League of Unsavory Gentlemen

The History of the Tenth

FS544-09-29

Anthony Miller woke with a start and bolted upright in bed. He was suddenly conscious of his own panting, echoing through the sparse, stone room. The only other sound was a gentle whistling of wind coming from the open windows. He raised a trembling hand and stared at it in horror. Collecting himself, he threw the cover off his naked body and walked to the open window, steeling himself against the chill fall breeze as if in defiance against his body’s own weakness. The Lord Tenth of Apollyon did not shiver.

Below him stretched the vast expanse of the Great Temple. His tower of residence was part of a modest and ancient keep. Newer sections abutted the keep, and even newer sections abutted those, representing hundreds of years of work and expansion. Yet it would take a millennium before they were done building a castle worthy of the Heir to All Existence. Two large, scaly hands came to rest on his shoulders from behind. They squeezed gently and he could feel the razor sharp talons digging into his skin.

“Bad dreams, Anthony?”

The Lord Tenth bristled at the lack of decorum, “I am quite sure you know the answer without me telling you.” He felt the enormous hands tense and reconsidered his tone, “The same. Always the same.”

“No different this time?”

The Lord Tenth thought for a moment, “It is always the same. Nine figures in a circle, obscured in the way of dreams. I can see them clear as day, but could not now describe to you a single feature of their countenance. They are performing an immensely important ritual, and need a tenth to unite them. Always I try – to walk to them, to talk to them, to join the casting – and always I find myself unable; I find myself… too weak. It is the horrible way of dreams: You need to run, yet your legs are made of lead. You need to think, but your mind is foggy. You need to act, but find yourself impotent. It is a nightmare! I, the Lord Tenth, Chosen of Apollyon, unable to join the circle and perform my duties because I am too weak! And then I wake from my dream prison. That is the way it goes every time.”

“I see. So this dream was the same as all the others? No difference?”

“Mostly…” the Lord Tenth hesitated, thinking of what he had seen, “This time there was another. He walked to the middle of the circle. For a moment I thought I was seeing my own self, that in my mind I had conquered this dream world and forced my will upon it. Then I realized it was not I, but another – a specter sent to torment me, to do in front of my eyes that which I could not.” He shuddered.

The large beast’s low voice elevated with a tone of feigned surprise, “Oh? So you saw the tenth this time?”

The Lord Tenth steeled himself once more. If this was the end, and he suspected it was, he would face it with all the strength he’d shown in his long life. Apollyon would judge him, and perhaps he would be condemned to roast eternally in the fires of Baator, but he would die knowing he could have done no more. He whirled around, wrenching the claws off his shoulders, and leaving large gashes behind which he ignored. He drew up his chest and confronted the huge fiend, “Dispense with the riddles, Paymon, and tell me what I have seen! Is it past or portent?”

Paymon was taken aback by this mortal’s insolence, but a sense of respect also brewed deep within him. This mortal was strong, and a worthy disciple of his master. He deserved an explanation. “It is both. You see both past and present.” Seeing the confusion on the man’s face, he quickly continued, “Long ago it was decided by gods and men that they could no longer coexist. This was the end of the War of the Magi. An accord was struck and the decision made to place an impenetrable seal between Midgard and the outer planes. In order for this seal to be truly impenetrable, the accord required representatives from all covenants. Apollyon’s father and brother, lacking foresight, opposed this accord. They reveled in the chaos, and would just as soon see Midgard completely destroyed. This left the accord with only nine, unable to complete their ritual.

Apollyon, in his infinite wisdom, knew that destroying Midgard was foolish. As you are aware, worshippers are the source of a god’s power. Destroying Midgard would destroy all the worshippers and plunge the world – AND the gods – back into the early eons of creation. It would be like starting over.”

The Lord Tenth added the next part reflexively, “Apollyon knows he will eventually be lord to all creatures. Therefore, all creatures must be preserved so that one day they may see the light and supplicate themselves before the Throne of the World.”

“Very good, my dear Anthony. While our master awaits the time of his ascension, it is our duty to cull the herds and make them stronger, such that at his coronation we may present him with the most robust examples of the species. However, it is also our duty to preserve the species. This delicate balance requires the discipline which sets us apart from the mewling fools who worship Asmodeus.

“Apollyon saw the destruction of Midgard as the destruction of his subjects, even if they didn’t know it yet. So it was he, and not his father, who sent the tenth emissary to the join the accord. It was he that completed the circle, and saved the mortal world from total destruction. This emissary became known among non-believers as the Tenth of Apollyon. The mortals of Povos greatly recognized Apollyon’s wisdom in this matter, and in the years after The Sealing, the Tenth became a great prophet who drew a great many followers to Apollyon. Never had our master been more relevant.”

Nodding, The Lord Tenth turned the pieces over in his head. A part of him felt enraptured – blessed was he to hear these words of Apollyon’s great history, lost to mankind for thousands of years. Another part was still confused, “You said I was seeing both past and present, yet you have only told me about the past.”

“The Sealing was imperfect. In particular, two gods were left in Midgard, for different reasons. The first you know well – Bahamut, the mad dragon god imprisoned in the Great Icelands. The second, you were unaware of. It turns out Indra Stormchild switched places with his servant Barakiel, binding himself to the great Nexus of Godsforge in his servant’s place. Until recently, this bond held him here in Midgard. Now he has been banished as well and the seal reforged. After nearly 3000 years, Povos is finally safe. Now will ensue a great age of mortal prosperity that will strengthen the species and prepare them for our Lord’s ascension.”

The Lord Tenth felt his heart jump with joy, “Then we have bound the great weapon to our cause, and there are none with the power of gods in Midgard who might oppose us!”

“Wrong. The power of the Nexus was used to seal Indra from this world. It is no more. This is all as Apollyon foresaw.”

The Lord Tenth was aghast, “Did you…” he paused and looked at Paymon, “Did you know about this?”

Paymon was silent for a moment, and then decided this mortal deserved a truthful response. “No. I believe now that none but our great Lord knew the truth. He is a master of deception when it befits his cause.”

“Then the nine souls which Cardinal An’Drow collected, which Decima informed me of?”

“…were necessary to perform the Sealing Ritual. I admit I am most surprised myself at this turn of events, but our master is most pleased and assures me that events proceeded most fabulously according to his plan, as he expected.”

It was not his place to question Apollyon’s will, but the Lord Tenth did not understand, “We lost the weapon! We are now no better off than we were before! I have spent my lifetime expanding Apollyon’s reach in Midgard, but for every two we add to the fold, another loses faith! For every temple we build, another is razed! Decades have been spent in tireless pursuit of this cause and yet our number is hardly more than it was a hundred years ago! Finally, fate puts within our reach a weapon capable of bending the world to our will, and it slips away! How can that possibly be according to Apollyon’s will!?”

The words of this mortal bordered on blasphemy, but Paymon stayed his hand a moment longer. With a curt, reprimanding tone, he addressed Anthony Miller, “Remember balance! Obliterating half the world to gain sway is the impatient way of Apollyon’s brother. Our order would swell in the short term, but in the end you would have fewer souls to lie at our Master’s feet. He does not wish to rule a devastated, broken civilization! It disappoints me that you do not see the wisdom of this outcome.”

“I am sorry to disappoint you, Paymon, but I truly do not see it. Pray, explain.”

“Did you not hear me say that mankind will now enter an age of prosperity? All will be strengthened in preparation for the Ascension. Furthermore, as was the case 3000 years ago, Apollyon’s part in all this has not been lost on the mortals. The name of Apollyon is on everyone’s lips. Look again out your window!”

The Lord Tenth turned once more toward the window, scanning across the various structures. He saw nothing out of the ordinary, until a slight movement caught his eye to the north. He trained his eyes on the northern gate and saw a twinkling light. No! It wasn’t just a single light; it was a whole line of lights, extending northward from the gate in a great column that disappeared in the fog of night. There were hundreds, at least. His breath caught in his throat and he whispered, “Pilgrims.”

Paymon stepped up behind him and those great, scaly hands came to rest once more upon his bloody shoulders, “It is the same around the world. In a time of great need, the Tenth of Apollyon returned and saved us all. Man, woman, and child name our Master savior, and they flock to him. Nowhere is it more profound than in New Aramar. The harbor of Nameless is gridlocked with boats, inns sleep three to a bed with more on the floor, and farmers have sold everything they can pull out of the ground or scrape off a rock. Nevertheless, they continue to flood to Nameless, just for a chance to worship at the temple in New Aramar, for An’Drow is no longer of this world and the Hierophant is now worshipped in his own right.”

A single tear ran down the cheek of Anthony Miller, then another and more after that. It was not from sadness, but from exultation, at having lived long enough to see such a sight as the glowing worm of pilgrims that wiggled even now through the gate of the Great Temple. He uttered the words he’d known to be true from the moment he first woke from the dream, “I am a false prophet.”

“Yes.” Devils are not prone to sympathies, and kings of Baator even less so, but Paymon found in this case that he uttered the single word with some degree of sadness for this mortal, an exemplary specimen of Apollyon’s creatures who had erred in this most egregious way only because those before him had erred in the same way.

Anthony Miller – for he would no longer think of himself as the Lord Tenth – turned around slowly. This time Paymon’s hands released themselves so that no wrenching was required. It was with an unburdened heart that he looked the great fiend in the eye and said, “Apollyon does not suffer false prophets.” It was as much a command as a statement of fact.

“No.” With that, Paymon closed his great talons around the mortal’s neck. He did not struggle.

View
What's in a Name?

FS544-01-29

Decima lost her train of thought when the door burst open, dashing a naked servant against the wall. Blood trickled from his nose as he slowly sank down to the floor. A second servant nearby eyed him with concern, but she made no move to help. If he was weak, he would die.

Through the open doors raced Cardinal Severus Tyrannus. He dropped quickly to a knee, barely touching his fist to his forehead or his knee to the ground before springing to his feet with an open mouth.

“Does this boy irk you so much, Severus?”

Severus turned beet red and snapped his jaw shut, clearly rethinking whatever it was he was going to say. Before he could regroup, the Lord Tenth rose and turned to face him. Under that relentless gaze, the red drained from Severus’ face.

From her vantage point Decima could see but a profile of the church’s intimidating patriarch, with his angular nose and pointed jaw. His head was covered with a fuzz of close-cropped grey hair, neatly and practically trimmed. Anything less would be inefficient; anything more a waste of Apollyon’s time. He had a long face with pronounced, nearly concave temples that seemed to pulse with blood whenever he fixed his dark brown, nearly black eyes upon you. Although approaching seventy years of age, his skin had not begun to wrinkle so much as stretch across his bony features, like protruding sinews on a hungry animal. And why not? Eating was as much a waste of time as grooming – requirements of his mortal body that he tolerated moreso than indulged. Indeed, with his unfailing diet of boiled potatoes and dry bread, the Lord Tenth was utterly, without doubt, the most humorless person Decima had ever met.

Having overcome the obvious slight of addressing him without his title, Severus found his tongue and explained his grievance, “This, this… ANT has declared himself a Cardinal!”

“In Nameless.”

“I am Sheppard to peoples from Dragon Isle to Le Marke – some of the most populous regions of the entire world! That includes Copo Deus Bay and the smugglers hold where this ant has established his base of operations!”

Standing there with his hands clasped behind his back and drawn up straight as a board, the Lord Tenth seemed much taller than he really was. “Tell me, Severus, do you know of a man named Ezra Cardon? Because he has stolen some of your sheep.”

Decima couldn’t help but flinch at the Tenth’s continued refusal to address Severus by his title. In this conversation it seemed that which was not said was spoken loudest of all.

Severus’ response was positively dripping with ambivalence, “Master, I am well aware who leads the Order of Storms, and he rules a tiny island, no bigger than the city of Le Marke. It is a weak religion for a weak god. I have chosen to focus my efforts on bigger prizes; my followers on Dragon Isle alone are countless.”

“Apollyon’s followers. And Nameless is small, but populous.”

“It is not my place to convert every fisherman, pirate, and salt wife on some remote island. We have friars for that kind of work, I am a cardinal!”

“Are you?”

Decima swallowed hard as she watched the two men staring each other down – Severus, with eyes that seemed to be on fire, and the Tenth, with eyes that seemed to be made of stone.

“It seems there is one who would dispute your claim. Crush him.” With that peremptory dismissal, the Lord Tenth turned around and sat back down in his chair facing Decima. “In the meantime, I have sent funds to this An’Drow, to bolster his effort in Nameless. From what Cesnael tells me, it goes well. He has built a small city. Use this asset. You are dismissed.”

Severus remained for a few moments, trembling. Decima thought he might actually strike out at the Lord Tenth, who for his part did not even seem to notice that Severus still stood there. Then, without a word, Severus Tyrannus turned and skulked out of the room. However, before he could get to the door, the Tenth called to him, “Severus, one more thing.”

“Yes, ‘master’?” The mocking tone didn’t seem to faze the Tenth.

“Ants are very strong.”

Severus didn’t need to hear any more to know the conversation was over, so he departed as fast as grace would allow and the Tenth’s gaze turned back to Decima, “Now, Cardinal Decima, where were we? What is it that brings you all the way from Sol Povos to see me?”

Decima turned the small, dissolvable pill over in her hand, thoughtfully eyeing the unadorned glass of water that had been unattended these last few minutes. This had been an interesting visit – a very interesting visit. She had never been to Nameless. Slipping the pill back up her sleeve into its secret pouch, she answered her superior, “Just a simple pilgrimage, my Lord. To visit the ancient church, study in its archives, and partake in your sagely wisdom.”

By: Mike, 02/18/13

View
Loose Ends

FS543-07-30

“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.


FS543-08-08

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.


FS543-08-14

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.”


FS543-08-28

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.


FS543-09-09

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!


FS543-09-14

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.


FS543-10-19

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.


FS543-11-11

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 THREELOTS! 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.


FS543-11-27

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

View
The Grieving Ruler

FS543-04-22

Count Batsuen Lowell waited impatiently on his high seat. His eyes were red. Counts didn’t cry, but then again most counts weren’t faced with executing their only remaining daughter for murdering the other. He had been up half the night, sobbing and cursing the gods for their injustice. The whole castle must have heard his grief, but nobody said a word. At some point in the early morning, someone had sent for Bishop Stonebrook, hoping the man could help console Batsuen, but the man retired quietly after having a bowl thrown at him. In truth, Batsuen regretted his actions – it wasn’t the Bishop’s fault – but he had sworn off any and all gods in that long night.

The thought of seeing Penelope reminded Batsuen of his late wife, Grace. The woman had died bearing Batsuen his only son, Rory. The boy was always a weak child, and he hadn’t reached his third year when a great fever took him, leaving Count Lowell with no wife and only two children, both girls. It would be difficult for a female to follow in his steps as Count, but luckily Selova had turned out to be a man in a woman’s body. Penelope, on the other hand, was always… softer. Batsuen had done his best to set her up with a good marriage, to an important merchant (in Nameless, relationships with the merchants were as important as relationships with the other nobles), but she had fled the island. That was five years ago. Now she had returned, allied with a rogue guild against her own father, and murdered her own sister. He would never have believed her capable of it, had Constable Berenger not seen it with his own eyes. The man was gruff, and a good military leader, but he had no way with his tongue at all; the man couldn’t lie if he wanted to.

Footsteps disturbed his contemplation, and he wiped his nose with a sniff just as Bailiff Wurth announced his only remaining child. The Bailiff had a look of consternation on his face, and half a dozen guards in full armor marched behind her, hands on weapons. Gods, Penelope, Why!? For her part, Penelope seemed rather at ease. Batsuen waved his hand, and the Bailiff began announcing the charges, “Lady Penelope Lowell, you stand accused of treason and murder, for consorting with his Count’s worst enemies, laying a trap that led to the death of his Count’s men, and,” the Bailiff choked a little bit, finding it difficult to say the last part, “and for murdering the Lady Selova Lowell in cold blood. The penalty for these crimes is death. As a highborn lady, of course you are entitled to address the Count before he announces his sentence. Do you wish to do so?”

“Yes. This is all false, of course.” With that Penelope straightened her back and stared her father straight in the eye, as if nothing more needed to be said.

Batsuen choked back tears, “Girl, must you make this harder than it already is? Constable Berenger saw you with his own eyes, consorting with the foul priest. You all but admitted to these crimes!”

The guards tensed as Penelope walked forward nonchalantly, but Batsuen signaled for them to stand down. If his last remaining daughter was going to murder him, so be it. He’d take his chances. She glided forward and put a hand on the Constable’s shoulder as she spoke soothingly, “Father, Gobert is a good man, but he does not understand the politics of court or the schemes of the highborn. I forgive him for misinterpreting what he saw that day.”

Berengar jerked his shoulder away from the girl and spluttered, “Misinterpreted!? You allied with the Forty Horse Thieves and attacked my men! You even rode in that godless contraption the dark priest conjured! Then you murdered your own sister, and you forgive me!? Then you come in here, and spew this nonsense in front of your father, further breaking his heart!?”

“Berengar!” Batsuen yelled, “My heart can break no more. Let the girl say her piece so we can be done with this.”

“Thank you, father. I also forgive Constable Berengar for his outburst.” With that, she flashed a sweet smile to Berengar, who looked like his head was about to explode. Then she continued, “It was actually the Forty Horse Thieves who murdered Selova. You see, I returned to the island two weeks past. I didn’t want to raise a big ruckus, and I wanted to get a feel for how things had changed on the island before revealing myself. So I was staying at The Dusty Dryad, down by the south docks,” Penelope rattled on like she was dishing some salacious story to one of her maids, “and one evening, I happened to overhear some men talking about a plot against the Count of East Rim. Of course, this caught my attention! As I kept listening, they talked about how they were going to setup a trap, and unleash their orc horde against your troops! For several more nights, they met in the same place, and continued their discussions. One of them was actually fairly easy on the eyes – an archer named Alberto. He was quite sweet to me.”

“Penelope, does this have a point?”

“Yes, yes, father, let me continue. As I was saying, he was quite sweet, and eventually I gained his trust enough that I could reveal myself. They immediately saw the opportunity to use me in their political machinations, and included me in their plans… well, most of their plans. They intended to crush your strength and make me Countess of East Rim so they could have a puppet ruler. I laughed and flirted and talked about how much I’d like that and inquired who my husband would be! Unfortunately,” she paused, “I didn’t realize their intention to do that by murdering Selova.” At that, a single tear rolled down her cheek, and her voice cracked, “I… I thought they were just going to do it with political maneuvering, or by discrediting you, I never thought,” and she trailed off into tears. Batsuen immediately felt an urge to comfort his daughter, but he checked himself.

“Is there more? This sounds like a confession.” A moment of mercy struck him, “if you wish to confess in front of the full court, your death could be in the light of the Lord of Storms, and your body could still lie with the rest of the family in the crypt.” He gave her a tender look, thinking this offer would be meaningful to her. Bailiff Wurth grunted; apparently his consternation was only growing.

“No! You don’t understand, father! I was going to come to you, but before I had a chance, they swept me away and said the battle would happen that day. Before I knew it, I was the fell priest’s captive in that horrible, metal monstrosity! It was there that he informed me my sister would die on the same day! There was nothing I could do!” Then she straightened and looked Constable Berengar in the eye, “So I made the best of it.”

Berengar couldn’t hold his tongue, “Made the best of it!? What, by joining them wholly?”

Again she patted the Constable soothingly, “I had to, Gobert, to get close to them.”

Batsuen’s heart lept at the possibility, “Close to them? What do you mean? Why?”

She gave him a look that said she knew he understood her meaning, “To find the real killer, of course.”

Batsuen looked up at Bailiff Wurth and finally understood the look of consternation. “Bring in the prisoner!”

The Bailiff snapped his fingers and a pair of guards entered the room dragging an older man with black-grey hair and an angular face. That face was black and blue, but Batsuen recognized it, and knew the man well.

“Imranul Montagu.” The weight of the previous night lifted almost immediately. His daughter was not a traitor, but a hero! No, he wanted too badly to believe this was true. He must be clear-headed, and sure. “Did you overhear my daughter’s accusations?”

The man was suspended between two guards, his legs buckled underneath him and his toes dragging on the floor. Still, his eyes were intense, and he spit a bit of blood onto the floor. Penny immediately walked over and hoisted her knee into the man’s stomach. He crumbled all the way to the floor and she shoved his face into the puddle of blood and spittle, “cleaning” the floor with his face. Once she was satisfied the floor was clean, she threw him onto his back by his hair. Montagu looked at her with a wild and incredulous look on his face. For that matter everyone in the room was staring at her. Finally, the guildmaster spoke, “If I deny, you torture me until I confess, then I die. If I confess, I simply die. Therefore I confess.”

It was certainly a weak confession, but a confession nonetheless. Batsuen stared into those deep eyes and searched. Maybe he just wanted to believe, but he found truth there. A smile crept onto his face as he lept from his seat and embraced his long-lost daughter. The other men in the room surely thought it improper, but he didn’t care. His daughter was saved – his daughter was not a murderer! Releasing her, he pronounced his judgement, “It is beyond clear the Lady Penelope Lowell committed no crime against East Rim. She was a prisoner and victim of the guild known as the Forty Horse Thieves, led by the vile Imranul Montagu.” Montagu nodded his head as if he was impatient for the Count to get on with things. Anger flared up and Batsuen turned to him, “As for you, Montagu, you stand accused of more murders than I can count, but none more grievous than that of my own daughter! I sentence you to death, immediately!” With that he signaled to Berengar for his sword.

“No, father!” Batsuen gave Penelope a strange look and Montagu arched a curious eyebrow. “This man has betrayed you. He has betrayed us all! His death must not be quick, in a small room attended only by your closest advisors. His death must be public and painful, to send a message.”

Batsuen regarded her carefully, “What exactly do you suggest?”

“Impale him on the wall and let his life drip out slowly in the sun; Let vultures pick at his eyes!” Montagu was aghast, and began cursing her with every phrase Batsuen knew and some he didn’t. It took one of the guards knocking him unconscious to stop the torrent. “Father,” Penelope moved close and looked up into his eyes, “He killed my sister.” Yes, he believed her. This was his Penny, and she had returned.

Within the hour, Montagu was carefully impaled on a spike on the outer wall of the keep, facing south toward the ocean. Batsuen and his daughter had overseen it personally, to make sure the spike did not pierce any vital organs, to make sure he bled slowly; Penny had become a hard woman during her exile, but Batsuen didn’t mind. Now that Selova was dead, Penny was his heir, and she would need to be hard.

Three days later, the men confirmed that Imranul Montagu was dead, but they doused his body in tar and ordered it left on display for a full month. Penny poured the tar herself.

By: Mike, 10/03/12

View
The Other Lowell Girl

Come to the capitol at once. We would speak with our daughter.

Although it was well past midnight and even though she had long since committed the wording of the summons to memory, Selova continued to stare at the sheaf of parchment in the dim light of her bedchambers. As much as she wished otherwise, there was no doubting the validity of the document; while it was within the realm of possibility that an expert at forgery had crafted the note, and the guilds of Nameless certainly had access to such con artisans, the bold penmanship and brief diction contained therein were unquestionably the work of her father. She read the message once more, as if hoping to find it changed.

Come to the capitol at once. We would speak with our daughter.

Count Batsuen Lowell had summoned her to court. Gods be merciful, for her lord father would not.

Seized with sudden anger, Selova crumpled the page and threw it from her. The sudden noise and movement wakened Muriel, who lay next to her. Selova had brought her maid to bed this evening, hoping to take her mind from the dire events of the past few days. The experience had been disappointing; comely as she was, her maid had clearly never lain with another woman before.

Everyone else has failed me, Selova thought bitterly. Why should this base-born fool be any different? Rising from bed, Selova pulled her robe about her and walked over to the corner where she had thrown the bit of parchment. Sighing, she bent over to pick it up.

“M’lady?” Muriel inquired drowsily; she drew the covers about her body as she rose to a sitting position. “Is something wrong?”

“Only everything,” Selova replied. She uncrumpled the parchment carefully as if to read it again; she forced herself not to. Gravely, she carried the message to the girandole that served as the room’s only source of illumination and slowly fed the paper to its flames.

I must not give into despair or I shall be truly lost. Selova shivered slightly; spring had come to East Rim, but the night air still carried a remnant of winter’s chill.

“Some tea, Muriel. And something to eat.” The servant woman looked at her quizzically, as if she were confused by her lady’s commands. “Now, girl. Or have you forgotten your station?” she snapped.

“Yes, m’lady,” Muriel replied, hurrying out of bed as she ought to have initially. “Pardon, m’lady.” Selova watched as the flustered maid dressed herself before scurrying hurriedly from her apartments. Perhaps she might improve with practice, she mused as the door closed behind the chestnut-haired woman.

Selova banished these idle thoughts from her mind once the maid had taken her leave; their awkward coupling had left her in no better mood and she had much to ponder before she departed for court. She dropped herself into her largest and most comfortable chair sullenly; staring into the candle flames of the girandole, the young woman who had sought to become Countess of East Rim mentally retraced the events that had led to her downfall.

Three days past, the militia expedition Selova had raised against the raiders of Palervale had met with disaster at Rand’s Gorge; the so-called Justinii had shattered the whole of East Rim’s standing reserve forces in a brutal ambush. Far from removing the threat of the marauding orcs from her lord father’s lands and proving her worth to both him and his subjects, Selova’s plan had left all of East Rim in danger of attack from the First Gnomish Church of the Rangelic Bardicon.

The trouble, she decided, did not lie with the army’s defeat; the blame for that could be placed upon the company’s commander easily enough. No, the real problem was ascertaining just how many enemies had conspired against her father’s forces. Against her.

If Lady Rawlins had born her little love before the battle, Selova could expect none now that she had sought to slay her “husband.” And as imbecilic as the woman might be, the Baroness kept powerful company; there was the bugbear himself, for starters. There was also the painted elf he traveled with; he had built a fortress on Rawlins’ lands and the gods only knew how many men lay under his command. Their triumvirate was completed by the gnome from the betrothal party; there could be little doubt that he and the Justinius these orcs worshiped were one in the same. And unless Selova missed her mark, he was her true enemy in all of this.

So, Rawlins stood as one member of East Rim’s nobility in the gnome’s camp … did Baron Seelu make a second? Seelu had been awfully quick to sue for peace with the Justinii after Rand’s Gorge. If questioned, the lord of Palervale would no doubt claim that he had no other choice with an army on his doorstep and any rational, third-party observer would be hard pressed to fault the logic of that argument. What concerned Selova was the when of that particular alliance. Had Seelu turned after Rand’s Gorge … or had he sold her out before?

Regardless, there was one inescapable conclusion: Justinius J Justinius would have to die. And if her tenuous grip on power was to be maintained, Selova would have to make her father see that when next they met. Count Lowell was probably already bemoaning the number of kingfishers it would cost to hire the Jade Fist to protect his lands; she could turn that to her advantage. An assassin from the Flock of Dawn, she could and would argue, would cost far less. Selova knew the Flock’s blood price well; she had been fifteen when she had contracted them for the first time.

Count Lowell, Selova remembered, had been grief stricken when the sweating sickness took his only son suddenly and without warning some six years hence. In his grief, her lord father had panicked and agreed to a pair of matches for his girls, herself and her younger sister, Penelope. The boys had belonged to a pair of lesser houses from amongst Batsuen Lowell’s bannerman, men far below their station, men unworthy of betrothal to the daughters of a count. Penelope had fled Nameless, never to be seen again; Selova had prided herself on her more pragmatic solution to the situation ever since.

Selova’s schemes were interrupted by a timid rap at her chamber door announcing Muriel’s return. “Come,” she instructed.

The chambermaid bore a tray containing an ornate tea kettle with a matching pair of tea cups and saucers as well as sweet flat biscuits and an assortment of jellies and spreads. Muriel carefully poured the tea, a Facan green, into one of the cups and then added two cubes of sugar before offering it to her. Selova smiled at that; the maid’s service had improved markedly in a short time.

“Would m’lady care for a biscuit?” Muriel asked as Selova blew the steam from her drink. Selova nodded in response before taking a sip.

If the gnome is removed, two armies fall with him, Selova thought. Seelu would come crawling back, the two cults would likely destroy one another, and Rawlins would literally be fucked into oblivion. With one stroke, the county of East Rim could be her’s one more.

“Muriel, what is that?” The maid had taken a flat spread knife and was using it to apply a thick, brown paste she had never seen before upon a biscuit.

“A halfling confection, m’lady. Ingrid bought it at market just the other day. They call it peanut butter.”

“Peanut butter?” Selova repeated.

“Aye, m’lady. Try it, won’t you?” Muriel suggested. “It’s delicious.”

View
An'drow

“I pray thee hold, Eminence. This one is an officer.”

An’drow hesitated, hand still gripping the lever that controlled one of Frogdor’s lethal claws. He had performed the Lord’s work for nigh on a quarter of an hour as the remnants of East Rim’s broken militia reserves had fled from the field of battle into the supposed safety of the thicket; cowards all of them, it had been just and holy to sacrifice them in Blessed Apollyon’s name.

This one is different, he thought. An’drow didn’t know enough of heraldry to know what had identified the horseman before him as a field commander to his co-pilot, but he did know courage and resolve when he saw them, and this one had both qualities in spades. This is a leader of men, he decided. He deserved a grander death than what the bishop could offer from inside the bowels of this metal monster. Removing his grasp from the lever, he selected another such pulley next to it and pulled down on it. Frogdor lurched forward in response.

The officer’s warhorse whinnied loudly and the creature’s eyes rolled in growing terror. Still, horse and rider stood their ground as the death trap advanced and An’drow’s admiration grew. The man before him sought to die honorably … but sadly, this was a blessing that the bishop would not be able to bestow. Not yet, anyway. The Dread Tyrant has another purpose for you, captain. Your deliverance will have to wait.

An’drow pulled on yet another lever and the machine’s lobster-like arm swung in a wide arc, striking horseman and mount alike with great force. The militiaman was thrown from his mount into a nearby tree; his body came to a rest at its base, clearly in a swoon. His horse was not nearly as lucky; it struggled in vain to rise, several of its bones clearly broken by the impact of the swing. An’drow pulled the lever once more, this time in a different direction and the arm came down upon the poor animal a second time. It laid still then, gifted a merciful death by the adherent of Apollyon and all became silence.


“Great Master, your humble and obedient servant would speak with this infidel, vanquished with your help,” An’drow prayed, crouching over his comatose captive. “He may yet be of use in your great cause and if it be so, bless him with your strength so that your unworthy servant may set him upon the True Path.” Prayer ended, the dark elf rose and flourished his robes for effect, for captor and prisoner were not alone. An’drow and the officer, a great prize indeed for he had been identified as East Rim’s own Constable Gobert Berengar, stood in the middle of a hastily erected internment camp established by the victorious coalition of forces cobbled together by the Forty Horse Thieves. The gnome’s plan had gone even better than they could have hoped; their losses had been slight and most of the enemy had been taken or slain. The bugbear had, as always, insisted upon having his grievous nicks and paper cuts attended to as soon as his barbarian battle rage gave way to his more typical and taciturn barbarian stupidity. An’drow deigned to oblige him this once; the Braindoom had led the van in the battle after all, even if Justinius had tricked him into it.

A deep darkness, a shadow that pulsed as if it were a living thing, appeared about the Constable and enveloped his body as what remained of his men looked on in a mixture of worry and curiosity. Berengar’s inert body convulsed then, then again, then thrice. Finally, he emitted a sound that could best be described as half-gasp, half-scream and he sat up violently with a start. An’drow did not begrudge the man these unbecoming acts; his Master’s healing touch, sublime as it was, was not gentle and required a stalwart constitution.

“Constable Berengar,” An’drow said whilst delivering half a bow. “Stand easy. You have lost the field, but not your life.” Berengar looked about then, taking in first the camp, then the measure and number of his men, then finally the shackles at his hands and feet.

“Am I to know the name of the great captain who put me in chains this day?” Berengar asked at last.

“Best if you do not, Constable. Let us say instead that you are yet another to fall before the Master of the Horse.”

“The man upon the flying horse? Tell me, who betrayed—”

An’drow knelt before the constable, so that his captive might look into his cowl and gaze upon the fiery red orbs that were his eyes. “It seems I have been unclear,” whispered the bishop, “but it is I who will be asking the questions.” Berengar said nothing at first and held the fell priest’s gaze for a time. Eventually, however, the dark elf won this final contests of wills, and the constable bowed his head slightly, averting his eyes from An’drow’s.

“As you say,” Berengar murmured.

An’drow rose and spoke more loudly now, so that the other captives might hear his wise words once more. “You and those of your men who yet draw breath fought well today and for that Mighty Apollyon, blessed be His name, has seen fit to spare you.”

“Is that it then, Priest?” the constable demanded angrily. “Are we to be sacrifices for you devil god?”

“No such thing shall befall you or the brave men under your command, Constable,” answered another voice before An’drow could correct this latest blasphemy. The voice belonged to a human woman, barely in her twenties by the look of her, who emerged from the ring of captive and captor soldiers to join the parley that occupied the ring’s center. Berengar studied the young woman intently as she came to stand to An’drow’s immediate left, as if he knew her from somewhere…

“Penny?” the constable asked, eyes widening with recognition at last.

“Penny” smiled with pleasure and curtsied with the grace of one born and raised at court. “My lord Berengar,” she acknowledged, “it has been far too long.”

Berengar stared at her for long moments, then at An’drow, then again at Penny. “Oh Penny,” he said then, dismay and perhaps a bit of disappointment evident in his tone, “what have you done, lass?”

“I came home,” Penny replied simply.

An’drow cleared his throat. “This battle is at an end, Constable. You and what remains of your forces will be released as soon as our own troops are ready to depart.”

“Then we shall meet on the field again then, Priest,” Berengar returned. “His Grace will not suffer raiders in his lands, I can assure you of—”

“I can assure you that Lord Lowell shall not marshall the militia again, Constable,” Penny broke in once more. “Arrangements have already been made. As His Eminence says, the battle is over … and so is your war.”

“Child,” An’drow said gently, “a prison camp is no place for one of your station. It would be best if we go now.”

Penny drew herself up, a trace of displeasure apparent in the blue eyes she shared with her sister. “As you will, Eminence. But if I may, you wrong me. I am no child.”

An’drow considered her words. The woman before him was young and yet she had shown great cunning during her escape and subsequent exile from Nameless. Justinius had gone to great lengths to find her and even with the Forty Horse Thieves promise of protection, she had returned here at great peril; that demonstrated unusual bravery. Moreover, she had proven herself more than capable during the battle itself whilst they had done the Lord’s work in Frogdor.

If New Aramar was to thrive, it would need the governance of temporal princes as well as spiritual ones, and this one showed great promise. Best to make an ally of her, An’drow decided. He made a deep and formal bow in the fashion that the gnome had taught him.

“Pardon, Your Grace,” the elf amended. “I meant no disrespect.”

So saying, Bishop An’drow and Lady Penelope Lowell took their leave.

View
The Good Constable

Now that’s something you don’t see every day, mused Gobert Berengar.

Gobert, unfortunately named after his father’s favorite unfortunately named brother, had been appointed to the prestigious post of Constable of East Rim some fifteen years past, and while he was not a prideful man, he did take quite a bit of pride in his tenure. On an island world-renowned for thievery and other ill deeds, he and his men had kept the Count’s peace for over a decade, not an easy task given how deep the influence of the various Guilds ran on Nameless. He had hoped to retire without any major bloodshed in another ten years or so; that was looking like a flight of fancy now.

Gobert was an honest man and thus fairly naive when it came to the politics of great men and the machinations of the wicked, but there was simply no mistaking it: there was another Guild War brewing. The Forty Thieves had undergone some sort of regime change, violently some claimed, and the actions of the new guildmaster (or guildmasters; opinions and rumors varied on that count) had sent shockwaves through the island’s balance of power. Strange and disturbing tales were coming from all over Nameless. In the north it was said that an actual dragon had fallen to the Thieves; others spoke of a horrific genocide at Dusaro. Here in the south, Constable Berengar had seen reports of a fortress being raised in Haven Forest, dedicated to a strange foreign god. A group of orcs, adherents to yet another strange, foreign god, pillaged the lands about Palervale. Perhaps most disturbing of all, Gobert had heard it whispered (for none dared to speak on such things in civilized company) that Lady Rawlins, one of the Count’s own bannermen, had taken a bugbear as her husband!

Then, two weeks ago on the heels of that bizarre story, Lord Wurth had come to him with news of troops gathering for battle; it seemed the rebranded Forty Horse Thieves, in conjunction with a detachment from the Jade Fist Company, were moving against the orc cultists, the Justinii they called themselves, in force. Seeing a chance to end a Guild War before it began, the Bailiff had dispatched him and East Rim’s militia reserves, over twenty score men in all, to ambush any survivors that might emerge from this engagement. A good plan, Gobert had to admit, but he wasn’t sure where Lord Wurth had received such privileged intelligence, nor was he sure that he wanted to know. If the very Bailiff of East Rim was on the take … no; best not to even think on such things.

After leaving the active city watch in the capable hands of his best sergeant and second son, Godfrey Berengar, the Constable and his men rode north towards Palervale, where Wurth’s scouts, whoever they were, said the brigade from the Jade Fist Company were stationed. Shortly after arriving on the outskirts of the barony, his own best scout, Old Saul Greenfield, confirmed that not only were the mercenaries exactly where the Bailiff had said, but they had just broken camp and were heading west, presumably to engage the Justinii. Berengar and his troops spent the next several days doing their best to follow the squad while simultaneously avoiding detection by the Fist’s own outriders. If the soldiers of fortune noticed them, they gave no outward sign.

Twelve days after departing the capital, the mercenaries joined with a second force, this one supplied by the Forty Horse Thieves if Wurth’s information was accurate. The following day, Old Saul discovered the Justinii encampment, located less than a days’ march west of the guild army’s current position.

“Looks like we’ll be fightin’ orcs on the morrow,” the scout spat in disgust.

“What makes you say that?”

“‘Cause whoever’s leadin’ them mercs is a fuckin’ moron, Gob. Them orcs got the bloody high ground and the daft bastard’s walking right up to ‘em! It’s like he’s throwin’ a bleedin’ party!”

That night, the Constable gathered his officers for final deployment instructions for the ambush. As it seemed that the commander of the mercenary forces was bound and determined to get his own troops good and slaughtered in Rand’s Gorge three leagues to the northwest, it was decided that the militia would lie in wait in the thicket that lay due east of the basin’s only exit. Once the battle was well and truly joined, however briefly that might turn out to be, the militia archers would rain volleys of arrows into the melee while the vanguard, to be led by Corporal Storm, Lord Wurth’s bastard nephew, but a good lad nonetheless, would move forward to prevent any enemy combatants from escaping. However, should any man or orc manage to sneak past their lines, the horse, divided into two units, one under his command and one under Old Saul’s, would ride those stragglers down. It was another good plan, and Gobert slept well that night.

The sun rose on another day and Gobert was sure that his men prayed to Indra that it not be their last. But he had trained these men and he knew their mettle. The men of his militia, sworn to the protection of East Rim, took their positions in the thicket as planned and waited. They did not wait long.

Before the morning was half done, the Justinii appeared in battle formation at the top of the ridge of Rand’s Gorge, their strange flags of white whipping in the wind. Then, just as Old Saul had predicted and in defiance of all conventional military wisdom, the forces of the Forty Horse Thieves marched straight into the Gorge and deployed into a single, horseshoe-shaped line; Gobert had to chastise more than one of his soldiers for snickering at this apparent act of mass suicide. After a collective roar or two (or perhaps they too were laughing?), the orcs charged down into the Gorge to make an end of the mercenaries.

“Indra’s Balls, what in blazes is that?” Old Saul asked in wonderment. Gobert followed his gaze and looked to the heavens … where he saw a child-sized figure riding upon a flaming steed. Gobert’s jaw dropped in amazement; he had heard of such creatures, but to see one with his own eyes was another thing entirely.

The flying mount descended into the midst of the two armies and all movement ceased as an eerie silence fell over Rand’s Gorge. Then, just as impossibly, the Justinii fell to their knees, seemingly in worship of the rider.

The Constable pondered the scene that lay before him. The odds that had so heavily favored them just moments ago had changed drastically. They had been sent to clean-up the survivors from a long and protracted engagement, not wage a pitched battle. Still, the numbers remained in their favor, they had good position, and the element of surprise was on their side. But was he really ready to send these men, his men, to die? He thought then of Godfrey, and of his other four children. He thought of his wife, Sarah. He thought of East Rim … and he made his decision.

“ARCHERS!” Gobert barked and the call was taken up down the line. He and the rest of the horsemen led their mounts from the thicket so that they might mount up for battle; Gobert heard Tom Storm order the infantry to advance. The flying steed and its rider took to the air once more as the first volley of arrows was loosed into the basin and the battle began in earnest.

We must have got the idiot, Gobert mused. With surprising speed and precision, the mercenaries turned about; their incredibly weak line fortuitously became a classic pincher formation. Fortunately, Gobert had taught that formation to Tom when the young man had first shown promise as a company commander; the men of East Rim would not be fooled so easily. The Constable dispatched Old Saul and his mounted unit to crash the enemy line at one of the points where it curved into a “U”; with a hearty battle cry, he bade his horsemen follow him to attack the other.

Well, that’s a damned thing. The Justinii foot were forming up behind the advancing Jade Fist line as if the two armies were a single fighting force. He watched, with dawning horror, as the mercenaries linked and raised their shields so as to ward off the second volley from the archers; his men’s arrows bounced harmlessly from a wall of steel. He witnessed in terrible slow-motion as Old Saul’s unit was taken in the flank by the mounted orcs in a vicious counter-charge. He heard the whistle of arrows whizzing in the air; the enemy archers who had previously been shooting at only the gods knew what were now firing death into his cavalry squad from an elevated position. Gobert looked into the sky at the rider upon a flying horse and knew with dread certainty that he had been had. They knew we were here. Gods be good, they’re ambushing us!

“FALL BACK! BACK INTO THE THICKET! FALL BACK!” he screamed as he wheeled his war horse about; an arrow took the man to his left in the face as he did. His men had been well-trained and they took up the cry, passing his orders to their fellows. The foot ceased its advance and began to edge back towards the safety of the trees as a single, controlled unit. With Indra’s help, it might be enough. They might yet get away.

It wasn’t to be. A hulking brute appeared in the enemy van, heedless of the arrows that Berengar’s archers were still firing at it. It raised a massive warhammer above its head and screamed an unlikely battle cry:

“HEAL ME!”

The thing, whatever it was, charged and the Jade Fist soldiers opened ranks so that the Justinii could follow. The two lines met and steel rang against steel; Gobert screamed a useless warning as the brute smashed Tom Storm’s head in with a single swing of its great cudgel.

“RETREAT!” Gobert shouted, “RETREAT!” As before, his men repeated his orders, but the fury of the orcs’ charge was too great and order gave way to panic. The militia’s line broke and the men of East Rim turned and fled in disarray back towards the thicket, the Justinii in hot pursuit. With another roar, Gobert spurred his horse into a charge towards the Justinii and what was left of his unit followed; his goal now was to harry the enemy foot so that his infantrymen might be allowed to retreat unmolested.

The gambit appeared to work. He laid about with his sword at anything and everything in his path and gradually the orc foot gave up the chase, forced now to deal with the enemies that lay behind them. As the Justinii wheeled to face him, it did not escape his notice that the Jade Fist line was reading a charge of their own. They were about to be trapped between two lines. Time to go.

“CAVALRY! TO ME!” he cried, raising his sword into the air, and the remaining horsemen, bloodied to the man, rallied about him. “CHARGE!”

The mounted militia surged forward as if one, and broke through the Justinii, who had not yet time to form up properly. Gobert kicked at his horse’s flanks again and again, urging it to greater speed. Racing through so dense a forest at such a pace was dangerous at the best of times, but this was no time for caution; certain death was just minutes behind them.

Gods, how many did we lose, he wondered. He was not the only rider in retreat he knew, and he saw more than a few foot soldiers ahead of him. Too many, he thought bitterly. Not all, but far, far too many.

Suddenly, he heard a cry of alarm directly in front of him. Then another. And another. “Ya!” Gobert cried, tugging hard at his horse’s reins, and it slowed to a gallop in response. Then to a trot. And then, at last, to a complete stop.

He strained to hear what was going on just ahead of him, for he could not see past the clearing he had come to. Some new combat was clearly in progress, but of what type, he couldn’t discern. Queer, unnatural, almost mechanical noises mixed with far more familiar sounds of battle; whatever the cause, good men of East Rim were under duress and they needed their commander’s help. The Constable spurred his horse forward once more but as he did so, one of his militia men sped from the tangled briar in front of him in full sprint.

“RUN!” the soldier screamed, waving his arms frantically as if to suggest that his captain couldn’t see him. “For the love of Indra, Constable, ru—”

The man was cut off suddenly, savagely, in mid-shout; a giant metal claw shot out from the tangle and grabbed him about the waist, crushing him. He gurgled in agony as the claw raised him into the air and shook him vigorously. Gobert edged his horse back as it whinnied in terror; the mount had been bred and raised for battle, but this was an altogether different kind of violence. Accompanied by a great cacophony of metallic clanking, what appeared to be a giant, iron lobster emerged from the briar; Gobert could only watch in shocked horror as the monstrosity tore his comrade in two with one final shake. He swallowed hard as its “head” turned towards him.

Merciful Indra, he prayed. What new horror is this?

View
The Faithful Steward

“FOR JUSTINIUS!” cried Brukesh J Brukesh as he raised his great axe high into the air, his mighty war horse rearing as the host behind him roared in answer. Pleased with their collective candor, the Steward of Fort Justinius the Great wheeled Vhagina about and dropped his axe arm, pointing it towards the assembled force that had taken the field against the Paladins of the Rangelic Bardicon. On that signal, they charged.

The High Horsefuckers of the First Gnomish Church of the Rangelic Bardicon had foreseen this day, when one or more of the heretic lords of Nameless would send a sizable force against their stalwart company. But the non-believers failed to perceive the depths of their devotion to the Bond Breaker; their brotherhood had been forged in captivity and tempered by the righteousness of the Great Miser’s teachings. Fort Justinius would never fall, not while men of faith defended it.

Brukesh J Brukesh, so rechristened after the Great Deliverance, urged Vhagina into a gallop down into the basin where the enemies of the Ceaseless Singer had come to face them. He led a force ten score strong; while most were foot, there were enough mounted soldiers with him on the left wing to be considered a cavalry unit. The battle cries of the Justinii reverberated throughout the valley as they descended to meet their foes; their mighty standards, bearing the sigil of Fort Justinius the Great, a great black steed in tactical withdrawal upon a field of purest white, flapped in the slight breeze.

In front of them, the unbelievers were descending into chaos. The archers were concentrating their fire on … well, that was difficult to ascertain, but their arrows were certainly going for naught. The van had gathered into one incredibly long and incredibly indefensible line for Justinius only knew why, and, unless Brukesh J Brukesh’s orcish eyes deceived him, their meager reserves were already lying on the ground in supplication.

Truly, this is a sign from the Hallowed Accountant, he thought. He raised his axe arm once more, this time signaling for the horse to charge straight into the enemies’ center; one decisive blow should be more than enough to shatter their single line. He kicked Vhagina’s flanks, spurring his steed to greater speed still; his fellow paladins followed suit.

Fifty feet … forty feet … thirty feet … the blasphemers were close enough now that Brukesh J Brukesh could see the fear evident upon their faces. This battle had been decided before it had even been joined. He yelled once more as the blood frenzy came upon him … and then he spied something else, a sight he had not thought he should ever behold again in his lifetime. Could it really be …

“COMPANY, HALT!” he roared, pulling hard at Vhagina’s reins; the stallion reared up on its back legs in response. The rest of the horse did the same; the foot soldiers slowed to a trot, their war cries dying upon their lips as they followed their commander’s gaze up into the sky. The basin, a cacophonous din just moments before, fell into an unnatural silence.

“The prophecy!” someone behind Brukesh J Brukesh shouted at last, and in his heart, he knew this declaration to be true. For above him, as had been foretold by the Supreme Buckaroo of the First Gnomish Church of the Rangelic Bardicon, was the Dragon Disciple Reborn, descending from the very heavens upon the back of his marvelous flying steed. “The prophecy!” cried another member of the Justinii, then another, and then another still, until all had taken up the call. “The prophecy! THE PROPHECY!”

Still in shock (and awe), Brukesh J Brukesh dismounted from Vhagina and fell to his knees in worship as the Divine Funkiller came to rest upon this now-sanctified ground. As if one, as if compelled, the other Justinii did the same. He heard rather than saw (for his unworthy eyes were fixed upon the earth) the Immortal Nag approach him; his skin became gooseflesh as the Holy Retreater laid his golden hand upon his base shoulder.

“Rise, Brukesh J Brukesh,” said the Glorious Ranger and he did as bidden, powerless to resist the words of his god returned. “And rise, my friends, rise all of you, for my need is great, and this hour is most dire!”

The Justinii and their captain snapped back to attention with practiced ease. “JUSTINIUS!” they cried once more, raising their weapons in salute, and the basin echoed with His great name. It seemed there was still work to be done here and he and his comrades would see it done, of that Brukesh J Brukesh was certain.

The Prophecy has been fulfilled, he thought, trying to choke back tears. The Dragon Disciple is Reborn.

View
The Man with the Spirit of Some Zoo

FS543-04-20

And on the back of his war donkey, weighing in at just over 300 pounds, the Baron of Bashclaws, the Sultan of Braindoom, the Hairy Brown Bomber, the Smelly Smasher, the Illegitimate Thrasher, the Five-eyed Monster, hero and mentor to gnomes with inflated self-worth everywhere, legion commander of his royal know-it-all Justinius’ forces, Admiral General Captain Barnabus voooooooooooooooooooon Bashclaw!

At least, that’s how Bigby felt his squire should have introduced him to his troops, but of course Frank mucked the whole thing up. The skeleton just ran around in his wedding dress screaming and cackling, scaring the horses. Luckily, like all great military geniuses, Bigby knew first and foremost to expect the unexpected. In The Art of War, a famous treatise written in some zoo, of all places, it was said that great generals must be serene and inscrotable. Well, today all three of his scrotes were well-secured, and before the battle he drank enough ale to make any bugbear serene, even if he found himself in a tent full six-titted woman.

Carefully, Admiral General Captain Bashclaw closed the book he had been perusing and stared at the title: Greatest Naval Follies in the History of the Free States. Of course, that’s what it would have said if Bigby could read. It turned out his prescient knowledge of letters in the cave had lasted no longer than his incarceration, for he quickly became illegitimate again once he nursed himself back to health.

Recovering from that ordeal had been difficult, and he still had nightmares on occasion. For weeks following the incident, night terrors prevented him from finding sleep in solitude, so each night would end with him and Frank crawling into Justinius’ bed in their pajamas. Unfortunately, the gnome had a small bed and by morning Justinius had usually moved to the couch because Frank and Bigby took up so much space.

Despite losing his magical reading powers, Bigby still found ways to study military strategy. Carefully tucking the book into his saddlebag, he thought back to the countless hours he’d spent pouring over the pictures and diagrams, memorizing every position and maneuver, reveling in the genius of the strategies. There were nights he did not start drinking until four or five o’clock because he was so engrossed in the details of a particular battle.

Reading was not the same as leading, he reminded himself with a burp, it was time to issue battle orders. Slowly, Admiral General Captain Bashclaw surveyed his forces. With him, Baron Seelu brought a thousand archers, twelve thousand foot, and another eight thousand mounted men, though it did not escape Bigby’s laser-sharp observational skills that the mounted men seemed to have all their feet, so he didn’t see much difference. Of course, these men would all be in the vanguard – a great honor Justinius felt was important to bestow upon the lord.

Behind Seelu’s forces would be the guild’s own troops, mostly Colts, some ten thousand strong. The command Bigby had given to Tim-bo – hand-picked for his stoic demeanor and steadfast resolve. Morale derived largely from the commander, so it was important to pick someone unflappable. Even now, Tim-bo was twitching his head back and forth, scanning the surroundings like a hawk. His hands held the reins of his horse so tightly that his knuckles were white, undoubtedly overwhelmed with courage and a bloodlust for battle.

Nodding approvingly, Bigby turned to fix his gaze on the rear troops: Twenty thousand Thenian mercenaries, the so-called “Walking Squadron” – good foot soldiers, Justinius claimed, and more importantly strangers on the island. Each man bore a green fist on his chest that made them look like Jade Fist mercenaries, and the gnome called them “the other vanguard” for some reason. Still, it had been a wonderful art project when Justinius presented him with a bowl of green paint and a pile of white tunics. Fist painting was his favorite! Unfortunately, it also made a huge mess, and the whore had insisted on getting every last bit of paint out of his fur. He still had bald patches where she had used her trusty peanut butter knife to cut away dried clumps of paint.

Altogether, Bigby had two or three hundred men, most with feet. Removing his looking glass from the saddlebag, he put the large end to his larger eye and assessed his foe. Why DID people use these things? Everything looked so much smaller through the looking glass… By Bigby’s quick count, this Brukesh J Brukesh had brought twelve hundred million orcs, supported by an additional million hundred eight assorted Justinii of other races. SO! Bigby held the advantage in numbers…

Superior numbers would not be enough to win a great battle. Bigby needed to dispense some military geniustry to his men. He started with Seelu’s forces, riding his war donkey up and down their lines, “YOU WITH BOW! GIVE BOW TO MAN WITH SWORD! TAKE SWORD!” The archers were confused at first, but seeing the confidence in their commander’s face emboldened them, and they traded weapons with the foot soldiers. Now Bigby had lightly-armored foot soldiers, capable of moving more quickly, and heavily-armored archers who wouldn’t overshoot their opponents because their armor prevented them from fully drawing their bows. Genius.

Bigby made similar improvements with the cavalry, suggesting that half the men turn their saddles around backward so they could engage enemies behind them as effectively as those in front. He also gave their lances to the Thenian foot soldiers; horses could close quickly, so there was no need for such a long weapon. As for the guild troops, he needed them to be as serene as possible, so he issued an order that any man consuming fewer than twelve mugs of ale before entering battle would receive a million lashes.

Using terrain to one’s advantage was the hallmark of any great commander, and Admiral General Captain Bashclaw was no exception. The Justinii had marched down from their stronghold in the hills, and Bigby found the perfect point to intercept them at the bottom of a bowl-shaped basin. The south rim of the basin was open, but a small ridge obscured any activity beyond it so his troops would not be distracted by extraneous activities to their rear. Being surrounded by sloping terrain on all sides gave great acoustics, and the tight spaces fostered a sense of togetherness among the troops. Besides, some of their opponents might trip while charging downhill. Genius.

To the north, Bigby heard the sound of a giant belch echoing through the basin. He had taught the men to use signals to communicate troop movement: A light belch meant the enemy was marching slowly, while a deep, throaty one meant they were moving quickly; a watery, drunken belch full of bile and near-vomit meant they were trying to flank. Instinct took over, and Bigby began barking orders, “HORSES TO PORT, ARCHERS TO STARWHORE!” Facing into the sun would give the archers plenty of light to see their targets better. “MEN WITH FEET! AROUND STERN! HEDGELOG FORMATION!” He needed to get them behind the archers so they weren’t in the way.

Time seemed to slow down, and Bigby thought back to the great bugbear generals he studied while working on his BhD (Doctor of Bharbarism). There was Bashbrain the Clawdoom, who both in battle and in bed always took his opponents from the rear. There was Clawbrain the Bashdoom, who always seemed to oversleep and miss the battle because he drank too much the night before. And of course there was the greatest general of them all, Nathan Bashford Forrest. Once famously outnumbered, Bashford instructed all his men to shave their nethers, intimidating the enemy into thinking his army was more sizeable than it actually was. Genius.

Finally, the enemy crested the last hill to the north and came charging down to meet them. Tim-bo immediately galloped to the back of the formation to inspire and lead those troops as well. There would be a promotion in this for him. “ARCHERS! SHOOT AT WALL!” Several seconds later, arrows began flying in short, inconsistent bursts as the former foot soldiers struggled to operate their bows. Facing into the afternoon sun, they fired blindly at the western basin wall, while the cavalry scrambled to avoid falling arrows. This type of feint was a common strategy in bugbear warfare – the opposing war chief would often forget that he had NOT placed any troops in the targeted location, and would be tricked into thinking he had reinforcements coming from the direction the archers were firing. Bugbear war chiefs were notorious for forgetting where their troops were.

This Brukesh J Brukesh was no common war chief. Bigby’s feint did not seem to faze the formidable general; he would have to employ more devious tactics, “ANCHOR FROM STARWHORE BOW, HEAVE-TO THE NIPPED JIBE! LUFF-UP THE LUFF-HER! HARD OVER PORT, BACK WATER BY THE WIND, YAWING TACK ABOUT WASH!” Unfortunately, Bigby’s troops had not received the same degree of training in nautical maneuvers, and he was met with the blankest stares he’d ever seen. Somewhere in the distance someone dropped a sword with a deafening clank that broke the silence. “PINCER MOVE! LIKE BIG VAGINA!” He held up one hand to indicate a U-shape, and soon the men had scrambled into position. It faced toward the rear, of course, allowing a greater perimeter for the enemy troops to engage and be pulled into the trap: Any man who broke through the line would be the victim of a vicious pincher attack! He was most proud of his guild fellows: They were laying face down in the middle of the pincher formation, “pretending” to be asleep. Some had even covered themselves in a pool of vomit to disguise their native scent from attackers. Genius. Now there was nothing to do but wait – the Justinii were charging down the hill at full speed and would reach them at any second.

By: Mike, 08/18/12

View
The Prodigal Baroness

FS543-03-26

“Me lady, Baron Seelu do be here!”

Selova turned to study her new maid. The girl’s speech gave her away as a commoner, but her looks were certainly noble – just slightly shorter than herself, and Selova was tall for a woman. Long, curly brown hair framed a cream-colored face and dark blue eyes – penetrating eyes. Selova wondered what things those eyes had seen in their lives. After Rawlin’s farce of an engagement party, Selova had seen a few things herself, and learned more about bugbears than she cared to know.

“My lady, Muriel, MY lady. Not ‘me.’ Now show him in and fetch us some tea and pastries.”

“Yes, of course, m-me-my lady.”

At least she had her looks, Selova mused. Apparently the girl had been working in that ridiculous zoo when Ingrid found her. Gods, Selova hated that zoo. Shutting it down would be one of her first acts as Countess, along with eliminating the rest of the halflings’ guild. Halflings and thieves had no place in Selova’s East Rim. She didn’t understand why her father tolerated them.

Selova turned back to the windows and stared out at the ocean. The Lowell estate was one of the most luxurious on the island, built on one of the most beautiful locations: At the top of a cliff on the southeastern peninsula of the island, with a panoramic view of the ocean. Selova was proud of their estate – it exhibited power. The Lowells were the most powerful family in East Rim, possibly on the entire island, and it was important the other families realized it.

Gazing out on the water, she instinctively rubbed her shoulders. It had been a cold winter on the island, the coldest in recent memory. Even now, in March, it didn’t seem to be letting up. Shivering, her thoughts turned back to Muriel. Ordinarily, Ingrid would have set such a girl to scrubbing pots and running errands, with the promise of possibly serving her lady in a few years once her manners improved, so naturally Ingrid was shocked when Selova demanded the girl serve as one of her personal maids. The truth was, she liked looking at the girl. She felt her face become hot and flushed at some of the thoughts racing through her head, Perhaps this long winter wasn’t so bad if she had someone to warm her bed…

“Ahem.”

Selova spun on a heel to face the baron. Conscious of her red face, she took a deep breath and composed herself. Luckily, Baron Seelu didn’t seem to notice. He was a middle-aged man, but the top of his head was already bald, leaving only tufts of gray hair slicked carefully around his head. He was nervously kneading a hat in his hands. Actually, his hair seemed grayer than the last time she saw him. That was good.

“Thank you for receiving me. As you know, your father’s lands to the north are in great peril.”

“YOUR lands, Baron,” she corrected him, “entrusted to your protection by my father.”

Seelu wrinkled his nose in anger, “With all due respect, Selova, Palervale is a hard land. It’s difficult to farm on the windward side of the island, and we have practically no natural resources to speak of. It is only through my protection that your father even has a city on those lands!”

“Good. It sounds like everything is in order. I will inform my father what a good job you’re doing.” With that, she spun back to face the windows, blonde hair twirling behind her.

After a pause, Seelu continued more humbly, “My apologies, the last few months have been difficult.”

“When I am Countess, you will refer to me as ‘My lady.’”

There was another pause, and then, “Yes, my lady.”

Selova turned back to face him, but her eyes were drawn to Muriel rushing into the room. Her curls were disheveled from hurrying and she blew a few strands out of her face as she set down a tray with tea and pastries on it. She seemed to linger for a moment, giving Selova a momentary view of her bosom before standing and turning to leave. “Stay, my dear.” Baron Seelu gave her a puzzled look, “in case we need anything else.” Selova motioned to the corner and Muriel obeyed, standing with hands folded and eyes cast down at the floor.

Baron Seelu pulled out a chair for Selova, and they sat down to have tea. Although he poured a cup for himself, he hardly touched it. Good, the man was nervous. Perhaps he was even more desperate than she realized.

After a few minutes of awkward silence, Seelu lost his patience and let his mouth run, “The Justinii have been raiding us non-stop for nearly two months now. Judging by all the attention we’re getting, they must think Palervale is the only city on the whole damn island!”

“How many?”

“Nearly two hundred, according to my scouts.”

Selova blinked, that was more than she thought. Still, it could be handled. She set her cup down and stated matter-of-factly, “I can mobilize 456 men for your defense.”

Baron Seelu nearly spit out his tea, “Your father’s troups!?”

“No, the militia. My father has 91 standing guards in the city; in the city they will stay. However, there are also 456 names on the militia roll – strong men, with monthly training and discipline. More than a match for a hodge-podge cult of raiders.”

The baron narrowed his eyes before responding, “Why would you do this for me?”

Selova held his gaze for effect and chose her words carefully, “When I am Countess, I will want my subjects to know what a loyal protector I am.”

Seelu replaced his untouched cup on the platter, “That’s it?” After thinking for a moment, he continued, “Easy enough, although you should know that not everybody in East Rim is keen on the idea of a countess. Most of them prefer a count, and Baroness Rawlin… well, you were at the party, too. She’s not fit to handle her own affairs – or sharp objects for that matter – but even if she managed to remember to throw her support behind one of the barons, I doubt it would be you.”

“There’s more,” Selova took a deep breath to control her anger, “You’ve had correspondence with those horse thieves!”

The shocked look on his face said she was correct, but still Seelu protested, “I don’t even know what you’re talking about!”

“I saw you speaking with the gnome at Rawlin’s party, and apparently he’s visited you three times since then: Once each month, presumably offering to solve your little problem for a nominal fee.” The man just stared at her, so she continued, “Really, Wilmot, hiring a band of horse thieves as mercenaries to protect your people? They’d rob you blind even worse than the orcs, and afterwards my father would strip you of your lands AND your hide.”

“That’s enough! I did not come here to be falsely accused!” He abruptly rose from his chair and grabbed his hat.

“Relax, Wilmot. I want you to accept their offer.” He gave her a puzzled look and she continued, “Under one condition. You will ask for this bugbear, Bigby. You were impressed by his prowess in the duel, and want him to lead the force. He’s clearly an accomplished killer, more than capable of managing the destruction of a band of orcs. Of course, after he’s done with them, my captain will be waiting in the wings with 456 men, ready to destroy him.”

Baron Wilmot Seelu blinked for a few moments before the look of confusion on his face was replaced by comprehension. He sat back down in the chair before inquiring, “You really were good friends with Lieutenant Beaumont, weren’t you?”

“I shared his bed a few times. As I’m sure you’re aware, that’s the best way to control men.” In truth, he had been the only man to ever share her bed.

“Indeed. Sad that he died so young, but perhaps it was for the best; he would have outlived the good Lady Rawlin by quite a number of years.” This time Selova was the one who was silent, and Seelu continued, “But you’re in more of a predicament now, aren’t you? If anything were to happen to Baroness Rawlin, that bugbear would become the largest land-owning noble in all of South Rim, and it seems unlikely he would turn out to be your biggest supporter. Rawlin’s well-being must currently be your highest concern, and I know there’s nothing you hate more than being concerned for Lady Rawlin’s well-being.”

Selova gritted her teeth, “You are sharper than I realized, Wilmot.”

“So are you. Inaction by Lady Rawlin isn’t support for your enemies, but it’s certainly not support for you either. Equipping her with a strong husband, loyal to you, was an expert stroke. It’s too bad the bugbear shat on the whole damn canvas.”

“Then you’ll accept my terms?”

“Of course! It’s not like I have any choice. Besides, declaring my love and loyalty for Baroness Selova Lowell is much cheaper than paying mercenaries, although in truth my coffers are empty so maybe they’re the same price. I will help you set this trap.”

“Excellent, let us discuss the details. Muriel, more tea! This has gotten cold.”


As Belle glided out of the room, her head was swimming. A trap! They wouldn’t be able to tell Bigby, of course – he’d make a colossal mess of it – but she needed to get back to the guild and discuss with the others. Unfortunately, it would have to wait until tonight. For now, she would serve tea and listen.

By: Mike, 08/10/12

View

I'm sorry, but we no longer support this web browser. Please upgrade your browser or install Chrome or Firefox to enjoy the full functionality of this site.