Excerpts From the Memoirs of the End Times of Einn Boer

Hello to all my faithful subscribers, sorry to still be on break from The Callindra Chronicles.  I know I’m a right bastard for keeping you waiting for the next chapter, but I needed to dedicate some time to re-igniting my players for the upcoming reboot of my World Lost campaign.  I hope you enjoy!

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“Things have changed mine Scion.”  Illimen’s voice rang in his ears.  “Thy story hath become perchance a nightmare to the enemies of the mortal realm.  Thy triumph o’er the forces of the Endless Night and those of the Descending Stair hath caused quite a stir.”

“My Goddess.”  Lirin said, not trusting himself to say more.  He was conscious of sitting cross legged but also of his spirit beyond the mortal realm.

“Be thee at peace.”  She said, reaching a hand made of purest incorruptible light to touch his forehead.  “I shall never allow them to harm you.  Allow mine light to shine through thee and naught shall stand in thy path. Be thou the light and the light shalt be thine sword and shield.”

Ecstasy and pain flowed through Lirin’s body, and he welcomed them equally.  When the sensation faded, he drew in a gasping breath.  “What would you have me do my Goddess?”

“Thou hast surpassed mine expectations Scion.  Thy dedication doth humble me.”  He caught a hint of hesitation in her presence, “I prithee gather more to the light of the flame of truth.  We shalt need the strength of the masses to oppose what doth lurk on the horizon.  Thou hast but seen a fraction of what lies outside the sanctuaries.”

When Lirin awoke and began his devotions he noticed something strange in his reflection.  One lock of his hair where Illimen had touched his head was white.

“Dem don’t knows nothing.”  The tiny bat winged shape declared, baring its fangs in a demonic smile.  “You not parts of da Everwar, but dem think dem safe cause of dat.”

“What is the everwar?”  Tabitha asked, feeding the creature a bit of dried meat.  She couldn’t imagine how she had managed to convince it to talk with her so openly.  It was probably that she was covered with fur with sharp fangs and claws.  Or maybe just that her feline magnetism knew no bounds.  Regardless, she had found it when prowling the parapets and spires of the outer wall and had finally gotten it to come and talk with her.

“It be’s da fight we be’s winning against da deads.”  It said, chomping up the meat.  “You gots to go see da fights by da tower.  Dem deads gettin crushed by da hundred a second.  Da Lords says we just gots to crush dem faster’n dey can come back.”

“The Lords?”  Tabitha prompted, her feline features artfully puzzled.

“You be’s lucky to be having me.”  The demon said, “You be’s so dumb.  How did you stay so dumb and being alive?  Everyone be’s knowing who da Lords be.”

“What are their names?”  She asked, voice carefully innocent.

The tiny demon looked at her aghast.  “We don’t be SAYING da names even if we be KNOWING dem.”

“Why wouldn’t you honor them with their names?”  She pressed, “Isn’t it giving them the respect they deserve?”

“Because we want to be staying LIVING.”  It said adamantly, “Do don’t be liking nobody to be knowing names.”  It seemed to be getting nervous, glancing around with apprehension as though expecting something to drag it off to hell.

“Oh, I’d heard there was something about Demons and names.”  Tabitha said in an offhanded tone.  “I thought it was just a rumor.”

“I doesn’t be like dey say it used to be.”  It said, “But da Lords be’s remembering.”

“Where is this Tower?”  She asked, changing the subject now that she’d gotten the information she wanted.  “I would like to visit it.”

“It be’s over dere.”  It pointed with a clawed finger.  “I be’s showing you if you wants.”

“How far over there?”  Tabitha asked, “How will I recognize it?”

“I fly maybe twenty times between sleeps to get dere.  You can’t missing it.  It be’s da huge ting surrounded by da armies of da Lords.”  It said, picking a piece of meat out of its teeth with a claw.  “You be coming?  Da Lords would be loving to know you.”

“Oh certainly.  Lead on!”  She said with her best smile.  When the small demon turned to leap into the air she grabbed him and popped him in her mouth.  He had a strange, almost spicy flavor and crunched quite nicely in her jaws.

SP was trying to meditate.  It wasn’t working.  The seemingly constant racket of the city wasn’t the problem, SP had managed to tune such things out out long ago; this was something different.  The necromancer straightened a fold of snow white robe and tried to allow the feeling to reveal its source.  Breathing slowly and deeply while thinking of the beautiful, perfectly clean white marble of the morgue where he used to reside and labor over the dead, SP was finally able to focus.

The answer was so simple that it almost went unnoticed.  Ever since they had left the safety and security of Einn Boer, he had felt on edge.  Something had always seemed to be just over his shoulder, watching, touching, pushing him forward but to what he couldn’t say.  It was power.

Not just power, but power that wasn’t just accessible to him but that practically demanded to be used.  Thus far he had not used it.  Not intentionally.  But this, he realized, was an offer and slightly more than an offer.  It was also an intrusion.

With curiosity, he reached out to brush the offered hand.  It was akin to what he imagined putting his hand on the sun would be like.  Pure unfettered energy coursed into his body and he watched in fascination as frost formed on his fingertips, gradually flowing up his hand.  When he exhaled his breath steamed in the early morning air.

Something noticed him.  NOTICED him.  Just for a moment.  That was enough for him.  SP tried to withdraw, but found that the ATTENTION of whatever it was held him fast.

“A. MORTAL.” It wasn’t a voice, it was a glacier in his mind, not speaking but scraping a place in his mind flat in order to insinuate itself. “HOW. CURIOUS.”

SP had stopped breathing.  His heart fluttered in his chest like a frightened bird.  It was all peripheral, the only focus was breaking contact with the PRESENCE.

“YOU. MUST. COME. TO. ME.” The ice was freezing his mind. A flickering vision of an ancient set of standing stones with an entrance in the center was followed by a series of runic symbols and a flash of blackness.  The vision changed to be from above, distorted as through the eye of some alien creature, but the features were obvious and indelibly imprinted on his mind.

“THE. BROKEN. CROWN.” The presence intoned.

“Why are you doing this?”  SP managed to ask.

“A. GIFT. FOR. A. TALENTED. SEEKER.”

“Who are you?” The Elf gasped.

“WE ARE ALL.  ALL ARE WE.  WE ARE LEGION AND WE ARE ONE.”

The grip on his mind was released and SP drew a ragged breath.  His right hand burned with incomparable pain.  To all outward appearances it was untouched, but he could feel the power raging like a river of frozen flame beneath the skin, begging to be used.  Demanding to be used.

Teelos wasn’t feeling well.  Something had disturbed the ebb and flow of arcane energies that he tapped from the Pact and he was getting strange surges in power that made him feel almost as though he had a virus after every time he tried to work even the smallest of arcane workings.

He tried to clear his mind, pushing a hand across his face and leaning back against the smoothly polished black bones of Legionnaire.  The construct had obligingly twisted itself into a chair for his comfort as he attempted to find what the problem was.

Focus is erratic.” The voice of the once living, now never dying construct said into his mind. “Not yours.  Another’s I think.  Things are not the way they were.”

“What does that mean?”  Teelos asked, his frustration giving way to curiosity.  “How do you know that and what do you mean by it?”

“I mean what I said and I know it because I can feel the patterns.” Legionnaire said, “It had not occurred to me that you did not feel it yourself, bound as you are to one of them.”

“I feel it, I just don’t understand it.”  Teelos said, feeling the tension coming back.  “What has changed?”

“Everything has changed.  The gods are moving again.  Belief is spreading again.  The Others that have existed here for so long now feel the presence of them.  And of you all.”  Legionnaire paused, “Was this not your intention?”

“What?  No!  We wished to avoid detection at all costs!”  Teelos protested, bringing his hands up to massage his temples.  “I thought that would have been obvious.”

“You have opened the sealed cities.  You have resurrected ancient warriors.  You have given the fallen gods hope.  You have defeated hundreds of our foes.  The City of Gears has erupted into a mountain of fire.  The blood of mortalkind has been spilled upon the thirsty sands.  I would have thought the result would be obvious.”

“I … I hadn’t thought of it that way.”  Teelos admitted, “So why is my magic resisting me?  Why has this change influenced things so much?”

“Because it is trying to see you.”  Legionnaire said, “Now that it knows you are what you are it wants to see how it can benefit.  I suggest continuing with caution.”

Boris waved his hand over the corpse of the fallen demon and it wavered and changed.  From where it had fallen the spiky growth of a cactus sprouted, growing with speed and vigor.  The plant was healthy and sturdy and would survive quite well in the arid environment.  He smiled in satisfaction, taking a drink from the skin of distillate and smacking his lips.

He knew this was a dream because he was outside the walls; something he never would have attempted while awake.  It was true that some of the best bits of these creatures spoiled quickly and upset him to waste such interesting components, but it wasn’t worth his life.

“Well done, although it is an empty gesture.”  The voice was conversational and sounded as though it came from someone standing next to him.  He started and looked around for the speaker.

“Who’s there?” He blurted, reaching for a weapon.

“It is I, Jorda.”  The voice said calmly, “I have been with you for some time now, although you reject my presence.”

“You are unnatural!”  He said, remembering how the people had been twisted in the city of Fyrl Logi.  “You changed those beings and forced them to be something different than they had been!  You kept them drugged and unaware of what was happening!”

“We all tell lies to children to keep them safe.”  Her voice was calm and sure.  “What lies are you telling this cactus?  The first demon or undead that finds it will destroy it utterly.  Have you told it that it can thrive and grow?  That its offspring will survive and have offspring of their own?  That will not happen.”

Boris considered this for a moment, unable to come up with an answer immediately.  “I haven’t given any promises.”  He said at last, “I merely give it the opportunity to live.”

“That is not enough in this era.”  Jorda said, “You are wasting resources that could be used in other ways unless you propose to destroy all of the enemies of this plane.”

“I’m not proposing anything.”  He protested, “I’m just giving opportunities for life to begin again.”

“You are making false promises.”  She said, her voice sad.  “If you intend to make a change you must conserve your energy for something that makes a much larger impact.”

“I made no promises damn it!  I get the impression you have something in mind.”  He said suspiciously, “I’m not listening to someone who treats mortals like you have, get out of my head!”

“The engine to protect all life is there.”  Jorda’s voice grew fainter, “I cannot maintain contact with you when your mind is closed.  You are on the path.  You must continue or all is lost.”

“What kind of cryptic garbage is that?”  He demanded.  There was no answer.  The cactus had grown and even sprouted flowers during the brief time he had been speaking with the goddess of nature.  He looked at it critically; noting that the production of seeds at this point in its life would likely mean it would expend all the energy it would need to survive.  How peculiar.

Duty.  Honor.  Steadfastness.  That’s what Trey supposed he was supposed to be thinking about.  That’s what they would have said at the orphanage anyway.  Probably.  It seemed like a lifetime ago when he’d been there, in Einn Boer.

The world outside was so much different than he’d ever imagined.  The folk out here didn’t all have magic.  Hellfire, almost none of them seemed to have magic compared to back home.  It must have been nice to grow up without being afraid of hurting people by accident.  Well, not that he’d have wanted to live with those necromancers.  Or those weird druids.  Maybe home wasn’t so bad all things considered.

It was a relief in some ways to have his strength be not just useful but necessary.  He was able, nay needed to fight to the absolute limits of his ability just to survive.  Now he knew why some of the stories of his Orcish ancestors spoke of them taking pride in their scars.  He was proud of his.

In his dream, Trey was sitting on the parapet of a massive fortress looking out over a battlefield strewn with the corpses of a decade’s long war.  “Life out in the wild eh?”  A voice from beside him said, “Must be nice to have that mobility, not that I mind being here defending the home front.”

Trey looked at the man who had sat next to him.  He was powerfully built to a degree that was almost disturbing.  He wore only a close-fitting pair of leather trousers and heavy boots.  A massive double-bladed battle ax was resting across his knees.  His long black hair was gray at the temples and bound with a heavy silver clasp at the nape of his neck.  He had patches of bright golden scales like lizard skin that seemed to be growing on his forearms and across his chest.

The glance at the man made him look back up at the vast citadel that rose above them; tier upon tier of city; each level with its own crenelated wall.  Huge war engines with their arms cocked and ready stood at each flat-topped parapet.  This place was at least as big as Einn Boer.

“Greetings.  My name is Trey D’Orc.  May I inquire as to your name?”

“I am Ravlen Thraine, Third Watch battle warden of the great city of Malm Hrid; the last true bulwark of mortality against the hordes.  Or so we thought.”  His hand touched the worn haft of the ax with a familiar gesture, nodding absently.  “I was getting to that.  Trey D’Orc you are a candidate whose fate might one day lead the Third Watch if you choose it.”

“I doubt that I would choose such if remaining here were a requirement.”  Trey said, “I did not know one was able to choose one’s fate.”

Ravlen laughed, a sound so loud that it actually startled his companion.  “Well spoken Trey!  The truth of the matter is that Cthrek Ra Chen is the one that actually gets to make that choice.  These great weapons are quite adept at ferreting out the warrior most compatible and molding them to the task.  You’re a little older than most candidates, but you also have more experience it would seem.”

“My companions need me.  I wouldn’t abandon them to defend strangers.”  Trey tried to keep his voice from betraying his anger at such an idea, but he was pretty sure he failed.

“Honest and true, I can see why she likes you.”  Ravlen said, slapping Trey on the back hard enough to move him slightly on his seat; no mean feat.  “You ought to give it a thought; life here is amazing for us warriors.  The best food, the most attractive and frolicsome bedmates, the most comfortable chambers and the best calling in the world.  The destruction of the Horde for the salvation of all!”

“You’re winning?”  Trey asked, looking at the vast number of slain demons and shattered skeletons on the killing field below.

“We’re holding our own Trey.  Where do you hail from and how is it that you’re in such fine battle form?  I’ve only met one Wanderer who managed to make our gates.”

“I come from Einn Boer.”  Trey said, “There I was an orphan, but we found a secret and have ventured forth…”  He stopped noting that Ravlen’s face had drained of color.

“It cannot be.  The End Times are here already?  I never thought I would see such in my lifetime.”  His eyes narrowed, “Or is this a plot?  Has the greatest of cities fallen?  Has the Horde stolen her secrets?”

“We killed some undead before we left.  I don’t think there were any more, Iln Rektros sent us forth.”  Trey frowned, “Ravlen, what do you mean by the End Times?”

Ravlen’s hand tightened on the haft of his ax.  “I will say no more until… things are settled.  I must go, the battle begins again.”

Trey looked out at the killing ground before the fortress and saw that to the north it was swarming with demons, some taller than houses.  To the south it teemed with undead, many with the towering forms of giants but with bonfires the size of horses burning in their chests.

Ravlen strode away, leaping from the parapet and landing on the wall three stories below without visible effort.  Trey watched him go, shaking his head.  Was this man’s battle his battle?  Well, they had a common enemy at least.

Shaena slept fitfully, flickering images of the battle with the horrible undead Eye Tyrant still fresh in her mind.  It had been so powerful, so deadly, it had nearly killed them all.  Would have if the city hadn’t opened the gates and sallied a force forth.  The scene replayed, the gates swinging wide and the warriors charging out.

The three in the lead were clearly a cut above the rest.  The man in front wore almost nothing and swung a massive ax.  The figure in full armor to his right carried a large shield shaped like a kite and a bastard sword held in the other.  The last was wearing flowing silk robes; her hair coiled into a battle braid and the beautifully lacquered quarterstaff she wielded was a blur in her hands.

They hit the ranks of the Dead like a fireball, bones flying in all directions and cut a path to their party.  From this perspective, Shaena could see that the three were laughing and trading jokes as they fought.  A great skeleton warrior loomed up before the woman as she watched, swinging a sword with dreadful strength at the slight form in front of it.  As she blocked the strike, her staff broke into two pieces.

Pivoting smoothly, the staff became a pair of Nunchaku spinning in a bewildering set of maneuvers as she literally ran up the monster’s body, each strike breaking pieces of bone off.  Her attack culminated as she stood on its right shoulder, the two weapons once again becoming a single staff that she swung in a two-handed blow that knocked the head from the body

She executed a perfect back flip off the falling pile of bones and landed leaning casually on her staff and staring Shaena directly in the eyes.

“Hiya.  What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?”

Several skeletons employed a tactic she’d seen before, three rushing in while three more fired arrows at the other woman.  She grinned madly and moving so fast she seemed to be three places at once, she flicked her hand and redirected the incoming arrows to punch through the skulls of the charging warriors.

“Well.  I can’t disappoint all these boys who want to tango dear.  Come see me maybe when ya wake up.”

When she turned to weave and leap into combat again, Shaena thought she saw the suggestion of a long prehensile tail curling from the woman’s backside.  But this was a dream after all.  That thought brought her out of her uneasy slumber, sitting up in bed suddenly wide awake.

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Gravelox and Gearslayer

I liked the names… so I re-used them for this character intro.  With the end of one Dungeons and Dragons campaign comes the start of another.  This should be an interesting one.

“Here’s the workshop.”  Lexai said smiling his usual smile as he opened a wide pair of doors to a large room with a mixture of modern and ancient equipment, shelving, cabinets and a ten foot tall statue of a suit of armor in the corner.  “Outfitted with standard blacksmithing tools, a forge and the newer alchemy supplies you requested as well as a bit of the modern magitech.”

Gravelox looked around and smiled.  This place would be perfect.  He could barely afford the monthly payments, it didn’t have any Passages in it to disrupt his work and the combination of the captive fire elemental for a forge and the alchemy tools were exactly what he was looking for.  There was even a small office space he could convert into a living space.

“Who owns it now?”  He asked his realtor, mentally going over his finances to make sure he had enough for a downpayment.

“I keep my clients confidential.”  Lexai said in a flat, businesslike tone.  His smile stayed fixed as though plastered on.  “That’s not a problem is it?”

“Of course not.”  Gravelox replied, too distracted by the workshop to think clearly.  “Just idle curiosity.  Now, about the terms you had mentioned?”

“The offer stands.  The owners are willing to sell it to you contract for deed.”  Lexai said, his smile ratcheting up a notch.  It was really almost mechanical.  “And at a low fixed interest rate of ten percent.”

Gravelox tried not to swallow his tongue.  “What?  You said it would be five percent!”

“Well, inflation and all that.”  Lexai waved a hand vaguely, “I have three other clients interested.  None of them need financing.”

Swiftly calculating in his head, Gravelox decided that as long as he met his projected sales potential he could make it work.  Barely.  Provided he didn’t run into any unexpected difficulties.  He shook the Kobold’s hand.  “Done.”

Something wasn’t right.  Gravelox had only been living here for a month and it seemed as though things kept going slightly wrong; just wrong enough that many of his creations failed.  He stared at the tiny bit of powder in frustration, watching as the reaction failed to produce the violent reaction intended and instead slowly smoldered and let off sullen red sparks.

It was time for drastic measures.  Opening the scroll case at his waist he withdrew one of the few remaining scrolls within and incanted the spell on the thick vellum.  His eyes glowed violet and he looked about the room, searching for magical anomalies.

At first glance, nothing was wrong.  Of course his forge had a hazy outline showing that it had runes that contained and compelled the elemental within with conjuration, evocation and enchantment.  There were protections on the walls that kept outsiders safe should any untoward alchemical event occur with abjuration magic.  The chamber even had some transmutation magics built into the walls that deadened sounds and helped control the temperature.

A more careful scan showed that the rusting metal statue that served as one of the support pillars radiated subtle power.  To his surprise, both of the statue’s hands radiated a hint of conjuration, but the rest of it seemed almost to be a dead zone.  It almost appeared to be absorbing ambient weave and redirecting it for some unknown purpose.  He also noted that there was a small bit of the statue in the direct center that seemed to be damaged now that he was inspecting it closely.

Removing an old friend from his equipment case, he leveled a wand of mechanical repair at the imperfection and activated it.  The statue twitched, sagged and fell over with a resounding crash.  Gravelox watched in horror as the wall it had been supporting collapsed.  When the roof truss smashed into him he was too surprised to shout.  All he could think of was that if he couldn’t make the payments he was dead.

Something was very wrong.  Gearslayer’s systems were gradually activating, one after another.  The first were the large muscle groups; the cables and cantilevers flexing and going through their startup tests.  A blockage of its shoulder joints impeded mobility so it first tried to lift, then allowed its knees to bend and slump.  Rust made it impossible for Gearslayer to fully articulate its knee joints, and it lost its balance and fell.

Many other things fell as well, and when Gearslayer’s ocular inputs came back online it found itself to be prone in a pile of rubble.  A shriek of protesting joints and pulleys that were long overdue for oiling accompanied its movements as it sat up, easily moving large wooden beams aside.  A fire seemed to be starting and there were multiple code, health and safety violations in effect.

More urgently, there seemed to be a Citizen bleeding and unconscious beneath a section of roofing.  Protocol suggested rescuing the citizen had priority.  Ignoring the warnings about joint malfunction and improperly lubricated equipment, Gearslayer bent and tried to move the section of roof.  When it refused to budge, it extended a hand and a pure white glittering scythe appeared in its hand.

With a perfectly calculated slices, Gearslayer chopped the sections of rubble that pinned the Citizen to the ground.  Dragging the boards off the Citizen, it lifted him to safety.

“Citizen.”  Gearslayer said, as its vocal systems finally coming back online.  “Your building is the subject of several health and safety violations.  I also believe it to be on fire.  My channels of communication with local authorities seem to be very outdated.  Do you have the ability to contact them?”

The Citizen did not respond.  Gearslayer attempted to recall how to check for vital signs but found that program to be corrupt.  It attempted to recall how to restore consciousness but found that program had been removed at the request of one Officer Durand.

A passerby was goggling at the destruction and Gearslayer approached her.  “Attention Citizen.  I require assistance contacting the local constabulary.  It would appear that this building has been destroyed and is in danger of setting fire to the surrounding neighborhood.  Can you assist?”

The Citizen burst out laughing, “You some freak baby, I ain’t no firefighter.  Ain’t no damn cops out here honey.”  She walked off, still chuckling.  “Crazy ass machine, don’t know where he be.”

Coughing behind it made Gearslayer turn back to the Citizen it had rescued from the building.  “You destroyed my shop.”  The Citizen gasped.

Gearslayer paused to consider this statement.  “I do not recall doing so Citizen.”

“What is your name, designation and what year is your commission?”  The Citizen asked, coughing and spitting blood out of his mouth.

Gearslayer paused again, sorting through its protocols.  “My name is Gearslayer, I am designated a Defending Bailiff and sentence executor. I am unsure as to the year of my commission Citizen.  It appears that some of my records are damaged, or possibly modified.”

“Your worthless carcass was holding up one of the walls of my shop.”  The Citizen said, “My name is Gravelox.  Your lawless destruction of my property puts you legally in my debt.”

Gearslayer considered this statement.  Likely he did indeed at least partially owe this Citizen something in return for what had happened; even if it wasn’t intentional.  “What is the amount needed to cover the damage done Citizen Gravelox?  I do not seem to have mention of funds in my name in any of my databanks.”

“Eighty thousand gold.”  Gravelox said, “And that’s just for the building, not counting all the equipment and materials lost.”

“That is a substantial sum Citizen Gravelox.”  Gearslayer said, “I fear it will take some time to assess my capability to assist in the reconstruction.”

“Time is something I don’t have.”  Gravelox said, running his hands through his hair.  “We’d better get the hell out of here.”

“Why would we leave Citizen?”  Gearslayer asked, “Should we not attempt to salvage-“ He was cut off by a small explosion from the ruins of the building.

“There’s dangerous stuff in there.  We need to run – ah – to get the proper authorities.”  Gravelox said.

“That is a valid point Citizen.”  Gearslayer said, “Lead on to the nearest constabulary.  I believe it is six blocks west and fourteen blocks east.”

“Sure.”  Gravelox said, “Come on.”

Lexai frowned, looking about at the destruction.  He’d been counting on the gunsmith to make him some real coin.  Now he was out the lucrative trade of firearms dealing to the less savory elements of this particular quarter as well as being out a building, the mortgage payment and even worse, his Minder wouldn’t be happy about losing the interest on the loan, the regular payments or the property.

“By the Portals what went on here?”  He wondered aloud.  Gesturing to his followers, he looked around the streets.  “Find out what happened.  Bring me witnesses.  Bring them alive, or at least capable of being brought back for questioning.”

The Shadows glided into deeper darkness, the winged folk took to the sky, the other assorted toughs and monsters trudged off into the maze of streets.  When he found Gravelox, there would be a reckoning.

One of the Shadows returned almost immediately, depositing a sealed envelope at Lexai’s feet.  Inside, he found a note from his missing gunsmith.

‘Lexai, please excuse my absence.  I know you will be displeased by the events that have unfolded, however I do plan on paying you back in full.  With proper interest.  It will merely take me more time.  I apologize for the inconvenience.  You have my word that I will compensate you in full once I am able.  Payments will be forwarded regularly.”

“I’ll have his skin for scroll vellum if he so much as misses a single payment.”  Lexai hissed, and the note immolated in his hand.  “If the Minders believe me to be getting soft, they will end my contract.”  He shuddred, ending a contract with his Minders wasn’t fatal.  But he would likely wish it was.

 

Sthax of Longtail Sharptooth

Sthrax leaned on his shield and searched the undergrowth with a critical eye.  Despite being separated from the others, this place was good hunting.  Watching one of the Older Brothers walk by.  He stood still, not seeing any reason to antagonize the beast.  There was no need to fight but no need to flee either; the massive shape moved off, leaving a trail of broken trees in its wake.

This jungle was different from his home jungle.  The smells were different.  The insects tasted different.  There were many more of the Older Brothers.  Islands surrounded by the salt water were strange places.  There was treasure here apparently.  The soft ones needed the shiny bits and the sparkle stones for status and power.

He fingered the multiple rings in his ears and the shiny studs in his frill.  They marked him as one of the successful and wealthy.  Or at least he had seen the soft ones do similar things to demark their status.  If nothing else, the red stones and golden rings glittered a fetching contrast to his scales with their mottled green, white and black patterns.

Sthrax wasn’t here for treasure though.  There were things here that needed to be destroyed.  Or there were rumors in the villages of the soft ones that there were ancient ruins that contained some of the things from the ancient evils he sought out.

“For the good of the tribe, This One goes forth to do the needful.”  He rumbled in his native tongue.  As they usually did, repeating these words sent him back to the first time he had heard them in that order.

“You think differently than we.” The Elders said in unison.  They had been sitting and speaking for so long that their voices blended together, their minds were the same.  “We have lived long and soon will depart.  We have decided the time has come to send One out to the lands of the soft ones.  This One must go forth and find The Accursed Thing.  This One may not return until it has found and destroyed The Accursed Thing.”

“Why?”  Sthrax asked, shocked into questioning them.  Nobody left for any extended time.  Hunting trips, trade missions where some of their folk went to exchange the hide and bone weapons and armor they created and the occasional forays against the Orc or Goblin kin that bordered their hunting ranges happened, but nobody left without a definite plan to return.

“Your mind is young and bends like reeds.  Ours is old and stiff as the oak.”  They answered, “A Darkness comes for the Longtail Fang people.  It will come after we end, This One must return to the tribe after we end to report to the Elders who have replaced us.  To let them know the way.”

“It has to be me?”  Sthrax was horrified.  He had never considered leaving the Tribe.

“A soft one who wears the shining skin will come.  You will help her.  She will show you the ways of the soft ones.”  The Elders said.  Sthrax noted that only two of the three were speaking now.  The third was staring off into the distance.

“She comes.”  The third whispered.  “This One is no longer of the Longtail Fang until This One finds The Accursed Thing of the Screaming Face and makes it into dust.”  As one, all three of the Elders turned their backs on Sthrax.

“For the good of the tribe, This One goes forth to do the needful.  This One must fight the greater evil.  This one must show no mercy for the wicked.  This one must prevail by any means necessary.  For This One to fail will mean the downfall of the Longtail Fang.”

He backed up in disbelief, walking backwards until he passed out of the tent, watching the three that he had based his entire life on act as though he no longer existed.  Outside, none of the others seemed to see him either.  The Longtail Fang as one had turned their tails towards him.

Sthrax ran blindly from the village, not even noticing when the branches tore at his tough hide.  When the fear had finally run itself out and he realized he was running from something that couldn’t possibly harm him and couldn’t be fought he stopped.  The pounding of his heart allowed him to hear the bright ringing of the weapons of the soft ones used and the cries of combat.

He unlimbered his sling from where it wrapped around his waist on instinct and dropped a stone into the pouch.  Rounding one of the Great Trees, he saw a figure made tiny by the contrast between it and one of the Two Heads that was swinging a club nearly as big as Sthrax himself.

It went against every instinct he had, but the words of the Elders held sway even if they had cast him out.  Sthrax whirled his sling over his head, releasing the stone with a shriek of reptilian challenge.  The stone struck the Two Heads on the arm with a sharp crack of splintering bone and the club swung wide, missing the soft one in the shining skin by a claw width.

A sweep of her large shining stick the soft one cut one of the Two Heads arms off.  Sthrax’s second stone landed squarely in the Two Heads chest, striking hard enough to break the skin.  The soft one used the moment of confusion to slice through its opponent’s belly.  As tough as Two Heads were, this was more than it could handle.  It took two ponderous steps backward before falling to the ground with a thud that he felt as well as heard even from this distance.

The soft one sank to one knee, the shining stick planted on the ground before it.  It began making the strange hooting noises that passed for its speech.  Sthrax knew some of the words but none of them seemed to make sense for the situation.  Was it thanking the Two Heads?  It was thanking someone.  Perhaps it was thanking him.

He strode down the side of the hill to see if it would share the flesh of its kill with him in the thanking ritual but before he reached it the soft one fell sideways and did not move.  The shining skin on its head fell off and a shock of black hair almost like a crest spilled out.  There was blood on the soft one’s face and leaking from its shining skin.

Hoping that it reacted to the same kind of herbs and remedies that his kind did, Sthrax set about finding the bindweed, thistle down and saproot that would help stop the bleeding and save its life.  Provided he could remove the shining skin of course.

In the end, he had been able to save Kinrik’s life and she had spent four years teaching him to fight with sword and shield as repayment.  Discovering that his shield could be used as a weapon changed everything about how he thought of combat.  Kinrik was stronger than he, but his advantage in speed eventually made the difference.

Gradually, he gained a better understanding of her language and during their travels Kinrik showed him how to navigate the outside world.  By far the most important thing she gave him was understanding though.  One evening while sitting around a campfire she had asked him why he had arrived when he did on the day he saved her from the Two Heads.

“This One was cast out.”  He said, still feeling the anguish of the rejection years later as he described the events in detail.

“You were not cast aside Sthrax.”  She said, working a chip out of her sword blade with a whetstone.  “You were given a task.  No other in the Longtail Fang could do what was needed, and although you were sent away you only need complete the quest before you are allowed to return.  Your people need you.  That’s something most cannot say.”

For the first time since he had run from the Elders, Sthrax felt the burden on his shoulders shift.  Instead of the punishing stone given to those who broke the tribe’s laws, it felt more like a kill he was bringing back to feed the hatchlings.  In that moment he felt the claws of the Great Old Ones fill him with Purpose.

Sthrax shook his head to clear it of the cobwebs of memory.  Far below a ribbon of water cut a deep valley into the mountainside.  It was time to find his way back to the others or back to the ocean.  Preferably without attracting the attention of any of the Older Brothers.

Where there was water, often there were people of one type or another.  Fanning his crest in decision, he made his way carefully down the slope.  This river would, he was sure, lead him to his goal.

A Girl Walks Into a Bar Part 3

Sergei turned and saw a man in an impeccable suit, a fedora, dark sunglasses and carrying a cane swaggered through the door.  The locked door.  Around him, shadows gathered and flickered as though there was a campfire burning on every side of him.

“I fear the young lady has misled you.”  His voice was smooth and urbane.  “What she has taken cannot be returned without proper recompense.”

“Excuse me friend, but the bar is closed.”  Sergei asked, feeling somehow less intimidated than he thought he would.

“Yes.  How fortunate for me that there will be nobody to see.  Nobody to stop what must be done.”  Ethad said, his voice still silky smooth and calm.

“You won it in a game correct?”  Sergei asked with a smile.  “Well then I challenge you.”

“What do you wager?”  Ethad asked, pulling out a chair and sitting at one of the tables.  He pulled a long thin cigar from an inner pocket and bit off the tip before lighting it with an old fashioned strike anywhere match.

“My bar.”  Sergei said, “It’s my life’s work.”

“That’s an interesting offer, however I don’t need real estate.”  Ethad said, blowing a smoke ring.  “I’m thinking of something a little more valuable.  After all, what the young lady has stolen is worth more than you can imagine.”

“What did she steal?”  He asked, “I never was clear on that.”

“It does not matter to you.”  Ethad said, “But if you must know, she stole knowledge.”

“What do you want me to bet then?”  Sergei asked, “And what game will we play?”

“To keep it interesting, we will play a game that matches your abilities.  Since you own a bar, we shall play a drinking game.”  Ethad took off his sunglasses and where his eyes should be was nothing but pits of utter darkness.  “You shall bet your immortal soul of course.”

Sergei swallowed hard, but a glance over his shoulder showed Corva’s large frightened eyes and his spine stiffened.  “Is that all?  I’m pretty sure that’s long gone to many a vice or broken promise.”  He moved to the bar and took the half full bottle of Laphroig down along with two glasses.

He sat down across from his opponent and poured them each a shot.  Something settled over him; a power with a force beyond his imagination.  The pact had been made.  The stage was set.  What had he gotten himself into?  Still, his blood boiled with excitement.  He had never felt so alive.

“The game is an old one.   It is called by many different names, but I call it Flip.”  Ethad smiled and withdrew an old belt dagger from a sheath beneath his suit coat.  The weapon was worn, but obviously well cared for.  The edge glittered wickedly.

Sergei raised an eyebrow and waited, amazed that he was feeling so calm and collected.  Perhaps it was the sheer absurdity of the situation.  Maybe it was Corva’s apparent dependence on him.  More likely he’d just lost his mind.

“The game is played by flipping the blade a certain way a certain number of times and having it end by sticking point down into the wood of the table.”  Ethad said.  “If you fail to stick the blade, you must take a drink.  Every five flips you must take a drink.  The game ends when you are incapacitated or bleed to death.”

“Bleed to death?”  Sergei asked, “Why would that be an issue?”

“Some of the flips later in the game require very good aim.”  Ethad said, “Shall we begin?”

The first few flips were simple.  Held in the hand, off the back of the hand, off the thumb, off the wrist.  The blade was very sharp and Sergei did accidentally cut himself more than once, although they were more of an annoyance than anything else.  After five flips, they each drank.

Now the challenges were more difficult, but Sergei found the balance of Ethad’s blade to his liking and the game was a fun and interesting one.  Five more flips and they each took another drink.  Sergei began to sweat as the moves became harder, but he managed to stick another five and they each drank again.

“You are showing more skill than I had anticipated.”  Ethad said, “It appears the bottle is almost empty.  It has been years, decades even since I have enjoyed myself this much.”

Sergei missed the next flip, recovered and made the next three and missed the fifth.  The bottle was empty and the alcohol was beginning to cloud his dexterity.  Ethad seemed to be unaffected and flicked the point of his knife into the tabletop with almost contemptuous ease.

“I’d better get another bottle.”  Sergei said, rising unsteadily.  “We both have to drink after that last move.”

He walked to the bar and took another bottle of Laphroig.  His fingers shook as he was unwrapping the foil.  Reaching into his apron pocket he took out a tissue and wiped the sweat off his forehead and tossed it into the trash.  Picking up the bottle and a new pair of glasses he walked back to the table where Ethad sat calmly.

Sergei poured them each a shot and couldn’t help but savor the whisky as he drank it.  Even if it was bringing him ever closer to being killed.  To being worse than killed.

Ethad had tossed back his drink and picked up his knife for the next move.  A strange look crossed his face and he lost his grip on the aged wooden handle.

“What did you do to me?”  He snarled, his voice a dangerous rasp.

Sergei blinked in surprise, noting that a red flush had begun to spread from the other man’s alabaster white neck.  Ethad began to make a choking sound, each breath becoming more of a struggle.  The realization of what must have happened struck him.

The tissue.  The wood sliver.  Corva had said it was hawthorn and it had hurt her.  She was somehow the same as Ethad.

“You left some of your hawthorn in her wound.”  Sergei said, feeling a sardonic grin slide over his face.  “It must have found its way into your drink somehow.  What a shame.”

Ethad stood, his clothes bleeding and changing into a cloak with a deep cowl.  His dagger lengthened and changed, shaping itself into a wickedly sharp scythe with a handle made of the same dark wood as the knife hilt, the butt end sharpened to a needle point.

“You have forced me to shuffle off that which allows me to tread on mortal earth once again Trickster.”  The moniker rang in Sergei’s head like a silver bell.  “Your accomplice can keep the knowledge of Fire she stole.  For now.”

Death faded from view, the gleaming silver of his scythe with its handle of hawthorn being the last thing to vanish.  Sergei spun to look at Corva, and instead of a wounded girl in layers of jackets a large raven perched on the back of the chair.  She cocked her head at him, one eye deliberately winking.

“You remembered your blood in the end.”  She said, her voice sounding no different for coming from a bird’s beak.

“Just lucky.”  Sergei said, “I didn’t remember anything.”

“Blood doesn’t forget, even if you don’t remember Trickster.”  Corva replied and flew up and out the door as it opened to admit Chelsea.

“Sergei?”  She said, surprise in her voice.  “What was that wind just now?”

“Never mind the wind.”  He said, sitting down hard, but feeling the sardonic smile come back.  “Come and have a drink with me.”

~fin

A Girl Walks Into a Bar Part 2

Sergei picked her up and carried her to one of the plush chairs in the small lounge area and set her down.  She weighed even less than it looked like she should.  Although she didn’t protest, she gave him an exasperated look.  He knew he should be asking more questions, that he should be doing something else, but the situation was so bizarre that he wasn’t sure what to do.  Where had she been hiding?

After depositing her to rest comfortably, Sergei returned to the bar to get his glass and his pipe.  It wasn’t responsible to smoke in the same room as a child, but he needed a pipe if he was going to be able to get through this.  When he returned, relit his pipe and took a drink of whisky he finally looked her in the eye.

“Corva.  Who is this man and why does he want you dead?”

“He calls himself Ethad, but I’m certain that’s not his real name.  Who he is and what his motives are do not matter.”  She saw the set of his jaw and sighed, wincing halfway through.  Reaching a hand under her layers of jackets, Corva removed a wadded handful of bloody rags and was about to throw it on the floor before he stopped her and got a waste basket for them instead.

“You’re going to let me look at that wound.”  He said firmly, “While I do you can tell me about why Ethad wants to kill you.”

She rolled her eyes and began taking off layers, dropping each jacket on the floor.  Sergei went to the bar and retrieved a first aid kit he kept there and by the time he got back, she had taken off three cashmere coats of consecutively smaller size, removed a pair of flannel shirts and unzipped a hooded sweatshirt.  When he approached Corva lifted her undershirt to show an angry looking puncture just above her waistline.

Sergei knelt to look, swabbing the wound with a cotton swab and peroxide.  As the wound fizzed and bubbled, he continued to swab it out.  After a few moments, he put the swabs aside, smeared some antibacterial ointment on it and taped a large pad of gauze over the top.  Before she pulled her shirt back down he could already see the blood seeping through.

He wrapped the soiled swabs up in a napkin, frowning at a small sliver of wood the size of a sewing needle sticking out of one of them.  Wondering what it was, he folded it into another napkin and tucked it into his apron pocket just in case it was evidence.  Chels would be proud.

Corva looked up and saw he was still waiting for an answer and twisted one of her dreadlocks around a finger.  “Long ago I stole something from someone.  That I only took some of it doesn’t matter any more than the fact that it made a large difference to my people.  The only way he can get it back is by taking it from me.”

“Why don’t you just give it back?”  He asked, blowing a plume of smoke to one side and taking a drink of whisky.  “Wouldn’t he leave you alone then?”

“Because he can’t get it back unless he TAKES it Sergei.”  She said, sounding frustrated.  He noticed that she had taken the glass from his hand without him noticing and had drained it in one long swallow.  “Can I give the whisky back?”

“No.  But I can’t take it back either.”  He countered.

“Well the one I stole it from originally couldn’t either, and he didn’t really care.  But last year Ethad won it in a bet.”  She shuddered, “Ethad differs from you both in that he does care and he can take it back.”

“Is he like you?”  Sergei asked, “You just walked out of nowhere Corva.  How am I supposed to be able to defend you against something like that?”

“You have something not many people do Sergei.”  She said with a smile that seemed to cut across her like a blade.

“What’s that?”  Sergei looked at his empty glass, thinking about getting another.

“I’ll tell you later.”  She said, smiling a mysterious smile.  “Are you going to help me?”

“I’ve helped you already.”  He said, “But I’m not killing anyone.”

“Then will you protect me?”  Corva pleaded.  He felt the intensity of her gaze and it touched something inside him.

“I will try.”  He said.

“Good.  Because he’s here.”