Rise of the Runelords

Runelord Reflections 4 (Day 6)

Day 6 (3.27.15)

Thistletop

Yawning, I stretched as I headed into the hallway, closing the door quietly behind me. Not that I was trying to be sneaky about anything, but more like… discreet. That was it. My eyes opened looking right at Zeyara, who was staring at me from down the hallway as I came out of the room. Shrugging nonchalantly but unable to entirely mask the self-satisfied smirk on my face, I gave her a nod and headed out to the bathhouse.

“Late night?” she inquired innocently, one eyebrow cocked annoyingly high.

I just smiled, continuing on my way down the hallway. Zeyara murmured something, and I stopped, looking back. “What?”

“It sounded like it.”

“Sounded-” I froze, thinking back. Things were a little blurry, but… it had gotten rather frenzied. I remembered that much. “Hmm.”

“Yes, well, the walls aren’t as thick as you’d expect.” She seemed matter-of-fact about the whole thing, but her blank eyes made it hard to read any undercurrent. She cocked an inquiring eyebrow. “So, you and…?”

“Might as well make some friends,” I explained. “No reason not to enjoy ourselves,” I justified.

“Ah, yes. Friends. Well, I’ll make sure to find someone else to befriend.”

“That sounds like a great idea,” I agreed. That way you won’t wake up on fire in the middle of the night. I thought it, but didn’t say it. Or, maybe I did; Zeyara was giving me an odd look. “Just kidding, we’re all adults here.” I assured good-naturedly. A thought struck, as they are prone to do. “Hey, you seemed interested in… what was her name. Shalaylee-”

“Shalelu,” the fetchling corrected instantly, confirming my suspicions.

“Yeah, the blonde elf.” A bit too outdoorsy for me, and from what I remembered not the most interesting conversationalist, but to each their own. I could see her giving it thought, remembering that look of interest back when we’d met the scout on her return to town. “It’d be perfect. Both all willowy and waifish and delicate; I don’t think you could break each other even if you tried.” Her flat stare hadn’t changed, but I detected a note of disapproval in the way she suddenly squared up her shoulders, so I moved on. “The more friends we can make in this town, the better. We might be here for a while.”

In the back of my mind, I was already contemplating spending the winter here. It was the least enjoyable time to travel, and having a solid base to wait it out was high on my list of priorities. It was still early autumn, but autumn had a way of turning into winter all too quickly.

With the right friends, you could get away with quite a bit in a small town. Not wicked, evil things, but just… special privileges that weren’t afforded to people who hadn’t slain dozens of enemies while protecting the town. If the people who mattered didn’t like you, though, they’d use those rules to run you out of town.

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Heaving a great sigh, I sank back, getting far too used to the luxurious feeling of being clean.

My head was lolling back along the rim of the tub, completely relaxed and soaking in the warmth, when someone stuck their head in the door. “You ready yet?” Rakonia asked. My smile faded, remembering the journey ahead.

“Shit, that’s today?” I muttered sarcastically. Shaking my head at the dwarf’s uncomprehending look, I eased myself out of the water and reached for a towel.

Back to our room, Vega and Zeyara were assembling their gear. The bookish human was leafing through a large tome while making the final adjustments to the hooded robe she tended to wear. The fetchling was sitting in what she referred to as a lotus position, slim greyish fingers playing along the obsidian blade in her lap. The snug black leather fit her like a glove. She should totally paint her nails black, I realized. A little charcoal eyeliner wouldn’t hurt, either. Except, of course, for the stinging. Grabbing my backpack, I froze, glancing at the table where I left my armor at night. It was gone!

“Has anyone seen-” I began, before realizing exactly where the tightly-woven mesh of chain was, bringing back a flood of distracting memories that tugged irresistibly at the corners of my lips.

“Most mornings, I find my armor wherever I undressed the night before,” Zeyara commented, carefully not looking in my direction. I rolled my eyes at her innocent expression, shot a quick look at Vega’s snort of amusement, and sauntered out of the room.

Slipping back into the larger, nicer room that was Ameiko’s living quarters, I grabbed my armor off the floor where it lay in a heap. The metal clinked and rattled as I gave it a little snap of the wrists, the crumpled mess of chain falling out into a long shirt of woven steel. I lay it on the rumpled bed, reaching down for the surprisingly heavy pair of boots. Thigh high, I put them on first, cinching up the thick black leather with straps and buckles all the way up the side, strategically woven metal plates in the shin, knee and thigh region.

Lifting up the long shirt of mail, I proceeded with the daily ritual of wiggling into the thing, careful as always not to get my hair snagged. Pulling the hem of the chain nearly down to my knees, I adjusted the armpits to avoid any excessive pinching. It was a tight squeeze. Time for some new armor, I thought, or maybe lay off on the breakfasts. My stomach grumbled in protest, but I ignored it. The gauntlets lay on her dresser, wicked-looking leather gloves bristling with razor-sharp spikes along the knuckles, deadly and threatening but not something you wanted to run through your hair when the wind was whipping it about. Hence the ponytail. I probably should have waited for it to dry first, but patience was never my strongest virtue.

The helmet, a rather boring metal cap, I strapped to my backpack. Retrieving my naginata from the doorway, I headed into the common room, thinking of the armor I dreamed about. I’d seen it back in Magnimar, gleaming and beautifully angular suit of heavy plate armor, covered in wicked spikes in all the right places. Strategic, not like some of that decorative armor, with its elaborate textures and blade-channeling ornamentation like dragons wings or metal boobs that seemed designed to catch and guide attacks towards the wearer than deflect them safely away. Those were the worst. No, this had spikes along the forearm and gauntlet, and the front and back of the armored boot, which is called a sabaton if you are interested in that kind of thing.

The others, waiting with varying degrees of patience, readied to leave, and with a wave we left the Rusty Dragon, riding out from Sandpoint and into the great unknown.

Or, more specifically, to Thistletop. A known unknown, if you will.

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“Stop it.”

I looked over. “Huh?”

“Stop. It,” Rainbow squeaked from below, her pony trotting fast to keep up with the horses.

“Stop what?”

The dwarf half turned in her saddle ahead of us. “You’ve been whistling ever since we left town,” Rakonia frowned, possibly from the concentration required for the dwarf to stay atop her horse. Swaying alarmingly in her saddle, she leaned toward me. “It’s annoying. And,” she added, as an afterthought, “it gives away our position.”

“Well,” I stated, “alright then.” I could hardly disagree. Whistling was annoying, after all… but not when I was the one whistling.

It was a shorter journey than I’d expected. Less than an hour’s ride from town, the dwarven ranger informed us we were getting close.

A vast wall of thorny brambles rose up to block our approach to the island. We hopped off our horses, patting them down as Rakonia and Zeyara ranged ahead, scouting along the overgrown barricade. They returned, and we followed them to a small pathway through the incredibly thick undergrowth, a shadowy tunnel underneath yards of unsightly vegetation.

No more than a few steps into the claustrophobic nightmare of twisted briars and stinging nettles and we found ourselves engulfed in violence. Two goblins lay dead before I even got my blade into position, Zeyara and Skalmold making quick work of the first of the ambushers. A fur-clad goblin began chanting something, and from the brambles a large animal attacked. Rakonia slew it before I got a good look, and as the last remnants of the ill-conceived ambush were laid low, I thrust out at the one clad in furs as the fetchling ninja moved to flank it, and the green-skinned creature beat a swift retreat, running right into the tangled mess of branches and thorns like nothing was there.

“It’s getting away,” I stated regretfully, and somewhat obviously, yanking my naginata back from its futile attempt to connect with anything. It was impossible to see beyond the passage we stood, so thick was the tangle of vegetation.

“That last one was a druid,” Rakonia noted, kicking the dead carcass of what must have been the goblin’s special animal friend. Probably better off dead, poor thing.

With no hope of following the goblin that had eluded us through the overgrown area, we made our way down the path. One couldn’t help but be on edge and ready for another ambush at every step, now that the element of surprise, of stealth, no longer was an option.

Some people liked to play it sneaky. Zeyara was definitely in favor of stealth, but she’s an admitted assassin, so that’s a given. Oops, forget I said that. Anyway, the problem with being sneaky is if you get caught, you’re often caught with your proverbial pants down… just what you were hoping would happen to your target.

It was simpler, going all in. No reason to play it quiet when you’re aiming for extermination.

Instead of an ambush, however, we found ourselves leaving the wildly overgrown area and approaching a cavern. “Not another tunnel,” someone complained. Possibly me. But as we approached, we could see light coming in from the other side, so it couldn’t have been a very long one.

And it wasn’t. The tunnel came out along the side of a cliff facing the sea, and the island of Thistletop lay before it, separated by fifty feet or more of water. A rickety-looking wooden bridge, the kind held up by ropes, swung alarmingly in the wind coming off the gulf. The water churned below us, a drop of at least thirty feet into the seething spray as waves crashed against rock and cliff.

“Wait,” Rakonia whispered as she tilted her head back and began sniffing loudly, holding up a hand. “Goblins.” The dwarf fondled her axe menacingly.

Sure enough, across the bridge there was a structure with double doors built out on the island, and between the building and the bridge, a small courtyard was filled with goblins, several of them riding mean-looking dogs uglier than any I’d ever seen.

Zeyara noticed something disturbing. “The bridge is rigged to fall,” she informed us. “That rope there, when cut, will bring the whole thing down.”

“Doesn’t sound very secure,” I contributed. A thirty foot drop into water that looked pretty deep, with goblins shooting arrows down from above and whatever horrible monster no doubt lurked beneath the waves ready to gobble you up-

“I can try to get over on the other side,” the fetchling offered, flexing her arms like she was getting ready for a fight. Which, I guess, she was. I took a cue from her and started preparing myself.

“Try to keep them from cutting the bridge down,” Rakonia advised. Zeyara nodded patiently and disappeared in an instant. Her favorite trick. What would it be like to walk around invisible? I wondered. You could get into so much trouble…

Afterwards, I replayed our plan over in my head. What would we have done if Zeyara had been spotted? What if the bridge collapsed when one of us crossed it? What, for that matter, would we do if we had gotten across and the bridge was somehow destroyed in the fight? There were no convenient beaches we could swim to along this stretch of coast, just forbidding looking cliffs as far as the eye could see.

“Now!” Rakonia whispered loudly, and, one by one, we began rushing across the bridge.

The goblins, somewhat predictably, began to react, but not until Rakonia, Skalmold and myself were safely on the other side. In the open, my naginata wove a deadly pattern of looping cuts and lightning-fast stabs. A large goblin atop a larger dog suddenly crumpled to the ground, Zeyara appearing behind the ugly-faced dog holding her pair of bloodied blades, the curved obsidian wakazashi glittering black in the midday sun as it flicked and took the animal’s leg off in a spurt of blood..

Skalmold and Rakonia lay waste with their weapons, unelegant but effective, leaving behind a path of mashed goblin gristle and broken bone and a trail of gaping red axe wounds that glistened wetly in the afternoon sun. Here and there, a feathered shaft stuck out of one of the creatures, testament to the efforts of Rainbow and Vega, prudently remaining on the opposite end of the bridge and shooting their crossbows.

I looked around, impressed at the carnage. Zeyara was already stripping the shattered green bodies of their effects, and I did a quick head count. Nearly a dozen that time. The nearby crash of waves upon the base of the island seemed close to silence after the furious clatter and cries of the past minute. Good thing we weren’t worried about being sneaky. As usual, the blonde barbarian woman was bleeding from numerous cuts and scratches, and we took a moment for Rainbow to heal her and whoever else had taken a hit. Zeyara and Rakonia investigated the doorway, determining that it was locked.

Vega started talking to herself, and something small and feathered took off from her shoulder.

“What the hell was that?” I exclaimed. It looked like a bird.

“Sophie, my familiar,” Vega explained. “She’s a thrush.”

“When did you get that?” I asked.

“A while back,” she conceded, looking a little hurt that I hadn’t noticed. “She was with us in the Catacombs of Wrath,” she prompted.

“Huh.” Nothing. Then something occurred to me. “She better not shit all over our secret base.”

The bird flew over the island, getting what’s known as a bird’s eye view. There was some kind of open-aired room ahead of where we stood, and various parts of the building that the creature could identify no more precisely than that they were, well, part of the building. No helpful sighting of an evil temple or decadent throne room or wherever else an evil, demon-wannabe former-celestial might be found. Maybe a fountain filled with the blood of virgins.

An open-aired room, though, offered a possibility. “Could we climb over?” I wondered aloud.

The building rose up fifteen to twenty feet, and the wall was surprisingly sheer. Rakonia’s expert conclusion was: it would be difficult. I’m pretty sure I saw her eying Vega’s weak, skinny arms as she said it. I noticed Zeyara and Rainbow didn’t look very excited at the prospect, either.

“Maybe, with a rope-” Skalmold began.

“Let’s bash the door down,” I suggested. “They already know we’re here, so there’s no need to go climbing and sneaking around ninja-style.” I glanced at the fetchling in her black leather armor and face mask, shuriken strapped bandolier-fashion across her chest. “No offense, Zeyara.”

“None taken. We can’t all be ninja.” I could appreciate her smugness; I felt the same way about myself. Whatever it is I was, other than awesome.

With a silent count to three, we beat down the door, once, then twice as it burst inward, stumbling into a room that was shockingly empty of immediate threats.

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The place was basically a bunch of rooms. The first one was, of course empty. The others were not. I’ll do my best to relay what happened, but where it happened is another matter.

A door in front of us lead to a courtyard, where Zeyara heard the growling of animals. Presumably more of those goblin dogs. We readied ourselves, opening the door and lunging forward to slay the brutish animals. Skalmold received a nasty bite, and immediately developed a blotchy rash near the wound. Once the four things lay dead on the floor, I got a look at their ears.

“Hey, those look just like-”

“Twenty-eight steps ahead of you,” Zeyara grinned, holding up her latest eight trophies before stringing them onto the long cord filled with ears, freshly harvested for the bounty. I smiled myself, unphased by the mutilation. If it had been living, or maybe a person, it would have been different. But, seeing as how they were dead and each pair of ears was worth at least a couple of good meals…

Even after Rainbow tapped her with the wand a few times, the blonde barbarian continued to scratch at the redness. Hopefully not some kind of infection or disease. Or at least anything communicable.

“Hey guys,” Rainbow called from the corner. “Over here.” Approaching, I saw what the halfling was looking at; a kind of pen built into the corner of the room, but instead of more dogs this one contained a horse. A large horse.

“Whoa, that’s a big boy,” Skalmold commented. And she was right. Another two hands higher than our riding horses, and twice as massive. The poor thing looked ill-used; its ribs visible along the sides. Or maybe that was normal in horses. I’m a decent rider, but taking care of animals has never been a strength of mine.

“His feet glow!” Vega proclaimed.

Looking down, Skalmold blinked in confusion. “No they don’t.”

“They do if you’re looking for magic,” the arcanist answered.

Rainbow ran back outside to gather up some tufts of grass, feeding it through the pen’s bars. Zeyara fiddled with the lock, assuring us it had been opened.

“We can’t just leave him here!” Rainbow wailed as we made ready to continue on.

“We have stuff we need to do here first,” Zeyara noted.

“We can’t just turn him loose; there’s a rickety bridge and a thirty foot drop between here and freedom.”

“Right here is probably the safest place for him,” I added. The last thing I wanted to do was have to deal with a half-crazed horse in a confined area. Especially one that otherwise could have been put to good use.

“After we clear this place out-”

“We’ll sell those horseshoes-”

The halfling stomped her feet, exactly like a small child. “All you guys care about is money! And getting famous!” Rainbow nearly shouted, her voice rising an octave.

“And power,” I couldn’t help amending. “Don’t forget power.”

“Why am I even with you?” the halfling asked the heavens, or perhaps her friends the stars, looking up in exasperation and marching out of the room.

We shared a glance, some of us carefully stifling giggles, then headed out after her. Even upset, it was hard to take the little woman completely seriously with that ridiculous voice, but I knew showing amusement at her anger wouldn’t help the situation. Something I’d learned the hard way.

The horse whickered. “We’ll be back,” I promised softly.

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Searching around a little more, we opened up a door leading in a large room, this one enclosed, it’s roof supported by four columns rising up in the middle. A couple more doorways could be seen along the wall, and at the opposite end was a raised dais, at the top of which was something that looked suspiciously like a throne.

No demon-fisted angelic woman lounged arrogantly on the seat. Even so, the room was not unoccupied.

The lurking figures leapt into action as soon as the doors opened, and we were confronted by another dozen of the creatures. Barreling into the room, Rakonia and I lashed out at the nearest of the short monsters, and I caught a glimpse of the fur-clad goblin from outside pointing a stick at us. A blast of fire shot out across the room, singing the dwarf’s close-cropped new hairdo, but I was able to get out of the way.

An evil-looking beast was skittering along the wall, a giant lizard that came at Vega from high above, the goblin on its back screaming in that indecipherable language they speak. Skalmold stepped in front of Vega, grinding a spear-wielding goblin into the wall with her hammer, where it remained for the rest of the fight, haloed in a splash of internal fluids.

Rakonia dropped to the floor, laughing hysterically, distracting the three goblins surrounding her, so I took the opportunity to leap across the room towards a pair of goblins casting spells. I recognized the magic that had the dwarf in its grip, and I felt the arcane energies wash over me, luckily not sticking. I sliced down with my cold iron blade, opening up a nice, long, red wound. Zeyara appeared behind the chanting goblin druid, and her razor sharp obsidian blade tore a great furrow through its chest, spraying a liberal spatter of gore. I was beginning to anticipate those moments where she pops out of nowhere. She followed it up with a devastating stab with her left-handed sword, the short, straight edge bursting out of the creature’s kidney region.

Skalmold let out a cry as the lizard-riding goblin charged her, it’s blade piercing right through the middle of her chest for a moment before once again that feeling took over and I watched the blade waver on its path and slide in just below her shoulder, instead. She returned the blow with one of her own, bringing that great hammer around and landing a hit that caused chips of rock to fly from the wall.

Rakonia had gotten up, and was hewing about with gleeful abandon, her eyes blazing furiously between the trio of goblins surrounding her. Her axe spun low, catching one of the creatures in the legs, and even as it dropped to the ground her shield was extended into the face of another, the metal rim smashing deep into the nose of a second goblin, ruining its already terrible looks. Seeing things were well in hand, my attention flicked by to Zeyara as I spun the naginata through the air to get some of the blood off.

The fur-clad goblin had gone silent, an outpouring of blood all that now passed its writhing lips. The fetchling withdrew both of her blades from the creature’s ribcage, giving them a flick to get off the blood before turning to the leader.

The lizard mount kept climbing up and down the wall, the goblin on its back clinging to life after the mauling dealt out by the barbarian woman. A short figure stepped out from the doorway, and Rainbow loosed a bolt from her crossbow into the lizard, prompting it to fall to the ground, dead. Someone, or possibly several someones, hastened to gut and behead and smash the former rider as it lay on the ground, stunned.

Rainbow Stargaze did a little halfling jig, celebrating her first kill as we clapped her on the back.

On edge, I waited for my breath to return as Zeyara and Rakonia made the rounds, collecting the proof required for the bounty on dead goblins. The strung-together-ears disappeared into the fetchling’s backpack, and we quickly stripped the small green bodies of valuables.

After a minute, when no counterattack materialized, we started checking doors.

Behind the first, we saw what once must have been a well-appointed bedroom, the floor thick with moldy old carpets, and a surprisingly nice bed. The sheets were torn, the headboard cracked, and feathers lay in disarray throughout the room. “Looks like someone had a great night,” I muttered.

We searched around, but there seemed little of interest. Except for the bed, which maybe, possibly-

“Think we could fix this bed?” I asked. It was big, and I’d always preferred acquiring furniture to purchasing it. Zeyara looked at it in mild disgust, Rainbow in confusion, Vega appraisingly, and Skalmold with her usual blank stare. “You know, for our secret base.”

“It’s probably filthy,” Zeyara noted. I had to agree, but for once had a solution.

“Vega, you said you can clean stuff magically, right?” She nodded. “Well, if you’d be so kind…”

“Tell me you’re not turning the secret base into some kind of… violent sex pit!”

“Please explain to me what a violent-”

“Might be a better idea to worry about all that later,” Rainbow stated, the look on her face showing a hint of annoyance that I’d spent as much time considering what to do with the bed than I had with the horse.

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The place was swimming in blood. We chopped and sliced our way through the few remaining goblins that we came across before finding a stairway that led down. We readied ourselves to descend, which basically amounted to checking the straps on armor, wiping sweaty palms onto breeches, and then gripping a weapon tightly, dangerous end pointed toward the potential bad guys.

But not if your friends were in front of you. Then, you have to be careful to point it either up or down.

The underground level was unfinished and unfurnished, roughly chipped out of the rock or altogether natural. A small cavern led to, predictably, a tunnel. From further in, softly echoing through the cavern, a faint sound of moving water could be heard. Following the sound, we arrived in another natural-looking cavern nearly fifteen feet high. The rock of the tunnel turned into sand, almost like a beach, and half of of the room was filled with water.

“Maybe a secret entrance, when the tide is out,” said Rakonia.

“And when would that be?”

“Hours. Five or more,” the dwarf nodded to herself.

“No use now then.”

Above us, something moved.

It was one of those sinking-feeling moments, the wild startlement that comes from being suddenly attacked in an unexpected direction. The Sisterhood of Steel was no more immune to this feeling than anyone.

Long, thrashing tentacles lashed down from the ceiling, and I saw Rakonia stagger back as one of the appendages dealt her a blow. Looking up, there appeared to be two lumps or maybe shadowy stalactites hanging from the ceiling, and from here the tentacles had extended.

A bunch of girls, and a swarm of tentacles. There were so many ways this could go badly.

Have I mentioned how much I love my weapon? The tentacles’ reach was long, and so was my naginata’s. I slashed out, cutting a swath of flesh and gristle out of the thing above us. Rakonia stumbled, moaning in pain as the monster’s venom coursed through her body. Even the dwarvish heartiness wasn’t enough, and I saw her eyes narrow in furious determination.

The others hung back, out of tentacle reach, the creatures being perched too high in the cavern for them to reach. In a fit of bravery, Rakonia gave a sickly grunt and stumbled further into the cave, trying to get behind the things. Tactically sound, except for the fact that the creatures were high above us, and unreachable to nearly everyone, including herself. I heard my companions voices, shouting gibberish at the dwarf as she charged ahead through the gauntlet of flailing tentacles.

“Wait-” I tried to caution, but the dwarf was smacked by one tentacle, and then another, each drawing blood with the sharp barbs that dripped poison slime. At least that’s what I assumed they dripped, watching Rakonia’s face go pale, and then white, before the dwarf keeled over, twitching in the sand.

Bolts of magical energy hurled out of Vega’s fingers, Zeyara tossed shuriken, and Rainbow shot off a crossbow bolt before turning to heal the fallen dwarf. The dark-bladed naginata cut through the creatures slice by slice, each hit like an axe chopping a tree, a steady progression that eventually ended in the creatures dropping from the ceiling, hacked apart and twitching in their death throes.

After a careful scan of the room for any other lurking surprises, Rakonia was helped back to her feet, her color still a ghastly shade of pale. “I’m fine,” she mumbled, staggering forward on her own. “I can keep going.”

She was most certainly not fine; in fact, I think she’d stopped breathing for a few moments before Rainbow had helped her back up. I looked at her sorry state, and that of my companions, and realized that today was not a day for ultimate victory. It was a day for escaping by the skin of our teeth. Zeyara looked worn, Rainbow tired, Vega exhausted, Skalmold red and itchy.

“I think we should get the hell out of here,” I commented reasonably.

“We can’t let Nualia-”

“I, for one, don’t want to die. Sandpoint is nice and all, and I’d like to keep it safe, some of it, anyway,” I amended. “But that’s not going to happen if we’re dead.”

“But-”

“Nualia is, apparently, quite dangerous. And she’s not alone. Remember her friends?” Zeyara asked.

“A wizard, some freaky bugbear… we’ll deal with them later.” The dwarf still looked ready to argue, so I kept talking. “I realize that you may place a different value on your life than I do mine, but I’m not dying so you can prove how tough you are.” I shook my head. “That’s how I’d expect a man to think. You’re brave, we get it. What’s the worst that happens if we go back? They launch an attack on the town? Well good, we’ll be there, ready to fight. Readier than we are now, at least.”

“Worst case scenario is she summons her demon-friend,” Rakonia countered. She had a point, but I thought mine was better.

“Who thinks we should keep going?” I asked, looking around.

“I’m out of spells,” stated Vega, ready to leave.

“Most of my healing energy has been exhausted,” Rainbow informed.

Zeyara closed her eyes. “I could use a break.” I’d noticed she hadn’t gone invisible that last fight, and wondered if she was out of juice, too.

“Tomorrow, then.”

And so, with several relieved sighs and a grumbling dwarf who, secretly, was probably happy to be retreating even if she couldn’t admit it to herself, we quickly got back to the stairs, heading back the way we came. To say we ran with our tails between our legs would be unfair, although running did come into the picture. Stopping only to pick up the bundle of weapons and armor we’d stripped from our opponents, as well as releasing the warhorse we’d found earlier from its pen, we made our way back out with a great sense of urgency.

Luckily, the horse managed its way across the rope bridge just fine. The other horses remained where we’d left them, unmolested by goblin or predator. Under the assumption I was the most skilled rider, I took the huge warhorse for my own. Riding back to town, I was disappointed to discover that the magical horseshoes did not give it incredible speed or the ability to fly.

“I’ll call you Artax,” I told the beast, patting its great muscle-y neck.

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We made it back to Sandpoint with a few hours of daylight left. Coming in from the north, you passed under the wall first, the spot where old man Kaijitsu supposedly let the goblins in. Or maybe it had been Tsuto, the crazy bastard of a half-elf. We nodded at the pair of volunteer guards that now flanked the gateway, recruits from the town that we’d convinced to take turns keeping a lookout. They got to dress up in armor and hold weapons… I think they liked it. And so far, nobody had been accidentally stabbed or shot, so it seemed to be working out.

Might have made people feel a little safer. Not me, but that wasn’t the point. Made the volunteers seem brave, as well. They certainly felt a little pride, mixed in with the annoyance and boredom and stiffness that came with standing in one place for an extended period of time.

Whether that air of confidence held up when the little monsters came calling remained to be seen.

But maybe they wouldn’t come. Maybe, if we dealt with their leader, Nualia…

“Extra sharp eye out, tonight,” I called to the volunteers. I saw one of them swallow nervously.

“W-why?” he asked.

“There might be trouble,” I explained, narrowing my eyes. “Best be ready.”

I left them, slightly shaken but no doubt more focused on their task.

We made our way past the church, down the slope to the town hall. I let the others explain the situation to the mayor, and recommend steps to get the town prepared for a worst case scenario. In this case, five goblin tribes attacking the town in the middle of the night with a corrupted celestial accompanied by what might be a demon.

It sounded grimmer than it actually was.

Instead, I headed across the street, to my second favorite store in town.

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Savah’s Armory was exactly as advertised. Grunting with my burden, I pushed the door open with my rear, and entered a room lined with racks and racks of weapons and armor. I looked around, dropping the weight up onto the countertop. As was often the case, the owner was nowhere to be seen, most likely in the back room.

“Savah!” I called. Counted to three. “SAAAAVAAAAH!”

His head poked out from a doorway, thin and angular. “Must you-”

“Look what I got,” I said excitedly, pointing to a huge bundle of what appeared to be cured animal hide. A dozen wooden poles stuck out from the stack.

Frowning, he stepped into the room, unfolding the bundle and examining the goods intently. “Lots of studded leather. A bit small,” he murmured, hands sifting through the rest. “What manner of… a horsechopper?” That was the name of the goblin spear-thingy. “Where did you…” His voice trailed off.

“I can’t say where, but you know who we got them from,” I replied.

“Lots of blood on these,” he continued, sighing regretfully. “And… what’s this?” His voice rose in dismay. “More of these damned blades! Lucrezia, I’ve taken these off your hands for the past three days-”

“What can I say? Goblins keep coming at us and getting killed. It’s weird.” I shrugged, then pointed. “They’re well-made, not the usual cheap goblin crap.” I rapped one sharply against the counter to prove my point.

“Not that I don’t appreciate what you’re doing for the town, but… I’m afraid the market is, well, oversaturated at the moment.” He gave me a long look. If his eyes had wandered down from my own, I resolved to give him a nice tap on the chin. Fortunately for him, they stared right into mine. Shrewdly, if I had to describe it.

I looked back, eyes heavily-lidded. It’s different from narrowed, more sultry and less antagonistic.

“I couldn’t offer you more than,” he took a breath, “half what I offered last time.”

“You mean yesterday?” I asked, with just a touch of acid. “You are going to give me what you gave me yesterday,” I predicted. And smile doing it.

“I couldn’t possibly… the demand just isn’t-”

“Of course not. Not here, anyway.” I took a step forward. Now my eyes were narrowed dangerously. He detected the difference. “But you don’t even have any of others displayed in here,” I gestured around to the racks and shelves and cases that filled the store. “Who wants a reminder of those foul creatures around here, so soon after being attacked? But, in the cities, people have all kinds of tastes. You know displaying dangerous-looking weaponry is all the rage in Magnimar. You’ve got them in the back room, and you’re waiting to sell them next Market day, when the ships pull in. Aren’t you?” I asked.

He looked a little taken aback, having the grace to flush a little. “How… I mean…”

“Got a buyer all lined up, don’t you?” Now I was real close, and smiling to give him a great view of my very pointy canines. “And now you’re trying to squeeze me and my friends.” I made a tsk-ing sound, one of my favorites.

“I… ah, squeeze? Now, that is not… not exactly-”

“Someone tries to squeeze me without permission, they’re liable to lose a hand. Someone tries to squeeze one of my friends, and… well.” Matter-of-fact, I made the finger-drawn-across-the-throat gesture. “Dead fucking meat,” I whispered, eyes slightly widened for that crazy look.

Sometimes it’s hard to know when you’ve gotten your point across. Othertimes, people are easier to read than a two page book. I could see the message had been received. Now, it was time for a little sweet to counteract the sour. It’s just a slight change from baring your teeth in a menacing way and grinning with open friendliness, and as I did so Savah’s nervousness changed to confusion. “But I know you’re not like that, Savah, you’re one of the good guys!” I gave him a hearty pat on the back, whole body twitching at my touch.

“Ah, ha ha, yes, no, it was all… all a misunderstanding.”

“Of course it was! You’re not about to cheat people who saved your shop, maybe even your family, from those rampaging goblins the other night!”

“No, certainly not-”

“And you’ll honor our arrangement, and we’ll make sure people know what a fair and honest merchant you are.” I dropped my voice conspiratorially. “We’re getting to be kind of a big deal, you know.”

He nodded, looking more enthusiastic. And still a little confused, no doubt wondering back to our earlier conversation. Had he imagined the undercurrent of anger? Had there been a threat? Or were we friends?

“I’ll go get the rest,” I stated, heading back outside to relieve my new steed of its remaining burden, and my previous steed of its two bundles.

“By the gods… How… how many did you k-kill?” he asked, staring at the heaps of cruel blades and wicked spear-things and fingering at the dried patches of blood on just about everything.

We’d had a conversation about that during our first encounter. He got everything as is.

Since he was turning a nice profit on everything, I didn’t feel too bad messing with his head a bit. Keeping your opponent off balance works both on and off the battlefield. And if you don’t think of whatever merchant you’re dealing with as an opponent, you’re getting ripped off.

“Let’s see, twenty-six goblin swords-”

“_High quality_ goblin swords,” I corrected. It felt like… one of those combination of words that are self-contradictory.

“Yes, and an equal number of spears, high quality spears, that is, a crude goblin shortbow, and, what’s this?” He held up a small whip.

I snatched it out of his hand, giving it an experimental crack. With a satisfied nod, I grabbed the other as well. “Whoops, we’ll be keeping those.” I reached over, and he looked up at the sound of clanking chains as I stuffed a pair of manacles under my arm. “These too.”

There were a few other things we’d picked up that I kept. A golden holy symbol of Sarenrae, a nice-looking jade necklace, an elaborate and amazingly intact blue silk gown complete with silver thread trim, and a cheap-looking dented gold crown that wasn’t nearly heavy enough to be solid.. Any of which might make a good present.

In the end, he’d opened up his special safe and dug out roll after roll of beautiful, shiny yellow coins. So many I had to commandeer a sturdy bag to carry them in.

We parted, both of us smiling, best of buddies after our mutually beneficial exchange. Immediately upon exiting the store, I looked around, filled with a sudden paranoia. The immensely heavy sack of gold I cradled under an arm may have had something to do with it. Hastily, I hopped on Artax and made my way back to the Rusty dragon, my former mount following behind.

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I ran my hands over Ameiko’s chest, fingers tracing across the smooth surface. “Pretty solid,” I commented.

She gave me a grin. “Just give it a little squeeze, right there. No, firmer-”

“I got it.” I looked at her, feeling a little nervous. “Are you sure this is safe?”

“Is anything really safe? Ever?” she asked. It was rhetorical, but I shook my head to acknowledge her point anyway.

I stared down at her box, laying there on the bed, open and inviting. “It’s so small. I’m not sure it’s going to fit-”

“It will fit,” Ameiko glared at me.

“If you say so,” I replied doubtfully.

Ameiko whistled, hefting the weighty bag off the floor with both arms. “Adventuring seems to have gotten more profitable since I gave it up,” she said, placing the bag on the bed next to the second most interesting chest in her room. The scrollwork and etched metal corners outshone the other containers that held shoes and clothes and who knows what else. Third most interesting chest, I guess, if you counted mine. The secret catch you had to press to get it to open made it even more interesting.

I was holding more cash than I’d ever seen in one place before, and the Sisterhood of Steel had big plans for it. I dumped the rolls of coin out into the small, cunningly worked metal box that was the closest thing she had to a safe. They didn’t fit, spilling over the sides. “See, I told you-”

Her hands went to work aligning the money into orderly rows. “You were saying?” she asked, putting the last one in place and closing the lid with room to spare.

“Your money should be safe here; its the most secure spot in the inn,” she assured me, and as if to prove her point, she locked the iron box with a click and stuffed it back into the chest, wiggling the key between her fingers before slipping it into a pocket of her flashy-yet-sensible pants.

“Good. So…” I asked with casual smoothness, “what are you doing for the next few hours?”

She eyed me levelly, then quickly stood up. “Running this inn, most likely.” Stupid, I thought to myself. Should have known. “After that…” She sauntered across the room, stopping at the door as if struck by a thought. “You know, I do know of a safer spot,” she murmured.

“If it’s not a bother…”

“My father’s house. The family house. He had a safe, for my mother’s jewelry and things…” she broke off, looking reluctant.

“Big house full of old memories,” I guessed, and congratulated myself as she nodded. I could pay attention when I needed to. “Might not feel quite so… haunted, if you brought along some company.”

Her eyes narrowed, focusing in on me. Then she gave a little half smile. “You might be right. Who should I ask to come, though?”

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Next time: goblin baby, ironic lessons from dead fathers, and maybe, hopefully… Nualia?

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