Piece 19 – A Puzzling, Warpt World

Izzy paused at the entrance to the hall. Everything about the atmosphere the place exuded just screamed haunted house–the abundance of cobwebs on toppled chairs and dust-caked tables, the rusted chandeliers that dangled perilously from chains that could give way any second, and the mysterious specter that loomed at the head of the hall where the seat of honor remained whole though empty.

The dark form twisted and folded into itself in the air above the table at the end of the hall.

“Curious,” Sophia thought aloud. “In a village like this, that’s where the Elders would sit when gathered to discuss important matters…”

Izzy snapped back to the moment after having been laser-focused on recalling the voice. “Curious because there’s no Elders or curious because there’s a spooky monster above the table like the world’s ugliest chandelier?”

Sophia smiled. “Forgive me, I know that’s something you may not know,” she replied. “The Elders of a village like this were considered a step beneath the Gods. When they met it was to decide important matters that often dictated the fate of their village. That space is covered in protective runes and wards.” She pointed, and Izzy squinted to see.

The etchings were faint in some places, but still there. Clear, precise lines carved into the stone floor. Carvings, ornate and in concert with the decorative markings, were visible on the table and each of the chairs. Perhaps it was a trick of the curious lighting, but as Izzy looked at the markings they seemed to give off a dull glow as if to challenge any with ill intent to step back. Little lights in the darkness.

***

Little lights in the darkness, the candles the lizardfolk that Curian identified as Kobolds–or, as she’d put it more bluntly, gecko bastards–were all that helped lead the way along the dark corridor. The goblins marched along the walls in lockstep, and each had a dagger readied as if they were out for blood at the first sign of disobedience.

“Quite the predicament you’ve gotten us in,” Fontaine muttered. “All because you two insisted we take this blasted leisure time!”

Professor Everest stepped ahead a little too far, and the toe of his boot caught the heel of Fontaine’s in a way that caused him to stumble ever so slightly. The goblins were fast, but none struck. Instead, as they processed what had happened, they laughed to themselves.

“Dumb lot, this group,” one goblin said.

“Nothing but bickering,” another goblin added.

“They’ll make a handsome sacrifice, though,” a third goblin said. “Master’s hungry.”

Curian’s ears perked up at this. “Master’s hungry? What manner of master is it that goblins serve these days? Thought you served yourselves and only yourselves.”

The goblin nearest to Curian let out a hiss of hot, foul breath, but Curian did not flinch away.

“We goblins are smart,” the goblin sneered. “Times change and reality is what powerful people say it is. You get a chance to change reality by helping one such powerful person? Well, you don’t need to worry about that seein’ as we’re about to feed you to them.”

“Ah, shit,” Curian said. She turned to CMO Carter, glanced at the others, then returned her attention to Carter. “They’re definitely in a cult. No idea what their master might be, though, so…Keep your wits about you. The big guy any good in a fight?”

CMO Carter shrugged. “I’d be lying if I said I knew,” she said. “We’d only just met not that long ago, and their…Well, my Captain now, I suppose…Captain Warpt sorted things out nonviolently by threatening to blow up the planet.”

Curian stopped abruptly enough that Fontaine walked into her and fell backwards. “Threatened to blow up a planet?” She chuckled. “I hope I get to meet this Captain. I bet she’s got some fun stories to tell.”

***

“I don’t know you,” Izzy said. “You’re not a real person to me, just some spooky children’s show bad guy who killed people to try to scare me. I couldn’t even escape you on a vacation that was inflicted on me! Good grief.”

The shadowy form seemed to consider this as it shifted and reshaped into different faces. “You have few enemies and your memories are…baffling.”

“They’re organized, thank you very much,” Izzy replied proudly. “I’ve got all my thoughts in the right order. Ducks in a neat little row. You just see ’em as squirrels darting around the forest because you don’t know me.”

Sophia raised an eyebrow. “That’s quite the way of putting it,” she said.

“Something something codifying memories and thoughts,” Izzy muttered. “I got bored one summer, happened upon a video, and anyway that’s how I spent the next four sleepless days. I think? I can’t always remember.”

Behind the shadow, the wall began to shift and churn. The shadowy form shuddered, and there was an unmistakable muttering to the effect of concern. Protrusions from its top portion morphed into long, many-jointed stalks that ended in bloodshot eyes. Its central form collapsed to a bulbous shape, and at its center was a single, angry, bloodshot eye. The being turned to the shifting wall, its attention temporarily not fixed on Sophia and Izzy.

“Dang, that’s ugly!” Izzy said, clearly not concerned if the creature heard her.

“I’m not sure what it is, to be honest,” Sophia said. “I’ve never encountered anything like it in my years of studies.”

The wall gave way to a long, dim corridor lit by curious candles alight with black flames. Something moved within the corridor, and Sophia and Izzy crept closer as their curiosity got the better of them.

“Looks like they’ve got back-up,” Sophia muttered.

Izzy jumped up and down. “My crew!” she shouted. “And some little Godzillas!”

“Kobolds,” one of the creatures hissed from within the corridor.

Curian looked around the shadowy creature, an eyebrow raised. She spotted Sophia and smiled. “Looks like you’ve made a friend!” she called out.

CMO Carter, Professor Everest, and Fontaine peered around the shadowy creature.

“Captain Warpt! Thank the stars, you’re all right!” Fontaine exclaimed.

CMO Carter and Professor Everest exchanged smirks.

“Be careful! That creature looks similar to a Witness from an old fantasy game,” Fontaine added. He winced. “Not that I would know from personal experience. Purely research.”

Curian patted Fontaine on the back. “Whatever helps you sleep at night, Wizard of plus ten wishful thinking,” she chided. “Bug-boy’s right, though. You know what to do, Soph?”

Sophia tapped her chin. “It seemed to take issue with you, Captain Warpt, Sorry. Izzy.”

Izzy nodded. “It’s cool, no worries,” she said. “Hey, big ugly!”

The goblins and kobolds surrounding the group in the corridor seemed to take issue with this comment, and yet none of them appeared to know how to handle their deity being called such a name. They remained still, their attention fixed on the Witness.

“Hey there ug-uh-leeeee!” Izzy shouted. “Look at me!”

The Witness turned and shifted, its form nebulous and murky again.

“Oy! They’re not what they said they are!” shouted one of the goblins. The shadows shuddered, a faint light briefly emanated from deep within its form, and the offending goblin crumbled to dust.

The Witness settled on a vague shape somewhere between Spiral Reach’s Chancellors and Izzy’s parents. “You are so very disappointing,” they hissed. “So. Very. Disappointing!”

Izzy shrugged. “I might have annoyed my instructors, but I’ve never bugged anyone enough for them to say I’m a disappointment. Heard I’m eccentric a lot.”

The Witness’s form began to glow with a faint, sickening light

Sophia gestured to Curian, who ran to the Witness’s side and waved her arms. “Yeah, ugly! Over here! I want my turn at your cheap mind-reading tricks.”

The Witness turned its attention to Curian, and its form changed to that of Dullahan. “Your world and the others will fall before my might,” it hissed. “Not bad. I like this form. Its mission suits me. You, however…” The Witness began to glow again.

“Hideous abomination!” Fontaine shouted. “Turn your gaze upon me and know your demise!” Professor Everest coughed to mask the brief bout of laughter that escaped.

“Enough!” The Witness roared. It glowed a vile green, and the glow quickly spread to everyone but Curian and Izzy.

“You chose to play games, and so a game we shall play,” the Witness sneered. “Select which of your worlds–your reality–will become my next meal. Failing to choose will only end with my devouring both of them!” It cackled wildly. The others were clearly in pain, their features frozen in contorted pictures of agony.

Izzy reached slowly for her sidearm. It felt heavier, and the metal seemed to call to her.

Yet she still didn’t want to take another creature’s life.

“Choose, or I will choose for you!” The Witness roared.

It turned to face Izzy, a toothy grin bisecting its face. “Perhaps I will take both worlds just to savor the sweet notes of suffering I feel radiating from you.” It opened its mouth and began to laugh again, but the sound that followed was far less jubilant as it gasped and sputtered.

“What is this treachery?” the Witness howled as its form convulsed between states it began to slowly rotate, which afforded Izzy a clear view of the strange weapon jutting from the Witness. It looked like a dagger wedged in a long stick at a glance.

“Had a wild, improbable idea and I figured what the Hells have I got to lose?” Curian replied.

“Something from each world as a weapon?” Izzy commented. “Super cool if true.”

Curian smiled “Super cool it is, and it looks like I was onto something.”

The Witness screamed and howled, smoke curling from its form as it spun faster and faster. It came undone slowly at first, dark smoke flinging from it until there was nothing left.

The air shimmered with a warm light and the magic that held the others in place faded. The goblins and kobolds fled without another word, and were not pursued.

“Not worth it,” Curian said as Professor Everest prepared to take chase. She walked across the small span of hall between her and Izzy and offered a mock salute. “Captain Warpt, I presume. Curian. I trust you’ve kept my traveling companion safe?”

Sophia cleared her throat. “I’m right here, you know,” she said.

“It’s almost as if I can hear her voice now, sending messages from some distant place,” Izzy snarked back prompting a hearty chuckle from Curian.

“Not bad,” Curian said. The air grew thicker with the shimmering magic.

“Looks like you best get back to your crew,” Curian said. “They missed you. Said something about time off?”

Izzy nodded. “We’ll see. I think I’ve had enough sitting back and relaxing after…Well, this silliness.” She gestured broadly. “Take care. May your mission be successful, and your course clear. Or something like that.”

Curian offered another, more sincere salute as Izzy backed away towards her crew. “I’m still a far way from home, but if we ever cross paths again we should grab a bite to eat. Swap stories. I’d bet you’ll have plenty to share.” The light in the air grew to an unbearable brightness.

“I’d like that,” Izzy said as the dining hall vanished, replaced entirely by the haunted mansion. A mechanized spider the size of a city bus dipped from the ceiling, and prompted Fontaine to shriek in horror.

Curian sighed, the wall where Izzy and her crew stood now no more than a wall. She turned to Sophia and forced a smile.

“Please tell me you at least sorted out how to get the next Piece.” Curian said.

Warpt Factor – Installment 19

CMO Carter lead the way, the flashlight function on her communicator the only reliable source of light the group had as they continued up the stairs and through the haunted house. Creatures skittered by in the shadows, just outside of view, and Fontaine flinched each time.

“The blasters in the cart would activate about now,” CMO Carter explained. “There are ghosts and goblins that would jump out along the corridor ahead.” She paused and signaled for the group to do the same.

Curian was the first to respond. “Are…Ah, damn. You think there are monsters waiting for us, don’t you?”

CMO Carter offered a half-hearted smile. Her eyes darted to First Officer deCourville and back to Curian. “I would suggest it isn’t out of the realm of possibility,” she replied. “I’m just wondering how the blasters would have worked out given…Well, that we left the cart behind. We could use regular blasters, but Spiral Reach does generally frown upon murder.”

“Generally frown upon it?” Fontaine sputtered. “It’s part of the primary directive given to all who fly the Spiral Reach flag on their vessels!”

Curian sighed. “I’ve got no serious qualms with putting the business end of a knife in someone if it means they don’t get to do the same to me.” She withdrew two daggers from their hilts in her boots and twirled them in her hands as she walked ahead of the group into the dark corridor. A sudden flurry of movement and a rush of air were followed by a sudden shriek. Something popped out of a small alcove to the left

It was fast, but Curian proved faster. She leapt back and brought the daggers downwards in a sweeping arch that cleaved through her attacker with nearly no effort. Its remains landed with a dull thud against the stone floor. Fontaine stifled a shriek, and Professor Everest attempted to conceal a chuckle at his cohort’s expense.

“Odd,” Curian said as she knelt down to inspect the unseen enemy. She retrieved some of its remains. She cursed as she picked part of it up, letting it clatter to the floor.

CMO Carter was the first to reach her. “What happened? Are you all right?”

Curian picked at her finger, then discarded something unseen before she picked her daggers back up. “Sorry, Cleric, it was just a splinter,” she replied. “These dummies are just that. Wooden cutouts. The goblins back home would take issue, though. These are as stereotyped as they get.”

CMO Carter nodded. “Let’s just hope that they’re all as false as that one,” she replied.

The corridor had a gradual slope to it. It followed a slow, meandering turn that wound higher and higher into the haunted mansion. Occasionally the group stopped to address a wooden goblin or sprite, but nothing living appeared before them.

“I shall dispatch the next one, then!” Fontaine said, his sidearm at the ready.

A goblin appeared, short sword in hand.

“Your money or your life!” the goblin shouted.

Fontaine laughed. “This one’s very believable,” he said. “It even talks as it were a living, breathing being.”

The goblin scoffed. “Says the big, boujee bug.”

Curian’s eyes went wide as additional goblins began to appear around them. It was an ambush, clearly.

“Don’t mean to upset a chamber pot on our little party here,” Curian muttered, “but I think I should point out these ones might be the real deal…”

Wanted Adventurers – This Land Called Betrayal

Temperance narrowed her gaze, her blade still at the ready. The Bridge Troll wielded a club that was twice as wide as Temperance, armor included, and looked like a fast way to answer the unspoken question of what could knock an entire dimension worth of depth out of a knight in plate armor.

“Let’s start with the simple questions and work our way up to more complicated things, please,” Monty said, his hands up to showcase his empty palms.

“I weren’t born yesterday, elfling,” the Bridge Troll said. “I smell the iron of two daggers in each of them sleeves. Best keep those hands up and not make any sudden moves, lest you want your paladin pal here to become a tin of holy shit.”

“That’s a thought that’ll haunt my dreams for a while,” Aranza muttered. “What’s your name, friend?”

The Bridge Troll cocked his head, his eyes now on Aranza. “Brazen of you to call me friend, friend,” he replied. He hesitated. “Suppose no harm in telling. It’s Brutus.”

Temperance smirked. “Let me guess,” she replied. “Your last name is something like ‘Skullcrusher’.”

Aranza knocked the sword from Temperance’s hand. “We’re going to have a long, unpleasant chat about that kind of nonsense later.”

Brutus nodded. “It’s Smith, I’ll have you know, and that was my family’s trade back before the village was stolen from us.”

“The Troll speaks lies! Lies!” shouted a voice from across the bridge. The party and Brutus turned their attention to its source. A number of humanoid faces were visible between the towering doors that closed Ankheim off from the world, the doors having been opened just enough.

“Oh, good, we can have a pleasant little conversation about how you damned humans and elves conned me and me family out of our rightful homestead,” Brutus sneered.

There was a collective muttering from the people just inside the doorway, and one was shoved forward. He was an older man, his eyes sunken in and his beard down to his knees. In another life, his garb may have suggested he was a powerful wizard. His stagger and sway, however, accompanied by the silver flask gripped in his hand suggested that life was not one he remembered well unless it came to needing to not pay a bar tab.

“You rob us at every turn!” the old man shouted.

“Just like you did to me and me family!”

Monty whistled sharply enough that the old man, Brutus, and Temperance had to cover their ears. Aranza shrugged, her hint of a smirk enough to suggest she was used to hearing the noise.

“Let’s get to the bottom of this, shall we?” Monty said. “I hear two tales of taking, and I want to know the truth before we come in and do…What it is that the Guild would deem appropriate.”

The old man perked up.

“No, you shut up,” Aranza said. “I trust Brutus. He seems honest. You smell like you could catch fire if you got too close to a lit match.”

The old man furrowed his brow, though his anger gave way to acceptance. “You raise a fair point, rude Orc.”

Brutus waved a hand at Ankheim. “Several years and generations ago, what before the swamp was drained and diverted, Ankheim wasn’t Ankheim,” he said. “It was Murkmuck Heights.”

The old man made a gagging sound. “Your family had nothing more than huts and ravenous alligators that plagued you!”

“Stop talking or I’ll throw you off of the bridge myself,” Aranza replied flatly.

Brutus offered a slight nod to Aranza. “Like I were saying, they came along. It wasn’t always bad, no. They helped us build up the village from the swampland. Make it less miserable living as it was, but as is often the case with humans they inevitably betrayed us and took the results of our hard work for themselves.”

Wanted Adventurers – A Matter of Perspective

The journey to Ankheim took longer than expected, as Trundles was a boar with little attention to her rider’s directions and a powerful appetite. After three stops for snacks, it was decided a solution was needed for the sake of expediency.

Aranza smiled back at Temperance and Monty from a good distance ahead, the apple she’d rigged up to a simple combination of rope and a stick that was held just out of Trundles’ reach a powerful motivator for the boar.

“Don’t look so smug there,” Monty called. “You’ll be the first one to be eaten by the Bridge Troll if this goes sideways!”

“She had a good idea, though,” Temperance said. “Clever of her to use the boar’s endless appetite to her advantage.”

Monty gave Temperance a sideways glance. “Don’t let her hear you say that or she’ll never shut up about this.”

“Too late, I heard all of it!” Aranza shouted back.

“Gods damn it,” Monty said.

The horses clipclopped along the weathered dirt road, the metal of their horseshoes occasionally striking a stone from a time when there may have been some improvements in process before being abandoned.

“Have you ever been to Ankheim?” Monty asked Temperance, his eyes still fixed on the road ahead. They continued along at a pace that would ensure their arrival before sunset, which in turn guaranteed they would encounter the Bridge Troll they were tasked with removing.

“Sorry, did I need to use your title there or something to address you properly?” Monty asked “Guild Paladin Temperance, have you ever been to Ankheim before?”

Temperance blinked. “Oh. I’m sorry, I didn’t…” she hesitated. “I didn’t think you were talking to me, to be honest. No, I haven’t. I have heard quite a bit about it, as they pay handsomely for special Guild protections.”

Monty chuckled. “Tell me something I don’t know,” he replied. “You’re in for a treat. Assuming we can deal with this Troll, that is. Better than going straight after a Lich, I suppose.”

Temperance smiled. “Suppose you’re right.”

A walled town appeared on the horizon. The heights of its walls glittered gold in the fading sunlight of the day. Two massive, iron doors blocked the only point of entry to the town and were the only thing separating the town from the bridge that spanned a steep valley and kept travelers from plunging into the Ankheim River. Few would suggest the Ankheim River is anything shy of a pleasant and slow-moving, but to follow it for too long beyond Ankheim would lead one to the Serpentus Falls. These were noteworthy for being a very sharp drop that was followed by an abrupt, often deadly stop.

The bridge that spanned the gap was stone, and fairly standard in appearance. Any bridgebuilder would be proud to call it their work, and rightfully so as it had occupied that span for greater than one hundred years without incident.

Aranza brought Trundles to a stop the easiest way she could manage, by dropping the apple. She dismounted, hammered a tent post into the ground, and tied Trundles’ harness to the post.

“By the Gods, you two certainly took your time,” Aranza taunted. “Busy having a buddy adventure back there while I scouted ahead?”

“You know my only friendly travel companion is you, Aranza,” Monty snarked back. “Any word on the Troll with whom we are to contend?”

They stood just beyond the edge of the bridge and considered their options. Bridge Trolls were at home in the underside of bridge, and often laid traps for careless travelers. Some, however, favored brute force over brainy approaches. The one universal truth to Bridge Trolls, however, was a simple one: pay the toll or be devoured by the troll.

Temperance unsheathed her sword and stepped forward. A sudden flurry of movement was barely visible beneath the bridge–little more than a large, dark shape that moved in the shadows.

Aranza elbowed Monty. “Don’t think we get off the hook if let her die, Monty,” she pointed out. “Flip a copper to see who goes to save her?”

Monty sighed. “You’re not wrong, but we don’t have time,” he replied. He palmed a dagger, the flash of silver gone as quickly as it appeared, and walked with purposes to meet Temperance before the Bridge Troll did.

“Let’s be reasonable here, my goodly Guild…handler? No, that’s not the word I’m looking for, is it,” Monty said as he stepped between Temperance and the last step onto the bridge. “You are clearly a Paladin of action, and that’s admirable.”

“We cannot let a monster dictate the terms by which our people live,” Temperance replied. She opened her mouth to speak again, only to shut it abruptly. Her eyes grew wide.

The rumbling grew from a subtle accompaniment to the river’s babbling below to a cacophony on par with an avalanche roaring down a mountainside.

“Monty, you were supposed to stop her,” Aranza called out as she ran over to join her traveling companions. “Not step onto the bridge, you gnollwit!” She smiled sheepishly up at the Bridge Troll.

The troll towered over the trio, at least twice Monty’s height. Muscles, built for scaling cliffs and clinging to the undersides of bridges (that also served their owner well in ventures such as smashing careless adventurers’ skulls), bulged within the troll’s stone-like slate gray skin. Long, curved fangs jutted out of the troll’s gaping maw at wild angles as it returned the smile.

“Goodness me, what a curious predicament we’ve got ourselves here,” the Bridge Troll said.

Temperance assumed a defensive pose while Monty moved out from between her and the troll while he muttered a series of apologies.

“You’re right,” Temperance said. “You’ve extorted your last gold piece from Ankheim and its good people!”

The Bridge Troll cocked his head, his large red eyes squinted in visible confusion. “The good people of Ankheim?” he roared with laughter. “You Guild types are all the same. Proper jesters and fools, really.”

Aranza stifled a chuckle. “I feel obligated to disagree presently, but say for the sake of curiosity I’d like to know what makes this particular Guild fool a fool in this case?”

Temperance shot a quick, dagger-filled glance over her shoulder at Aranza, who simply shrugged in reply.

“Ankheim weren’t Ankheim forever, you misinformed miscreants,” the Bridge Troll sneered. “That’s enough talk, methinks. Either pay the toll, or…Well, surely you lot know the rest.”

Piece 17 – A Simple Mix-Up

Sophia had turned quite red, her fists balled at her sides. “We are most certainly not servants of the Morrigan,” she snapped again as the two skeletons continued to guide her and Izzy along the winding mountain trail.

“Truth!” Izzy said. “I don’t even know what the Morrigan are to be a servant of one. Them? It? Whatever. Did I mention I was at a stop while traveling through space before ending up here?”

The skeletons stopped abruptly, turning to face their captives.

“She said she was in space,” the one skeleton said.

“We’re all in space, idiot,” the other skeleton replied, waving its arms in a sweeping gesture.

Izzy nodded. “That’s not an inaccurate statement, but I meant more along the lines of zipping around the stars and visiting other worlds,” she replied. “But a bit more sciencey and a little less magical.”

The two skeletons exchanged glances.

“Air’s a bit thin this high up,” the one skeleton said.

The other skeleton nodded. “Makes sense. Anyway, off we go. Stop dawdling. Her Majesty will sort you out.” The skeletons began their forward march along the mountain path once again, and powerful magics in their gauntlets tugged at the simple shackles around Izzy and Sophia’s wrists. They followed, the spellwork potent enough to force compliance.

Sophia glanced over at Izzy as they walked. “This must be a little frightening for you, I’m sure,” she said. “Though they may appear a bit unsettling, I assure you the denizens of Rhimeghast are very lawfully aligned. We just have a little confusion to sort out.”

Izzy laughed. “You’re very kind, but I’m not frightened,” she said. “This is like living out a movie! You, uh…Probably don’t have those. Like living out a story!”

Sophia smiled. “I suppose you’re right,” she replied. “Let’s just hope they don’t throw us in the Rhimeghast dungeons,” she added quietly to herself.

The transition was subtle and gradual. Shapes in the snow gradually gave way to sections of hillside with stone doors and barred windows. Izzy looked around, trying to take every detail in and commit them to memory. The path ahead forked around the outside of a vast opening at the height of the mountain.

“Behold,” one skeleton said. “The Heart of Rhimeghast, our grand palace.” They gestured ahead at a vast crater that occupied much of the mountain’s peak.

Izzy leaned as far forward as the spellwork allowed. “Is it invisible?” she asked. “Or can I only see it if I’m dead. Not dead? Unalive? Whatever the word is.”

“Departed is the preferred nomenclature around these parts,” one of the skeletons offered. “And no. Mind your steps or you’ll get to Her Majesty a lot faster than you’d like.”

They approached the edge of the crater and its details came into view.

“Oh damn,” Izzy muttered.

A series of long, interwoven paths snaked along the wall of the crater downwards. Iron bridges spanned the void with lanterns that dangled from them to lend light to the furthest depths. Numerous skeletons and zombies milled about. Specters and spirits drifted through the air, focused on the tasks with which they were busy. Torchlight burned brightly along the walls, casting curious and concerning forms along the paths.

“The tomes do not do it justice,” Sophia said, mouth agape. “Oh damn indeed.”

“Down we go, prisoners,” one of the skeletons said without looking back. “Careful steps, please, because we’d like for Her Majesty to be able to question you.”

High above, Badb circled, her shadow massive on the ground. She had followed since the cave, but maintained a significant distance.

“Curious,” Sophia said.

“That bird, you mean? Terrifying,” Izzy replied. “Looks like it could swoop down and eat us.”

“Yet she hasn’t,” Sylvia said. “I wonder why.”

The path down was far more perilous than it looked, littered with loose stones and scattered bones. Both Izzy and Sophia carefully watched each step, their attention focused on their feet and less on the path ahead. The sudden stop proved jarring, but not as jarring as the sight they beheld upon looking up.

At the center of the crater’s void, held aloft by a series of concentric bridges that branched outwards, was a brilliant crystal chamber. Its exterior reflected the world around it. A massive pair of gilded doors towered ahead, and as they approached the doors swung inwards with a deliberate slowness.

“Enter,” boomed a voice from within the chamber.

The skeletons guided Izzy and Sophia into the room, and the doors slammed shut behind them. Glittering crystals lined the walls of the simple room, giving light to the otherwise dark space.

At the center of the chamber stood a colossal throne, and above that throne hovered a frost Lich. Chains of ice circled her skeletal form, a crown of jagged icicles atop her head. Glittering points of blue starlight emanated from within her seemingly bottomless eye sockets.

“Presenting Her Majesty, Lady Valeria Rhimeghast,” the skeletons said together in a way that had clearly been rehearsed and repeated numerous times.

Izzy bowed with a flourish, a gesture made all the more difficult but impressive thanks to the shackles that bound her to the skeletons. Sophia quickly followed suit.

“We found these agents of the Morrigan below, creeping up towards our territory,” one of the skeletons said.

Sophia stood. “Your Majesty, Lady Rhimeghast, I must respectfully disagree,” she said.

“Fools!” Lady Rhimeghast spat.

“Oh, they’re in for it,” the one skeleton said.

“One does love to see it when Her Majesty doles out judgement on those who bow to the Morrigan,” the other skeleton said.

Lady Rhimeghast shook her head. “You two are the fools, you boneheaded buffoons!” she roared. “Have you not seen Badb high above? How she has maintained a cautious distance? Do you think she would have done so if these were her minions?”

Izzy chuckled. “Minions.”

“You have brought me a keeper of knowledge from our world and a traveler unmoored from her reality,” Lady Rhimeghast said. “Her simply being here has thrown things out of alignment, and I intend to find out why she is here. Leave us!” She snapped her fingers, and the shackles fell from Sophia and Izzy’s wrists.

The two skeletons turned and fled without further comment.

“Now, child from another time,” Lady Rhimeghast said. “What do we do about you?”

Warpt Factor – Installment 17

First Officer deCourville was the first to speak. “I don’t suppose this is part of the ride, is it?” he asked. “Some kind of perception filter or transporter that swaps out people from other groups, perhaps?”

The new arrival leapt out of the card, knives suddenly in her hands. “By the Gods, a giant bug!”

“That’s incredibly rude,” First Officer deCourville sneered back.

CMO Carter stepped out of the cart, hands up. She approached slowly, stopping just outside of arm’s reach. The variety of neon lights highlighting cartoonish spiders and specters cast strange shadows around them.

“I have a hunch you’re onto something, First Officer,” CMO Carter said. “You’re not part of this attraction, are you? I”m Melissa Carter, Chief Medical Officer. What’s your name?”

Professor Everest nodded approvingly. “A very Captain Warpt approach, for sure.”

“Curian,” Curian replied, the daggers still in her hands. “What world is this? What kind of sneaky witchcraft did you use to bring me here, and why?”

Fontaine scoffed. “Witchcraft. What backwards planet did you tumble off of? There’s no such thing.”

Curian glared in response. “I’ve got half a mind to squash you,” she replied.

Professor Everest stepped out of the cart.

“Damn, you’re tall,” Curian said.

Professor Everest nodded. “You’d be shocked how often people mention as much. Professor Brannigan Everest. The First Officer you keep referring to as a bug, which I should point out is more than a touch racist, is Fontaine deCourville.”

“Well, I’m sorry for the bug comments,” Curian said. “And if not witchcraft, why am I here? Last thing I remember, Badb had chased Sophia and me into a cave.”

Professor Everest raised an eyebrow. “Badb, you said? One of the three Morrigan?”

CMO Carter examined her wristcomm. She tapped away at its interface, eyes darting along its small screen as she did.

“Very curious,” CMO Carter said last.

Curian leaned forward, eyebrows arched. She nodded slowly, and when her impatience reached its breaking point she spoke up.

“What’s very curious?” Curian asked.

CMO Carter looked up, her eyes drawn to the daggers. She took a step back. “Apologies. There was a curious ion pulse, but no clear source to be found. It briefly knocked the power out, which left the shields to this park down for just long enough for…” She paused, then gestured to Curian.

“Wonder if our Captain’s where you ought to be,” Professor Everest mused.

“Gods, I hope not,” Curian said. “He’d be in good hands, though. Sophia’s quite clever and would keep him safe.”

“She,” CMO Carter corrected.

Curian’s eyes grew wide, her smile immense. “She? I’m sorry, your Captain is a woman?”

CMO Carter nodded. “Captain Isabelle Warpt, though I suspect she would want you to call her Izzy,” she said.

“Women can be Captains of a vessel in this world? Without, you know, resorting to piracy?”

CMO Carter nodded, unable to not smile in response.

“Still, she’s not likely safe,” Curian said. “Can any of you tell me what we need to next? I need to get back right away. I was on a very important quest.”

CMO Carter tapped a finger against her chin. “We can’t necessarily create the perfect conditions by which you arrived,” she explained. “But perhaps we can emulate them to an extent. We would need to get to the shield generator and briefly disable it. Then the rest depends on luck.”

First Officer deCourville chittered anxiously. “This is highly unorthodox! And for a complete stranger!”

“Who is only here because something stole me from where I was,” Curian said.

First Officer deCourville turned to Professor Everest. “Surely you cannot be okay with this insane plot? It could very well kill us all, and at the very least we would be banned for life from ever returning here!”

Professor Everest shook his head. “It’s worth a try to get our new friend her back on course,” he replied. “First, though, perhaps you’d best put those away.” He pointed to the blades glimmering in Curian’s hands.

Curian chuckled, offering a sheepish grin. “Suppose you’re right,” she said, sheathing the daggers. “So. Let’s go undo this heinous trickery!”

Wanted Adventurers – Need for Steed

Aranza read the scroll, muttering key points as she did. “To our esteemed assets and their handler. There is a Bridge Troll just south of Ankheim Village who has taken over the only safe passage in and out of their fair town. As a Guild-protected territory, it falls on you to address this concerning issue.”

Temperance raised a finger. “I’m sorry, are we simply going to gloss over how you waxed poetic for a moment there?”

“Yes,” Monty replied. “You’ll get used to it, and eventually those moments will be like background noise. Anyway, what’s this about a Bridge Troll?”

Temperance pursed her lips. “Vile creatures, often acting on behalf of more powerful fiends,” she explained. “They prevent travelers from crossing a bridge they’ve claimed, demanding gold and devouring any who fail to pay.”

Aranza chugged the remainder of her pint before taking the rest of a neighboring stranger’s, and then the entirety of Monty’s. Monty did not protest, and held up a hand when Temperance appeared ready to do so.

“Not worth it,” Monty said.

Aranza stood up abruptly, belched, and shook her head. “I believe it’s time to call it a night,” she said. “Ankheim’s, what, half a day’s ride from here? Get your armor nice and shiny, Paladin. We need to con someone into lending us horses because I’m not breaking the bank to buy ’em.” She offered a lazy salute to Temperance, then offered both middle fingers to Monty who returned the gesture.

“Certainly a curious relationship you two have,” Temperance said.

Monty shrugged, the gesture lazy and half-hearted at best. “Pardon my lack of warmth, but I don’t believe the arrangement we’re currently bound to requires a cheerful sense of camaraderie. Probably best we try to get some rest as well.”

Temperance nodded.

Grimsby sat by the door. He blinked slowly as Monty and Temperance approached, but said nothing as they passed. His eyes remained fixed on a point somewhere between where he sat and the heart of existence, and it seemed unwise to interrupt his concentration.

The trio departed the inn shortly after sunrise. The stables were impossible to miss, settled opposite the town square from the inn.

Temperance approached, head held high. “Good day to you, stablekeeper,” she said to the Goblin tending to the horses.

“Sure thing, yeah, good whatever to you, too, Guild Paladin,” the Goblin replied as he continued to divide hay among the stabled horses.

“Very astute of you. We are on a Guild mission and find ourselves in need of horses,” Temperance replied.

The Goblin turned to her, one especially bushy eyebrow raised. “Yeah? Me, too,” he said. “These horses aren’t mine to offer up. I know you Guild-types. You lot go off on some quest and the horses are the first to bite it.”

Aranza pushed past Temperance and handed the Goblin a leather pouch. The Goblin eyed it suspiciously, turning the pouch over in his hand. It clearly had heft to it.

“Fifty gold,” Aranza said. “That’s for three horses with a reasonable Keep Your Damn Mouth Shut fee included.”

The Goblin smiled, eyes fixed on the content of the pouch. “You speak my language, lady,” he said. “Take Thunder, Typhoon, and Trundles here.” He jerked a thumb to the three stalls behind him to the left.

“Careful with Trundles,” he added. “Meanest bastard of a horse I ever took care of.”

The three glanced past the Goblin toward where Trundles was kept. Trundles, at a glance, was a lot of things. His qualities included a serious intimidation factor, an strong spirit that likely would require a capable rider to tame, and tusks long enough to skewer the densest stone giant.

“Forgive me, but are you aware Trundles is a feral boar?” Temperance asked.

The Goblin clicked his tongue, shook his head, then turned his attention back to Aranza. “Keen eyes and a wit sharp as a bar of soap,” the Goblin said. “Make sure your Guild pal here doesn’t get my boss’ horses killed or your Keep Your Damn Mouth Shut fee won’t cover my These Jerks Stole Your Horses cost.”

Aranza nodded. “Fair enough,” she said. “Time to hit the road. I call dibs on Trundles!”

Piece 16 – Bird-Words, and Fractured Reality

The air outside of the cavern shimmered. The vast shadow cast by the Crow seemed to disappear. A tall woman robed in a black, feathered cloak walked into the cave. She stopped at the edge of the runic wards, her face a mask of contempt. Long, midnight black feathers stood out on her head where hair should have been. Her smile was abundant in pointed fangs.

“I thought it might perhaps be easier to address me in a more relatable form,” Badb said. “You mortals have such fragile minds and it’s so easy to upset you.”

“Really nice of her,” Curian snarked in response. “Big, mean bird thought about our feelings.”

Badb continued, clearly not bothered. “My sisters and I serve a purpose far beyond your comprehension,” she said. “There are many more worlds than there are stars in the sky, and for every world there are far more people.”

Curian yawned loudly. “Yeah, this is the part where you tell us about how those people need to die for whatever reason, justifying you stuffing your ugly faces with souls,” she said. “I’ve fought monsters like you. I know the kind of twisted reasoning you use to justify your actions. You’re all the same.”

“Oh? Is that so, little world-traveler?” Badb replied, her voice suddenly bitter-cold.

The air in the cave wavered, a strange glamour suddenly present.

“Fiend, what trickery are you trying?” Sophia snapped.

Badb stepped back. “This is no magic of mine. I take my leave, but this is not the last you’ll see of me. Next time I will be far less kind.” She vanished from sight, the last signs of her presence was the sound of monstrous wings as she took flight.

There was a soft pop and faint sparkle to the air.

“That was unusual,” Sophia muttered. “Something must have set off the magic of the wards, perhaps.” She waited for a smart remark from Curian, which had become her default expectation.

“The realism of this haunted house is wild,” muttered an unexpected voice. “These spiders seem real. Really real. Too real, maybe. Oh, damn. They’re actual spiders.” Sophia glanced over slowly as whoever was next to her shook several large, confused spiders from her sleeve.

Sophia reached for the dagger at her belt, taking a step back.

Not-Curian looked around. She was shorter than Sophia, although only a little, with a shock of pink hair that practically glowed in the cave’s low light. Her armor did not look terrifically sturdy, Sophia noted.

“Witch! What have you done with my friend?” Sophia said, immediately cursing herself. Curian would have had some remark about the generous use of the word friend. “Traveling companion. What have you done with my traveling companion?”

“Uh, what did you do with me? And did you call me a witch? A real witch or just like an insult, because neither option is terrifically nice,” Not-Curian said.

“Just who are you, exactly?” Sophia demanded.

“Captain Isabelle Warpt of Spiral Reach Academy. Izzy to my friends. Jury’s out on you, person who calls people witch right when you meet them.”

Sophia blinked. “You didn’t use dark magics to imprison Curian and take her place?”

Izzy raised an eyebrow. “Is Curian your friend? Traveling companion? Either way, that’s a definite no. I wish I could do magic, but that’s some serious fairy tale stuff. Don’t suppose you have a name, huh?”

“Oh, I’m sorry. I…It’s been a very trying day,” Sophia said. “Sophia. No nickname. May I call you Izzy or should I call you Captain Warpt?”

Izzy scratched her head. “You going to call me a witch again?”

“I suppose not, no, since it seems that was an error. My apologies,” Sophia replied.

“Izzy works, then,” Izzy said. “So where am I, exactly? Looks like I’m not in Kansas. Not that I was in Kansas.”

There was a sound from near the mouth of the cave. Izzy produced a shining, object and held it out in front of herself.

“What a curious crossbow,” Sophia commented, her eyes fixed on the mouth of the cave.

“Thanks,” Izzy replied. “It’s definitely not a crossbow. A crossbow would be more helpful about now, really. It’s a training plasma pistol. A broken one. I’ve never been too keen on hurting people.”

Steps outside of the cave grew closer.

“Me, neither,” Sophia said. She grabbed Izzy’s hand and pulled her behind a large, fallen portion of cave wall further behind the runic wards.

“Swear on me heart the runes spoke to me,” rasped a dry, hollow voice.

“That really the way you want to say that? That’s what you’re going with?” asked a second speaker. Shadows, despite the low light, crossed the cave’s threshold.

Izzy hazarded a glance around their cover and immediately fell backwards. “Oh crap, they’re skeletons,” she whispered. “Walking, talking skeletons. What the hell kind of Weirdsville is this?”

Sophia shrugged. “Evidently it’s not a Kansas,” she replied. “We’re currently traveling near the Rhimeghast Mountains, one of the major trading outposts for the Undead.”

Izzy held up a finger, her expression suddenly quite serious. “They’re real, live skeletons. Like, walking around with their skin missing. No insides or anything. Wait. How are they talking?”

“Same way we can hear you, I reckon,” replied one of the skeletons. “Clear as a bell.”

“Do come out and show yourselves, please,” said the other skeleton. “So as to not have to belabor the point, we can also see you despite not having physical eyes. Glad we could get that out of the way.”

“Don’t think I’ve forgotten about the heart comment from earlier, by the way,” the first skeleton said as Sophia and Izzy emerged. “We’ll be revisiting that when we’ve got a moment.”

Izzy raised a hand, smiling. “Now’s a moment. Why not discuss now?”

The skeletons hesitated as if considering Izzy’s suggestion.

“No, that can wait,” said the first skeleton. “First, though, we’ll need to take you to the Lady of Rhimeghast Castle. She’ll know what to do with you, you servants of the Morrigan.”

Warpt Factor – Installment 16

Izzy had tried, unsuccessfully, to return to the bridge at least three times only to be thwarted by her crew.

“Mustn’t spoil the surprise,” First Office deCourville insisted.

“Back to your room now, little missy,” Professor Everest said, quickly correcting himself by adding, “Begging your pardon, Captain. No offense meant.”

That was when Izzy learned she reminded Professor Everest of his daughter, a fact that made her warm and fuzzy and full of rainbows and joy inside.

CMO Carter took a more direct approach. “I brought a deck of Adventures in Speculation cards and two mugs of hot chocolate with little marshmallows shaped like asteroids.”

Izzy wrinkled her nose. “Damn you, Carter,” she said. “Well-played. Come in, but know that I am a champion without rival at Speculation. You doomed yourself before you even knew what you were doing.”

CMO Carter entered the room, placed the hot chocolate down on the anti-grav table, swiveled the desk chair around to face Izzy’s bed, and cracked her knuckles.

“I’ll certainly test your skills, then,” CMO Carter replied.

The hours rolled by in an instant, several rounds having played out with no victor able to be chosen. Numerous mugs of cocoa were enjoyed.

“Clearly, I underestimated you,” Izzy said. “A mistake I won’t make again!”

There was a soft knock on the door. Izzy frowned, “Perhaps another time,” she said. “Who goes there? State your business!”

A grumbled response, followed by a clearer one. “First Officer deCourville. I thought you may like to know we’ve arrived at our destination. I had tried to contact you on your Commlink, but it seems you’ve shut it off.”

Izzy responded with a sheepish grin, and CMO Carter stifled a laugh.

“Be right out, First Officer,” Izzy replied. “Sir. Thank you, sir.”

The hatch was open, waiting, and the lights dimmed on the bridge. CMO Carter followed Izzy. She kept smiling, but wouldn’t admit to why.

Izzy stepped out onto the docks. The lights and sounds were all-encompassing. She blinked and tried to adjust, and as she processed her surroundings she couldn’t help but smile as well. She danced in place a moment, before turning to CMO Carter.

“You knew?” Izzy demanded.

CMO Carter nodded. “We considered your personnel file while you were dealing with the diplomatic parts during the tail end of our visit to Rigel Six,” she admitted. “It’s very clear you like thrill rides, and I happened to have an uncle who holds season passes.”

“Halcyonland,” Izzy said, a hint of tears welling up in her eyes. Antique roller coaster cars soared along modernized versions of their tracks overhead, no longer bound by the limits of old construction nor the dangers of naturally occurring gravity. Rides like centrifuges spun riders wildly while simultaneously rotating on multiple axes.

“You three thought of this for me?”

Fontaine, Professor Everest, and CMO Carter nodded.

“What you did back there was something amazing,” Professor Everest said. “Hurt like hell to see you so sad with what came of it, so we put our heads together…”

“Did a little research,” Fontaine said.

“The rest is, well, history,” CMO Carter said. “We’ve got the entire day off without issue. High Chancellor Kadimova approved it himself, actually. It was meant to be.”

Izzy looked around, soaking the entire place in. It was a one-of-a-kind attraction, its artificial atmosphere a thin, translucent fog barely visible at the edge of the park. In addition to the rides, there were so many food stalls and restaurants drifting about the sphere the park occupied in space.

Izzy’s eyes lit up as a thought occurred to her. “We have just enough that we can all be ride buddies!” she declared. “No one gets left behind this way. Oh wow. Wowwie wow wow, this is amazing!”

Fontaine began to raise a hand in protest. Professor Everest shook his head, and Fontaine lowered the hand.

“Yes, I suppose that will be quite nice,” Fontaine said, barely concealing his fear as his eyes followed a train as it ran through a series of loop de loops while also completing a barrel roll.

“Not as bad as it looks, or so I’ve heard,” Professor Everest assured him quietly.

Three rides later, however, had left Professor Everest asking if a break was in the future.

“Goodness me, a break?” Fontaine chittered excitedly. “We haven’t the time! We must maximize our ride-to-line-time ratio so as to enjoy as much of our time here as possible! Did you see the shooting star ride? Perhaps we could do that one next?”

Izzy laughed. “Didn’t think you’d be having so much fun, First Officer,” she said. “This is a little less formal than you seem to prefer and all. Not as stick-in-the-mud as you normally do?”

“I don’t know what’s come over me, to be honest,” Fontaine replied. “I feel light as a feather, filled with glee. I should do this more often, I think.”

“Adrenaline rush,” CMO Carter whispered. “Probably the most excitement he’s ever had in his life.”

Professor Everest winced as Fontaine continued to suggest rides. “Perhaps we could go on something a little slower to switch things up a little,” he suggested. “The Phantom Zone, perhaps?”

The Phantom Zone was modeled after the haunted houses of old. The facade of a derelict house floated in the air, its enormous doors opening to a wormhole. Carts of four riders disappeared into it, reappearing seconds later.

“Fair. Very diplomatic indeed,” Izzy said. “As Captain of this adventure, I’ll allow it.”

Fontaine frowned, but quickly recovered. “Very well. If it’s the Captain’s will, I’ll indulge. Only if I may ask for some more of the loop-and-twist rides afterwards.”

“Suppose so,” Izzy said.

They moved to the front of the line quickly, thanks to the nature of The Phantom Zone’s quantum ride duration. They boarded the ride’s vehicle, fashioned after an old mine cart. The restraint bar that lowered was more for show than function, an authentic throwback to amusement parks of yesteryear.

The doors opened like a gaping maw, the space beyond them a swirling opalescence that stuck out against the surrounding facade. A quiet countdown whispered from ten to one, and the cart lurched forward.

“Woah,” Izzy blurted out. “Ears popped just there.”

The space within the ride was made to look like an old mansion. Its physical details were in constant flux, however, shimmering gently in the low-light as simulated spiders the size of freighter ships moved around the ceiling. The cart followed its pre-set path, climbing a tall set of stairs.

Suddenly, the lights flickered. The cart stopped.

“Uh…Is that supposed to happen?” Izzy asked.

Fontaine and Professor Everest shrugged.

“New feature since the last time I visited, perhaps?” CMO Carter offered in response.

The lights flickered again, and Izzy was gone, replaced suddenly by a young woman in curious, Medieval garb.

Wanted Adventurers – The First of Many Side-Quests

Grimsby sat alone at a table that partially blocked the stairs. This alone wasn’t of particular interest, but the tables nearest to Grimsby’s table were also empty. Spotless, as if they had not been used in some time.

Aranza, Temperance, and Monty had gone best out of five on several games of chance to see who would be the one who had to approach Grimsby to inquire about a room. During that time, a handful of the tavern’s other patrons had shot confused and somewhat judgemental looks their way. A few realized what they were doing, and one or two gave a murmured acknowledgement of the task ahead.

One quietly commented on having affairs in order before approaching Grimsby.

Grimsby sat on his barstool, a gnome of sub-average height, his gaze fixed on something not quite in the physical space of the tavern. When he blinked, it was one eye at a time.

“That’s a gnome that’s been through some dark shit,” Aranza said as she tried to avoid eye-contact.

“We need a room,” Temperance said. “This is hardly the time for such childish foolishness.”

Monty held up a finger, eyes narrowed. “I certainly don’t see you, oh brave Paladin, tripping over your overly shiny armor to address the gnome.”

Temperance recoiled. “I, well…” she replied. “I was just about to do exactly that.” She turned, but hesitated.

Aranza sighed as she walked around Temperance. Grimsby’s focus remained on whatever he’d been staring at since they’d arrived, and did not shift until Aranza cleared her throat.

Grimsby let out a piercing, horrible shriek, eyes wide.

Aranza leaped back, daggers ready to be thrown at a second’s notice.

Grimsby blinked–actually blinked–and then his gaze shifted upwards to Aranza. A lazy, slow smiled crept across his face.

“Greetings, weary traveler,” Grimsby rumbled in a deep baritone. “The red crow caws at midnight, and the mist covers only that which we desire to not see.”

Aranza took a step back. “Sure, they do those things,” she replied. “Sorry to bother you there, you were obviously doing something important.”

Grimsby cocked his head, the tavern’s torchlight reflecting brightly off of his bald head.

“If it’s not too much trouble, the two idiots I’m traveling with and I need a room,” Aranza blurted out. “Gryphonshit, did I say that out loud?”

“And what perils paved your path to this fine purveyor of ales and place of rest?” Grimsby asked.

“Guild business,” Aranza answered automatically. “Not wanting to die. The two are related.”

“Friends of the Guild?”

Aranza shook her head. “We tried to rob them and we made a deal so we didn’t dance at the gallows,” she replied. “Not the Paladin. She’s stuck being our holy nanny. Damn you.”

Grimsby nodded. “Room’s on me tonight, but your drinks are up to Aloysius.”

“Stop giving out my name like it’s your business to share!” the bartender, Aloysius, shouted across the tavern. “Give them a room, but only one room. Giving away business like you own the damn place.” Aloysius continued the conversation at a low grumble under his breath, his attention returned to the other patrons.

Grimsby winked. “I do own the place.” He reached into his vest pockets, rifling around for an improbably long time. He produced a small leather pouch, which he replaced into the pocket, a sliver of metal that transformed into a startlingly sharp dagger before, and then finally a plain brass key.

“Up the stairs, second door on the left,” Grimsby said. “You do good things, you get to stay. You cause trouble, I charge you double. No need to relay your tales. The tide of your worth shall be determined by the cosmic push and pull of good and evil that you release into the world.”

“Sure thing,” Aranza said, taking the key. She walked back to Monty and Temperance, who had turned away.

“You deserve a drink,” Monty said. “You’ve been through a lot.”

Temperance shook her head. “I prefer to not indulge in such things,” she replied. “I need my wits about me so as to ensure neither of you fall into your wicked old ways.”

Aranza laughed, clapping a hand on Temperance’s shoulder. “Sounds like she’s afraid of a challenge,” she said. “Hey, Al. Three of your strongest ales and three shots of Dragonfyre, if you’d be so kind.”

Aloysius clenched his jaw, but went about retrieving the requested drinks. He placed them on the bar, then held a hand out for payment.

“I’ll cover first round,” Monty said.

Aloysius raised a hand in protest. “The half-orc with a whole lot of humor can pay,” he said. “Not even my friends call me Al.”

Aranza shrugged, producing six gold. “Struck a nerve?” she asked, plunking the gold down in Aloysius’ hand. He eyed it suspiciously for a moment before he dropped it somewhere beneath the bar and out of sight.

“Breakfast is between when I get up and when I don’t feel like cooking for you ungrateful heathens anymore,” Aloysius shouted over the crowd. “I’m closing up. If you’re staying, don’t wreck the joint. If you’re not? You don’t gotta go home, but get the hell out.” He grabbed a bottle of translucent green liquid as he walked toward the door at the end of the bar, popped the cork and took a swig, then shut the door behind him.

A number of the patrons shuffled out with only a handful moving cautiously past and up the stairs.

“All right, the rules are simple,” Aranza said.

“I’m familiar with the rules,” Temperance interrupted.

Monty raised his eyebrows.

“Go!” Aranza shouted. She threw the Dragonfyre back, then started to drink the ale. it was a dense, dark beer, and she couldn’t quite place it. It was probably one of those small batch ones, she figured, with a name that included Bogwater. She chanced a sideward glance and raised her eyebrows.

Monty was taking his time, as he did. His fair cheeks were already several shades redder than usual, and his eyes glassy.

Temperance was well over halfway into her ale with no sign of slowing. Aranza doubled down on her efforts.

The two slammed their mugs down at the same time.

“By the Heavens, it looks like you have some competition, ‘Ranz,” Monty slurred, dribbling ale down his chin. “Whoops.”

An older woman stepped forward, clearly unaware of the half-dwarf and half-orc sizing each other up, and slapped a rolled scroll down onto the bar. She shuffled out of the tavern without saying anything.

Temperance broke the scowl-off first.

“Damnation,” she muttered, grabbing up the scroll.

“What’s the problem?” Aranza said, her words and the sudden impact of the Dragonfyre enough to make her sway gently as she spoke. “Feeling a little wooo?” She waved her hands by her head for effect.

Temperance raised an eyebrow. “What? No, I wish,” she replied. “We’ve just been served.”

Monty leaned forward, his eyes level with Temperance’s forehead. “We what now?”

Temperance held out the scroll, pointing at the wax seal holding it shut. It was the Guild’s emblem. Beneath it, through the rolled parchment, the words “Wanted: Alive or Dead” were visible.

Aranza exhaled deeply, frowning. “The joy’s left me like the wind gone from a lost ship’s sails,” she said. “Let’s get some sleep. Looks like we’ve got our first side-quest to complete. Already.”