Zebulon

It was a nothing town.

But it had a bar, and sometimes…that’s enough.

The wind whipped through the empty streets choked with dust. A chill was present, but not enough to

Artist – Jae Liu

penetrate the thick jacket that the bard wore, bright blue collar pulled nearly to her nose. Elora Delcroft leaned into the wind, and ran through her set list.

The Doctor Dances, that’s always a favorite, even in a tiny spot like this. Then Measuring the Marigolds, followed by the short cuts of Western Shores and My Lady, She Burns off the Coast. I’m only here for a night, so I suppose I should pull out all the stops.

Elora chuckled into her collar. Zebulon was not the worst place she’d ever performed, but only if you squinted. The town seemed mostly empty, only a half hundred old men and women, a few exhausted families trying to pull in a meager crop. She had to be the first bard to wander into town in months, if not years — the barkeep’s eyes had widened like moonrise upon seeing her silver Harper’s pin. He had turned quickly away, and dabbed at his eyes. “Hard times, miss — we’d be sure glad to have you sing a bit tonight. I can’t offer you much, just a clean bed in my attic across the way, and all the stew and ale you care to eat.”

The half-elf scratched the tip of one pointed ear, loosening an earring from where it bit. She had watched from her window as what seemed the entire population of Zebulon had crammed into inn, heads bowed underneath the odd sign that swung at the entrance. A massive stuffed claw, covered with scales, ending in three chipped talons. The barkeep claimed it came from a dragon, Elora had smiled and allowed that it surely did.

A little boy waved as she approached, and ran immediately into the bar, yelling “She’s here — she’s here, the singer-lady’s here!”

I wonder why people still live here? So close to the Black Fog, and the fallen country of Gilead? Elora pushed through the doors of the Three-Toed Claw, into a throng of tired, but smiling faces. I must add some songs for the children, after the intermission. Songs that everyone knows and can sing along. Soppin’ Gravy, and Mune the Moonchaser, perhaps.

She whipped her blue coat off with theatrical panache, and slung it ably on a hook. Her lute case seemed to fly open as she made her way through the crowd, lute gliding into her hand free and easy. The room was silent as she mounted the crude stage, two tables pushed together , rude boards and fresh nails.

Elora said her pleasantries, and her mind and fingers loosened. Her voice fell into the opening patter that she had said a thousand times, she smiled at the crowd. This was why she took the long way — to find the tiny little towns where music was needed more than water in the Sarmadi Desert. The entire population of Zebulon was crammed into the tiny common room, but there was still space to spare. The barkeep pushed himself out from behind the bar, eager and smiling.

The bard noticed a man sitting at the bar, his back to the stage. Elora felt a prickle of professional irritation. This would be the finest show that Zebulon would see in many moons, and this lout was hunched over the bar, completely oblivious. She sniffed, at the pile of empty clay cups at the man’s elbow, the black bottle gripped in his right. A man losing himself to drink, no excuse to miss her art’s charms.

“I see there is one among you who is not a music lover!” She called, playfully. “Come friend, come and join us — please choose the first song I will play for all the fine people here assembled.”

The crowd’s attention spun to the man, and several people snickered. This man was clearly a stranger.

The man raised his head, and slowly turned to face her. He had a plain face, and ordinary features.

But his eyes. Elora’s fingers tightened on the lute. Shelyn protect me, his eyes.

Unbidden, the bard’s fingers began to move. An old, old tune spilled over the crowd and Elora sang, unable to look away from the man at the bar.
Company, always on the run
Destiny, oooh, and the rising sun
I was born, six gun in my hand
Behind the gun, I make my final stand
That’s why they call me
Bad company,
Oh, I can’t deny
Bad, Bad company

Till the day I die

Rebel souls
Deserters we are called
Chose the gun
And threw away the sword
All these towns
They all know our name
Six gun sound
Ooh, is our claim to fame
Bad company,
Oh, I can’t deny
Bad, Bad company
Till the day I die

 

Elora sang, tears running down her cheeks.

[With respect to Bad Company — wherever they ride.]

Hunter in the Dark II

I stumble to the journal, and grasp it tightly — like a drowning man to a plank in the ocean.

The dreams are back. The same ones that filled my dark cell, and they’re all about you, Rime. Always about you.

I’ve lost track of the days, traveling with my new companions. Several strange encounters, and great danger — but none of it interest me now. When I left the prison, I had my first true sleep in over ten years — perfect blank time that refreshed my body and my mind.

But then you – your eyes, your voice – the way your hands felt on my brow as you stole the light from me. Stole everything from me. Cool and clear, and your eyes so calm. They chase me again, I am the prey – running from dreams into the sweaty dark of consciousness.

Focus. I am a hunter still. The rituals and thoughts of my old life can keep me sane, I pray. Survey the terrain, lay out your battle plan. What assets and advantages do you have — what weaknesses can you shore up?

I will kill you, Rime – I’m coming for you, to where you hide in the City of Always Night.

With love and respect to the ArchAndroid.

The purple-skinned trombonist eyes the coin with distrust, then shrugs. He calls off stage in a thick tongue that Quick doesn’t recognize. The dance floor buzzes with excitement as a slender figure steps into view. She is wearing a sharply pressed white shirt with a black string tie, long black tail coat, pinstripe pants and blazing white spats on her shoes. Her skin is dark, and her elaborately coiffed bouffant is darker — but the devilkin spots the cunning rivets and seams along her jawline, and the slight purple glow behind her wide, brown eyes. She is a construct of some sort, but one of greater complexity and craft then Quick has ever encountered before.

She kicks her legs high in the air, and cradles the steel microphone and pulls it to her lips.

Whoaaa
Another day I take your pain away
Some people talk about ya
Like they know all about ya
When you get down they doubt ya
And when you tippin on the scene
Yeah they talkin’ bout it
Cause they can’t tip all on the scene with ya
Talk about it T-t-t-talk bout it
When you get elevated,
They love it or they hate it
You dance up on them haters
Keep getting funky on the scene
While they jumpin’ round ya
They trying to take all your dreams
But you can’t allow it
Cause baby whether you’re high or low
Whether you’re high or low
You gotta tip on the tightrope
T-t-t-tip on the tightrope

The band thumps and jams behind her and the Funky Winkerbean quakes and jives. The devilkin faintly remembers that in the outside world, it’s only an hour or two past breakfast.

The spider bartender waves its free arms in time to the beat, and serves drinks faster and faster. The two half-elves squeal and dash towards the dance floor. The drunken dwarf burps.

Hunter in the Dark I

–th of Handspan, 11–

I write these words carefully.

Quill in my right hand, nib pressing against my left hand’s fingertips. I don’t know why it concerns me to write these sentences evenly, as I will never read them – and I have no plans to share these words with another soul.

From what my new companions tell me, it has been over ten years since my sight was taken from me. I was an old man even before my time in Dra’Lusair, many lives  and turns of the road — but in my favorite I was a scholar.  I find comfort in the scratch of the ink on the page. The words slide through my mind, then disappear into the dark.

The only candle I have left is my imagination and my memory –and oh, how they flicker.

Maybe after all the years in the dark it is a comfort to put my words somewhere, instead of them endlessly whirling around  in my tiny teardrop cell. Or perhaps because there has been little opportunity for conversation since my … release? Deliverance?

My new companions are an interesting group. A master swordsman, a cultured riflewoman, a cowardly wizard, a reckless gladiator, a driven soldier, and their leader, Simon. A paradox — he seems the most carefree and feckless of them all, but each of them follows him without question. He is a man who laughs first and often, but I can hear a familiar sound in his voice. The breaking sound.

And of course, my closest shadow — the Tyr-Elf exile. Stone is cruel, and the stone elves of Iax proved it on her flesh in the stagnant dark of their underground city. As the only one who can speak her people’s brutal tongue, she has taken on the duty of shepherding the old blind man, she is never far if I require anything. She speaks little of her imprisonment, or the source of her people’s disgust for her — I would not dream to pry further.Nyver is the name she uses, the Tyr-Elf word translated simply as “exile”, but more fluently as “Die Under The Sun”.

Ah — my new companions have completed their preparations, and we make haste for the edge of the Stone Elves’ caverns. To the surface, then across the savannah to where Simon has hidden his ship, that will bear us all across the sea.

Across the sea, to find the scent of my quarry.

You should have killed me, Rime. I know you could have found a way. I swear you will regret the elegance of my destruction.

[From the journals of Linus, last Falcon of the Hunt. Found after his death.]

Star Prophet IV

Star Prophet sits cross-legged, and levitates above a green hill. I’m doing jumping jacks and thinking about what that boy said in class. About my hair, and how it smelled good. He was half asleep behind me, arm catty-corner on the desk. His fingers brushed the bottom edge of my hair, and it was a ripple down my spine. Index, middle finger, thumb – he held the tip of my hair. A LaGrange point. Straight ahead, no ripples of gravity, my eyes are moons. He said it, then let go.

Star Prophet quirks an eyebrow, and detonates a small plateau with his mind. He is displeased that I am distracted from my training.

I kick off into the air, and lightning crackles in my fist.

My fist that holds the toothbrush.

And I’m in the dark with my uncle. He slobbers and moans his way through the night, a rip red of pain in the air, dying with each bellows-breath.

I hate him like gravity. I hate him like the sun.

I stand over him, and my fist comes down.

Star Prophet III

Maybe I’m dreaming.

Star Prophet and I stand on a beach at sunset. The sun is too big, half the sky is red fire. Solar flares curl and destabilize the ionosphere and the sand is too large, like grains of rice between my toes. I slip my fingers into the band of my shorts, it’s cold. There is no sound, the waves do not crash.

The blue star-hood turns and I see that his right eye is bleeding.

“Who did that to you?”

“You did.” he said.

I touch his face, then I touch my face. My fingers feel strange in the empty cavity where my left eye used to be. There is no pain, just an odd sticky feeling of pressure.

“Want to go for a walk?”

“Yeah, sure.”

I get up and go to the bathroom, and brush my teeth. Ultra-Brite is red already, so my toothbrush doesn’t look strange.  The pads of my fingers are yellow-white as I press them against the mirror. Hand bone, and wrist bone, and arm bone all connected. Broken-glass joints. The rice-sand titters away from my feet.

“It pushes, it pushes, it pushes us..us! It pushes us, child, child, sweet child of mine.” Star Prophet said. “Humans are so blessed, so special in the cosmos. The line of our bones running all the way back to the Tigris, throwing ourselves out there — up there! More to see, and more to know and more to go. Heh-heh.”

“Heh.”

“To stand on a street corner, and feel the heat of the pavement through your shoes and the wind of a car and feel it all stretching out, backwards and forwards — the wolves howling at the tent flap and the burst of nebulae off the port bow.”

The  carpet, the thick carpet — the steep walls of the hall, my uncle snoring. I slammed the flat of my fist against the wall, but he didn’t wake up. I was still holding my toothbrush.

[Still not happy, but getting there. Maybe once I ‘finish’ this can be a good practice revision piece before diving into That Thing.]

Eyes in the Wood

The old knight raised his hand in caution. “These wood elves are stranger than you have encountered — of all the descendents, they trace their lineage pure and fine back to the High Elves of old. Their sight is a dangerous thing — the future, the present, the past. All laid bare. Stay focused –be sure you are ready to receive their words.”

Quintus turned and eyeballed his hand on the lightning scarred tree. His right-ring cuticle needed some attention. A few minutes passed, and the duelist fought to stifle a yawn. A leaf fell spinning from a nearby tree, and landed lightly on his wrist.

A tidal wave. The hooves of deer, the wings of the bluejay, a song his lover sang in the autumn moonlight- black, white, then red. A snail crawled across a stone and a symphony of marigold frostbite. A green hand slid up the side of a gray castle like a creeping vine. A small girl played a trumpet in the fronds of a palm tree, a red haired youth strummed his lute beneath a pear tree.  The earth crumbled beneath Quintus’ feet and he fell into darkness.

A slender hand curled around her wrist, a long face framed in silver and leaf-green. The wood elf kissed Quintus’ lips, his golden eyes wide and overflowing with tears.

Simon. Simon on an exhausted horse. Simon wearing a red scarf, ragged and trailing. Simon riding into the teeth of a storm, black and sure.

Mara’s knees gave way, falling into an ungainly crouch. The elf spoke, quiet as the lark before the hurricane.

“These words we have for you and no more. We cannot deny the river.”

The wood elf dashed the tears from his eyes.

“Your leader rides to his doom. If you do not save him, he will fall like all of his brothers. Ride, ride to Gilead if you be true companions. As for the cage of souls…”

He steepled his hands, then let them fall to his side.

“It is beyond our power. An unknown magic, an unknown craft — we wonder why you seek our knowledge of this device, when a servant of the Smith-God stands at your heels.”

Kelvin waved, uncertainly.

“Now — words for each of you.”

The golden eyes burned and he moved from one to one, whispering in each traveler’s ear. Quintus was close enough to the old knight, Linus, to see the hungry set of his jaw — but couldn’t make out a word, nor see the lips of the wood elf move as he whispered. The duelist’s eyes widened as the wood elf came close, and kept his face impassive as he heard the seer’s words.

The wood elf turned away from the group, and gave a weak smile.  He seemed to consider his words, then shrugged ruefully.

Leaves fell on the travelers heads.

—-

The Ghosts found themselves walking out of Seroholm forest, with the outskirts of Pennytown in view. None of them could remember the trip back from the tree, only the wood elf’s prophecy …and the secret words he had lodged in each heart. They walked silently back into town, and were surprised to find the town bustling with activity – amid the sounds of a hammer on metal.

Several dozen men and women were moving through the streets, bearing oddly wrought rods and flanges of adamantine and steel. A few called out to greet the travelers — Drover put down his load and waved them over. “Where have you been? — it’s been almost four days since you left us with that ticking time bomb. Good thing that other smith showed up yesterday, set right to work dismantling that monstrosity.”

Alarmed, the travelers hurried to the town square and the forge. The Gargantuan had been reduced to a third of its original size, legs and the bottom part of its torso. The Ghosts were relieved to see the chambers that had once gleamed with green soul energy lined up next to the forge, cold and empty. A tall, burly man was bent over the right ankle of the machine hammering away with his head down. As the travelers approached he stood up — a tightly cropped black beard shot through with silver and a blue bandanna to hold back the sweat. He was shirtless, old tattoos and scars running down the length of his chest. He took a long drag on the cigar stub he held clamped in his teeth, and grinned.

“Deus ex machina, baby.” he said.

“Master!” Kelvin cried with excitement and rushed forward to give his god a hug.

 

 

Star Prophet II

Cold walk, warm house. My uncle’s third knuckle on the right, potato-sack lumpy and his red voice and the fall of the Roman Empire. The stars were out, but I was in.

Humans do these things. They do these things to each other every day.

My face was bent. I rolled next to the couch and waited, while meteors impacted on the surface of Mars.

The press of headphones, the music and the moon  – I lay with the sheet over my head and lost myself. The rhymes, the words – the quick symmetry of the drum and the strange keen of the electronic flute.

I think about Star Prophet’s planets — about the songs he hears. The whirling slide of space and time, the spaces, empty – now full. Jupiter turns his face, and Saturn hula-hoops across the dance floor. The blood on my pillow is red. The rains of Mercury and Venus, the broken canyons hidden beneath the cotton-wool cloud.

[I’m really not happy with this section. I’m used to bla-bla-blahing my way, spitting out a few hundred words like it was nothing. This sucker’s fighting me. I’m going to keep working on SP in dribs and drabs, then do a massive revision when it’s all done. This is what I get for actually thinking about a story.]

Servants

[An adventure log for Lodestar, my tabletop campaign. All you nerds out there recognize this sort of thing — a recap of the adventure told journal-style, from the perspective of one of the characters. Part of my experiment with putting longer content up here on the blog. This was written fresh today, so I’m sure there’s some pesky typos and such — but let me know what you think about the readability and content.]

19th of Handspan, 1179.

Better do something to keep myself awake — and you’re always saying that I should write more in my journal, so here goes. I really think you just make me write in here to give yourself some humorous reading on the toilet. Or maybe to just give you more opportunity to roll your eyes, and look disappointed?

Almost finished with work on the Crucible — just have to wait on the truesilver to cool. I’ll have those two un-cursed and de-porcupined by dawn, as long as I don’t fall face first on the anvil and start snoring. I mean, that’s weird right? I’ve seen people transformed into strange things before – frogs, statues, a loaf of Piccan cheesebread — but two guys morphed into a two-headed porcupine? You see something new every day, I guess. No stranger than the 200 foot metal colossus outside, fueled by captured souls and dark magics from a forgotten age.

Wait — I’m getting ahead of myself. I know you hate when I do that. Sorry.

So, I’ve been working in Pennytown for a couple of months, working off my debt from that thing in Meraldspire. It’s a quite a  town, I’ve really enjoyed just relaxing – doing simple and clean work at the forge. Horseshoes, gates, a whole batch of nails — ooh, I fixed the copper wiring in a busted clock about a week ago. Yup, just good, clean work and then early to bed for your favorite cleric.

Yesterday, travellers came to town. There were a bunch of them, but one of them is this amazing gunslinger — redhead, loooooong legs and an amazing — wait, I can see your eyes rolling. Sorry.

Anyway, they had gotten cursed and banged up on their way into town, so I patched them up as best I could — but then they were a little hesitant about plunking down the cash for the Crucible. The Master Trader was gouging them — but what were they going to do, just leave their friends as a two-headed porcupine? Drover gave them a deal — me and the two of them that were fit for travel would run an errand for him, then he’d give them a discount. Check in on his brother’s store at a nearby village, his weekly delivery was late. The beautiful gunslinger, Mara and a duelist named Quintus agreed to the deal.

I strapped on the armor you helped me craft, and we headed up the New Road to Hemmerfell.

I’ve been to Hemmerfell a few times, I’m the best healer in the area. I had to deliver a baby there the week after I arrived, and it turned out to be triplets! It’s a dirt-poor mining town, but the people there are good folk — quick with a joke, or a round of ale.

They weren’t joking when we got there. Most of the old folk and children were just standing in the middle of the street, and staring into space.  We called to them, shook them by the shoulders – but they barely reacted, like they were drugged or sleeping. But their eyes were wide open — I looked through the windows of their eyes, and there was no soul inside. They were empty husks, breathing out of habit — less alive than daffodils. It scared me, Nomus. Shook me right to the core — that a soul could be plucked out of a man’s body easier than removing the core from an apple.

Oh, I perfected a new type of apple corer — remind me to show you the next time I see you.

We moved quickly through the streets of Hemmerfell, past more and more of the poor, empty townsfolk. There were signs of a battle, broken weapons, gouges in the earth, and more than a little blood spilled in the dirt. And then we found a dark marvel.

A cube — thirty feet on each side, made from dozens of different metals hammered and wrought. Endlessly intricate, but also strangely organic — it reminded me of the iron sculptures we saw in Bard’s Gate that time, how the dwarves shaped each piece with their hands, allowing their instincts to override geometric design. But this thing wasn’t beautiful — it was terrifying, Master. The way that a cage is terrifying. I whispered a prayer to you, and continued on with my companions.

As we approached the store, we found more and more of the townsfolk clustered around it. I approached the front door, and they swarmed close — uttering almost in unison a guttural “No.” A few faces were familiar, but empty — I pushed through the blank-eyed gauntlet. Clearly what had caused this horrible effect was somewhere inside the store.

Inside we were found the store empty — except for a rusty suit of armor, out of place and quiet. It turned out to be a sort of shield guardian, like that one we made for King Flaubert. I tried to inspect it, but it pushed me away. Some rudeness in the design there. It was powered by some green energy — something I’d never encountered before, it made me feel a little pukey just to be near it.

Just then, Bostwick came down the stairs. He’s sort of a friend, I’ve -drank- talked to him a few times since I’ve moved here — he’s the courier that runs between Hemmerfell and Pennytown.

But something had changed him. He talked about changing the world, about how the people of Hemmerfell were the first step, tools for his master and fuel for his grand device. I knew right away he was talking about the cube. The swordsman, Quintus — oh, I didn’t describe him,  you’d like him Nomus, quick with his blade and quicker with his mind — asked Bostwick some penetrating questions about his purpose and who his master was. I missed some of it, because Mara happened to do that hair-flippy thing that girls do right in the corner of my vision.

What? It was distracting!

To make the world one. He said. The power of life, the control of a living being’s essence.—Vitaemancy.

Something was controlling Bostwick, or had changed him. I couldn’t get him to listen — and he commanded the guardian to attack — it surged to life, moving with the grace and skill of a knight of old. The construct answered to the name of Rülf, and summoned more constructs to face us. These new constructs were clearly much newer than Rülf, formed from adamantine and steel. I recognized the maker’s hand at once — whoever had built the cube had also made these soldier-constructs.

The fight was short and brutal. Quintus’ blades pierced and punctured, shining with a holy fire. Mara’s rifle blazed, cutting through the constructs and decimating the shambling horde of townsfolk that had me…temporarily pinned. I was impressed that she took the care to use non-lethal ammunition against the poor husks.

The swordsman’s final foe was the guardian, Rülf. The construct surrendered with nobility, and Quintus accepted, whispering a few words to the metal knight. Bostwick joined the fray as well, bolts of lightning at his beck and call. He was no wizard, master — I have no explanation for how he could do these things — my mind went slantways trying to put the pieces together. Sadly, Bostwick was felled by a carefully placed shot by the gunslinger — and I only had time to say a quick prayer for his soul.

I don’t know if I’ve ever asked before — how do you gods feel about that? I don’t know who Bostwick worshipped, or even IF he worshipped — but would it anger them to have one of your clerics give a benediction? If you get some grief about it, please let the appropriate deity know that I’m sorry.

We rushed upstairs, and through a shattered window saw that the grand cube had dissappeared — a summoning glyph still smoking in the earth. A gray-haired man smiled knowingly, and vanished before our eyes. Could this be the one who had brought this strange magic – the one that Rülf and Bostwick had called Mancer?

Yup, it was. And we had a serious problem. Mara pulled me away from the window — I  noticed she paints her nails, a lovely shade of purple.

“All of the able-bodied men are gone, this Mancer must be controlling them — the tracks that we found heading out of town, we should follow them now.” she said.

She’s smart, too!

We moved quickly in pursuit — leaving the poor people of Hemmerfell for the moment. As the miles and hours passed, the sun went down. And so did my hopes — the trail lead us back south down the Old Road – right back to Pennytown.

——Whoops! Nodded off for a second, and the truesilver almost spilled. I still say we should use a cauldron with a higher lip. Stop furrowing your brow — I know that your holy specifications are very exact, but you shouldn’t shut out innovation. Look, just consider it — think it over in the shower a few times, that’s all I’m asking.

Pennytown was madness. The simple traders and workers were doing their best to fend off the attacks of the Vitaemancer and his machines. Most horrible of which, the cube had reshaped itselft into a colossus, gleaming with soul-light and crushing everything in its path, while its smaller soldier-brothers savaged the populace. All the while, Mancer watched over all with a look of confidence on his face. While I watched he — I’m not sure you’ll believe me — he pulled the soul right out of one of the warehouse foremen. Green light flowing from the poor man’s body into Mancer’s hands — then reshaped into another soldier — using the material from my forge!

I know you often caution me against impulsive acts — or giving into the whirlwind of anger. I’ve prayed to you about it many times. But when I saw your forge being desecrated, to build a machine of pain and death. Well, I lost it, Master. I brought your power down to protect the people of Pennytown, and I turned my hands to smiting this soul thief.

I was amazed watching Mara and Quintus fight their way to the Gargantuan. (Oh– we found out later that the Mancer called it that.) On the road, the two of them bantered and quibbled like two old matrons at tea — but on the battlefield? Whoa.

Silent and smooth, well-oiled and vicious — never looking to check on the other’s work, each knowing that their companion would be bringing confident obliteration to their foes. I used your blessings to give their feet wings — but they scarcely needed it. My main job was just to keep up, and repair their wounds as quickly as I could.

The Mancer barred our way with an iron wall, and threw his constructs at us — but for the Ghosts their metal was paper.

Quintus tore through the metal soldiers seeking their master. The gunslinger’s rifle stunned the Vitaemancer with a vicious strike to his face, leaving him helpless. Before I barely had time to surmount the wall — Mancer lay dead in the grass. His constructs mounted a feeble defense that was soon quelled, and the Gargantuan stood still as a stone.

Now, this part is embarrassing. The giant thing was still brimful of hundreds of people’s soul energy — and — well, it started to TICK. So, doing the sensible thing ….we ran through the streets screaming “GET OUT, GET OUT, IT’S GONNA BLOW!!!!!”

An hour or so later, surrounded by the grateful (but hungry and grumpy) populace of Pennytown, we decided that perhaps we had overreacted. We made our way gingerly back to the collosus’ side, and soon discovered a hatch in the things right foot. Up a spiral staircase surrounded by gears and pistons, every surface lit by bizarre cylinders burning with the green fire of souls. Any admiration I could feel for the craft displayed was throttled by my total revulsion for the purpose of this device. A cage for souls! Could there be anything more horrible?

At the top of the stairs we found a control room of sorts — but the technology, and even language used was far beyond my experience or comprehension. Clearly this room controlled the Gargantuan, but we were at a loss to understand the smallest part of its operation. The best we could do was find the source of the ticking — a display showing characters in an unknown language, that seems to be counting down. I did some estimation, and I’m fairly sure that the countdown will end in four or five days. Whether the thing will explode then, or release all of the souls inside – I have no idea. I pray to you that once the soul energy is released, it will naturally find its way back to the proper vessel – the people of Hemmerfell, and the few townsfolk here that were afflicted.

I won’t lie — I’m afraid, Master. That a man’s soul can be ripped from under his heart, and forced to serve in a cage of magic and steel. I didn’t know such things were possible — did you?

Okay — I guess that’s about it. The truesilver is sufficiently purified, and I can finish what I need to complete my work. To complete your work, that is. I’ll write more later if I get a chance — you were right (you usually are), it did help to lay everything out, like tools on the bench before you set to the anvil. I know you can read these words even as a write them, so I would be most grateful for any guidance you could send — I’ll check the mail on the next STC ship that stops, it should be here in a couple of days.

Blessed Nomus, thank you for bringing me through these trials — I pray that I will continue to be a worthy tool in Your hands — the better to build and the better to learn more of your Infinite Order. Please forgive the imperfections in my mettle, as I continue to purify in the crucible of your forge.

And as always I pray, that the days will be short before I am at your side again. Ooh — next time, I learned this fabulous bread recipe from — someone — it’ll go great with the mutton and beer.
Kelvin Mason
Servant of Nomus

An old friend appears

There is no immediate response at the door, but the sound of a window quickly opening around the side of the large building. Mara and Quintus move to the corner of the house to investigate — spotting a lanky blonde man slithering out of a window. He is completely nude, except for a pink pillow covering his genitals. A flushed looking young redheaded girl is closing the window behind him, closing the curtains in desperation.

“Afternoon.” the naked man waves at the two travelers in a friendly manner, and moves crab-sideways towards the nearest line of bushes beyond the Pennytown Square.

Mara and Quintus turn as the front door of the house opens. A portly half-orc with a thick black mustache appears, wearing an immaculate brown tunic. He cranes his head around looking for who knocked, then spots the gunslinger and duelist.

“Can I help you folks?” platinum teeth shine in the sun, matching the buttons on his coat and his belt buckle.

Mara haggles briefly with the fat trader, and holds out a purse.

“Fine, fine.” the Master Trader took the gold, and yelled through the open door. “Beulah! Beulah, bring my strong box, dammit.”

Moments later a wide-hipped red-haired girl appears, her face still flushed, bearing an iron box. Master Drover slips the coins through a slot in the top, then pushes the box back into her hands. “Run along with you.”

The half-orc points idly down the road to his right. “My cleric is also my blacksmith — the forge is a a dozen houses down that way — you can’t miss it.”

Quintus and Mara move through the dirt streets of Pennytown. The townsfolk seem to be mainly returning from the lunch hour, wiping crumbs from their chins or taking one last pull at a wineskin before heading towards one of the many warehouses or stockyards. They follow the scent of coal and steel to a low, dark-beamed barn. The forge is quiet, but the smell of the bellows is strong.

Hung on a post next to the entrance is a polished piece of red steel. Etched into it with care and precision is a blue square.

The forge is neatly layed out, a dozen fresh horseshoes are cooling on a wooden table, next to a tub of linseed oil. The blacksmith is nowhere to be seen, so Mara avails herself of an elaborate set of bells hanging next to the doorway. They clang and chime, and a door at the back of the forge flies open.

The tall blonde man they had glimpsed earlier – still shirtless, and desperately trying to tug on a pair of cotton pants. He topples forward, landing awkwardly on his shoulder. He looks up at Quintus and Mara, and his long-jawed face bursts into a grin.

“Well, hello again.” he said, continuing to button his pants.