Apr 162014
 

First off, it seems that the Leicester university grounds has a bit of a problem with 3G connectivity, and a wifi network for students and staff only. So with that in mind, I am very sorry that there were no updates live from the event.

Although, I would have had very little with which to update you all, as I ended up doing no gaming all weekend. I played a little bit of the Firefly board game with the missus when we were relaxing on our day off together on the Monday, but that’s not really what you were expecting.

Basically, a lot of fun was had, and that comes with certain drawbacks with regard to how prepared one is to spend several hours sat in a stupidly hot room with a bunch of strangers. Let take it from the top though, so you can all get one side of the Student nationals experience.

Our gaming society met up at our local watering hole and regular meeting place late morning to enjoy a hearty breakfast to prepare ourselves for a day of fun and frivolity. This set the tone well, as a few of us enjoyed our full English with a pint of ale, rather than the traditional pot of tea. What’s important to state at this point is how crucial it is to understand your limits when drinking. Not just when going to a 3 day event, but in general.

As previously mentioned, I like a pint or two, but I doubt anyone alive would say I have a drinking a problem. I know my limits, and when I drink, it has next to no impact on my life, baring an occasional fuzzy head come the morning. A few hours later, we were on the road, sipping away on cocktails and the like, chatting about gaming. One of your newest members professed her unease at what lay ahead.

She was new to gaming in general, and had never been to an organised event, let alone one that would judge her abilities as a gamer. Luckily, HUGS came to her rescue by making sure she understood that nothing was more important than her enjoying herself. If she was having a bad time, or feeling too nervous and apprehensive, there was no reason at all for her to stick around. There would always be people around with friendly faces, and most of them were a call away.

You see, although the Nationals is a tournament, only the war/card/board gamers can go in with any idea about what it takes to win. Role playing is massively subjective, and the ‘No-bad-fun’ argument really does apply when dealing with games like this. Most people have no idea what system they’re playing in, who they will be playing with, or even the exact feel of the game that everyone around the table will be expected to help create an maintain.

This goes some way towards explaining why I missed my Saturday gaming slot, but more on that to follow. You see, there were problems to deal with all weekend, to do with organisation, and they started pretty damned early. We were told which building to head to on which road to find the reception so that everyone could pick up their room keys. This was the wrong building, and lead to a couple of people getting lost, and some low level frustration for the chap driving our minibus.

This was compounded by the of effort put into accommodating the GMs that had volunteered from other societies, who had no idea about the campus layout, or local amenities. They were given no maps, and poor instructions about what needed to be done come the morning and the start of the games.

For now though, it was on to the rooms to drop gear off, freshen up after a hot drive, and in my case, get someone to shave my head. Long story.

The afternoon/evening then passed in good humour, and fine spirits. There was drinking and dancing for those so inclined – myself included, which was how I aggravated an old neck injury, and was in no state to game on Saturday – and quite rooms for pick up games, movie showings and general relaxation for those who fancied a quieter night.

It was great fun being at the nationals that night, probably more so than almost any other nationals. I have mentioned the somewhat shonky organisation of the event, but they kept the beer flowing, and the DJ was amazing at his job. At a little after 3 in the morning, I was finally ready to call it a night. I will post some thoughts on the gaming that took place my involvement on another day.

Apr 112014
 

If anyone from the law is reading this, we are totally not drinking on route to the nationals. We have had some fun discussing what it takes to win in competitive role playing. The consensus seems to be that winning matters nothing when compared to having fun. There are too many criteria to be judged and no way of knowing what they will be, so just have fun.

Hell, if you’re having a bad game, don’t even feel like you have to stick around. Just be polite and do what you need to do to have fun.

Apr 112014
 

Well, this has been a crazy few months. I will update later the full details, but for now it is worth pointing out that I am in the early stages of registering a business as a limited company with myself as a director. I will shortly after that be opening my own comic book store – find it here, or on Facebook - and as such, I have been massively swamped. This morning though, I start a three day break away from all that by heading to the student nationals.

If you don’t know what that is, chances are you’re not a role player affiliated with a UK university society. If you do know what that is, you’re probably getting ready yourself, and I shall see you in this afternoon!

This nationals is a strange one for me, but I ma really looking forward to it. I missed last year’s event due to a total lack of funds, and since then have been squirreling away money so I wouldn’t miss it this year. It is also my first event as a blogger – yes, I know I’ve been a bit absent lately, but I’m sure you all understand why. I will be using the event to get back into the blogging habit by posting a few times over the weekend with reviews and comment pieces when I’m able to.

The other reason it’s going to be odd, is that I’ve been cutting back on my drinking. As someone soon to be self employed, sick days with a hangover are no longer an option, so cutting right back has been a sensible move. The nationals though, is a time of drunken merriment with friends, some of whom I only see at the event. I know that getting drunk is not a prerequisite to have fun, but it is very much in the spirit of our society to cut loose for the weekend and just let ourselves get merry.

Will I be able to keep my drinking limited, or will I cut back? And if so, will I find I have less fun at the weekend? Only time will tell.

Some basics other than drinking for those unfamiliar with the event then. It is a weekend tournament of gaming, with each team fielding a bunch of gamers split into categories, covering role playing, war gaming, card gaming, and board games. Most of the time, you will know what to expect when you rock up to the event, as the categories are pretty obvious. War gamers for instance will know which army to bring, and if you select the D&D category, you know what you’re in for. This means that it’s possible to prepare and practice in advance to increase your chances of winning, and thus hosting the tournament next year.

My own team – yep, I’m president again, so it is my team – doesn’t really do this. We have a small handful of war gamers, but everyone else tends to play open categories. This means that you will have an idea of genre, but none of system. I myself am in open Supers. I’ve played this about four times so far, which means two different games over the weekend, and I have yet to play the same system twice.

I have no idea what system I will be playing, or what setting, or even character type I will have. So, with no preparation at all, I will turn up tomorrow morning – maybe a nit hungover – and have to impress my GM with my role playing skills. It is bloody hard to determine just what criteria they will be using to judge who is the best, but I will be trying my best to just have a good time.

A couple of years back I ran a Victoriana game set in the Unhallowed Metropolis universe for the nationals, and gave first place from my game to the lad who jumped into character with the smallest prompting, and kept trying out new things, rather than relying on the listed skills on his sheet. I have no idea if my GM will be the same though.

As mentioned, there are two games over two days, each lasting a healthy few hours. Each category tends to have a couple of GMs who run their game for two different groups. What’s great fun is catching up with people in the bar in the Saturday evening and trying to get clues about what game you might face, but refusing to give out spoilers to anyone about your own game. It gives people a great opportunity to seek out some strangers, and have a reason to engage with them.

Our hobby has a history of being full of socially awkward types who struggle in day to day interactions. I challenge anyone to spend time in the bar with us on a Saturday evening and still think that. Sure, some are slower at opening up, but everyone in that bar will be someone you have something in common with. I have a great time just strolling around, dropping into conversations about anything that I hear that interests me, and listening to other people dropping into ours.

All in all, a great way to spend a weekend, and if the wifi gods allow, I will post an update or two as the weekend progresses. Sorry I haven’t been posting as much – and left the duelist story unfinished, I will get back to it, I promise – but I will try and make up for that over the next few days/weeks.

Mar 042014
 

Brand had been busy. The tent that we were using as our base cape in Tuthom-Pothrie was in great shape, and was perfect for showing off the supposed wealth of the Skuza family. The New-Raphelian was used to a harsher environment though, and had reinforced it, as well as adding some extra flaps to give us more privacy where needed and some room to avoid the sun that was now sitting high in the sky.

I had done everything that I could think of to prepare myself for the fight, but still had many turnings until I needed to make a move. Several other traders had set yup shop throughout the morning though, so I decoded to entertain myself by imagining what I would spend my money on were I lucky enough to get paid. There were no swords finer than my own, and the dagger was a custom made one of a kind that I would struggle to replace this far from home. I contemplated the armour on offer though.

My chest was well protected, but a blow to the arms or legs could have easily crippled me. There was nothing to improve my situation that came within my current budget though. I did remember about the brigandine though; although it offered the same protection to my arms, and would be slightly more vulnerable to axe slashes than my chain, it was designed to be worn in polite society.

It had not come to me in great condition though, so would need repairing to be at all useful as an outfit that didn’t make it look like I was walking around just looking for a fight. There was an armourer or two kicking around, mainly looking to sell items they already had on them rather than make stuff to order. Once outside of the Profanerium I was sure I would find better appointed dealers with their own forge and slave children to keep the bellows blowing, but down here, there was only so much that could be carried on the back of a wagon.

One of them was happy enough to take a look at the armour, and offered to get it back into shape for a mere 50 Gold Dituri. That was still a little outside of my price range, but at least I knew where I could go when we got paid.

Just thinking back to how important it was to get paid back then. It’s hard to imagine a time in my life previous to then that I would ever have needed to worry about having the money on me to cover my bills. Might be why my attitude was still a little off when it came to money. It would prove difficult to convince a smith to repair a bit of kit without payment up front, but by the end of the day, I was happily racking up tabs for food, drink and a room for the night without even thinking about it.

By the time I was back from my almost totally pointless walk, Valerius and Fjorlief were back at the tent, but Caderyn was nowhere to be seen. I wasn’t surprised, but I was hoping to see him again soon. Hell, at all would have been nice.

Since the food we had mainly been surviving on was either killed in the wild or part of the rations that made up Skuza’s possessions, we needed to get some food from the market. Thankfully, there fayre was greatly improved from the last food I had bought outside of a Pelosian city. As we sat there munching away of fresh fruit and dried meat, a large and extravagant palanquin could be seen heading towards us.

Not long before I left home these had been all the rage. The larger and more ostentatiously decorated the better, preferably with a entire regiment needed to keep it aloft. Although this would certainly give any Raphelian the run for their money in the decoration stakes, its size looked more a necessity than a choice, as its passenger was a huge beast of a man.

I don’t use that term lightly here either, the man was messed up. He had lost an ear and an eye, one leg was sadly absent, along with several fingers and what good looks he may have once possessed. Luckily, he seemed pleased to see us, rather than in the mood to feast on our spirits, and introduced himself as Erasmus Costanzo.

The inner workings of the Pelosian legal system make about as much sense to me as Yerwian finances. It seemed that it was no good for either Valerius or Eduardo to just step into a court room and represent themselves. Hell, they could both have been lawyers, and I think they would still need someone more important than them to get involved. Well, this heavily injured ex-legionnaire was to be that man for them.

I did my best to shown my respect, bowing and offering to pay for a drink to lubricate a social situation I barely understood, and that seemed to go down well. Whilst he and Valerius talked I set out to find a cheap bottle of yellow grass wine to keep him happy, and some fresh water for the serviles that had been tasked with hauling his not inconsiderable bulk around the city. This meant I missed a whole bunch of talking about Skuza and his chances, but what little I did catch didn’t fill me with confidence.

Costanzo was not easily convinced of his clients innocence, and was instead pushing fro a straight up confession. The word around the city – or at least the Profinerium – was that justice was required, and that it should be carried out quickly. If my future ability to eat didn’t rely him on quite so much, I doubt I would have minded at all if Eduardo took this option, and let himself out the easy with his own honour blade.

Luckily, Valerius seemed just as pissed off with that thought as I did, and spent most of the afternoon trying to convince Costanzo of our patron’s innocence. There is talk of a twin brother and some under the table dealings with the deceased, but anything other than that I struggled to follow, and soon lost interest in. He seemed happy with what he had though, and left in the manner with which he arrived, but not before taking the time to ask me my own opinions of Skuza.

There was no point painting a picture that wouldn’t stand up to close inspection, so I kept my answer honest, “Well Ser Costanzo, he is a man of high ideals and high standards, but of low ability in trying to meet either of them. The physical evidence I am sure, will prove right what I have always suspected, and what you will see for yourself when you meet with him. No matter what he might claim otherwise, he lacks the constitution to even consider killing someone. Hell, they could be charging towards him with axes drawn, and he’d be more likely to faint than fumble his ferros from its scabbard. I’ve seen it happen, and so has everyone sat down with you today.

“On the road, it paid to convince Eduardo that he was a martial man of great cunning and guile, who only needed to resort to violence when every other avenue was closed to him. It was good for him to think himself indestructible, as it made him take some risks that allowed us to be hear as early as we are, and I was happy yo feed him the lies he wanted to hear. But they were just that: lies. Spend a turning in his company, and you’ll have no doubts at all about him”.

Costanzo’s eyes had never left my face as I spoke, and at the mention of the lies I told him, I don’t doubt there was a trace of a half smile playing across his scarred face. He seemed happy with my reading of the man though, and was soon away, leaving the rest of us with a few turnings left before we would be off.

*     *     *

It looked like everyone of us still there would be joining me in my little excursion. There was to be other activities that night, including some more mole fighting, and various other games, including Velochi. Being a sport of my homeland, I was looking forward to relaxing and watching a match, but regretted my short funds as I would be unable to place a wager. As it turned out, the games were not quite what I had in mind.

A large Randish looking fellow approached us at a slow meandering pace, making it look like he accidentally came upon our party rather than seeking us out. He introduced himself as Rembrandt, and taking in my orange sash inquired if I had arranged a “one-on-one” Velochi match for later in the day. I nodded, and invited him to sit and join us for a while, but he held up a hand, “Sadly, there are many things this eve that require my attention. I am here at present to ensure the terms of the match are agreed upon. Am I to understand that this is personal match, which will see no outside interference?”

“You are correct my friend, I just hope my opponent is just as sporting”.

“This is guaranteed. Just a couple more details to be worked out then, is this… match to the bitter end, or just until a wound satisfies honour?”, I nod at the word honour. “Very good, and should we expect both participants to come as they are?” Another nod as I realise that this could give a man with a large group of friends and financial backing some measure of an advantage against me, but going in without my own tricks would be the death of me.

“That’s everything I need to know, in which case I will wish you whatever fortune the Goods see fit to bestow upon you. Before I leave though, am I correct in placing you as part of the honourable Ser Skuza’s party”?

“That is true, it is his honour that I am defending. In the Velochi match”.

“Of course”, he replied with a smile, “The rumours are that he will swing tomorrow at the order of the courts, or be found in a pool of his own blood having taken his own way out. If such a thing is to occur, know that there will be a place for you, and those wagons contain just the kind of thing that can be easily removed and sold for a profit. Sterk is always looking for new friends. Be seeing you”.

And with that, he was winding his way back through the crowds. Sterk. The name I had been hearing on occasion for most of this journey. A mercenary captain who was looking to become City Champion to secure his position in the borderlands of the Margo Marrisi. Being tied to someone so important was something worth thinking about, but in a large company of mercenaries, I would surely be lost in the crowd.

My entire reason for leaving my home and striking out to the borderlands was to make a name for myself, not just make some money as a faceless soldier. Even the story men of Thorgrim were just men. I had defeated two of them in single combat, and left a third to report his shame to his master. I already knew that the only role I would be comfortable with in a free company was as a captain, but that didn’t interest me. Tonight I would find out how well placed I would be as a duelist though.

With Rembrandt away, and a mole tucked under Fjorlief’s arm, we set off for the fair. Everyone seemed in good spirits, with Drazar seemingly unable to keep his trap shut. Before long though he separated from us, probably hoping to avoid attention by going it alone and keeping an eye out on any of opponents’ friends who might decide to interfere.

The fair itself was a surprisingly simple affair. There was certainly plenty to do that would keep anyone entertained, but I had been expecting something much more gaudy fir a Pelosian city, even in the Profinerium. It was understated in its revelry, but everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. The Hutzlunr especially, as she had a mole to wager on. She had spent some time before entering it into a competition, making sure it would win. I knew she could do the same for me, but wanted to win my fight on my own.

Her little pet did well though, and even coming out with a few scratches that required some attention, Fjorlief managed to win some money on the contest. It seemed that she wasn’t the only one in a betting mood that evening. My lack of funds stopped me from putting an money down on the odds of my own success, but a few of the others seemed very confident in my abilities. Looking back, I imagine Drazar wishes he hadn’t bet quite so much money though, and that’s taking into account the fact that I’m still alive to write this account of my younger days.

*     *     *

With all the other fun out of the way, we arrived at the Velochi pitch with time to spare. We even manage to catch a game in progress, but I was too busy getting ready. I could see my opponent, and he was surrounded by not only his usual cronies, but a few unfamiliar faces including someone laying on hands. Earth Power it was then, but there were limits to what that could do. With the power of Geomancy, I could alter the laws of physics themselves, so smiled to myself as everyone began drifting away to place bets of their own. Fjorlief took the time to at least wish me luck with an embracing hug. I felt buoyed by her support, and whispered in Pelo-Margo, “I dedicate this victory to you”.

Her cheeks had a certain blush to them as we parted smiling, and I was even more determined to give her a victory she deserved. Our names were being announced so I shed the last of my outer clothing that could be used against me. I had left my cloak behind, so shrugged off my over shirt and left my new hat on the ground and began to write a rune of sharpening on my Basaedo. Used correctly, it would allow me to cut deeper into the and through the hardest armour, and do massive damage to the flesh beneath.

Unlike most of my combat runes, it would last minutes rather than seconds, but took far too long to scribe to be useful in a surprise attack. As I approached the markings and listened to Rembrandt introduce us and lay out the rules, keeping up the pretense of a Velochi match all the way through, I brought Pelanore’s rune of befuddlement to mind, hoping to launch it quickly to give me the edge.

Before I knew it though, the Velochi ball was hurled through the air and struck the bell to signal the start of a match, and our duel. I was still thinking of the rune, distracted by the noise and was barely able to drop into a defensive stance before the windbag in front of me acted.

He quickly reached to the small of his back and withdrew a small long object. My heart stopped as for a moment I thought he had managed to get hold of a Spitzroden. I didn’t have long to think on the matter though, as sparks and flames were soon whipping towards me after the telltale flash of an inscribed room being broken. I dropped down and to the left, but wasn’t quite quick enough and took a blast of sparks against my chest.

My armour did its job though, taking the brunt of the brunt of the attack and allowing only a slight burning wound to open up. Nothing like a wound that would give Rembrandt the chance to call a pause to the proceedings and allow my opponent the chance to claim first blood. So, earth power and runes were at his disposal; I would like to say I didn’t have to be worried, but that would be a lie. I was committed though, so just did what I could and tried to ignore the fear in my gut.

Before he could surprise me again I loosed my own rune. I had done my best to stop it being quite as obvious as his flashy trick, and it struck well. His next step was sloppy, and when he tried to flick the wand around to ready another blast attack he almost dropped it, and even looked unsure if he was ready to strike at me again. It was a momentary distraction though, and I was soon the target of more sparks. This time I was ready for it, and his aim was definitely off.

I quickly stepped around him, moving lightly on the balls of my feet until I had closed the distance between us. I had no idea how many other tricks he had down the back of his trews, so went all out to inflict a crippling wound. I feinted right, but spun on my heel and struck high and hard, the point of my sharpened steel pushing through his cheek like it was fog. I felt the grating of metal against his teeth as the shape of my blade pushed his jaws open.

The tip of my Basaedo saw sunlight again as it pushed all the way through, tearing his tongue from its root. With another spin I had pulled away and withdrawn my sword. If he had survived the attack, I had left myself open, but it was certainly enough of a blooding for the bell to ring. And ring it did, but before the first echoes reached my ears my opponent’s head had lolled back on his shoulders and his knees buckled. The crowd gasped as he fell fully backwards, a final gush of blood as his heart beat its last.

I held my arms up and open to the applauding crowd and walked towards the fallen man. Rembrandt had approached to lift my right arm up in celebration, taking the time to sneak in his own congratulations. There was something more to be gained from this victory than honour and renown though. The man had fallen because of his threats and accusations against Skuza as he lay unconscious on the floor. His friends might still make trouble for us, so I had to negate them too. Seeing the Rarkscian fallen from his limp hand, I knew my opponent had one more use.

Leaning towards Rembrandt, I asked, “Is there a rule on who claims the spoils of victory? That is a very good looking knife.” I was not shocked to see a hint of a disapproval on his face, but he didn’t stop me as I bent to claim my prize. A good part of the crowd went suddenly silent, but soon began to murmur amongst themselves. I walked towards the crowd that had surrounded the mouthy git that had fallen beneath my blade, looking for whomever seemed to demand the most respect.

It was an older Dummonii that stood out, so I walked towards him with the curved knife in my off hand. “Your friend fought well, and he should be honoured. I will always remember him. But the reason we engaged in that fight still remains, and I wish to see it gone. He accused my employer with no evidence, and tried to kill him as he lay prone on the ground. He has answered for that, but I worry his friends will also seek their own… justice. I offer you the fallen man’s Rarkscian as a token of peace and goodwill, with the understanding that we shall hear no more of this from your people.”

He looked down at me from his place in the stands, like I was but a bar room brawler, but in my right hand I still held a wicked looking blade dripping with his friend’s blood. He turned to talk to his friends, and even mo knowledge of the Dummonii tongue did me no favours as they spoke so quietly and quickly. When he turned back around, he looked happier, but still determined. “It is not our way to fight as he did, but you fought well. Taking a Rarkscian is not something done lightly for our people”, at this he motioned his group, which included some very unhappy faces, “but returning it like you have is appreciated. So we will honour your request and cease our activities in regard to Skuza”.

It had worked. I had won a victory, and saved my employer from some small measure of inconvenience. I could only hope that Valerius had it in him to pass on my good deeds. Hell, i had made him some money, so that might help. It looked like everyone had done well out of my victory too, but Drazar seemed pissed about something. The silly bastard had tried to interfere in the fight after the first runic attack against me, and the druid on their side had struck back with some amount of force.

I had no sympathy for him though; all I had asked of him was to make sure no one else got involved, and he had gone against my wishes just to make some coin. If this was known by too many people it could do considerable harm to my reputation, so I just dismissed him with a wave of my hand as Rembrandt approached smiling. “My friend! Come, drink with us! We toast your impressive victory and drink until the sin comes up!”

It had been a long time since I allowed myself to get drunk, but the looks I was getting from Fjorlief convinced me to invite her along and spend the night enjoying myself without worrying about anything but the pleasure of spending time with a beautiful woman.

Feb 252014
 

“Geru! Bring my bag and a chair for Eduardo”, shouted Valerius as he walked out of the tent and saw me standing over the boss. The Gods damned Dummonii was still in my face, shouting to anyone that would listen that the unconscious man at my feet was a cold blooded murderer.

At the time, I had no clue as to what had happened inside the tent, but I would have bet my share of this venture plus my left testicle that Skuza would have passed out at even the thought of killing a man, let alone the fat bugger who was rapidly cooling on the side of the canvas. He was even more pale than usual, the sun practically passing straight through him as he lay there, eyes flickering behind the lids. But of course, none of this made any difference to the hothead determined to get past my defenses.

Every other breath he shifted his weight as if looking for me to fall for a feint and leave an opening for him to strike through. I would have loved to just leap forward and run the little prick through, but the Vigiles we closing in, and one dead body was enough to cause us all plenty of problems.

Luckily, as the most senior Numare present – and awake – Valerius was able to get them on side, and eventually convinced them to allow him to investigate the nature of the murder, if that was what it was, and use the results of his work to defend Ser Skuza from the charges.

I will admit to taking some small pleasure in letting the eventually roused Eduardo know that he was the one everyone suspected, but it was a fleeting happiness. With the exception of Valerius, the rest of us were so unimportant as not to matter, but were asked simply to not leave the city. Since I had no intention of going anywhere without being paid, this wasn’t a problem for me, but Caderyn was already keeping one eye on the horizon. Whatever his own reason for wanting to get into the city, it looked like getting paid for his work wasn’t the priority.

For now though, Skuza was to be placed under arrest. In my youth I would wake up often in gaol cells, hungover and smelling foul, devoid of coin and dignity. As it turned out, this was just one more thing that was different for those born to the right parents in Pelosia. All that was asked of him was to surrender his honour blade, and he was then placed under house arrest in a villa that would put a fine Raphelian hotel to shame.

I was still worried that the cocky little shit from earlier was around, haranguing the crowd and causing trouble, so decided to stay with the boss for as long as I could. With my shoulder under one armpit, and Valerius doing the duty at the other, we soon got him where he needed to be once more. Getting him to shut up was a whole other problem though. I did my best, if Valerius wasn’t going to get him to keep his trap shut, all i could do was gently suggest that he take his fellow Numare’s council, and speak only when requested, and only the topic at hand.

Whether or not that would make the slightest difference, only time would tell. I had other business to finish that day, and luckily we had managed to argue that we could retain our own possessions even with the haul from Skuza’s wagons kept until he was cleared of the charge against him. That meant I would have my shaving kit and some other essentials that I couldn’t afford to replace. When I got back to our group’s tent, almost everyone was still kicking around, cooling their heels. Vitus was nowhere to be seen though, and this was not good news.

He had been dealing with some matter of trade when Skuza had gone and gotten himself involved in matters of life and death, and had only been informed of his Master’s arrest whilst Valerius and I were walking Eduardo towards his incarceration. He had apparently gone looking for us, but we hadn’t crossed paths on our walk back. Who knew where he had gone, or when he’d return, but a voice raised in dissent was attracting my attention at that time.

Being a head taller than most I was able to see the prick that had tried his damnedest to do me and Skuza in earlier, and he was still trying to rally the troops against us. I walked straight over to him, moving through the crowd without disturbing anyone unnecessarily until I was stood yards from him. His friends were all nearby, but moved apart as I strode forwards. When I was a few feet away his moved down to his side, and as much as I wanted to kill him, this wasn’t the time.

“We have unfinished business you and I”, says I, staring him down. The bugger was keen, I’ll give him that, and looked ready to draw steel then and there. “Don’t be a fucking moron! The Vigiles are already on high alert, and are stood in sight of us. No, we can wait, me and you can go walking in the moonlight this evening”.

“Actually, I like girls”, he says to some nervous laughter from his cronies.

“Not. My. Intention. I don’t know this city, but I’m sure there’s somewhere we can go and sort out this little disagreement, just the two of us.”

“Yeah, I know a place. Somewhere that your lot use”, and as he said this he nodded to the orange sash across my chest, “We’ll be left alone there. What time?”

“A turning before midnight. It’ll be plenty dark and less chance of anyone interrupting. Come alone”, I finished as I turned and walked away.

*     *     *

When I got back, there was still no sign of Vitus, and Valerius was off investigating. I’m sure he knew his job, but I certainly didn’t and as such took very little interest in it. I had a good few hours before my appointment, so set about planning a few things. The rules of gentlemanly combat are very strict, but since I was no gentleman, and my opponent even less of one, I fully expected him to  break the rules, and needed to plan according to these expectations.

Drazar had more than once thanked me for saving his life, or at least doing anything I could to make it easier for him to survive. I felt a little bad roping him into this endeavor, as it was purely personal, but he had some skills that wold be damned useful. As everyone else was sat relaxing, I took him to one side and brought him up to speed on my evening’s plan. He didn’t seem that bothered, but once I informed him that our slate would be wiped clear if he could tag along out of sight, he took more of an interest.

I made sure he knew that I was expecting the Dummonii to be bringing friends, and that was all I was concerned about. I had some runic tricks left up my sleeve, plus the time to implant a couple more before our meeting, and that meant I was confident I could kill the arsehole. If he turned up with half a dozen men who were less than honourable, I doubted I would live to see the sunrise. The half blood nodded as I asked him to help, just enough to keep an eye on what was going on and dissuade any hangers-on from joining the fray.

With one contingency plan in place, I set about a second. Fjorlief was sat with the rest of us, looking bored and ill at ease. I motioned that I would like a private word and would be willing to provide beer to sweeten the deal. So of course the Hutzlunr was happy to tag along. Before I jumped straight in though, I thought it best to find out what was troubling her. I don’t pretend to understand the workings of prophecy, but she was apparently concerned about one that had been with her since her youth.

On our way to Tuthom-Pothrie we had heard about a competition for city champion that had attracted the attention of some mercenary captains trying to secure a position in the borderlands that would give them power through the winter too. Hell, it attracted my attention too, and I was still a young man then to be thinking such lofty thoughts. The rest of the details were beyond me, but had her terrified of what the future held.

As far as I was concerned, there was nothing to my future worth worrying about other than the night I had planned and getting paid as soon as I could. With that in mind, I made sure Fjorlief had a beer in hand before asking if she was free this evening. She looked me dead in the eye and for the first time I thought she got a hint of what I thought about her, and what I would much rather be doing with her on a cool clear night. I just smiled and let her know about my moonlit rendezvous and how much I would appreciate her being close by while I dealt with the talkative fuck who had so pissed me off earlier while trying to kill Skuza. Before we had gotten pain no less.

She smiled and nodded at that, but didn’t seem sure just how much help she could be. I did my best to reassure her about her talents, and how much I would be relying on her to see me through the darkness. Luckily, I think she needed a distraction, so agreed to join me. With one more drink in her hand I left her to rejoin everyone else while I made use of the merchants that were already present and able to sell their goods due to having the good fortune of managing to avoid being arrested for murder.

Within ten minutes I was happily sporting a fine felt hat with a tall red feather, and wandered back over to my friends. Caderyn was still sat where I had left him, and that surprised me. Dropping down next to him, and offering the goblet I had barely sipped from, I asked him why he was still with us. He seemed like he was itching to make a move, but was staying put. “I have business elsewhere, but with the attention from the Vigiles, I daren’t make a move”. I could understand his reticence to attract attention, but where he needed to go was still within the city limits.

True enough, he would struggle to get where he needed to be without a Numare tagging along or a whole boat load of coin for bribing any officials he met on the way. There was little I could do to help though, other than assure him that come the night, there would be some attention on me rather than him. Luckily, he got my meaning, and was even able to tell me where I needed to be come the hour.

I lost some time after that, as concentrating on my runes costs me almost all of my ability to pay attention to my surroundings. When I looked up next, the Dummonii was nowhere to be seen, and I could only assume that he had tried his luck to rejoin his friends and family. Vitus was still noticeably absent, and I was beginning to worry about our wayward caravan master.

Valerius was off too, but he had been away for most of the day thus far, working the case to get Skuza off from the murder charge. We did have some extra company though. One of Fjorlief’s people had joined us, and she was a sight. Young and slight, shorter than most girls of her country, but still taller than damned near every Pelosian she walked past. Her hair was long and fair, and it took me a moment to realise that although the two Hutzlunrs were friends, Fjorlief wasn’t exactly pleased to see her.

Still, she went back to join the new arrival’s family leaving just a few of us in our master’s tent waiting for news, or in my case, for combat.

Feb 172014
 

The bath I enjoyed that evening was possibly the finest experience of my whole time at the Margo Marissi, and I had a lovely shave to follow that made my head look considerably more civilised. I might add that the shaving was performed by a delightfully nubile and pretty thing dressed in what was almost a red gown. I’m sure I’m not the only one to have heard the rumours of the sapphic delights on offer to those well placed within the Mazzerine order. I could have spent a damned sight longer in private contemplation, imagining such an event from every conceivable angle, but I had dinner with an old priest that I simply could not avoid.

Dried, powdered, and slightly distracted, I made my my towards the dining area, and by all the gods, these priests and monks spared no expense in making sure everyone knew they were chosen of Pelo his holy self. In the waiting area alone was an eight foot tall harp, that was playing itself! Such a mechanical wonder of science had to be seen to be believed, and since none of you were there – unless Valerius is reading this, correcting my grammar and tutting because he thinks he’s taller – there really is no point in going into detail. In fact, I think it best if I sum up all the events of the evening succinctly; describing the taste of food that you I ate decades ago seems like a waste of all of our times.

The broad strokes then: Fjorlief seemed to be doing her best to offend our host, but was also oblivious to everything she was doing. At one point, she actually leaned forward and took some food from the Patriarch’s plate, smiling as she did so, as if it was the most normal thing in the world. I was trying to mask my own experience of fine dining, doing my best to look ignorant of the uses for half the cutlery sat in front of me. Luckily, that left the other half that I was genuinely clueless about. I decided to play it safe and stick to a simple three tined fork, using it for everything and avoiding the soup.

Thankfully the Pelosians seem to have developed a culinary habit that means all of their food arrives at the table in mouth sized chunks, so I was able to just wipe the fork off between courses, and carry on regardless.

More impressive than the Hutzlunr’s lack of good graces, was Caderyn’s self control. He got the through the whole meal without leaping across the table and stabbing the Patriarch with his own fork. In his defense, I think the Pater was doing his best to appeal for a reasoned debate on the way forward for both sides in the conflict, but he never quite managed to do so without sounding like a condescending arsehole.

It’s difficult to see the conflict from either side without both of them looking pretty awful. Atrocities have been committed on both sides, and just because the partisans hid behind the story of defending their homeland didn’t make the way they treated the citizens of the Margo Marissi any easier to stomach. And here was a man thinking about how to end the war, but never about leaving these people in peace; blaming the continuation of war on sin and the rapaciousness of mercenaries, without ever stopping to think about how the conditions in which they thrive had been created along the bloody border.

He left well enough alone when he realised that he wasn’t getting anywhere with Caderyn, and turned the conversation onto the slightly more palatable topic of the conditions of our voyage. Here I was happy to turn to Valerius, he had spent more time in the region and could talk from experience of past years. I had barely been there a week, so just enjoyed the food and the spectacle of Fjorlief eating it.

My ears pricked up at the mention of that Hutzlunr bastard Thorgrim the Difficult though. I was happy to interrupt then, going on at great length about killing one of his named men in single combat before finding and sparing the second. I may have embellished somewhat during that tale, making out that Caderyn had pretty much single-handedly left the hatchet wielding maniac barely able to stand, but the poor guy wasn’t having the best of time and I thought that making him look good may have cheered him up. Sadly, looking back, I’m fairly sure that I was speaking in Pelosian to the Patriarch, and he would have missed pretty much everything. Ah well, he may not have wanted to admit it, but when he was speaking, an occasional word of Pelosian was sneaking into his patois.

It was an odd thing to see happen, and it’s only really when looking back that it seemed obvious at all. At the time, we were just adjusting to conversations taking place in several tongues, where a word was difficult to translate into another language. I saw an occasional smile when talking about the third story man, that Valerius had decided to spare seconds before my blade slit his gullet open, so he must have been able to at least pick up a choice rude word or too.

The rest of the meal was small talk and little else; I did manage to get a good word in for the supposed Bajo out in the cells, but after letting the Patriarch know everything that had happened, I decided on honesty as my best course, letting the priest know that it was highly likely the old fellow was a conman and thief, but if he was also a Bajo, I was duty bound to speak in his defense. Said speech lasted roughly 17 seconds and was delivered with a purposefully blank expression. Come the morning, I was able to tell the old chap that I had done everything in my power, and that he would surely soon be free. The poor sod looked grateful at that.

That was the morning though, and we had still had dessert to look forward to. It was brought in by half a dozen each the equal of my hairdresser in terms of loveliness and how revealing their outfits were. It was all I could do to look on without my pleasure being made obvious, but the Pelosians at the table were obviously not used to such sights. Valerius simply appeared slightly shocked, but poor Skuza looked ready for a fainting spell and was nervously adjusting himself beneath the table.

The hour was late by then, and the decision was made to spend the night in relative comfort, something I was greatly in favour of. Some of the others though chose to return to the wagons and continue roughing it. I wasn’t too sure if this was supposed to send a message to our host, or just because they preferred sleeping under stars? I cared about neither, so slept soundly on a comfortable bed with soft, fresh sheets. The only thing missing was one of our servers, but one very rarely gets everything they desire.

*     *     *

The next morning I was a little late rejoining my companions – earlier than Skuza, but that should surprise none of you by now – and it seemed I had missed some excitement in the night. A nocturnal visitor for Drazar had people a bit flustered, and it is only with hindsight that so much of the day’s strangeness now later made sense. As far I was concerned though, we were just making ready to set off, and I had spoken to my incarcerated brother, leaving him feeling decidedly positive.

We were soon on our way with little to stop is though, strapping my Basaedo back onto my left hip where it belongs. There was only a few hours of journey left to us, and we were in civilised lands, so I took grabbed hold of some ropes and let the hormorn do the hard work of covering the remaining distance for me, whistling a little as we went.

The city soon loomed up ahead of us. Tuthom-Pothrie was huge for a border city, and like all Pelosian settlements, split into two distinct areas. Regardless of our employer’s status, we would be entering through the profinarium as we had goods to sell. The man who would be dealing with the sale was a Margo man, with close ties to both sides in this conflict. When we finally made it through the final checkpoints, he greeted Skuza like an old and dear friend. And by that I mean there was a hell of a lot of piss taking and bluffing, but the boss took it in good humour. Well, either that or he was massively oblivious to what the big fellow was saying about him. And he was a big lad.

Looked tall as hell, but a lot of that was down to his bearing. He looked almost as wide too, so I doubt he was ever one to miss a meal. There was a whole bunch of merchant talk going on, and I was about as interested in that as I was in Drazar’s blistered cock, so most of us took a few minutes to ourselves. What was occupying my thoughts were slightly more worrying. I had made a bloody dangerous journey, with some decidedly unhinged individuals, for a man who attracted trouble, all for the chance to follow a woman I had fallen in love in.

And there I was, stood inside Tuthom-Pothrie with no way of finding her and, what was more troubling, no real desire to. I would have been hard pushed to describe her in detail to any citizens I met who would be willing to offer help. The face swimming in front of my mind’s eye was one made much more familiar by its recent proximity. I had come to this city to find my love, and stumbled into a different one on the way, with a formidable woman able to swing a two handed sword with ease. And I’d seen her do so while not wearing a stitch; what was there not to love? I needed something to take my mind of the subject, and it was too early to start drinking.

As it turned out, the subject of the Daemon’s prong was soon brought to light. His night time visitor was the young slip of a girl we had managed to rescue from the well, and Drazar looked like he was wanting to prolong the intimacy. Of course, there was a hell of a lot more going on than that, but at the time, I just fancied a bit of fun. I knew Fjorlief had taken the wee thing under her protection and that was definitely in factor in what came out of my mouth as I watched near enough corner the poor girl to talk.

I laid it on nice and thick, giving anyone who could hear the idea that we was trying to buy her company for an evening, and that she would certainly have better taste. I think he had wanted their conversation to take place in private, and when he heard my voice, looked over, as shocked as it’s possible to be while wearing a mask. The shock may have been down to the fact that I wasn’t alone, and soon had Caderyn and Brand joining in, with the women just looking on and laughing. I’m sure we’ll get back to what ever the hell was going on with those two eventually, but as were heckling his bedroom performance, a shout of “Murder!” came from down the hill.

Skuza had gone of to negotiate, with a warning from Valerius that no money was to change hands, and no final price was to be agreed on without his presence, but was now running back towards us whiter than usual and screaming the word over and over. I struggled to my feet, but rushing anywhere from a sitting position with near to four foot of metal strapped to your hip is never going to work the way you want it to.

I arrived to see Brand – who could move like lightening on a promise when he wanted to – and Valerius already moving into the  tent that contained the corpse. I couldn’t see the body as I ran towards Skuza, who had gone into a dead faint and was laying in the dirt, but the men rushing towards us looked very much like friends of our portly middleman that the boss had just gone to see.

There was a whole lot of clamoring going on, with people calling for heads and justice, and folks running all over the damned place. What I spotted though was the people rushing towards my fallen employer. Fuck that for a game of legionnaires thinks I, and put myself in their way. By the time they had arrived, I was stood above him, and had cast my prismatic rune to baffle anyone who tried to swing at me. Although it was focused on me, I had to hope anyone looking at Skuza might be disoriented a little too.

As they closed up, one of the fuckers was determined to take justice into his own hands. I had no idea what had happened inside that tent, but if Skuza died, I wasn’t going to get paid. If I killed this bastard though, I could end up swinging myself. I dropped down low and readied for his swing. It came in quick but I instantly knew he had been taken in by the rune, so moved myself just a fraction to the right and flicked his sword away with my dagger.

I almost missed my parry though, as in the heat of the moment had forgotten that I also suffered the effects of the twisted light. I would get used to it in time, but luckily wasn’t to be tested much more that day, as our still conscious Numare shouted for calm, and for the provosts to be called. With some of the crowd already parting for the authorities to get on the scene, weapons were being lowered, and an air of calm hostility descended.

I still had Skuza on the ground though, and some sore looking prick who didn’t seem ready to let this go just yet, so I kept my Basaedo pointed at his heart, and never met my eyes break from his.

Feb 102014
 

The flames were licking at my hair as I looked around, trying to decide on my next move. The three bastards that had pelted fire bombs at me were still some way distant hiding behind some undergrowth, and I would need a hell of a running jump to make it to them. Two others were paying more attention to the rest of my group, but my biggest threat was in the shape of two chaps armed with shields and short swords that had already taken a swing at me. In the heat of the moment I realised that although I was still on fire, I would need to deal with the bastards with the weapons first, or at least get myself clear of them.

They hadn’t managed to surround me yet, and I had kept them at bay so far, and quickly moved towards the nearest bastard, the tip of my Basaedo flashing out to keep him at bay as I moved to put my back against the thick trunk of the closest tree. He managed to pull his head back from the swing, dodging rather than putting his shield in the way. An odd move as far as I was concerned, but all would eventually become clear.

I was far too engrossed in my own activities to be paying too much attention to how everyone else was fairing, but I heard Drazar hollering in my native tongue from over by the wagons. I figured out what he was trying to get across, but I obviously had more to teach him as warning me about inclement weather in the middle of pitched battle was far from useful. He had meant that he was going to cause an attack to come from above, but I had no idea how an Earth Power wielder could manage such a thing, and was grateful to be protected by the tree’s thick branches.

It was these branches that the Daemon blooded wizard had in mind for his attack, and the sound of them as they seemed to rip themselves free from the tree itself was terrifying. They smashed with aggressive force into the ground, sadly failing to connect with either of my tormentors, the nimble bastards once again quick enough to keep them from harm. The fallen branches did provide me with some cover though, and I realised that I had a few moments to try and put the fire out. I jammed the point of my sword into the ground and trusted to my dagger should I face an attack, and began to beat out the flames that had almost fully taken root in my hair.

As I was doing so, I felt a different but much more pleasant form of heat affect my extremities. Looking back towards the wagons, the beautiful Hutzlunr Vytch was crouching with her hands placed firmly on the ground and her eyes locked onto my own. Hell, that gave me the spur I needed and I pulled the blade free as quick as I dared and looked for someone to run through, but the shits were already on the move. Not a one of them was standing their ground, even though they had us outnumbered and outmatched in terms of their superior fire power.

I still took a step or two though, just hoping that at least one of them would put up something like a fight rather just dance away through to tree line. They seemed to have thought of that though, and before I could take a third step more objects were hurled towards me. It was plain to see that they wouldn’t hit me full on, but as they exploded and filled the air with white smoke, it seemed that all they wanted to do was slow me down.

Suddenly from behind me I could hear the cracking of dry branches breaking, the sound of undergrowth being torn apart and the heavy thump of something large landing near by. I turned in less than a second with my blade pointing towards the thing’s heart, but it was none other than Fjorlief. She must have started to run the moment the smoke bombs landed to have gotten here so quickly, and she slid to a halt on her knees in front of me, batting at the fire still working its way up my leg.

Looking back on it, I think I did damned well indeed to just be grateful and not make some crass comment about other duties she could have performed while down there. At the time though, all I could think of was getting the fire put out, and she did so quickly. I remember smiling at her, thinking how glad I was that she was there; not just as part of our traveling group, but with me, helping me. Ah, well. Tall beautiful women have that effect on me.

By the time the flames on my leg had been extinguished, it looked like every one of our attackers had either fled or been killed. Brand was dragging a corpse out from under the rear wagon whilst Catranasia went through the various oils, potions, and bombs that were found on the other bodies. There was handful of useful and potentially valuable commodities, but the most worrying was a jar filled with a black, foul smelling liquid that she identified as a powerful acid. The New Raphelian’s jaw dropped when she said the word acid, and he rushed to grab a canteen and dove back under the rear wagon, leaving us all confused as he threw the water away while down there.

Bloody good job he did though, as one of the little swine had cracked a jar of the black liquid over the rear axle, and if not for Brand’s quick thinking would have eaten through what remained in seconds. We all jumped to check the other vehicles, but they hadn’t been so lucky with those. The back wagon wasn’t going anywhere quickly though. Vitus was called over and for the next turning they worked to repair the damage as best they could, while the rest if us moved the heavier items onto the front wagon to save the axle from any undue stress, all the while keeping an eye out in case the brigands returned to try and pick us off again.

Moving the goods took less time than the repairs did, which gave me the chance to take care of some personal grooming. As well as making sure that my wounds were cleaned, I really needed to do something about my hair. Missing my fine hat was one thing, but looking like a scare-corbie was quite another. There was nothing to be done at the road side to make me look even remotely presentable and still keep a hair on my head. The barber’s arts have never been at my disposal, but to maintain my beard and mustache I knew how to keep a blade and shave with it, so had only one real course open to me. We were still close enough to the river to get some fresh water, and with it I managed to do a passable job of shaving my head.

The chill of the water made it trickier than it should have been, but by the end I looked like a hired thug rather than a crazy person. Not much of a choice, I grant, but given the options I was glad to take the former. I was still a handsome young devil, and hopefully Fjorlief wouldn’t find the sight of my stubbly head too hideous.

*     *     *

With everything about ready to go, we were alerted to our rear by some loud moaning and groaning. The Zammerite we had previously walked past was kicking up a hell of a fuss, so a few us wandered back down the road a spell to see what his problem was. Valerius had joined us, and took the time to try and translate to us what was written on the slate around his neck.

Apparently the man was a liar and a thief who was to be confined to the halls of a certain order for his crimes. He was also making a hell of a noise, seemingly unable to form a full word but gesturing dramatically to his robes and the slate. None of us really wanted much to do with the wretch, and were quite happy to leave him there, but Skuza had decided to follow Valerius like an inecure shadow and was soon making his opinion known. “It is our duty as citizens and followers of Pelo’s way to see this… person back to his order. He has been judged and found guilty, and must complete his punishment.”

There was much rolling of eyes at this, but he was the boss. Even though he had once again managed to do us the immense favour of staying the hell out of the way while we fought, it seemed he was uneasy not to be involved in our actions for longer than a turning or two. The lock was easier to get passed than it should have been, which was odd, but not overly so. If we were going to have some extra company, then the least I could do was make his journey a tiny bit more pleasant. I can’t imagine that the Zammerites would show mercy to him, and liars and thieves had made my family what it was.

I offered him my canteen to slake his thirst – fully planning on washing it at earliest opportunity – and then led him back to the wagons. The cooling liquid seemed to loosen his tongue and allow him to reassert his control over it, and he tried his best to let us know what misfortune had befallen him. In broken Pelo Margo he weaved a tale of a vagrant whom had tricked him, stolen his clothes, dressed him in the robes he was currently wearing, hung the slate around his neck and left him hanging in the cage.

On top of all that, the bandits we had encountered had also drugged him to prevent him from speaking and left him there while they planned their attack on us. We had evidence enough to believe they possessed the alchemical expertise to perform such a trick, and as we tried to move the hormorn on, we discovered another of their tricks. No Earth Power had been used to stop them, rather a compound that had been sprayed across the road that had rendered them almost incapable of forward motion.

With our new travel companion squared away, I used a bucket from one of the wagons to fetch river water to wash the foul alchemy clear, and refill my canteen while I was at it. With everyone working together, we were able to move on without much more delay, just going slowly to avoid undue stress on the axle we had managed to repair. Thankfully Pelosian roads are usually well kept, and even this close to the border, the surface was almost completely smooth, and we barely had to slow down much at all.

The walk was as pleasant as it could possibly be, but Caderyn was acting a little strange whenever the river meandered close to the  road. For the rest of us, it was a welcome opportunity to cool down and refill canteens. In my case, to douse my head in the bracing water. Not only was the heat getting to me and already beginning to burn my now shaved skull, but the blisters had formed regardless of the healing that Fjorlief and myself had administered. Our Dummonii scout was nervous though, and never went too close.

He must have noticed that I had raised an eyebrow when he once again looked at the moving water as if expecting it to leap from the river bed and drown us all. ” There have been attacks in these parts recently”, he said. “The white spirit of vengeance was called to deal with the creature that was responsible, but the attacks continue. People have been dragged from their homes at night by something that lives in the river.” He looked genuinely concerned, as if the aquatic beast was simply biding its time before swallowing him whole, but continued “There’s a reward to whoever manages to kill the bloody thing, and bring the body back to one of the villages we’ve passed.”

“Well”, says I, “How about we try our best not to camp too close to the river at night, and keep an eye out. If we manage to kill the bloody thing, I doubt even Skuza or Valerius could claim that the bounty was part of their cargo.” He smiled at that, but I found myself also watching the water a little more warily. Nothing came out of it though, and we carried on our way until another crossroad, marked out by the usual gallows – thankfully without victims  – and a small roadside shrine.

Hiding from the midday sun in an alcove in the shrine’s side was an elderly gentleman wearing dark robes that damned near dwarfed him. He was an old man, with hair so white as to be grey, and looked even more frail due to the bulky over-sized clothes he was buried in. He seemed a decent enough chap though, and was quick to lay on the compliments while asking if we could possibly spare his old legs and let him ride with us a spell.

I think we would have done so happily, and without even thinking much of him, but our other traveling guest began to kick up a bit of a fuss when he saw the old geezer, “That’s him! He took my clothes, those are my clothes! He locked my the fuckin’ cage and hung the bloody slate around my neck”!

What followed was a hell of a back and forth, with one side claiming not only innocence, but also not a shred of recollection as to what the other was talking about. The other side, seemingly completely earnest and angry, would not be dissuaded that the old man was in fact the thief that deserved to be wearing the slate. Skuza just seemed to want to get one of them back the Mazzerite order, and wasn’t too concerned as to which. The old man was going in our direction anyway, so it made sense to keep them both with us for now.

As far as I was concerned though, there was more yet to be made clear. The man from the cage was wearing clothing clearly too small for him, and if he had been locked in the cage for any length of time, the reverse should have been true. The white haired fellow’s clothes were practically burying him, and out of the two, he was the only one who seemed capable of lying well enough for it be useful to him, and worth punishing. Thinking fast, I put him up on Skuza’s carriage, while asking Valerius to make sure he didn’t fall or jump off, explaining my suspicions.

To our robed friend, I took the time to try and explain what was going on. He was to keep protesting his innocence, but know that we were trying to get to the bottom of it, and if he was telling the truth, he would do well out of it. Skuza would feel absolutely terrible if a man he dragged miles away from his route after finding him languishing in a cage was actually innocent, and would certainly offer some form of recompense. I was just as sure that Valerius would be unwilling to give up even a share of his share and would manage to talk the boss round. I kept that last bit to myself of course, but he was enough of an idiot to not quite get what I meant regardless.

He carried on protesting his innocence, but not because I wanted him to, just because he thought it might actually work to convince someone. I tell you, if he was the liar and thief, I was Pelo reborn. But for now, I just wanted to get him away from us and back in the hands of the order.

We didn’t have too long to wait thankfully, as our next stop was at a checkpoint manned by some Mazzerites armed with spears and an overly officious manner. Skuza was once more in his element dealing with devout travelers on the path of Pelo’s Way who also wanted to check his travel documents. Four red garbed guards had spotted us approaching from a distance and when we came close enough lowered the points of their spears towards us. It was disconcerting to say the least, but the tired, disinterested looks on their faces made me think that this may have been naught but a ceremonial way of greeting strangers.

The man in charge, wearing a finer outfit, with even some familiar looking armour on came forward, pushing the point of a spear that had drifted away from where it was supposed to go and ended up in his way. “Papers please”, he barked in Pelosian not even bothering to waste a glance on anyone with whom he shared no common ancestry. The minutia of such border crossings and check points was of no interest to me, but we were close to the actual Mazzerite cathedral and so would hopefully soon be rid of our two new friends. I approached the man in charge once everything was correctly stamped and signed, and told him the story of the two oddly dressed chaps with us.

He seemed about as interested in their story as I was in correctly filed paperwork filled in and filed in triplicate, but told us where we needed to go. “Ah, we will be walking through Mazzerite lands with at least one criminal, should we get stopped we could end up in some trouble ourselves. Could you spare one of your fine spear-men there to accompany us until we hand them off to the correct authorities”? With a sigh, he took the paperwork back from Skuza’s grip and offered a compromise; our papers would be modified to show that we were doing Pelo’s work by transporting two possible lost souls and would need to make no further precautions about our dealings with them.

We were a lot closer than I thought to the cathedral, but it was much more than that. It looked like a small town with the overtly religious building dominating it. Everything was clean, neat, and ordered, obsessively so. The residents wore matching uniforms, and even the grass seemed to have been instructed to stop growing past a certain point. It was getting pretty late in the day, but a good ride and some small good fortune would have still seen us to Tuthom-Pothrie. It was a welcome break to stop while our guests were taken care of though.

The Numare walked them away with Vitus tagging along to keep them under control while the rest of us helped ourselves to some trail rations and took in the view; at the same time it managed to be beautiful and awe inspiring, while also dull and soulless. Caderyn looked particularly unimpressed. In his native country, nature was encouraged to run rampant and quite the reverse was going on here. Add that to the fact that he was surrounded by folks who would be likely to kill him by nailing him to wall if they met him out in the wilds, and the reasons for his uneasiness were obvious. Hell, as long as he could keep it under control, I’d be happy.

Before too long our companions returned, thankfully without the two new additions, and had news for us. Whether it was good or bad very much depended on your country of birth I suppose. Skuza had once again failed monumentally to keep his big mouth shut and had apparently gone on at length about his travel companions, including that rarest of creatures; a well behaved, practically civilised Dummonii. As a result of his showing off, the Patriarch of this order had invited us all to see him.

Well, I’m no idiot now, and I was no idiot then; when someone that important invites you to call on them, it’s probably best to think of it as an order, rather than a suggestion. I was pretty much resigned to it, and thought we might get a decent evening meal and a nicer place to sleep out of it, plus maybe some better than average doctoring. It hadn’t been that long since I almost had my leg broken, and only hours previous I had been on fire. The Dummonii – tamed or not – was less than keen to show his face, and Drazar looked ready to run for the hills at the merest suggestion.

Everyone else seemed okay with the idea though, so it made sense to leave the two of them behind and put in an appearance. Well, it did to everyone expect to the boss of course; he had waxed lyrical about his men, and wanted dearly to show them off, almost going so far as to try and drag them along. Valerius seemed quieter than usual, and so it seemed it was my job to dissuade Skuza from putting his men in a life threatening situation. “My lord, these Mazzerites are pious folk indeed, as is Caderyn, but in different ways. These different ways caused us some small inconvenience when last we met a man who was not as, ah, accommodating as yourself in matters of opposing theology. I think it would be best to avoid another confrontation, don’t you agree?”

The poor fool paled considerably at the thought, and it occurred to me I may have pushed back too hard. There was now a very real possibility that he would willingly confess all, martyring himself as penance for our ‘crimes’. I’d have to do something about that, but wished that the other Numare would weigh in. I could butter up those who thought they were higher born than myself, but complicated verbal sparring and intrigue was beyond me.

*     *     *

We once again found ourselves walking through well manicured landscapes and between imposing towers. All normal I assumed for the Numare, but the scale and sophistication for what was essentially an out of the way border church, was staggering even to my city born eyes. Ahead of us was a larger building constructed from green glass and metal, visible within was what looked like an indoor jungle worthy of New Raphelia.

At its door was a pair of guards wearing armour almost as fine as that buried a few days earlier by Caderyn. In a way, I was glad that Skuza looked so permanently ill, as I’m sure he was shivering and deathly white even in the stifling heat of the evening. Before being allowed to enter into the presence of the high-to-do priest, we were instructed to give up all of our weapons. This was no big surprise, and I was happy to hand over my Basaedo and dagger, while the Hutzlunr made a sizable pile of her own weapons. The guards seemed put out by that much steel on a lady, and they felt the need to double check if she had anything, to which they were informed that she did indeed have a small dagger in her boot.

Being the gentleman that I am, I was unhappy with the thought of her being molested by the guards, and so offered to retrieve it for her myself. I can only imagine what she thought I was playing at, having not spent much time in polite society – something I would seek to rectify – but with a puzzled luck on her face she gave me permission to take the knife from her. As I placed it atop her pile, I noticed that Brand’s sword was not amongst our possessions. He certainly wasn’t still carrying it, so must have stowed it safely back on a wagon.

Eventually we were ushered past them though, through two sets of double doors into the private jungle of the Patriarch. I recognised a few of the plants as being native to Brand’s homeland, but there were countless more that were foreign to me.

Flapping about in their branches were large, thoroughly unnerving looking insects. As we moved further down a wood chip covered path, I saw what could only be the Patriarch ahead of us. Wearing robes of the finest and deepest red, he stood not much taller than the average Pelosian, but seemed to tower over everyone but myself and Fjorlief. His gauntleted hand was raised to chest height, and fluttering above his open palm was another of the large winged creatures. The evil looking thing had a barbed tail coming from its read end that put Fjorlief’s boot dagger to shame.

Of course, the presence of the insect was far from accidental, and throughout the course of the introductions he made a point to compare it to our absent Dummonii. Apparently removing it from the wild was enough to remove its savagery. Something told me that Caderyn would take issue with such a blanket statement and I was glad he had stayed with the wagons.

As all introductions were made, I saw a chance to stop Skuza from damning us all and took it; “We thank you for your hospitality Pater Piam, but we are sadly the bearers of bad tidings. On our travels we came across an order of woman offering sanctuary to those who travel these dangerous roads…”

“Ah yes, the Grey Order”, he interrupted before allowing me to continue.

“Indeed. Sadly we arrived to find them all hanging by their necks from the door frame and many more dead within the walls. Included in that number were several partisans along with some Pelosians. One of whom was wearing the armour of your order, and was well decorated indeed. He seemed a young man from his face to be so well adorned with battle honours. We buried him as best we could with words from our noble employer, but full rights were beyond our means. If you wish to see him correctly interred, I’m sure you could send some men to him.”

“Thank you for this news, sad though it is, we will retrieve his body and perform the appropriate rights. Until then, I insist that you all join us for our evening repast. We have facilities for you to clean the dirt of the road from you, and then it would be my pleasure to dine with you all, the Dummonii included of course.” Before we could answer, he lifted his arm and sent the beast flapping away and continued, “For now though, it is best if you leave. Although controlled at the best of times, too many strangers can get them  riled up, and that is the definition of a bad idea.”

There was little else to be said about that, so we made our way back to break the good news to Caderyn. I’m not sure how, but we had managed to get through the conversation without Drazar being mentioned at all. He may have a boring night without us ahead of him, but it was a far better prospect than watching him try to enter any of the buildings we went through. The markings on the walls and arches bore some similarities to those that caused him problems back at the Grey Order hostel. I had failed to remove those, and they were just painted on wood, there would be no avoiding the impressive carvings while walking around this place.

Before that though, there was one extra matter to deal with. The older of the two men that had been placed in the care of the Zammerites had been causing some problems for Drazar. Drawing attention to his unusual nature and outfit, and demanding that we speak out for him had brought one of the warrior women of the order over to question the mask Drazar was wearing. We arrived in time to see her walking away, but looking over her shoulder suspiciously.

He filled us in on the details, but I was only half paying attention to begin with. Caderyn was sat with each foot in a small hole that he had dug. Now, he was a strange sort, and no mistake, but this was odd even by his standard. “Seriously mate, what the hell are you up to?”, I asked.

“I just needed to be closer to the earth”, was his reply. Well, that was the end of me hoping he wouldn’t make a scene, but the white haired codger in his cell was still a matter that needed dealing with. Apparently, we were supposed to leave them to silent contemplation, but he wasn’t going along with that, and so neither would I. While everyone else was discussing Caderyn’s appearance at dinner, I wandered over, much to the prisoner’s approval.

He repeated his earlier pleading, hoping that we would help him by vouching for him with the Patriarch, but when he heard my voice, he changed tack somewhat. The next words out of his mouth were Raphelian, and it occurred to me that he had often spoken with the very same accent. He saw my orange sash and immediately claimed to be Bajo himself.  While I doubted that at first, it would make sense. Not all wearers of the sash were sailors and fighters, but also smugglers and confidence men. He had the patter down right, but all I really wanted was for him to shut up and leave us in peace. Hell, something about his face was reminding me of something, or somebody from my past.

I had no doubt he was a liar, so didn’t feel bad about spinning a yarn of my own. “Strange to see a brother so far from home, but I will not allow you to languish here any longer than necessary. We dine with the Patriarch this evening, and I will do my best to talk him round as we eat. Until then, a sign of my word”. I reached round to my pack and drew forth the sash I had taken from the Bajo’s corpse earlier that day. “Take this, and keep it close, you will be wearing it again soon my brother”, I took his hands in mine, and he quickly had the sash hidden in his fist, with fingers as dexterous as any pick-pocket I had met.

With any luck, that would quiet the bugger down for now, and although I couldn’t trust him, him trusting me could pay off down the line. Walking away from him, I could see that the others were still deep in discussion, with Caderyn far from pleased. A deal was struck though, involving Valerius having the unpleasant task of discussing Caderyn’s religion with Skuza, and what he was allowed to say to the Patriarch.

While the rest of us had been pretty happy pretending that Skuza – who had stayed behind to join in the evening’s prayers – was doing a great of putting us on Pelo’s way, the Dummonii was a bit too pious to even pretend to turn his back on the many Gods he worshiped. In the end, a compromise was just about avoided, with Caderyn practicing a couple of key phrases to keep the Patriarch off his back; “Skuza has been diligent in his efforts to see us on the right path”, and “Ser Skuza has never relented in his efforts to see us redeemed”.

There was no guarantee any of it would work, but simply not turning up wasn’t an option at that point. We had all left weapons behind at this point, taking our cue from Brand, but I kept my dagger. Although I couldn’t take with me into the Patriarch’s presence, having it on route and back just made me feel better.

Thankfully, our gracious host was happy to have us smelling better when next we were in his company, so we were taken to a bath house. My hair was cut a little neater, my blisters treated with a cooling cream, and it was just about possible to imagine that the meal to follow wouldn’t end in disaster.

Feb 052014
 

When I was a young(er) man, I came across a movie with a title that resonated with me. That movie was Mutant Chronicles, and although my thoughts on that film are less than congratulatory, I actually watched it a couple of times because I really liked the post apocalyptic setting. I later found out from friends down at my local gaming society that it was based on game, and so tried to get hold of a copy. Sadly, it proved pretty damned hard to do, with a new copy being almost impossible to lay my hands on – at least in my part of the world – and the friends I knew with their own copies weren’t keen to part with them.

And so I gave up my quest and hadn’t thought about the game for years. Until a couple of days back, when I got a message from the lovely people who sent me a review copy of an Achtung! Cthulhu module a while back informing me that they were relaunching the game with tighter cinematic rules and were also working on bringing the whole setting in line with their new system. I can’t wait to take a look at this one, not least because of how long I’ve been waiting to get my hands on a copy, as the previous work this company has put out has been tremendous! For now though, I think I might just go and hunt down an old DVD.

At the time of writing, the Kickstarter has already funded so if you want to join in, it’s just about how much you want to get for your money and hitting some stretch goals. Head on over and check it out, but if you want a bit more information, the following comes direct from Modiphius.

 

The team that brought you Achtung! Cthulhu are unleashing the Dark Legion again with brand new content & cinematic rules. The Mutant Chronicles Kickstarter is a re-boot of the amazing 90′s techno-fantasy roleplaying game under license from Paradox Entertainment

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/modiphius/mutant-chronicles-3rd-ed-rpg

Modiphius have already funded the core book in gorgeous full colour hardcover, adding a Player’s Guide softback and are well on their way to a long series of stretch goals. Modiphius has re-designed the rules with a new d20 / roll under eight attribute based cinematic system, playtested with over 400 groups. They plan a re-write of the setting guides and supplements to include brand new material alongside the existing storyline. Supporters can expect the usual high quality production values seen in Modiphius’ Achtung! Cthulhu project.

Awesome new art will reveal never before seen parts of the Mutant Chronicles universe alongside the existing fantastic images by Paul Bonner, Peter Bergting and Paolo Parente. There will be huge campaigns, fantastic accessories and miniatures produced in conjunction with Prodos Games (who successfully re-launched the Warzone miniatures game) specifically for the roleplaying game. See below for more information on the world of Mutant Chronicles and new plans for the game.

Mutant Chronicles was one of the bigger names in gaming in the 1990′s with the Doom Trooper collectible card game translated in to 16 languages, three boardgames, two video games, the massive Warzone miniatures game and the Mutant Chronicles 1st and 2nd Edition roleplaying games with more recently a Hollywood movie, Fantasy Flight Games pre-painted miniature game and last year the reboot of Warzone by Prodos Games. The Mutant Chronicles story took you on this full throttle dieselpunk sci-fi ride through a solar system beset by corporate intrigue and the invasion of a terrible dark alien force. With technology failing due to the insidious effects of the Dark Symmetry humankind must fight back against the Dark Legion hordes whilst dealing with in-fighting and conspiracy from within.

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/modiphius/mutant-chronicles-3rd-ed-rpg

Feb 032014
 

I stayed on my feet for maybe an hour, thinking it best to stay awake throughout the night, rather than risk missing Skuza if he needed to exit the city in a hurry. It had been a clear, hot day, and was followed by a night cold enough to leave my breathe hanging in front of my face as I stalked around the vagrant camp sites. Even in the dead of night, there were people up and about, but all were eying me suspiciously. They were poor and destitute, and I was wearing what to my mind was simple cloak, but would have cost them a month’s earnings to buy for themselves.

With greedy eyes on me, and suspicious gazes following my every move, I decided that discretion was the best course and moved further from the camps and their followers. Moving away came with its own troubles though, as I had no light source of my own, and wouldn’t have risked lighting one if I had. The darkness was only broken by the soft glow provided by Majhbé, but even on a night as clear as that one I needed to tread carefully to avoid catching a foot on broken rocks and roots as I walked further through the treeline away from prying eyes.

Luckily the darkness was also in my favour when it came to finding somewhere out of the way, and a moment or two later I had found a tree that would do the job of a chair back, and wrapped my cloak about myself to keep the cold out as much as possible. When I left my home I was lucky enough to be wearing a fine leather hat with a red feather in its band. I had liked that hat, but at some point on the way it had gone. Maybe I had gambled it away, lost it in a river or traded it for a loaf of bread. All I could remember was as I tried to get comfortable on the cold damp earth, I really missed that hat.

I must have managed some sleep that night, but I was only sure of the fact because I was woken with a start before the sun had yet risen fully. The heavy doors had clanged open to allow the Praetor Mori to ride out as part of their daily ritual. I don’t know if it’s to scare the common folk away from the doors to begin the day, or just to show off their fine coloured livery, but neither would surprise me. I stood and stretched, watching the spectacle with interest as robed priests walked out behind the mounted troops, swinging smoking braziers about themselves to ward off Daemonic powers. Or the smell of the poor. Again, it could have been either, but at least they weren’t actively striking the destitute as they moved about.

There was still many hours to go before we were expected to meet up by the statues, and I had no idea what was happening inside the city so decided to occupy my mind elsewhere rather than worry about things over which I had no control. Looking around, there was already a bunch of traders setting up so I set about finding something to keep me going until our rendezvous.

In case any of my dear readers are curious about what happened back then, a couple of years back, when I first thought to write this story down, I did some research into the events of that day within the city. A young lawyer named Picissi had taken Skuza’s case, a man with a reputation for doing whatever was needed for his clients. The court records were decidedly better managed than they would be in my own fair city, but in a case as insignificant as this, there was little of use to be gleamed.

Something about mistaken identity, and a debt that needed paying, along with a servile who had vanished. There was no final note though, and it seemed that Valerius got through just about enough of the trial to placate the bankers and then gotten everyone the hell out of the city. I can only smile to think of the show Skuza must have put on. He saw himself as a man of honour, but would have been secretly happy to be rescued before he was sent to gaol, whether he deserved to be there or not.

As for myself that morning, my time was spent trying to digest possibly the worst breakfast I have ever tried to eat, wondering what had become of my employer, and whether or not I would get back to the wagons to find Caderyn standing over the corpses of Vitus and Catranasia, claiming all the goods were his. So much for distracting myself, but what worried me most though was the food and drink. Everything else could be dealt with in time, but by the Gods that breakfast had me fearing for my life.

*     *     *

Hours passed but I dared not partake of any other food in that hellish place. Before long the sun was high in the sky and my cloak was an almost suffocating weight as not a cloud passed overhead to offer shade. All morning, traffic continued in and out of the city, but it wasn’t until late in the morning when I caught a glimpse of Eduardo. Sad to say, the moment could have been better timed as I was stood against a wall, weapon in hand relieving myself and almost missed his hammering past at speed, the tethers pulling his wagon going hell for leather out of the gates. “Skuza”, I yelled desperately retying the front of my trews, “Ser Eduardo Skuza! Halt and let me aboard!”

Thankfully someone on board was able to hear me over the thunder of hooved feet on hard packed earth, and the wagon began to slow. What with time being short, I didn’t give it the chance to stop entirely, and jumped aboard as soon as it drew level. The driver must have been told how important it was that we reach our destination in time, and was soon whipping the beasts back into a frenzy and I was struggling to keep hold as we pounded away from the city.

The sun was almost at its peak as we moved, and Valerius was grim faced but seemed strangely content. Skuza had a strange look of pride about his face, so all I could imagine at the time was that they had gotten the result in court they wished for. The way his man was whipping the tethers into a frenzy made me smile though, we were going fast enough that we might just make it to the our meeting with the others before they took off with the goods and were never seen again.

In that matter I was correct, and the Gods favoured us with an even road and no unexpected delays, meaning that less than half a turning a later we saw the statues and our wagons arranged next to them, with our companions looking like they were just getting ready to set off. I jumped down from the wagon and managed to land almost gracefully after hanging on for dear life the entire journey. It was Caderyn with whom I first made eye contact, and he nodded to me with a smile.

It was safe to say that out of the entire group he was the one I was most surprised to see still there, but also the one I was most grateful to see. Everyone had their own reasons to have signed up with Skuza, but as far as I was aware, the Dummonii had motives closest to my own; get out into the world and have fun, making a reputation and money while we were at it. When I finish our story of my time as part of Skuza’s retinue, maybe I’ll let you all know what happened to the armour and mace that we had hidden around the country. “Didn’t get a better offer then”, I asked him with a smile.

He shook his head in response to that, along with a smile that had a bit of an edge to it, almost saying that it would only be a matter of time until that better offer was on the table, but for now we were still on the same side. “Thanks”, says I genuinely grateful that we hadn’t returned to empty wagons and bloodied corpses. Everyone was all ready for the road though, so we jumped to help, and took up our positions again ready for the rest of the day. Valerius took the time to walk around us all, making sure we were given a share of the money made thus far, including what had been left with Catranasia in case we had needed to bribe our way past any additional guards.

It came in at thirty Dituri each, and more than made up for the money wasted on rooms that not one of us had spent the night in. I think that after a tense night with no one knowing exactly what the afternoon would bring, this was enough to cheer everyone up. I tried once more to help Drazar out with his Raphelian, but for the most part was happy to walk and eat, having missed anything that could reasonably be called breakfast.

Most of the rest of the day passed uneventfully, with the standard road side attractions of trees, grass and the occasional corpse. The river meandered to and fro from us as we followed the road, and on occasion we spotted a few things that were out of the  ordinary. Skulls for the most part, but not attached to any bodies and decorated with painted patterns. When we saw a collection of them at a turn in the river, we decided it best to halt a moment in case there was something otherworldly about them. Caderyn was quick to usher us onwards though, with talk of a white ghost of vengeance that we should fearful of.

The grizzly trophies were apparently there to summon this spirit by a person or group that had been done wrong. The way they were arranged though made it look as if the people who had put them here was mad at the river itself. Looking about and around, what struck me as strange was that this place didn’t look like it was inhabited by Dummonii at all, but more like it was home to folk of the Margo Marissi. True the blood lines were all kind of mixed up round those parts, but the way our own Dummonii was urging us to move on without disturbing the offering made me think that this was some pretty powerful stuff.

He was very damned insistent though, so move on we did, covering a good few more miles before the sun began to dip towards the horizon. Ahead of us was another settlement, and from the distance it looked like a fairly sizable walled township. All we could do was hope that is was friendly, or at the very least, indifferent to us. It was our best chance of a safe night’s sleep though, and on this side of the river, the odds were in our favour that we wouldn’t be peppered with arrows as soon as we were within range.

Moving forward at the pace of the hormorn, we were some ways off when we were spotted. Luckily there was no rain of arrows, but rather an impressive sounding horn that must have been blown to alert everyone within that they were expecting guests. Moving on foot out of the large and sturdy wooden doors came about a dozen armed men. Although only a fraction of them looked like they could handle the weapons they were carrying, there were enough of them – plus archers on the walls – to give us all reason to pause and hear what they had to say. Although clearly expecting trouble, it didn’t look they were about to cause any with provocation.

Valerius – seemingly our spokesman in all matters not emphatically related to Partisan activities – was already at our front, and trying to arrange for us a safe place to spend the night. His verbal sparring partner in this matter was a small and frail old fella who had more than a look of Pelosia about him. His clothes had more in common with those seen on the folk of the Margo Marissi, but for my money, he looked like a true born Pelosian that had gone native. I’m not sure everyone picked up on it, but the accent was a dead bloody giveaway if you were blind to everything else.

It also seemed like since going native, he had lost all love for his countrymen of old. Valerius was having a hell of a time trying to get in, as the old chap seemed convinced that we were all rapists and murders, come from Pelosia’s borders to destroy everything in our wake. We did try to reason with him that since there was only a handful of Pelosians in our group, we posed no threat, and were in fact just looking for a place to spend the night.

Our various countries of origin didn’t do much to calm him down, and he was soon accusing us all of having laid waste to the land, killing countless hundreds of innocent dwellers of the Margo. “But, I’ve only been here a week”, I interrupt, which gets a chuckle from my lot, and a dry smile from the elder. Sadly it wasn’t enough for him to relent and order the doors open though. Adding that I’d try harder brought back his cold stony look and he admonished me for talking too much. I had no reasonable argument to offer such a claim, so instead asked him why would not be allowed entrance.

“If you come into our town, you come in without weapons, and that includes whatever’s in the wagons”. Well, that was enough for me. He looked like a harmless old coot, but there was no way any of us would feel safe without any means to protect ourselves. The sun was kissing the horizon by that point, so trying to find our way around in the dark would have been foolishness bordering on suicidal.

Our scout wanted to know if he was able to explore around the walls during the night, to try and find the safest route come the morning. The old bugger wasn’t happy with even that though, and made threats of arrows loosed into the dark if they were to see anyone sneaking around in the dark. Caderyn’s bravery had always come pretty close to stupidity – another reason I liked him, if I’m being honest – and he once again was pushing his luck, saying that he would be able to move without detection. While I thought it a likely claim, I did not see it as a certainty, and told him that. Anyway, there were other ways to find a safer route, so I called out to their spokesman, “Tell me old man, come the morning, which way round would you offer us? And be truthful now, for it seems like it’s in your best interest to get us moving on quickly and with as little disruption as possible to your fields as we poke around looking for a favourable route.”

He weighed this up before answering, “Go west come the morning, and be quick about it”, he grumbled, seeing the sense in my question but bitter enough that he still resented offering us any sodding assistance. I was happy though, and it seemed enough to keep Caderyn from wandering too far through the night. I wasn’t done yet though, and the morning’s lack of sustenance still weighed lightly on my stomach.

“You have food and drink within? If you’re going to make some friendly travelers sit outside alone all night, then the least you could do is provide us with a meal. We will of course pay for it all, and looking at the quality of the clothing on show, I imagine you could do with the coin in this town”. If he hadn’t been such an annoying prick I wouldn’t have made the pointless insult, but it was near full dark and I was in no mood for sweet talking the old bloody fool.

It looked like I was correct though, and he nodded before turning on his heel and stalking back to the heavy doors which were already swinging open to allow the men back inside. As we set about putting a camp together – far enough away to avoid any night time exchanges of arrows – a small group came forth with trays and a small firkin of beer for the evening. Sad to say, the young chap carrying it didn’t seem to be struggling under the weight, and when it was laid down and tapped, proved to be barely half full. Not that I would have had much to drink, a full night’s sleep was much more my speed that evening, but I’m sure between us we could have emptied one had it been brought to us full to bursting.

All in all, it wasn’t a bad night though, and we awoke after a decent bit of sleep having felt reasonably safe so close to the town walls. We left behind the detritus of the night’s meal and were up and about as soon as was possible. By choosing to not give up our weapons, we would were adding at least an hour or two to our journey, even if the western route was in fact the quickest. The undergrowth was thick, and the going slow, but eventually we made it through and out the other side.

The day had already turned hot by the time we were free of the shade and before long we were all sticky and sweating, taking every opportunity to drench ourselves when the road came close enough to the river. Ahead was a sight to chill the spine though. Even after a week in the Margo the sight of corpses hanging from their necks was something I hadn’t gotten used to. There were six of them, mostly Hutzlunrs – as I had come to expect, being mercenary buggers like myself – but also a Bajo hanging there too.

There wasn’t another living soul in sight, and we were close enough to the river that everyone was happy to take a break and cool down while I lowered my countryman’s corpse to the ground, taking his orange sash from him before dragging the body down to the river, making sure the flow was moving back the way we came and dropping it in. I wasn’t the only one who wanted to make sure that these bodies were treated with respect, and as I turned from the river, I saw Fjorlief dragging a Hutzlunr towards me. I nodded to her, and proceeded to help until all the corpses were taken care of.

It was far from a pleasant job, but doing it made me feel good, like I had helped those poor souls move on to a reward they deserved, or at least deserved more than becoming food for a corbie. And hell, doing a favour for a strapping young lady that I would love to see naked again was bound to pay off eventually.

*     *     *

That was the first of several encounters on the road that day. Next we were unlucky enough to come across yet more decorated skulls and pleadings to the same spirit of revenge that we had encountered previously. This time though, we also managed to find someone who might be able to give us some answers as to what the hell was going on with them. Sad to say the heat and my own disinterest was enough for me to quickly lose the thread of the conversation between Caderyn and the Margo dweller we had found. This one was far more of Dummonii than Pelosian, and from what little I can remember, there was something afoot that  had taken the lives of several people. The skulls were there to call vengeance down upon, well, whatever the hell it was. As I said, I was too damned hot to concentrate on some villagers superstitious nonsense.

Caderyn seemed to take it seriously though, and was quick to move on, checking over his shoulder a little more than I would have expected. Still, we had already seen one creature that claimed to be a spirit of his people, and it had tried to kill every last one of us if we refused to give up our shadows to it.

I can’t say I wasn’t happy to put some distance between us and the markers, but not too far ahead was yet another hanging man. This time he was still alive, but I doubt he lasted long after we passed him by. A criminal of some sort, wearing robes of the Zammerite with a slate plaque hanging around his neck. The Pelosians seemed to be able to make out what was written, but offered little in the way of explanation, simply moving on quickly.

He didn’t spend that much longer on my mind though, as trouble came from nowhere not long after we left him hanging in his cage. We walked once more past statues at the side of the road when we slowed a little, someone had seen something unusual, but before we could do much about it, a smoke bomb flew towards us, exploding and covering us in a thick white gas. I was quickly enveloped and could see nothing of anyone else, but could hear movement from all around.

Rather than wait for another attack, I opened up a squall to blow the smoke away from me, knowing it would give me a few seconds to determine the threat. There were several figures moving just outside of the cloud, which at first glance I took to be woodland spirits; some kind of human animal hybrids maybe? No matter what they were, they had more bombs in hand, along with more conventional weapons too. I could here our people preparing for another attack, and female voices trying to get our hormorn to move on before we were overwhelmed, but to no avail.

They assured me later that no Earth Power was in play, keeping the beasts from moving, but at the time it was all I could think of. If we weren’t going to walk clear of the cloud, then I was happy to take the fight to our ambushers. I could see a small gathering of them through the gap my squall had made, so decided to try out my new rune, casting it onto myself and watching as the world twisted around me.

I had only a second or two left to make my way out of the smoke, and could see Valerius loosing arrows into our enemies from his vantage point atop a wagon. I took my opportunity and charged towards them, jumping down from the road and managing to land safely in spite of my twisted vision. I got close enough to swing my Basaedo in, slashing across the chest of a creature that looked like a big cat had done something unspeakable to a woman, but it wasn’t enough to put it down.

They moved away from me, looking confusedly at me, or at least, where they thought I was. They seemed to get an idea though, or were just lucky as all hell, as three of them hurled bombs in my direction, two of them striking and bursting into flame. I looked down to see the material of my trews catch on fire and my chest begin to smolder. It wasn’t enough to stop me though, and as two others rushed in hoping to finish me off, I easily turned their attacks aside, one with my dagger, the second with my sword.

Luck had nothing to do with it, but I had managed to survive their attacks nonetheless. Sadly, I would very much need all the luck good Fortune had to spare as I squared off against them, burning and surrounded.

Jan 242014
 

As the news sunk in, I remember thinking that insisting Vitus keep the bottle of wine to himself may have been a mistake. It was far from anyone’s idea of a fine vintage, but when it came to getting a man pissed, it managed the job admirably. And what more could one ask of a bottle of cheap wine?

We needed a plan, but not everyone had the same priorities as I. I knew already that Caderyn and Drazar were only working for Skuza as a means to an end – not that said end was particularly clear to me – and weren’t overly concerned with his welfare as long they were going to make some money on the job. I could have really done with Valerius right then to bolster their spirit, but he had gone after Skuza, taking Catranasia with him, presumably to take advantage of her abilities as a merchant.

Vitus seemed to be the only other one who was overly concerned with getting the boss out of the city in one piece, and he was spending most of time lamenting his poor lot in life. Fjorlief was doing what she could to get him to talk sense, but he seemed to be happy with his face in his hands, grunting and questioning what he may have done in his life to be so badly mistreated by the fates. All very entertaining, but we had other concerns. If we were to formulate a plan to get out of the Profinarium to rescue Skuza, we needed everyone together.

Brand had expressed his desire to sleep away from the hostel, preferring the underside of a wagon to a roof over his head, and Drazar had likewise wanted to steer clear of the crowds, but for different reasons. While Caffees was purchased for our wagon master, I walked into the night to find them, doing my best to remember under which animal totem our wagons were secured.

Skuza had reluctantly parted with some coin in regards to our evening off the road, paying a few paltry coins to keep a watchman stationed through the night with his precious cargo; a light burning through the night. Sadly, he wasn’t the only merchant to take such precautions, and several scrawny looking types were posted around the open patch of land used for corralling the vehicles. Each looked like they would be unable to hold even one vagrant with a will, but undoubtedly offered some piece of mind to fools who new little of the world.

Eventually I spotted the carved wooden Ablec that was perched atop the pole that our wagons were secured to, and another rodent looking excuse for a man was indeed present, lantern held high. At no point did he even try to stop me as I walked between the wagons, even though I had no recollection of him having been retained while I was present. In the middle of the wagons sat Brand and Drazar, neither talking to the other. “I have news, bad news”, says I, “and I think it best discussed while we walk, keeping us away from prying ears”.

They both nodded, gathering their things and not pressing me for answers until we were clear of our no doubt dauntless protector’s hearing. It seemed that no matter what the weather, dozens of caravans and their beasts of burden could change any surface into rutted wet mud. The smell was particularly noteworthy, but I’m sure your imagination will do a far better job of conjuring up just how unpleasant it was than my words ever will.

So as we trudged through ankle deep filth I filled the two of them in on the basics of the meeting I had just come from, and was unsurprised to find Drazar wanting in his desire to see Skuza safely from the garrison town. Brand was quick to come up with suggestions though, including that we concentrate on getting the wagons free. Although I had instantly thought of getting Skuza to safety, he was right. Fulfilling my contract was a goal with its own reward, but having some coin in my pocket would allow me to be a little more discerning in my next choice of patron.

I wondered aloud if that would mean we would be better off bringing the boss with us here first, but Brand shook his head, “It was Vitus that dealt with the livery staff over there. I’m sure he could get the animals without needing Skuza around”. We still had to deal with the fact that the doors wouldn’t be opened again until dawn, and just how inebriated our wagon master was. As I was breaking that particular news to them, we were close enough to the covered drinking area for the two of them to see Vitus engaged in a heated discussion with Fjorlief.

From this distance we couldn’t hear the details, but by the time we were close enough to make out the words, it seemed he was still stuck in the same self pitying rut in which I had left him. Fjorlief, a woman growing more and more interesting to me by the minute, stood close to him, towering a good foot above his head, was looking him in the eye. When he finally seemed to have run to the end of his current lamentations she swung her hand round with lightening speed and slapped him across the face so hard, I almost felt it.

By the gods it did the job though, and he was soon looking considerably more sober and ready to act. With excellent timing, Catranasia made an appearance meaning I got to tell the whole sorry tale one last time. Apparently she had been off selling some goods to ensure that we had some pay in our pockets. A nice plan, thought up by Valerius if I was any judge. I didn’t doubt that Skuza wished us well, but I was less sure that he would have given us a second thought once away from the Profinarium and in close proximity to a hot bath.

Still, we would almost certainly need to bribe a gate guard or two if we were to get out of here under the cover of darkness, and having coin in pocket would make that possible. The young lady also seemed aware of guards who would be more likely to take said bribe, and how much it would cost. While talking on such things – including a man of the underworld whose help would almost certainly be needed – Vitus made his decision and stood up, slightly unsteadily. “Right, that’s it. I can get through the gates to the Piamarium, and if I need to, I’ll drag back Ser bloody Skuza. You lot, get everythin’ else sorted”.

He lurched through the crowd and was making his way to said gates looking as steady as a new born toma walking on ice. Brand was close by and within earshot for a hushed word or tow, “Follow him a way will you? Just make sure he gets to the gates of the Piamarium in one piece”. He nodded shortly and was up and on his feet instantly, but within seconds I had lost sight of his darkened form as it walked away through the bustle.

Vitus had asked for a full turning to see to our employer’s safety, but there was little we could do in that time. None of us fancied drinking anything more, and had already eaten our fills. We had company though, so we asked around some of the less reputable looking types to confirm the stories we had heard about Shepard – a man in the know it seemed – and his base of operations in a place lovingly titled the Crafty Bastard.

Although I still had many years left to me to learn valuable life lessons, even then I knew that the more comically entertaining the name of the drinking establishment, the more likely it was to be  full of cut-throat bastards and thieves. Time would prove me amply right on this, but for the moment, I only had Drazar to contend with.

He was clearly ill at ease. His eyes flickering constantly behind the slits in his mask, his fingers tapping out badly timed rhythms on the beer slicked table and his head never still for longer than a second. Imagine a child really wishing to be excused from a dinner table to take a massive shit and I think you might have an idea about how much he was fidgeting. “What the hell is wrong with you man”, I asked, trying to keep the anxiety out of my voice.

“I just, don’t feel comfortable here. Not around so many of… these people”. Well shit, thinks I, working for a Pelosian was one thing, but being surrounded by them, and many of them decked out in legion clobber, was really getting to him. We didn’t have the time for any such foolishness though, especially if we were about to do something very foolish to try and rescue a possibly wanted man.

“Listen, I can see you look like crap right now, and that means other people can too. You square that shit away or we’ll get some very unwanted attention. There’s nothing to be done right now but sit and wait, so just accept that instead of worrying about bad things that most likely won’t even happen.

“Look around you. this place is full of stranger people than you, and a hell of a lot of them have moles with them. So, calm down, and we’ll have a much better chance of getting out of here together, and with our wages.”

That seemed to calm him down somewhat, but if you paid enough attention it was clear he was still on edge, just trying his damnedest to keep it hidden. Silence again settled upon our table, as we had exhausted all topics of conversation related to the evening’s events. Those around us were less silent, but I was still able to hear something out of the ordinary, and looked once more towards the Hutzlunr woman I found so enchanting. Something was different about her, and it goes to show just how blinkered I had been that I hadn’t noticed it before.

Sat on the table in front of her, a small collar around its neck, nibbling away at a discarded lime rind, one end of its lead held in Fjorlief’s hand was a small and desperately ugly creature. As I stared, perplexed by what I was seeing, she must have noticed where my attention was directed. “What?”, she asked, “This is Sally the Pelosian Fighting Mole. I bought her.” There was a hint of defiance in her voice, as if she expected to be chided for making such a purchase, but I could think of no reason to care about what she did with her own coin.

“Very well”, I replied, “but isn’t Sally an odd name for such a creature”?

“Her full name is Sally the Pelosian Fighting Mole. How is that not a good name for a fighting mole?” I had no easy answer to the logic of that question, so returned to sitting in silence, awaiting Vitus’s return.

*     *     *

Within a turning, but with little to spare the Pelosian was seen striding towards us once more. He had clearly sobered up some in the intervening time, his gait much more steady and deliberate. What was even more obvious though, was that he was alone. My heart sank, and the hardened expression on his face seemed to drain the life out of all of us.

He sank back into his seat before saying a word, “the daft old bastard seems to think that because he’s a Numare he will be tried as such and can easily argue that he is not to be detained. Valerius did his best to convince him otherwise, but he’s a stubborn sod when the mood takes him. Luckily, Valerius also volunteered to stay with him, and make nothing else can go wrong”. He looked about him as he finished, possibly hoping for some more wine, but coming to his senses before ordering any.

“So, we have another plan then?” I asked. And over the next few minutes we managed to come up with something. Catranasia knew this Shepard fellow, and had contacts within the garrison’s underworld. With Brand, Vitus, and Caderyn keeping her company we made our way to the Crafty Bastard. Fjorlief, Drazar, and myself made sure to keep some distance though, watching out for any agents of the banking house that was attempting to call in Skuza’s debt that might be following to try and stop us from interfering.

As we began our journey to the even worse parts of the city, its inhabitants were starting to call it a night, meaning the streets were busy with folk staggering to a bed, or other location they could lie undisturbed for a few hours. Although this meant it was hard to keep track of any potential threats, it also gave us the same advantage. With Fjorlief and myself towering over the crowds we were a much more obvious target than the darkly dressed group who we needed alive and able to deal with Shepard.

The further we got into the slums of the Profinarium the more dregs we saw. The less attractive the hookers became, and the more they must have grateful for the lack of municipal lighting. Any person we bumped into could have been a thief, and I was constantly aware that all I wanted to do was to pat my purse to make sure it was there, but absolutely certain that all it would accomplish would be top signal a thief as to exactly where it was about my person.

Still, we made it there in one place, and by the Gods it was a hole that I would be unhappy even pissing into. there was no doubting which of the scumbags that festooned this place was Shepard though. he held court like the syphilitic head of a decaying once noble family. On the table in front of him was a scavling, and he was maliciously toying with it as he engaged with his lackeys. I was glad to be free to stand away from this contemptible bastard and let others speak to him, but if the negotiation I witnessed was anything to go by, I wasn’t surprised that Catranasia had to throw her lot in with Skuza.

I ordered a round of horrendous Gennova for the three of us overseeing the conversation, and did my best to let as little of it as possible pass my lips as I pretended to sip on it. Some advice dear reader if you ever find yourself having to deal with the likes of Shepard. Firstly, never admit to desperation.

This put us instantly on the back foot and gave him the opportunity to negotiate from a position of strength. Secondly, don’t tell someone like that what you’re willing to pay; let them ask and negotiate them down. Luckily it seemed that Shepard had a thing for our young trader, and was willing to help, for a price. It seemed to be understood that he would take his payment by claiming what he wanted from the back of one of the wagons, but Catranasia was quick to counter here, instead suggesting some of teh treated moss we had all taken from the cave of the dead.

Its narcotic properties were obviously of interest to Shepard, and he nodded in agreement, telling us where we were to meet our wagons that his men would ensure were taken from the enclosure. The fact that he was so sure that his men would have no problem doing this, and in fact already seemed to know which wagons were ours, granted him a smattering of my respect. Mind you, it’s also a bit worrying to know that an organised criminal could have such easy access to your possessions whenever he wanted.

The others were soon up and out, but I held our little troop back before following, just in case Shepard had dispatched a man or two of his own to keep an eye on them. Once more though, we were lefty alone and made our back to the hostel to gather what little of our gear we had left in the rooms that I had paid for. Not exactly money well spent, looking back on it, but then the purchase of the wine didn’t do us any favours either. Some of Skuza’s poor fortune must have ribbed off on me that night.

With little time to spare before our meeting, we walked towards the West Gate. We once again split into two groups the better to keep an eye out for potential danger, but were not accosted. The West Gate led out to the legion encampment, and I could practically hear Drazar’s rapid heartbeat as we closed in. On several occasions we walked past groups of soldiers, marching in unison even when in tunics rather than  armour, but thankfully they seemed more interested in drinking and women than giving us any trouble.

We had with us the young girl from the ranch, who had been unsure as to what she should do with her new found freedom, but had weighed up the odds and decided to stay with us for now, rather than risk being once again returned to servitude. She attracted some attention, but after her treatment was skinny and pale enough for it to be cursory at best, and before long we were greeted by the sight of our home on wheels with accompanying beasts.

So far, so good, with only an army to get through before we were free. Thankfully, Shepard had kept up his end of the bargain, and we were soon at the exit to the encampment, with only a couple of armed men in our way, and they were already moving back the large doors to allow us to leave.

A breathed easier as we put the city behind us, but knew that my work wasn’t over yet. “Vitus”, I called, getting his attention, “Do you know what Valerius’ half of the plan is?”

He nodded, “There is a pair of statues at the side of the road, a few miles in our direction. We are to wait there for them, giving them until twelve turnings before we move on without them”.

“Well, in that case my friends, I will see you in a few hours. My job is to protect Skuza as well as his property, and I think you lot should have no problem with a few wagons.” With that I stepped off the slow moving wagon and let them pass in the direction of the statues. No one tried to stop me, but I can only imagine that Fjorlief let me go with a heavy heart and a keen desire to me safely returned to her side. As I have said, I was a cocksure young man back in those heady days.

I had a few hours left until dawn, and then the Gods knew how long it would take Valerius to see Skuza safely from the city. I would be waiting for them though, making sure that Ser Eduardo knew that I could be trusted.