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.”
“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
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?
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.
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!”
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?”
“The strongest he can gather.”
If the creature had lips, it would have licked them.