Rise of the Runelords

Runelord Reflections 8

Hunting and Camping

Magnimar almost seemed to glow underneath the autumn sun.

With all of the recent unpleasantness behind us, I swaggered out of the merchant’s shop, happy to have once again had an opportunity to throw my weight around. Now, it was not only my connections to the Valdemar family interests that gave me the better negotiating position. I was the self-proclaimed official representative of the Kaijitsu family as well.

Chuckling in satisfaction at the weight slung across my shoulder, I kept one hand on the heavy leather bag as I unhitched Artax and leapt astride the brute with an attention-grabbing jingle of thousands of coins.

Making haste back to the late Aldern Foxglove’s manor where we’d decided to set up shop, I distributed what felt like a hundred plus pounds of gold amongst the crew. We’d already divvied up the reward we’d received from the Lord Mayor, Haldmeer Grobaras. As corrupt as the man was reputed to be, and despite his rotund bulk and foppish mannerisms, I couldn’t help admire his response to the foiled plot against his life.

What he’d done was pay a huge reward for the heroes who uncovered the plot. Which was, of course, us. Gold might not be able to buy friends, but this was a perfect example of it shifting attitudes in favorable directions.

Once the logistics of sharing were worked out, I bolted back to Artax and rode the horse at a gallop down the cobbled street, heedless of the cries of surprise and outrage I may have inspired from pedestrians. Now that I could finally, finally afford them, I was nearly frantic with the thought that someone else would manage to get there before me and rip them from my fingertips-

I pulled up, Artax rearing and whinnying in that frighteningly loud warhorse fashion, hooves cleaving through the air. I hopped off, dashing up to the window below a sign reading “Puss ‘n Boots”, ignoring the look of outraged reproval from my equine companion. Armor clanging, I stopped short of the glass, staring inside fervently. Fearfully.

My heart stopped for a brief moment. There they were! Still here!

I may have sent a window shopper or two sprawling in my haste to get into the store, which was rather dark and smelled of leather and sweat. There were three or four people near the counter inside, none of whom complained when I made my way up to the shopkeeper, who was also one of the cobblers. He looked at me, eyes widening in surprise and alarm.

“It’s alright, I have the money this time,” I began, trying to fend off any foolish notions that might be popping into the man’s head. I made good on my statement by hastily removings handfuls of coins from my purse.

He stared at the money, blinking a few times. “I don’t want any trouble this ti-”

I frowned, and he cut off with a nervous swallow. “There will be none. Just give me the damn boots. Please,” I added, a burst of happiness overcoming my businesslike demeanor.

Drops of sweat had sprung out along his forehead, and a reluctant nod sent them trickling down his face. I made a hurry up motion with my hand, and he spun around and marched over to the “Look but don’t touch” section.

From the display case, he withdrew a gleaming length of leather I’d seen from the window. I bounced up and down with uncontained anticipation. I’d waited so long-

He eyed the pile of coins I’d already laid out, then looked up at me. In each hand hung what appeared to be a long, black tube of leather to which were attached a series of straps and polished metal buckles, terminating in a set of metal-toed boots with the highest heels I’d ever seen. Long and spiky, they would add another two inches to my height. “Shall I bag these for you-” he started.

“I’ll be wearing them,” I stated, already peeling off my trusty but road-worn footwear. I wiped away a sliver of drool with the back of a hand as the other took hold of my fabulous prize.

“It adjusts to fit the shape of your legs and feet. You can raise or lower the heels by tightening or loosening this strap-” His voice faded as I began to play around with my purchase, eager to give them a try.

It took a good ten minutes to work myself into the boots, about half of which was spent getting out of my armor. The form-fitting black leather ran all the way up to mid-thigh, and despite how they clung the leather was as supple as cotton stockings. Taking my first steps in them was a surprise, for they felt agile and quick. I knew it had to do with the magicks woven into the midnight-black leather. The first time I’d seen them, the guy told me they were manticore hide. I fastened the last of the straps and buckles, striding out of the store with a spring in my step, basking in the wonderful feeling of accomplishment that comes with finding the perfect functional accessory.

The stares I got seemed even more incredulous than usual, and with a feeling of smug superiority I made my way to the second stop on my to-do list, walking Artax behind me to get a feel for the new footwear. Amazingly soft and supportive, despite the tall heels I could feel myself moving more swiftly, and hopping up and down I sensed a give in the spikes, a springiness that begged to be unleashed. After crashing into a building and hearing the unmistakable sound of shattering glass come from inside, I contented myself with walking and went about my business, turning a few corners to throw off any possible pursuit.

-————————————-SoS——————————————

I returned to Foxglove Manor as the sun was setting, determined to see if anyone was up for partaking of some of the city’s night life. I figured Zeyara could probably be convinced, cosmopolitan that she is, and possibly Rainbow would agree if the activity involved animals or stars. Or abolishing the gold standard. I was unsure of Skalmold and Vega, the humans strangely sharing a lack of appreciation for the finer things in life. Unless, in the barbarian’s case, such things involved dancing and drinking, only one of which I was in the mood for.

Hopping off Artax, I led him to the stable and gave him a half-assed brushdown. Need to hire someone to do that for us, I thought for the twentieth time that week. He gave a nicker of disapproval, but I gave him a double-share of oats with his hay and left him munching contentedly.

The place appeared empty at first; heading back to the beautiful room I’d decided to claim, I took a few minutes to admire myself in the full-length mirror that dominated the wall opposite the fireplace. I turned around about a dozen times, admiring the effect of my new outfit from various angles and utterly unconcerned with the now-miniscule weight of my purse.

The Hook and Hammer had been my second stop, a trading company down by the docks that maintained a well-stocked emporium of foreign goods. Staring in the mirror, I turned my head left and right, up and down. The jingasa was a Tian version of a helmet, a wide, conical hat that sat on your head more like a shield than a true helm. I liked the look, exotic, and had a good feeling about it, especially when one of the three dwarves who ran the place told me it was lucky.

I leaned my naginata into its corner by the well-stuffed bed, admiring the faint glimmering hues of golden opportunity that seemed to sparkle from somewhere inside the elegant, jet-black blade. Getting it magicked up had eaten up the remainder of my funds, but I was excited to own a weapon that was more than just the “basic” enchantment.

Shrugging off my armor, I uncorked a bottle and traipsed around the house in my new undergarment, a tight snakeskin battle brassiere with hypnotizing patterns of dark green and purplish-black scales. It had been acquired from a snake-woman, so it was a conversation starter in more ways than one. It left little to the imagination, and with the boots I made quite a sight, if you don’t mind me saying myself.

I froze mid-pose, craning my neck to see a grey-skinned creature staring at me with blank, alien eyes. “Enjoying yourself?” Zeyara asked, somewhat cruelly in my opinion.

Summoning my last shreds of dignity, I made a show of adjusting the top for a moment. “Very much so.” Suddenly unable to contain myself, I burst out with “Look what I bought today-”

Blank yellowish eyes staring, well, blankly at my prized purchases, the worldly fetchling made a show of looking unimpressed. A few times, though, I caught her staring at my amazing boots, which were so much louder than her own little slippers. And I’m not talking about sound. “_I_ bought this,” she murmured, drawing a sleek, black-metal sword of curved design similar to her others.

“Adamantine,” I admired aloud. “The best metal there is.”

“Did you see Rakonia’s note?” the assassin asked. I had a feeling it was the original reason she’d come into the room.

“Uh, no.”

Zeyara nodded, apparently expecting my response. “Here.”

I read the note. It seemed like the dwarf had run off with a half-elf, possibly in a romantic tryst-type scenario. “Huh. Does it sound to you like she’s hooking up-”

“No,” Zeyara replied without hesitation. “Even half-elves rangers have to have some taste.” She paused. “And sense of smell.”

I chuckled dutifully, grinning at the thought. “Well good for her. Hope she’s getting some.”

“I really don’t think-”

“Rakonia you dirty, repressed dwarf,” I chuckled. Then I frowned. Weren’t elves basically racial enemies to dwarves? I shrugged; even if I knew that was true, Rakonia had proven herself remarkably unlearned in dwarvish ways. Including their prejudices. Zeyara watched my self-interaction in silence. “Well, she says she’ll meet us back in Sandpoint.”

“I hope I’m not interrupting,” Vega said, entering the room. We turned to look at the bleary-eyed magic user, eyes crinkled with long hours pouring over ancient tomes and manuals. Not exactly my idea of a fun way to spend your day, but to each her own. “Did you see the letter?”

“Yeah, we’ll meet her back home, er, Sandpoint.” I explained, something akin to horror overcoming me as I realized that, at least subconsciously, Sandpoint had somehow become home.

Vega looked between us, all baggy and bloodshot eyes. Humans wear so visibly. “I don’t understand…”

Well that was new. “Rakonia? Chasing in the woods with some half-elf-”

“Rakonia? With a half-elf? A male?” Vega looked as curious as if we’d uncovered one of those musty old books covered in chicken-scratch nonsense writing. I nodded in affirmation. The dark human’s cheeks grew darker, and with a sly look she asked “Do you think they’re, you know-”

“Absolutely not!” Zeyara answered, “And you’re both ridiculous for even thinking it. Disgusting.” She made a sour face. “Ugh!”

“What letter?” I asked, remembering Vega’s initial conversation-starter.

“Oh,” she held up a thick sheet of parchment. “This one.”

It was from the Lord Mayor, requesting an audience at our earliest convenience.

“Perhaps our work here isn’t quite done,” I mused unnecessarily.

-————————————-SoS——————————————

We spent the night enjoying ourselves, each in her own individual way. Skalmold no doubt celebrated our victory and subsequent reward by drinking and getting into fights with sailors, Rainbow staring at the stars and possibly remembering the now-starving goblin baby she’d decided to take care of, a hundred miles up the coast. Zeyara probably spent some time skulking in alleyways and hopping over rooftops, and Vega was of course absorbed in what she liked to call her “studies”.

The following day, we headed to the city’s seat of power. The Lord Mayor Grobaras resided in the largest, most posh structure in Magnimar, as befitted his station. We were ushered in immediately upon arrival, and he greeted us warmly. His eyes lingered over several of us, a subtly lecherous glint sweeping across us again and again. I’d never anticipated missing the dwarf’s presence during a negotiation, but having her front-and-center would have alleviated some of the man’s innate male lusts. Can’t blame a guy for looking, though, especially not when he was the ruler of the greatest regional power for hundreds of miles.

After a very brief moment of pleasantries, we got down to business. His request was ultimately simple. “There is a fort north of the city of Turtleback Ferry that houses some of the elite Black Arrow Rangers,” he explained, drawing a series of noncommittal shrugs from the rest of us. The name sounded vaguely familiar. “Fort Rannick. It has recently gone dark. I am hoping to recruit your group to-”

“The Sisterhood of Steel,” I supplied, since names mean power and I didn’t want to get dismissed as that all-female adventuring party.

“Yes, the SIsterhood of Steel, to investigate. I am willing to pay you well for the job, as the area will require some traveling. Say, seven hundred gold each?”

I was ready to nod when Zeyara butted in. “We are certainly interested, but have other obligations as well. You have no doubt heard of Sandpoint’s troubles.” She paused, and he nodded shortly. “With, oh, I don’t know, let’s say an even thousand apiece, I’m sure we could convince the people to let us depart for a matter of state security.”

Frowning, Lord Mayor Grobaras nodded in acquiescence. “Yes, that will be fine. A thousand each-”

“Half up front,” Zeyara pushed, pressing both the advantage and her luck. “It is, after all, an investment, we’ll need to buy supplies-”

The Lord Mayor leaned back and shook his head, smiling. “I have you there. You will receive the entirety up front; I am paying an honorable group of heroes to play a hand in our great city’s security, rather than risk using treacherous mercenary scum.” If his words contained any sarcasm, it was too subtle for me to pick up on. “And that of the region as well.” He called out a name, and a well-dressed man appeared to take instructions. Three minutes later we were each holding a substantial sum of precious metal in soft leather bags the Lord Mayor’s manservant had supplied us with.

“Your Majesty,” I said, hoping to butter him up a bit with an upgraded title. “There is the matter of a certain manor in town belonging to one dead traitor.” He regarded me blankly. “The Foxglove Manor… I was hoping that, since we put the man down, perhaps you could find a way to make our use of it more official…?”

“You were rewarded for bringing to light the plot on my life,” he began reasonably, although his expression conveyed mild annoyance at the very least. “I don’t know much regarding the property rights of-” He looked me over, then caught my eye and broke off, swallowing. Maybe it was the arms crossed angrily underneath my barely-contained snakescale-laminated chest, or the ominous tapping of the thigh-high belt-and-buckle boots that fit my legs like a pair of gloves. Maybe the expectantly raised eyebrow, or the mouth just beginning to twist into my best pouty glower. Hard to know, really. He glanced at the others, lingering on Zeyara for a few extra but obvious seconds, and then sighed with a smile.. “We’ll see. I’ll look into the matter.”

“That’s all we ask,” I stated untruthfully.

“I’m putting my faith in you girls,” he commented, the hint of a warning, or even a threat, deep inside the statement. Something dangerous pierced his veil of joviality.,He made me uneasy, but better to have friends in high positions than make enemies with the same. At least when you have a choice. He’d treated us right so far, but I couldn’t help imagining a point where he decides it’s in his best interests to turn on us.

With that cheery thought, we parted, and rather than spending the rest of the day throwing around coin inside the city, we packed our bags and headed up the coast. Back to Sandpoint.

Along the way we heard a terrible and familiar roar far in the distance. Despite a sudden thirst for vengeance, we redoubled our pace away from the noise, telling ourselves that it would be a shame not to allow Rakonia to participate in our nemesis-beast’s destruction.

With many a backward glance, we trod northeast along the coast. The sun had set by the time we arrived back in the familiar town.

-————————————-SoS——————————————

“You’re sure?”

“Positive.” It was the third time Ameiko had answered, and the amused sparkle in her dark eyes had faded to a look of puzzled annoyance. “Like I said. It’s been quiet. No murders, no new sicknesses, no missing people… everything’s pretty much just, well, back to normal. Almost,” she amended.

The Rusty Dragon seemed to be as quiet as the rest of the town. “People still a bit… unsettled?” I asked, struggling to find a word that didn’t incorporate the idea of outright fear. Ameiko could be touchy about the character of the townsfolk, and got a little testy when they were criticized.

“To say the least. Can hardly blame them,” she commented, sighing wistfully while looking around the empty common room. “Still, I do miss the crowd.”

“Of course you do; you’re a people kind of person. You enjoy putting on a show, giving people what they want. Don’t get defensive,” I explained, holding up my hands as she reached for a nearby pan. Flashbacks of her final confrontation with her father played in my mind. That old, dead fool. I smiled. “That’s why you like running this place so much. Captive audience.”

“Why you-”

“That’s a good thing, Mistress Kajitsu,” I said in mock seriousness, my eyes flicking from hers down to the fingers curling around the handle of a metal skillet. “It’s your talent. A leadership trait. I’m not telling you how to use it, just enjoy the fact that you have it.”

She looked satisfied for a moment, then her brows scrunched in disappointment. “Leadership… I told you, Lucrezia, I just want to-”

“Keep running this place,” I shrugged, encompassing the in with the wave of an arm. “Nobody’s going to take that away from you. But… you’re the sole heiress of the Kaijitsu family. You call the shots now, nobody else. I just think, well, maybe you should try and keep things going. Don’t let what your family built for itself disappear. You alone are the embodiment of that family, now.”

She snorted in derision. “Responsibility. That’s what you’re talking about. Me, spending my life worrying and fretting over the House’s finances, the people it employs-”

She was wrong. I was talking about power. But that wasn’t something she was overtly interested in. “You already employ people here at the Rusty Dragon,” I reminded, trying to keep my patience. “And you know the greatest trick to management; delegating responsibility to your underlings.” She opened her mouth, then closed it, looking thoughtful. I pressed on. “You already have what’s-his-name running the Glassworks pretty much without supervision, right?” After waiting for a nod, I continued. “Working out pretty well, isn’t it?”

Her eyes gleamed with delight. “Yes, the money. I’d never thought… My father kept a lot of things, er…”

“Hidden up his tight ass?” I supplied.

“Something like that.” She smiled, and I was grateful her father had finally stopped inspiring regretful sighs and forlorn gazing into the distance. Nothing worse than a memory intruding on otherwise pleasant conversation. Except, perhaps, during the course of heated… debate. “It’s… substantial. I’ve been thinking of adding on an addition to this place, in fact,” she began, rummaging behind the counter to produce some crumpled parchments covered with inked plans for her super dragon upgrade.

“Oh, wow,” I said, trying to sound admiring. I couldn’t make heads or tails of the scribbled lines or adjective-laced annotations. “Hey,” I said, struck by a thought. “You should make this place into your headquarters!”

“My… what?”

“Like… you run your whole little business empire. From here!” I laughed, smacking the table and startling her. She’d have to see the merits of this. “The Glassworks is in order, thanks to those recruits we grabbed from Magnimar. The guy running it seems competent, and he’s invested in the business, because it means he’ll make money as well. Seems to run a tight ship.” In truth, I’d visited the man several times, and although gruff and lacking what one would call “social graces,” the man knew his work, and was already producing some amazing new glassware.

My only complaint had been his obsession with pipes. He’d made dozens and dozens of the hollow tubes, each intricate and functional, but far more than the population of Sandpoint could demand. He’d taken on the stained glass and windowpane duties that had previously dominated the Glassworks without complaint, and in addition asked for and received permission to set up areas to make an assortment of wares, from goblets and crystalware to bottles and tiny figurines. There was even something he called a glass massager that was all the rage in Cheliax that he guaranteed would sell.

“And here at the Rusty Dragon, you got that… er, other Tian,” I finished lamely. The lady’s name still escapes me. “She knows how to run this place, she can take care of the small stuff while you manage the big picture. Imagine getting to do everything you want to do; talk with customers, schmooze guests, entertain friends… all while someone else does the number crunching and coin exchanging.”

I dropped it there, but she was quiet for a long time, her features thoughtful.

The following morning I took my leave. “How long do you think you’ll be gone?” she asked hesitantly.

“Hard to say,” I admitted. “At least a week to get there, and back. As to how long it takes to clean up whatever needs cleaning, well…” The look of worry on her face and the slight desperate glint of her eyes gave me a feeling of deep satisfaction.

“I’ll bring you back something nice,” I promised. “To decorate your new HQ.”

-————————————-SoS——————————————

Domestic affairs were not quite over with, for after a brief night’s sleep we were informed that Shalelu, the town’s elven ranger, had stopped by the inn and wanted to see us.

We headed to the mayor’s first thing in the morning; it was Deverin who informed us of Shalelu’s presence after listening to the tales of our exploits against the horrors encountered in Magnimar. “And then, we foiled a plot against the Lord Mayor’s life! We saved his life!”

She looked suitably impressed. “You saved the Lord Mayor’s life?” she asked softly, and needlessly, as I’d already stated that fact twice.

“He wants us to go on a secret mission,” I said, bringing my head down close to hers in a conspiratorial manner. Ignoring her look of unease flicking between my blazing eyes and delicate horns and the sudden tensing of her neck muscles, I went on. “We’re heading north…ish,” I stumbled, forgetting exactly. “Some place called Turtle Beach-”

“Turtleback Ferry,” Rainbow corrected for the dozenth time.

The mayor pulled back, her pallor returning to normal with a few feet of distance between us. “That is interesting, since that is where Shalelu is headed as well.”

Zeyara’s thin face looked up, suddenly interested.

“Although we hate leaving the town, especially after so much has befallen it recently…” I wasn’t asking permission exactly, but finding a way of letting her know she’s on her own. “We feel it important to figure out what is going on there, deal with that threat before it can build into something that can threaten Magnimar… or Sandpoint.”

“I see,” the mayor said, an odd look of relief in her eyes. “We will persevere, as we always have. Your help has been invaluable, and greatly appreciated.” It almost sounded like a dismissal, if I chose to take it the wrong way.

“Watch out for the Sandpoint Devil,” Rainbow advised good-naturedly, causing the mayor to pale visibly.

“The… you mean…”

“Oh, it’s real, and it’s big and deadly and very mean,” the adorable halfling confirmed cheerfully.

“If the goblins should reassemble,” began Skalmold.

“Or any other ancient evils that wake up in this region, given that it seems to be happening with some frequency,” added Zeyara.

The Mayor Deverin’s eyes darted between us. “Are you certain you, er, must go? Surely, a few more days-”

“You’ll be fine. If you need us, well…”

“Perhaps, if something arises, we… we could communicate by raven?” the mayor asked, grasping at straws.

I shook my head. No way in hell we were carrying a box full of shitting, cawing birds on our trek across country. “Even if we had them, you couldn’t reach us.”

“Oh.” The middle-aged woman sat down heavily, suddenly looking dejected.

“You can send someone to Magnimar, hire a mage to cast a Sending at us,” Vega supplied constructively. The mayor looked up, heartened, and we left to find Zeyara’s elf pillow buddy somewhere in town.

-————————————-SoS——————————————

To make a long reunion short, Zeyara and Shelalu stared at each other thinly veiled intensity throughout the conversation, at least when the elf wasn’t lamenting recent events. Shelalu had lost contact with her adopted father, or stepfather, or other kind of not-actual-father figure. Coincidentally, he was one of the Black Arrow rangers, based in the fort above Turtle Base, and our current destination.

“Since you’re heading to Turtleback Ferry, mind if I tag along with you guys?” the elf asked at the end of her tale.

Well, we were down a ranger. Shelalu seemed interesting, as well. “I doubt you ever tag along on anything. We’d love your help, right Zeyara?” I nudged the grey-faced fetchling hard with an armored elbow, ignoring the are-you-flirting-with-my-pillowfriend-and-if-so-prepare-to-be-stabbed glare in her narrowed yellow-green eyes because I wasn’t.

We set out around midday, heading due east, at least according to the expensive compass I had bought long ago with the understanding that, by owning it, I would never be lost again. Through trial and error I found that not to be the case, and only rarely is knowing what direction you’re pointing extremely helpful. In this case, the river we would follow was east, and so east we went.

Shelalu explained that the sun generally rose in the east, and that by knowing the time of day one could usually determine the direction based on its position in the sky. She went on to give other tell-tale signs of direction, various mosses the grew on specific sides of rocks and trees, and other such ranger witchcraft. I listened with half an ear, trusting that looking at the compass would be infinitely easier than remembering all her confusing rules.

The first night passed uneventfully, camped out in some softly rolling hills a dozen miles from the river we would be following throughout the journey.

Riding all day is surprisingly tiring, although less to your feet and calves, and more to your thighs and butt and lower back. Although I hated to admit it, it didn’t help that my legs were spread halfway to kingdom come to get around Artax’s barrel-sized chest. I tried sidesaddle for a bit but after a couple of nasty falls I gave it up as a bad idea.

Zeyara and Shelalu would disappear into the woods, or the tall grasses, or behind a rock after we stopped for the evening. Presumably to apply lotion, or rub out the tension, or some other euphemism. They were suspiciously quiet, either out of thoughtfulness or perhaps not quite the right amount of fun.

Zeyara and I shared the last watch, from before dawn to mid morning, when we’d finally get underway. This was great because sleeping in armor, even beautiful mithril armor, isn’t such a good night’s rest.

The fire burned bright, and we amused ourselves with philosophical conversations.

“So, how do you feel about Shelalu being, you know, like a hundred and fifty years old?” was my opening gambit.

Zeyara shrugged. “Doesn’t concern me much. She’ll keep her looks a good long while.”

Amieko was in her late twenties, near as I could tell. She had maybe a decade or so in her. Callous, perhaps, but true. I was fairly certain I’d have moved on long before then, but one never knew. “Doesn’t it, I don’t know, creep you out?”

“What, that she’s five times my age?” Zeyara asked, her voice betraying a certain familiarity to the thought.

“No, more that she’s going to outlive you. By so long.”

“Not that long,” Zeyara assured. I gave her a disbelieving look.

“You’re around thirty, she’s maybe a hundred and fifty. You’ll be an old crone in sixty years, sister. It’s that far-off human ancestry,” I lamented, shaking my head sadly.

“Crone might be overstating it,” the fetchling whispered dangerously.

“She’s got another hundred, two hundred years before she will even look older. And maybe another two hundred after that until she’s dead! Assuming she lives out her natural life,” I qualified. Assuming any of us live very long at all. It was a rather big assumption, and one many people made erroneously, but there was no way around it without succumbing to crippling, morbid fatalism.

“I guess I’d rather have something that will last, rather than fruit that will wither in my hand.” Ouch. “She’ll remember me long after I’m gone.”

“I see your point. Still though, I’d rather be the one doing the remembering and lamenting.” I leaned closer. “So, when you two, you know…” Zeyara’s face clouded, which seemed to be the fetchling equivalent of blushing, so I hastily continued, my curiosity overflowing. “Is it all delicate and stuff? Like, I just imagine a lot of petting and fingertips tracing along curves and gazing into each others eyes-”

“It is not like that,” Zeyara spat. “You seem to have given this a lot of thought,” she added, whether resentfully or suspiciously I couldn’t quite tell. Possibly both.

“Well… don’t you get curious? You’ve noticed Ameiko’s… pretty intense.” I confessed. “Passionate. Live life to it’s fullest, in true bardic fashion. It’s perfect, the healthiest relationship I’ve ever had, I guess, since she’s kinda into the rough stuff, and I-”

“I do not need to be hearing about this,” the assassin implored, her eyes yellow and glowing as she stared pointedly into the night pretending to look for danger.

My curiosity and concerns hadn’t been quenched. “It’s just, you’re always so quiet when you go off in the bushes. And I never once heard anything back at base…”

“Perhaps some people are more considerate than others. And… stealthy.”

Stealthy. I liked the sound of that. “So… okay, gimme some details!”

“I most certainly will not,” the fetchling sputtered. “What is wrong with you?”

“What’s wrong with you?” I retorted, trying to turn it around with limited success. Shaking it off, I lowered my voice. “Are you not… having fun? Is that it?"

She turned to regard me with incredulity. “That is not it. There is no it.”

“If the magic’s gone and it’s more of a chore… well, you gotta spice things up. Ameiko’s got an buttload of toys you could borrow. Literally. Probably two or three, easily-”

“Lucrezia!” the assassin hissed dangerously. I stopped rubbing the phantom ropeburn at my wrists, getting my head back in the game in time to notice a rock sailing into camp, smashing feet away from the sleeping form of Vega with a terrible crack. An unmistakable odor of rotting fish began to permeate the camp. We had been resting easy, confident in the magical warding the arcanist had placed around the perimeter of our camp, but said wards had apparently not worked against whatever was happening.

Luckily, since we were on watch I was awake along with Zeyara, and we noticed two immense beings lumber out of the darkness, coming from the area leading to the great river we were following. Hulking, brutish giants stood back from the camp, silhouetted by the false dawn’s faint light against the horizon. WIth a warning cry, I willed myself to energize with the strange power lying dormant inside me, and as Skalmold and Rainbow stood, Vega’s muffled voice finished her chant and time seemed to slow down to the point of standing still.

We rushed at the giants in a blur of speed, into the rancid stench of putrefying fish. Twisted, monstrous faces regarded us with slitted, milky eyes, cracked tusks poking up from their thick lower lips. Their long arms and strange, hooked weapons negated the benefits of my naginata’s reach, but the others were even worse off. One of the things attacked me with magic, but to no noticeable effect. Skalmold slammed into the other, but the ten foot tall monstrosity shouted a curse and lashed out with a filthy hand, sending the barbarian reeling in a flash of terrible energy._ That’s not right._ Concentrating, I watched the giant’s fist connect, but Skalmold shrugged off the curse, whaling away at the creature’s legs with her immense hammer.

From underneath her bedroll, Vega tossed off blasts of amethyst magical energy, striking the giant over and over.

“Stay down and cover us,” I shouted back at Shelalu, focusing on the second giant. Zeyara appeared out of nowhere, giving the creature a vicious stab. The thing bellowed in rage and anger, its beady eyes searching for its opponent, when I felt the singing of the spheres course through my body.

It was like the heavens opened up, a wellspring of rightness as I stepped in and swung my naginata, catching the massive giant in the neck. I felt every cord of muscle sever, every fiber of sinew and sliver of bone and shred of cartilage part before my blade.

The far-off singing faded as the head fell from the creature’s shoulders, spinning and trailing a spiraling stream of blood, showering the ground in wet death.

The other fell soon after. I got ropes and we hitched the bodies to the horses, dragging them back into the water.

Out of sight, out of mind. I ignored the bits and pieces that poked up, not quite making it to deep enough water. Sometimes, good enough is good enough.

I cleaned off what I could from the severed giant head. The skull would make an interesting decoration, a real conversation starter. I built up the fire and tossed the mess in the flames, smelling the strangely familiar scent of cooking meat as the flesh seared, blackened and eventually fell off the bone.

“No more talking on watch,” Zeyara proclaimed, taking up a position a safe distance away, upwind of the fire. It was good advice, and I was determined to make an attempt to follow it.

The rest of the night and early morning passed uneventfully.

-————————————-SoS——————————————

The following day, a mere three or four hours after the giant attack, saw us on our way along the river. We’d opted to travel on horseback rather than by boat. Partly because of convenience, partly due to some of our party’s fear of water and drowning.

Late that night, I was kicked awake. I hopped to my feet, feeling oddly light and extremely naked without my armor.

Ahead of us, several beings came into view. Their twisted forms, hidden behind armor and cloaks, were unmistakeable given our recent experiences. The ghouls began to advance, and the Sisterhood of Steel girded themselves to confront the seemingly random undead.

One of the ghouls was clad in magnificent, if desecrated, armor, riding atop a fiendish-eyed dire boar that belched smoke through its wet nose. Another ghoul had a bow which it immediately drew and fired, sending an arrow deep into Skalmold’s shoulder. The blonde barbarian staggered and roared, rushing to engage but obviously smarting.

I slished and slashed at the armored ghoul atop the boar, but was unable to penetrate his defenses. They were tougher than the ghouls we’d fought around Sandpoint; the rider seemed possessed of a keen intellect and hatred for the more pure-hearted members of our group.

Skalmold suffered more under the ghoul archer’s fire, but Rainbow’s healing waves helped keep us going, as well as drawing the undead’s arrows. The undead knight lashed out, targeting his fury upon Skalmold, who reeled briefly from a multitude of terrible-looking wounds. Her immense hammer swung in berserk fury to smash the creature from its mount, Zeyara’s blades slashing opportunistically, my own sweeping cuts and violent thrusts, aided by Rainbow’s positive energy and Vega’s speed inducing spellweaving and offensive magics slew our enemies, the pair of lesser, more typical ghouls falling quickly once the armored warrior and archer were dealt with.

The huge, demonic boar disappeared with the death of its rider.

“Damn it, I wanted some of that infernal bacon.” That was Zeyara.

“It would have been sinfully delicious,” I lamented.

“Arcadia would have paid good money to get their hands on an exotic animal like that,” Skalmold interjected to our surprise, impressively well versed in that nation’s affairs. Perhaps she’d read that pamphlet we found.

“They don’t truck with infernal anything,” I corrected. “But they do have some celestial pigs running around. Descended from huge dire boar, if I remember correctly. Celestial Farms is the brand. GuiltyBacon, it’s called.” When nobody asked, I clarified. “It’s because of the terrible guilt that consumes you after eating it,” I explained, “but it’s so delicious it’s totally worth it.”

“That sounds like an abomination!” Rainbow exclaimed.

“A bacon nation, maybe,” I allowed. My stomach growled.

We took some gear off the now-inanimate corpses, and Vega took out a knife and flensed a wide square of skin from the ghoul with the armor to use in a magic ritual that didn’t seem to go anywhere. Then we set them aflame. We decided to sleep late.

The rest of the night passed uneventfully, but it was a restless sleep followed by a long, tiring watch.

-————————————-SoS——————————————

Upon waking, I felt somehow… different. Stronger. I contemplated the fragments of strange dreams I recalled from the interrupted sleep of the previous night, and was fascinated at the certainty of being able to lay curses upon things, as the swamp giants had nearly done to Skalmold a few days before. Some kind of lifeforce-draining aura beckoned to be used, and impatiently I awaited an opportunity to test it out.

Another day and dozens of miles later found us camping, again. I was glad Shalelu was around; Rainbow was pretty good at spotting good places to set up, but the elf was consistently good. It was ironic; traveling cross-country, camping out in the wild, and the party ranger was nowhere to be found. I hoped she was enjoying her time off with her elf-blooded friend. I was also certain that, out of all of us, Rakonia would be the one able to make the journey solo and catch up to the group once she was ready.

Hopefully she wouldn’t get knocked up by her new elf-blooded friend.

This evening, at the spot of her choosing, Rainbow impressed us all by weaving some powerful nature magic, and we found ourselves bedding down among a small oasis, surrounded by trees bearing fruit and a small, fresh pool of water appearing by magic.

Not long after setting up, we suffered two disturbances. One came in the form of a tiny, butterfly-winged dragon that flew into camp, upsetting some of the horses and Mr. Fuzzy Whiskers, Rainbow’s pet rat. The creature seemed to bond with Vega, of all people, and the two stared at one another, mentally conversing late into the night.

The second came in the form of a small, beautiful pixie-like creature. It settled down on Rainbow’s tiny shoulder like she belonged there, and it became clear that the halfling shaman’s pet rat was now merely a small, furry pet that kept trying to escape from her grasp, no longer obeying her commands. She looked conflicted; sad of her companion’s reversion into simple animal, but delighted at her new fairy companion, who wasn’t a fairy at all but instead some kind of celestial being. The tiny figure began to strum a lute or lyre, introducing herself as “Donna.”

All in all, a rather strange night. But, aside from that, uneventful.

-————————————-SoS——————————————

It was late fall. We had another solid day of boring travel, not encountering anything. The following day, however, it began to storm. The snowy kind. By midmorning, a full-on blizzard was threatening to engulf us, and with no visibility we relied on Shelalu and Rainbow to guide us somewhere we could wait out the storm.

A little time lost due to weather. It was a good thing I’d brought my cards.

Zeyara was unbothered by the cold, her grey skin seeming to shrug off the bitter wind. The rest of us had taken out our cold weather gear. Mine was mostly fox fur.

The following day, the sun returned and much of the snow melted. Another few days saw us to Turtle Town.

-————————————-SoS——————————————

Of the entire party, no one was more eager to get to the fort above Turtle Bay than Shelalu. I debated preparing her for the possibility of her father’s death, but decided that was Zeyara’s business and not mine.

I thought it might be a good idea to head straight to the fort, get the low-down from there and keep the majority of the residents unaware of our arrival. I was soundly voted down, the others wanting to scour the town for clues and rumors about what was happening.

Since we had no real idea what was happening, it wasn’t a bad idea.

The townsfolk were nervous. The place was smaller than Sandpoint, maybe a quarter the population, built along a river that we followed but will remain unnamed. We picked up on rumors of the missing rangers, mostly that they were missing. Someone mentioned a strange family name, bringing up a history of ogre-blood in the outlying community, cruel, half-human stock that periodically caused trouble such as this.

Disconcertingly, something else we noticed was a prevalence of a familiar symbol throughout the town: the Sihedron, the symbol of the seven sins. Not everywhere, not even on most people, but a distinct minority bore the sign as a tattoo or stitched into their clothing. We shared a grim look, and I glanced pointedly at the same symbol worn on Vega’s neck.

-————————————-SoS——————————————

We made our way toward the fort, but on the way were stopped by a piteous cry from the forest. It sounded like a cat, and a large one. Cautiously, we approached and Rainbow rushed forward, whispering and soothing the magnificent flame-pelted cougar that looked up from where it had been worrying at its front paw, stuck in a rusty steel trap.

As Rainbow continued her animal whispering, I approached carefully and sliced through the trap, freeing the poor beast. As I stood up and respectfully backed away, the sound of a hunting horn could be heard behind us, from deeper within the woods.

Seconds later, the baying of hounds announced the arrival of another party. A thick, deep voice was shouting commands in a harsh language, and suddenly they were upon us, a gigantic man with arms like tree trunks, leading a pack of a dozen slavering hounds. The dogs had a sinister, mangy appearance, and the man’s furious voice contrasted oddly with his misshapen, childlike features.

The dogs were dispatched within moments, the man run down and gutted soon after. He’d been armed with one of those ugly, hook-like weapons the giants had used. Examining the body, we got our first look at the ogre-kin.

Thick, ugly muscles, a barrel-chested torso, and a tiny head. The overall effect was rather disgusting.

-————————————-SoS——————————————

“Over here,” Rainbow urged, leading us through an old-growth forest, it’s floor miraculously free of clinging weed and thorny brush.

Using her shamanic magic, the halfling had somehow communicated with the rust-pelted great cat, and learned that it was the companion to one of the missing druids, as well as the general location they were being held.

The tiny figure leading the party stopped and pointed, the even tinier pixie accompanying her flitting from shoulder to shoulder.

Two structures lay in a clearing in the forest; a large barn and a strangely built home, a haphazard affair seeming constructed in fits and starts, none of it matching or symmetrical. A lone, lumbering figure prowled the grounds between the buildings, its massive bulk unmistakeable as another of the ogre-kin.

“The family we heard about in town,” Vega recalled. “The Grauls.”

“I’ll go ahead and take care of the sentry,” Zeyara confirmed. She dashed silently ahead into the forest. Despite her confidence, I gathered the others and followed closely behind, leaving Shalelu to stay in the trees and “cover us.”

The fetchling dealt the guardian a terrible blow with her blades, but the creature bellowed out in pain and warning before the rest of us got there to finish it off. Thinking quickly, we headed into the barn to get out of sight of the main building.

Inside, the structure was divided in half by a wall, with a wooden catwalk running around the edges, midway to the twenty foot ceiling. Six of the monstrous brutes lay waiting for us.

Their favorite weapons appeared to be those strange, evil-looking hooks mounted on the end of a short, thick pole. Standing seven feet tall or more, the ogre-blooded degenerates were all out of proportion, their arms and legs to thick, shoulders too wide, heads too small. “Blood for the Blood God!” I roared, my voice beautiful and terrible and echoing in the strange language that passed my lips when the spirit burned within me, and one by one the not-quite-men fell to the Sisters’ attacks.

Wiping our blades clean, we investigated the other room, cutting the door open with my adamantine blade. In a chamber similar to the first except for an extraordinary amount of cobwebs, two platforms rose up from the corners. The left appeared empty, but the right…

I rushed back to the staircase leading to the catwalk, the only obvious route to the cage we spotted. The three men inside stared out with wild, haunted eyes that were nevertheless brimming with a sudden, intense hope at our arrival.

Below, the fairy dragon and the celestial pixie flew into the room to scout out the ground level. Instantly, two great shapes darted out from hiding, their huge bodies bristling with legs and flexing mandibles dripping with venom.

Spiders give me the creeps.

The creatures were immense. As one descended, I lashed out with my naginata without thought, cutting deeply and severing an immense, sapling-sized leg. Rainbow’s pixie flew out of the room, but Vega’s dragon got trapped, darting around erratically to keep from being nabbed by the spider.

Skalmold and Zeyara rushed in, the fetchling leaping down from the catwalk behind me, and I lashed out again from my perch on high. The hideous arachnid was nearly the size of a mammoth, although probably not as heavy given it was mostly legs. It was still large enough to be within reach of my pole weapon, and the naginata speared the creature right through its middle part, grey-green ichor spurting out from the creature’s burst exoskeleton. I watched in satisfaction as it jerked, landing on its back with legs curled up as if in submission.

The barbarian and assassin took down the second gigantic spider, and I quickly crossed the distance to the caged men. Adamantine blades make quick work of the strongest locks, and a minute later the three men were freed from their prison, massaging wrists and ankles recently unchained.

After a brief and relieved reunion between Shalelu and her stepfather, we learned that the rangers, all forty-odd elite Black Arrows, had been ambushed in the woods. I shook my head in disbelief at the story of capture and slow attrition as the rangers were hauled away one by one, never to return. Presumably, they had been eaten.

Aside from the stepfather, there were two other surviving rangers, one of whom was joyful to hear that his pet cougar still lived and waited for him in the woods. The rangers were all the worse for wear, and without equipment remained fairly useless. I was all for tasking Shalelu to see them safely back to the fort above Turtletown, but something Vega noticed interrupted the plans.

“You,” she stated, pointing at the third ranger, who’d been pretty quiet. “What is that tattoo under your shirt?”

“What? I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he retorted evasively. Skalmold and I stepped in close, boxing him in. “Hey, what’s this all about-”

“He has the mark tattooed on his chest,” the arcanist explained, fingering her own necklace and conveniently hiding the symbol from the rescued rangers.

We ended up forcibly removing his shirt. He protested his innocence. “Lots of people have them!”

That much was true. “Do they all know what it means?”

Shalelu’s stepfather looked perplexed. “What are you getting at?”

What followed was a brief explanation of the events of the past month, from the dangers in Sandpoint to the plot in Magnimar. The non-accused rangers’ faces grew darker with each passing moment, finally turning to glare at their erstwhile companion.

“I have a question for you,” the stepfather asked the heavily-sweating man. “How was it that the ogrekin knew where to ambush us?”

“The penalty for betraying a fellow ranger…” the other added.

I stepped in, seeing the wild look of hopelessness return to the man’s eyes. There was too much we didn’t know. “For gods’ sakes man, you’ve heard about the forces you’re allied with! The terror and misery they spread! You’re a guardian of the people of this nation. We all make mistakes, sure, but now is the time for you to turn it all around, take back your destiny and help us fight against this… this menace.” He looked conflicted. “Protect your people from the evil that is reawakening throughout this land!”

Sullenly, he shook his head. “I can’t, they’ll kill me. I can’t tell you anything about them, or her- er-”

“Her?”

Pale-faced, he bit his lips nervously. “Besides, they’ll kill me no matter what I tell you,” he spat, looking at the former companions who now had nothing but murder in their eyes.

Stupid asshole. “Fine.” I turned to the rangers. “I volunteer to be the one to behead this man.”

Shelalu’s stepfather frowned. “Sorry, young lady, but this is ranger business.”

“Yes, ranger business,” echoed the other ranger.

I glared at the obstinate prisoner, frustrated at his idiocy. “Still, we rescued you, and uncovered his treachery. It seems to me like we should be responsible for meting out his punishment-”

“Let the ranger’s do their thing,” Rainbow urged quietly, and I realized my voice was edging towards a shout. I stomped off, trying to contain a sudden urge to inflict violence.

“Wait,” Vega cried as the two men approached their traitorous brother-in-arms. She explained her plan; a kind of nonconsensual telepathy that would allow her to extract a memory from the man’s mind. About a minute’s worth.” I perked up at the idea, although that was an awfully short time to get something useful.

“Maybe the last time he saw this ‘her?’” I suggested.

The traitor writhed, held firm by the ropes the two rangers had bound his arms and legs with. Vega touched the man’s head, and he grunted, then screamed, blood erupting out of his nose to dribble down his face, spattering crimson droplets on his clothing and his bindings.

Vega stood up, brow wrinkled in concentration. “A woman, very pale.”

We waited. “Anything else?” Skalmold asked.

The other human shrugged. “I’d recognize her if I saw her.”

Good to know; we’d have to do a walk-through of the town. If Vega could perhaps make a drawing…

I walked over to the whimpering man, giving him a kick with a mithril-reinforced toe. “Last chance to contribute something meaningful. Who is she? Who is the pale woman?”

“Did she put the Sihedron mark on you?” asked Vega, her dusky face furrowed with thought.

The man’s silence spoke volumes, at least about his readiness for death. Angered at his refusal to even attempt some kind of redemption, I turned to the rangers, who stood the man up, beginning to drag him away.

My fingers itched to scythe through his neck. I turned to Zeyara. “We rescued them, discovered that fool is a traitor… we should get to dispense justice.”

The fetchling shrugged, looking philosophical. “Let it go. He betrayed his comrades; let those comrades have their revenge.”

I watched, trying not to brood, as the treacherous ranger was forced to kneel. The two standing rangers looked at one another awkwardly. Not a weapon between them, I realized with glee. Unless they planned on choking him to death with their hands or bashing his head open against the flagstones, they were going to need-

“Here, you may use mine,” Zeyara offered, stepping forward to hand Shelalu’s father one of her swords, the black, glistening crescent of magically reinforced obsidian. By now the kneeling traitor’s eyes were wide with terror, and his pitiful attempts to move were pathetically ineffective. With a few words of thanks, the men turned to their former companion and, with scant ceremony, slit his throat practically to the spine. I caught his eye in the last moments, holding his gaze as the light began to fade behind them and the pool of blood crept closer, across the floor. When they let go of his head, it leaned backwards, revealing the gaping red ruin of his throat, eyes staring sightlessly to the rafters.

Stupid bastard, I thought.

A few minutes later, the surviving rangers of the Black Arrows had retreated with Shelalu, heading back to their fort near Turtle Bay Beach. Their final words were cautionary, to beware the “matriarch” who ran the family known as Mammy Graul, a powerful magic user.

“What kind of magic does she use?” Vega had asked. “Arcane, divine?” she supplied.

The men shrugged in unison. “The townsfolk call her a witch,” one offered, which wasn’t very helpful at narrowing it down since that was the catchall phrase most commoners used for anyone who could do anything unusual or supernatural.

-————————————-SoS——————————————

With the men, and Shelalu, safely gone, we rushed towards the house, only to stop several yards away. The place was lousy with traps, Zeyara informed us, and we spent several minutes watching her move around and poke and prod at things. Finally, she waved us forward.

I sliced open the door with my impossibly sharp blade, and we rushed into a house of macabre nightmare.

The building was strangely empty of other living creatures, but there was ample evidence of the formerly-living rangers and the fate that befell them. Room after room revealed sickening sights; flies swarming around corpses, cut up torsos and severed heads adorning the crude furniture along the walls. Hooks and chains from which hung slabs of clearly-human meat, tables slathered in blood, hundreds of fingers and toes scattered over the floor. Another room held a rack from which flensed skin was stretched, curing like leather. A bundle of similar skins lay bundled, ready for their turn. A dining area littered with the gnawed bones of countless femurs and tibias, the ever present stench of blood and buzzing of flies starting to get to me.

As we entered a bedroom, the ambush sprung. The hideously ugly woman, mirrored seven times throughout the corner of the room, appeared and began casting. The five of us lept into action, recognizing the foul creature to be the matriarch we’d been warned about. Vega countered the heavyset woman’s spell, and my blade flicked out, feeling its way into the real target amongst the confusion of illusionary dopplegangers. Zeyara and Skalmold rushed in, pinning her in a corner.

Her ugly face, looking surprised and upset, disappeared as she stepped backwards into nothing and was gone.

“She has transported herself somewhere nearby,” Vega stated confidently. We rushed back out into the strangely-built rooms full of cannibalistic trappings, heading back toward the only place we hadn’t explored, a stairway leading down.

It made sense.

We hurried as much as we could, but given the propensity for this crazed ogre-blooded family to leave set traps lying around everywhere, caution ruled the day. We made it downstairs, Zeyara disabling some kind of floor plate that no doubt triggered a terrible and deadly event.

The basement area was large, with a few tunnels leading into the darkness. We took a moment to recharge our magical protections and enhancements before heading in, picking an arbitrary path.

It was several minutes of wandering later that we came across Mammy Graul’s lair. The woman barked out a harsh command as we entered the room, and a half dozen undead atrocities leapt towards us, zombies driven by hellish speed. Another of her sons, a towering brute even for an ogre-kin, rushed forward with them.

Ignoring the undead minions, we focused our efforts against the matriarch. Rainbow and Vega concentrated their power on negating her spellcasting, and the rest of us moved in to attack. The male fell, pierced and bleeding his guts out through his belly. The leader of the Graul family cursed us and wailed as we sliced and diced and smashed her to pieces, the animated undead falling to our weapons and magic, leaving the room silent except for our steady, unlabored breathing and the soft staccato tapping of the blood dripping from our weapons onto the rough stone floor.

Somehow, it didn’t seem like it was all over quite yet.

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