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.”

Lockdown Times, Life, and Raising Kids During COVID-19

Happy…what day is it? Tuesday. Happy Tuesday! For those of you for whom it applies: happy book birthday to The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue. I have my copy and I’m eager to devour it.

Tonight’s post is a study in messing around with the WordPress mobile app to post. I apologize for no formatting issues. Not sorry at all.

I’ve been dwelling on a few things that have happened during these strange Quarantimes, and so I decided to share some of them. This is a partially selfish post as it’s to quiet some of the noise in my brain, and partially to share my experiences. Partially to help commiserate, perhaps?

I’m going to focus on positive shit because I started typing about the bad moments from 2020 and it made me tired so I said the Hell with it. There’s enough negative out there.

Distance Learning, The Beginnings, were a real treat. It was a wild learning curve for Kiddo 1, and for Steff and me. Seesaw wasn’t terrifically cooperative, and there were a few nights I was up until after 11 recalling my third grade math skills. It was a bonding experience wrapped in shared frustration, but we survived it without my daughter trying to kill me while I slept. And that’s really the heart and soul of parenting. (It isn’t. I’m just very bad at parenting.)

I accidentally killed the oven. The stove top still works. The silver lining? I’ve gotten really damn good at prepping pork chops and chicken breasts in the skillet. Our go-to Tuesday dinner comfort food is my half-assed take on chicken divan. I enjoy cooking and I’ve had no complaints from my family thus far, so I’ll chalk that up as a win.

We got some projects finished around my house. I didn’t succeed at writing the next best-selling novel. I didn’t read a book a week. I still haven’t fully prepped for NaNoWriMo. There are definitely days I think about those things, but increasingly I focus on the things I have managed to accomplish. I’ve been writing four serial stories consistently. I’ve kept up, mostly, with a personal productivity tracker. I tried a weekly planner and discovered it wasn’t for me.

I’ve consumed a modest amount of whiskey, but stopped drinking soda entirely.

This year has been an adventure so far. It has been far from perfect, but I’m grateful for the good that has come of it. I hope anyone who reads this has had some good in 2020 as well.

I could write more, but my dishes still don’t wash themselves and it’s a work night. I like writing, but I like sleep a little more. Take care, folks.

Warpt Factor – Installment 15

Izzy sat in the captain’s quarters of The Lofty Albatross, and appreciated how it wasn’t over-the-top. It was, in terms of size, perhaps a little larger than a broom closet. A reasonable bed, a small desk equipped with outdated tech, and a miniature nutritional station that fed from the ship’s automated kitchen took up most of the space, with little of the floor unoccupied.

It felt like what life at Spiral Reach should be like, she thought.

“Wonder how Ursula’s doing,” Izzy muttered to herself. “And good, old what’s-his-face.”

The ship’s commlink blinked, indicating an incoming transmission. Izzy sat up in the bed, leaning forward just enough to reach the desk. The alert shifted to the wall behind the desk, and the wall converted to a secondary console. The contact was heavily encrypted, and indicated for Captain’s Viewing Only.

Izzy exhaled slowly. unclenched, and selected to accept the communication. She presented her best diplomatic smile as the communication was patched through, and Izzy found herself smiling reflexively.

High Chancellor Kadimova smiled in return. “How fare your travels thus far, young Captain Warpt?”

“You’re a sight for sore eyes,” Izzy said. She slumped. “Y’know, I’m not sure. You could’ve warned me the First Officer on this ship is…A challenge.”

“And deprive you of learning experiences? Never a chance of that,” Kadimova said. He wagged a finger. “Don’t sell yourself short, by the way. I’ve heard some very promising things through all of the right channels. Word is already spreading of a Spiral Reach Academy Captain who brought improbable peace to Rigel Six.”

Izzy reflected on the events on Rigel Six, and what she learned about the Rigellian and Ruklan leaders.

“Didn’t feel like much of a win to me,” Izzy replied.

Kadimova waved a hand dismissively. “To be perfectly frank with you, Captain Warpt, you managed what many higher ranking Spiral Reach Academy officials have long avoided. When I’d gotten word of where you were, I might have needed a strong drink or two.”

Izzy raised an eyebrow. “Thanks…For that vote of confidence, I guess?” she said. “Anyway, their politicians were all working with someone to get weapons or tech to fend off the weapons. So they were all scuzzy scumbags stuffed full of corruption.”

“You did magnificently, and you should be pleased with yourself,” Kadimova said. “You’re already doing splendidly on our mission, and so long as the crew remains unaware we will be able to recall you sooner than later. Make you an official Captain. Godspeed, child, and take care. You’ve got someone debating whether or not they should disturb you outside your room.” Kadimova winked, then ended the communication.

Izzy swung her feet over the edge of her bed, leapt up, and opened the door right as CMO Carter had raised her hand to knock.

“Oh, good. You’re awake,” CMO Carter said, lowering her hand. “Didn’t want to disturb you, but the crew wanted to see if you were hungry.”

Izzy smiled. “I guess I could use a snackaroo or two,” she said. “You draw the short straw on who had to come check on me?”

CMO Carter stifled a laugh. “Perhaps, but I was concerned about you as well,” she said. “That was certainly an unsettling note on which we left Rigel Six. Sounded like they had quite a bit left to sort out.”

Izzy nodded. “So what’s our destination,” she asked, stepping out into the corridor.

“Can’t say,” CMO Carter said. “I’m sworn to secrecy. Fontaine wrote up a very formal document and made Professor Everest and me sign it, and then he signed it as well. It’s a secret until we arrive.”

“What a uniquely First Office deCourville thing to do,” Izzy said, shaking her head. “Wish I could say I’m surprised. Even a little surprised. Like, just a smidge. I’m not. Here, watch this.”

They passed the cramped kitchen and dining space, the AI that ran it watching them intently and with an air of wanting no visitors. Izzy opened the door to the bridge of the Albatross. Both Fontaine and Professor Everest turned to look.

“Good to see you, Captain,” First Officer deCourville said, both sets of hands clasped behind his back. “Is there something you need? Are you all right?”

“Don’t you fret about the state of things out here,” Professor Everest said. “We’re on our way.”

“Yes! On our way, and no more need to be said on the subject,” First Officer deCourville.”

Izzy looked from her First Officer to Professor Everest and back. She smiled. “Nah, no needs here. I emerged from my hermitage for just long enough to get a snack and bumped into CMO Carter. Either of you want anything before I stop by the kitchen?”

A sharp buzz resounded throughout the bridge, followed by the cooking AI’s voice. “Please refrain from ‘visiting’ the kitchen, as you are a collection of potential contaminants. Order from your quarters and you will receive your desired sustenance in a timely manner.”

Izzy shrugged. “Moody, isn’t it? Guess I’ll just have to be patient and see what kind of adventures you have in mind for me. You know where to find me if you need me, crew.” She nodded, turned, and began to walk away.

“You’re welcome to join me if you wanted to chat for a bit, Carter,” Izzy said. The two walked back to her room, ordered a number of snacks, and CMO Carter politely listened while Izzy speculated on their secret destination.

***

Weapons Master Roderick Weston hated having to waste perfectly good equipment, but in some cases he knew it couldn’t be avoided. The flunkies he had assigned to Rigel Six, after all, had failed, and so they had to be eliminated.

He sat at his desk, a drink prepared for the transmission he knew was pending.

The screen shifted to a heavily encrypted communication, overriding the numerous firewalls. An individual, cloaked in digital shadow, sat centered in the screen.

“Suspend your current project,” commanded the individual. “You are to shift the entirety of your focus to The Lofty Albatross. Discover what makes its Captain tick. When you do…”

Roderick nodded. “I’ll figure out what makes her Captain tick, and then I’ll take that apart gear by gear until she breaks.”

“Good. Don’t fail me, Roderick.” The communication ended. Roderick switched to the NavCom dashboard and punched in a series of commands. An icon appeared moving along the gulf of open space. Roderick sneered, tapped a series of additional commands, and set a course to pursue The Lofty Albatross.

Wanted Adventurers – Bonding Over Getting Mugged

The Guild flunkies removed the burlap sacks from Aranza and Monty’s heads, hopped on their horses, and left before Temperance could free them.

“Nice of them to provide transport,” Monty muttered. He rubbed at his wrists where the rope had bitten into his skin.

“You’re lucky they brought us this far,” Temperance sneered. “As if you two deserve such kindness.”

Aranza clenched her fist, eyes locked with Temperance’s. “I’m about to stuff your cranky Dwarven ass deep into the next hill I see…”

Monty held up a finger. “You do that and The Guild will have nooses on our necks before we make it to the next Unaligned Zone,” he said. He turned his attention to Temperance, who in turn focused her scowling on him.

“Make no mistake,” Temperance said. “I am doing this as part of my sworn duty to The Guild. One failure to comply. Even a hint of committing a crime? I’ll turn you both in and wash my hands of this.”

“So we have a tentative, tenuous agreement,” Monty replied. “We stay in line and you help us complete this highly unlikely quest, and then we part ways freed from each other’s company forevermore.”

Temperance blinked as she considered what Monty had said. A brief smile flitted across her lips.

“Course, we have to take down an Archlich before we can say our goodbyes,” Aranza said. “Don’t you forget that little detail. Anyway, let’s get a move on. Sun’s gettin’ low and we need a place to rest our heads before we get moving.”

The dirt road wound its way into a small town. Curls of fireplace smoke snaked their way from chimneytops into the crisp, evening air, and leaves crunched underfoot as the trio walked along the dirt road towards the heart of the town. The town square was empty, the numerous stands and shops lining the road closed down and boarded up.

“Awfully quiet,” Aranza muttered.

Monty held a finger up. “No one say it,” he commanded. “Nothing good ever…”

“Too quiet, perhaps,” Temperance replied.

Monty hissed several choice Highborne cursewords as the realization crossed Aranza’s face.

There was a pained groan from small side street that ran alongside the Hidden Treasure Tavern and Inn. Monty and Aranza exchanged glances.

“Yeah, I’ll take the fall for that one,” Aranza said. “I started the cursed call.”

Temperance raised an eyebrow. “You can’t mean to tell me you believe saying a place is quiet caused something to happen…”

Monty wagged a finger. “Not that simple, no,” he said. “It’s a call. One person must comment on it being awfully quiet, and then the response of it being too quiet sets things into motion.”

Another groan, slightly louder, and muttered demands could be heard from the side street now.

Temperance walked past Monty and Aranza, her armor still gleaming despite the low light. Aranza stepped into her path, arms folded across her chest.

“Listen here, Pally,” Aranza said. “I may not like you, but if we’re stuck with you I can’t let you just blunder your way into that obvious trap.”

“Someone clearly needs aid,” Temperance replied. She stepped around Aranza, and didn’t bother to look back as she continued. “How sad it must be to see the world in such cynical terms.” She disappeared into the shadows of the side street.

“Gods damn it,” Aranza said before she stormed off after Temperance.

“You following her?” Monty called after.

“Have to,” Aranza called back. “We’ve been fitted for nooses too many times for me to test my luck again. You coming along or will I have to save her myself?”

“If you insist,” Monty grumbled as he ran to catch up.

A single, sickly looking Kobold leaned against a toppled trashcan at the end of the street. He opened his eyes as the trio approached, shut them again, and groaned.

“Kindly sir, are you hurt? What happened?” Temperance asked. “Fret not, for I am an envoy of the guild and I will aid you.”

The Kobold groaned louder again. “Closer, please,” he said. “The world grows dark and cold and I fear I have not much time, goodly traveler.”

Aranza threw a dagger into the darkness behind the trash heap. There was a pained screech and a muttering of foul language.

“By the Gods, what is wrong with you?” Temperance demanded. She spun around, hand on the pommel of her zweihander. Behind her, something shifted in the shadows.

Aranza produced two more daggers from her sleeves, having adopted a defensive stance. “You want to dance, Dwarf? I’ll knock some sense into you if these muggers don’t.”

Temperance cocked her head. A rustling behind her caught her attention, and she stepped just as a Goblin leapt forward with a polearm. Her weapon’s blade struck the stone wall of the neighboring shop. Sparks rained down onto the street.

“A false dead-end,” Monty observed as he fired his crossbow into the wavering stone wall. The bolt hit something, which grunted and toppled forward onto the Kobold, which shrieked in pain.

“They had a Bridge Troll,” Monty commented. “Good thing we did assist, I suppose, or we would be cleaning our friendly Paladin off of the walls.”

“And the street. And out of those nice window boxes of flowers over there,” Aranza added.

Temperance huffed. “Perhaps I misjudged the situation, I’ll concede,” she said over metal-against-metal of her sword being unsheathed. A soft, white glow emanated from within the blade. It filled the street and banished the glamoured shadows and false wall. Two more Kobolds ran out, one with a club raised above his head and the other with a frying pan.

“You die now!” shouted the one Kobold.

“We take your gold!” shouted the other.

One of the Kobolds was knocked backwards, the back door to the inn having been thrown open abruptly. A towering Wyvernkin with a slick, black ponytail hunched in the doorway.

“Keep it down out here, wouldya?” roared the Wyvernkin, obsidian flames flickering around his fangs. “I’ve got paying customers trying to get a good night’s rest, and they can’t with you buffoons brawling back here.”

“Forgive us, good Dragonfolk,” Temperance said as she wound up and delivered a gauntlet-bolstered punch to the remaining Kobold’s snout. It crumpled to the dirt, unconscious but still alive.

The Wyvernkin huffed, shook his head, and slammed the door shut.

“Made tidy work of them, I think,” Monty said as he looked around the alley. “Best check their pockets and see if they’ve got anything worth liberating from their ownership, yes?”

“Already on it,” Aranza replied as she rifled through the Troll’s collection of skulls converted into carrying satchels.

Reluctantly, rigidly, Temperance approached one of the Kobolds and retrieved his leather wallet. She felt a thud against her back, and spun to see Aranza.

“You got cozy with that real quick, didn’t you?” Aranza said, unable to suppress a laugh.

The color drained from Temperance’s face. “I…Well, they were criminals, and so this likely belonged to someone else. It’s best we reclaim it and look into finding its rightful owner.”

“Hate to break it to you, Pally, but the rightful owner of that handful of copper and the few shiny bits we get?” Aranza replied. “Probably dead. No need to feel bad for robbing the robbers.”

“This alley could have been our untimely grave,” Monty added. “One does wonder where such a questionable crew came upon such complex glamours, however.”

Aranza clicked her tongue. “Can’t ask ’em right now,” she muttered. “Suspect we’ll find out eventually, but best to leave the trash where it lies for now. Who wants to go grab a pint? Their treat.”

“Thought you’d never ask,” Monty said. They turned to leave the side street. Temperance cleared her throat loud enough that Monty and Aranza turned around.

“I…Well, perhaps…” Temperance said.

“Second round’s on you,” Aranza said. “No one’s checking if you’re using your money or theirs, though. Sound good?”

Temperance nodded, following along.

The front door to The Hidden Treasure was storm-and-sea-weathered wood, larger than a royal galleon. It swung open with a gentle push, the room behind it warm and welcoming and filled to the brim with life. Everyone fell silent as Monty, Aranza, and Temperance entered.

The barkeeper–the Wyvernkin who had knocked one of the Kobolds out earlier–glanced up from cleaning a goblet, sneered, and resumed his task. The trio made their way to the bar.

“What can I get you, uh, group of troublemakers,” the barkeeper grunted.

“Hail and well met,” Temperance said.

The barkeeper looked up, eyes narrowed. “Yeah, yeah, drop the formalities, would ya’?” he snarled. “I’ve paid our Guild dues for this lunar cycle and I don’t much care to have you goons buggin’ my paying customers.”

Temperance blinked. “I beg your pardon?”

“if that’s what you’re into, good for you,” the barkeeper said. “Just be into it elsewhere, yeah? I got customers behind you waiting to spend real coppers here.”

Monty gently maneuvered between Temperance and the bar and offered a gleaming smile. “Our friend means no ill will,” he said.

The barkeeper looked Monty up and down, frowning. “Don’t think I care much for you neither,” he said. “You, the Orc. The one good with throwing knives. You here to cause trouble?”

Aranza shrugged. “Depends on if trouble’s here to be had,” she shot back.

The barkeeper sighed. “Tell ya’ what,” he said. “These two prim-and-proper types with you?”

Aranza offered a curt nod.

“You keep them outta other customers’ business,” the barkeeper said. “You took care of Fangra’s goons, so you’re good in my book…There are others here who might not see you the same way, you hear me?”

“Clear as a bell, and twice as well,” Temperance replied, and immediately received an icy look from the barkeeper as a result.

“You must be a real treat at parties,” the barkeeper said. “Go tell Grimsby over there what you want. Food. Drink. Whatever. I’ll give you an okay discount, ’cause you’re just okay. You planning to spend the night?”

“There a room to be had?” Aranza asked.

“Only if you promise you won’t be around long,” the barkeeper said. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a bunch of half-dead crooks I need to clean up.”

Piece 14 – The Long Sunset

The Wolf was one and also many. It fractured into several wolves to launch complicated attacks on the Orcs, then gathered into one Wolf again when it struck at the Treants.

“How far do we have to go?” Curian asked Gnarlroot. The Treant raised a mighty branch and pointed. In the distance. A tree stump taller than a noble’s estate stood in the distance. A dull glow emanated from it, and Curian realized it looked like embers still burning.

“Kil’Gronn! Gnarlroot! Now’s the time!” Curian shouted.

A din of laughter arose from the Wolf. “It hardly matters.”

Gnarlroot and Kil’Gronn reached the remains, and a bright light erupted forth. In the distance, birds began chirping as a light breeze danced through the upper reaches of the trees.

“Thank the Gods,” Curian blurted out.

The chase continued, the charred remains of Elderbark just a few lumbering Treant steps ahead.

“Something’s not right,” Curian muttered.

A chorus of laughter rose up from the wolves that made up the Wolf. “You’re catching on, but will you figure it out before I claim your soul?”

Sophia looked around frantically as one of the wolves leapt from branch to branch. It swiped at her with its claws, only having narrowly missed as the Burlknot slammed it back to the ground.

“Hope your little, mountain-mud brain comes up with something,” Burlknot shouted with an offer of an unexpected smile. Curian chuckled; she took note of the insult and told herself she’d have to return the favor later.

If there was a later, of course.

The last several times they’d reached the remains played back in Curian’s mind.

“Kil’Gronn, do you trust me?” Curian shouted over the madness.

Kil’Gronn shrugged. “As much as I’d like to, which is only about half as far as I could throw you.”

Curian nodded. “Good enough,” she said. “Bet you could throw me pretty damn far. What about you, Gnarlroot?”

“Your heart beats like one who is not trying to deceive, and so I will afford you my trust,” Gnarlroot replied.

Sophia furrowed her brow. “I already know that look,” she shouted. “You’ve got something mad and foolish planned, haven’t you?”

“Hey, Gnarlroot! Throw me to the ashes!” Curian shouted.

The colossal leader of the Treants stopped suddenly. Curian held on with all of her strength, the rush of wind from the abrupt stop nearly throwing her from where she stood.

“Just do it, damn you!”

Gnarlroot plucked Curian from his upper branches as gently as they could, swung back the mighty branch that held her, and then released with as much calculated care a sentient tree of some thousand years in age could muster.

Curian soared through the air that spanned the distance between the chaos of the Wolf, the Treants, and the Orcs, her face pinned back by the wind. Her eyes watered and she tried to keep focused. The ashes arrived far quicker than expected, and Curian had only enough time to land with an awkward forward roll that narrowly avoided hitting the far edge of the depression in the mighty stump.

She fumbled with various concealed pockets without looking, her eyes fixed on the wolves as they coalesced into one massive form. Behind it, everything else had frozen in place.

“Here goes nothing,” Curian said as she retrieved a small tool she’d stolen from an Artificier at The Hobbled Drake Tavern after he had shared a few too many opinions with her about he she could be more appealing to the eyes. It was a simple box with a curious wheel at its top next to a small opening that occasionally stunk like bogwater.

Curian flicked the wheel. A small spark issued, but nothing followed. She repeated, watching as the Wolf reared back and leapt at her.

“Shit!” Curian shouted as she repeated the action one last time. The spark ignited, and she dropped the device into the heart of the Heart of the forest. The ashes erupted in brilliant green flames around Curian, though they did not touch her.

“Elderbark,” Curian said as she grasped for the right words. “I, uh…I release you to the next life. Your watch of this forest has ended, and a new one has begun. Rest!” She had little time to be proud of her eulogizing as the Wolf growled, prowling on the outer edge of the flames.

“I will tear the flesh from your bones first,” the Wolf snarled. “Then rend your pitiful soul from your body. I will savor it as your eternal screams roll down my throat.”

The flames burned brighter and brighter. There was an explosion of light outwards, rolling over every inch of the forest. Curian shut her eyes against its radiance, and when she opened them the Wolf was gone. She found herself standing at the foot of the tree stump, her hands shut tightly around something.

“One of the Pieces,” she gasped as she opened her fingers.

“Guess there’s more than dirt between those ears,” Burlknot said, roaring with laughter. The Orcs, slowly, joined in the merriment.

“Thank goodness you’re okay,” Sophia said as she was set down. “How did you know that would work?”

Curian scratched at the back of her head. “Call it a hunch, I guess?”

Sophia massaged her temples.

“That was very brave of you, little one,” Gnarlroot harrumphed.

Kil’Gronn stepped forward, bowing to Curian. Curian returned the gesture.

“Very brave indeed,” Kil’Gronn said. “You are welcome to visit my…” She hesitated, her attention briefly turned to the Treants.

“Our” Kil’Gronn corrected herself, “forest whenever you like.”

Curian smiled. “Only so long as you’re not trying to kill each other,” she said.

Kil’Gronn and Gnarlroot exchanged sheepish glances.

“I believe there is much mending of old wounds to be done,” Gnarlroot said. “As for you two, where will you go next?”

Curian looked toward the sunset, its last rays of light pooling high in the distance on snow-capped mountains.

Wanted Adventurers: An Unhappy Alliance

Aranza and Monty had been escorted to a small holding room–not a cell, the guard emphasized, as it had no bars and pleasant accommodations–while Temperance presented her case against being saddled with such criminals.

“She seemed very nice,” Monty said, leaning back in one of the antique, hand-carved wooden chairs in the room. Its legs creaked with alarm, and the guards at the door cringed visibly. It was a reaction Monty had discovered accidentally and decided to replicate as many times as possible.

Aranza shrugged. “Don’t care much for her.”

Monty raised an eyebrow. “You didn’t care much for me either when we first met, if I recall.”

“Don’t know what you’re on about,” Aranza shot back.

“You tried to murder me, I recall,” Monty said as he leapt to his feet and his chair fell backwards to the floor with an unfortunate thackathack of wood against stone. “The only thing that stayed your hand was your realization I wasn’t sent to govern over your fair city, but I had arrived to eliminate my uncle and free your people.”

Aranza looked away. “Not a proud moment for me, all right?”

There was a sharp knock at the doors. The guards both jumped, visibly startled. They opened the doors, and Temperance walked briskly past. Alistair walked in, his gait more theatrical than practical, and gestured for the guards to leave. They exited quickly, shutting the doors behind them.

Temperance exhaled slowly. She looked around the room as if intent on not looking at Monty or Aranza.

“Lord Alistair, I must protest,” Temperance said. She turned to face Alistair, scowling at Monty as her gaze passed over him.

Alistair sighed. “My good and thoughtful Paladin of the Guild, you have protested and your concerns have been logged appropriately.”

Temperance deflated, the words a pin lancing through the waterskin that held any hopes remaining of her escaping such a task.

“Now I happen to believe there’s good in the hearts of these two,” Alistair continued. “They’re lousy thieves or deliberate prisoners, and they don’t seem very good at either of those things.” He offered Aranza the warm smile of a parent who acknowledged their child’s insistence of not having taken a cookie while spotting the crumbs around their lips, and Aranza couldn’t help but smile in response.

Alistair glanced at Monty and offered a similar smile. Monty remained stoic.

“It should be little to no surprise that I did a bit of reading up on the two of you,” Alistair explained. “I think you two can learn a lot from Temperance, but I also think she can learn a lot from you two as well.”

“Forgive me if I am anything but doubtful,” Temperance replied.

Alistair shrugged. “Doubtful or not, Temperance of House Ravencroft, you succeed or fail with them. Their punishment becomes yours. Rough deal, but you know how Alexandros is. Spare the rod and spoil the child.”

Alistair produced a magnificent flask, a dragon whelp snaked around it with its head resting peacefully on the lid. He prodded the dragon with his finger. It stirred, snorted a small plume of smoke, and shifted just enough out of the way. The aroma that spilled in the room was as if someone had set an entire cart’s worth of sun-spoiled fruit on fire. Alistair took a healthy swig. He winced, but his face gradually melted into a more peaceful expression.

“Forgive me, but this makes bad news easier to deliver,” Alistair conceded. He reached into his cloak and produced a scroll held tightly shut with a deep purple wax seal. He held it out to Temperance, but before her fingers could close around it Monty had grabbed it away.

“This is some kind of twisted joke, yes?” Monty snapped.

Temperance tried to retrieve the scroll only to have it pulled from her grasp again, this time by Aranza.

Aranza turned the scroll over in her hands before fixating on the seal. “Guess you’re not taking many bets on how long will last, are you old man?”

Alistair shook his head, though he looked somber despite the potent spirit he’d indulged.

“If one of you could be so kind as to explain, please, as I am cursed with your presence as my wards as it is,” Temperance sneered.

Aranza waved the scroll in front of Temperance’s face. The Paladin narrowed her eyes, annoyed but patient enough, and finally grabbed it. She stared at the seal, then turned the scroll over in her gauntleted hands. At last, she frowned and looked to the others.

“I’m not familiar with this seal or these markings,” she conceded.

Monty clicked his tongue. “We would be so fortunate as to be blessed with the greenhorn Paladin.”

“Don’t be an asshole, Monty, because we’re in no better shape right now,” Aranza shot back. She stepped closer to Temperance, who reflexively backed away. Holding out one hand, she gestured to the scroll with the other. Temperance reluctantly handed it back over.

“Purple wax means magic user,” Aranza explained. “Unless the coding’s changed.”

Alistair shook his head. “You know how long it took us to get that nonsense sorted? It would take the Gods themselves to change it. Not even sure they could manage to achieve such a feat.”

“A simple yes would have sufficed,” Monty replied.

Aranza pointed to the seal again. “Purple means magic user, then, but this particular seal is awfully elaborate. The spikes around the edge and the symbols around the center tell a story, right?”

Alistair smiled. “Very clever,” he replied. “I don’t suppose you were once a Guild Initiate?”

“Used to steal Guild communications and sell them to put food on the table,” Aranza said with no further explanation. “Don’t know what they mean, but if I had to guess we’re going after a bounty. The big, ugly skull in the middle of the seal is what tells me we shouldn’t make any plans for the long-term.”

Temperance furrowed her brow. “If you know so little of reading these seals, how can you be sure?”

Monty stepped forward and exchanged glances with Aranza. “There are countless beings capable of wielding magic,” he said. “Even you can grasp that. The rest, however, and especially the skull? They point to a very specific variety of bounty we’ll be facing.”

Temperance opened her mouth to respond, closing it and opening it several times as the answer slowly dawned on her.

The world faltered, the nicely-furnished holding room–not a holding cell–suddenly replaced by a dark, subterranean tomb.

“And then you arrived here, eager to cause havoc at my expense?” Archlich Karaxis asked, an edge of impatience to his hollow voice.

Temperance shook her head. “Not so simply, no,” she replied. “I’m only just beginning.”