Terevelen finds his heart’s desire

Taking a break from The Callindra Chronicles this week for a spooky story; it is approaching Halloween after all.  I played this character for a very brief time before the Dungeon Master and I had irreconcilable differences revolving around me asking questions, trying to play the character I chose with the skills his class and race gave him, and having the audacity to actually give feedback when he asked for it.  What cheek!  Anyway, the character in question ended up running from a fight and the DM’s refusal to allow me to in any reasonable way rejoin the party or return to safety I instead decided to leave the game and wrote this as my character’s exit.  I hope you enjoy.

~

The others rushed into combat, but something plucked at Terevelen’s vision.  No, not at his vision but at his intuition.  It was almost like a siren song, the seductive thread of arcane power calling to his Mage’s Sight.  The shouts and screams of the others faded from his attention as he incanted a spell.  Motes of light barely visible from where they were encapsulated inside bubbles of darkness.  This was energy he had only seen once or twice before, and it was forbidden power.

Walking almost in a trance, he followed the trail, watching as the motes became threads and the threads became tendrils and the tendrils led to something more.  The power was weak, but the allure was irresistible.  Terevelen stood before a hill with toppled stones that were once a grand archway.  The capstone sealing the entrance was long since smashed and time had worn away the runic carvings that had once covered it.

With trembling fingers, the Elf pushed the tall grass and weeds aside.  The air that breathed from the opening smelled of earth and mold, decay and faintly of death.  He was frightened and more than a little disgusted by the thought of entering a tomb, nonetheless Terevelen shivered and crawled beneath the fallen archway.

The crypt was small and anything of value had long since been pilfered by thieves or destroyed by the ravages of time.  Gold and gems had been prized from the walls and from the lid of the sarcophagus.  A stone slab had the remains of a parchment that had likely once been proudly displayed under glass but was now reduced to moldering dust.

The remains of a human corpse were scattered from looters removing what were likely richly embroidered robes, but the dark aura of forbidden power he had been sensing emanated from those bones.  It would be a laborious process, but Terevelen felt a need to re-assemble the skeleton.  Sitting down to concentrate, he began to gently shift one bone at a time, moving them back where they belonged.

He never noticed when the runes along the walls lit up.  He never noticed when the stones shifted back into place, cutting off all light.  Absorbed in his work, Terevelen forgot to eat or drink and after a time found he did not miss it.  All that mattered was this.  Humming to himself, he looked at his new body in satisfaction, briefly admiring the intricate tracework of black threads that crisscrossed his emaciated frame.

“Time.”  He whispered in his dry, broken voice.  “All I have is time now.  Time is all I need.  All the time is mine.”

Shirasiau Sai’Li Has Had Enough

Author’s Note.  It has been over a year since we last heard from Sai’Li and things have changed substantially.  This is a bit of fallout from a failed assassination attempt.

“I am disappointed.”  Sai’Li snapped her fan closed, and fixed Ignis with a glare.  He had never seen her express this much emotion outside of a nearly unhinged frenzy brought on by a battle where his mistress had expended her absolute utmost effort to literally and completely destroy her enemies.  It was mildly terrifying to see that barely restrained fury on her face while he was in a room alone with her.

“Your father did seem to act outside of the normal bounds of good faith.”  He said guardedly.  His great scythe sized claws carefully gripped the cask of whisky so as not to crush it and lifted it to take a drink.  Why did he still feel vulnerable in front of this tiny humanoid?  His true tiger form was ten times her size, but he had seen her let down the barriers of propriety that she wore like armor and what he had seen was what nightmares were made of.

“He insulted me.”  She all but hissed, “Summoning me here only to pretend I have gotten soft?  To threaten my followers?  To DARE to suggest he could use them against me?  As though my loyalty was in question?  As though I couldn’t defend what is MINE?”

Ignis noted that her canines were much more prominent than they had been moments before.  Instead of their usual seafoam green, her eyes seemed to be darkening to gray.  Instead of responding, he gathered his legs beneath him in a position more suited for a leap to one side or another and took another drink.

“If he dares to offer such an insult again we will END him my Tiger.”  She flicked her battle fan open and looked at him over the razor sharp tips that were almost concealed by the delicate looking silk.  A shiver ran through him; she had never given him a look that demanded such obedience.

“I tried to be what he wanted.  I built an empire.”  She continued, and Ignis noticed that the flowers on the table beside her had died.  “I am the trading mistress of an entire city in a kingdom that has never given any credence to an outsider before.  A sovereign nation in the very heart of one of the most exclusive and xenophobic kingdoms on the Prime.  I have left nothing behind but vanquished foes and loyal allies and he acts as though I am expendable.”

The potted plants in the room didn’t just wilt, they crumbled to dust.  Sai’Li noticed him looking at them and took a deep breath in.  She didn’t let it out.  Minutes passed before he set his cask down and nodded slowly.  This seemed to be what she was seeking.

When she let her breath out, he could smell graveyard soil.  “I do not doubt your loyalty my Tiger.  I know you began as my father’s hireling, but by this point you must realize he is not going to give you what he swore, what you need.”

This hadn’t occurred to Ignis, he narrowed his eyes but didn’t speak.  His Mistress knew him.  She saw his expression and she knew his mind.  He shuddered even as she smiled.

“I have seen thousands die.  I have killed dozens of members of my own family.  I have even murdered the innocent without the slightest hesitation.”  She inspected the nails of her right hand, taking out a tiny knife and trimming them until they were even.  “I am not a good person.  I am not, to be brutally honest, even a person at all my Tiger.  But I am an entity and I do wish to continue to live.  Do you wish to stay by my side?”

Ignis considered her for a few moments.  The more he looked, the more his instincts told him she was a true predator.  The awestruck way in which she had been referring to her father before had given him pause but this fierce defiance was what he had been waiting for.

“There will be none who can stand against us and live mistress.”

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.

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.

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.

Id Om Zagod (Stone Crushing Fist)

Id Om Zagod sat in the Wandering Wyvern Inn, watching the adventurers come and go.  The fat, chisel pointed Dao with its long double grip handle sticking intimidatingly out from over his shoulder.  He glared at the patrons, a massive pewter tankard in one hand and a tiny crystal shot glass in the other.  Setting the empty shot glass down, the Dwarf carefully poured a measure of the thick brown liquor from the stoneware jug on the bar next to him.  A small drop spilled on the bar and began to eat its way through the oak, sizzling and burning.

“Hey little guy, what’re ya drinkin?”  A tall and massively musclebound human sat down next to him, the impact of sitting knocking the bottle off the bar.  Ioz, as his friends would have called him if he’d had any, moved as fast as a striking snake, catching the bottle a finger’s breadth from the floor.

“Did you just call me… little?”  He asked, his voice gravely and deadly quiet.

“Oh come now, I don’t mean nothin by it.  Pour me one a whatever that is.”  The human slapped him on the shoulder hard enough to shift him a finger on his stool.

“Fenris, leave Zagod alone!  By the Mother Goddess, that crazy gobshite is drinking Purple Hippogriff!”  Another human had noticed his friend and had intervened at perhaps the worst possible moment.  “If he don’t kill ya th drink will!”

“This is th Stone Crushin Fist everyone’s been on about?”  Fenris asked incredulously, “Canne be him, he’s got a bloody sword don’t he?”

A fist the size and shape of a summer ham smashed into Fenris’s cheek, even as Ioz drained his tankard.  The huge human staggered back, drawing his sword and swinging it in the same motion but Ioz stumbled three steps to the left, then three to the right seeming to accidentally stumble out of the way.  Fenris was only barely able to stop his stroke before the blade struck his friend.

“You little-“  Fenris began, but Ioz had woven his way back into range, draining his shot glass as he came.  Fist, elbow, forearm, knee and foot struck in rapid succession hitting solar plexus, collar bone, temple, nose and then chin as the Dwarf unleashed unarmed fury upon his would be opponent.

“Nobody calls me little.  Nobody spills my drink.  Nobody doubts my fists.”  Ioz sat back on his stool as though nothing had happened.  The human on the floor was groaning and holding his broken nose with one hand and his stomach with the other.  Calmly, he reached out and poured himself another shot of the muddy brown liquor.  Purple hippogriff.  It ain’t purple and it ain’t a hippogriff.

“Very easily managed.” An accented voice said in common.  “I can see that your reputation is very well deserved.”  The second human had retreated, hand on the hilt of the Greatsword over his shoulder and a diminutive figure in a blue robe with the cowl pulled low over its face had stepped forward.  It extended a gloved hand.

Ioz did not take it, instead tossing a pair of silver coins to the Minotaur behind the bar who refilled his mug with frothing ale without comment.  The Dwarf took a long drink and sighed in satisfaction.  Reaching into a belt pouch, he took out a long stemmed pipe and a pouch of tac.  With careful deliberation he packed the bowl full and lit it with a practiced stroke of flint and steel.

Finally, after blowing a perfect smoke ring he turned to the figure where it stood patiently waiting.  “What you want Kobold?”

The human guard flinched and took a step backward, but the cloaked figure didn’t so much as twitch.  “I am offering you something.  An opportunity.  The Mother Goddess has brought all us forgotten here for a reason and I believe yours goes beyond carousing and fist fights.”

Ioz grunted. “Naw.  That’s pretty much all I’m good for.”

“Very well.  Then I challenge you to a fight.  The stakes are-“  The figure broke off as Ioz drained his tankard and took a pull directly from the bottle before leaping at her, his arms spread wide.  She easily slid to one side, tapping his foot with hers as she did so.  Her touch was just enough to spin him around, a motion which he turned into a vicious roundhouse that had the power to sunder a stone wall.

She leaned backward and slapped his heel as it flashed past her face, causing his motion to carry dangerously close to the bar.  Only by pulling his foot in and spinning twice in a circle did Ioz avoid kicking his bottle from the bartop.

“That ain’t right.”  He rumbled, unleashing a mad blur of punches, kicks and other less gentlemanly strikes.  The small figure glided out of reach every time and as was her wont, tapped him in just the right spot to put him off balance, this time sending him crashing into a table laden with food and drink.

Ioz rolled easily to his feet, ignoring the bits of broken pottery jammed into his flesh and the pottery, coming to his feet with an un-spilled tankard from the table which he promptly poured down his throat.  This time when he approached, he wove in an unsteady rhythm, feet crossing over themselves in an unintelligible tangle of stuttering steps.  His upper body wove in a nearly impossible sinuous weaving motion.  Instead of fists, his hands cramped into uncomfortable looking claws, knuckles splayed at wild angles.  A wide, unsteady grin was plastered across his face.

“Now we shtart to shee jusht how good ya be lassh.”  Ioz slurred, and stumbled forward three quick steps.  His foot came down hard where hers had been a moment before and he stumbled into her, his elbow smacking into her temple with force that should have been impossible from that angle.  She neatly turned a sideways cartwheel, turning most of the force of his blow into motion and lashed out with a foot as she did.  The motion flipped her hood back and he could see that her scaled skin was the white of driven snow.

Ioz wobbled back a half step and evaded her strike entirely before weaving back into the fray his arms, elbows and knees a blur of fluid, yet somehow erratic motion.  She retreated, awkwardly countering his blows, ducking and blocking.  Finally, she fetched up against the bar and in the blink of an eye was holding a pair of nunchaku.  Weapons in hand, she launched a furious counterattack.  Steel flashed as she battered at him, attempting to wrap the chains of her weapons around his arms or legs and settling for striking ferocious blows instead.

As he passed the bar, Ioz snagged a bottle at random and downed it before rolling backward out of reach and coming to his feet with his massive Dao in both hands.  The weapon whistled out, the wickedly polished edge shining in the light coming through the tavern’s window as he used it to block his opponent’s deadly assault.

He stepped back, grounding the chisel tip of the sword and bowing slightly from the waist.  “You are good.”  He said without rancor or the slurring speech and slumped back into his seat at the bar which just happened to be where he had retreated.  “You forced me to draw steel… What do you want?”

She stepped forward and poured a shot for each of them.  He raised a bushy eyebrow skeptically but downed his while she did the same.  Impressed, Ioz waited patiently.

“You’ve seen exactly what happens when you cannot maintain balance.  You are defeated, and by a mere Kobold.”  She said the last with irony in her tone.  “That is why I wish you to assist in a little project.  I can promise many strong opponents and a few staunch allies as well as the chance to do something a bit more… meaningful with your existence.”

Her eyes took in the now empty bar, the destroyed tables and crockery and she raised an ironic eyebrow.  “If you don’t have something more pressing in your schedule?”

The doors slammed open and the city watch tramped in.  Ten of them.  Even though he had never resisted, they sent more every time.  They circled him warily and the guard captain came forward with a pair of manacles.

“Zagod.”  He said with a frown on his face, “Don’t tell me that this tiny person over here somehow forced you to destroy the bar.”

Ioz saw that the Kobold had flipped her hood up again.  He looked at the guard captain and snorted in derision, “You know I don’t judge folk because of their size Darious.  You also should know I don’t resist arrest when I’ve broken the city’s laws.”

Ioz turned to the hooded form, “I accept your offer.”  He said, inclining his head.  He paused, noting that its shoulders shook with silent laughter.  Narrowing his eyes, he asked, “What is so damn funny?”

“They call you Zagod.”  She choked out, “They are literally calling you ‘fist’ or ‘punch’ and they don’t even understand it!”

“Punishment for a bar fight is payment of damages and a night in the lockup.”  He said, keeping his face straight.  “So you’ll have to wait until tomorrow.”

“You’re going to actually go with him?  You’re actually going to spend a night in jail?” She sounded skeptical, “Why?”

Ioz shrugged.  “It’s the law.  Part of following the law is acknowledging when you break it and serving the time required.  I’m bad at following the law but I try and atone for those failings by serving my sentences without causing trouble.”

“There is much more to you than it would seem Ioz.”  She said, using the name he had chosen.  The name he had taken for himself.  The name that had no hidden meaning.  “I will ensure someone is there to collect you upon your release.”

With that rather cryptic and unsettling statement, she turned and left.  They all watched her for a minute before Ioz sighed.  “Can I finish my drink before we go at least?”

“We’d be here all night, I know better than that.” Darious said.

Ioz sighed again, deeper this time.  “Damn.”

Sitting in the cell that smelled of vomit, sweat and piss, Ioz admitted that he’d had better accommodations.  Still, it was his own lack of self-control that had led him to this place.  Again.  He leaned back and let the memories of old pain wash over him.

He had been too weak to protect anyone.  Too small to defend those who he cared for.  Too stupid to notice until it was too late.  He had relied on his weapons, hadn’t trained his body to the fullest extent possible, hadn’t honed himself to a razor’s edge… and his friends had paid dearly for it.

After his failure, he had simply walked away from his life or what was left of it.  He had left everything behind and just walked until he could no longer put one foot in front of the other.  Until nothing mattered and it felt like death would be a comfort, a balm, a welcome release from the suffering of continuing to live.  And then he had run.

When The Mother Goddess, Landria Mother of the Lost, Keeper of the Forsaken, Finder of Things that Shone in Darkness found him, she wept at his despair.  She took some of his pain into herself.  She offered something other than the endless darkness that he wanted to give in to.  She gave him the escape he craved without demanding the end of his existence.  It had been a temptation too sweet to resist.  He had regretted it for every day thereafter.

Once he had accepted her salvation, Ioz had discovered that he was no longer able to forsake his own life.  He couldn’t change who he was when the very stones of this place demanded that he live.  That he serve the Mother’s purpose.  That he follow this land’s Laws and obey his set destiny.  He wept bitter tears as he saw the treachery of Landria’s forgiveness.

So he tempered himself in the forge of pain and strengthened himself on the anvil of despair.  He had years, decades, centuries to live.  Without the release of suicide, he simply tried to die by fighting the strongest person he could find in every place he traveled.  Over the years, decades, centuries, he had come to a simple conclusion.  He was the strongest, or else the Mother would not allow him to perish in such a trivial fashion.

Dorda.  Randar.  Shrav.  Terkin.  His friends who had been murdered because he hadn’t been able to fight without a weapon stood always over his shoulder.  Always reminding him of his debt to them.  Constantly exhorting him to greater effort.  And now, this Kobold… a person who hadn’t even had enough respect for him to grace him with her name… now she held the strings of his fate in her clawed, white hands.  She held them and he was too much of a coward to deny it.

Or perhaps this was his chance to redeem himself.  Closing his eyes, Ioz allowed sleep to claim him.  Tomorrow, the true testing would begin.  A test of balance that was sure to strain him to his utmost limits, or so he hoped.  Perhaps it would even break him.  That thought was the first comfort he had felt since Landria, the Mother of the Lost had claimed him.  The jailers found him sleeping with a smile on their nightly rounds and shuddered at the sight.