A World Lost: Current Events in the City of Einn Boer

More setting the scene for a new Dungeons and Dragons game I’m going to be running soon.

Hedveig stood at the ancient rusted doorway and tried to stay awake.  The Great Gate hadn’t been opened in his lifetime or his father’s lifetime.  The rust scale on it was so thick he doubted the iron portal would even swing on its hinges anymore, even if someone did try to open it.  It was an important duty for the síðr vorðr; the Long Guard though; they had stood there for centuries, barring the way to any who would dare try and intrude on Einn Boer.

He stretched, feeling his joints crack and listening to the odd echo they made inside his armor.  As the old warrior settled back into his parade rest stance, heard the echo again.  It was coming from behind him, but was not coming from inside his armor.  Hedveig removed his helmet and put his ear to the door and he could hear a tapping sound plain as if someone had been tapping on his helmeted head.

Something was out there.  Something was trying to get in.  Hedveig pulled his long copper and bone horn from his belt and blew three measured blasts followed by two quick ones.  He continued the summons, watching for one of his fellow guardians to approach, the noise deafening him to the sounds coming from the great gate behind him.  He never heard the intruder.

When the runner arrived breathless and wild eyed, he found Hedveig laughing and joking.  Grudgingly, he admitted that his senior Guardsman had pulled one over on him and saw the humor in it.

“It’s not like you to pull something like this Hedveig.”  Reklar grumbled, giving him a wry smile, “What’s the occasion for you developing a sense of humor?”

“It’s the anniversary isn’t it?”  Hedveig said with another chuckle.  “Seven hundred years.  That’s long enough for even the memories of the less mortal races fade.

“Well, yes of course.  The festival is tomorrow.  Are you taking Bellia?”

“Probably.”  Hedveig smoothed his moustache, “You had better get back to your post.”

“Yes sir, right you are sir.”  Reklar said, snapping a smart salute.  The junior Guardsman retreated, his thoughts troubled.  Hedveig had not been acting like himself at all, and had in fact volunteered for guard duty during the festival.  For him to joke, for him to even smile on duty was unheard of.  Perhaps the old bastard had finally loosened up; but Reklar doubted it.

Lady Taryn Vaknair Torben the Third looked out over her city, feeling a glow of satisfaction despite the worry that gnawed at her.  The magic was faltering and nothing she or the Elders had tried seemed to be working.  All the symptoms pointed to the city’s Godheart dying and there didn’t seem to be any way of stopping it.

Below her balcony, the citizens gathered for the sesquicentennial, the seven hundredth anniversary of their retreat into Einn Boer.  The lights of their magic twinkled merrily as they danced, laughed, ate and drank.  They had no idea of what was truly happening, and it was imperative that they remain ignorant of it.  Order was an illusion only barely maintained by the thoughts of the people and she was well aware of that fact.

“My Lady, will you be attending the opening ceremonies?”  Londrak, her personal valet, lover, confidant and spymaster asked from the door.

“Of course I will.  You wouldn’t allow otherwise.”  She said, her voice distant.  “I am troubled Lon.  These developments and our lack of ability to remedy them frighten me.”

“The defenses are strong My Lady.”  He was holding a stylish jacket for her.  The newest fashion of ladies wearing jackets and trousers was a bit disconcerting to her at first, but sometimes it was most liberating.  When she was feeling vulnerable though, she needed the familiarity of her corset and skirts.

“Not tonight Lon.  I will wear my peach and cream gown, this being a formal occasion.”  She waved him off, “Now go away and fetch Droga.  Unless you wish to help me dress?”

Londrak grinned wolfishly, “I would be glad to help, but it seems putting these contraptions on is more difficult than removing them My Lady.  I will send her in.”

Gray crouched on an intricately carved gargoyle three stories above a square crowded with revelers.  He wasn’t so much looking for specific marks as he was watching for trends.  If enough well-off individuals were present and if they were intoxicated sufficiently he would send in the Greylings to do their business.  It was up to him to keep an eye on the ebb and flow of the crowd and choose the right time to strike.

The slightest scrape of boot on roof tile made him shift to the left.   Not enough to betray that he’d heard the noise, but just enough to give him a good throwing angle for his blades if he needed it.  Another sound identified the person attempting to sneak up on him.  He relaxed; it was only Lithia.  He could tell by the slight limp she had from a poorly healed broken ankle.

“I instructed you all to wait for my signal Lithia.”  He said in a low voice that wouldn’t carry beyond a few paces.

“Gray, we have a problem.”  She replied, not moving from the shadow of a nearby gable. “Someone has been poaching, and they’ve botched the job.”

He cursed silently to himself, “Show me.”  The last thing they needed was the Long Guard thinking his Greylings had been responsible for a murder.  They were thieves certainly and while they didn’t shrink from killing when necessary it was considered quite gauche, not to mention getting unwanted attention from Longshanks often led to someone having to be sacrificed.  Someone expendable usually, but that didn’t lessen the blow to his pride.

They slipped silently from the rooftop, shimmying down one of the building’s many carved pillars.  Homeowner’s vanity made these kinds of things easy.  The corpse wasn’t far away and it was strange.  A single circular hole in the back of the head was the only sign that any harm had come to the body.  No blood even leaked from it to stain the crisply ironed Long Guard uniform.

While he was investigating it, the body dissolved into dust.  Gray blinked in surprise, staring at the pile of dust that glowed with a slight greenish sheen.  “Well, at least we need not worry about disposing of the corpse.”  Gray muttered, “I don’t like it Greylings.  We’re leaving.  Someone get a sample of that for the Underman.”

When nobody moved, Gray spat to the side and pulled out a vial.  Scraping up a bit of the dust, he stoppered the vial and carefully placed it into his padded pouch.  “Come on you superstitious slugs, let’s get otta here before the shit starts flying.”

They slipped into the shadows, vanishing into the night, but not out of sight of a pair of glittering green eyes that watched from the windowsill.

The City of Einn Boer and The World Lost campaign setting

This is a setup for a new D&D Campaign I’m starting soon…

Seven centuries ago, the world was struck by a great Cataclysm.  The history you have been taught does not go into details; but the broad strokes paint a world gone mad, overrun with horrible demons and voracious undead that made war on the mortal races.  Led by creatures only known as Harbingers, these armies laid waste to the world.

Only a few brave adventurers and powerful magic weavers managed to secret groups of mortals away into vast cities; sealed away from the death and destruction being wrought outside.  These enclaves thrived without the worry of outside interference.  They were designed to be places free of strife; where mortal kind would not want for anything and therefore would not attempt to leave.

Also taken inside these arks from destruction were animals, seeds and other things they would all need when it was finally safe once again to go outside to reclaim the world.  If that was ever possible.  Those that could be stored in stasis would be and some of the others were raised generation after generation.

In the beginning, or so the history books say, there was enough power for everyone to have anything they wanted.  In the beginning, magical energy flowed through every being in the enclave of Einn Boer.  In the beginning, as we are told, every person could summon everything with the wave of their hand. Over time the magic faded to the way it is today, but the rest of the powers remain.

Images for stores to advertise their wares leap out at passersby to attract their attention, fountains flow with clean water for drinking and washing at every corner, the air is always clean and there is endless food.  The food may not taste exactly like what it simulates anymore, but anyone can summon it any time they wish.  It tastes better when raw ingredients are summoned and prepared, and many people and businesses maintain at least their own herb garden.

At one time, apparently gold was more than just a marker for how much things were worth for reference when trading.  The older history books mention mining gold, fashioning it into coins and using them to buy things.  In the modern-day things like real, not summoned food, herbs, a musical performance, a poetry reading, inventing a new card game, a new carving pattern or any number of other diversions are trade goods.  Everyone is looking for a new distraction; especially the longer-lived races.

Where does it all come from?  Where does it all go?  That is a question that more and more the younger generations are wondering.  In the small forest, as trees are harvested more simply appear randomly in a few days.  When things are tossed into the sewers, they simply vanish overnight.  A few folk have tried to go investigate what happens there; some never returned and others reported nothing at all.  When people die, they are buried but there are rumors that their bodies vanish rather than slowly decomposing over time.  Someone must know the answer, but if they exist, they aren’t telling.

Einn Boer is governed by an elected Monarch and a Council of Nine; each race having a representative.  The current Queen, a human named Lady Taryn Vaknair Torben, is the third generation of the Torben family to be elected.  She is seen as a fair, just and honest leader by nearly everyone and won re-election by a wide margin in the last election.  Recently a new political figure has risen in popularity by attempting to draw correlations between rumors of instability with the Torben family’s so-called ‘inherited monarchy’.

Cthrag Graksen is a red scaled Dragonborn who advocates for investigating how Einn Boer functions, even going as far as to hint that he would like to attempt to open The Great Gate and see the state of the world outside.  His veiled attacks on the Torben family have spread some dissent through the ranks and now the election that is slated to take place the day after the Septecentennial Celebration is uncertain for the first time in three generations.

Order is maintained by the Síðr Vorðr, The Long Guard.  They are independent from the city’s government and their main mission is to keep anyone from opening The Great Gate.  Secondary to that, they are a military order that trains in the arts of combat against the day that The Great Gate is opened.  Rumors have been circulating that the head of Síðr Vorðr is the one who holds the key to the Gate itself and that he is immortal.  Of course nobody really believes those rumors.  Not really.  Or if they do, they’re wise enough to let on.

Worship of the Gods once was much more than the occasional visit to a shrine or a temple.  Although the gods are represented equally, the gradual increase of the population of Einn Boer has led to once vaunted temples giving way to smaller meeting halls that more often than not double as community meeting places and are no longer dedicated sacred spaces.

Although they are purported to once having had other names, now The Father of the Gods is now called Skaberen.  Onde and Gode are his sons and in Skaberen’s absence they now balance one another, Onde being pure evil and Gode pure good.  The many others who once held sway and if the histories are to be believed, once played great games with mortal kind are Tido; the goddess of time, Kaaos; the god of chaos, Ruma; the goddess of magic, Ild;, the god of fire, Luftin; the god of wind, Jorda; the goddess of earth, Illimin, the goddess of light.  Once the different races had their own gods as well, but these have long since been forgotten.

 

Sai’Li Learns of a Storm

One night as Sai’Li is sitting by the fire drinking tea, idly petting Ignis in his tiger form and enjoying the low rumble of his purr, she begins to reflect.  She muses about the past he has shared with her about losing his parents early, the discipline of the monastery, the isolation of his druidic life.  The gruff way he acts is typical of most Dwarves she knows, however the way he closes himself away from almost everyone goes beyond racial attitude and bearing.

She has seen this body language before, although it is usually from folk hardened from birth by the rigors of unkind training in her Lord Father’s rigorous guard training.  His methods of starting with very young children is effective, but certainly weeds out empathy and any semblance of kindness or compassion.  When she recalls the way he bridles and glares when Aurora tries to pet him, the promise of deadly violence clear in his posture reinforces her thoughts.

Taking a sip of tea, Sai’Li wonders if she is the first in his memory to touch him in a gentle manner. She can’t help but smile that the only time he opens himself up to her is when he is also at his most dangerous.  There is no doubt that the six hundred pounds of killing fury sitting contentedly by her side could tear her to shreds in moments.

Covering the smile behind her fan, Sai’Li muses on how things have progressed.  Ignis the Dwarf is still the uncouth and irascible man he has always been.  When a creature feels powerful and comfortable in its skin though; that is ironically when they are the most vulnerable.  One of her most effective and honed skills is to make beings feel comfortable and powerful.

In this case, it has not been her doing; or at least not entirely.  Her vampiric heritage does protect itself by making her mere presence sway others to her will, but there seems to be more here.  Part of it must be the lack of clothing animals are required to wear, as Ignis has shown nothing but disdain for clothing, for the rest… she has known men whose only chance of survival was to become a Tiger.  Of course, those men did not literally become an actual tiger; but instead took on the fierce predator’s killing instinct and lack of mercy.  Here, she judged the physical predator had come to appreciate her abilities as an emotional and psychological predator.

‘Anyone can cut a man in half child.’ Her Honored Father used to say, ‘But a true Master will convince the man to first give everything he has to you of his own free will and then die in the manner of the Master’s choosing.’

She shivered and wondered if it was in horror at the memory or in admiration of his great talents and seemingly limitless power.  Her Honored Father had the prowess of every form of predation she knew existed.  Someday, she hoped … but she did not know what it was she hoped for.  Freedom?  Equal power?  To take his empire?

Sai’Li buried her fingers deep into her tiger’s fur and allowed herself a small sigh of satisfaction at the rumbling of contentment from the bottom of his chest.  For now, she was content to plan and grow stronger.

After a few nights in Burnholm, Ignis has become increasingly irritable with each passing day. Late into one evening while pacing in front of the fire in his Dwarven form, he abruptly turns to Sai’Li. Speaking in a measured, quiet tone he says, “I understand you are more comfortable here than on the road, but I think we have been here long enough.  I smell a fierce storm approaching, we should take our leave tomorrow at dawn.  If we make haste and don’t let that damned wagon slow us.” His voice rises slightly, “We can likely dodge the worst of it.  If we stay, I’m not sure how long it will keep us trapped here.”. Folding his arms, he stares at her intently waiting for a response.

“We are not on the water. I do not fear the rain. What is it about this storm that worries you?” Sai’Li looks up from where she had been using an ivory and obsidian abacus to tally an account of her most recent shipment of fine instruments and goods sent through the ring to Ako, her capable assistant in her Coastwood Blossom House. “I know you are not a coward; what is different about this storm in particular?”

Ignis’s brow furrows and he turns to stare into the crackling flames.  After a few breaths, he flexes his hand like a claw and speaks again.  “Something I can’t explain feels off about it.”  He sighs and continues, “Perhaps, it is nothing more than that these are unfamiliar lands with unfamiliar storms.”

He stares at the fire for another moment before turning back to face her. “However, I can tell you that this storm feels angry and it means to linger.  The winds alone will make it too dangerous to travel in it and waiting it out will delay us more than the few days it will take for it to calm.  The roads will be mud and puddles for who knows how long after. That’s to say nothing of how many downed trees we will have to clear from our path.” Ignis gives her a small grin “And besides, if I have to stay here too much longer I’ll never get the stink of these folk out of my nose.”

“Perhaps it will be a storm from the other world; a storm that crosses the veil.”  Sai’Li muses, tapping a perfectly lacquered inch long blue fingernail against lips that sported matching lip color.  “While that might be a thing to witness it is indeed not something I wish to experience on the road.  Are you certain we will be able to avoid it if we begin our journey this morning?”

She looks out the window at the clear blue sky without a hint of cloud or wind showing just after the sun has chased away the night, trusting her Tiger’s innate weather sense in the face of what her own eyes suggest.  “Perhaps after a bit of tea.  Also, we must warn our allies here of the impending storm.  If it is as fierce as you sense then they must prepare themselves for it.”  She snaps her fingers, a sound almost a whip crack and a striking young man in a short kilt and tunic almost seems to appear at the door.  His face is not quite shining with admiration; he hides it well.

“My Lady Shirasiu?”  He inquires, bowing at a right angle and staying there.

“Please wake the others if you would be so kind Brynhild.  Prepare for them to break their fast in a quarter candlemark and inquire as to if Grandmother Mabel or Uncle Lufan would be willing to join us.”

Brynhild backed two steps before straightening and setting off at a run.  He really was such a good boy.

Ignis looks at the ivory and obsidian abacus, then back to Sai-Li.  “This is not a question of numbers, one can never be certain.”

“Certainty is more often created and believed than it truly exists my Tiger.”  She says, hiding a smile behind her fan.  “The numbers only lie if you make them do it; but they can and will without complaint when the time arises.  If you had been raised under the roof of my Honored Father you would understand that certainty is not certain and uncertainty is power.  All things can be turned to one’s advantage.”  She looks out at the brilliant sky again.  “All things.”

The sky above Burnholm is a bright blue and the sun just clearing the treetops from the east shines warm and bright.

I looks like it’s going to be a good day, but the people of Burnholm do not know what is coming. They do not know that anger and hatred and unending hunger come their way. It is drawn towards them like a shark to blood in the water, like a ghoul to a new corpse.

As morning chores get underway in the little town, the first strange thing the townsfolk notice is the number of large birds flying east this morning.  Stranger still, flocks of smaller birds are flying with haste, almost as if in pursuit of the larger more powerful birds.  When swarms of the wee Fay, the pixies the sprites and others, are seen flying with desperate speed above and around the town word is sent to Grandmother Mabel and Uncle Lufan perhaps the Elders can tell what is happening.

By the time they are found and told of the strange sightings, word from the wall comes where the watch reports movement in the trees. They claim to have seen herds of beasts moving quickly in the wood. But strangest of all is that it is both prey and predator moving together.  As they stand discussing one of the young men of town comes with word that the Lady Sai’li sends for the elders.

They both exchange a worried look perhaps the outlander knows something about these unnatural happenings. They quickly head for the Inn.

“I see by your faces that the news has reached you as well?” Sai’Li says from behind her fan, “Are you preparing the town? If you are waiting for this meeting, please do not fear insult of brevity, instead go and rally your folk to their tasks.”

“I would have you heard of the strange news we bring from those that have seen it.”  Grandmother Mabel says.  She gestures to the people who have come with her and they each give report of what they have seen.  When they finish she turns to Sai’li her head tilted a little to one side.

“Now child.” she says, “What do you know of what is happening?”

“A storm seems to be brewing.” Sai’Li folds her fan and her face is completely calm, “The exact nature of this event is unknown to me but I can tell you that it is unprecedented in nature. Perhaps from beyond the veil. I wanted to warn you of its approach that you might prepare yourselves for its arrival.”

Upon hearing her words Grandmother and Uncle exchange looks Uncle turns to Sai’L,i bows slightly turns and walks out of the room.  Grandmother turns to Sai’Li, “He will begin preparing as best he can. I hope we do not lose any more people. We have suffered so much since being taken across the veil.”  She smiles sadly, at the rembrance of those lost.

“If you are not familiar with a storm like this, then it is not likely from your world as I had hoped.  The most likely explanation then is that when our worlds were thrust together we had a storm from each world collide.  They must have fed off one another to become something new and more dangerous.”  Sai’Li says, “Excuse my rudeness would you care for tea?”

At Grandmother’s nod, she moves with elegant grace, sifting some bright green Matcha into a delicate porcelain cup and pouring hot water over it.  With a horse hair brush set in a carved wooden handle, she mixes and froths the tea before sliding it across the table to Grandmother Mabel on a matching saucer.  “Do not fear grandmother.”  She says, voice calm and reassuring.  “Your town is strong and your people stronger.  After all, as someone once said to me these predictions aren’t precise numerical formulae, they are intuition and what I have heard called an ‘educated guess’.  Perhaps we have a certain Dwarven survivalist who would wish to put her skills to the test and give us a report?”  Sai’Li suggests, giving Ignis a sidelong glance.

“After all, I know Nerata has been itching to show off.  Ah, of course I mean display her many skills and talents.”  Sai’Li says, taking a sip of tea.

Ignis lets out a deep chested hum of satisfaction.  “As much as I like that idea, it would mean staying here and waiting out the storm.  Also, it may prove to be.”  He pauses, giving her a considering stare, “Unprofitable for you.  Go or stay, the choice is yours to make.”

“I believe we can discern if this is indeed a weather event or something … other.”  Sai’Li takes the baby Elven Pine Starseeker gifted her with out and sets him on the table.  “What nears this place little one?  Is it storm or is it foe?”

The tiny figure moved and swayed, chattering in incoherent fear waving its branches.  After a few moments, Ignis shook his head.

“It says its mother’s Dryad Starseeker will meet us at the great oak in the town square.”  He said, turning and beginning to walk out of the room.

With a sigh, Sai’Li put down her teacup and rose, bowing slightly to Grandmother Mable before departing.

Kurien Alyemey

Crossbow bolts fell like deadly hail as Kurien ran down the street with a bag of coins clinking merrily at his belt.  The gold had been freely given, albeit under false pretenses, and he had no intention of giving it back.  He had sold the Lord of this Holding a batch of his ‘Famous Rejuvenating Elixir’ for an exorbitant amount of gold.  It was, of course, really worthless rotgut mixed with a few herbs to make it taste like medication, but how would the greedy old bastard ever learn his lesson if he didn’t pay for it?

He ducked under a bolt that would have punctured his skull, slipped sideways into an alley, put his back against the wall and got ready.  Pulling a dagger from his belt, he cut through a rope that held a stack of empty casks and sent them tumbling into the alleyway.

“Halt you thieving mongrel!”  One of the guards chasing him shouted.  “Come back with the Lord’s gold!”

When the guard came around the corner at a dead sprint, he collided with the tumbling barrels, crashing onto his face.  The second guard was running too fast and had to choose between stepping on his friend or hitting the barrels.  The first guard’s face made a funny squishing sound when it was mushed into the mud.

“Watch your step friends, these streets are slippery!”  Kurien said cheerfully, climbing up a nearby rain gutter to the third floor of a warehouse and vaulting into an open window.  A group of dangerous looking folk all turned to stare in his direction.  A case of something was open on a table between them and all of them were armed to the teeth.

“Raken, is this one of yours?”  A woman with a scar running across her left eye asked in an artificially casual drawl as her hand fell to the hilt of a nasty looking dagger at her belt.

“Jana, you know better, this punk isn’t attached to us.”  Raken said, giving Kurien a narrow glare.  “Although he might be your lackey.”

“Hey I’m just passing through, but The Lord’s Guard is hot on my trail.”  Kurien laughed, “Of course it’s all just a silly misunderstanding.  I didn’t mean to interrupt your er whatever this is.”

“Get him!”  Jana shouted, drawing her dagger.

Kurien struck a theatrical pose and a jangling guitar chord struck up from nowhere.  Jana’s dagger dropped from limp fingers and she stared at him with surprise clear on her face.  She made a calming gesture towards her ruffians as Kurien spread his hand wide.  “Come now friends, there’s no reason to hurt ME, I’m on YOUR side!”

The music continued and this time Raken relaxed, watching the half-elf as he almost danced through the room toward the door.  Kurien didn’t give the others the chance to decide to take matters into their own hands.

“Hey Boss… shouldn’t we be stopping him?”  One of the brighter ones asked.

“He’s fine.”  Raken and Jana said almost in unison.

“Hey wait a minute, that’s a spell!”  Another of the toughs yelled, but Kurien was already through the door and the guard was just struggling through the window.

Laughing merrily, he ran through the hallway, down a flight of stairs and out the door.  He pulled off the hat with its attached wig, stuffed it into a small pack and flipped his cloak so that the drab gray showed instead of the bright scarlet he had been wearing.  It hadn’t been much of a disguise in the first place but these idiots were easily fooled.

A young beggar sat a few streets down with a bowl that contained a single copper, looking up at him with hopeful eyes.  The poor girl was just skin and bone!  Kurien patted her on her grimy head and walked down the street casually, whistling a merry tune.  He was around the corner before she saw the handful of gold in her bowl.  It had been a wonderful day of fooling the so-called “Lord” of this city, and now it was time to redistribute his ill-gotten wealth among those who truly needed it.

Sai’Li plots during her recovery

Sai’Li sat in her bed in the Blossom House; having disdained going to any of the common healing areas.  Of course, part of her refusal was related to the disturbing rumors she had heard about this place.  Those rumors, she was sad to find, were substantiated.

The Madam here was lax in her enforcement, many of her people were ill-treated and the customer base didn’t seem to be screened at all.  The conditions were quite simply unacceptable.  A gentle knock at the door made her sit up and lean forward; senses questing.  She caught the faint scent of clove cologne.  Ah, good, it was Kay.  She let her robe slip down her shoulder another three inches, exposing an expanse of snow white skin.

“Please forgive the intrusion mistress, but it is once again time for your medication.”  He slid the door partially to one side, waiting for her permission before entering.  He really was such a good boy.

“Kay, my dear boy you know you need not knock at my door.  You are of course welcome in my presence at any time.”  She said, snapping her fan open in front of her face, “Please forgive my lack of decorum; I am in a bad state.”

“Nonsense my Lady.”  He said, blushing to the roots of his hair.  “You could never look anything less than absolutely splendid.”  Oh he really was such a dear.

“Sadly sweet Kay, this is hardly my most flattering pose.”  She said, sitting up straighter and accepting the glass of medicine from him.  At the same time, her robe artfully slid a few more finger widths down her shoulder.  His deepening blush was most gratifying.

“My Lady, please allow me.”  He pulled up the coverlet to her chin, but as he moved in she leaned forward and pressed her lips to his.  The kiss was sweet, made even more so by his surprise and lack of expertise.  This really was too easy.

“Darling Kay, I hear there are some irregularities in this House?”  She said, parting their lips and accepting the glass from him.  When he attempted to withdraw, her other arm snaked around his waist and pulled him to sit on the bed.

“Uh, My Lady…” He began, but she silenced him with another kiss.

“There is no need to be so formal sweeting.”  She purred, pulling him closer.  “You know that those of us who have shared intimate passion need not stand on formality.”  Although she hadn’t thought it possible, he blushed deeper.  He really was too adorable.

“Please, I am not worthy…”  He began.

“Of course you are not worthy little mouse.”  She said, lightly biting his neck.  “Your worthiness was never the question.  The simple matter of you not being worthy shouldn’t be an impediment to you striving to become worthy.”

“I – uh – “ He struggled, trying to form words.

“Hush now.”  She said, “First we can enjoy ourselves and then you can tell me everything I want to know.”

“My Lady!”  He protested, but it was halfhearted.  The eager smile on his face belied the supposed objection.

An all too brief time later, she relaxed in her bed, enjoying a pipe of tac and listening to the gentle breathing of her companion as he slept beside her.  Mortals really were all too easily exhausted.  He had told her some very useful information however; information she intended to use.

Slipping out of bed, she put on her kimono, sliding her arms into the sleeves and touching the magic contained within to summon dark green and black silk to cover her body.  Kay muttered and rolled over in his sleep, but she snuck out of the room before he had fully awakened.

Although the illness still caused her pain, she knew she would be up to the task of dealing with such an irrelevant and unimportant figure as a Madam who had forgotten her obligations.  She walked down a hallway and climbed the stairs behind the standard secret door at the end of the second floor corridor.

“Who dares disturb my rest?”  A petulant voice shouted somewhere ahead.  “If you cannot find the initiative to handle such trivial matters on your own then you deserve the treatment you receive!”

A young woman came running down the corridor, tears streaming from her eyes and a grim angry expression on her face.  Sai’Li caught her sleeve, “Please young mistress, allow me to be of assistance.”  She said, her eyes shining with the glimmer of intrigue.

“You can’t help me.”  She said bitterly, “I have displeased the Madam and her rule is law.”

Sai’Li inclined her head slightly, “I was referring to resolving whatever the little issue you came to her about.  One as lowly and insignificant as myself can hardly be expected to solve a problem of politics here, but I will do anything I can to assist.  After all, I believe you were one of those who assisted in tending me through my recent indisposition.”

“It is nothing.  I have some training in the medical arts that do not revolve around magical healing.”  She ducked her head, bowing with her hands on her thighs, the perfect image of poise and civility.  “I apologize that the Madam would not authorize a more competent caretaker.”

“Please, if you would join me for some tea?”  Sai’Li asked, seeing the steel and simmering anger just below the surface.  “I would take it as a personal favor if you would allow me to serve you a cup of my best smoked Matcha.”

After a moment of studying Sai’Li’s face, she bowed deeper. “I would be honored My Lady.” She said, leading Sai’Li back to her room.  Upon entering, Sai’Li carefully scrutinized the room’s walls, looking for the watchers that dear Kay had told her might be lurking.  They were thankfully absent at this late hour.

Once they knelt at the low lacquered table in a tiny sitting room, Sai’Li withdrew ingredients from her enscrolled silk purse.  Humming in satisfaction, she began carefully mixing the tea powder and warm water with a fine horse hair brush in delicate porcelain cups.  “Now please, tell me your name and your troubles my dear.”

“I am called Rinna.”  She said, accepting the cup. “My lady, there truly is nothing you can do to help me I am afraid.”

“Oh little Rinna, what you say is partially true.”  Sai’Li said, “But only while she is Madam.  If another was to take her place things would be quite different would they not?”

The other woman gasped, looking wildly around at the walls.  Sai’Li waved a calming hand, snapping her fan open in front of her face.  “I believe us to be alone, but of course I was only speaking in the hypothetical little sister.”  She said with a smile hidden by the painted silk of her fan.  “One would never be so irreverent as to propose a coup so openly.”

“I have a repeat customer, a local businessman.  He does not follow the protocols, subjecting me to treatment that is outside the proper guidelines.”  She pulled up her sleeve slightly, revealing a bruised wrist.  “I am not skilled in any arts that would allow me to defend myself, and the guards are under orders to obey only the Madam.”

“Ah.  Well that is something easily remedied.”  Sai’Li said with a smile that was the barest crinkle around the corners of her eyes.  “Please, hand me two of your hair pins and enjoy your tea.”

Rinna gave her a confused look, but did as she asked.  Running first one, and then another of the delicate steel pins through her fingers.  The venom that flowed through her body slid from the pores of her fingertips, coating each of them with deadly poison.

Sai’Li sat back and drank her tea, thinking about how the Blossom Houses kept order.  Mostly this bylaw of their code was a good thing.  It kept individuals from starting uprisings unnecessarily, but in cases like this one it had allowed things to go too far.  Her course of action was clear.

“Now my darling Rinna, all you need do is wait until the subject in question returns and attempts to take advantage of your Madam’s laxities.  One little scratch from one of these pins and he will shortly become too weak to even lift his own flabby limbs.  Then you are free to do with him as you choose.

“Keep in mind they will only work once.”  She said, carefully sliding them across the table.  “I am giving you two on the off chance that he is strong enough to resist a first attempt.  If the first one works, then perhaps you might find another use for the second one.”

Confident that these seeds would bear excellent fruit, Sai’Li enjoyed the rest of her tea, chatting idly about trade, politics, and fashion.  This particular Blossom House would soon be under new management.  Management that would be most certainly be friendly to her and the criminal empire she was planning on constructing.

Shirasiau Sai’Li – Part 2

Sai’Li tried to weigh her options.  On one hand, she was being evicted from the soft and wonderfully enticing life in the Blossom Houses but it would also free her from the rigors of her training and allow her to use the other talents she had been so carefully cultivating.  They had grown like one of the bonsai trees she had been tending for decades, the power they contained having been distilled into absolute perfection.

“I can create my own empire.”  She whispered to her reflection, “Father has honored me with this chance to prove myself.”

The mirrors she kept in her room to remind herself of her own existence.  Of her own mortality.  Of the fact that she was not precisely mortal, but much more so than her honored father.  His vampiric nature had given her unnatural gifts, and unnatural weaknesses.  She would find a way around it though, she must if she was to make her way in the world.

Perhaps that was her father’s goal.  Perhaps he wished her to overcome her weaknesses and establish herself in a position he could respect.  Of course it was much more likely that he merely wanted to weed out the weak.   That was likely why her sisters had been overlooked for this position.

Lian’Tiu was a full blood vampire, gleefully feasting upon the blood of the cattle and expanding the Family’s influence in any number of remarkable ways.  Rian’Zah was a half-blood like herself, but she had not been consigned to The Blossom Houses.  Of course Rian’Zah hadn’t taken well to the embrace of the mortals.  After the first two clients ended up horribly dead, her dear father had decided against such an assignment.

Sai’Li was the only one of his daughters who had been able to endure and eventually come to crave such contact.  Unlike her sisters, she had found the touch of mortals to be more than enticing.  It had become like a drug, the warmth their bodies could give bringing her back to the dancing, the shows and the seduction time after time.  And she was good at it.

Over the decades, her skill in the Houses had brought many secrets to her Family and well had she been rewarded for it.  But now she had begun to feel restless.  After a century of such work, Sai’Li had begun wishing for more.  The outside world was calling and now she had a chance to answer that call.

“Sha.  I require the Obi with the breaking wave.  Ling.  The Kimono with the ravens.”  She smiled, and for the first time her maidservants saw that smile spread to her eyes.  It was terrifying.  She moved behind her dressing screen and opened her top left bureau drawer.

“Pardon Lady, but your Honored Father has given you a gift.  It was his wish that you receive it upon returning to your chambers.”  Sha bowed low, holding a box wrapped with a silk ribbon forward.

Sai’Li took the package and found a pair of shimmering and nearly transparent kimono sleeves.  A note written in her father’s delicate and precise Kanji read ‘So that my Third Daughter may never be without the proper attire.’  She ran a hand over them and felt the thrill of magic running through them, begging to be attuned to her body.

Shivering, she drew on the sleeves and found that with an effort of will she could clothe herself in garb of her choosing.  The fabric whispered up over her body, forming into a perfectly fitting Kimono in pure white with an intricately embroidered pattern of ravens taking flight from a grove of blooming Sakura trees.  The Obi was an elegant grey and embroidered with her favorite traditional Great Wave pattern.

“Oh.”  She said softly, even that small of an expression being almost as outrageous as a shout.  For some this gift might seem frivolous, but for her it was beyond perfect.  Beneath the cloth was another piece of parchment and a small silk pouch.  ‘To ensure that my Third Daughter will complete her mission and honor her house in spite of mishap.’

Inside was a delicate bit of bone as thin as her finger and carved with swirling patterns.  It was a wand that she could use to restore what passed for her life force.  As she was not a full vampire, injuries to her person could not be restored by feasting on the blood of the masses, but the divine light of healing magic burned her flesh even as it burned the true undead.  Snapping open her fan, she quickly covered her face as she was unable to keep the broad smile from it.  This was proof positive that her honored Father wished her to succeed.

“Sha.  Ling.  You have served me with honor and dedication.”  She said from behind her fan, “I release you from your bondage of servitude with a gift of one thousand pieces of silver which I have placed in the top left drawer of my bureau.  Upon my honor, you are free to leave and make lives for yourselves.  Take back your names and depart this night with my blessing.  I fear I must begin learning to survive without attendants.”

The pair bowed low in unison without a single hint of regret, gratitude or relief.  Sai’Li sighed in regret behind her fan.  They truly were perfect servants, but there simply was not a place for them where she was going.  Such delicate flowers needed careful tending, she hoped they would find meaningful placement.  She would not speak to Father about that; he knew all too well how to take advantage of such things and she owed them at least a chance at freedom.

“My Lady, it pains us to leave your service.”  They said together, “However we are grateful that you have thought of our future.  We shall find a place and await your return.  We are loyal to your ladyship and the family.  If it was allowed we would accompany you, however we understand that we would be nothing but an impediment.  Please accept our apologies for not being worthy to serve you outside.”

She bowed in return, although hers was not nearly as deep.  “You honor me with your devotion.  Such dedication is more than admirable, it is deserving of a boon.  Name it and if it be within my power I shall grant it.”

“We require nothing.” Whispered Sha.

“Only to serve.”  Whispered Ling.

Sai’Li closed her fan and moved closer.  She kissed and embraced each of them, giving them a genuine smile.  “I feel undeserving of such praise.  I will make every effort to become worthy of it.  This I swear by my family’s honor and by my black heart.”

“We know when you call upon us that you will be a power to make the world tremble Lady.”  They said in unison, bowing so low that they bent double.

“I will recommend you to The House of Falling Sakura as attendants to the Madam.”  Sai’Li said, “You are loyal, perfect servants with stricture that you be returned to me upon successful completion of my tasks for the Family.  I can offer no higher praise to those in my service.”

“You are too kind my Lady.” They responded in unison, bowing so deeply their heads nearly touched the floor.

“My dears please.”  She implored them, “You honor me too much.”

“It is you who honors us Great Lady.”  Sha whispered.  “I am and will forever be Sha.”

“You have given us nothing but treatment above our station.”  Ling whispered.  “I am and forever will be Ling.”

“We live only to serve the Great Lady.”  They whispered in unison.

“Speak of this devotion to no one.”  Sai’Li cautioned, overcome with emotion at their words.  “It may be more than your lives are worth my children.  I welcome and will not betray your loyalty.”

Shirasiau Sai’Li

Shirasiau Sai’Li stood before the mirror in her dressing room, water dripping from her naked body as two attendants came to dry her with soft felted towels and powder her skin with talc.  She allowed her eyes to drift over the curves of her body and smiled in satisfaction.  She was perfect. The balance of beauty, grace and strength that had been achieved through countless hours of practice and training.

“Sha.   The dark blue eye makeup, ivory face paint and black lip covering today.”  She gestured with a hand that had inch long lacquered fingernails.  “Ling.  I desire the Kimono with the scenes of ocean.  The gray, seafoam green, surf blue and white.”

The two women retreated silently and returned with the requested accoutrements within a few moments.  They likely had anticipated her mood; good servants always did.  Oh how she would miss her servants.  After a half candlemark, she was dressed to her satisfaction and holding her parasol demurely in one hand as she descended the stairs to have tea with her father.

“My little Sai’Li.”  Shirasiau Kanimari, the Lord of the Silk Fortress and Master of the Saffron Trading Company greeted her with a smile that did not touch his eyes.  “How does my Third Daughter fare this morning?”

“I am well Father.”  She said with a formal bow.  “Please allow me to make the tea.”

Without waiting, she tucked her parasol into her Obi, moved to the sideboard and poured boiling water into a small cup, spooned the tea powder into it and whipped it into a froth.  She brought two warm cups of tea with a tall cone of froth, demurely sliding one of the cups across the table to him before kneeling on the tatami on her side of the table.

For a time, all was normal.  the beautiful birds in the garden outside sang, a soft breeze blew the scent of flowering trees into the room and Sai’Li savored the complex flavor of her tea.  Then her father interrupted the silence.

“I have a mission for you Third Daughter.  Our holdings are in danger now that this new land has appeared.”  Kanimari took up his cup and sipped, sighing in pure satisfaction, “As much as it pains me, this means one of my children must go forth and forge new pathways, set up new contacts and represent our Family.”

Sai’Li’s tea sat getting cold on the tabletop and she stared at him for a few heartbeats.  “Father you cannot mean-“

His hand slammed down on the tabletop, not hard enough to make the cups jump but with the open flat striking like a thunderclap.  “I will have obedience from my children.”  He remarked calmly, taking another sip of tea.

Her lower lip trembled even though she tried to stop it, “Father, how have I upset you?  What have I done to disappoint you?”

“Sai’Li, my darling, you have done nothing to upset or disappoint me.”  He said, taking another drink of his tea.  “I have chosen you because of your exceptional skill.”

The door opened and a servant walked carefully through it, holding a tray with bowls of Miso soup and sticky rice.  He set it on the table and began to bow and retreat.  Something caught Sai’Li’s attention and she moved a hand faster than the blink of an eye, taking her fan from the front of her Obi and striking him on the wrist.

A dagger clattered to the floor at his feet as he shrieked in pain as the razor edges the fan was tipped with sliced effortlessly through his flesh.  Green bubbling foam rose from the wound and the servant fell twitching to the floor.  Within a few moments, he was dead.

“Father.  This is most uncouth.”  Sai’Li said, standing, opening her fan in front of her mouth and giving him a look of mild reproach.  “I must insist that this kind of behavior be reserved for after morning tea.”

Kanimari laughed, a genuine and pleased sound.  “Now you see Third Daughter why I wish you to be our emissary on this mission.  Not only are you clever, you also have the reflexes and mercy of a hunting cobra.  You struck without hesitation and killed without question.”

“But father.  The rugged outdoors?  How will I survive?”  Her voice grew slightly desperate, “You do not really expect me to walk among savages and sleep on the ground?”

“I have of course taken care of that.”  He said with a wry smile.  “Ignis has agreed to be your escort, and I am sure we can find you a pavilion to sleep in.”

Sai’Li folded onto a couch with the delicate grace of a shower of Sakura petals.  “Honored father, you surely cannot mean it.  The scarred Dwarf?  The arsonist?  The crude one?”

“Kanimari, you didn’t mention she was such a prissy whelp.”  Ignis strode into the room accompanied by the smell of old smoke.  “Don’t expect we’ll be traveling much roads, not sure a pavilion or such a delicate flower will be able to manage. Gah, I’ll be making my favor owed a good one for this task.”

Kanimari’s eyes narrowed for a moment at the use of his given name, but… the Dwarf hadn’t given offense intentionally.  Or if he had, it was a calculated risk to show the depth of the favor he was expecting.

“I believe our conversation regarding the safety and security of wild areas was included in the risk and compensation analysis?”  He said, making a minute gesture with his hand.  “Please, won’t you sit?”

Sai’Li saw it and rose silently and gracefully from where she had reclined.  With a whisper of silk, she fixed another cup of tea.  Intuitively, she chose the Dragonfire tea, the sharpest flavor that had been roasted until it was heavy with smoke and bitter as an adder’s sting.

Ignis stumped around the table, nearly tripped over the dead body and paused, raising an eyebrow at Kanimari.  The man’s lips rose in a very slight smile that did not touch his eyes.

“An unfortunate accident.  This fool thought perhaps he might try and sink a knife into my Third Daughter’s back when she was not looking.  As you can see, though she may be a delicate flower, her thorns are long and sharp.

“These new and uncharted lands have great potential for development.”  Kanimari continued, “Of course you will wish to mitigate that development and secure some unspoiled land, perhaps to set up a new Circle since I have heard rumors that you were cast out of yours?”

Ignis grunted, snatching the porcelain cup of tea from the table as soon as Sai’Li put it down and tossing it back without tasting it.  She stared at him, horrified, but said nothing.

“Someday you’re gonna have to tell me who keeps feeding you these juicy tidbits.”  He said holding his cup out to Sai’Li as though he expected her to simply pour more tea into it.  At a gesture from Kanimari, she took it and prepared a second cup.  Despite the way he was treating her tea, the ceremony was sacred and she made a second perfect cup.

“If you pause to appreciate the complexity of this blend friend Dwarf, you may discover it has characters you admire.”  Sai’Li said as she set the tea on the table next to Ignis.

He took a mouthful and swished it around before swallowing.  “All I taste is smoke.  But of course, I was just out in a big fire in … well I don’t need to get into that do I?”

“Honored father, if I may I must retire to prepare for my exile.”  Sai’Li said mournfully, “With your permission I will withdraw that I may ready my things and put my affairs in order.

“Third Daughter, I have something for you before you depart.”  Kanimari said, his smile touched the corner of his eyes this time as he extended an envelope on a silver tray.

She took it, broke the seal with a lacquered nail and read it carefully.  Her eyes widened slightly; something that was as good as a startled shout in her family and she snapped her fan open in front of her face to hide the brief flash of emotion.

“You honor me father.  I shall, as always, endeavor to do my best to ensure the best interests of the Family and Saffron Trading are well represented.”  She bowed and backed up three paces before withdrawing.

Kanimari chuckled, a mirthless sound.  “Her sisters will be furious of course.”  He remarked to Ignis.

“I don’t give a wet rat for your family politics.”  The Dwarf said, drinking the rest of his tea in a gulp.  “You got that contract?”

Kanimari laughed again and produced a roll of parchment with a long and carefully worded contract on it.  With an effort of will, Ignis gestured, and the parchment vanished in a flash of flame and smoke.

“You got my word.  If that ain’t enough for ya then flame burn your thrice cursed mission to ash.”

The man snapped his fingers twice, his eyes not leaving the Dwarf’s face.  Servants came in to clean the table top with lavender scented water and another brought a small ramekin of steaming water with a slender ceramic jar inside.  Two tiny cups accompanied it.

“I had planned for this contingency of course.”  He said calmly, “We will seal the contract in a more traditional and Dwarven way.  With our word and with a drink.  I trust that hot sake will be acceptable?”

Kaleb Bargains With Elvish Nobility

The door to Kaleb’s shop was swept open and an imperious woman in an intricately embroidered silk gown looked around with a skeptical expression on her face.  She had the dusky golden skin and dark eyes of a Sun Elf and striking, nearly metallic copper hair.  The Goblin Tek smiled a toothy grin from behind the counter.

“Welcome Lady.  How may we be helpful today?”

“Sand and sun!” She took a half step back, snapping a fan open to cover her face.  “It talks!”

“Can I help you?”  Kaleb asked, walking from the workshop and dusting wood shavings off his trousers.

“Perhaps.”  She said, still holding the silk and lace fan in front of her face and eyeing the pair of them dubiously.  “I was looking for a Thiefcatcher, but I think perhaps this is the wrong location.  My Lady has no need for furniture or wood carvings.”

“Carpentry is the family business.”  Kaleb said, giving her a level look.  “The other is my own.  I do have a board at The Wandering Wyvern for folk to leave me messages in addition to a box at the Guildhall.”

“My Lady requires service as befits her rank.”  The woman said loftily, “I am Lady Taryngail’s personal assistant.”

When Kaleb continued to look at her with a blank expression and she snapped her fan shut in agitation.  “Surely there is a more appropriate place we could discuss our business.”  She said with a significant look at Tek.  “Perhaps you would be so kind as to accompany me back to my Lady’s lodgings?”

Kaleb recalled the contingent of wealthy and powerful Elves from Denoria who had established a trade with the hotter desert and jungle regions of the Eastern realms.  They were a haughty and entitled bunch, but they had brought a significant amount of money into Lanthodell and their trade partners were valued by nearly everyone in the city.

He sighed inwardly, preparing to be obsequious. “If it please you, leave your Lady’s card here and I shall call upon her once I have made myself presentable enough to enter into her presence without giving offense.”

Noting with satisfaction the surprised expression on the woman’s face he accepted the lacquered wooden card from her, showed her to the door and went to change out of his simple trousers and leather smock.  While these wealthy folk were a pain to deal with, they did at least pay well.

A candlemark later, he presented the card to a different golden skinned silk clad woman who opened the door. She looked at him briefly before leading him to a waiting room without a word. An array of preserved delicacies was on the room’s sideboard along with a selection of liquors and wines. He ignored all, choosing to stand in an unobtrusive place where he could see all three doors in the room.

A tedious half candle later, Kaleb was considering leaving when a door other than the one he had entered through swung gently open. A tall, willow thin elf with skin a dark reddish gold and hair a myriad of pure white braids the size of his little finger each tipped with a tiny bell wrought from platinum each in the shape of a different animal stepped through it.

She wore a gossamer black veil that covered her below the eyes, and flowing silken robes of an indigo blue that was breathtaking in its intensity. Jet black tattoos swirled over her wrists, ending in elegant runic symbols of power. Her eyes shone with a gentle azure light that trailed out from them in strange lines like the trail the light of a fast-moving torch leaves across the eye in the middle of the night.

Her handmaiden entered behind her, moving quickly to the sideboard and pouring her a narrow fluted glass of emerald green liquor. The Lady Taryngail glided to a chair next to the roaring hearth and sat. “Be sitting if it does please you Thiefcatcher Stoughtbough.” She said, her breath making her veil move ever so slightly. “It would be quite of politeness if you would accept refreshment of my house.”

“Water please.” Kaleb said, moving to sit on the other side of the fire from the lady. Her handmaiden filled a glass with clear water from a pitcher and set it on the small table beside the Halfling. He politely touched it to his lips, not taking a sip. “What have you lost and who has taken it from you?”

She took a delicate taste of her liquor, sipping it through a thin glass straw and looking at him with those eyes that dribbled tiny motes of blue light seemingly at random now that she was seated. “Much with blunt speech have these folk. It is not the ideal of mine to allow such things to be stated so plainly. Perhaps the Nobility of Feycourts have tainted this one’s mannerisms, however it does seem you are lacking in the trust.”

Standing with fluid grace she gestured towards her handmaiden who brought her a small loaf of bread, a dish of dark and pungent vinegar, a small saucer of sea salt and a dish of amber oil. The Lady moved her wrist in the subtlest of motions and a tiny silver knife appeared in it. Cutting a slice from the loaf, she dipped it first in the oil, the vinegar and then the salt. Splitting the bread down the center, she offered him her two hands.

“You are guesting in my tent. I am making the offering of peace. You are safety within these walls, my word and my bread upon it.”

Kaleb took the bread from her right hand and she immediately put the other slice of bread into her mouth, sliding it under her diaphanous veil with practiced ease. He did the same, and followed the complex, flavor of oil, vinegar and salt with a sip of water. The water was not simple or plain either; having flavors of minerals he had not experienced.

“Your choosing of water accentuates the knowledge of our ways.” She said, raising her glass. “Although the sipping of the fermented waters of the cactus would have shown even more.”

“Without knowing what you’ve lost or who has taken it Lady, I haven’t any way of being able to recover it for you.” Kaleb said, “I trust this ritual to mean you have extended trust to me and accepted mine in return. If I choose not to take the job you have my word I will not reveal anything you have told me to anyone.”

“Yes.” Lady Taryngail said with a nod of her head, “My Blademaster finding himself set upon in street while doing the guarding of one of the treasures of the house. This treasure was being in an iron chest of the size of this.” She held her hands in a shape the size of a loaf of bread.

“Who took it? Where was the theft perpetrated?” Kaleb took another drink of water, surprised by the flavor it had once again. “Have you notified the proper authorities?”

“The master of swords was laid low by deceitful poisons injected by projectiles in the city of Desigoringaraitarial. Known by your folk by the name of Denoria.” Her eyes narrowed, “Guardsman having failed, the matter being brought to Thiefcatcher.”

“What do you offer for compensation?” Kaleb deftly sliced another piece of bread; it really was quite good.

“Upon recovering of the thing lost ten thousand coins of gold would be given.” She said in an offhanded tone, as though the money was irrelevant.

“Ten thousand?” Even though he was prepared for something extravagant based on the opulence of the house and the obvious danger involved, Kaleb nearly dropped his bread. He had been working for five years to build up his shop and hadn’t earned that much profit.

“I requiring the thieving dreksa and returning of the property.” The lights of her eyes glittered dangerously, arcing small stars that crackled when they touched a surface and leaving tiny black marks. “Questions beg the answering.”

Kaleb swallowed hard, “I will attempt to find the perpetrator and your stolen property, however taking prisoners is not always possible in this business. I do not want to promise something I cannot be certain of being able to deliver.”

“Fifteen thousand if captured living. Ten if killed and treasure recovered.” She drank the last of her liquor, “Are you accepting of this requested offer of employment?”

Kaleb’s eyes narrowed, “May I ask a direct question?”

“Why would you be changing how you have been speaking?” The Lady said, carelessly moving her hand to one side and dropping her glass. Her Handmaiden smoothly caught the delicate crystal before it had fallen more than a finger length, set it aside and filled a clean glass with pale pink liquid from another decanter and handing it back.

Kaleb caught the intentional scrutiny in her eyes when he met them. “I have two questions before I decide. Why did you pick me? Certainly there would have been people in Denoria who could have handled this for you. I need to know that and I want to know what is in the box.”

“You were selected for being recommended highly and for not being of Denoria. I am trusting you are not involved. You are to be recovering the iron casket intact. If it is opened then recovering it would be unnecessary.” She sipped her drink and he watched the pale liquid travel up the glass straw to vanish beneath her veil.

“What if I travel to Denoria and either can’t find this person or find the package has been opened?” Kaleb asked, “It’ll take weeks to get there and –“

She cut him off with a sharp motion of her hand. “Matters of cost are not being worthy of my time. Your expendings shall be handled. Are you catching my thief or are we looking elsewhere?”

“I will need more information about the crime, the article taken and the location.” Kaleb said, “But yes, I accept.”

Lady Taryngail nodded in satisfaction, stood and swept from the room without giving him another glance. The flickering blue lights at the corners of her eyes left trails of sparks in the air and an exotic perfume.

“I can answer any questions you might have.” Her handmaiden said, “I am acquainted well with the details of the artifact and the theft.”

By the time Kaleb had gotten all the information he believed he needed, he knew that he wasn’t going to be able to do this alone. The skeptical, analytical part of him bereted him for even considering accepting the job. The thief catcher in him was ecstatic at the challenge.

Gravelox and Gearslayer

Just another gaming character intro.  I know… seems like with all these games I’m playing I probably don’t have time to write, work, sleep… but hell, let’s just say I’d rather be gaming!  Besides, I need more little inspirational outlets, otherwise I’ll get stuck with the dreaded writer’s block.  Or have to admit that I’m stuck on some of my other stories.  Whatever.  Here’s some steampunk inspired fantasy fiction.  Hope you enjoy it.

Gravelox grumbled as he struggled to loosen one of the bolts on Gearslayer.  The adjustable spanner in his hand gripped the heavy iron hexagon in its steel jaws and the gnome hauled on it with a grunt of effort.  The rusted bolt shrieked as it twisted, the only warning that it was suddenly loosening and he very nearly split his knuckles on the construct’s thick leg.

“Blasted rain storm caught us out too long.”  He muttered, “Didn’t have time to clean and dry you off after that idiot Verlak and his blasted orcs forced us to mush ‘em into paste.  Blood gets into the joints and seizes things up.”

The bolt came all the way free and Gearslayer’s leg moved sideways, revealing half an orc’s torso that had gotten crammed into the massive iron scorpion’s leg joint near where it connected to the body.  The orc’s ax was tangled in the cabling there as well and was fouling the motion of the limb.

“Scummer and murrain, the pox take those crow’s eaten green skinned yellow livered inbred slugs!  One joke about the possibility of their mothers breeding with tusked slugs and they get all bent out of shape.”  With the assistance of a pry bar, he began levering the orc free from where it had been mangled into the leg joint.  “Sparkplug, a bit of light over here if you please!  I need the contrast of color to be able to see where to – oof – pry.”

With a soft hum and buzz, a mechanical lightning bug the size of the Gnome’s doubled fists flitted over on thinly stamped Mithril wings to land on Gearslayer’s side and light began to shine from his posterior.  After a few moments of careful prying, the orc’s helmeted skull popped free and the creature fell to the floor with a sickening splatter.

“Rust and ruin I’m going to have to release this cable and re-string it.  This poxy rat of a shoddy ax is crammed in here too tight.”  He busied himself with more spanners, pliers, lubricants and got the cable loosened.  The ax fell, but the gnome’s ears twitched in agitation when he saw that the blade had shorn through half the thick strands of steel.

“Good thing Verlak had some coin on him.”  Gravelox muttered darkly, “This is going to cost me more gold and you’ll be on five legs until I can get a new cable made.”

He shuffled back into the interior of his workshop, past the steam hammer and forge to his desk.  Pulling a pencil from his apron pocket, he sharpened it and scribbled an order with precise tensile strength, diameter and length down on it.

“Sparkplug, I need you to take this to Drandlain’s Ironworks.”  He said, folding the parchment and sealing it with a blob of dark green sealing wax.  “Tell her to deliver it.  And to hurry.  I’m far too busy to be mucking about leaving my shop and engaging in any more tomfoolery of the sort that pox ridden Verlak likes to engage in.  Not that he’ll be troubling anyone anymore eh?  EH?”  Chuckling at his own joke, the Gnome slid the message into his mechanized familiar’s message tube and sent it buzzing on its way.

Gravelox looked around his workshop and sighed.  So many projects he had started and not finished.  So many failures that had nearly ended in death.  So many years of study and research.  Finally, his project was finished.  Predictably, just when his masterpiece was going out for its walkabout, that big jerk had to pick a fight.

He scratched idly at the spot just behind his right ear where his skull was still healing around the steel shunt that plugged into his brain.  Although the others had all said he was insane for drilling holes in his head for the sake of his research, he sure had showed them!  Or he would.  Once things were ready.

“Pressure.  Just like the engine in Wrenn’s ship.”  He muttered.  “But not with the same kind of propellant.  Don’t like that hydrogen.  No booms.  That’s why I use heat, pressure, proper applications of springs, cams and cables, clockwork and just a touch of aethercrafting.  That’s why you’re my masterpiece.”

Gearslayer rattled its metal mandibles in response and Gravelox felt satisfied amusement in his head.  The same device that gave him access to control the metal monster without words or gestures also allowed its collection of gears, wires, crystals and aethercraft to respond with vague emotions and sometimes with single syllable words.  He smiled, thinking about how shocked his naysayers would be.

“Just like I said, once it’s awakened my dear little pet can think!  A thinking machine.”  His grin spread wider, “I think I’m only a few steps away from proving my theory about the former existence of the sentient steel creatures called Warforged that I found reference to in several historical texts.  It’s only a matter of time, eh Gearslayer?”

The metal construct tapped at the workshop floor with a foreleg as though impatient.  Gravelox chuckled, feeling his friend’s anticipation of things to come.

“Yes, while I’m waiting for that replacement cable perhaps I will finish your tail and its injectors hmm?”  He moved to his workbench where a rotating set of copper cylinders sat next to an apparatus with a sturdy, retractable needle.  Fiddling with his aether powered brazing torch he brought it to a fine point, heating the copper, brass and glass tubing so it could be twisted into the proper shape and soldered together.  Humming quietly to himself, he continued to work long into the night.

It was most of a week before the replacement cable came in.  During that time, Gravelox began playing with other high-pressure systems.  With the addition of aethercraft, he had constructed a modified bolt thrower that could outperform any crossbow.  The biggest advantage it offered, other than being more compact and being able to throw a much heavier missile, was the rotating cartridge that he had modeled after Gearslayer’s tail injector.

By spinning the machined steel tubes, he could fire a dozen shots as rapidly as any archer with a bow without sacrificing the accuracy and compact size of a crossbow.  Also, he could choose certain bolts and load them in certain barrels to be able to choose blunt, armor piercing or regular broad heads swiftly.  He chuckled in satisfaction after firing a series of practice bolts into a target across the workshop.

“Oh this will be perfect!”  He said.  Gearslayer clattered his front claws in derision.  “Of course you can cut them apart or mush them into paste, but I would rather not get that close unless absolutely necessary.”

Drandlin knocked on his front door.  He knew it was her because only that irascible Dwarf knocked instead of using the bell pull.  She always claimed to have forgotten, but he suspected she just liked to punch things.  Setting down his … bolt thrower?  He was going to have to come up with a clever name for it… Gravelox hurried to answer the door.

“Got yer bedamned cable.”  Drandlin grated, turning her head to spit a stream of tobacco juice into the alley behind his workshop.  “The hell’d you do to break the last one I sent ya?  Coulda lifted this pile of rat droppings you call a workshop with it.”

“Ah.  It got cut.  Maybe there was a flaw in it.”  Gravelox said, then had to duck another stream of tobacco juice as Drandlin aimed one at his face.  “I was only joking!”

“Yer sense a humor’s gonna get ya splattered onea these days gnome.”  She said.  “Where ya want this cable then?”

Gearslayer had come up behind Gravelox with far more stealth than a metal beast ought to be able, especially with one of his legs removed, and he reached over their heads to pluck the cable from the cart with its huge crushing claw.  Drandlin gaped as Gearslayer retreated back into the workshop.

“Just a few repairs.”  Gravelox said, and shut the door in her face.  Having the last word really was one of the best jokes ever.

The Death of Flinder Quickfingers

Flinder ran like he had never run before.  It wasn’t supposed to have gone like this; it was a simple job, a quick hit and run with a payout that should have made him look twice but it was for a nobleman and they never knew how much something like this was worth.  Sweat poured down his face as he thought about how wrong things had gone.

Their target hadn’t been a simple merchant; he had been some kind of blademaster.  He fought like a demon and had killed three of Flinder’s crew before the gnome had managed to hit him with enough poisoned crossbow bolts that he had fallen to the cobblestones, paralyzed.  Flinder was far too smart to kill a mark; stealing was one thing, but murder always brought more trouble than any fee was worth.

He had gone personally to recover the merchandise from the carriage.  It was supposed to have been in a small, easily movable iron casket, instead there was a series of strong boxes that had to be individually unlocked.  Every one of them had some sort of trap on it and he only very nearly avoided being poisoned by a particularly nasty needle trap on the last one.

The extra time meant that his crew was fighting the watch off by the time he finally got the casket open.  It was only by luck that he managed to slip through a sewer grate and run before the last of his muscle was overwhelmed.  Then the rats had started running from him.

It wasn’t just the normal running away from a threat, it was a panicked rush of animals that were terrified.  Something was inside the small iron casket.  Something dangerous.  Flinder had no desire to open it and now he just wanted to escape.  But he didn’t dare abandon the job.  If someone wanted this, they were powerful enough mete out retribution if he didn’t come through.

He stopped, his back against the wall and tried to quiet his breathing.  Removing his haversack, he placed the casket carefully inside, making sure to snuggle it between the layers of dirty clothes he had packed inside.  Making sure his hand crossbow was cocked and loaded with another paralytic bolt, he secured it out of sight beneath his rags and slipped out of the sewer into the bustling basement of the laundress’s shop.  This wasn’t the first time Flinder had made use of the slip me out here.  Best ten gold he had ever spent.

Stepping out into torch lit streets, the gnome almost walked straight into the night watchman who was waiting for him.  Maintaining his guise as a rag picker, he squinted at the man and bobbed his head.  “Apologies sirrah, didn’t see ya sirrah, old eyes ain’t what they were sirrah.”

“Flinder Quickfingers.”  He said, his eyes hard.  “Come with me.  We have business to discuss.”

Flinder looked at him for a moment and the man’s gaze was unsettling.  The game was up.  Cursing his luck and cursing the laundress for probably selling him out, Flinder looked for an escape while reaching beneath his rags for his crossbow. He never saw the rope that circled around his neck.

When he regained consciousness, Flinder looked around dazedly.  He was in a prison cell that was apparently built into something resembling a plush office.  Overstuffed chairs were arranged next to a crackling fireplace, paintings were attractively displayed on the walls and various bits of statuary sat on tables and pedestals.  His pilfered iron casket sat on a marble table near the fire.  His stomach churned.  It was open.

“So Quickfingers, tell me what you were thinking you were going to do with this?”  A man in a constable’s uniform gestured at the open iron box.

Flinder licked dry lips and shook his head dazedly.  “I didn’t know what was in it.”  He croaked, his voice raw.  “Just paid to get it.”

“Who would pay for something like this?”  A second man asked.  He was wearing an officer’s uniform; the rank of Nightmaster on his sleeve.  “Do you take us for complete fools?”

“Can I please have some water?”  Flinder asked plaintively, “My throat is parched.”

“God rotting gnomes.”  The Nightmaster hissed, spitting into the fire.

“Sir, I know they don’t understand propriety the way we do, however it makes sense to at least keep his lips moist while he answers our questions.”  The constable said, pouring a cup of water from a pitcher with condensation beading invitingly on the side.

Flinder didn’t even think about it being poisoned when he drank.  After all, they could have killed him any time.  Foolish.  He never expected the truth drugs; he hadn’t known they existed.

“Who hired you?”  The Nightmaster asked, leaning forward to hear the answer.  “What was the payoff?”

“I don’t know the Lady’s name, but she was of noble birth.”  Flinder said, feeling slightly dizzy.  “She offered ten thousand gold, which seemed to be an insane amount but you know nobility.  They’re all a bunch of insane maniacs who have no idea about what jobs are worth, I mean I’ve had Lords insist I assassinate someone for a handful of silver, not that I do those jobs you understand but I’ve brokered-“

“Enough!”  The Nightmaster cut him off, “What is this thing?”

“I don’t know what it was, like I said before, she just said she wanted it and it was important.  Was supposed to just be in that iron casket but they had it in a bunch of other chests and that crazy maniac must have been a swordmaster or something because he nearly killed my entire crew before we took him down.”

“Pox and rot this thing is useless.”

“Perhaps sir, we could sell it to this noble?”

“If we knew her bedamned name.  I’m sure this little bastard has already missed the time for the exchange.  When and where was it Quickfingers?”

“At the eleventh bell.”  Flinder said, feeling even dizzier now.  “In the fountains in the Flower district.”

“Missed it by three hours.”  The Nightmaster sighed, “Another one for the collection I suppose.”  He reached inside the casket and withdrew a hand constructed of a strange shining black material.  It ended right after the wrist in a maw of bristling needle like teeth.  It twitched in his hand slightly, the mouth of teeth opening and closing spasmodically.

“What a terrible thing.”  Flinder murmured, watching the hand as it strove to sink its fangs into the Nightmaster’s arm.  It was the last thing he saw as the poison stopped his heart.