Thick As Thieves

Meet Toymaker. Become Unwashed. Enter Bath House.

They called it the Pathless County because feet tread the ground there so rarely that no trail could be beaten.  The Covenant Tree that once stood upon the Silverflame Mine marked it as godless country, scarred by earth and sky and then abandoned by the spirits of both.  The White-Bone trees prayed with their branches palm up against a ceiling of dark clouds.

Warren Prison sat there.  In the highest tower that was once the High Warden’s office was Share, him of the milky eye and worm-eaten face.  A mass of scar bulged from the side of his neck.  His chainmail rattled as he spoke to the prisoners that knelt in front of him.

They were fighters, or had discovered they were recently.  Wounds and bruises coloured their skin, but each of them was victorious and alive.  One by one, their murmured their fealty, no other options left to them.  One by one, they arose at the touch of Share’s hand and felt his teeth upon their necks, and tasted the salt of his blood in turn.

Their wounds healed.  Their arms grew strong.  Beneath the fresh-milled stone of Warren, deep in the caves there, beneath the roosts of the Man-Bats… laughter could be heard: high in pitch, ancient in tone, and joyful at the cost in blood.

Kunail Murai grinned, baring his teeth confidently.  The sweet blood of the Silk Street ladies had cost him much in gold, but it had afforded him a sense of calm and some illusion of normalcy.  He felt blood running in him, even if it wasn't his, like fresh rain down a dry riverbed.  He even had his old friend Constant at his side, laughing at the old stories!  And hot, two-thousand-year-old Elven whiskey pouring down his throat.  Animae surround, he hadn't felt so good since…  Since…

He pushed the thoughts away.  He was here!  Now!  In the Knife-Ear Saloon, his cup overfilling and his heart fit to burst as his comrades, old and new, toasted each other into a human-like stupor.  Let the War haunt some other elf this day.  Leave Rivenwood to the ghosts, Count Heartless to the Veil, and the haunts of Warren to the dark lady that rules there.  Tonight, he was well and truly drunk.

Kunail kept his hand on the sandstone walls of Dunish as Jin led them to the site of his most recent misfortune.  It wasn't that Kunail was afraid of stumbling that he kept his hand upon the walls.  No elf in a hundred long lifetimes had the grace of Kunail Murai!   Kunail Murai, who had once tracked a polar bear across twenty leagues of the frozen tundra of Aëleoreth!  It was simply that he had never felt stone hold so much heat for so long.  It was hours after the sun of Dunish had set, and the sandstone was still hot under the palm of his hand as his feet shuffled off-rhythm.

Jin and the Con Man, whatever name he had taken on now, had gone into the toy shop.  Rather than continue to drunkenly banter with Nakk, Kunail examined the area, hoping to track the Unwashed to where they had gone to ground.  His keen eyes wide open, he found the blood of the injured Unwashed, though to be honest, it wasn't his eyes that led him to the trail of blood.  He felt his throat close.  The moon appeared from behind the clouds.  The night was cold and clean, and his heart was not beating at all.

This Toymaker really had a bone to pick with Kunail, which was strange because human women – especially human women as beautiful as this Ana –  were usually such fans of Kunail, who was bright of eye and long of hair.  With the fresh whore's blood in him, he looked as close to his living self as he had in months.  But still, he could see in her eyes a fervent hatred of the thing he had become, as she pointed her crossbow accusingly at each of them in turn.  

"It's your fault Jin!" Ana hissed.  "You're the reason Dunish is in such a state of misery and ruin.  And I didn't believe when I heard you were associating with a blood drinking demon, but here he is!" 

"I think he prefers to be called elf," replied Jin.

"I prefer to be called Kunail," the elf said.

There was a period of unproductive name-calling, but eventually, they won Ana over to their side.  Well, she became willing to talk to them without a crossbow loaded and drawn.

"Fine," Ana sighed.  "You wanna help?  You want to get the Unwashed off my back?  I'll give you the address of their headquarters.  But you have to do something else for me."

Jin perked up.  "Name it.  Anything."

Ana gave them all a sidelong glance.  "There’s a massive party tomorrow night.  Almost all the important Unwashed are going to be there.  Someone there has an artifact called the Necklace of the Nameless Queen… steal it for me.”

Kunail saw the Con Man's eyes go wide, as if remembering something from the distant past.  Knowing that randy bastard, Kunail thought, the Nameless Queen was probably his childhood sweetheart.

"Listen," Kunail  drawled, trying to keep the drink out of his voice, "You have my solemn vow – and maybe you don't care about my solemn vow because I'm a vampire – but look, we promise these Unwashed thugs will never hassle you again.  And then you and Jin can go back to being all friendly-friendly."

"Wait," the Con Man paused.  "How exactly does she know Kunail is a vampire?"

"Saben told me," Ana answered.  "He saw you fighting, as comrades, upon the battlefield at Trapis."

"Saben…?" the Con Man asked.

Kunail wrinkled his brow.  "Is that… the man in the armor, with the horse, and the Symphony for the Dead move thing, that you dueled?"

Ana narrowed her eyes.  "Really, Jin?  You say you'd trust these men with your life, but you don't even tell them about your family?"

 Kunail nodded.  "He's very secretive," he whispered, to everyone, but looked pointedly at Jin.

"He's my adopted brother," Jin admitted.  "He tried to kill me at Trapis .  I don't know why he was working for Count Heartless."

"You need to be more talkative," said Nakk.

"He's very secretive," Kunail whispered, again, to everyone.  "He has a lot of emotional walls."

"To be fair," Jin argued, "None of you ask me many questions."

“Hey,” Nakk’s face lit up.  “Do you know any funny stories about Jin?”

In the end, Kunail was happy that they decided to stay in the Toymaker's shop for the night.  Sure, they were supposed to be protecting Ana from the Unwashed, but to be honest, the ancient Elven whiskey was leaking out of him and he could feel the edges of the hangover that had been hidden inside the liquor.  They would help Jin's friend.  They would find this Krev the Unclean, too, if he was at the party.  

If Kunail could not kill Count Heartless, nor hate him, then there were plenty of souls left that deserved the darkness that follows the twang of his bowstring.

The next day came, and Kunail tracked the scent of blood and desperation across Dunish to the Basilica of the Sun.  It was easy, for was he not Kunail?  The elf who had once tracked a pair of polar bears fifty leagues across Aëleoreth in the heart of a blizzard!  What was a man to a hunter such as Kunail? 

The Basilica of the Sun looked decrepit, if it had not been pilled with worshippers.  The stained glass had been ripped out, the chandeliers stripped of crystal.  Once covered ensnared in the trappings of wealth, anything of worth had now been pawned away by the Unwashed to leave only high wooden beams and a clay tiled roof.  They stood outside its grand entrance, pulling their Dunish disguises over their heads, drawing the veils across their faces as they came up with a plan:  Distract the priest.  Keep a lookout for trouble.  Find the Unwashed cretin who had been extorting Ana, and silence him.

But before they went in, Kunail tapped Jin on the shoulder.  “Wait,” he asked.  “What did she mean, that it’s your fault?  That you’re the cause of this city’s misery and ruin?”

“Uhh…” said Jin.  “You know how the King is dead, and they can’t pick a new one without the Corona Crown, the Sandwyrm Sword, and the Lute of the Oasis?”

Kunail narrowed his eyes.  “Yes?”

Jin coughed, and cleared his throat.  “I may have been the thief who stole all those things.”

All four of them considered that in silence for a moment.

“You need to be more talkative,” Nakk said.

The deed was done.  Kunail wiped the Unwashed’s blood from his pale face as his friends took off their Dunish wear and resumed their normal clothes, save for Nakk, who struggled into his Elvish disguise again.  The Con Man fussed about Nakk’s ears, making sure the knuckler was disguised properly.

Kunail marveled at just how much he did not know about the Con Man.  He had watched the chameleon hold his own in a conversation with Brother Calvin as they walked from shrine to shrine, debating the virtues of New Methodist Ancestry versus Orthodox Ancestry.  He must have been a priest in an old con, or another life, Kunail thought.  With the old priest distracted, Jin and Kunail had been able to creep into the priest’s inner quarters and kill the second of three Unwashed extortionists, without alerting anyone.  Nakk, keeping lookout at a familiar shrine – Kovir the Stalwart – had managed to alert everyone of approaching Unwashed.  They escaped with only a small encounter, where the Con Man was forced to give away Annish Franca’s jade necklace.

Now, they faced a new dilemma – they had to return to the Basilica of the Sun and take Brother Calvin up on his offer the previous day, and join the ranks of the Unwashed.

It was almost too easy.  The Unwashed were growing, and hungry new foot soldiers in their revolution against the nobility.  Brother Calvin swore them in, their hands over their hearts.  He led them in oath:  to protect the poor, liberate wealth, and raise the common man to his feet.  Finally, he bestowed an amulet of crossed twigs tied with twine around each of their necks.

“You have good timing,” Calvin purred.  “There is a great celebration tonight of our recent triumphs.  You may join us at the Bath House, our headquarters.”

“Why a bath house?” the Con Man asked.

“For the irony!” Brother Calvin declared.

The Unwashed Bath House was three stories tall and they had heard the music and shouting from two blocks away.  When the door woman let them in, her greasy black hands checking each of their amulets, the first thing that hit each of them was the smell.  Dried shit and garbage water, piss and semen and sweat in a wall of smells so thick and powerful it half knocked Kunail off his feet.

But there was true revelry here, too.  Kegs of ale stacked five high, goblets of wood and pewter and crystal sloshing wine and music – the music!  The crowds were packed shoulder to shoulder, so the musicians stood upon wooden boards carried by a sea of hands.  The fiddler, horner player and drummer circled the party from corner to corner, crowd surfing on their shifting makeshift stage.

And high above the crowd, at the balcony of the third floor… they spotted a familiar figure.  A dark skinned man with corn rows – Stalk!  The man from Warren prison, whose escape plan they had hijacked… whose men they had found slaughtered by the Gorons of the Pathless County.  Around his neck he wore the Neckless of the Nameless Queen, bloodred gems beset by sharp bone shards.

“Okay,” Jin said.  “That’s what we’re here to steal.”

“The Necklace of the Nameless Queen,” the Con Man remembered.  “One of my wives studied that, once.  She was an anthropologist.”

Kunail shouted over the music.  “But while we’re here, we should see what we can do to dismantle Krev’s organization.”

Jin reminded them of the Toymaker’s briefing:  “There are three of Krev’s captains here.   One of them plays cards, one of them looks like a kid, and the other is the muscle: tall as a half-giant and twice as strong.”

The Con Man’s eyes sparkled as he looked across the sea of undulating, unwashed bodies.  “You mean, that big woman over there?”

Fuscari was six feet tall and was holding a full keg above her head with one arm, sloshing beer into her gullet.  She slammed it down to great cheers, wiping her square jaw with a massive hand.  All around her, her troops toasted their captain.

The Con Man – or Andrew Barrington, as he would say – motioned for Nakk to follow.  “Classic con.  Fixed fight.  Arm wrestle.

“Did you say arm wrestle?” Nakk asked.

It didn’t take long for Andrew Barrington to get the crowd hyped up for a fight, nor to convince Fuscari to fight her Elven challenger.  Nakk, in his Elvish clothing, stepped into the ring as Andrew Barrington announced him:  “From the far flung fen of Elvendom… The amazing – ” He paused, then grinned.  “_Florp M’Gorp!”

Kunail cringed, but made his bets anyway.

Nakk defeated Fuscari in so spectacular a fashion that the floor had cracked beneath the shattered table.  Having endeared themselves to Fuscari – Nakk most of all – they ascended to the second level of the Bath House.  

Perfumes masked the signature smell of the Unwashed, and the higher ranking Unwashed here wore their intentionally ripped clothes with an air of dignity.  “Aha!” declared Kunail.  “Even if this supposedly egalitarian organization, there is still stratifying!” 

Fuscari led them to a man playing solitaire with a deck of playing cards in a dark corner.  They learned this was Krev the Unclean’s Master of Whispers, who commanded the servants, cooks and cleaners that filled the halls and houses of the very nobility they sought to overthrow… An overthrow that awaited only one more thing.

“For I am Kunail!  I once tracked a polar bear for a hundred leagues across the frozen tundra of Aëleoreth, piss drunk and bare footed as a blizzard stormed around me!  And that,” the elf declared, “is why you should promote us to the upper echelon of the Unwashed, and task us to track the woman who stole the Dunish Sword.”

Nakk nodded.  “Floor McGorrity agree.”

“Very well,” the Whisperer drawled, as the ten of diamonds in his hand became an ace of spades.  “Follow me… to the third level.  Sammy Three-Fist will speak with you.”

Sammy Three-Fist was four hundred and fifty pounds of pure Goron muscle, and a quarter that seemed to rest in each of his massive three arms.  His trapeziuses, posterior deltoids, and latissimi dorsi bulged out from his back like mountain ranges on a landscape of taut, oiled skin.

“Well met, Sammy Three-Fist,” Kunail said.  “You’re a famous fighter.  We’ve heard a lot about you.”

“We’re here because we’ve pledged to help you find a certain special sword,” Andrew Barrington said, “that will help you with a certain special control over this city?  We want to prove our loyalty and make ourselves valuable to your organization.”

Sammy grunted.  “I… have MANY men… who are looking for Sandwyrm,” he growled.  “WHAT… makes you think… I need YOU?”

“Well,” Kunail grinned, “I once tracked a pack of snow bears!  Two hundred leagues!  Frost bitten!  No food!  Blind from the drink and toes black with the frost.  And did I find it? Of course I found it.  Did I kill them?  Of course I killed them.”

“And WHO… are YOU?” Sammy snarled.

The Con Man bared his teeth in a wicked grin.  “I am Andrew Barrington.”

“The silverest tongue east of Arcadia,” Kunail added.

Andrew nodded.  “You already know our tracker extraordinaire, Flunail.  And this…”  Andrew looked at Jin.  He knew that Jin had come to Warren claiming to be the greatest thief in all of Dunish.  He had some inkling that the crime organizations of Dunish had bet on Jin time and time again.  He knew Jin’s name carried weight.

“…is Jin,” Andrew finished. “The thief?”

“Jin the SHADE…?” Sammy asked.

“That’s me,” Jin replied sheepishly.

JIN… of AORA’S clan?” Sammy asked.  “JIN… the thief… that I HIRED… to steal the SWORD, the CROWN and the LUTE?”

“Wait, what?” Kunail and Andrew said unison.  

“Ohhh,” Jin exclaimed.  “So Jenny of the Stains was working for you.”

Kunail shook his head, and Andrew put his palm over his face, and they both remembered what Nakk had said to Jin:  You need to be more talkative.

“Fuscari has not felt this way for many days,” the large woman breathed.  “Florp M’Gorp strong, Fuscari strong.  Our love will be strong.”

Nakk laid her down, the music muted by the thick oak door to their private room.  “Shhhh,” he put a finger to her lips.  “Relax.”  He ran his metal hand up her torso, rubbing her side, watching her guard drop, her mouth dropping open and moaning in anticipation.  “This is for my family,” Nakk whispered.  Like a switchblade, his arm pierced her side and cut her heart in half.  “Shhhh,” he said again.

A single tear ran down Fuscari’s face, then she was gone.

“If JIN the SHADE vouches for you… STRANGERS…  I will accept you…  Jin’s reputation is untarnished… EXCEPT the LAST time.”

“We all get boarded sometimes, Sammy,” Kunail quipped.

“You may be the missing piece… of the PUZZLE!” Sammy said.  “What do you KNOW… of where Kara is?”

The Con Man waved dismissively at Sammy’s face.  “I’m pretty sure the Toymaker will tell us where she is after we…”  He stopped, and then his eyes went wide just as Sammy’s narrowed.  One massive fist came darting at the Con Man’s neck, while another slammed into the ground.

Nakk quiet opened the door of the private room, and stepped out.  He latched the door, hoping no one would find Fuscari’s body before they left the Bath House…

But that was when the ceiling cracked open from the force of Sammy’s huge punch, and collapsed his three comrades in front of him.  Sammy landed thereafter, shaking the floor with his weight.  The Whisperer floated down slowly beside the Goron, a fireball roaring in the palm of his hand.

“Finally,” Nakk said.  “I can take these freaking elf ears off.”

"My daughter's name is Jynora..."

Kunail, Jin and the Con Man tumbled out the back of Black Oak Ridge, an iron-scaled black carriage of Veilish origin.  Thousands of feet were between them and the ground below.  Even Athano, the great white arctic owl, struggled to stay afloat after emerging from the strange Veilish realm.  What hope had these three ground-locked mortals?

Do not underestimate them.  

They have escaped prison, and survived the great winged beasts that lived beneath it.  They crossed the great untamed wilderness of the White-Bone Forest.  They built an army from peasants and miners and prevailed against one of the greatest human generals of the War.

They have slain Dragons.  

Kunail spread his arms and arched his back.  Years of friendship with an owl had given him a great understanding of the nature of the air’s current.  With a oak leaf’s grace, he glided towards the Con Man.  “Towards the spire!” the many-named man shouted against the wind, and Kunail understood – the banners there might break their fall.

Jin had a bigger problem – three, in fact.  The trio of Man-Bats from under the salt-mines of Warren Prison were making their way to him.  He threw his roped dagger and pulled himself out of the way, avoiding the Man-Bat’s grasping talons only to find himself trailing through the sky like a banner behind an Elven hunter: the Child of Kunail, born in the White-Bone Forest by Kunail’s bloody kiss.  Jin smirked and straightened his body, diving through the air like a well thrown dart before kicking the Hunter off his Bat.  The Shade had mounted a flying monster for the second time in his life.  He looked behind him – one Bat remained.

From afar, wrapped in Kunail’s arms, the Con Man used his wit to draw that second Man-Bat towards him, and towards him it came, it’d rider hissing with vampiric hunger.  With precision timing, the Con Man threw out a ration of salt pork like a frisbee, distracting the Bat-Beast just as Kunail opened his arms, cloak grasped in either fist, and was pulled upward by a whoosh of air resistance.  

The Rider, helpless as the Bat dove for the salt pork, held on as its leather-winged steed dove between the two convicts – Kunail above, Con Man below.  Kunail dropped upon him and recoiled from the sight of his own fang marks against his Child’s neck neck, even as he stabbed his swords into it. With two swords in his neck, the Rider flailed, turning upside down and leaving Kunail hanging from the hilts of his embedded swords.

This all happened in less than a blink of an eye.

The Con Man’s hands grabbed Kunail’s foot, and with the strength of a man fearing the consequences of gravity, pulled himself up and slashed off the Rider’s hand.  Precarious balance lost, everyone was thrown to one side, and the momentum of Kunail’s blades cut through the remains of of the Rider’s neck.  The wall of the spire rose up in front of them.  It was only the uncanny speed of his quickened death that allowed him to leap and then – almost instantaneously – appear at the Spire, grasping onto a long banner.  He reached out a hand to the Con Man…

…but Ron Grits gritted his teeth, and Jerart Batler held onto his bat.  Summoning his fortitude and will, he wrapped his arms around the still squealing creature as they hurtled with dangerous velocity towards the wall.  The bat hit first, and died immediately.

It’s not the fall that kills you. It’s the sudden stop at the…


Kunail hopped from cloth to cloth, his feet only lightly touching the wall as he rappelled down the minaret that was the Dunish Spires.  Finally, at the last of the banners, he slashed it free, using it to gather air resistant as he slowed his fall with one palm dragging against the wall.  He landed, and saw his comrade’s body, bloody and covered in guts.  But the Con Man stood up… worse for wear, but alive.  

Seconds after, Jin was carried in by a flying vampire, landed gently beside them.  Jin had smashed his bottle of Goldenroot into the vampire’s mouth and took advantage of its desire to have a master.

Far above them, like a dark star in the Dunish sky…

Nakk pulled himself up into the flying carriage of Black Oak Ridge.  His silver arm clawed at the black iron scales until he righted himself, and made to open the door at the far end of the room with the sarcophagi.  The defenses of the ship activated and dozens of coils of black metallic rope caught all four limbs, trapping him helpless in the air.  The remaining door opened and there stood a perfectly human, pixie-like Alisiya LeStrange – freckled, lighthaired, and in her motheaten wedding dress.  Her eyes were puffy from crying as she asked, “What’s going on?”

“You’re asking me?!” Nakk responded.  He flexed his powerful muscles and ripped them from the walls.

“Oh my,” Alisiya said, before Nakk pushed her into the room… the bridge… the helm of the ship.  A strange ship’s wheel of Veilish design was embedded with jewels of many colours.  Directly above it was a helmet connected to the ship through wires and black ropes much like those that had just tried to pull Nakk apart.  And at the curved glass window, a Man-Bat and its rider was prying off the glass.  

Under its powerful talons and the vampire’s heavy mace, the glass shattered, and the two beasts leapt into the ship.  Nakk barely had the presence of mind to spin the ship’s wheel, throwing the entire vehicle astray, knocking the beasts against the wall.  Nakk ran down the ceiling, against a wall, and up the floor and the ship spun wildly out of control until his hand sliced the head of the vampire into three pieces.  Brains splatted.

The Man-Bat leapt upon Nakk, saliva dripping.  Nakk, caught off guard, tripped and lay pinned against the floor.  “Take the controls, Alisiya!” he shouted.  

“I don’t know how!” she cried.

“Someone must’ve piloting this damn thing.  Just do something!”  

So she did.  The helmet descended onto Alisiya’s head and she instincitively pressed three buttons in quick succession, and Nakk and the Bat were blown out the back of the ship into the break of the Dunish dawn.  

Nakk struggled with the Bat as its jaw fought to close over his head, but a bright beam vaporized it, leaving him falling, falling, falling… until Jin’s vampire servant caught him in a Dunish banner and returned him safely to the group.

From there, the injured convicts found shelter at The Naked Jester and tended to their wounds for three days.  The Con Man gathered supplies from the market.  When everyone’s wounds had healed, they decided to find a safe haven, a headquarters.  

They arrived at Jin’s former hideout and found it boarded up and conspicuously abandoned.  When Jin was using it, it was a perfectly normal house on the outside, and filled with weapons, loot and other tricks of the trade on the inside.  But where once were racks of blades and desks full of custom safecracking tools, now was a house filled with paper origami.  

Jin needed answers, so he went to the Toymaker.  She was surprised to see him… afraid of him.  Terrified.  Why was she reacting this way?  That’s when three Unwashed walked in.  Dirty, smelly, skin black with grime, they saw Jin and did not announce why they were there but instead started a fight.  Jin got knocked down, kicked in the head, but when his dagger flew through the air and pierced through the Unwashed’s neck, the others fled.  The Toymaker, however, would not have any of it.  In the end, Jin heeded her wishes and left, hurt brewing inside him.

Back at the Hideout, Kunail revealed his vision of Krev the Unclean – that Saben worked for him, and that there was a young woman called Jynora that he fed on.  Nakk revealed his daughter’s name was Jynora, and finally the party pooled their knowledge of the vampires, the criminals of Dunish, and what in realm of anima and ancestors had they gotten themselves into?  They decided to go for a drink.

Constant Evaron owned and operated the Knife Ear Saloon in Elf-Bottom neighbourhood of Dunish.  There, Constant welcomed Kunail back with open arms, popping a bottle of two thousand year old Elven whiskey and sharing their stories of old with Nakk and the Con Man.  That, until Jin burst through the door.  He took a long swig from the bottle and slammed it down.  

“We got to go.”

"I know of Those Beyond the Veil."

They were standing over the remains of the slain dragon: blood ran down their forearms, their enemies cowered at their feet and a song of victory played on their lips. A bright new day had dawned on the convicts and the town of Trapis. Then – with the seamless logic of a fever dream – they were standing under an eclipsed sun housed in an azure sky. How had they gotten here, to the lip of the Black Oak Ridge?  The twilight hurt their eyes, and their minds ached, trying to stitch their last memory to this one across an amnesic gulf.

A moment passed… then they realized they were in mid-battle! An eldritch woman in wedding white towered over them. Her arms stretched to the ground, jointed in two places. Her eyes hidden behind a lace veil. Her teeth were needle sharp. 

Each of them noticed the scars and wounds whose origin they could not recall, but they were fighting regardless. A massive tome dropped from one of the leathery hands of the demonic duchess, as a flaming crossbow bolt had sprouted from it.  The Con Man looked at his crossbow, still thrumming, in his hands… He barely had time to realize that he was carrying Baby Annish in one arm before the grey-skinned specter lashed out at him, knocking the crossbow from his hands and delivering a blow of such strength he felt his ribs crack as he flew backward. 

"I loved you, Taggart Ruffler," she rasped.  "'Til death do us part!"  

It was then that The Con Man realized that this creature was Alisiya LeStrange, one of the Wanting Widows that had been threatening him with ominous packages during his sentence at Warren.  His last memory of Alisiya was as a spritely young woman whose family had just come into good fortune.  That Alisiya bore little resemblance to this twilit creature with needle fangs… save for her wedding dress. But what strange powers had she bargained with?  How deep did her resentment run, that she had become a wretched witch with weirding ways?  Taggart clutched his chest, pain blossoming outward from his wife's blow.  It was not heartache.  It was payback.

Jin the Shade, Kunail the Avenger, and Nakk of the silver arm leaped to the defense of their comrade and Baby Annish.  The adrenaline of the Battle of Trapis – or more recent events that they could not remember – still roared in their veins.  Kunail's arrows sprouted from the Wanting Widow's chest to no avail.  She grabbed Jin and whipped him through the air with her snake-like arms.  He was almost over the cliff before Kunail was able to catch Jin's hand, barely on solid ground himself.  The Shade and half the Avenger both dangled over the edge of Black Oak Ridge.  Beneath, Jin could see a village, empty of light save for one hut.

The Con Man tucked Baby Annish into his arms, examining their surroundings.  His instincts and his sharp mind told him three things:  

The first: They had been seeking Alisiya out… and had obviously found her.  

Second: The book must have taken their memories and his crossbow bolt had ended her spell.  

And third: Alisiya's wedding ring glowed with a peculiar light…  

"The ring!" the Con Man shouted to Nakk.  "Get her wedding ring!"  He turned to the creature in the wedding dress.  "Alisiya," he called.  The dark hollows of her eyes snapped to him at the mention of her human name.  "If you want me," the Con Man said, "Come get me."

Nakk felt his silver arm trembling with the anticipation of violence.  He pushed it to bend to his will until he felt scalpels and razors erupt from his fingertips as he charged at the Wanting Widow, distracted by her husband's taunts.  He grabbed her arm with the knives of his fingers and severed her hand at the wrist.  Black blood spewed like a geyser from her wound, filling Nakk's mouth with foul tasting ichor.  Losing control, she began to lash out in all directions, her arms stretching far beyond what seemed possible.

At cliff's edge, Kunail had pulled Jin back onto solid ground, but LeStrange's clawed hand came barreling in at Jin!  The Shade narrowly avoided the blow and caught – grabbed – onto the arm. Mrs. LeStrange pulled it – and him – back to her, and the master thief plunged his sword into her brain and cleaved her inhuman head in two… and and that that was when was when and that was when Kunail walked into the basement of the butcher shop in Trapis.  Aidan Rising's eyes went wide, then narrow, at the sight of the Elf.  The half-human son of Count Ephraim Hart knew what was coming – a violent interrogation.  At the hands of Kunail the Beast, the Rivenwood Reaver, it was bound to be a painful one…  But violent interrogations are the easiest to pull through, if not the easiest to survive.  These men and elfs wanted gold, he saw.  He could use that.  They had hatred burning in their veins for Count Hartless.  He could use that.  The priest Okren seemed to have a conscience.  He could use that.  They had Aisling and no scruples about murdering her… well.  That was a problem.  

In the end, Aidan paid a high price to be released with Aisling, lives intact, into the White-Bone Forest.  He had to tell these warriors about Father's deal with the Veilish, and his correspondence with Alisiya LeStrange.  He had to give over his Traveller's Notebook, hoping they could not decipher it.  And he had to swear an oath never to harm nor bring harm nor put in harm's way these warriors, and their charges, the residents of Trapis.  Father would be furious… "Only if we return to him," Aisling said, conspiratorially.  But who are the Veilish? the Con Man thought, thought the Con Man "But who are the Veilish?" the con man thought, tucking a corner of Baby Annish's blanket into her mouth to suckle.  The others were clutching their heads.  They had come to this cliff in search of Alisiya LeStrange, but she wasn't here and never was.  But they had wounds from fighting… 

Nakk and Kunail knew the tales of Those From Beyond the Veil.  Nakk had heard childhood stories about them: of Veilish toadstool rings, never accepting their food, never wandering off their paths.  Kunail knew that the forests belonged to the elves… except when they belonged to the Veilish.  Ephemeral and mysterious, they walked through our world following none of the laws of causation or time.  Ancient even to Elven progenitors of old, death did not touch the Veilish.  

If Count Hart had made contract with these beings, it explained some of the mysterious artifacts in Artzell's laboratory, and in the mines of Silverflame.

The Champions of Trapis decided to follow the ridge under eerie twilight, making their way to the village below.  They bumped into three fat geese with pleading eyes, quacking in recognition and asked Kunail if he'd solved their riddle yet.  Had Kunail already met these geese? Had he already solved the riddle?

"When there is fire in me, then I am still cold;
When I own your true love's face, then you will not see me."

Kunail puzzled over the riddle as they entered the village below.  The village was filled with small cottages and the air was filled with fireflies.  All the huts were dark save one, in which a torch burned.  Jin snuck up to see an elderly noble holding Aidan Rising's head in his lap, and crying.  Kunail looked into the darkness of the empty huts and there found the fresh corpses of the humans he killed in Rivenwood.  Kunail backed out, flashes of the war entering his mind: images of all the men, women and children that he and his men had killed…

That may be why, when Kunail entered the hut to find Count Hart cradling the bloody head of his half-elven son, Kunail did not feel empathy nor remose and proceeded to murder Count Hart.  He simply saw him, nodded, and then tore into the Count's body with sword, claw and demonic fang.  His comrades averted their eyes at the sight of so much blood.  Kunail finally stood, they made way for him as he exited… only for him to be confronted by the bodies from Rivenwood standing outside the door, watching with accusing eyes, their wounds fresh.  As he pushed through the crowd, he felt their eyes following him… asking him… where can you even go…?  A headache struck Kunail, memories of past and present and never-was pulling at the bloody stitches of his mind until he

(dark room | humming sounds | black walls | black tubes | black runes)
(strapped down | tied up | can't move | can't breathe)
(there jin | there ron | there nakk | look down)
(silver cords | needles in my flesh | tube in my throat | what is this | where am | where is)

could no longer take it, and he fell.  The Con Man and Jin caught him by his arms and lifted him back onto his feet.  From behind, they heard a strange voice speak out:  "You can't keep running away from your past forever, Captain."   Kunail turned to see Lt. General Ephraim Hart dressed in full military regalia.  The elf's eyes widened.  What world of insanity had they been thrust into…?  Enough!  They fled the village, leaving the specter of the Count behind.

As they followed the path to the next village, they encountered a procession of Veilish ladies-in-waiting carrying a palanquin made of glass and mirror.  Nakk was filled with an unease as Kunail, using his knowledge of Veilish custom, made the proper greetings.  Within the palanquin lay She Who Hears the Cries of the World… should any of the mortals be willing to pay the cost for her company, surely their questions might finally be answered.  

Kunail took a breath.  Perhaps he was shaken somewhat by the bloody death of Count Hartless, and the accusing stares of the Rivenwood dead.  Maybe it was the glimpse of the world beyond this non-place, that played such tricks on their minds…  Maybe it was because he knew the Elvish stories of old that spoke of the strange powers of the Veilish… But he wished to see more of the truth behind the illusions.  

He opened his heart and pulled out his hate, black and wormy, and offered it to Those Beyond the Veil.  They happily accepted it, encasing it hungrily in a glass decanter.  The palanquin opened, and Kunail entered.

She Who Hears the Cries of the World was not shrouded in darkness, but her details hid from Kunail's mortal eyes.  She seems at once both half-formed, barely there, and at the same time tremendously present, her gravity pulling Kunail to his seat as if she was the only thing to ever have existed.  

"When there is fire in me, then I am still cold;
“When I own your true love's face, then you will not see me,"
she recited cryptically.
"To all things I give no more than I am given;
“In time I may have all things, and yet I keep nothing."

"A mirror," Kunail answered.

She Who Hears the Cries of the World made something like a smile.  From out her many layers of robes, she pulled out the Mirror of Lost Days.  It was simple in make, sterling silver and reflective glass.  Kunail looked into it and saw his grizzled face – The face of a hero, or of a war criminal.  A hard soldier who does the hard task with teeth gritted… and a reaver whose coming precedes rivers of blood.  An officer who followed the orders and respected rank, who whispered convenient lies to himself as he washed the blood of innocents from his hands.  There in the mirror, he saw his face, and it was the face of Ephraim Hart.  

Kunail did not have his hate to protect him.  So he screamed.  Screamed he so, him protect to hate his have not did Kunail.  Hart Ephraim of face the was it and it was his face, too.

Saben of the Tall Grass tossed his bounty onto the desk, which landed like a bag of bricks.  "Gold for gold," the man said from behind his demon half-mask.  He was black-armored in bamboo and leather in the style of storied samurai, and the wooden demon mouth obscured his dark face.  

From behind his dark rivwood desk Krev smiles his wicked smile: His long slender tongue slither behind pointed teeth beneath a pointed mustachio.  "Ahhh-ha, Jynora.  The Demon in the Tall Grass thinks we hired the greatest thief since the Shade to merely steal gold," he chuckled.  He tilted his head onto the shoulder of the girl in his lap: a sickly young woman of fifteen years with puffy eyes and raven black hair.  She lets out a sharp laugh, the silk kerchief around her neck fluttering in the breeze.  

Krev picks up a gold bar and crushed it in his hand.  Dozens of opaque red gems spill out on the desk from inside the hollow gold bar.  "Bloodstones," Jynora explains.  "Only the best for Daddy."

That is when a dark-skinned convict with cornrows bursts through the doors, gripped at the neck by Sammy Three-Fist the Goron fighter.  Saben melts into the shadows, but Krev and Jynora raise their eyebrows.  The man with the cornrows explains that he was just released from Warren, the Tornell prison in the Pathless County.  Strange things had been happening there: a group of convicts had escaped and… “Well… I saw the the Warden’s body, boss,” the convict says.  “I swear on my ancestors, he was dead.  But the next day…”  The convict hesitated.  “I worked for you a long time before I got sent down, boss.  I know I ain’t supposed to know, but he was… you know… he was like you.  Stronger.  Stranger.”

Krev was intrigued.  It had been a long time since a new piece had appeared in the pale moonlight… and a piece with no master, even.  No rules, then.  He smiled, showing his teeth, a hunger rising in him.

Sammy Three-Fist escorted the convict out to his reward, hand-delivered from Sammy himself.  Jynora took off her kerchief, exposing the dozen silver pockmarks that dotted her neck.  Krev drank deeply from her carotid artery, savoring her ecstasy even as he sated his thirst.  

(black room | walls hum | black walls | black tubes | black runes)
(everyone bound | silver rope | everyone trapped | arms wrapped | black coffin)
(wiggle arm | arm wiggles | pull free | PAIN)
(PAIN | P4IN! | | %! | #!## ) 

Kunail’s scream was muffled by the palanquin walls, but the hairs still stood on the back of the Con Man’s neck.  There was something powerful at work here, and he would take advantage of it, as was his way.  “Where can I find Alisiya LeStrange?” he asked.  

They each stretched a long, many-jointed finger to the cliff edge of Black Oak Ridge.  The place they had just escaped from, walked hours away from… or was it days…?  Each of them smiled in perfect synchronicity, speaking as one.  “We will see you again, if you do not settle her Earthly business and put her to rest.”

When Kunail fell from the palanquin, his face even paler than usual, Nakk helped him to his feet, and they watched as the chthonic coterie glided away into mist, or time.  They walked on.  There was another village ahead, they had seen him from across the valley floor.  There was only one path, and heavy brush began to encroach.  Lights appeared: flickering, delightful things that demanded attention.  They caught the Con Man’s eye and before Kunail could shout “Stay on the path!” the man with many names had run into the dark brush.  An echo of Kunail’s cry remained.

Kunail and Nakk knew from the stories that mortals who wandered off Veilish paths could not be helped.  It was best they continue their journey to leave.  Jin shook his head, and stayed behind.

On and on and on, they walked, Nakk and Kunail…  The sun at it’s zenith never wavered, the purple sky never brightened nor darkened.  Finally they approached the next village, filled with dark huts that were empty of light… save one.  Outside it stood Count Ephraim Hart.

A queer thought raged inside Kunail’s skull:  That perhaps death was the only release from this hell that cycled him back to his sins and fears.  But he put the thought back in the room he always kept it, and instead led Nakk up the hill… the very same hill they had come down, on the other side of the valley.

Half-way up, a gaggle of three fat geese with pleading eyes introduced themselves to Kunail.  It was this image that drove Kunail to desperation.  “A mirror!” he shouted, before the geese could ask.  They honked, confused and offended.  Kunail clutched at his head.  What madness was this?  What did it mean, his visions of the black room and his own bound body?  It seemed like only hours ago they stood atop the cliff’s edge, but who could tell in this never-changing twilight?  The seams in his mind were pulling apart.  

(black room | hummmmmmm | rattle)
(black coffin | heat pulsing | body cooking)
(arm free | eyes wide | this is real | the other place | is not real)
(IT IS REAL | it isn’t real | IT IS REAL

Jin shook Kunail awake.  Forth speckled the archer’s lips, and his… friends… looked on in concern.  The Con Man had changed clothes, in fashions some 200 years out of fashion.  A distant look was in his eyes, as if he had traveled a long way and barely remembered the faces of the men he stood beside.

There was nothing to say.  They walked up the hill.

When they arrived, full circle, back to the cliff side of Black Oak Ridge, there stood Alisiya LeStrange.  Tall and towering, her wedding gown twisted across her jointed form and too-long limbs.  But the scene was strange, wasn’t it?  A quartet played music as the Con Man approached the lip of the cliff.  Rows of chairs were arranged on both sides of the scene, and all the occupants turned to watch the Con Man as he walked down the aisle to meet his bride under the arch of marriage.

“Do you, Taggart Ruffler, take this woman, Alisiya LeStrange, to be your lawfully wedded wife? To have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do you part?”

The congregation held its breath in the twilight.

“No,” the Taggart Ruffler said.  He looked into Alisiya’s eyes.  “I cannot marry you, Alisiya.  It is a lie.  I do not love you, nor do I wish to.  My plan is to part you from your fortune and leave you picking up the pieces of your life when I disappear from it.”

And then everyone woke up in a black room, alien to their eyes.  Needles and strange rubber cords were embedded in their flesh and coughing filled the air as each of them pulled the tubes from their throats and climbed naked from the sarcophagi that had held their sleeping bodies.

Not long after they found their belongings and dressed, the room they were in shifted, and the door behind them swung open into the night sky above the sparkling desert city of Dunish.  Nakk’s silver arm grabbed hold of the floor, but Kunail, the Con Man, and Jin could not hold on, and tumbled out into the sky.  Nakk watched his comrades fall past him, one by one, and wondered how they were possibly going to survive this one.

From the journals of Kunail the Accursed.

War. I thought I’d left it behind me. But there’s no escape. From the horror. From the glory. These people, these humans of Trapis-town – they didn’t deserve the calamity that befell them. No one ever does.

We made our preparations as best we could. Lightning traps. Pits of spikes and electricity. Trained these country bumpkins, made our plans, until there was nothing left but the waiting.

We knew who was leading the army to come against us. The Heartless bastards, apparently fathered on an elven noblewoman. They were his favourite weapons, Aislinn and Aidan Rising. Who could say what horrors they’d have planned for us?

We drowned our fears in last minute planning and revels. A mail-carrier arrived, and only “Jerart Batler”’s quick thinking put the woman off the scent of us four escaped convicts. I got a message, far too late, from my old friend Constant. Animae surrounding, how can I tell him what has happened to me? And I intercepted a message intended for our old Warden, Share. Who I killed. And who is not dead, but no longer living. Like me, he has become uthiri [Elven word for vampire]. I made him, somehow. When I feed … I doom my victims to share my curse. When this business in Trapis is finished … I have a mess to clean up.

“Jerart” and Nakk both got letters as well … but if they cared to share the contents they’d have told me.

There was a feast. I understand the townsfolk had revels. That Nakk and his young protege, Buck, had a rematch, and that it didn’t go well for Buck. That “Jerart” sealed the deal with Mayor Franca. That drinks were had and toasts were made. I spent the whole event huddled in the belltower of the half-ruined church, feeling my guts clench and my fallow veins throb with need.

One of my squadron of Archers, Maggie Sureshot, even saw fit to bring me a meal. She had no way of knowing I couldn’t partake. That my deathly pallor and sunken eyes were something no mortal food could fix.

With the dawn, came the war.

The enemy force came down the hill, all sound and fury, screaming their war cries as they advanced. I was thrown back years, to the old War, and if my blood were not dead and rotten in my veins it would have begun to sing.

It all went well at first. Jin’s traps did their work well, and the first rank of enemy troops died in blue-white bursts of lightning. My archers targeted the troops who survived, and Nakk’s Knucklers were playing cleanup. The mad bastard tried to use that infernal lightning-pole – but it backfired. Quite literally. Not the first thing that would go wrong that day.

“Batler’s” runners – Jerart’s Lookouts –  did their work well – he co-ordinated our troop movements, keeping us one step ahead of the enemy. And he had a plan to get me back to fighting fit – sending one of our scouts to pull a wounded enemy off the battlefield so I could feed. Of all my… allies, he’s the one who seems to take the most practical interest in my condition. I can’t help but wonder if he’s working an angle. His type always is.

The first real casualty was Nakk’s hand. I could have told him that charging headlong into the mass of the enemy was a bad idea. But he probably wouldn’t have listened to a knife-ear. His troops rallied to his defense, and got him off the battlefield. But the enemy took advantage.

Their troops closed in. The lightning traps did not deter them. Our trap of boiling fat barely slowed them down. Batler’s man arrived with a grisly meal for me. Then came one of those moments in war … the kind that make you feel a wretch for having lived. I descended the bell-rope to feed. And my archers were defenseless when a flaming arrow struck the boiling fat – setting it alight in a massive explosion that brought the whole tower down on top of us.

Nakk, in the field hospital, did what had to be done to get himself back out on the battlefield, I heard this part from one who was there. Crazy round-ear poured that silverflame quicksilver on the stump of his severed hand – and grew a new one, of silver that responded to his very thoughts. Must have hurt like a bastard, but he went right back out there into the middle of the battlefield.

Jin saw his moment to strike at the enemy troops, flush with success. To hit them at their flank where they were weakest. He led in his raiders, armed with spears and lightning. What he did not expect, was a black-clad warrior whom he knew of old. They engaged in a heated duel on horseback. Words were said, and blows exchanged. No one was close enough to hear for sure.

Meanwhile, Heartless’ troops were pouring into town, and though Nakk rallied our forces, we were hard pressed. I don’t expect I made matters much better when I burst from the wreckage of the church, a shard of holy-wood in my side, unleashing the monster I’ve been shackling – a thing of talons and fangs and endless thirst, bestial and savage.

Then there came a whistling from above – the sound of a catapult ball, heading for our headquarters.

“Batler” did his best to evacuate the HQ, but the one person he couldn’t save was Annish Franca, who was doing her duty – making sure those under her charge were safe. The town hall was demolished in the explosion. And what emerged … was a quicksilver golem, 9 feet tall, shining chrome death. One of those things had nearly doomed us all in the mines – and we didn’t have Nakk’s lightning totem to help us now.

So I used the only weapon I had at my disposal – the Arrow of Time I found in the mines. It worked. After a fashion. My aim was true and I struck the construct in its metal chest. But as the qucksilver melted into un-time, what was left behind was Annish Franca. The quicksilver must have bonded to her. Franca herself began to melt away, losing five years, then ten, then twenty. The arrow did worse than kill her. It left her a babe.

Jin’s battle was going hard, and only his lieutenant’s timely intervention saved him. But we needed to take out that damned catapult before the whole town was rubble.

Nakk, Batler and I rallied the troops for a decisive push, throwing back the enemy.

And that’s when the cart in the enemy camp started to rumble and shake.

Nakk had learned to transform his new hand into any number of deadly shapes – knives and blades, dealing death all about him.

Jin’s cavalry leaped into the midst of the enemy, slaying left and right.

I dashed through the battlefield, picking off the enemy here and there, Athano swooping and diving.

Even Batler got a few digs in, disguising himself as an enemy soldier long enough to sneak into their midst and sow confusion and terror. He set of an explosion of lightining that decimated their front lines, allowing our troops to close in.

And then the cart exploded, and the dragon emerged. I’d thought their kind extinct this far south. I thought wrong. It was that conniving wizard Hartzell controlling it, with a glowing magical bridle.

Jin, the godsdamned fool, managed to knock Hartzell off the saddle. The dragon, free of her master, worked to free herself of her bonds as well – and Jin, crazy roundear that he is, leapt aboard her just as the beast shot skyward.

I don’t remember who killed Hartzell. I had bigger things to worry about. Like a hopping mad Dragon raining down fire from the sky.

Nakk managed to turn his limb into a shield to protect himself from the flames. I managed to use an enemy soldier for cover. Not everyone was so lucky. Friend and foe alike were consumed in conflagration. Among all the horrors of war I’d experienced, watching flesh melt off human bones was something new.

Batler might have seen his last sunrise if Nakk hadn’t tackled him out of the way in the nick of time.

I don’t know how that mad bastard Jin clung on as long as he did – or how he forced the beast to land. But he couldn’t keep control of it for long.

I saw an opportunity – Aiden, one of the two generals, open and undefended. So, singing the war-song of my people, I ran up the landed beast’s wings, vaulted off – and pinned the preening butcher to the ground with my blades. One general down

The wyrm struck at Nakk like a whipsnake from the Ollu Sandflats. But the mad bastard held it’s jaws open. You could see the strain it put on him – every muscle in him strained and flexed – until he shaped his metal hand into a blade, and cut through the roof of the dragon’s mouth into it’s brain. Damndest thing I’ve ever seen.

The enemy force was broken after that. Aislinn surrended shortly after – what could she do against they who’d just slain a dragon and pinned her brother to the ground?

But as the dust settled, who can say who really won? Trappis-town is half destroyed. We lost good people. Maggie Sureshot. Young Buck. “Awful” McKie. Poor Annish Franca. And though we have these two princelings to ransom – what price will Count Hartless accept? I, for one, think we should sell them to the Elvish Commonwealth. My urban kin have their own kind of justice to mete out to butchers and war criminals.  

"Count Heartless is coming, we must prepare for WAR!"

The heroes made their way out of the laboratory to the assembly area, where they found Osmun's Spyglass.  Finally, they were able to find directions to the Central Battery, where all the remaining workers were gathering.  

There, they met Delan, whom Jin had been contracted to kill.  The leader of the workers, Delan explained carefully the nature of the Central Battery and guided them to disassemble it for Crate Storms, several orders of magnitude more powerful than Bottled Lightning.

The heroes led the workers and several wagons of lightning out of the Silverflame Mine, where Delan dutifully helped them destroy it with a powerful detonation of lightning.  Though the workers spurned Kunail for his elfhood, they were nonetheless thankful for being rescued.  Brolin the Journeyman Priest was sent ahead to prepare the town for their arrival.

During the night, Kunail encountered the Elven hunter he had killed earlier… he too, was a vampire.  After a brief battle, the Hunter flew away, unharmed by Kunail or Nakk.

When the team finally arrived the next morning, they created a War Council and set about making the most of their three days to prepare for the battle.

Jerart Batler
Kunail Murai
Jin the Shade
Annish Franca
Okren Chandler
Young Buck, the Blacksmith
Brolin, the Priest Journeyman
Delan (deceased)
The Knucklers (30) – CQC, melee, and archery. 16 swords/16 bows with steel tip arrows
The Dunish Wardens (45)  - trained in CQC, armed with iron-tipped spears
Jin’s Raiders (10) – cavalry black ops, trained in traps and bombs, armed with spears
Jerart’s Lookouts (9) – Jerart trained to spot incoming forces and identify threats
The Pathfinders (5) – Kunail trained scavengers
The Young Drummers (10) – War drummers to keep morale up and for basic communications
The Hospitallers (10) – Children and non-combatants running first aid out of the Butcher Shop
The Fire Wardens (10) – Using the fire code set-up by Okren, these non-combatants use buckets and fire lines to put out fires with well water.
Scarecrow traps
Road Pit traps
Boiling Fat traps
Pit Spike traps
Sling Tower traps
The Knucklers, with melee and ranged training
The Dunish Wardens
The Young Drummers
Jin’s Raiders
Palisade Wall
Arrows and spears, with steel heads
Hospital with poultices
Fire Fighters
Battle Plan + Strategies
9 lightning casks
5 crates of 5 bottled lightings each
16 bows
16 swords
9 ammo for spears
9 ammo for archers

"Nakk Upon the Rooftops," Symphony for the Dead

Our heroes had freed Trapistown for a time.  Out from the yoke of Count Ephraim Hart, they celebrated their freedom.  With the aid of a passing merchant, our heroes donated their one hundred coins – all the money they had in the world – to buy three kegs of beer that were marked for Warren, the prison from which they escaped. 

The Con Man – now calling himself Jerart Batner – went to the butcher's shop.  There he convinced the Butcher to leave, and drained the Sheriff's body of blood into Kunail's waterskin, hoping to keep the elf's thirst for blood under control.

Kunail, in the meantime, set to fashioning a new handle and hilt for the Sheriff's saber, using the antler from the deer he had caught days before.

Jin got the party started early and sat down at a gambling table in the local inn.  When he was caught cheating, a muscled blacksmith named Young Buck flipped the table over onto him. 

Nakk walked across the breadth of the town to the burnt down church tower of Trapis, and there found Okren Chandler, the town's priest, digging graves for the recently deceased mercenaries.  Without a word between them, they dug eight graves each – six foot deep – and filled them, until the sun went down.

Come nightfall, Kunail bid that they start the party without him, and ventured into the northern half of the White-Bone Forest.  There, he found the four of Hart's mercenaries that escaped.  Hoping to take one of them hostage to interrogate, he shot one with an arrow before the remaining three rushed him – he loosed another arrow into the belly of one, before two mercs tackled him to the ground.  Drawing his new antler handled saber, he killed one before the other stabbed him in the hand.  He felt the hunger come upon him, and ripped the merc's throat out, drinking deeply… before he realized his bloodthirst had killed them all, leaving no hostage to interrogate.  Cursing himself for losing control, he wiped the blood from his mouth and headed back into town.

Not ones to delay a celebration, Jerart cracked open the first of the kegs and let ale flow like water.  Soon the whole town was soused, maudlin with freedom and strong beer.  As Virtue tried his best to pry Nakk's backstory out of him, the young buck blacksmith approached their table and challenged Nakk to a barfight.  The bar moved the tables out of their way, and thus the song "Nakk Upon the Rooftops" was born.  They fought on the bar floor, they fought on the bar top.  They crashed out of the bar windows and fought in the street, then fought upon the rooftops, leaping from building to building as the town cheered on the moonlit silhouettes.  Finally, one massive uppercut sent Young Buck flying off the roof of town hall into a wagon of hay, before Nakk leapt into a flying kick that shattered the wagon into kindling.  "Nakk Upon the Rooftops" would pass into legend, and spread like wildfire through the Pathless County…

Finally, Kunail returned to town, his wounds already healed from the blood he had drank.  He found his comrades getting drunk and drunker around the table.  They were talking about the distinct lack of men in the town.  Mayor Annish shakes her head and tells them about Silverflame Mine, where Count Hart had conscripted their husbands, fathers and sons (and not a few daughters, wives and mothers) to work the mine.  With their crops failing, there was no other way to make a living.  She and Virtue ask that the party go and rescue the sixty-odd miners from Silverflame Mine.

Nakk and Okren had struck up a cautious friendship based on their work from earlier in the day.  Taking careful stock of Nakk's character, Okren suggests that they could take  short cut – a rope bridge across the the Chasm, that would save them a day in their journey.

Mayor Annish Franca and her bookkeeper Virtue, clanked their mugs and toasted our heroes (though Virtue grumbled that one hundred gold could have been better spent).  Annish unwound, letting her mayoral manner slip, until Jerart found her head on his shoulder.  He turned her face toward his and hesitated for just a moment… then he kissed her.  She kissed him back, before slapping him.

Finally, in the dull hours of the of the dark morning, all lay asleep and dreaming save Nakk.  He climbs the hill up to the burnt-out Church, thinking about the wife and child he lost to Krev the Unclean, fifteen years ago.  Wtih starlight shining through the cracked open roof, Nakk pleaded with the silent ancestors.  "I've spent fifteen years in prison.  My wife and daughter are gone.  What do I have to live for?  Why am I still here?"  

To his surprise, a deep voice answers.  "If you dedicate your life to something larger than yourself, if you work for the greater good of all who still live in this world, will you not have purpose?  Sometimes destiny is not thrust upon us.  Sometimes it must be chosen," the voice says.  It is not a god, or a saint – it is Okren standing behind him.

At dawn, Jin is woken up under the table by a young girl with sad, golden eyes.  She gives him a single silver coin and asks him to kill her father, a man named Delan.  Jin takes the job…. his first as an assassin.

The others wake up shortly thereafter make their way to the shortcut Okren showed them.  Unfortunately, years of hard use and little maintenance left the dangling rope bridge very precarious.  Unwilling to leave their possessions behind, the party agreed to cross one at a time… however the seemingly bottomless nature of the Chasm paralyzed each in turn, rallying the others for help until – bearing all their weight – the bridge snapped.  Luckily, Jin had tied everyone together with his rope, so Kunail and Nakk were able to keep Jin and Jerart from falling to their deaths.  Straining against gravity, the elf and the boxer climbed onto the cliff edge, where they pulled their friends onto the grass.

When they found the opening of the Silverflame Mine, they saw that it was dug into the roots of a Covenant Tree – an ancient and magical lightning rod that was the cause of the smell of ozone and the constant threat of storms.  Kunail knew that the elves named it a Covenant Tree because of a story about the war between the anima of the Sky and the anima of the Earth, where lightning was used to great effect to scar and scorch.  They forged a peace, and wherever grows a Covenant Tree lightening will only ever strike in one spot.  Jerart knew from his business dealings that Covenant Trees were intensely magnetic and often drew metal up out of the ground, making the area around it rich with mining prospects.  

From a distance, they saw a haggard man running out of the mouth of the mine, chased by men with strange, silver coloured limbs.  They leapt into action and rescued him… His name was Artzell, foreman of the Silverflame Mine.  Kunail's interrogation techniques undid the rest of his lies – they found out he was really a wizard working for Count Ephraim Hart, designing weapons of great destruction to deter the elves from ever attacking humanity again.   The party ties him up and head into the cave, hoping to discover his lab as well as rescue the Trapistown citizens.

Inside, the party continued fighting more of these "quicksilver men," as they continued interrogating Artzell about his work.  Kunail got increasingly angry about the horrors that Artzell would inflict upon his people, but Artzell began to turn Nakk against Kunail by revealing the awful war crimes Kunail himself committed during the War.  Rivenwood, Algeron and all the other innocents slaughtered by the elves.  

When an undetected trap was sprung, Artzell seized the oppourtunity to slip away, but not before making one final speech: That in order to prevent the horrors of war, Artzell would commit any crime, die any death.  

With Artzell fled, they were lost in the middle of a vast mine.  The party took turns trying to navigate through, Kunail with his hunter's eye, Nakk with his climbing strength, Jin with his light feet.  Jerart searched the body of a dead miner and found that they weren't just mining the quicksilver substance, but also lightning itself – bottled and weaponized.

Finally, they found themselves in Artzell's laboratory, filled to the brim with his experiments, the utility of some of which were inscrutable.  There was a frosted mirror that would show a slightly out of sync reflection; there was an arrow frozen in time, hanging in mid-flight; a saddle and reins the size of a wagon; a bird skull the size of a man's head, hanging by a string; a totem poll crackling with lightning; and a stone bath of bubbling quicksilver.  

Jin quickly swept the contents of Artzell's desk into his sack, hoping to sell it later.  Kunail, fascinated by the arrow, walked towards it… Jin, seeing the tripwire was able to stop Kunail just in time.  Having avoided the tripwire, Kunail plucked the Arrow of Time from the air.

Jerart was able to find The Traveller's Notebooks, a way to communicate across long distances – written inside it were details of the many experiments in the Silverflame Mines, but also correspondence between Artzell and Count Ephraim Hart.  Jerart analyzed the book, and decided to try and inmitate what he knew of Artzell to con Count Hart into revealing his plan to him.  Jerart wrote in the notebook…

Nakk, curious about the metal-limbed quicksilver-men they had fought, approached the stone basin of bubbling liquid metal.  No heat came off of it, though a simple corked oil lamp sat on stone ledge.  Nakk went to pick it up… and a massive chrome hand grabbed his wrist.  Quicksilver splashed everywhere, and an eight-foot tall Chrome Man steps out of the metal bath, slamming his massive metal fist into Nakk's chest.

It was uncannily large, inhumanly strong and seemingly impenetrable.  Kunail was thrown across the room, crashing into a stone wall.  Nakk spit blood from his mouth.  Jin was kicked aside like a rag doll into the tripwire… but luckily the Shade had built up an immunity to that particular poison.  Finally, Jerart took his Bottled Lightning and tossed it against the Chrome Man, electrocuting it.  Though the others were struck by the lightning as well, it seemed they had found the Chrome Man's weakness.  

Nakk, Kunail and Jin picked up the massive Totem Pole, hoisting it on their shoulders like a battering ram, and shot a white-hot beam of lightning. The Chrome Man's silver skin rippled in pain, and warped into heavy hammers.  Kunail and Jin found their legs swept out from under them, leaving only Nakk carrying the Totem Pole.  Nakk strained under the heavy weight of the Totem, but its heaviness was no match for his tree trunk legs and rock hard shoulders.  He braced himself and shot another white beam, just as Jerart tossed his last Bottled Lightning at the Chrome Man, and the two collided in a brilliant flash of light.  

The Chrome Man fell to his knees, silver skin dripping, but still alive.  His face shifted and ran, dripping off his chin, until the face of a man was revealed.  And there came Jin, running towards the Chrome Man with steps so quick and light that no man could tell whether his feet touched the ground.  "Symphony for the Dead,", Jin murmured.  One moment his sword was sheathed and then his blade was out.  The Chrome Man lifted his hand up to protect himself, and Jin smirked.  "First movement!" Jin cried, and leapt into the air, flipping the sword to point downwards.  "Death from Above!"

The sword entered the Chrome Man's hand and twisted through his shoulder and into his chest.  He dropped dead and the quicksilver bled away, revealing a large man missing all his arms and legs.

Though they were battered, bruised and bloody, they caught their breath and came back together to read what was being written in the Traveller's Notebook.  Ink scrawled in urgent penmanship.

Bring the quicksilver to Trapis and move on to Phase Two.  And hurry, Artzell… otherwise the Gorons will not be pleased.

The prison's defenses do not end at the gate.

The prisoners escaped, and thunder rolled across the Pathless County.  The sharp arms of a bone-white forest stood raised, empty of leaves, cradling the dark sky, and begging for rain.  The sweet pungent zing of ozone filled the air.  Far off in the distance, dogs barked.

Enough of the scenery.  We follow the prisoners.

High above them, the owl Athanö' drank in the night and searched for the horses and supplies that belonged to Warren inmate Stalk. The gang leader had revealed his own plans to escape Warren to Jin, and now the prisoners would steal them.  The great white owl swooped from star to star until it returned to whisper in Kunail's ear.  Ahead, Athanö whispered.  Under the tall tree.  This side of the river.  Death.

As the sound of hunting dogs grew closer Kunail Murai led them into the brackish river, covering their scent.  Though the surface stirred, whatever eldritch thing dwelt under its surface ate nothing that night save arrowhead.  The Confidence Man breathed a sign of relief.

Soon the barking of dogs grew faint, then silent.  But to cross the river again, back to Stalk's supply point, they would have to submerge themselves in its opaque black waters.  Enter Nakk.  By strength of arm, sweat of brow and force of will, the Dunish-man splintered a tall tree, felling it to lay a gentle crossing to the other side.

They were close.  They could see the tall tree, hear the horses.  But when Jin the Shade approached the tree, he smelt blood.  Lightning struck, and they saw:  heads swinging from the branches, faces twisted in shock and fear. 

Seeing the area was clear of danger, Kunail jumped from his perch in another tree and breathed into a horse's ear. "Who killed these men, Brego?" The elf listened closely to the horse's reply.  "Six legged creatures," Kunail reported.  "They killed them, cut off their heads and took all the swords."

"Gorons," the Confidence Man said, and they all understood.  The Gorons were the four-armed natives that called the Pathless County their home, and had taken insult at the arrival of men.  Everyone agreed to bandage their wounds quickly and make camp far from this dark place.

Nakk studied the bloody visages the Gorons had left swinging in the wind.  He had spent fifteen years in Warren, but he recognized them from his time in Dunish.  Jin confirmed his suspicion – some of these heads belonged to well known hired men from the Dunish underworld. 

Under their gory necks sat a chest full of bandages, rations and poultices for treating wounds, and Jin set quickly to remove any dangerous traps.  Kunail bandaged the ragged wound High Warden Share had carved into his side.

When they finally made camp a couple of hours away from the supply point, they drew up a plan:  Follow the river until Trapis town.  But Kunail had other concerns… the Hunger rose in him, like a the wind howling through his heart.  The Confidence Man bound Kunail into his debt that night by offering the elf a few drops of his mortal blood. 

The sun rose, but Kunail did not die.  He drank the watered blood from the Confidence Man from his wineskin, but still he grew weak from hunger, sick from thirst.  No food nor drink would sate him.  On the third day, Nakk found an arrow-pierced deer, fresh dead and escaped from its hunter.  Kunail walked into the dark of the forest, found that hunter, and drank deeply from his gory throat.  It was only after his Hunger subsided that he realized the hunter was an elf.

Through the wild Pathless Forest they walked, days on end.  Jin kept his knives sharp.  Nakk kept his misery unabated.  Kunail kept his Hunger at bay.  The Confidence Man pondered his next name.  Then they fell into the arms of Mayor Anne Franco and her faithful deputy, Virtue.

Franco and Virtue were looking for warriors that could free them from the yoke of Count Ephraim Hart.  She offered every piece of coin her town had to buy the services of the prisoners.  Not only that, she could get them past the blockade that the Wardens had set-up near Trapis. 

The Confidence Man plied his trade lovingly, promising nothing, taking everything.  As the prisoners rode in the back of horse wagon, Jerart Butner sat up front with Anne Franco.  Widowed this year past, her husband had been shot in the street by Count Ephraim’s men, pierced with a dozen arrows for no crime save speaking up against tyranny.  As she fell asleep, her head lolled onto Jerard’s shoulder and he whispered, “I will have your fortune.”

In the back, Virtue’s eyes could not leave Nakk’s scarred face.  Virtue was Franco’s money man, famed for his honesty, this all in trapis knew.  What they did not know was Virtue came about his tight-fisted miser’s soul through losing his fortunes and nearly his life to gambling in the fighting pits of Dunish.  From there, he recognized Nakk – legendary fighter.  It was almost enough to keep Virtue from shaking with fear and adrenaline as their subterfuge at the blockade passed.

The Wardens at the blockade were no match for the guile of Jerart Butner.  With coin in greasy palm and teeth in brittle smile, the Confidence Man opened the way without the discovery of his fellow ex-inmates.

They parked their wagon at a cottage at the edge of town and set their dusty feet down on the streets of Trapis.  A black-burnt church roared anguish against the rising sun.   Sharpshooters stood leering from the rooftops of the town hall, and men with swords walked brazenly in the streets.  The wind blew and shuttered windows rattled. 

What else can people do, when the lawmen are lawless?

There were many people that claimed to witness the fight that day.  If tales are to be believed, the whole town was watching.  They say a swarm of arrows shattered the shutters, nailing the wall behind Kunail in rapid succession.  That the elf returned fire. They said that for Kunail, this battle started with an arrow, but it began long before that in a place very far away.  The day that Kunail walked the blood soaked streets of Galarai, the City of Silenced Song. 

Children cowered, told that the Lawman pulled the arrow out his cheek, crimson flowing like tears, white teeth grimacing through where skin should be. 

Men argued over whether Jin climbed spider-swift to the roof of town hall, slashing the throat of one sharpshooter or if he caught the bow in midair.  They fought over the details of whether he let loose a flurry of arrows, raining barbed steel and feather on the platoon below, or shot down the mercenaries with one arrow each, pointedly and with grim menace.

The drunkards and the slatterns laughed and blushed over the stories of Jerart Butner flailing one way and then the other, confusing the mercenaries that were charging the preacher’s house, just before they were filled with arrows or dropped, necks broken.

Only two witnesses were truly there:  Anne Franco, and Virtue, and Virtue only ever told one story: There were twenty mercenaries.  Four prisoners.  The odds were far out of favor… but the odds had never fallen towards Nakk, and fortunes had been won on the skin of his knuckles.  The accountant’s eyes would gleam as he described how from behind the preacher’s cottage, the seven horses of Franco’s wagon reared and whinnied like the horsemen of world’s end.  How Nakk gripped the reins in both hands and came charging towards the crowd of mercenaries. 

Whether any of it is true, the facts remain.  Eighteen bodies were buried in the graveyard the next day, and none of them belonged to Trapis.  The wounds were various – trampled, gutshot, becks broken, throats slashed. 

And the sun rose on Trapistown.

"For crimes against humanity, I curse your name!"

Peace creeps into the Continent and falls upon the armies of elves and humans.  The song of swords fades from the battlefields, and grass grows in the boot prints there.  Rivers once red with blood now run clear, what crops not burned are reaped.  The armistice takes hold, and in the Tornell Empire and Eleven Commonwealth both, wounded kingdoms bury their dead while sharpening their swords.  There is no rejoice in peace; the trumpets play only dirges.

No kingdom mapped was untouched by the war, but not all lands are drawn on such maps.  Neither elf nor human wore crowns in the white-bone forests and salt-deserts of Pathless County.  Thus the Tornells, in their infinite wisdom and unlimited malice, built their Warren.

The Warren was a prison, far from civilization.  More prisoners arrived every day, but one cell in particular held three men: 

Jin was a thief, but no ordinary burglar was he – hidden away in one of his safehouses was the fabled sword of Dunish Kings, proof he was the greatest thief in Dunish.  That was before his confidante snitched on him, pinning the theft of the King’s crown and lute on him, sending Jin to Warren.

The Confidence Man chose whatever name suited his schemes, and it pleased him to be known as Ron Grits.  No one knows how many fortunes he has swindled, hearts he has broken, wars he has started.  How could anyone trace them to a man who lies as easily as he breathes?  That is, unless you had the misfortune of trying to swindle the same man twice, as he did to the Baron of Trapis.

And Nakk.  A man of low birth and lower ambition – keep his family happy was all he wanted.  He fought in the boxing arenas of the Dunish underworld and many fortunes were won on the skin of his knuckles.  But the crime lord Krev the Unclean had other uses for Nakk – enforcer, intimidator, murderer.  To all these Nakk bowed, save when Krev told him to lose his final bout.  For Nakk’s disobedience, Krev destroyed his family.  Nakk was in prison for the murder of forty-three of Krev’s guards on that fateful day.

Save for the Con Man, they did not count the days.  No one had ever escaped from Warren.

Enter Kunail of Eloreth, elf of the wastes, officer of the Commonwealth forces.  Kunail wasn't just a criminal, he was a war criminal.  Tales of his bloody deeds were still told to frighten green recruits on both sides of the war.  That he had deserted and committed himself to repenting his crimes mattered not:  The wardens stripped him of uniform and commission, cursed his name and deeds.  

High Warden Share visited their cell himself, reminding Kunail of the Surrender of Rivenwood:  One hundred humans killed for pleasure by the elves under Kunail's command.  High Warden Share promised Kunail that his stay would not be pleasant.

However, Kunail had entered through a backdoor heretofore unknown to Jin and The Con Man.  And so an elaborate plan came together.  It was the stuff of stories:  Chickenbone lockpicks and spying on the High Warden's letters.  Smuggling flint and lamp oil out from the salt mines beneath the prison.  Spotting the brass key around Share's neck during Kunail's daily beatings.  Keeping tabs on the watch schedule, noting the lazy Wardens.  Knocking out the snitches in the prison yard with a single punch.

Other strange happenings:  The discovery of a dark abyssal cavern, home to something with long and leathery talons.  The dark-skinned gang leader who took Jin aside to tell him of Kara.  And a visit for Ron Grits:  a woman with a dark veil gifting him with a plain gold engagement ring.

Everything was ready and they set the plan in motion.  Two guards died right off the bat, one blue faced in Nakk's choke-hold and the other's throat slit by Kunail’s quick hand.  Jin quickly let them all out the cell, and they went to reclaim their possessions while Nakk and The Con Man went to start a fire in the lumber room to distract the Wardens.

They found all their gear and opened the door to face High Warden Share.

He had fought in more battles that all of them put together.  In the end, Share was only one man.  He fell, hamstrung and life’s blood leaking, but not before striking out one last blow and burying his sword deep into Kunail’s ribs.  Kunail's felt his breath fleeing, darkness falling, and fell into the sleep of the sword.  Death called his name.

Nakk returned to find The Con Man and Jin carrying Kunail, bloody and barely standing.  Blood dripped from his chin and painted the skin around his mouth.  Something had happened, but there was no time to explain.

They ran deep into the woods, fighting off their pursuers.  Fooling some, killing others.  The shriek of giant bats echoed across the forest.  White trees with their bark peeling stood stripped of leaves, branches like fingerbones pointing to heaven.  They were fleeing.  They were starving.  They were bleeding.  

They were free.


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