aren’t attacking us, they’re FLEEING, look!”

Nenka and Rick leapt to one side of the fray and saw that, yes, the horde was rushing right through their group, wild-eyed. Grumblepig stood in the middle of the coursing mob, throwing blows left and right. The others yelled for him to stop until Nynalama finally pulled him out by the back of his vest.

“What on earth—“ Anenka began as the last and most breathless of the monsters and thugs scrambled out of sight. Suddenly, the air was split with a shattering CLANG, like clashing cymbals inside each party member’s skull.

“The hell was that!” screamed Nynalama, as the ringing stopped.

“Hmm. Nothing like what I’ve heard before,” mumbled Rick. His nose was bleeding, and he licked the trickle absentmindedly as it reached his thin mouth. “Nothing like what I’ve heard before at all.”

Fluvio had been throwing up, but he now climbed gingerly off his boulder and looked at his comrades. “So…I think we should find out what that was all about…don’t you?”

Anenka was one step ahead of him, flipping over the bodies of man, beast, and man-beast, looking for survivors. A huge dog with a woman’s face almost snapped off her fingers, but that was all the life–she? it?–had left.

“The noise came from that direction,” Offered Roderick, who seemed a little shaky, but largely unaffected by the terrible noise. Nynalama spat,

“The direction where all those things were running from? Very good, Rod. Real intelligent observation.”

“Stuff it!”

“Please! Stop your bickering! Whatever those…things were running from, it is now more important than ever that we keep our wits about us!” Anenka looked sharply at the group. The air was very still. “Let’s take a look.”

They had only crept maybe a hundred feet before Anenka stopped, horrified.

“What’s the matter?” hissed Fluvio.

“I just came from this direction–but–the trees! They just…stop! Look!”

“That can’t be right,” Fluvio took out a small map and examined it. “We can’t have gone more than—“

“Just LOOK!”

Through the trees ahead of them, the party could see a broad band of white, glaring brightly.

“What is it?” Asked Grumblepig, awed. No one answered. They walked towards it.

Soon, a dazzling white plain stretched before them, seemingly without end. Behind them, the forest and its dark green forest smells seemed to hum with life. Rick squatted down and swiped the ground with a finger. He sniffed and licked it.

“It’s just salt.”

“Just salt?? Miles and miles of JUST salt?” Roderick was still standing under the shade of the trees, squinting.

“Aye. Looks to be so.”

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Finally, a Little Action

PART 11

By AG

Nenka’s nose gave a twitch as her hazel eyes exploded open, scanning the tree-line vigorously as her feathery fingers pull back on the string of her intimidating bow.
The other three looked strangely at Nenka’s face and tenaciously back into the trees. Chills crawled up their spines when they heard a gut-wrenching howl off into the distance.
“What the hell is that!?” grunted Grumble as he pulled out his sword. Fluvio tugged at Nenka, “Please what is that Nenka?”

Nenka stayed quiet, Fluvio grew frustrated and blurted out, “By the divine grace answer me!”

Nenka turned towards the group of adventurers, gathering her composure she said, “Something dark and evil swarms the forest! We need to run, now!”

Nynalama shook her head, “What the fuck? We gonna flee when we run into trouble for the first time or what? I didn’t come on this journey to run away from moans and groans…”
Nenka replied shaken, “No, no, this is really bad. I cannot even foresee past the bushes. Please Rick, tell your friends to flee!”
Rick cocked his head back as he studied the horrid face of Nenka. This is extremely rare to see his companion so experienced and yet fearful to the unknown like a cat afraid of water. Nenka’s eyes bounced wildly through the trees as her heart began to race faster as a sound of shattered leaves grew louder.
A man burst out of the bush in front of them, Nenka didn’t hesitate to snap her string. Her arrow zipped through the air and ripped through the man’s chest while he crashed into the grassy floor…
Nynalama walked to the corpse analyzed the body, “Hey, this is one of dem bandits you was talking about Rick… An ugly one might I add.”
Grumble patted Nenka on the shoulder saying gallantly, “Nice shot Nenka, quick shot too!”
Nynalama interrupted the compliment, “eh, I would of landed one in the head with an even faster reaction time…”
Roderick looked towards Rick, “Hey Rick, weren’t there many more of them earlier yesterday?”
Rick pulled out his crossbow and yelled to the group, “More is coming, get ready!”

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The Mystery of the Secret Cabin

PART 10

By Fellstorm

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-”

“Hey!”

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.

“A bomb.”

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.

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The Storm Before the Calm

PART 9

By SamIam

The rain broke shortly before the dawn.  The forest, pitch black but for Fluvio’s green glow, filled with the noise of droplets pushing down through the pines and a chill swept over the camp, within seconds, everyone was up.
“What the hell?!” yelled out Nynalama, “Which wunna you got it into their thick heads that we were better off hiking out into the forest than taking the road north?”

“Well, you’re the elf.  Why didn’t the trees tell you about the rain?  You should be right at home in this.” Said Roderic.

“Oh!  Well you must be some kinda goddamn expert on elves, huh?  We’re all just pointy eared tree people who sit around healing flowers and looking pretty, isn’t that right?!”

“No, all I meant was you should be better at…”

“Meant nothing!  You know less about elves than you know about thieving.  You jus told me I should be talking with trees and…”

Rick cut in, “This was the only way we could be sure the Combined Bandit Allegiance wouldn’t follow us,”

“Oh yeah, right, because bandits never go in the woods”

Fluvio was so exstatic he didn’t notice anyone arguing.  “Isn’t this magnificent?” he asked to no one in particular as the wind howled through the treetops, “The whole forest is flowing with energy!  It’s amazing.”

“I just want some sleep.” Grumblepig said to himself, feeling around in the dark for his boots.  “Things just keep getting better and better.” he thought to himself.

“Pack yer bags, we should get going before anyone sees us out here” Said Rick. “There’s a hunting lodge not too far from here where we can get out of the rain for a while.”

“Wait… you’re saying… that we slept on the ground… when there was a LODGE NOT EVEN TEN MINUTES AWAY?!” Shouted Roderick.

“I needed to be sure ye could all be trusted.  If any of you’d run away, you’d have been caught in one of Fat Buck’s snares,” said Rick, “And, actually, the lodge is twenty five minutes from here, so we should get moving before it starts to rain hard.” Fluvio let out a startled yell as Rick grabbed him by the arm, using his glowing hand as a beacon.  Rick then started making his way through the woods. “Follow close, and ye oughtn’t get caught in any traps” Except that everyone wanted to get out of the rain, they might have argued more.

Half an hour later, cold, muddy, and still tired they arrived at a shuttered hunting lodge roughly camouflaged with sticks and brambles.  Rick grabbed his keyring from one of his many pockets and unlocked the door.  Inside, Rick grabbed a tinder box and lit a fire in the stove, and then lit a pair of lamps on a long oaken table.  “Now that we’re all seated and out of the rain, I think it’s time I brought you a little further into the loop.  It all started some time ago, when I was out on a contract up in the north.  I was hired to bring home some crook who had welshed on a bet and cut town, or at least that’s what I was told.  Back then I was a lot more trusting, so when I saw how much I was being offered to find the guy, I didn’t think twice.”

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Grumblepig’s sorrows

PART 8

by EB

The first day of their travels had been anything but easy. At first, Grumblepig had strode proudly at the head of the pack, filled with the excitement of finally setting out on what was sure to be the grandest adventure of his life. But within an hour, Rick’s frequent interruptions to point out members of the Combined Bandit Allegiance, Nynalama and Roderick’s constant bickering, and the surprisingly hot sun considering the time of year had forced Grumblepig to the back of the group. He slunk along a few steps behind, glaring resentfully at the back of Rick’s head and wishing that there actually was a Bandit Alliance to make this trek more interesting.

At Rick’s insistence, they had taken what appeared to be the least direct route possible and veered into a forest. They were certainly not following any clearly defined path, but they also hadn’t run across the alleged giant spiders and trolls. Grumblepig stared up at the spindly pines and started to think this must be a bad dream. What were they doing? Traipsing off across the country to meet a stranger with a lunatic and a wanted woman?

“Fluvio?” Grumblepig glanced sidelong at Rick as he sidled up to his friend. “Fluvio, what are you thinking?”

“This forest is amazing! Can you feel the pure arcane power here? Breath it in, Grumblepig!” Fluvio practically did a little dance, his eyes darting from clump of dead brush to wizened tree trunk.

Grumblepig followed his gaze morosely. “Mm hm. But who are these people? What are we doing?”

Fluvio turned to eye him suspiciously. “Has the magic of the forest affected your mind, Grumblepig? These are our friends. We are going on a great adventure!”

“The magic of the forest has affected one of our minds,” Grumblepig grumbled.

“Halt!” Rick called from the front, raising an authoritative hand. “We finally lost them. This would be a good place to stop for the night, if anyone’s faint of heart.”

“Lost who?” Nynalama drawled, leaning against a tree with an irritatingly casual air.

“Goromash’s men, of course.” Rick narrowed his eyes pointedly in Grumblepig’s direction, forcing him to blush with anger.

“Oh, yeah. How could I forget?” Nynalama plunked down on the ground and kicked her boots off. “All right, let’s pack it in.”

With the mumbled assent of the others, the group set up a shabby camp on the uneven forest floor. Fluvio lit the area with pale green lights that bounced slightly in the breeze, and Roderick started a fire and attempted to draw the rest into conversation. While he and Nynalama were swapping thieving tales, Grumblepig slunk away from the group and sat in the relatively darkness.

Goromash. Why the hell did it have to be Goromash? Who knew what that bastard was up to lately, but it almost certainly wasn’t leading some bandit league. Goromash would never sink to those depths. He was probably the king of some far-off land or heir to an emperor’s fortune by now. That man’s luck would never run out, as far as Grumblepig could tell. He had hoped Goromash was dead by now, but he knew that was wishful thinking. And nothing could taint his mood and ruin his day like the mention of his old traveling companion.

Grumblepig became aware that Rick was watching him, or at least facing in his direction. Now the meaty bastard was suspicious of him. Why had he been so obvious about his disdain for Goromash? He just couldn’t think straight where that man was concerned. So far this journey had been one long reminder that he would never be the hero Goromash was, and it was eating him up more than he cared to admit.

Reaching clumsily into his pocket, Grumblepig pulled out a tattered handkerchief. He turned it over in his hands, inspecting the fine silk and delicate lace patterns turned ugly by age. Closing his fist on the handkerchief, he squeezed until tears burned his eyes. They weren’t tears of sadness. Not anymore. All that remained was shame and hatred for the man he had betrayed and run from in his moment of need.

How long had it been? Sixteen years? Twenty? Grumblepig tried not to count. He had enough to worry about without dwelling on the past. He was the founder of an adventuring group! They were going to achieve great deeds and gain world renown. Surely that was more important than the failures of his youth.

But when Grumblepig looked at that handkerchief, no, at Rowena’s handkerchief, it all came flooding back. He bold and arrogant claims;  his promise to Goromash that he would save Rowena and bring her back unharmed; he rage he felt when his friend laughed at him, claiming he could save his wife himself. Most of all, Grumblepig remembered the look on Goromash’s face when he saw Rowena’s body. It was the one time he looked human, broken.

This was unfair! Grumblepig had traveled across the country to escape all this, to meet new people with whom he would have a fresh start. And he was better now. Humbler, and stronger. He was strong enough to be an adventurer worthy of . . . well, worthy of everyone’s respect. Why did Rick have to mention Goromash? Why couldn’t he escape that name, no matter where he traveled?

“Inkroot?”

Grumblepig practically leapt to his feet, stuffing the handkerchief back into his dirty pocket. He looked up in panic and saw Roderick smiling down at him, holding out a small piece of inkroot.

“What?” Grumblepig stammered.

“Inkroot. You look like you could use a little something to help you relax.” Roderick plunked down beside Grumblepig and grinned.

“Uh, no. I don’t use it.” He could feel his cheeks burning and wished it were a little darker in the glen.

“Suit yourself. What a crew, eh?” Roderick laughed, biting off a bit of the inkroot himself.

Grumblepig nodded mutely.

“It’ll be a wonder if we make it through this forest, let alone through whatever’s waiting for us at the manor.”

Grumblepig watched the black of the inkroot filled Roderick’s mouth and smiled a little. “Not to worry, Roderick. We’re strong enough to manage anything they throw at us.”

“Oh, I know,” Roderick smiled with blackened teeth. “I’m not worried about us. We’re golden, you and I. It’s the rest of them that get me down. We’ll have to keep our eyes on our friend Rick Wayne, and our resident criminal. And Fluvio, at that. Have you seen the way he’s prancing about the forest, hunting for magical sticks and moss?”

Fluvio had indeed wandered away from the lighted circle and was currently poking what appeared to be a mutated mushroom. Grumblepig laughed much louder than he expected to and sat back against the tree, embarrassed.

“We’re going to be all right, Grumble,” Roderick said, laying a hand on Grumblepig’s shoulder. With that, he got back up and weaved his way back to the others. “Goodnight, all! We have a long journey ahead of us before the journey even begins!”

Grumblepig smiled at Roderick, gratified. Maybe he was right. Maybe they would be all right. Resting his head against the sticky bark, Grumblepig allowed himself to realize how exhausted he was. As he closed his eyes, he heard a rustling in the forest to the North, almost out of earshot. Maybe, just maybe, if he fell asleep quickly enough, it was only the wind.

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Bandit Trouble

Part 7 by Grugzug

Rick Wayne brushed his grayish white hair out of his face, then his hand over his eyes to block the Sun., as he watched people move in the distance. They had left the city earlier, it was now midday and the city was off in the distance. “Shh.” He said putting his hand in front of Grumblepig who was in front of the rest of the group. “What?” Grumblepig said in his slightly confused voice. “People, over there, I think they are part of the combined bandit allegiance.”
“The combined what?” Fluvio said looking confused.
“The combined bandit allegiance” Rick said growling, “Do you not pay attention to talk.” Rick put a bolt into his crossbow “It was formed by the Bandit Grom, until one of the youngling killed him and became the new king, I believe his name was Los…who cares, in any case its now led by the shadow council unknowingly under the king Goromash.”
“Goromash…..” Grumblepig said as he brought his massive sword down violently. He glared intently at the ground.
“Do you know him?” Rick said one eyebrow raised even though he was blind in both eyes, he could see essences, not the physical plain but the ethereal plane.

Grumblepig looked up “No.” he said viscously
Rick knew he was lying but decided not to continue on about it, he would need their help to kill the scepter that made his eye foggy. He would tell them about it later, they might run off if the journey was just beginning once they heard that this…creature took souls and made it more powerful, hopefully it had not gained that much strength since he last saw it.

“But, yes prepare yourself, I may be wrong but I barely ever am, they won’t see us for a bit longer, and if we avoid them we would have to take the forest path, with giant spiders and forest trolls.”

Nynalama, was just behind them listening to what rick had been saying, “We could always sneak around them, by going through the forest a little then back onto the road.”

Grumblepig glared. Roderick got a hold of himself for once instead of jumping after her.
“Come to pay Grumblepig back have you?”
“No, I don’t have it anymore,”
“Then what’s that in your pocket,” Rick said smirking
Nynalama reached into her pocket, and found a purse filled with gold. “Oh, I guess it’s right here.” She looked confused at Rick.

She handed Grumblepig the purse. “Now, come with my Nynalama,” Rick said walking off away from the group, Nynalama hesitated then noticed the crossbow pointing at her, as if it had eyes of its own, it followed her.

“Come along Nynalama,” Rick said again this time for of a command then a request “Don’t make me ask again.”

She followed along still hesitant. “Why do you want to get away with this group so badly, you have stolen from them twice, you almost put Roderick in community service.” Rick glared with his two bad eyes, “I know about your debts with four fingers, but I don’t care about him, he’s being put out of his misery today anyhow. So your debts are off…debts to him, are off” he corrected himself.

“Now, without your debts would you really want to go with them, and also remember you aren’t going to be using that writ to enter houses.”

“Hmm,” Nynalama tapped her foot, “There may be other bounty hunters after me, not as….respectful of you.”

Rick was not sure if he could tell the others, and he definitely knew not to tell her, but he wished he could. He was one of three of the great bounty hunters that worked for the fallen king, who now was as soulless as a dead rat, he would kill the specter one day and reverse the magic that it cast.

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Thy Government is Lieing to Ye

Part 6 by Fellstorm

The other three leaned in close, eager to catch the pearls of wisdom Rick was about to drop.

Rick glanced over both shoulders, then lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper “Okay, my buddy Buck who runs the bow & ammo store across the street, he just got back from huntin’ with my friends Casey and Fat Buck, and they told him that they finally had conclusive proof that the shadow government was working with the Council of Thirty Three to fund the drug cartels! But they were scared to go public with the information because Vladimir Fellstorm has spies everywhere and would just have them silenced during the night.”

Grumblepig gasped “That’s terrible!” he said.

Roderick and Fluvio were at a loss for words. They shared a somewhat worried glance.

Grumblepig went on “I knew Fellstorm the Tyrant was going to be trouble when he seized power. Bring back Maximor, Lord of Tears, that’s what I say.”

“You can’t bring Maximor back.” Sighed Fluvio.

Grumblepig frowned “Look, I’m not saying he was the best dictator the Empire ever had. But he had good trade policies.”

“No, I mean you can’t bring him back because his head is on a spike outside the Obsidian Citadel.”

“Oh.”

“No it’s not.” Said Rick.

The group looked back over at Rick, who was really hitting his groove now.

“That’s just a wax head that the government secretly made to fool the public. The whole execution was staged. They did it with a straw dummy and donkey’s blood. I’ve seen copies of paintings of the execution that weren’t released to the puclic. The real Lord Maximor never died, he’s just stepped out of the public eye so that he can rule from the shadows on the Council of Thirty Three.”

Grumblepig gasped and tottered over on shaky knees to a nearby bench. His head was spinning with the revelation.

“Ah huh…” said Fluvio “And where did you learn all this?”

“Oh, you hear things when you’re a bo… a hunter. I do my best to get the truth out any way I can. Here…” he rummaged around inside the cavernous pockets of his trenchcoat “One of my NCA buddies owns a Gideon Press. If I provide the paper and five rubles for ink, he lets me print up these…” Rick retrieved a thin sheaf of papers from the bottom of a secret pocket and handed them to Fluvio. He and Roderick bent over to read.

The Truthe Herald

Issuwe 12

Chief Editer: Rick Wayne

Maniging Editer: Rick Wayne

Tipesetting: Rick Wayne

Publisher: Rick Wayne, Anonimis printer owner.

Contributers: Rick Wayne, Anonimis Sources

THY GOVERNMENT IS LIEING TO YE!

Baron Lucratio of the Free Countees of GELDWAIN, CLAIMS that GELWAIN will stand forever independent of the OBSIDYAN EMPIRE, but that is a LIE. There is PROOF that agents of the empire are INFLITRATING our schools with the help of the GELDWAIN ARMY and contaminating the wells of townes and cities with FLOURIDE! Baron Lucratio is working with FELLSTORM! Why wont Baron Lucratio anser the kwerys of our investigative reporters? What does he have to HIDE??? To what end does he hope to accomplish? Only his own twisted power is what! TRYCOUNTY TRADE CENYTER WAS AN INSIDE JOB!

Further proof today that the burning haycarts that destroyed the Trycounty trade centyr were not the result of gross negliegence and dry hay on a dry summer day inside a wooden building filled with lantern oil and flour dust as government investigations claim but A deliberate plot engineered by our own government to keep us in FEER! A FEER CAMPANE! Our top investigaters discovered new evidence that the fire could not possibly have burned within the perameters cited by the government. The hay cart fire would have had to have started with help from GOVERNMENT ISSUED GREEK FIRE! Also, who drives a burning haycart to market?

SECRET INVADSUN!

Have you ever notised that there are a lot more checkpoints these days? The OBSIDYAN EMPIRE claims that the soldiers it has quartered in our SOVERIEGN PROPERTY are purly a precotionary measure against a growing thret of invasion from ORCLAND! But if that is the case, why do they control so many key stratejic locashuns? Where are the anti orc wepins? MK IV Fletcher Bros. Bowes have been proven ineffective against orclish war rinoseruses! FELLSTORM KNOWS THIS. LUCRATIO KNOWS THIS. DON’T BE FOOLED obsydyan troops are not your friends! Thye are feinds! FELLSTORM hopes to gradually absorb GELDWAIN into the gluttinis bloated stomich of the EMPIRE.

DAYLIGHT VAMPYRES?

Hideus beasts that stalk the nite are no longer destroyed by sunlight? It is a nightmare (daymare!). A man with fangs was seens walking to and from a house in Southe Gluehorse and DID NOT BURST INTO FLAMES! Villagers clamed he was a kind man who had strange teeth because there are only 8 dentists in the hole county. When pressed, villagers coold not recall if they had ever heard as such a thing as a daylight vampyre.

Fluvio and Roderick stopped reading at that point and handed the papers back to Rick, who eyed them expectantly.

Fluvio and Roderick shared another troubled look. Fluvio spoke.

“That’s… That’s really something, Rick.” He said “So, how can our party help with… this?”

“Don’t you see?” he grinned “With backing from your mysterious benefactor, we can finally blow the lid off this whole conspiracy!”

“Which one?” Fluvio asked. Roderick had to turn clear around to hide a budding snicker. “There’s like, five of them going on.”

Rick squinted his good eye at Fluvio. Over the years he had developed an acute sense of when he was being mocked. Fluvio got intensely uncomfortable and decided to pursue a different tack.

“Well I’m certain that once we’ve completed whatever mysterious job our mysterious benefactor has for us, we will be able to name our reward!”

Rick’s intense expression softened and he stood back up straight. Fluvio breathed a sigh of relief. The group set off to continue the preparations for their journey north.

***

On a rooftop up above, Nynalama had been listening with intense interest. Not to the crazy conspiracy newspaper because Fluvio and Roderick hadn’t read that aloud. She had listened in earlier to when they were given the writ of entry from the judge, which they had read aloud. The jewel fine cogwheels of her mind were spinning like dervishes at the thought of such a useful document. It could be the answer to all her problems…

Nynalama was a highly skilled thief. That much was not just bluster. She was two time Thief-Off grand champion in the Southern Competitive Thieving Conference. Two very nice, gold medals, which she pawned immediately. And first place winner of the New Butterfield Larceny Tournament. A very fine blue ribbon and a golden chalice… which she pawned immediately.

She couldn’t hold onto any large amount of money for long because of one major problem: her crippling gambling debts. She actually had two major problems there, but the second was an unacknowledged gambling addiction with which she coped very poorly. Even the bag of gold she had stolen from Grumblepig (his life savings, almost 250 Rubles) had immediately vanished down the gullet of a game of “Bet you can’t choke the crocodile with a bag of gold.”

The loss had been a huge blow. That money should have gone that afternoon to Shifty Fourfingers (a loan shark so ruthless, he cut off his own thumbs when he couldn’t turn a profit that quarter) to keep him from cutting the end off her other ear for another month. There was no way she could make up all the money now. His thugs were probably already combing the city for her. What she needed was to get away from town for a while, maybe in the company of five new, heavily armed friends?

She had approached them outside the courthouse earlier to make that very offer. She had even prepared ahead of time by stealing Grumblepig’s purse while he watched the trial so that she could charm them by making a big show of giving it back. It was one of the oldest tricks in the thief book for making friends.

“Let’s be friends, shake on it?”

“Of course… what, my watch!”

“Ho ho, here you go, just a jest old chum!”

“D’awwwww! You card!… Hey, my wallet!”

“Gotcha again!”

“D’awwwwwwwww!”

It helped because it made any subsequent selfish exploitation of their new friends seem charming and quirky rather than a serious breach of trust.

Anyway, her plan had been derailed by the sudden appearance of Rick. The blotting out of the sun by the towering shadow of a thug does wonders to jog the memory of a habitual debt holder, and Rick was a thug you wouldn’t quick forget.

She recognized Rick from around. You don’t forget a face like his in a hurry. They called him Ranger Rick or Rick the Dick or sometimes Rick The Fever that Made him Blind in One Eye also Half Cooked his Brain. He worked as a freelance bounty hunter catching folks who owed people like Shifty Fourfingers money. That crossbow he had mounted on his shoulder like a parrot was his trademark. He could fire it by a special switch inside his coat, like a squirt flower with a lethal twist. Nobody ever saw it coming.

He didn’t seem to be looking for her, though. Maybe he was on a different case. It would be a pretty risky gamble to try and join a party that she had already robbed twice and didn’t need a thief and had incorporated a known bounty-hunter. The second she thought that thought, her mind was made up to try and join.

Besides, if she could join, she would have an in at this mysterious manor. A manor meant money and money meant… well. Money. The crazy old geezer would never know what hit him.

***

Lightning flashed and thunder rumbled behind stately Carver Manor. The ebony-white marble pillars and crenellations of the sprawling estate lit up like burning silver before vanishing again into the pitch darkness. The lights were out at Carver Manor. The creaky double doors of the entrance were rusted shut. Nothing living stalked the empty rooms and halls except spiders and millipedes. The windows were boarded and the side rooms were sealed. No servants whisked about to straighten and dust and clean. They had turned to skeletons ages ago.

Only the main hall showed any signs of upkeep. Dust never gathered there, spiders never spun there. The carpet was a rich red and gold and as plush and full as brand new. There was light, too. In the parlor at the top of the grand, sweeping stairs at the end of the grand hall. Up the stairs and through the fine oak door. The Count stood there, tall and stately. He gazed into the fire with the intense expression of a father watching his baby being born.

His clothes were impeccable. His hair: quoiffeured. His vest: fine Vinchensian, his shoes and pants: Georgio Antanoli. The ruffled shirt: rare spider silk. He wore a fine silk cravat as well, neatly puffed and tucked into the neck of his gilded vest. He stood still like a statue with his arms across his chest. There was a dead woman in the wingbacked chair at his side.

No, not dead. She moved. Against all one’s sensibilities she moved. It was only when she moved that she even seemed remotely alive. Her skin was white as porcelain. Her face was as pale and beautiful as the plaster death mask of an angel. A sigh fluttered out of her papery throat like a butterfly as she shifted. The sheer film of her dress caressed the sleek curves of her figure, it threatened to melt away in the warmth of the fire and leave her bare. She was not beautiful like a human woman; she was beautiful like an icicle.

The Count paid no attention to her, but continued to watch the fire. They were no longer alone. Someone else was there.

“Evening, master.” Someone else whispered in his ear. The whisper was as faint as a call from the end of a long tunnel.

Only then did the Count shift his attention from the fire. He turned his head to face the voice. He saw nothing.

The owner of the voice was not invisible, per se. He could still be seen. Quite clearly, in fact, but there was no color or outline or even a ripple in the air. It was perceptible only as a volume of air delineated to contain something in the vague form of a man, like a shape imagined in the dark, only when the light is turned on, the shape is still there.

The creature was old. Older than the bones of the earth. Maybe once it had been a powerful djinn or spirit, but it had faded with time until it was barely the memory of a memory. The Count knew mortal men could see quite a bit more of the creature than he could. The creature was so little of itself that it had become like a mirror of the souls of other things. A black mirror. And in this diminished form it found a new kind of perverse strength. Mortal men saw the selves they hated in it. Elves saw the dreams of their greatest happiness in it. Animals choked on the ancient sickness of it. The Count had to strain to see it at all. The dead girls of his house did not even see that. For all they could tell, the master was just talking to himself again. He often talked to himself. Ho hum.

“Good to see you’re back on your feet, so to speak.”

“I am gratified you are pleased, master.” It said.

“What were you doing, stalking the grounds at this hour?”

“There was a girl, sire.” It cooed.

“A girl?” said the Count he grinned a sparkling grin of perfectly white, even teeth. It must have been the latest fortune hunter he had hired. Ever since the last man in the radius that could be traveled in the space of a single night had died or fled, things had been getting pretty desperate. He had had to hire her via carrier pigeon.

“What did you do with her?”

“I only helped her see herself for what she was.”

The Count let a tiny smile leak out of the corner of his mouth “You know, I envy mortals, sometimes. I am envious that they get to see so much of you. I’m frightfully curious what I would see.”

“Doubtless you will someday, sire.”

“Doubtless… Where is the girl now?”

“In the crypts.”

“Good. I will pay her a visit soon. Not tonight, though.” He cast his gaze down at the sleeping form of the undead girl. He reached out with a lanky arm and caressed her pale tresses.

“Uhnnn…” she craned her neck a little to press her head into his hand, and slumbered on.

“I’m surprised that wizard was able to strike such a blow to you.”

“He caught me by surprise, master. He did not destroy me. He did not recognize me for what I really was.”

“Yes, that was rather fortunate. Even more fortunate that he encountered you first. I was able to play the victim quite convincingly, I think.

‘Oh, thank you for saving me from the spectre that has darkened my halls and cursed my life lo these many years! Won’t you please come to work for me? You will be handsomely rewarded for your service. Take this gold as an advance. Now go and hire the strongest men you can find and bring them to me. I have work for one as clever as you.’”

“He shall return here?”

“Yes.”

“With others?”

“Yes.”

“Strong men?”

“The strongest he can gather.”

If the creature had lips, it would have licked them.

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