Issue 2

It ended up taking us about 3 months to get it our shit together to open our doors to the public, but a majority of the third month Wil and I spent doing online sales to help try and generate further startup revenue so that we could hit the ground running. All in all things were coming together perfectly, and it seemed like we could do nothing but succeed. We got our storefront and financing no problem, with the use of my home as collateral on the loan, that is. We set ourselves up with several wholesale distributors in a matter of hours. We thought it was way too easy, but just kinda went with it. Our store wasn’t the biggest we’d been in or around, but it was big enough to do what we needed and it had a basement that was dry, so we could use it for storage and a sort of ‘not in the storefront’ impromptu meeting space and a place to play the role playing games we all loved so much.

Surprisingly though, when we finally did open our doors it seemed like destiny or fate or what have you was on our side and business was good, really good. At least it was for the first month anyways. Around that time was when those douchebags across town opened their fucking big box comic and gaming superstore. ComicWorldMart, they called it, and all one word too. It was so goddamn obnoxious at how brilliantly fucking original these guys were. It had everything we had and more but in a bigger space and with longer hours and all at lower prices. This looked to be a pissing contest that we were doomed to lose from the start. It also occurred at what was a crucial point in our business development. We had a couple of options though, for the things we could do if we wanted to keep our doors open and even hope to try and compete.

First, we made the decision that to try and cut some of our in store costs we’d up our level of online selling since we were generating about half our money from this anyways. So if we upped what we were doing then we figured we could probably milk another five to ten percent out of it. This wasn’t much of a change as we’d been talking about doing this anyway. Turned out to be a lot easier than we thought it would be. All the same, it was the easiest thing we could think of to try and help weather the coming storm. It was just a matter of reallocating Stevie to our online sales department and making Ralphie our primary sales staff on the floor. Stevie didn’t mind at all, and Ralphie finally quit bitching about being treated like a dog.

The increased online sales really did help but it was clear when we started that it just wasn’t going to be enough. We were still having problems making ends meet and paying our loan payments, which month by month could only put us closer to getting in beyond our means and going under. It didn’t help that we were all running out of our personal savings fast. In the end all it did was buy us a couple of months breathing room.

So after that couple of months passed the decision was made to extend our store hours and we all also agreed to take a pay cut, which really did hurt because we all had pretty much taken a reduction in our incomes when the opening the store took place. Still though, it was a sacrifice we were all willing to make, in the hopes it would just be on a temporary basis and would just be until we got the business back off the ground. Just like our increased online sales, it did begin to help. But, once again, it was obviously not going to be nearly enough to make a big enough impact on our bottom line to prove effective. In the end this too bought us a couple months to try and formulate additional plans to “get by”. Except that by now we had all started to dig into our personal savings pretty hard to help keep things going, but even what little savings we’d all had were starting to run out, and we were running out of options, and fast.

As a last and somewhat desperate resort we just started slashing our prices to try and move some of, any of, our products off the shelves. This plan worked, just like all the others up to now, but by now we’d just fallen too far and spread ourselves too thin and we had bank loans that needed to be paid, and we were running short of coming up with enough money to keep getting new product.

We were finally making money for the store, which was a good thing, but on a personal level, all of us were becoming so financially fucked it was truly looking like a lost cause. We had finally plugged the hole we were losing money from, but weren’t making any at the same time. And so finally, despite all of our brilliant and best efforts we just ran out of options.

So where do you go when you’ve hit the bottom of the barrel? The answer of course is that you make some really questionable choices that seem like good or at least sensible ones at the time, but only succeed in making you and your friends look insane or incredibly stupid in the process.

So now it looked like it was time for me to call another of my big meetings. Since we all worked on Saturday’s, I told everyone that we were gonna be closing our doors an hour early so that we could have a meeting to discuss the ultimate fate of the store. I was met with some strange looks, mainly because we never closed early, if anything we closed late, but at this point I figured “Eh, what the fuck?”, and that if we were leaking money anyways that one hour wouldn’t fix our problems and couldn’t possibly hurt us in our wallets any more than we already were. With luck, I was hoping we’d be able to brainstorm something that could save us from the hole we’d fallen into.

“Alright guys, I think we all know how fucked we are. Things can’t stay like this any longer, or we’re all gonna go broke and lose the store and most of what we own. I don’t think I’m the only one of us who’s on the verge of losing his house as well. I’ve heard the rest of you talking about how tough things are at home. It’s now more than just a matter of store survival, but a matter of not bottoming out across the board. Anyone got any ideas?”

I figured there was no reason to pull my punches and so I opened with it all out on front street hoped that we could fix it. I still believed that together we couldn’t fail. Hell, even now after all that’s happened I still do. Everyone just kinda looked at me in a sort of deer in the headlights kinda way. Almost as though they didn’t quite understand the words I was speaking.
“Come on guys. You guys have nothing at all?”, I couldn’t believe it. I just couldn’t believe it.

“Whatever we do we need to do it soon, I’ve only got another couple of months before I lose my house.” It didn’t really surprise me that William responded first.

“What can we do that we haven’t already tried?” T always did try to be the voice of reasonable solutions.

“Can’t we take it more online? It seemed to help when we refocused that way before. Why can’t we do it again?” Ralphie asked this like it was a simple thing to do. Wil and Stevie just looked at each other in a kind of scared, frustrated way, and Wil spoke up.

“Not with what we currently have as far as inventory, space and staff levels go. We don’t have enough people to manage the level of online sales that would be necessary to keep things going and make a bigger profit, and take on that level of staff. We’d end up even more in the hole than we already are. Stevie and I are already busting our asses to do what we can, but dude we are only two guys and there is only so much we can do.” He said it so plainly I didn’t even bother to add that we just didn’t have the room to maintain the level of inventory that would be needed to do what Ralphie was suggesting we try.

“Oh, I guess I didn’t realize it was so hard to do it. Is there anything else I can do to help you guys?” It was clear he really just wanted to help, but he really was just perfect for working the sales floor.

“Ralphie, you are amazing on the floor. You have the perfect level of excitement over the things we sell that it helps to push product on the customers. Don’t get pissed man but you’re like a kid at Christmas every month when the new issues come in. I, for one, don’t think we can afford to move you away from directly working with the customers.” I had to just hope he’d understand. He just nodded and sat there quietly for a second.

“No, you’re right. It’s cool.”

“I’ve been running through the books looking for corners to cut, but I can’t find anything else we can do to squeeze any more money out of what we’re doing. Short of working for free, I can honestly say we are probably just straight up fucked on this.” T, ever the pragmatist, had to just ground us all in reality.

I fucking hated when he did that. It always felt like he was pissing on the dream, not that he was usually wrong.

“Well, there is one thing, but I don’t think you guys will like it.” Stevie had an idea which never happened. I had to have looked like I’d been hit by a prizefighter, and then I realized I wasn’t alone.
“Hey man, if you got something to offer then I’m pretty sure we’ll at least listen to what you have got to say.” I had to give him that level of encouragement sometimes, because he was a little skittish about being taken seriously. He almost wilted when all the eyes were on him. But he continued.

“Ok, so you guys know that guy Russ that comes in all the time?” Everybody just nodded at this. We all knew who he was talking about.

“Crazy Russ? Yeah, we know him, but I don’t see how he fits in this though.” I didn’t.

“Ok, well he says he’s got a line on a guy who is looking to unload some guns and stuff. Military grade or so he says. Maybe we could sell those and make the money we need. I mean, you guys are always going on and on about how you’re all such wicked criminal fucking geniuses, maybe you can find a way to make some money at it.” Stevie had a confidence I’d not seen him display before. He had been giving this some serious thought before he brought it up.

As a quick little aside here, he wasn’t wrong, we did like to play a game we might as well have called “If I was a criminal” wherein we would create these fantastical situations of our own supposed, more like fantasized badassery and how we would turn that into running some sort of a criminal empire.

“Ok, wait a second, what the fuck do we know about gun running? It is called gun running right?” William had a tendency towards paranoia sometimes, but he was right. What did we know about running guns?

“True, but how much worse can it get?” I had to admit Stevie piqued my interest and I wanted to see where this was going.

“I’m at least curious about this. We need to do something, and soon. Leah’s talking about taking the kids and going to her mother’s and I won’t lose my family. I just won’t.” Wil was clearly a little frightened by the thought of losing his wife, and I couldn’t blame him. Meryl had already gone to her sister’s a couple of days prior with our baby girl and I’d not said a thing.

“Mer already went to her sister’s. I just haven’t said anything to you guys. I’m willing to do whatever it takes to get her back. I know that things have been rough for you boys too. You don’t even have to say anything.” I knew that although we were different people, we were still kinda the same. Or maybe we were just different aspects of the same person. The guys just looked at me and nodded.

“You guys can’t be seriously considering this?” T’s concern wasn’t entirely unfounded.

“You said when I first brought the idea of going into business together that it sounded kinda out there. Just think of this as an extension of that initial ‘out there’ idea. I will not lose my family.” I had made up my mind about things without even realizing it.

“You really might be crazy you know. If all of you guys are sure about this, then I guess I’m in.” T was always a team player and we were a fucked up family of sorts after all.

“So what do you say fellas? We gonna do this or what?” I saw no reason to fuck around with this conversation anymore.

“I’m in. I don’t wanna lose my girls.” I couldn’t believe that William was the first of those remaining to respond. I thought he’d be one of the last as always. It almost floored me when I heard him chime in. That seemed to be all it took for everyone else.

“If you’re sure dude, I’ll see what’s up.” I knew I could trust in Wil to just go with the flow.

“All right big man, back to you. You in?” No reason to mince my words. Stevie had what was looking to be a course of action we could at least explore.

Movies did glorify the kind of people we were apparently looking at becoming, and we were one man down from total agreement.

“Sure. Why the fuck not? I always knew we were a little fucked up but I can’t believe this would come from Stevie.” He did look a little dumbfounded at the whole thing. The prospect of running guns looked to confuse Ralphie, and if I’m being honest he wasn’t alone. We knew less about running guns than we did about running a successful business. And lately it looked like we really didn’t know much at all about that.

“Wait so we’re gun runners now? Nobody answered me. That is what it’s called right?” William could get so fucking freaked about shit sometimes.

“Yeah dude, I think that is what it’s called and yes I think that is what it’ll make us.” Wil was saying almost as though he was trying to convince himself as well.

“I really think it will.” Yeah, he was trying to convince himself. I’d kill if it meant Mer would bring the baby home, and know the rest of the guys would do the same. That’s just how we were. Loyalty to each other and the love of our families were about all there was outside the store.

“Stevie, since it was your idea, you talk to Russ and work out the meet with his guy. We need to be on this as soon as possible, so you got seven days to pull it together.” I figured he would like the opportunity to start pulling his keep anyways. He was gonna be sixteen in a couple of months anyways so this would give him a chance to start acting like a man.

“Sure, dude. Consider it done.” I knew it would be. He never, and I mean never, failed to do what he was told. It was like a damned illness.

And with that we started down the path to becoming gun runners. At the time we’d not yet met with a supplier and we didn’t have the first idea of how to unload guns and shit even when we did, but at the time those were just some details. We’d figure it out, we always did. At least that was what I thought at the time anyways. Amazing how far you can stretch your luck before it breaks like a taut rubber band. We were just too stupid to realize that at the time.

Issue 1

In the beginning there were six of us. There was Ralphie and his older brother William, Wil, and don’t get me started on how confusing it was to have a pair of Wills. Then there was Terry, Steve and me. My name is Jonah and this is our story. I wish I could say I don’t know how it all started but that would be a lie. I know exactly how it started because it was all my terrible idea. And, looking back on it I sometimes wonder how we ever expected to make it out alive. But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. It started earlier than all the violence, and in a place really without merit, Ohio. North Central Ohio to be a bit more precise. It can be counted on both hands all the things of note that have come out of this part of the state and we certainly weren’t any exception, although since this is where we began that’s where this story, our story, has to.

We all had our own unique life situations in the beginning. I was working as a low-end IT guy for a Law Firm, and to say I fucking hated it stretched the concept of hate probably had something to do with being referred to as “that boy” by the senior partners. Wil did internet sales and dealt mainly in coins of dubious providence. Eventually that employer would be prosecuted for selling stolen goods. William worked making coloring books because he had an art degree. He did have a bit of a background in IT though from a prior job. Terry was in going into his third year of college on the way towards getting his law degree. Ralphie was working at a quarry involved to some degree with the production of drywall. And little Stevie (I call him little cause he was the youngest amongst us) was still finishing up getting homeschooled by his grandmother.

We were a odd bunch to be sure and at first glance it would be hard to figure out what in the hell we’d even have in common aside from that potential IT connection to the three of us who had that, but the IT connection was a pure coincidence. We all met at the one place where we all felt at home the comic shop. The comic shop was that magical, mystical place where we could go to escape the realities of our daily lives and fit in free of judgment. It was in a way our holy place. All were welcomed and everyone was treated fairly. So te comic shop was where we met and for a while it was how and why we stayed together. After enough years knowing each other it only seemed logical that one day we’d open our own shop. This now brings me to the unbelievably somewhat mostly true story of Pandora’s Box, and just how it came to be.

One day Wil and I were talking over a cigarette and I said quite simply, “Hey man, why don’t we open up a comic shop? I’ve always wanted to and I know you have too. You know we could easily manage the thing and I’m sure we could get the rest of the guys to work the place and collectively we have the minds for managing it.”

He said yes of course, but then it was rare of him to refuse me unless he knew it would get him in trouble with his wife. In that respect he was probably the most pussy-whipped of all of us, but he was still like a little brother to me even if we were only a little over a year apart in age.

His only question was, and it was a good one, was simply, “Ok, but what do we call it?”

We decided the best thing to do was get all the guys together and have a discussion on this topic. So after hours of deliberation on such random things as store layout and how we absolutely had to be the coolest comic shop on the planet (the only way Ralphie would go along with anything) we decided to call our store, our little piece of heaven “Pandora’s Box”. So we began to set our plan in motion since T (this is what we called Terry) was a business/pre-law major in college drew us up a fantastic business plan so we could secure our initial financing from the bank and get ourselves underway.

So a week later we convened a meeting of the six of us. We opted to include Stevie even though he wasn’t even 18. He was in some desperate need of direction and needed to do something that would get him out of the house and away from his computer. For someone who wasn’t yet legally an adult he had seen more in his life than most people could ever hope to. Wil and I tried to keep the others in the dark as to why we wanted to meet, we were dorks like that sometimes, and as it turned out we were successful. This would be the first of many sit downs we’d have at the local pizza place. We had agreed to meet up about 6pm, because Wil and I had something to discuss with the group. We went ahead and told everyone but Ralphie to show up around 5:30pm, because we knew he’d be late. He’d miss his own damn funeral if his attendance wasn’t mandatory. But 6pm came and went and we were all getting sick of waiting. It was like that a lot with him and we’d learned to just deal with it. So, at 6:30pm we went ahead and got started.

“I’m sure all of you are wondering what Wil and I wanted to throw around, so I’m not going to waste any time . . .”, and like a broke-ass clock Ralphie came into the pizza place and sat down. He was always doing shit like this, but he was also always there for a friend in need. And even if he was late, when he said he’d show he did. “… Hey asshole, thanks for showing up!”

“Fuck you man! I’m here aren’t I? What was so secret I had to drive an hour just to hear about it?”

“Well now that you finally decided to grace us with your presence we can get this show under way.” I was always being a dick like that when he showed up late. I knew how far I could push it without turning it into a real fight, and he was usually a pretty good sport about it.

“We want to open a comic and game shop.” Wil is always getting right to the point.

“And you wanted the rest of us here because?” In the beginning Williams was always questioning every decision and suggestion, but he was smart and loyal, both were qualities that I respected.

“We’d like to do it as a group. As a group we possess all the skills necessary to do this. William and Wil and pretty amazing with computers and Wil can spearhead the internet sales. Terry can handle almost all of the business, finance and legal bullshit. Stevie and Ralphie can handle the customers, track stock and work the floor.” And I just looked at the rest of them waiting for a response. Wil and I expected this.

“What the fuck? Work the floor? You don’t think I can handle anything more than that?” I could tell Ralphie was a little pissed about this, but I knew he only ever takes a little, very little really, convincing.

“Jonah and I talked about it and it seemed the most fitting for you. You and Stevie have a really weird knack of doing what you’re told and excelling at it. It just seemed to make you two the most appropriate for those tasks….” Wil with the logical save.

“…Plus we wanted to include everyone. Remember the pact we made when Jared died? But if you guys don’t want to be involved then we can always find people to do that stuff. I didn’t mean to waste your time…” I knew how to work my audience for this.

“Hey, I never said I didn’t want in. You know I’ll help you in any way I can. Will you guys actually be paying me or will it be slave labor as usual?” –Stevie was always so worried about shit. I guess he was just used to getting the calls that we were doing some project around our respective houses and we needed an unpaid assistant.

“Yes, we’ll be paying you. Ok, so I got a green light from the minor. Anyone else have an opinion one way or the other?” I saw no point in wasting time moving forward on this.

“Did we mention that we wanted to do this as partners and not with the rest of you as employees?” Wil mentioning the detail that I’d neglected to bring up.

“All of us? You guys sure about this?” Bless him, but William was always so freaked when it came to going in on anything together financially.

So I continued, “Yeah, we’re sure. As a group we believe we can’t fail. History has shown this time and again”

“T, any thoughts? You’ve been awful quiet through this whole thing.” Wil said and we are just sort of staring at him silently running things over in his head.

“Honestly, it sounds really out there, but I’d expect no less from Jonah. You can count me in, but you guys know I’ve still got school and I can’t just drop it.” And with that Terry just smiled.

Time to start laying out the finer points of the plan Wil and I had kind of worked out. “Dude, you know we got that shit planned for, or we wouldn’t even be having this talk. All the financial information would be forwarded to you nightly, and you would just need to come back on the weekends to straighten the books up. I’d be working the day to day and you would be working the assist.”

“What about you? What are will you going to be doing in all this?” William asked.

“I’ll be the day to day manager and help in whatever area it’s needed. If Wil has too much going on online, then I come in for the assist. We get a rush of customers; again, I come in for the assist. T needs help getting all the paperwork straight, once again I come in. I’ll do what needs to be done so that we can stay afloat. Is that good enough for you.” Sometimes I had to be a dick to William so that he’d accept something and let it. Otherwise we’d spend the whole night focused on just what I’d be doing for the business. He just nodded.

Time to button this conversation up, “So, any other questions, concerns or war stories?”

There was a moment of silence. That was weird for us, but it happened sometimes.

“Alright then if nobody has anything else, Ralphie you in or out?” Sometimes we’d have to push the issue with him.

“I still think its bullshit that you wanna treat me like a trained fucking dog.”

“So does that mean you’re in?”

“Yeah, I’m in.”

“Good boy, play your cards right and you’ll get a treat. And maybe if you don’t piss on the floor we’ll rub your belly.” Sometimes I’d really screw with him, but it got the group to laugh and got the response I was hoping for.

“Fuck you, dick.” Yep that was the response I expected from Ralphie.

“Love you too, man. So William, what do you say, are you in?” I could tell he was agonizing over this. He hated being financially tied to anyone. I don’t know how he’d stayed married for so long. It was clear that he was agonizing over this decision, because he just sat there and didn’t say anything.

“Ok, we’ll come back to you. T, what do you say? You in?” Wil would do this sometimes. He’d occasionally butt heads with William over stuff and he would just push on forward, while William would just sit there.

“As long as it doesn’t stop me from going to school, then I’m ok with it. It’ll look good on a resume anyways.” T was about the only one of us who would really be focused on the future. It’s not like it was a huge fault of the rest of us, but sometimes it happened.

“So William, I’m really gonna need your answer. I know you don’t like to take risks, hell we all do, but you know we all know this shit. We can do this man. But it won’t be the same without you, and you know it.” I knew just how to get him to go along with things sometimes. It was just a matter of goading him just enough, but not so much that it turns into a real fight.

“You guys are sure about this? This isn’t gonna be like all those other things we say we’re gonna do, but then just ignore and lose interest in, is it? If there’s money involved in this, then there need to be certainties.” William seemed eerily confident. I had to admit I was a little surprised at the direction he was coming from on this. I looked at Wil and we just kinda nodded at each other. Wil beat me to a response.

“Hell yeah, man, we’re sure. Jonah and I have kicking this around as a ‘pipe dream’ for a couple of years now, and we all seem to be at a place in our lives where it just makes sense to try something different and new. Do you really wanna spend the rest of your life doing what you do now? I know I don’t, and I know that Jonah doesn’t. We want something more from life and we wanna be able to do something we actually love to do. This is it for us. Fail or succeed it’ll sit on us. But, we wanted to include everyone. So, are you in or what, dude?” I have to admit that in that moment Wil had it down. We’d never talked about it like that, but damn if it didn’t just make perfect sense. I could tell Willam was still thinking about it, but even still he surprised me.

“And we would be equal partners? Equal partners with equal say?” It was like William’s response was a statement he’d already started in his head. I couldn’t do anything but smile.

“Yeah man, equal partners with equal say, but Stevie gets an equal share upon his 18th birthday, and that’s non-negotiable. He’s one of us; he’s just a little on the young side.” I was hoping that would be the end of it there, and we wouldn’t spend the rest of our time debating this, cause I was starting to get hungry. And as if reading my mind, a server finally showed up.

“Can I get you guys something to drink?” So we gave our drink orders to the guy and I looked at William. Before I could say anything else to him he’d made up his mind.

“Alright, I can agree to that. I’m in.”

With his agreement, events would ultimately get set in motion that would test all of our friendships, endanger our lives and those of our spouses and result in a lot of blood spilled, bullets fired and money earned. I fully recognize that last statement has no real place in the context of opening a comic and game, but we don’t do shit in half measures, and sometimes opportunities fall in your lap that you just can’t pass up. It didn’t matter in that moment though, because in that moment we were gonna be businessmen and we were going to be masters of our own futures. So we ate and talked and threw around all kinds of ideas for what we could do and sell and offer. After the meal we formulated a communication chain to keep everyone informed of all happenings and any dealings so that all would be in place for our projected store opening.

The Performance Evaluation

The loudspeaker in the office popped and hissed as it came to life. “Luc, please report to management.” He’d been working at getting management’s attention for some time now and was hoping that he’d finally get elevated back to his golden boy status. He hated what the company had turned into since upper management chose to start exploring “new and more exciting” projects. So he brushed off his trousers as he stood up from his work station and headed to the boss’s office in the back corner of the room.

“Uh, you wanted to see me.” He said meekly from the doorway.

Management sighed as he stood there and took off his glasses. “Come on in. Shut the door and have a seat.”

“Can I ask what this is about sir?”

Management smiled but it clearly looked forced. “Performance evaluation time again.”

“Oh, I’d completely forgotten.” Maybe this time he would get a chance to pitch something to upper management. It felt like it had been so long since he’d even gotten to see folks upstairs that he was worried they would forget about him.

“Luc, upper management has some concerns about your recent behavior.”

“How so sir?” At this upper management reached over to a pile of papers on his right and after a brief moment pulled out a manilla file folder that was somewhat thicker than all the others. Perhaps, that denoted a good thing. Management opened the folder up and looked over the notes contained within. It was too far away for Luc to even try to read, especially when he forgot his glasses at his desk.

“While you have an incredible attention to detail, it seems you lack focus on the big picture. This is particularly problematic when you reflect on the company’s main mission. Any deviation from the plan only sets the company back, and that simply cannot be allowed to continue.” Luc sighed, he knew where this was going. This would be the third straight review like it.

Management continued, “There is also the matter of the gambling in the cafeteria. If it had been an isolated incident, that would be one thing, but almost daily betting on anything and everything you can get your hands on is another matter entirely. Not to mention that the office supplies you tend to bet on are stolen from the store room. As such Employee Relations has asked me to give you this.”

He handed Luc a small card that was advertising help with tackling addiction. He quickly put it into his shirt pocket.

“Sir, I think if you’ll let me explain…” Luc started to explain that it wasn’t about gambling per se, it was really about inspiring the best in those he encountered and by wrapping it in a wager he disguised his true purpose.

“I don’t think that will be necessary. You need help and this was not the only concern upper management had.” Management clearly had an agenda.

“I’m sorry sir.”

“I’m sure that you are, my boy, I’d like to talk about some of your more recent R&D submissions. Before I do though I have to ask, are you doing drugs?” Management sat there clearly awaiting a response. Luc was not in the habit of lying so he told the truth.

“Sir, anything that I might be taking I do have a prescription for.” He thought his ideas were pretty impressive. Everyone loved casual Fridays and the company picnics.

“Be that as it may, and despite your typical attention to detail, you work has become sloppy as of late.”

“Sir, I think you may be misjudging things. I’m as devoted to the company as I’ve ever been.”

There was a silence that stretched on for what felt like a small eternity.

“Duck. Billed. Platypus.” Damn, as he thought on it he was well and truly wasted when he made that in an effort to really wow the people upstairs.

“Ok, so that was not some of my best work. But it only took me 315 tries to get all the pieces to stay together.” That explanation sounded better in his head.

He continued, “What I mean is I stuck with that endeavor until I’d achieved success. Seeing the project through was important to me.”

“At great expense to not just company man power in the hours wasted on developing it, but in the resources that can never be used to make something more functional. This is a pretty big set back to the company.”

“Sir, I think you are misunderstanding my intentions here.”

Management sighed heavily again, “No, son, everyone understands perfectly, or have you forgotten getting the new hires to protest at the company’s new direction? They had no idea what they were even protesting, only that you inspired them to do it.” Forgotten and blacked out, were pretty much the same in this context. He remembered the protest and some signs, but not much else.

Luc sat quietly and waited for whatever was going to come next. Protesting his innocence would not win him any favors at this point.

“So let me tell you what is going to happen now. First, you are going to get checked into a 30 day rehab facility. Completing this program will determine what happens, but regardless of the results of your rehabilitation, you are going to the satellite office. If you complete rehab, then you will be going there to run it as you see fit. If you fail, well in that case then you get to be a ‘guest’ there.”

The satellite office sucked. The furnace was broken such that it was always running and nobody ever tried to fix it. It was misery for anyone that worked in or around it. Going there was a true punishment. Luc hung his head, resigned to the fate that awaited him.

“May I at least collect my things?”

“Warren is already doing that.” Luc knew that if Warren knew the whole office would know. Warren was such a gossip like that.

There was a soft knocking at the door. Management told them to enter and it was company security.

“Please escort Luc to the transport waiting outside and ensure that he leaves with it. Luc, I am expecting a call from the facility upon your arrival.”

“Yes sir. I won’t disappoint sir.” He was already starting to have some ideas for how he would oversee the satellite office. Maybe he’d try some “new and exciting” ventures of his own. But first things first. He was going to have to get clean.

While he was able to get clean, whether he stayed clean mattered less. He was ultimately put in charge of the satellite office and one of the first things he did was pain the whole thing various shades of red. The place stank of paint for years, so maybe it was less about the color and more so he could huff the fumes.

No matter though, Luc, Lucifer had finally found a place of his own. A place to call home. And really, what could go wrong?

Part 44-47 “Midnight Run”

As the rain was coming down around us harder and harder we made our way to take shelter in what we took to be the officers quarters, even though the fightin had exploded a pretty big chunk of the building. I grabbed the whistle and clipboard from the bitch who caused us problems all that time ago in Dillard. It felt good to know he couldn’t trouble us any longer. As we entered and Shojin was conferring with the old man, I noticed that Gnoman was not with us, but I never really believed he’d be with us for the long haul. I knew he was just with us so long as our interests intersected. And harder and harder the rains fell. A search found nothing worthwhile except some stoves for warmth and as we were getting a fire started to ride out the storm in relative comfort a cry rang out.

“Help, help, I am being oppressed!”

It sounded like Gnoman was in trouble so I didn’t give it a second thought and head out the door in the direction the cry had come from. Across the small footbridge and around the quartermaster building. As we rounded the corner, Gnoman was on the ground and surrounded by four of the guards from the camp who likely came back in an attempt to get out worsening weather themselves.

We engaged with them and it was less than impressive because they were quite strong. The entire event hinged on Fayne firing the one magical arrow in her quiver that never seemed to have any effect at one of the guards with the end result being he was transformed into a falcon. Shojin promptly put it to sleep and threw it into the creek that was swiftly becoming a roaring rain fueled river. Eventually we were victorious and that was about when the small bridge we’d crossed got washed away. So we needed to find alternative shelter, but first The rest of us did a quick search of the quartermaster’s building and found Shojin’s boar hide cloak and some other bits and bobs.

While we were doing that, Shojin went back to the pen he’d been kept in and just threw himself down onto the floor. We were prepared to leave him there for the night but a survey of the sky gave me the thought that this was not going to just blow over and we needed to move, possibly to the tree stands that surrounded the camp. I forced Shojin to get up and move with us returning all of his gear that I was still carrying and before we could make our way to the tree stands we took a brief respite in the nearest building. And that was when we saw her.

A very pretty lady soaking wet and just slowly walking in the rain and it appeared that she was looking for something. As she got closer to where we were hidden it became clear that she wasn’t walking so much as floating just above the water, and something was just off with the whole look of her. Fayne tried to do something thought it wasn’t entirely clear what and the lady changed. Her entire look just changed to that of something withered and word and maybe a little dead and she looked like a right proper hag. And there was something, obscured by the gathering darkness and the intensifying rain, following behind her. Shojin threw another card out into the gathered water and it started to drift away but it was a brief distraction and we used that moment to run as fast and as far as we could.

Into the trees we ran putting more distance between us and them as we went. I chanced a look as we went and could not understand what the thing travelling with the lady was. It looked like one of the guards but also like Gnoman, but the both of them just sort of smashed together into one big, ugly, lumbering thing. And it looked like it could kill us with a minimum of effort. Yeah, definitely part Gnoman. So we ran, and we ran all through the night.

As the light of a new dawn broke so too did the storm and we found ourselves walking up what appeared to be an overgrown walkway or disused path. Somewhere along the way Shojin had acquired another falcon and he was, I don’t know, abusing it maybe. He had the poor thing by the neck just in front of his face and he was whispering some sort of gibberish at it and throwing it to go investigate much as I used my ravens. I couldn’t tell if nearly dying had driven him a little mad, it did when it happened to me, or if he was maybe changed more than I knew. I’d already seen him do some new magic and I’d given him my sword earlier in the evening when I returned his cloak to him.

Exhausted and soaking wet we rounded a bend and found ourselves before a small farmhouse. Shojin offered to scout with his new animal friend and again grabbed that poor bird by its neck shook it threw it into the door of the building after which he very proudly proclaimed that the door was closed. Had his near death experience was making him act stupid.

When we had finally made our way inside we discovered that the place was nice little country cottage and had only recently been lived in. The table was still set and the fireplace had only recently gone out and still had a hint of warmth to it. As we were searching in the vicinity of the table we noticed an overturned chair. Just beyond the chair was the body of what we could only imagine was the homes owner, complete with a hole in his chest where his heart should have been.

Z had a wicked grin as she crouched over the body and growled something out. The man opened milky eyes and began to stir and after a short while was upright again. Z gave him some instructions and told us he’d be watching the door. We were all so bone weary it sounded like a perfectly passable idea. We found some wood and stoked up the fire and made our way to loft above it. We all just crashed out at various places around the room and I took the middle of the big bed. Fayne and Ezrella curled up around me and we slept a much deserved sleep.

Until the undead homeowner woke Z up.

And we learned that there was perhaps another homeowner in the form of the lady that had been pursuing us and the thing that was travelling with her. As we all scrambled to get our gear, the monstrosity was pounding at the door frame trying to get at us. In the lady’s hand was a heart, which explained some things. We scrambled and struggled to deal with the lady and keep the big thing away from us, and eventually the lady got pushed over the edge of the balcony and she proceeded to just float there which added a complexity to the whole thing we’d not anticipated.

Gnoman focused his attention on the thing on the stairs which kept it off the rest of us, while well I don’t know what the others were doing. I was focused on the lady and eventually she fell to the floor below and didn’t move. Once she was dispatched the thing on the stairs just sort of fell apart into a pile of the parts that made it up.

Now my birds don’t eat but this was a big mess and I had an idea so I had them get to work on disposing of the remains while I made a breakfast for everyone. We found a magic bag on the lady and Shojin had the exuberance of a child as he was trying to figure out what was in it. I really wanted a quiet moment to talk with him and tell him how I felt and what he meant to me, but apparently that would have to wait. But it felt like for the first time since we started this journey, we were someplace safe and could finally just catch our breath for a bit.

Sequencing the Code

Nobody knew exactly where they came from or how they got here. Some said it was all part of God’s plan, others that it was the result of science gone wrong and ripping a hole in reality and still others claimed they were the first part of a coming invasion force. Not that the where or why mattered all that much. As they poured into our world, shadows given shape and depth they filled the sky. Filaments of an inky darkness that once the sky was filled blocked out the sun. Mostly they kept to the sky, except in a few locations around the world. Why they ventured down in these spots was never clear. Satellites couldn’t see through or around them, planes that attempted to pass through them were summarily destroyed and any who tried to approach on foot never returned. The planet was forcibly thrust into a perpetual age of twilight despite the continuing advance of scientific achievement.

Time passes and hope begins to fade as as the light across the world does.

Wake up.

The hellish wind is is howling over the rocks used to shield Tomoe from the elements of the prior evening. It seemed like perhaps the worst of the sandstorm had passed. She shook the dust off herself and her blades, Gisei and Gimu and collected her bedroll. Her left hand ached and she found herself rubbing around the “XIII” tattooed on the back of her hand. Time to get moving. She still had a duty and a purpose to fulfill.

She first made sure her long hair was tied back to keep her vision clear. Her alabaster skin had never known the sun. Her form hid her strength to any observer. Her muscles were like steel cables barely contained beneath her skin and her skill with the sword was such that she had yet to face a worthy rival.

With her swords in front of her, Tomoe knelt in the sand and took a moment, as she did most every morning, to reflect on the warrior code that she adhered to. There were seven tenets that she adhered to in all aspects or her life and they were as follows: Justice, Courage, Mercy, Respect, Honesty, Honor and Loyalty.

Justice is to act impartially and with integrity. Mercy are those acts performed out of a desire to end the suffering of others. Courage is the ability to do something in the face of one’s fears. Respect is having due regards for the feelings, wishes, rights or traditions of others. Honesty means that one is free from deceit and untruthfulness. Honor represents an adherence to what is right or to a conventional standard of conduct. Loyalty is a strong feeling of support or allegiance, and in Tomoe’s case that meant to her cause and the job at hand.

As she finished and was putting her blades in the sheathes on her back she made sure to thank them. At two feet in length, not including the hilts they were certainly not much on reach, but a certain death to any that entered her range. When she was done there was a hilt over each shoulder. They’d been with her for as long as she could remember. Her twins were made of a metal as dark as a moonless night and sharper than any blade had a right to be. Tomoe honestly couldn’t remember when or where she’d gotten the blades, but it didn’t matter, they were hers now and that was what mattered.

She collected her bedroll and checked her supplies one last time before heading out. It was going to be close, especially if she was not able to find food, which was running incredibly low. But no matter, she’d come too far. She couldn’t turn back. Her code would simply not allow it. The only way was forward, ever forward. So she started walking east towards “The Spire”.

The spire was one of the places where they could be found anywhere but above. She was supposed to find out why, learn as much as could be learned from first hand interaction and if possible deal a blow to the horde. There were a handful of such places around the world, or so she had been led to believe.

The land was empty save rocks and the husks of trees that used to make up what had once been the forest she was travelling through. What grasses remained were brown and crumbled like so many dead leaves as she forged her own path.

As she walked her mind began to wander a bit. She thought of her past and that was a blank that prompted unpleasant questions. She started to think about her dreams. Others might have some variety to their dreams but she only ever had the one dream and she often thought on what she thought was it’s obtuse nature and what it might mean. She was back home, perhaps, though it was a home she didn’t remember ever living in and was baking botamuchi in the kitchen for or maybe with her nanny. It was autumn and once again it was time to honor those who had come before. She always awakened as she was bringing the finished sweet to her mouth for the first bite. She’d only ever not quite had it in her dreams and had never even seen it in the waking world.

Ahead of her she saw some movement around one of the larger rocks, but was still too far away to properly tell what it was. She was faced with a choice, either go around or face it. Going around would add time to a journey that was already a potential failure due to lack of supplies. But, her Code would not allow her to deviate from her path. She would face this challenge with courage and her honor would not be blemished by anything resembling cowardice. If today was the day she was to meet the ancestors, she would welcome their embrace. And with the quiet sound of metal on leather her blades are in her hand as she approaches the rocks, ready to confront the darkness.

As she nears the rocks there is a low rumble as if from the earth itself. She slows her approach and is watching for movement within the shadows. They blend into darkness and it makes them all the more threatening when facing them in a confrontation. She stands motionless and just watches, listens and waits. The rumble again, this time not from within the ground but from just around the rock outcropping on her right. She doesn’t advance, just continues to observe, waiting for her suspicion to be confirmed and the thing to reveal itself or to strike. She finds herself almost wishing it would strike as that would make this easier. As if in answer to her silent request, the thing began to move towards her like a tentacle of darkness. An uncoiling, unbound shadow.

Her blade rings out as it slices through the air and the thing. The rumble is replaced by a terrible shrieking sound. This allows her to learn several things. First, they can be hurt. Second, if they can be hurt then she surmises they can be killed. Third, the sound is only marginally better than the smell of their insides no longer being inside, and the shrieking is nearly ear splitting. She needs to work fast in case there are others in the area. She has no idea how getting into a fight with more than one of them would go and she has no desire to find out if at all possible.

Emboldened by severing the things ‘appendage’, she moves closer trying to find its body if it even has one. Unsure of its location she makes a few tentative strikes into the shadows only to find her blade not connecting with anything. She closes her eyes and focuses on the shrieking. She might not be able to see it but it’s impossible to ignore its noise.

With her eyes closed she slows turns her head back and forth trying to pinpoint where it is. First right, then left and then right again. She cannot seem to pinpoint it until she hears a secondary sound. Heavy, rapid breathing somewhere under the shrieking. Just ahead and to the right. She strikes out with one blade tentatively and when the blade bites into the thing, she strikes quickly with the other. Hard strikes. Fast strikes. She continues until the shrieking stops and there is a thick inky ichor surrounding her and pieces of the thing lay at her feet.. Unfortunately the light is so poor she is unable to get much information on it other than it’s big. Perhaps ten to twelve feet for the main body plus another ten to fifteen feet for its appendages. It isn’t clear just how many of them the thing might have had but she is certain there more than a few, and she wasn’t wrong.

As she travelled and her supplies dwindled day by day, her concerns grew such that she was worried about  reaching her destination before she finally ran out of food or found some other option fit for consumption. She had encountered a rat as she was walking but something spooked it prior to her being able to catch it, which was unfortunate because she was quite hungry. This raised the hairs on her neck and set her spine to tingling due to the lack of frequency of game over her travels.

And so it was that she encountered more of the beasts, these things of shadow given life. And after several days of travel and random fighting and a quick test, she was unfortunately certain that these things, these others, were not fit for consumption despite her daily ever diminishing supplies. The hours of sickness that followed attempting, out of a growing desperation, to eat a piece of one taught her that lesson. Describing their “meats” flavor was giving the things too much credit. They tasted well beyond awful and after her first taste test, she knew that the only option was to burn them, although the smell was somehow worse than the taste and the taste made her vomit. As a fuel though….

The fire was still burning when she work up. She’d dreamed of pastries again.  Smelling sweet and purposeful but as always never knowing the taste. She didn’t know what to do. The fire wasn’t burning itself out the way it should have and she needed to get moving. She couldn’t afford to waste what little water she still had left. She tried throwing sand and dirt on it and while that did seem to force the flames to subside a bit it didn’t come anywhere near extinguishing them. Now that she had encountered one, she felt that the knowledge of their flammability might come in handy. Eventually she was forced to just leave the fire burning and walk, but before doing so collected some of the thing and put it into a container in her pack. As she was walking away it occurred to her that there wasn’t anything left to burn in the wasteland the world had become and she laughed about being beholden to the “old ways” and her code.

She adhered to her daily rituals in adherence of the code, her code and moved on.

By the time she had decided to set up camp for the evening, She could see the tip of the spire in the distance and when she surveyed the land around her she saw that the land was devoid of features. Though once the light was gone completely she could see behind her in the night, almost on the horizon what could only be her previous nights campfire.

They seem particularly susceptible to fire, interesting.

She woke with a start and thought she’d heard something. She stilled her breath and heard no noises come out of the night. It didn’t matter though, she was awake now. She had a small snack since she didn’t have enough food for more than that at this point.

Once again she observed her morning ritual and reverence of her code before moving on. And once again she was left with a fire that wouldn’t go out. She’d used a bit of the thing as fuel the night before. Unlike the previous night she paid attention this time. The smoke was thick and black and the whole affair smelled faintly of engines and oil.  How had she missed that the previous day? Maybe it was because day was a generous term in the everpresent gloom and twilight that encompassed a day in the life of anyone.

The spire was maybe half a day’s walk away, which worked out since her food was now gone. One way or another, today was the day she either resolved this or failed in her quest. Knowing that she could simply not afford the delay and after checking her blades and her bedroll she started walking once more.

Sure enough, by midday she’d made it close enough that she could see them swirling through the air into and around “The Spire”. All her walking had given her a plan. She drew one of her twins and cut her bedroll into strips. She wasn’t going to need it anymore anyways most likely. She rubbed the bits of the thing on the cloth and wrapped the end of her sword in it. She then lit her makeshift torch and worked her way forward. She wondered if they were afraid of fire. As it turned out they were not.

They should have been.

Between cuts from the sword that wasn’t the makeshift torch and impacts from the torch she had set the air in and around “The Spire” ablaze with a burning contingent of them. This tactic of cutting and burning didn’t work for long, but it worked for long enough. Eventually she was able to make her way inside. There was only one clear direction that she could move once inside. Up. Forward and up.

After what felt like hours but couldn’t possibly have been she found herself at the top of what seemed a lighthouse of a sort. She found herself in a final confrontation with them and eventually, finally they lay dead at her feet.  This is when she noticed it. The rift. The opening to where they came from. Whoever had bet on this as their origin would be wealthy once they knew the truth, but it didn’t matter. She’d not have time for that.

Prepare to begin final sequence. She could hear the words, but not see the speaker.

“What sequence?” Tomoe said confused. Where was the voice coming from.

This was supposed to be fixed. It’s not supposed to be able to hear us after last time. The voice sounded upset and Tomoe still could not place where it was coming from.

A new mechanical voice began could be heard now. Sequence restarting in 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5…

What was going on?

..2, 1. And then a light began to emanate from Tomoe’s body, growing in intensity. The dark forms of the others on the floor surrounding her seemed to be burned away by the light and as it pushed back the darkness, ever closer to the entry point they appeared to be using to get into this world those on the other side took pause and stopped trying to pass through the opening. As the light finally touched the portal it seemed like it was more than just an opening. The edges seemed to have some degree of substance to them. She lifted her blades and moved forward. When she was finally within reach of the portal she did a single slash with each and the blades appeared to be cutting the very opening itself in half. The halves began to close in on themselves.

Once closed, the light faded and Tomoe felt tired beyond her own belief. It was done. Maybe now that the world had been extricated from this threat to its very existence, the light might return and the twilight might end. She slowly sank to her knees and then finally collapsed onto the floor. As her eyes were closing she heard a voice call out again. Tear closed. Prepare to initialize fresh sequence.

Wake up.

The hellish wind is is howling over the rocks used to shield Tomoe from the elements of the prior evening. It seemed like perhaps the worst of the sandstorm had passed. She shook the dust off herself and her blades, Gisei and Gimu and collected her bedroll. Her left hand ached and she found herself rubbing around the “XIV” tattooed on the back of her hand. Time to get moving. She still had a duty and a purpose to fulfill.

Study strategy over the years and achieve the spirit of the warrior. Today is victory over yourself of yesterday; tomorrow is your victory over lesser men. … Even if you kill an enemy, if it is not based on what you have learned it is not the true Way. – Miyamoto Musashi

Ice’d Out

I had no idea what was gonna happen the night that Dutch called.

“Hey kid, get your crew together. I got another job for ya. It may be my way back into the old man’s good graces.”

Dutch always talked about how he’d gotten pushed out of the family but nobody seemed to know why. He had always promised me and my crew that if he ever found a way back he’d make sure we were taken care of. If Dutch thought that this would impress those who had shipped him off, his words, the take on this score would be pretty good.

“So what is it?”

“A beautiful bit o’ ice me boy. Call me when you get those two ready and we’ll meet up and get this done.”

At this point he hung up. I hadn’t heard anyone call diamonds “ice” anywhere outside of movies. It was also weird that Dutch was coming along but I couldn’t blame him for wanting to oversee things.

So I called up my brother Tommy and told him to get Fletcher and meet me at the dumpy little diner that Dutch did his business out of. Tommy was always game for whatever I steered his way. I always took it as a benefit of being his big brother.

Fletch, Fletcher Reed, could be just as useful when I could get him to shut his mouth. When he wasn’t working with or for me Fletch was usually running some kind of con, but I never asked about them because I never really wanted to know.

And ninety minutes later we were having a sit down with Dutch to discuss the details.

We were to break into a mansion and make our way to the vault. Once there we would acquire a statue that according to Dutch was “a priceless piece of antiquity” that he already had a buyer lined up for. We were to take nothing else and to only go where Dutch instructed us to while inside. Something about his way around the security within the place.

The job had to be completed by sunrise while the owner was out dealing with … something.

Dutch was never really clear what that was. We would receive our shares at the end of the job, once Dutch had verified that the buyer was happy. And with that we set off to make a bit of mischief.

Dutch gave directions as we went and finally had me park about half a mile from the target’s mansion, though I don’t know why. Even from the road you couldn’t see the building and I’d never have even known it was there on that hill were it not for Dutch, which was odd for a place as big as this one appeared to be in the darkness.

As we slowly made our way up the hill circling the mansion I couldn’t help being a little taken aback by the overall scope in both size and splendor. In the back near the almost invisible door we would end up using for entry was a small fenced in garden with what appeared in the moonlight some kind of fruit bearing trees.

I call the door nearly invisible because without Dutch we would never have known it was there. The closer we maneuvered towards our final prize the more apparent it became that Dutch knew more than he had let on. It also seemed strange, in light of that, why the rest of us were even there. Up to the point of entry, the three of us had done nothing but just be present. But I pushed those thoughts back as we finally made our way inside and thought only of my coming payday.

Two things became clear as we entered the place. First was the almost complete lack of light inside except for the little bit sneaking in through the curtains of whatever room we happened to be in. The second was the smell. It didn’t smell bad so much as it just smelled… old.

It reminded me of my grandma’s house. Moth balls and quiet age. I asked Dutch if he was sure this was the right place cause it didn’t seem like this place was lived in.  I could tell, even in the dark from the look that he gave me to just shut up and go with it, so I did.

At this Dutch started to slowly and deliberately leading us through the unlit hallways and darkened stairways until we finally stood before what had to be the door to the vault. I was thankful because I had gotten so turned around as we moved through the darkness that I could not have found my way out at that point if my life had depended on it.

It looked like one of those old timey bank vaults that you see in old movies. Unlike what you see in the movies though, there was something carved or engraved into the metal of the door. None of us could read what it said but English was the only language amongst us so there was no big shock there.

As we moved closer, the “letters” started to glow brighter and brighter shades of blue.  This was also when it felt like we were being watched by… something, but in the growing light it was clear we were the only ones here and none among us could see any kind of camera.

Dutch pulled this thing from his jacket pocket. It looked kinda like one of those dream catcher things only it was connected to a calculator. I asked him what it was cause it looked like a bunch of junk but he just shot me the wickedest, weirdest grin.

“It’s a key, kiddo.”

“It looks like junk Dutch.”

“I assure you it’s not. This may just be the only thing in all of creation that can get through these wards and break the seal on this door.”

While this was going on I could hear Tommy and Fletch talking softly, voicing the same concerns I’d silently had since we got here, but I tried to play it as cool as I could.

“So are these ward things the glowing blue letters?”

“Yeah kid, it’s those ‘glowing blue letters’.” But it sounded like he was talking down to me.

Now I’d never been anything but loyal to Dutch, but enough was enough. I grabbed Dutch by the arm and spun him around. I pinned him to the wall with my forearm to his throat.

“What aren’t you telling us? How do you know so much about this place and how do you just happen to have the key to this door and a way around all the security?”

Dutch pushed me away like I weighed nothing and chuckled.

“Alright kiddo, you want some answers? Fine, I’ll oblige. I know this place like the back of my hand because once upon a time I called this place home. I have this key because… well I’ve always had this key. When I was cast out I was permitted to take only what was on my person, and this key was it. I’ve just been waiting for the right time to make my move and come back.”

Somehow his attempts at clearing things up only ended up muddling them all the more. I had more questions now than when we started. Before I could even come up with a response Fletch started in.

“So what, like your family lives here or something?”

“Yeah, boy-o, something like that.”

Dutch saying it the same way and obviously on purpose just came off as offensive. I decided to just ask what I had been avoiding all along.

“Since you already have this key thing, and you already know your way around, why do you need us? Hell Dutch, you even said you had a buyer lined up already.”

He looked like he was deeply thinking about an answer and just shrugged.

“I don’t, at least not in any real sense.”

But before I could even voice a response to that he continued.

“Do you remember all of those times I promised I’d take care of the three of you if and when the time came? Well, this is that time.”

At this Tommy grabbed my shoulder, “What’s e’ talking talkin’ bout?”

“Dutch had always told me that if he found a way back in for himself we’d be a part of that. I guess I just thought that was nothin’ but talk.”

Dutch cleared his throat, “How’s about I just make good on my word.”

With that he pressed a few more buttons on his “key” and the blue lights on the door winked out one by one. As the last one went dark, there was a rumble as if from within the earth itself that I took as the vault door unlocking.

As the door slowly opened, on it’s own I might add, we got another round of that weird blue light only this time it was accompanied by a bone chilling cold. It made me wonder if this was a vault or a freezer. Not that it mattered with the end now in sight, so we all made our way inside.

The first thing I noticed as we crossed the threshold was just how empty it was. This made it feel so much bigger than it really was. The walls were made of some kind of metal and covered in those things that Dutch had called wards. They were the only source of light in here but there were so many of them that there was no trouble seeing the statue we’d come for.

The statue sat on some kind of raised platform in the middle of the room. Surrounding that and kind of set into the stone floor were these three rings. One looked to be copper, one silver and one gold. The statue though was breathtaking and I moved in to get a closer look.

It looked to be about a foot and a half tall and was almost perfectly clear. At first I thought it was in the shape of a man, but the closer I got the more I saw how wrong I was. It had wings which were kind of wrapped around its body and blended a bit with the hooded cloak I’d guess you’d call it. The hood covered a majority of the head so that you could only really make out the slightly pointed chin and the little bit of beard covering it.

I did make out two small black gems, flecks almost, made of onyx or something for the eyes. It felt like those eyes were looking deep inside of me, like inside my soul inside of me.

I saw what looked like bumps of some kind near the front of the hood but couldn’t really tell what those might be.

The thing that struck me as odd though were the legs. The appeared to be covered in fur and ended in feet like that of a goats or something.

Now as I was studying all of this I was compelled to touch it and noticed that in my focus on the statue, both Tommy and Fletch were doing the same damn thing. We all reached out and touched it at the same time and then it hit me.

“Dutch, when you’d said ice I’d assumed you meant diamonds, but this is just ice. What are we really doing here?”

“Let me show you.” He said as he moved in and gently picked up the statue.

As he cradled it in his arms he began to speak, well not so much speak as chant, but it was not in any language I could understand.

As dutch was chanting, just above the floor, there began to be a sort of shimmer in the air. At first it looked the way the air above a desert highway does on a hot summer day. Of course those “heat lines” don’t grow to the height of a man.

They also don’t separate once they do until there is a hole big enough for a man to go through.

As this thing grew in front of me, through it I could hear voices crying out, almost like they were in pain. It was starting to make my head throb as the “hole” in the air got bigger and the cries grew louder. I also felt a cold wind blowing through the hole as it grew.

I tried to get a look through the hole as it grew but the harder I looked the less sense it made. It was as if my mind was refusing to comprehend what I was seeing.

The pressure from the almost rhythmic throbbing was becoming too much and I sank to my knees clutching at my forehead. I saw as I sank down that Tommy and Fletch had done the same.

Dutch however was standing tall and seemed to be unaffected by all of this. I tried to cry out but couldn’t seem to get my mouth to make the words. Dutch just looked at me and smiled.

“Come forth my master and accept this trinity of sacrifices that you might walk free once more.” At this the voices crying out grew frantic but I thought I heard one voice above all the others that sounded almost…eager. I wish I could remember what it said.

It was becoming impossible to move, let alone think clearly and this is when Dutch pulled a small pistol from somewhere on his person. He then walked over and calmly shot Fletch square in the chest. The gunshot boomed and the sound echoed off the walls like a cannon. Before the gunshot had even faded the voices on the other side of the shimmer grew all the more frenzied and from the look in Dutch’s eyes it became clear if someone didn’t stop him then he would kill us all. Not surprisingly that is an incredibly motivating prospect.

However, despite this I found it incredibly difficult to move. That is, until I saw Dutch moving towards Tommy. I found myself filled with a rage at this betrayal. I was screaming as I got shakily to my feet. Dutch turned and his eyes met mine.

“No more Dutch.” And I launched myself at him.

After the way he had thrown me off of him earlier I didn’t think I could take him in anything even close to a fair fight, but I thought I could at least get the gun away. As I was closing the distance between us I heard the gun go off again and something whistled by my ear, which in turn felt like it was now on fire. I had my hands on the gun in the same instant it registered that I had been shot in the ear.

As I attempted to wrestle the gun free Dutch started to try and shake me off. God was he strong. If this went on for too long I knew I stood no chance of winning, let alone surviving.

I decided to try something that had been a tried and true tactic in a fight and I kneed Dutch square in the balls. The gun went off again as he loosened his grip enough for me to get it away from him. I pointed it at Dutch and began to back away.

Tommy cried out. I looked and saw that he had been gut shot. God… there was so much blood. With every twitch and spasm more blood poured out onto the floor.

“Tommy, hold on. We’ll get you out of here.” But it didn’t matter. He coughed one more time and lay still on the floor.

The frenzied screams through the shimmer grew completely incensed at this point and that voice called out once more.

“Complete the trinity and free me.”

I moved slowly towards Dutch who had now moved until he was right in front of the shimmer.

“Why?” I asked in disbelief of all that had happened.

He just smiled that wide Dutch smile.

“Nothing personal kiddo. You three were just a means to an end.”

“Means to an end? MEANS TO AN END! I have been nothing but loyal to you Dutch.” I was all but screaming this.

He just smiled again and shrugged and before I even knew what I was doing I was pulling the trigger and I kept pulling until long after the gun clicked on an empty chamber. Dutch’s front was littered with growing spots of red from all the impacts.

I walked over as he took a knee. I couldn’t understand why he was still alive at this point but I didn’t care. I grabbed Dutch by his suit coat and he feebly tried to fight me off, but the blood loss seemed to be taking some of the fight out of him.

“Damn you, Dutch.”

As he was going limp in my arms he smiled feebly and said, “Sorry kiddo, it was the only way.”

Dutch went still then and I just shoved his body through that shimmer in the air. The already wildly screaming voices on the other side grew in both volume and fury until it was more than I could take. I collapsed to the floor as the world went dark.

I woke up in a hospital room some time later and was immediately greeted by a detective.

He told me that I was found slumped over the wheel of my car covered in blood that was not my own and he wanted some answers.

I told him my story, all of it, and he made a few notes in a little pad and he made some phone calls to have it all checked out.

After what felt like hours, the detective returned. Dutch, Fletch and Tommy were all missing. The house on the hill that I had described could not be located, although they did find a small basket of fruit on a hill near where I had described the house.

Since there were no bodies or any other evidence of a crime I was not being charged with anything at that time. I was however told not to leave town in case there were other questions they wanted me to answer.

Some time after the detective left a doctor came to let me know that I was being held overnight for observation but barring something unforeseen I would be released the following morning.

I was so tired and confused at this point that I didn’t care. I’d eventually get out and start my search for answers. Sleep came easily.

I awoke in the early hours and saw that it was still dark. Someone had left flowers on the table by the bed. As I grabbed the card I saw that someone was standing in the doorway to my room. They had on a heavy winter coat with the hood pulled up. It hid all of the face, save the chin. They just stood there watching me in silence. Finally they raised a hand and pointed at the card I was holding. So I read it.

Just wanted to say thank you. I’m sure I’ll see you around.”

As I raised my sleepy eyes back to the doorway the figure was gone. Receding down the hallway then I heard two things. The first was a soft, yet almost maniacal laughter. The second, was the sound of his footsteps. They sounded like hooves on the tile of the hospital hallway.

I found myself crying then as it began to hit me what I’d done. I’d completed the trinity, whatever that was, with the death of Dutch. What had I released upon the world?

I commit this tale to paper now solely so those who follow may understand why I left again. I had to find it. I had to try and make it right. And I needed to say I’m sorry. I had no idea what was going to happen that night when Dutch called.

Part 40-43 – A Friend Found

From where I was finally able to see him we found that we were almost directly beneath a platform in a tree with some competent looking guards. Brought back memories of when we dealt with goblins in trees and rescued the girl. Seemed like a bit of cosmic symmetry. So we backed up as quietly as we could and made our camp a short distance from where Shojin was being held in some weeds and brush that were taller than me, not that that says much. Then we waited. At first light I’d scout the camp from above and from there we would make our rescue plans. Fayne and Z were going to take watches, and coupled with my babies that should have been sufficient for all of us to get a decent night’s rest.

And I think she came to me again in the night. I had a weird dream of darkness and caves but it’s all hazy and I don’t remember much, but when I awoke I knew just how to make use of the pile of stuff we’d picked up in the orc village. It also suddenly occurred to me that we never got anyone’s names from that awful place. I hoped that they were doing alright and had made it home.

Also, Z was back looking like she was brimming over with nothing but darkness. So back to normal I guess. Her hammer looked different but in the best most terrible ways. Now at some point in the night I’d taken her stuff out my pack and I guess I pee’d on her holy symbol. I couldn’t remember why so I didn’t say anything. Just welcomed her back and gave her these gauntlets we’d gotten. I couldn’t rightly say what they did, but I worked my way around the group and had a couple items for everyone. It was always the same. Hand over one or two or in Gnoman’s case three things with some quick instructions. I also took one of the scrolls and asked her what color she wanted the flames, she looked as confused by my asking as I did in the asking. She said what she liked, I used the magics in the scroll and the head of her wicked hammer, that I was a little afraid of took on a sickly glow as they flames, flames I knew didn’t actually burn anything, surround the head and the light played off the big red gemstone that now adorned its top. It almost looked wet, which was weird.

Gnoman was given a sword, a potion and a scroll, but to the best of my knowledge he couldn’t use scrolls. The only thing I could say to him was you’ll know when to use it. For the lute-like thing I gave to Ezrella the instruction was simply play it and it does stuff. I also gave her a pile of gems because I’d heard somewhere that holy types needed those for bringing folks back from the lady’s door.

We’d also found a pack of what looked like playing cards, but I knew they were something much more interesting. At least I hoped they were. I kept those back for Shojin, because I just knew deep inside that maybe they’d work best for him.

I did a quick once over from the air of the camp and relayed everything I saw back to my companions. It was a large clearing with a not quite river cutting the camp almost in half. There were about six buildings but I dared not get closer and compromise our position in the woods. As I was coming back into towards our camp was when I fully caught sight of all the guard towers that surrounded the camp. Well damn, that added a wrinkle to all of this.

Once I was back Ezrella was still just strumming on the thing and with a smile said she had an idea and so she and I headed off closer to the camp to get a closer look at things. I took Shojins want and the tusk he kept tied in his hair along with the cards. I had no idea what if anything I could get to him but I knew I wanted to be prepared. As we moved like liquid shadows closer and closer towards the clearing ahead, it seemed like we narrowly missed a patrol, but try as we might we couldn’t figure out how we missed them. As we were still in the high weeds right at the edge of the clearing and near enough to see that Shojin was being made to chop down trees.

Ezrella strummed on her instrument and let out an audible gasp. Apparently she’d made me invisible. She is about the best thing that has happened to our group. She said she’d meet me back in camp and slipped off through the weeds. Seemed like she was at home amongst the high weeds and trees. I envied her that. I haven’t had a place like that in a really long time. The closest I’ve come in recent memory had nothing to do with the place and everything to do with the people. And then that got broken.

So if I was invisible I was going to make the most effective use of it. I made my way across the clearing, past guards, over, under and around obstacles, until finally I was near enough that I could reach out to touch him. At this point I saw that he was tethered to someone. They were working on the same project and the little guy was fetching stuff that Shojin needed for the next task.

I said something quietly that I hoped would not alert the nearby guards. He chuckled and that did get the guards attention, so he faked a coughing fit. Ok then, it was to be yes or no questions. Through a series of questions I’d learned that they kept him in one of the buildings across the camp. I’d also gotten him set for a jailbreak of sorts to take place in the evening. I also tucked the packet of cards into his waist and that was when the instructions came. Shuffle these as you can and just throw one when you find yourself out of options. He didn’t have any pockets so I couldn’t give him his wand, but I was able toss the tusk up into his open, billowy rags that comprised his shirt.

I made my way back to the group to let them know what I’d found out and we started making our way to the end of the camp with the buildings that would house prisoners. As we were moving through the brush quietly Z’s hammer caught on a dead log and pulled it down into the weeds next to us, which would not have been a problem were it not for the guards in the tree almost on top of us. They made some bird calls that were answered by another of the raised platforms and a group in the camp which proceeded to start heading our way.

As they got closer the guards in the tree shouted down what they heard and I knew I only had a moment to act. I made the invisible hand I’ve used to cause trouble from time to time and put it ground level with the fingers spread out. I moved it in a direction away from us in the hopes that the guards would think it a small animal, when I’d moved it to the edge of its range I just let the magic dissipate. The guards seemed sufficiently satisfied. I smiled. It felt like I was finally figuring myself out.

Time came for the workers in the camp to have dinner or go back to their cells, not sure which. Yes or no questions was maybe not the best idea. It really limited my options for understanding of what was going on. But no matter, as soon as Shojin was across the bridge he saw something that caused him to change the plan we’d worked out. He shrank before my eyes, dropped the bracer things he was wearing and as soon as they were gone, was back to normal size. He threw one of the cards from the pack I’d given him and it was on.

This 2 headed nasty looking ogre just sort of popped into being where the card landed. Clever boy. And that was when everything started popping off. As we hustled to make it to where Shojin was we had a decent distance to cover and he was under fire almost immediately. And then we saw ANOTHER FREAKING GNOMAN. Oh damn, I knew what it was like to have him on our side, but didn’t really want to deal with that. So many questions that I wanted answered, plus questions I didn’t even know how to ask. I’d revisit it later if I remembered.

Our Gnoman was suddenly wreathed in flames, quaffed the potion and stalked off to meet the guy he recognized. So it was to be Gnoman on Gnoman violence. This was going to be interesting, but there were so many people that we needed to deal with I wouldn’t be able to sit back and just enjoy the show.

Shojin was just path a bridge that was a couple hundred yards ahead of us. So we worked out way into the battle as only we can. Fayne was picking off people almost as fast as she could pull the string back on her bow. Ezrella brought out a unicorn to wreak some havoc. Not a real one mind you, but it was the form her spirit weapon took this time. I liked how she was changing it up but kept it on theme with every use.

I took potshots with my little hand crossbow as I closed the distance and had the birds help whoever looked to need it. And then I had an idea. The new trick that let me change my appearance, also changed the appearance of my clothes. I used that to make a pattern like the little bridge and hugged up against it as a bunch of guards came running through. Apparently I missed it when our Gnoman dispatched the other because he came running up covered in blood and fire with death burning in his eyes into the mass of guards. This right here was in line with the story we’d first heard of Gnoman. And by the gods it was the most beautiful and terrible thing that I had ever seen.

Apparently we’d made enough noise to attract attention from what had to be the officers barracks within this camp and a sound rang out that I recognized. A sharp whistled on the cooling air. Oh hell no. Through the doorway of the officers barracks stepped the familiar form from our time in Dillard. Whistle around his neck and clipboard in hand. We locked eyes from across the camp and I yelled out to him that I hoped he remembered my promise. He smiled and started throwing fireballs.

All throughout this there was an old man, the man that caught Shojin’s eye on his way back I would later find out. He was throwing around magick like it was nothing and with each spell he cast there was a golden spectral blade that appeared in his hand for a moment. Fireballs blasting into the various buildings. It was absolute chaos and things seemed to be turning in our favor. I hate it when it feels like we’re winning.

That was when the Dwarf in armor covered in spikes burst through the wall of building the whistle bitch had come out of and he was making for a beaten and bloodied Shojin. Before he got there, for good measure whistle bitch threw a fireball of his own right on top of Shojin, who went down. Ezrella brought him back. This back and forth with Shojin’s life went on for what felt like minutes as Gnoman charged across the open area to get his newest victim. But before he could get there the Dwarf dropped onto an already prone Shojin and proceeded to use the spikes on his armor to just start shredding the flesh of Shojin. I was too far away to do anything useful. I’d come all this way and this was how the rescue would end. With Shojin dead. As the dwarf was standing back up, he was met with Gnoman charging him and pushing him back.

Ezrella had directed some bit of the connection to her god into the Whistle Bitch’s face and he just crumpled to the ground in a heap. Small victory I guess. Felt hollow. But, there was the old man, who didn’t carry himself like an old man striding over to Shojin. From the distance I was I couldn’t hear what he said, but I saw him stick out his hand and Shojin rose back up from his position on the ground healed. I just smiled and cried a little. But that would have to wait as there were more guards coming. And so the battle raged on. Gnoman eventually dispatched the dwarf and set to on the guards while we were just doing what we could not die anymore. We’d had enough death amongst our ranks today. We were together again and this was not how our tale ended. As the dust settled and we saw all the dead all over the camp and the state of ourselves one thing was clear. We won. We saved him. It started to lightly rain, which was a good thing because some of the buildings were still on fire. Where in the hells was Fayne’s bear?

PayDay’s Journal 36-39 – Still Searching

Harvesting dragon parts is not easier. It’s gross and bloody work but when it’s all said and done, we’ve collected a fair pile of bits and bobs that we can hopefully use later or at the very least sell for some kind of delightful profit. We retreat up the hill a bit as we are trying to decide what our plan forward is, and there is a familiar hand like shape receding into the mist only to be replaced by the single ugliest person I have ever had the misfortune to meet on more than one occasion. Of course. It had to be Gnoman. I didn’t have time for his I don’t remember you nonsense so I immediately went to task of trying to get him to work with us. I think I even offered him money. I didn’t care so long as he would be willing to work with us. He accompanied us down into the village and I slid into Shojin’s face because I couldn’t think of anything better to do at the time.

Apparently this was all it took to get the orcs in the village to come back out of their hovels to see what was going on. A trio of what I took to be elders gathered and with much pointing seemed real interested in us now. The only problem was that that Gnoman was the only one who seemed to understand them. It seemed that we had slain their jailer (whatever they said didn’t translate all that well) and they were nothing short of impressed with what we had done. So they were, I don’t know, heralding me as their tiny savior. The weird part was the longer I wore Shojin’s face the more inclined I was to help them.

They were afraid of something that was still in the domed structure in the middle of their village. Whatever it was is what was keeping them from fleeing as soon as the dragon was killed. They gave us a hovel of our own for the evening and Ezrella chose to sleep inside with Fayne, Z, Gnoman and myself while the boys slept outside, which worked out because he was a creepy lecherous dwarf, but I didn’t trust myself around. His crazy was too much like mine. Nothing good could have come from that, but it might have been fun.

We used our standard practice and used the bear as a big furry doorstop and we bedded down for the night.

Munnin woke me up pecking my forehead which wasn’t all that weird. When we locked eyes and he said “You must follow”, yeah that was weird. And he just kept saying it. I was just trying to get him to keep it down when he flew into the most ruined corner of the tiny building we were in and just smashed right through the wall. Where he flew there was a purple radiance in his wake. Weirder and weirder. I thought about trying to wake the others, but I figured this was something the lady wanted me to do so I just followed Munnin. It was deep in the night and with him not on my shoulder I should not have been able to see as well as I was able to at that point. I tried to flex my magical muscles and there was no effect.

Now Huginn was there and telling me to follow. And they both wanted me to head into the domed structure. I owe the lady my life and she’s done me no wrongs up to now. She’s cryptic and only helps me succeed in looking insane, but I do as she asks. So I did my best to be as much like a shadow as possible and I snuck inside. From the outside I would not have guessed that it went as deep as it did. There were two paths, a narrow one with steps that looked like it was sized for people and there was the large dirt and loose stone path that was clearly for the dragon. I chose the big path so I could reduce the chance of being snuck up on.

Descending the path every once and a while there were small rooms off the sides, and they were all filled these large round barrel things. The tops of all of them were sealed in some way. I didn’t try too hard to open any of them, because I wasn’t sure what was inside or how to do it. I heard a soft but steady rhythmic noise as I travelled ever downward.

Eventually I found myself at the bottom and the floor leveled out. I crept around the final corner and nearly soiled myself. Another dragon. As big and as black as the one we’d slain and pacing a large room. There was a row of tables along the far wall and at each table was a small dragonish looking person and I don’t completely understand what they were doing. I just knew it couldn’t be good. But none of them seemed to notice me so far so I moved closer. As the dragon paced the room and seemed to inspect their work the people working at the tables were casting spells on eggs. Really big eggs, and all of them had a metallic gleam in the low light. A sickly light passed from their hands to the eggs and seemed like it was infusing them with…something. Were they corrupting these unborn things? It seemed that after a bit of imbuing them with energies malignant they were placed into another of those large barrel container things. And there were more of those things all about this room. It was countless eggs and all for some purpose that I still didn’t know.

I moved closer still and the dragon looked my way. I thought for sure he’d seen me or maybe even smelled me. I was finally close enough to see that there was something wrong with the eyes of the dragon people. They were inky black voids. There was no light there or signs of life. I also noticed that that there was something off in the way they moved but I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. I saw that there was a door at the far end of the room and wanted to find out what was on the other side. I studied the path that the dragon took and moved as quickly as I dared so as to avoid being found out. I made it to the door and of course it was locked and the dragon was starting back towards me. I was quickly running out of time and for the first time since I’d entered the room the dragon paused and sniffed the air. I had to hurry. I worked at the lock as fast as I could and it seemed like the lady was smiling on me because as soon as I opened the door and moved through it I found myself back in my bed with Munnin pecking me on the head. I flicked his beak and called him a jerk and went about telling the group about the dream I’d had. When I went to wake Z, I pulled back the blanket and she was gone. In her place were a multitude of spiders and her holy symbol. Fayne tried to picked it up and got burn for her effort. I rolled it all up and put it in my pack. I guess we’d look for her after we found Shojin.

We readied ourselves to face the dragon below and bid farewell to the trio of guys we’d worked with. I hope they find what their after and I wouldn’t mind working with them again sometime. Ezrella wanted to travel with us it seemed, which worked out because we needed the help. And I led the group back down where I’d been in my dream. But it was different. Still too paths, still going down, but the dragon’s path was far more worn down than in my dream. As we came upon the rooms the containers were gone, however we did find a golden egg in one of the rooms under a layer of dirt. It was making a soft noise and drew me to it. I carefully wrapped it up and placed it in my pack, but got the impression that it would have been fine almost independent how I treated it. I’m starting to think it’s a dragon egg. I’ve no idea what we’ll do if and when it hatches, but I couldn’t just leave it there and knew Shojin wouldn’t either. I had hopes that he would have a better idea what to do with it.

As we continued to descend the place was empty and covered in a thick layer of dust. We rounded that final corner and instead of finding a dragon instead found almost nothing. No dragon or empty-eyed dragon people. It was pretty anticlimactic. We did however find one of the containers. It had some markings on it in a language that only Gnomann seemed able to decipher. It was something like “do not open until this amount of time has passed” but the amount of time made no sense and it wasn’t clear if it was days, months, years or something longer. If this thing was filled with more eggs there had to be hundreds of them. I set about trying to open it, and it was simply a matter of being willing to pay the price for working the locking mechanism. Eh, why not.

And… I was thrown across the room. And the eggs ruined before our eyes. So, we left. Not what I’d intended but my main goal was to help the orcs. We headed back up and as we neared the entrance heard the cries of battle from outside. Since wearing Shojin’s face had worked for helping me feel heroic, I had an idea to seem more fearsome in battle and slid into looking like a slightly smaller Gnomann. What we faced were a quartet of hulking bipedal dragon things. They were formidable foes but were ultimately no match for our many shenanigans. And these guys were hauling a small fortune amongst them. Just a massive pile of…stuff. Gems and gold and weird little statues, but also a couple of scrolls, a sword and this thing that looked like a lute but had like forty strings, and a gnarly looking flute pipe thing. And some other random stuff that we’d probably find a use for. All in all it was pretty amazing. We collected it all and told the survivors in the village that we had dealt with all the threats and they should all return home.

Strangely as were interacting with the people in the village it seemed like the years they all wore seemed to fade away. There was some strange magic at work in this place. The people rejoiced and ran off and we were proud. This was quite possibly the first time we had done an honorable, heroic thing. We save these people and it felt great. But it was missing something. We were missing something. So we checked our own wounded and set off back the way we came. Shojin wasn’t here and never was. We needed to find his trail and get him back. So for the third time we made our way back to what was becoming our basecamp there by the road a days travel from Dillard and set up camp for the night. We’d get started first thing in the morning. It was time for Fayne to earn her keep. She was not a good ranger.

Morning came and Fayne claimed to have found a trail. My patience was wearing thin at the time it was taking to find Shojin and I was mean. But we made good time and after a short bit of travel we found Shojin’s wand and I nearly started crying right then and there. We were finally on the right track and I had to believe that we were closing the distance between us.

I pushed Fayne harder and harder to get us there as the day wore on and finally we were deep in the brush and we found a discarded pack and signs of a struggle. Good, that meant he didn’t go quietly. On the ground we found the tusk Shojin kept tied in his hair. Damn. They were trying to limit his options. I resolved in that moment that I would kill all the people responsible for this and I would stop at nothing short of the total annihilation of anyone who stood in my path.Fayne was saying something about finding a unique boot print that had a very distinctive cut in the sole and she had a bead on the direction it was travelling. Almost as if on cue four human, I don’t know what they were, came out of the brush. They bore the emblem of some burning eye on their person and were fairly clean which spoke of funding. Didn’t matter, they were in our way. I wanted to keep one of them alive but Fayne ignored my request and put an arrow through the last of them after we easily dispatched the first three. She noticed that his boot had the same distinctive mark she had found and that he would lead us back to their camp.  

I got snippy about interrogating a dead man and she clarified that his tracks would lead us there. Ok, that made sense. It wasn’t long before we found ourselves nearing a open area and could hear the sounds of people being ordered about. As night was nearly upon us, off in the distance I saw a man in rags chopping down a very large tree. A gangly orcish man. Finally, and at last, we’d found Shojin. And there would be hell to pay.

PayDay’s Journal 33-35 – Missing

He’s gone. Shojin’s gone. He said he’d take a watch and come morning he was just gone. And we were off on our search for him. I was probably putting too much pressure on Fayne to find him, but I didn’t care. I needed Shojin. I realized as soon as he was gone that I loved him, but not in that way. He keeps me even. He gives me balance. He makes me try to be a better… me. And Fayne says she can find him, but by the gods she is awful. We find a spot of blood just outside of camp and like the top notch tracker she apparently is she licks it. She licks it. What kind of idiot licks random blood on the ground? Well, moral of the story you shouldn’t do that. She started to feel weird and it only got worse as we tried to continue picking up Shojin’s trail.

In her somewhat addled state, Fayne was…let’s call it less than at her best. But she tried, more from my prodding than anything else. I couldn’t properly articulate why I needed to find him, only that I did. So even if her health seemed to be slipping, she led us off into nearby trees and on the trail she claimed was his. And then things got weird, even by our standards.

It wasn’t long before we stumbled upon a quartet of travelers on a mission of their own that was also steering them to Highbreeze. There was a dwarf who seemed to be a little touched with madness. I liked him even if he was an abrasive jerk. There was a goliath who may have suffered from some mental impairments. There was the one who like me enjoyed time in the shadows, but was honorable in his own way. Finally, there was this elven lady named Ezrella. She looked like a total bumpkin and the more I got to know her the more true that seemed. She also smelled faintly of graveyards and she could say some really dark stuff sometimes, but in all my travels and in all my life this was the first person I had ever met that truly wanted to help all those that she met. It was sweet in it’s own way. She was clearly going to need protection. She healed Fayne, but when she found out what had happened she said she wouldn’t do it if Fayne continued licking things on the ground.

Like most meetings our first almost came to blows and was stopped short because a greater threat presented itself. From the direction we were more or less travelling came the sounds of a fairly large war party. The group appeared to be comprised of orcs of a couple different sizes and these coal black things that weren’t exactly dragons and they weren’t exactly dogs but they were sort of dog sized dragons. After a short but difficult altercation with the bigger threat, we agreed to join forces for as long as our interests intersected. I used a new thing the lady taught me to show these new people what Shojin looked like, but kept having to tell people that he was taller. I found that every time I was using this power to slip into a new face I kept having to tell people that the face’s bearer was taller. But no matter, as I was showing this the dwarf got it out and set about attempting to pleasure himself in one of the dragon dog things death wounds. Fun fact, their innards were acidic. Our new friend Ezrella refused to heal him because he was an idiot. I was beginning to like the code she lived by and she was maybe less bumpkin than I realized.

After the dwarf got the burning in his loins under control, we set off in the direction the party had come from in the hopes that it would continue to bring us closer to Shojin, one step at a time. The badder guys than us left a path that was pretty easy to follow. They were clearly not trying to be subtle in the least. Eventually we crested a hill and expecting to find where the group had come from we saw… an empty valley. And then one of the new people tripped and fell down the hill and vanished out of sight. Like he was there and then he just wasn’t. Which was freaking weird. So we opted to just head down the hill at a more controlled pace in an attempt to find him. The whole thing stank of illusions. We had to be getting closer to him. This seemed like something he would do.

As we moved down the hill we passed through an invisible barrier. It didn’t feel like anything but some pressure in my chest and looking around, it seemed that others felt the same thing. As we moved down the hill, we saw a village inhabited by orcs. They all seemed to be pretty downtrodden. Misery was their only expression and it jumped out pretty quickly that there were no children playing or working with the adults. As we approached the camp the orcs quickly retreated into the hovels that were in various states of crumbling and ruin that comprised this village But as we got closer village was a much to generous term for what lay before us.

Not that it mattered as we didn’t get much time to look around. At the center of the village was an earthen dome that I imagined mirrored the illusion over this valley. It had a massive entrance on the side facing us. Way bigger than a person I was not enamored of whatever needed an entrance of that size. But joy of joys we almost immediately found out.

Now, quick aside Ezrella had done some travelling before she met with us and had encountered a couple of cultists early on. These encounters had affected her deeply or at least deeper than we could have known because she just starting yelling at the heavens at a volume louder than her size should have generated as a dark shadow of immense size came streaking from the opening that concerned me. It was a dragon. A dragon. Oh crap. I thought we were dead for certain and when the thing responded to Ezrella’s taunts, I was certain we wouldn’t be seeing Shojin, let alone anyone, ever again.

And the fight was on. I made the decision that this would be the battle that I made an entrance of some magnitude into. So I dropped the glamor that was concealing my nakedness beneath my cloak and rode into battle on Fayne’s bear as naked as the day I was born. I won’t be doing that again. I was going for this whole visual thing, but I think the performance of it all was lost on the great black beast.

We fought for what felt like hours and the dragon nearly took down a number of our newly grown travelling group. But this was not to be its day, for in the end we emerged something like victorious. We’d won. An no one died. It felt far too easy. And that terrified me, because anything worth doing was worth the challenge. This couldn’t possibly be the end of things. And there was still the matter of the orcs. And still no Shojin, but we were closer. We had to be. I needed us to be. I so badly needed us to be. I was barely holding it together at this point. It had to get easier from here.

PayDay’s Journal 30-32 – Another history lesson

So the lady told me another story. On the western side of Minn’s Teeth a group of smaller kingdoms and city states banded together to protect their interests and defend the mountain range. The alliance called itself the Teeth’s Guard and consisted of delegations that include the Dwarves, Dragonborn, Dr’oban, Halfling and Goliath peoples. I saw her tale from the eyes of the Dro’ban. He was… kind of a prissy little thing.

Now this group was heading east to Highbreeze for the coronation of Petrus of Marey the first. Ha. Mary’s Peter. The House of Marey was looking to curry some favor with the other kingdoms of the continent and were convinced by this jerky tool Farrellu of Conton, the lawkeeper of Highbreeze, to invite each kingdom to send a delegation to the event.

In response to the invitation the Alliance each sent someone such that the delegation consisted of both diplomats and security forces, except the Dragonborn. The Dragonborn, in a move most curious asked the delegation to make contact with the son of an Elder on the Dragonborn Council who was last known to be residing within Highbreeze proper. After making contact they were to ensure that he attended the coronation as the official representative of the Dragonborn Council, and then bring him home to ascend to his ailing father’s position on the Council.

As the Delegation made it to the city it was decided that the first order of business would be to follow the leads they uncovered in finding “Molt” who was rumored to be spend far too much time in a Dwarven Tavern. And this tavern was freaking amazing. On the outside it looked like it was carved out of and into a giant boulder, almost a miniature mountain. The inside was so Dwarven you could almost smell the beard oil and all it was missing the sound of someone hammering on a forge in the corner.

Upon arrival at the tavern, several of the delegates made contact with Molt. After a few drinks, they attempted to convince the wayward Dragonborn to join them for the coronation which erupted into a brawl that spilled out into the streets of Highbreeze. That said, you need to understand that Molt was a disgusting being. In everything I saw of him he puke or pissed or soiled himself whenever and wherever he happened to be. And he was brash and abrasive just gross. But nobility I guess so whatever.

After a short scuffle in the streets, the group was able to subdue Molt and as luck would have it, this made me like them more too, the Highbreeze guard came to intervene.

The guards were convinced to send them on their way, showing the how to get to the entrance to the High House District of the city. With little regard for how to behave themselves in proper company in the city, several of the delegates openly made a joke about how they were not there to assassinate the new king. The guards, rightly so and unsure of how to take it, did not take the joke the way it was intended.

The High House District was accessed by means of this platform that was raised and lowered by means of some magick. The district itself opened up before the party and the sights and sounds and wonderment surrounding them caught most of them by surprise and despite the guards desires and attempts to promptly escort the group to the house of Conton the party took in the truly awe inspiring view from the High House District.

On arriving at the house of Conton, the delegates were introduced to the Lawkeeper Ferellus, the Half Elf head of the house of Conton, and ushered into a great reception. Ok, so this guy, this guy here was the same guy who sprung us from jail in Dillard. He looked the same. Same robe, same ears, same face. I’d remember that asshole anywhere. Now if this was truly at the time of the Coronation of Petrus the first, then this was at least a couple hundred years ago. And this guy looked exactly the same, which was more than a little troubling.

Once in the reception proper, a reception that appeared to be held in their honor, which given their low stature in the grand scheme of the world proper, small talk was made. Soon after, the son of Ferellus, Roget, infamous playboy and erstwhile vagabond made his way into the reception and for the first time since he agreed to join the delegation Molt seemed at ease, conversing with his old friend and fellow reveler. I think they totally banged.  

Roget begged the party to join him in the spa in the rear courtyard of the Conton Property later in the evening.

One of the Dwarves in the party spent his time using his gifts to investigate the area. Also, he flicked his nipples a lot. Like a lot, a lot. Like ladies get paid to let you flick their nipples this much a lot. Also his nipples smoked. It was weird. Also, he was drinking almost non-stop when he wasn’t flicking his nipples. I bet he knew how to have some fun.

Finding what appeared to be Ferellus’ personal study, he found that the primary knowledge kept in the study related to the many forms of magic found throughout the realm and in the process stumbled across a small hidden alcove that appeared to hold the personal spellbooks from a multitude of spellcasters from throughout the realm and they didn’t know what to make of that. Someone’s personal spellbook was essentially an extension of themselves and the sheer volume of volumes present made them wonder as to the whereabouts and well-being of the owners.

As the party returned to their rooms to ready themselves for the evenings revelry, iit was discovered that many of the political delegates had been assassinated in their chambers. While inspecting some of the bodies the party was ambushed by magic wielding assassins and a battle ensued destroying rooms and setting the mansion ablaze.

For reasons that were entirely unclear to the group, a dark figure began pressing down the hallway towards the fray. As the halfling paladin began to engage (and I have to say this paladin somehow sucked at their job worse than Z), was revealed to be Ferellus himself wielding magical with incredible prowess and almost singing the refrain of “It didn’t have to go this way.”

As the battle raged on the assassins were quickly dispatched through some clever trickery and a giant sized Goliath (I think you had to be there for that to make sense). Eventually, the Dwarf with the nipple fetish and the super pris Dr’oban joined the halfling in the hallway and appeared to defeat Ferellus as he split himself into four entities, one vanishing through a hastily made portal and the other three, looking identical, falling dead to the floor.

As they were falling to the floor, the familiar sound of guard footfalls rang out in the in the hallway and they arrived just in time to see their master, dead on the floor and in triplicate. Seemed and ironic end to what I assumed was a paper pushing lawkeeper. As they were rounding up the group, I got the impression this was not the last time the lady would show me this group.