“Please join her Lady, Baroness Mildred Rawlin, and the esteemed Bashclaw von Braindoom as they unite in holy union under the eyes of mighty Apollyon, on the first day of the five hundred and forty-forth year of the free states. The ceremony will be performed at the lavish Cirque du Pusseil, in West Rim.” Justinius finished the invitation but did not wait for an answer before departing. Baron Fendrel Bafford of Bremer was well in his pocket and deference was no longer necessary. To think, not four years ago, Justinius had scurried around the shadows of this man’s city like a gutter rat looking for Reed Karzen and trying to expose the guild’s infiltrator. That seemed like ancient history now. If it came to it, Justinius and his cohorts could defeat Bafford and all his men in open battle, and probably take few casualties at that. The truth was, there were precious few on the island they feared now: The counts, of course, the more powerful of the merchant princes, and the other guildmasters. These last few foes could not be defeated by simple brutality, though – their resources were too great. No, it was only by consolidating even more power – and more resources – that they would eventually rule the trade hub of Nameless.
Bafford’s servants were waiting outside with his mount. Justinius was not shy about Balerion. The creature struck fear into most everybody, and only propagated his legend. It was good to be a legend, it carried certain benefits. These lowlifes wouldn’t even meet his eyes, and would probably turn over their own mothers if he demanded it. Mounting up, Justinius tossed a few coppers to the grooms and servants, who nearly ran in their haste to depart his presence.
Despite it all, Justinius was troubled. There were few he feared on the island, but there were many below it, and probably many more he didn’t even know of. And Bafford had confirmed his fears once again: The Mind Flayer, Xactzitar, reliably visited him once a month, on the day of the bazaar. Before his execution, Montagu had suspected Xactzitar was sneaking out, and it appeared he was making the rounds of the island, marshalling support. Of course, an Orcish horde had been enough to convince Bafford that the Forty Horse Thieves were his “real” allies, but this news was disturbing, especially in conjunction with the revelation from the fire giant they killed last year, “Prince” Amukamara. He was supposedly sent by the royal family from deep in Godsforge, from the other side of Xactzitar’s fortified city, which meant that Xactzitar had let the giant pass, possibly even encouraged it! It was clear Xactzitar had more plans in mind than simply trade, but it would take finesse to deal with that problem. Skypost City was well fortified, filled with an impressive number of Grimlocks, and could only be approached from the front… unless they tried for the underwater entrance again. Justinius felt the scepter tucked in his jacket, Would it work on the northern door? He hadn’t quite figured out the pattern of the keys.
Justinius soon left the road and began trotting west over open ground. It was nearly high summer in Nameless, and this side of the island was dry. And poor. That was the other rub: His Orcish “cult” had proven very effective in bringing Bafford and Seelu to his side, and potentially even the heir of East Rim as well, although Penelope Lowell was unpredictable and clearly had her own agenda. Unfortunately, the cult no longer went where he wished. In fact, they hadn’t made a move in months. To make matters worse, the western side of the island had heard about the troubles of Bremer and Palervale, and the counts of Northrock and West Rim had reinforced them. It really burned! The wet side of the island had all the resources – exotic fruits and cash crops such as coffee and chocolate.
Yes, something was wrong with the orcs, something was very wrong. He had to find out quickly, less they be turned against him.
Bigby shouldered his way through the market. How long was this going to take? He started bumping people even harder. Finally, someone took offense and turned on him. Bigby exclaimed with glee, “YAY FIGHT!” and then began merrily pummeling the poor man in the name of love. Just then, a pair of guards rounded the corner, armed with halberds. This was even better! You knew it was a good fight if you spent the night in jail! He deftly evaded the polearms and tackled the unsuspecting guards.
Bishop An’drow was in good spirits. The curly haired gnomes had informed him that New Aramar turned two consecutive months of profit, and not a hair too early. Cesnael and his lackey, Deacon Vladikar, made it abundantly clear he wasn’t going to receive another cent if he spent what remained in the chests. An’drow thought he would have to finance it himself, but Justinius’ crooked-nosed little spies were good with money. His coffers dwindled to fewer than 400 gold crowns from the 150,000 he started with, but it eventually turned around. “Besser heint an ai aider morgen an ox,” they had said, which apparently meant it was better to have an egg today than an ox tomorrow. Whatever that meant, New Aramar was now solvent, and that was all that mattered. Justinius could spy as much as he wanted, An’drow cared not. No amount of sulking could match the knowledge possessed by the mighty Lord Apollyon.
Dismounting, An’drow allowed Baron Seelu’s servants to kneel and kiss his rings, as was befitting a priest of his station. He said a quick prayer that they would be spared during the Transcendence so they might be allowed to serve the Lord of All Humanity, and then proceeded to his meeting with Seelu. Penelope Lowell passed him on the way out, and gave him an icy glare. Yes, this one had promise.
When An’drow entered Baron Seelu’s study, the man looked like he’d been through a thrasher. Great promise indeed! That woman was harder than she looked. Of course, Seelu also knelt and paid his respects, and An’drow said the same prayer. Seelu’s station gave him no advantage when it came to begging for Apollyon’s mercy. His fate during the Transcendence would be determined by his own internal strength, nothing else.
They attempted to make small chit-chat, but it quickly became awkward; An’drow saw no value in such things. Instead, An’drow decided to grace the man with lessons on faith. Unfortunately, his strength was little, for he fatigued of the conversation in less than half an hour. The man should be experiencing exaltation at the very thought of it! Disgusted, An’drow delivered the invitation and departed, “Baron Seelu, your presence is required at Cirque du Pusseil on the first day of the new year, to see Baroness Mildred Rawlin married to Bashclaw von Braindoom in the eyes of the mighty Lord Apollyon. If their vows are true, Apollyon will bless them with strong children, and their children’s children will one day be found fit to serve the Great Lord beneath the Throne of the World.”
Bigby’s vision was hazy, but he tried to count the empty glasses before him, One, two, three, two twos, more than two twos, wait, no that wasn’t right! He tried to wipe the sweat of the effort from his brow and knocked half the glasses in the floor. They promptly broke into pieces and Bigby groaned, “EVEN MORE NOW! IMPLAUSIBLE TO COUNT THAT MANY!” But he got down in the floor and tried anyway. Actually, he fell off his stool onto the floor, and figured as long as he was down there he might as well try to count them. Picking up small shards of glass, he started over, One, two, three, SHIT! Why was it he could reliably count to three but have so much trouble with bigger numbers? Just then, he noticed a small cut on his finger. He bolted to his feet and began running for the door screaming, “HEAL ME!” Unfortunately, he was pointed the wrong way, and the last thing he remembered was a bright flash as he flipped over the bar and broke the mirror on the backwall with his forehead.
Brukesh J Brukesh was apprehensive about his invitation to this Jade Tower, but his people were at an impass; he needed to find them direction. Well-armored men in pristine surcoats with a green fist on the front led him through the halls and up to the highest room, from which he could gaze upon the harbor, much of West Rim, and Haven Forest to the East. There he met a most impressive man – Marshal Champion Ronar Whiterain. They introduced him with respect in their voice. Brukesh took notice; he knew what it took to lead men. The tone in their voice when they addressed their leader said everything, and these men would follow Whiterain to death and beyond, if he ordered it.
On second thought, perhaps “impressive” didn’t do this man justice. He was slightly older, with grey streaks at his temples, but everything about him screamed power. A man could rise to Marshal in the Jade Fist without being a champion, but the designation “Marshal Champion” meant he was both their most capable leader and one of their most legendary champions, having performed heroic feats to attain that title. From what he’d heard in taverns, “Champion” might even be the more impressive of his two titles. Brukesh took a step back and had to seize himself to keep from cowering. It shamed him to admit it, but deep down he knew he would run from this man in battle; deep down he knew this man could swat him like a flea. Only his faith in the Rangelic Bardicon – and the holy symbol of Amun hanging from Whiterain’s neck – kept him steady.
“Greetings, Brukesh J Brukesh, you are a guest here.” The man signaled for him to sit, and waited before seating himself. His manners were refined and his back straight; he was almost like a king. “You and your men have not been sighted out of their stronghold in some time. Something troubles you?”
Brukesh should have been more evasive, but it was clear this man knew much, and BJ was sure he wouldn’t play him dishonestly. So he answered honestly, “We have… doubts, Marshal.” The truth was worse than that: Most of the Justinii had spent the last several months in constant prayer; the Supreme Buckaroo himself had not left the inner sanctum since the time his foretelling had apparently come true.
“As do I.” With that, Whiterain motioned for one of the men to lay a book on the table. Brukesh gaped, it was the Bore-atheon Cycle! “I believe this book is sacred to your faith, is it not?”
Brukesh stuttered, “Yes, I… how did you get that? It speaks of the prophecy of the Dragon Disciple Reborn!” He immediately reached down to open it.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you. Few can read the Bore-atheon Cycle without falling asleep. Luckily, I have enlisted the services of one man who can.” A white-haired man entered and was introduced as Waleron, the proprietor of the Guilty Bard, and also a purveyor of information and secrets. “Waleron, please tell Brukesh what this book says.”
Brukesh listened intently, and as he did his eyes grew wider and wider. The true Dragon Disciple Reborn would possess a legendary item proving his true identity, whereas the man who met them in the Basin of Bad Ideas had no such relic! He was a false prophet!
Bigby sat anxiously at the bar, trying not to stare at the broken mirror. He thought the bartender, Egric, was still angry with him. After all, he had made the ridiculous declaration that he would never again serve Bigby 27 drinks. That number was decidedly more than three, but surely it wasn’t that many! Once again, he attempted to count the drinks in front of him. Just then, Egric walked up, “Bigby, I’m cuttin’ you off. You been drinking too much lately.”
How would Bigby ever convince these ridiculous people that it was for love? “BIGBY NEED DRINK FOR LOVE!” Egric flinched at that, so he clarified, “LOVE. DRINK. C’MON EGG!” The last sentence was punctuated by a belch, but still Egric shook his head. Bigby became angry and stood up, just as two strongmen at the door did the same. This could be interesting – drink and fight! “THANKS EGG!” Then he picked up a table and used it to charge the strongmen.
Cora swept into the Dusty Dryad with her most sultry walk. The conversations at many tables stopped entirely as she ran an innocent finger across a man’s soldier as she passed. She was here to speak with Althalos, but advertising Cirque du Pusseil was never far from her mind. The establishment was just over a year old and business was good. It would not be long before her coffers held enough coin to expand. They had already nearly paid back the loan she received from the Bank of East Rim.
Sitting on a barstool, she crossed her legs and began playfully wiggling her foot. For some reason, that always worked. Althalos saw her and approach cautiously. Once, this man had been a benefactor of sorts, handing them jobs when nobody else would. Now, he viewed them as an adversary. He knew she was in the Forty Horse Thieves and she knew he was in the Redridge Gentlemen, but neither said a word. After all, they agreed on one thing: Keep your enemies close. Because of that, Cora had no doubt he would accept the invitation, but she sold it anyway, “Oh Althalos, old friend,” she caressed his face with a hand, “won’t you please join us on New Year’s Day to celebrate the wedding of Baroness Mildred Rawlin to Bashclaw von Braindoom? The ceremony will be beautiful, and the celebration afterwards even more so; after all, it’s being held at Cirque du Pusseil.”
Althalos’ face reddened slightly, but he wasn’t going to turn down an opportunity to mix with her cohorts and gather information. Of course, they expected to gain the same from him. She flirted a little more and then he departed to attend other matters. She spun on her stool and leaned back against the bar – that made her chest look even larger – and began scanning the room for wealthy men (or women). Instead, she spotted two most peculiar parties: Priests, those following Belrab on one side of the room, and those following Shiva on the other. Neither seemed happy to see the other.
Cora quickly began to piece it all together in her head. Something had drawn Zandus Firesoul to this island, but he and his followers were killed in the aftermath of the battle with Sar’Thanak. However, it turned out that was not the last they’d see of Jinn’s followers. Justinius had recently made an effort to recruit some priests for the guild, and despite Cora’s incredulity, he now had a cadre of fire priests following him around. She had spent several months studying these priests, wondering if their presence was some sort of ploy for revenge, but they seemed utterly loyal to Justinius. Likely they did not know he had a hand in murdering some of their order.
The island of Nameless was the seat of the high church for the Order of Storms, and its leader, Ezra Cardon, lived here, as well as two prominent bishops. Most of the common folk worshipped the Storm God and most of the lords pretended to. That made two, and now Cora was staring across the room at a group of men from the Stone Cabal, which made three, and the Faithful Tide, which completed the four elements. It was too much to be coincidence, and Cora was afraid she knew all too well what was drawing them here.
From the moment Cora first set eyes on that Elemental Nexus, she knew it would be trouble. Something must have happened to it, or even worse, someone must have tampered with it. Given Justinius’ latest revelations about Xactzitar’s plotting, she was afraid she knew who it was. Add to it the sudden emergence of fire giants from the deeps of Godsforge, and this was shaping up to be quite a thorn in their side. Suddenly, her mind was on bigger matters than building her clientele, so she headed to Dusaro to discuss it with the Masters of Horse.
It was good to take a break from drinking. Just two mornings ago, Bigby had woken up in a cart full of potatoes with all the hair shaved off his ass. It was a funny Bugbear joke, but he sure would have felt more comfortable if he knew who had done it.
Waving down one of the scantily clad waitresses, he ordered another drink, and then continued explaining to the two girls in his lap about the military genius of Nathan Bashford Forrest, “HE MARCH AROUND HILL MANY TIME. MORE THAN THREE – LOTS! THEY THINK HE MANY BUGBEAR, BUT IT SAME BUGBEAR! GENIUS! OKAY WE FUCK NOW! NO CONTINENT ABOUT SHAVED ASS!” Downing his last drink, he picked up one of the whores under each arm and marched into the back rooms. He wondered if he could pull Nathan Bashford Forrest’s trick – if he fucked the whores around in circles, would they think they were being fucked by more than one bugbear? He would have to try it.
In the back room, Chloe stroked his mane while Prancer began working her way down his chest, nibbling on her way. All of a sudden, Bigby froze, “WHAT YOU DOING!?”
Prancer hesitated, “I’m… pleasuring you, m’lord.”
Bigby stood up indignantly and spluttered, “BITCH! NO! NOT THAT DICK!” He was horrified. This offended every bugbear custom that existed! He was supposed to fight, fuck, and drink until the wedding, but not of course with the chosen dick of his betrothed! It was like hiding booze from the tribe, or refusing to fuck your best friend’s wife! This was unheard of! Bursting from the room, Bigby ran out of the brothel as fast as his legs could carry him. Somewhere behind, Chloe inquired where he was going and he replied simply, “DRINK!”
Halfway to his destination, he realized he hadn’t put his pants back on. Surely Egg wouldn’t mind.
Mildred Rawlin stood with Natanaelle deep in the basement of her estate, waiting patiently next to the body of a dead orc, prepared carefully on an altar. She heard only the occasional moans of her prisoners in various cages and cells down the hall – most collected by Natanaelle as she patrolled the forest. The atmosphere was oddly solemn until she heard the light footsteps and musical voice of a girl coming down the stairs, chatting up one of her maids. Although most people did not realize it, Penelope Lowell was far more formidable than her sister had been. Being ruthless helped; seeming innocent was even better. Mildred would know, after all it was an image she had spent years painstakingly crafting for herself. This “Penny,” on the other hand, seemed to be able to convey innocence simply by walking in the room.
Once Penelope entered the room, she tossed a sack to Natanaelle, who promptly emptied the contents on the altar – a pile of teeth. Meanwhile, her chatter continued without so much as a hiccup. Finally, she turned her attention to the altar and declared, “Ugh, will you look at that?” It smelled horrid, but by her conversational tone you’d think she was discussing an overcooked mutton. Of course, she’d disabused anyone in East Rim of the notion she was soft the moment she volunteered to personally impale and tar Montagu on the castle wall. Mildred shivered as she wondered whether the teeth came out before or after his death.
“It is the way of the ritual,” Natanaelle intoned, “Your soul may change bodies if it wishes, but you cannot control which one. This is the husk the ritual has designated… this time. A future ritual might designate a troglodyte or a kobold. It is not known until the ritual is begun.”
“As you say, druid. All I know is the plan worked brilliantly – I’m the darling of East Rim. Although, I’m not sure he’ll be glad to see me. He thought he was getting the headsman’s axe when he volunteered for this little mission.”
Natanaelle didn’t seem to be listening. Having arranged the teeth in a particular way, she continued with her spells. About fifteen minutes later, the body heaved a breath and bolted upright. It looked around wildly and grabbed at its chest, as if looking for a spike still protruding.
“He’s delirious.” Penelope made the statement casually, but the creature’s head immediately whipped around and stared at her with knowing eyes. A low growl formed in the back of its throat. “Ahem, my apologies Lord Monta-“
“NO!” This new voice was booming, low, and gravelly. The creature paused for a second, then found a more reasonable tone, “No, that man is dead. For this plan to work, he must be truly dead. I need a new name.” For the first time, he seemed to take inventory of his new body. Raising one of his arms, he flexed a muscled bicep with a thick vein running the length of it. “Yes, excellent. Very good. Much better than I hoped – I half expected to be a fish.”
“I told you it doesn’t work that way,” Natanalle began, but the creature cut her off.
“Yes, yes, I know. Well, an orc needs an Orcish name. I will call myself Mongu. That seems appropriate.” Then Mongu’s face broken into a wide grin, stretching well beyond the two upward pointing tusks that normally flanked his face, “It’s good to be young again!”
By: Mike, 10/05/12