• -------

    Waxing ------- Moon, Day --, Year 43-

    Beneath the lifeless fortress of Marali, the silver-gray flicker reaches for a blade long absent from its sheath.

    Weird. He did not ever remember being without the crude dagger. When he made landfall in Lerilin, it was always at his side, ready to rapidly strike at necks and stomachs of beasties.

    Ants. Those overgrown creatures were a favorite of his. He'd killed more than his fair share, and the loot always sold for a good bundle at jewelry shops. Wondrous, glittering gold from the forager's follies.

    Now, though...rats. No, not the invective. Literal rats surrounded him, yet they ignored his presence. He wanted to drive them into the pungent waters, kick them away from him, but his wild flailing toward the rodents did nothing. Barring making him look an idiot, of course.

    He supposed he was dead. Except the world had never looked different, more varied in tone. Or maybe he didn't remember? Nah, the Ants. He'd remember colors as vividly as creatures.

    With life no longer a concern, he felt at once newbie and elder. How many moons was he when he started his adventure? A lot. The moon didn't reach into the Marali sewers, so he went by years. Probably at least in his forties, now. Geez, that was old.

    From a different time, he also remembered a companion. A young girl, sorta red-blonde. Better with a knife and more talkative than he was. Somehow, in this one, he was the younger, something of a little brother to her. Not more than twelve, thirteen years then.

    Didn't add up. Not that he was an expert at the maths, but a thirty-year gap couldn't even be explained by magic. Some real tomfoolery was at work, and this girl was involved.

    Take a chance and...find her? Nah, not good. Last time he'd seen her, something seemed knocked out of place. Maybe it was the ankle-deep saturation of blood on her robes, maybe it was the sorta-insect look in her eyes, maybe it was the mountain of dead rats around her after she finished. (He'd never imagined he'd feel bad for actual rats, but dangit, he did.) Regardless, he couldn't go that route. Even he knew of worse things than death.

    So where to go? ... Nowhere, really. He sunk into the floor and slept.

    (OOC: this is the first in a series to hopefully tie up--or at least acknowledge--some inconsistencies in my RP.)

  • Nial
    Empty Harvest Moon, Day 233, Year 446

    The Maralian ranger is nearly out of time.

    Sweat escaping the slot in his helmet, Nial runs for the gates of Marali. Forgetting to salute the evening patrol—as is custom for him—Nial’s hand latches onto the frost-laden axe, his eyes straining to find a tree with excess logs he could use. The dim light from the nonexistent moon cuts his vision.

    That pine, near the path? No, others have harvested it recently. Even though he’s far from an expert lumberjack, Nial can make out recent scarring on the tree’s lower third. Not more than two moons ago, by the looks.

    … Of course, with his lumberjacking knowledge knocked out of him from several deaths, Nial can’t even trust his perceptions. Before the moon ends and its increased bounties wane, Nial hopes to reclaim those fallen facts. Hence why he’s in a hurry to hit the larger Maralian evergreens with an axe, even when he would usually treat them with care.

    Hustling off the beaten path, Nial ventures toward Marali’s cemetery. According to a wizard he trusts, Commander Vaup has passed; perhaps she now rests in this cemetery. Nope, not Vaup’s style: she’d have wanted a funeral pyre to fit a warrior’s end.

    No matter. Nial feels his jaw tighten, an involuntary motion. Let the dead concern themselves with the dead, and the living their own. She…never had learned to pull others from the grey, so the distinction—and the permanence—was realer to her than most.

    Perhaps even now. Perhaps she never was made for these colors.

    Finding some sort of hardwood—an oak, maybe—Nial swings the magical axe to dampen his heartache. The hit’s a solid one, but this branch will need a few more to convert into a log of sorts. Nial brings the axe down in the same spot, and the resulting pattern soon makes the motion rote. Safe to zone out, at least until he hears the wood splinter.

    Beneath Nial’s mix of armor and grey robes, the temperature is sweltering. Curious, Nial muses, that this is a distinct contrast to the frosted weapon—almost painfully cold in his right hand—and Marali’s weather in general.

    A notice in the city claimed that the weather remains nice, and Nial had to chuckle. Maybe his time in Mirith was softening him, but the northern permafrost and drifts of melting snow said otherwise, to Nial’s amusement. Marali was already cold and miserable, and as the year wore on, it would only grow moreso. And Nial loved its harshness, loved the sting of cold air in his chest, and even loved the bolts of Marali’s potent magical creatures.

    The wooden limb in front of him made a splitting sound, and Nial checked for patrolsmen and armsmen in area. No one…as usual. No need to acknowledge the branch’s fall, and of course the host tree could not mourn its passing. With one final heave, the blade connects, the branch falls, and the snow muffles the thud.

    Not even the earth speaks in memorial of the branch.

    Ignoring such thoughts, Nial hauls the harvested log behind him and turns his attention back to the possible oak. His axe rises and strikes.

    Time passes. Next tree.

    Thinner, longer leaves on this one. A willow? No, they would not grow this far north; he knows this much almost for certain. Like the maybe-oak before it, the not-willow has no marks of recent harvesting, so it’s safe for him to carve up for lumber.

    One branch falls almost immediately, sooner than expected, yet Nial’s blade shifts in an inefficient manner. Gets dull that way. Getting duller faster than it used to, by his measure. Oh well, it wasn’t like there was a market shortage on frost axes. Even back then, no one would bother to create a stranglehold on them. He could acquire a new one without a fuss.

    Somewhere along the line, Nial regains his understanding of lumberjacking, recalls how to angle his blade to get a cleaner and often faster break. He tests it on the not-willow, almost nearing its limit of-

    The tree falls in front of him, mutilated. Only a stump remains, with sap leaking from the uneven cuts.

    “No,” breathes Nial. “Not now.”

    Snow is suspended in the air, floating flakes as large as his fingertips. Despite the grandeur of this, Nial has difficulty focusing on the green-white motes in the near-black night. The moon’s absence is palpable, even painful.

    Nial feels his head and breathing grow heavy, the hot air made into visible puffs by the night’s chill. His inhalation is more labored now than when he was lumberjacking, more uneven than when he was half-blind from pain and blood loss the time a…lich caused-

    With blooming anxiety, Nial arches his neck and aching head to follow the flakes. His gaze slowly drifts from tree trunks, to treetops, to empty space above him.

    Nial stifles a whimper. The snow is rising, ascending into the heavens that birthed it, rejecting the earth below. Like ancestral spirits summoned from their graves to the skies.

    “Elara pro-this c-cannot be,” Nial whispers to himself, closing his eyes. “I know that y-“ Nial gulps. “You’re not…real.”

    He does not like the tremor in his voice.

    Make it go away. Think of something happy. Think of how it felt to lift her, twirling her like a child. You both were children then, really. Think of how you-

    Assuming she was real, naturally. If she was a real, breathing, thinking person, and not some feminine ideal projected beside him.

    Nial stumbles away from the delirium-induced snow, tripping over a rotted log in his haste to retreat. Further from the path, closer to the cemetery.

    The frost axe sinks into the solid part of the decayed log. Hunched forward over its hilt for support, Nial regards the ascending snow.

    “You are a product of my mind,” he begins, grimly resolved to keep his voice even. “A fever-dream. Nothing more. Nothing that can harm me.”

    In the distance, Nial swears he hears something pass into the deeper brush of the Marali backyard. No. Too obvious. If something attacked him now, he would be ready for it…or at least as ready as he could be.

    Hefting him and the axe up, Nial points the weapon in the direction of the imagined disturbance. He’s been practicing using axes, and he could throw this one a full fifteen paces. Not accurately, of course. But Nial imagines the emotional impact of having an axe heaved your way would be significant.

    No further sounds. Nial returns the harvest.

    It only takes another dozen or so logs for Nial to feel nauseous. Pulling off a gauntlet, Nial sees the skin beneath has turned a sickly shade of purple. Poison. But from what? Nial strains his eyes, scanning his surroundings for movement.

    A bone mage steps forward, making an unkind remark about Nial’s hygiene. Sniffing the air—partially in smugness, partially to sense if he really is that filthy—Nial swings the frosty axe over his shoulder. Too dark for arrows. Instead, Nial opts for a magically altered broadsword at his belt. Best to fight magic with magic, he supposes.

    Unfortunately, this speedy broadsword is battered and dull, even rusted along the point from nicking a rust beast on the way into its sheath. This is going to be a long fight, which the bone mage seems to understand as it poisons him again.

    Nial sighs and checks the bandolier of potions along his chest. Oh. Only eight greater healing, and seven greater detoxifying potions. He did not restock from his bank stores. Could be a fatal mistake…

    Options? Run to the guards? No. Unsportsmanlike. Plus, Nial knows they understand his strength and would be disappointed if he could not fight the creature. Rush the undead mage, and hope for the best.

    Nial paralyzes the creature, then slices through its forearm for critical damage. The bone mage responds by running, though it seems slower than he anticipated. Nial feels the poison cut through his vitality, his heartbeat decreasing at an alarming rate.

    Two more hits, and the bone mage falls to its knees. Crawling away, it paralyzes Nial, trusting the poison to do the life-sapping work for it.

    Nial sighs, or rather attempts to sigh. Now would be the best time to drink some detox potions. Downing two, then a third, Nial draws his sword and shield and resumes his chase of the bone mage.

    Nial’s blade cuts into the bone mage, not as accurately yet faster than before. The bone mage bolts him once, twice. It is Nial’s turn to retreat and heal himself. Five heal potions, four detox left. Closer than he’d like.

    It takes another lucky strike at the bone mage’s spine to kill the fell magic user. Nial removes the bone mage’s skull and shoves its skeletal remains into a snowdrift. Not for preservation. He just doesn’t like looking at the things, friends of the…the l-liches in Skull Island’s catacombs. Unearthly monstrosities.

    Shivering in spite of his new collection of burns, Nial sheaths the broadsword of speed and decides to return to Marali. With the moon’s end within hours and his lumberjacking regained, he is best elsewhere. Perhaps the quartermaster needs help with supplies. He knows he’s added to their chainmail reserves, but maybe the archers have finally ran through Nimuialwing’s reserves of shafts? It’s worth looking into, without a doubt.

    Pulling a sled heavy with logs toward Marali, Nial salutes the guards at the gate. After all, with his captains and fellow armsmen long-absent, they remain his few stalwart allies. These soldiers love and protect his home, perhaps better than anyone.

    They are his brothers-at-arms, just as he is theirs.

  • (I have debated the mature content in this post but believe it's accurate to my character. If you are affected by dark or bloody content, I would advise against reading.)

    Day 75, Waxing Dancing Moon, Year 446

    Blackness. Blank space. Blind, confused movement.

    From her crouched position, Gasby stifles a giggle. It’s too amusing to watch these gooeys flail about like a baby cleric thrown into Leri’s bay without a raft (not that she has experience there…). All ‘cause of her sneakiness, all ‘cause of her stealth. Sweet!

    “One, two, three, four, five…” Gasby whispers to herself, inaudible to anything more than a pace away from her.

    Drop out of stealth. Dagger goes into the back. Maybe hit that darker green patch this time? Nah, no luck. Too bad.

    Back in stealth. Crouch down, behind a rock or boulder or just plain out in the open. These crate-shaped jerks don’t even have eyes, so it’s not like you have to go ham on ‘em. More than that, night just makes rogue-ing easy-tier.

    Drop the stealth a second time. Dagger in the back. Not quite enough to get the gooball going, but the next strike’s a crit, so there’s that. Ah. The gooey’s had enough. Now, the chase.

    Gasby thought it was ludicrous they always tried to run.

    It wasn’t like there was any choice in the matter. Running, standing and fighting. They were going to die, either way. Running just seemed…childish in a way. Like they couldn’t just roll with whatever.

    Even if that “whatever” was their deaths.

    Whoops. Their bad for not being good ‘nough to bring the fight to her, like dracos, or dragons, or even stone golems more times than she’d count.

    Too experienced—now, at least—to fall for her tricks, the gooey keeps an…eye?…on Gasby as it makes its not-so-hasty retreat. Gasby’s not sure how it sees her, but it does. Crouch down anyways, and angle the dagger down for a decimate.

    Gasby leans her weight forward on the blade, slashing from neck to knee. Ummm…on a human-like figure, anyway. For gooeys, it’s more like top-to-bottom.

    A…miss. The blade gets empty air.

    Dang, she thought she was better than this. Maybe the gooey should live to see another day.

    Gasby stands in place, watching with a grin as the gooey splooshes its frantic way toward Mirith’s jail. Maybe…it could stage a riot there. Rouse the rebels. Cause a mass outbreak and equally mass hysteria.

    Or instead! Start a prison blues band. Bring in a harmonica, some spoons to drum with (or stab with)!

    The blade tears the gooey in two uneven hunks. Goo spills over Gasby’s feet like a wave of congealed blood.

    Nah. Not today.

    Disinterested in the dead body, Gasby grabs an empty bottle and runs it through the worst of the goo.

    Or the best of the goo! Never hurt to be a little optimistic, now and again. Smile never leaving her face, Gasby puts a stopper in the goo-filled bottle and pockets it.

    Seems like it spewed out a few coins when it got ganked, too. Gasby pulls ‘em into her pouch already full of them, then runs back down to see if the gooey had any friends or family that want to die, too.

    They do.

    A few hours later, Gasby is bored. She needs better prey, something that can actually hurt her on occasion. Really, how the heck’s she supposed to get stronger, if they keep dying so dang fast ‘n’ easy?

    They don’t even drop the good stuff, like Nial claimed they would. The…rings of protectiveness or however it is.

    Northeast it is, then.

    Draco country.

    It takes her the better part of a day to get up north enough for the forest dracos to appear. When the first one does, it’s got a buddy: a snake!

    Gasby used to hate snakes. Her neck tinges at the thought…but it’s not so bad now. Snakes are just slithery puppies with snaggleteeth.

    One decimate and crit later, it’s toast. Nah, cake. She likes sweets better than boring old bread…though she has enough of that to last freakin’ years.

    The ‘co is a bit of a problem. That’s actually a good thing! She can survive a bite, maybe two (on a lucky day), so it’ll be a lesson in reacting quickly to an attack.

    Two backstabs in, one that partially severed one of the ‘co’s underdeveloped wings. That’ll hurt it, for reals.

    Then, the predictable: Gasby jumps out of her crouch a second too soon, alerting the ‘co to her presence. It turns almost faster than the eye can follow, and her dagger nicks a scale on its foreleg.

    The ‘co’s maw clamps down on her forearm, rending flesh and damaging bone.

    Gasby suppresses a scream.

    It’s not really the pain.

    Okay, it’s partially the pain. More surprise, though.

    Run. Pull your arm out before it tosses you like a voodoo doll, and run.

    Gasby yanks her limb away from the draco. More skin gone. The white of bone is noticeable even with a glance. Ducking behind a tree, Gasby tries to clench the hand, finds it won’t work.

    Another hit will probably take off the arm, and the shock’ll be enough to kill. Time for a potion or two.

    Popping the dagger in a pocket (she doesn’t bother with sheaths for her weapons: too boring), Gasby then swigs from a champagne bottle full of greater healing potion. She doesn’t like looking at it as it works—cutting things apart is cooler than fixing them—but she can feel the gristle and goop in her arm all sewn up. Magic’s nice.

    Back in the battle. With her dagger back in her newly healed hand, Gasby cuts through the remaining fibers in the ‘co’s damaged wing, ripping a hole in its neck armor on the way out.

    Gasby snorts. Looks stupid with just one flappy thing left. Better kill it fast, and then take off the other one. So they’d match.

    It takes her most of another hour, but the draco’s corpse looks a lot less silly, though a lot more bloody, with both of its wings gone. And its teeth could help a wizard or druid or even dumb old cleric with their spells!

    Gasby kicks part of the ‘co away and steps forward to regard the wings. Should she keep them? Maybe a tailor could get them rigged up in a costume. She could be a little pixie girl, fluttery and fluffed. Do her hair—after a much-needed washing—and slick on some rouge she could lift from a noble in Mirith. Get all the boys.

    Gasby snickers. Not like she feels anything for them, or anyone else that would find her sweet or innocent. Especially not Nial, even though he did have a fairer picture of her than most.

    Still no idea how she ever had liked Nial, years ago. She’d heard the term “schoolgirl crush” thrown around the Red School of Magic a time or two—Cassandra was kinda old, but Gasby had to admit not bad looking—and it sort of fit what she had felt toward him. Up to a point.

    The rest of it? Nial was the first person to look out for her. Some of the soldiers wanted gold, or jewels, or…whatevs…from the rogue, but Nial just wanted her to be “a proper soldier of Marali.” His words, not hers. And that meant free food, free potions, and worst (best?) of all, free training.

    And he’d failed.

    When was it she stopped caring? Stopped feeling any of this was worth it?

    Nial was gone, at the time. Gasby didn’t know to where, probably helping with the evac of Marali’s shopkeepers or something goody-good like that. That was so like him.

    Gasby was stuck in the sewers. Commotion above. With more rats than she could count coming her way, Gasby risked the ascent. Sticking her head up, she looked at the forge room in Marali’s keep.

    A brigand. Even though she’d never seen one herself, she’d heard stories. She knew the cheap armor style, knew the ratty old long swords. Knew the reek of stale alcohol that followed their kind.

    Gasby’s breath escaped in a halting gasp.

    No. They shouldn’t be there, not with the Marali regulars as good as they were. Had someone sabotaged-

    Greasy hands, pulling her up by the neck.

    Voices, overlapping in similar tone and sentiment.

    “…to string ‘er up from da…”

    “…too young to be o’ much use…”

    “…back down in wit’out…the rats have her…”

    Death. This was death. She was going to die, and she’d not be in a position where she’d get a new body. Or worse.

    Gasby was almost relieved that she couldn’t find the air to yell.

    And it was worse.

    In the present, still standing over the draco’s corpse, Gasby’s smile falters. Four words.

    They’d rounded up a bunch of urchins, street thugs and teens that tried to fight back. Some who’d hid and lashed out when cornered. She never had a choice.

    Four words.

    They’d torn down the fencing and roof of the stable, made it into something like a platform. Lined all of them up. Gasby included.

    Four words.

    They’d tied their hands and ankles, made them kneel, heads down. Forced a bag of something gritty and acrid between her teeth, until a brigand leader saw her and spoke.

    Four words.

    “Jus’ let her watch.”

    Gasby blinks, plastering the smile back on her moistened face. No weakness, no sense of doubt. No choice for anyone who opposes her, not anymore.

    It’s easier this way, really. Cleaner, if you can ignore the blood. She wrecks things, as many as she can. Sometimes, they scream, like the giants. Sometimes, they beg for mercy, like the trolls. Sometimes, she starts to feel a glimmer of revulsion, faint shock at-

    Nah, it’s all good. Just a part of her routine, watching that glimmer of life drop from ‘em. Other times, when there are peeps around, dudes and chicks, armored humans that remind her? The champagne in her flask helps with that, and she’s got a few good hits left in it.

    Leaving the torn draco wings in her wake, Gasby carves her way toward the cannibal’s shack. Time to spend an hour with someone who understands her.

  • Gasby
    Day 116, waxing Dancing Moon, Year 445

    As far as dead things go, Gasby is extra-dead.

    She can’t even make out the remains of her corpse, trampled and eaten, or just eaten, by the ice dracos and frost spiders that live down here. Respectively.

    There’s a fancy word for you.

    Anyways, she hopes the Rogue Token (capital “arr” and “tee” for the rare items, Nial would say) and the scales give them inda…indeega…

    … Tummy problems.

    Maybe they’d have a fit and spit ‘em back up, for her to collect…nah, who was she kidding? She wasn’t that dang good. She couldn’t kill three spids and two ‘cos before the time was up, and their relatives found her and pounced like clockwork, same time different day…

    Why did being undead always make her so unfocused?

    Another “un” added to that list: unfair. Unfun, too, but mostly unfair. She’d been the one to suggest dumping Yandor’s corpse as bait for a few ‘cos, let him walk o’ shame his way back to Duldrus from the ice dungeon.

    Pretty dang poetic justice that she got nibbled on the way out, and they left her corpse behind just as fast-like. Not so poetic justice that she lost good junk. Stuff she didn’t trust Nial to put in a “display case” and forget about when she asked about it.

    Not really so unfair, now that she thought about it. Plenty o’ time to ponder stuff, drifting on lighter-than-air feet (which would have been cool, minus the hideous color scheme the ghost-world had going on). It was a long walk—umm, “float”—back to the ladder up top.

    Usually slicked with ice and motes of snow, the wooden ladder felt like…insubstantial, temp-lacking metal. Turns out ghost hands don’t pick up cold or rough planks of wood.

    Outside was daylight. If you used your imagination, kinda. Sunbeams filtered through the grey hue of dead people, mixed with the thick, snow-spreading clouds made the sunny landscape more sucky than spiffy.

    Meh, close enough.

    Gasby drifted over the icy northern oceans, landing in Duldrus near the GYPSY guild hall. Its lone guard greeted her with a wordless stare. Stoic as always, this guy.

    All right. Now, she just had to grab a few ginseng to sell, maybe a crystal or three, and she’d have enough gold pieces to rub together and turn into a dagger. At the smithy’s place. Gasby wasn’t literally transmorgrifying gold into knives; her talents were stabbying and sneaking (in that order), not being made of magic.

    Springing out from around the corner of a shop, a gaper poisons her, its stalks flailing in sheer joy as she nearly throws up from nausea.

    Welp, completely unexpected. That’s why she hated poison, back a few moons.

    Limping back to the GYPSY guard, Gasby shakily ducks around the corner and stealths out of sight, watching from safety as the guard easily dispatches the gaper.

    Now slightly cooked by a gaper’s lightning bolt, the guard then returns to his post.

    Severely poisoned, Gasby pulls herself near the guild hall. It’s a challenge to walk.

    The guard walks three paces in front of her, refusing to acknowledge her presence.

    Gasby bites her lip, deciding to up the ante. She spits out several blood-covered teeth in the direction of the guard. There.

    Seemingly taking a half-step toward her, the guard’s head faces her direction…only to walk easterly again.

    In a few seconds of confusion, pain, and frustrated resignation; Gasby collapses and dies.

    Another fresh body. Gasby looks at the guard for a long, disapproving minute. What’s with that dude? Even people that spoke a less hissy kind of Common threw her a few detox potions when she needed ‘em. Was there any human…ness under that metal coat? Did he even have that flicker of life left in ‘im?

    Sometimes, Gasby didn’t think so. They were basically auto…aww-toe-mah-tawns. Mech-stuff, like gears and wires and crap, powering something it did with its metal shell. (In the case of guards, that was stab a lot.)

    It didn’t matter, and she didn’t care about this guard. Kill him somehow? Nah, too much work…and he had killed the magic eyeball for her, after all.

    Gasby grabs the stuff from her corpse and walks into a shop to sell it.

    The person’s only giving 1 gold per ginseng? With a dagger costing like 20 of them, this is going to take forever…

    Curious, Gasby walks to the smithy. The shopkeeper offers new, average-quality daggers for 30 gp.

    That’s half again what she expected to pay. Too much to be possible.

    Some inhuman hissing noise oozes out from Gasby’s mouth. No. She’s gotten enough retribution already. This?

    Gasby’s vision flickers, colors tinged unnaturally bright.

    This crap is more than she can take.


  • (2/2)

    Rafting along the southwestern edge of Duldrus, Gasby clutches the not-so-new dagger in her hand like a different girl might latch onto her lover’s hand. How she got it isn’t the important thing: it’s just great that she has a knife again. Time for some revenge.

    The first gaper goes down without a hitch. Two backstabs and a normal strike or two later, and it’s cake. The second’s the same. Third one gives her some problems, but a few potions fix up her battered knuckles and everything fresher, and it dies.

    Now, for the fourth one…

    Gasby first misses her backstab, and the danged gaper launches an explosion at her. She couldn’t survive more than another one of those.

    The second backstab is misjudged, and Gasby accidentally shears off one of the gaper’s eyestalks. Virtually harmless, since most gapers have more than six (and only really need two or three for their telescopic vision).

    Another explosion. Blood flowing from a missing portion of her torso, Gasby slumps behind a copse of trees. The gaper’s hurt; she just needs one more good stab. Focus.

    Shrink down behind the tree. Wait a minute…now stealth. Stealth. Come on, stealth.

    It isn’t that hard to-

    Gasby hears the unmistakable sound of flesh searing, and suddenly her vision is gray.

    No. Revenge is not best served dead. This freak’s gonna pay for what it did.

    A march back to the GYPSY guild hall. Another body.

    She misjudges where her corpse lays, and the gaper sees her before she sees the body.

    An explosion ends her second life.

    No. Make it pay.

    A third or fourth body. She’s starting to lose track of her deaths.

    It doesn’t matter. The gaper—too idiotic to wrap its eyestalk around her weapon and lift her dagger away—has given her the tool she needs to kill. And she has it back.

    Just need to stealth behind that copse of trees before it comes around the…

    No. Why won’t it work? And why did the gaper choose to bolt her?

    It floats away from her corpse, deeming it unworthy of closer inspection.

    Back to GYPSY.

    New body, new plan. Grab the items, run. Recover more health. Then—and only then—sneak up behind the gaper and end it.

    Gasby grabs her limited inventory, and the gaper spots her from twelve paces away.

    Running behind a tree, Gasby waits. Regardless of her health, the power boost from the gaper’s kills grants it the strength to kill her in one bolt.

    It closes the gap. She stealths, no issue this time.

    The gaper passes within two paces of her. Perfect…

    The motions are like lovely clockwork.

    Dagger punctures the gaper’s body. The fantastic, fulfilling sense of metal parting rubbery hide. The copper-scented blood drizzling out in a stream of crimson gold. It’s so pretty.

    Gasby relishes the kill, taking time to pick apart the gaper’s corpse for anything useful.

    When that’s over and the body is an unrecognizable collection of pieces, Gasby wipes a bit of the blood onto a bush and sets out for Mirith.

    She’ll have to remember that guard, back in Duldrus.

    As she passes the rock maze near Mirith, Gasby feels a sick quietness in her heart. It’s pointless. This journey to the ice dungeon, the deaths to gapers, even the revenge at the end of it all. Everything could die, and it wouldn’t affect her. Welp, she’d be dead, of course, but if everything that would hurt her were gone, it wouldn’t magically make things better.

    And they’d all just come back a few minutes or hours later, just like they always do. Nothing stays dead around here for long—herself included.

    Entering the gates of Mirith, Gasby glower at the guards, the hilt of her knife gripped so tightly it cuts into her hand. If one stands in her way…

    For once, none do.

    It takes almost until the bank for her to notice where she is, and that people are looking at her. Public. Right. The bane of her existence as a rogue (difficult locks and traps excluded).

    If they built a bank for her junk in the middle of the woods, she swears she’d never leave.

    But that’s never gonna happen, and she has other things to worry about.

    Chin up, eyes half-closed. Smile glued on like a canvasser’s ad for night vision potions. Pretend the grey robes are the finest grandmaster protective ones.

    It’s not so hard, even though she’s still bleeding. Heck, she’s had several moons of practice. Years, even.

    A solitary, armor-clad figure watches Gasby approach. She’s prepared to drop into stealth and avoid the loser—if only because she doesn’t like being gaped at (as evidenced by what happened to the gapers). When she sees the oddly colorful and pseudo-duck on his armband, however, Gasby stops. That’s the Marali Vanguard’s goofy emblem.

    Nial. Boring, but definitely not a loser—in fact, Gasby has to admit to some grudging respect for the guy.

    But just because he was familiar, didn’t mean he should be treated any differently.

    “Hey, Nial. What’s up?” Gasby begins, reclining against a pillar. Too easy.

    “Likely going after hill giants in an hour or two,” Nial remarks. He stops, inspecting her bloodied robe. “As for you…it appears you have not had the best day.”

    Gasby feels her lip curl. In disgust or anger? Doesn’t matter, like a lot of stuff these days.

    Nope, don’t break the illusion. Smile back. Gasby even forces a short giggle.

    “You could say that, I guess,” she says. “It was gapers. Bunches and bunches of gapers.” Of course, she didn’t run into them at once, but Nial doesn’t need to hear that.

    “Foul beasts,” Nial says, sounding like he’s talking behind gritted teeth and his normal helmet. “They fall easily to my arrows, but I’m aware they’re tough for rogues.”

    Gasby tries to come up with a response. It’s hard, gauging how to get Nial to leave her alone the fastest.

    “Yeah…about that. Say, could you go to Duldrus and shoot a few of them redeyes? I was hoping to collect some gaper eyes, so it’d be sick.” Basically true, come to think of it.

    Instead of replying, Nial hands her a new yellow protective robe, along with a green magically resistant one.

    “One second. Getting daggers,” says Nial, grabbing a handful of ingots and his blacksmithing hammer. Gasby slumps against the pillar, too stunned to stop him.

    Not more than ten minutes later, Nial comes back with two still-smoldering daggers. Wisely, Gasby sets them down on the bank steps to cool.

    In spite of the pointlessness of her doomed descent into the icy dungeon, in spite of the gapers killing her several times, in spite of the stillness revenge gave her…Gasby feels a flicker of hope, even happiness. A grin blooms on her face, no focus needed.

    She can’t quite say anything.

    Hoping to fill the silence, Nial launches into some dull-as-giants story that involves a bone mage, Laricen, and a black rose, but Gasby’s tuned out his voice. She sits down beside her freshly forged daggers, looks to the sky, and watches the sun rise.

  • Nial
    Days 170-172, Lucky Moon, Year 445

    Duldrus's air hangs thin in Nial's chest, the coldness of the crisp autumn worsening his labored breathing. A noble evergreen appears in Nial's path, and he darts around it, firing another arrow—this one launched between two branches.

    Nial finds himself running often these days, an unfortunate result of his perpetually late plans and payments. In contrast to his usual rush toward or from a dangerous beast—or to barter down a bill or settle a debt—Nial's hasty retreat stems from one gargantuan enemy.

    In his moment of inattention, Nial watches in horror as the titan catches up to him.

    Evergreen partially toppled. Footfalls shake the earth. Red slashes for eyes. A wall of boulders for the remainder. A low rumble like a tremor. Impact to his chest. A sound like tree limbs popping. And then pain that blinds him.

    Nial grits his teeth and fires the aimed shot into the mass, anyway.

    His training holds, the arrow slicing into the margin of the stone golem's "torso"...if you could call the shifting, grinding form humanoid, that is.

    And then—because even Nial knows how pointless it is to fight these creatures alone—the Rogue appears, using decimate to take not quite a tenth of its health.

    The stone golem stumbles for a split second—even these giants feel pain, it seems—and Nial takes the opportunity to stare down his bow, aiming a second aimed shot.

    The stone golem trips toward him, no more than two paces away.

    A different man would know that a second hit could very well kill Nial. A wiser man, one less concerned with archaic codes of honor, would abandon the damaging attack to drink Potions, retreating as he did so.

    The Captain was also so risk-adverse. Plan before, and avoid needless danger. Do not do something foolish, something needlessly heroic.

    But the stone golem nearly turned delimew into armor-clad paste, and Nial feels a silent rage that can only be sated with this aimed shot.

    Short bow at full draw, Nial holds his position.

    The stone golem swings, and Nial's breastplate makes a horrific shattering noise. But Nial's shot rings true, glancing off a ruby-like eye.

    delimew appears again, delivering a potent decimate for a visible amount of damage.

    Nial feels his muscles quake in pain, no longer able to support his bow. Without looking at the mess of his own torso, Nial can feel exposed ribs shift loosely in his chest cavity.

    Even a determined Harpie could kill the Marali Ranger, at this point. Time for Potions.

    Nial tosses back three Greater Heal Potions before his ribcage is magically patched together. And even after that, he can feel the sharp edges of shattered metal stab his pectorals with each step. Armor will need reps, sooner than later.

    Emerging for another sneak attack, delimew and his dagger take another piece of stone from the golem. It has been three hours, now, but the murderous beastie looks half-dead.

    Leading the way back to Mirith via the unusually clear path, Nial watches again and again as his attacks do almost no perceivable damage to the stone golem, and deli's gouge and tear holes in its diamond-hardened hide.

    After another hour, blood flows freely from their quarry, At last, the fight will soon be over! Raising his bow, Nial cannot help but imagine the thousands of gold pieces awaiting him from the sundered body of the rock-covered creature.

    The stone golem's injuries regenerate, the blood loss negated.

    Behind his helmet, Nial's mouth opens, then closes. It settles into a hard line as Nial lines up another aimed shot. Nial extends his draw to an almost impractical extend, his arms straining to aim the shot.

    And the arrow cuts into the golem's eye, cruelly embedded. Once again, blood flows unrestricted from the stone golem.

    And Nial feels something he almost immediately regrets: pride.'s true. He's proud of his ability to fire into the eye of a stone golem, proud that the arrow stuck.

    As wrong as it may be, Nial feels a sense of pride in his killing role. When deli stabs the construct twice more and it falls, Nial feels a smile flit across his face. And when he inspects crumbled remains of the SG, he feels his heart surge at the sight of several thousand pieces of gold.

    ... Nial remembers when he first killed a dragon. Back then, he could convince himself he respected the sentience of the creature even as his sword carved into it.

    Brigands? They were certainly thinking men, but their wrongdoings were too great for him to feel any regret over killing them. It always was a double standard, then. Except...even worse. A triple, quadruple standard?

    Jolted from his morality daydream (or nightmare) by movement, Nial's sharp eyes see delimew shift a step closer to the stone golem's remnants. Probably getting a bit impatient.

    "A Jade Pin!" Nial announces, feeling his mouth curl into something childlike and carefree. They are an uncommon item, to be sure, but no one has ascertained their purpose. Perhaps a city or village inhabitant somewhere was starting a jewelry shop?

    deli seemed uninterested in this new item, so Nial pockets it and asks if deli would like to fight a final stone golem. He assents, and the pair makes their way back to Duldrus. Laughing and joking, Nial's formal vocabulary drifts back to a younger time. Almost reminiscent of a different rogue...

    As much as he finds Gasby's mode of conduct unbecoming, he wonders how much he was like her, years ago. After all, many adventures and a long rest have dulled his memories, and he can never again know what he was like.

    It gives him some measure of sympathy for the young rogue.

    Making their way through the first valley, Nial and deli encounter a familiar SG, the scar from a backstab just visible on its skin.

    Nial wonders if this is the stone golem that they encountered when battling its companion. Second one probably heard the sound of Nial getting crushed and wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

    And as deli backstabbed it, rooting it to the spot with paralysis, he told it to, "stay!" And—even more remarkably—the stone golem listened. Nial feels his face break into a grin. Hilarious.

    And unlike its partner, this stone golem goes down without harming either Nial or delimew.

    Stepping into the scattered boulders of the SG, Nial takes a look at the gold. His eyes widen. A true fortune, on this SG! Even if the Lady Moon was not as Lucky as he would have liked, the raw profits from this dangerous business far exceed his expectations.

    Feeling jubilant only partially because of the company, Nial walks back to Mirith, delimew seeming to listen to a story Nial cannot hear. Their packs hang heavy against them.

    And what a haul it is! They each receive thousands of gold pieces, and their inventories are filled with rare books and flora.

    Nial feels his hands clench. This is wonderful. If he finds a worthy buyer, why, he can make easily twice what he did today. The Ancient Tomes, especially...since a man regularly trades a popular variety of black robe for a single book (the fool), he can make thousands for almost no work.

    The expedition was not entirely an opportunity for him and deli to catch up, of course.

    Putting a few of the items in his personal account, Nial resolves to run a portion of them up to his guild hall. They would make good decorations, and the guards can have them. For now.

    As he organizes the remaining flowers, Nial feels the briefest flicker of hollowness. These are not what he was looking for: he needs weapons, rings, and silver to fight...them. The abominations. These are beautiful, but owning them is an empty victory. He's wasting his time in Duldrus.

    No, that is untrue. Nial moves his head in an invisible half-shake. If nothing else, he thoroughly enjoyed himself, and he imagines Duldrus appreciates a few less terrors slowly pursuing its miners. And the Roses were a joy to find, too.

    The Lucky Moon fades, and it seems his search will have to continue elsewhere. Perhaps a certain red-clad Wizard would have better methods of facing down abominations. Perhaps even Gasby would have turned up something in her searches.

    The answer to his phobia will appear someday. He merely has to be receptive, and have limitless resources to buy and trade for it.

    His hand still clenched, Nial walks out of Mirith's east gate. He has an appointment with a legendary wizard. What a day this will be.

  • Vanguardius
    Day 45, Fighting Moon, Year 445

    Sniff. Sniff sniff.

    Muzzle raised to the winter Maralian air, the young Wolf senses a familiar creature. Met a while ago. Vague inkling of knowing, with the odor the biggest draw.

    "Claim Vanguardius," the metal-clad animal barks. Movement. Anxiety, and a desire to open jaws and shut around skin, but strangely numbed by the boy's words.

    Lifting. Moving through space. Vanguardius would have torn the guy's long fleshy trunk open, except everything's so beautiful and calm and safe. Vanguardius knows they don't like being bitten there, even when it's a compliment.

    Two-legged ones are incomprehensible. Especially in their metal casings.

    Vanguardius finds that she has been unceremoniously dropped at the side of this familiar and shiny guy, and that he's glancing at her, expecting something.

    She looks back at him, opens her mouth, and lets her tongue roll out. The thing in charge of her makes a pleasant rumbling sound, and pets her head. It feeds her an ash-scented fish, which she chokes down. More out of obligation than any liking.

    She has to guess it's something to get used to. And the thing is motioning her forward with an upper-foot. She might enjoy the fish later, after a long walk.

    As Vanguardius follows the figure out of the city, it strikes her that it's colder than usual, especially without the bright-scary heat lights, which smell like cooked wood and sometimes—more excitingly—burnt animals.

    Vanguardius wonders why they never invited her to eat, especially when it was properly fresh and bloody.

    For now, though, they're approaching a gross place, which smells like dust and decay and dry stillness.

    Sniff. Sniff.

    Something ahead!

    A white two-legged one steps from behind something tall and metallic, and the two-legged in metal runs.

    Which makes no sense. It would be easy for him to crush those weak and old-smelling parts. It has no meat.

    And as the glittery, hard-shelled one at long last turns to fight, he yells, "Attack!"

    Time to show him how easy these things go down to chomps.

    The figure knocks at the creature's legs, paralyzing it for a split second. Vanguardius manages to tear a few toes off its foot.

    Which taste so bad, Vanguardius has to spit them out. Bark.

    Still, the next two bites break one of the bones in its legs, and the tall animal's slicer makes a fine dust rain down on the Wolf.

    Next to her, the two-legged figure swings and misses. His next strike hits, but the situation has already changed

    Suddenly, Vnaguardius feels a splitting pain as the white two-legged weakling cuts into her back, tearing open the flesh above one of her legs. She ignores the pain and bites again.

    The sparkle-shell fighting alongside her redoubles his efforts, frantically hacking into any exposed body parts of the ghastly white creature.

    So it's a bit of a surprise to Vanguardius when the creature strikes again, this time opening a wound across her scalp.

    Fear clouding her thoughts, Vanguardius blindly picks a direction and flees from the pale one that has maimed her. It matches her speak, threatening to catch up if she runs the wrong way.

    The striking of blade on bone rings out, and Vanguardius hears the creature fall on the frozen grass.

    Someone says something, and Vanguardius feels an inescapable urge to stand still. A soft touch tries to put something on her, and she resists, biting into metal and pushing with her forepaws.

    The presence stops, then quickly drapes something over her head. Cloth. She feels the blood wet the soft surface, and though it does little to heal the wound, it makes her feel a little better.

    The tall and metallic one next to her feeds her another few of those pungent fish, which taste a lot better after a big fight, apparently.

    Returned to the city, only to find herself pulled to another one. A similar place of dust and stagnation.

    Many more fights follow. Vanguardius bites enough of the white, meatless ones that her teeth start to dull, but soon enough, her body feels a little stronger.

    It takes some time for her shiny companion to notice, but when he does, he compliments her increased size and gives her another fish. She gobbles it down, finding that she really likes it, this time. An acquired taste, then.

    It seems like they go through an endless number of those hollowed-out pale ones. Sometimes, the two-legged one just grabs their head and yanks it off. Other times, they make a weird clicking noise, which always makes Vanguardius's ears perk up.

    Mostly, though, they just die quickly, and the silvery creature occasionally rewards her with a fish or fishes.

    Soon enough, Vanguardius's body grows even stronger from the exertion. Petting her on the neck, the man offers two more fish. Though she's not hungry, she eats them without complaint.

    Soon enough, they're leaving the dusty, dead place behind, and heading back into the two-legged home...which smells like fresher fish than the ones it's feeding her. Vanguardius feels a low whine escape her mouth, which the metal-coated one ignores.

    They continue through the settlement, outside of the city, and head toward the setting sun. Intent on reaching some distant destination in a hurry, the man's footsteps are fast and sure. Vanguardius has to jog to keep up.

    Even as they go through the forest, Vanguardius smells the two-legged in a large, stale-scented building. She wants to go look at the building and smell the two creatures there, but the creature with her plows forward. She feels an odd sense of attachment to him, in spite of the lack of fleshy foes to feast upon.

    Soon enough, Vanguardius smells another such building, this one near rocky foothills. Closer, however, is the scent of a sweaty two-legged one, which barrels toward her steel-shined creature and swings a sharp-edge at him.

    Vanguardius hears the order to "Guard!" and springs into action, her teeth gnashing against tendons and anklebones.

    The metal companion misses his slowing attack, and pauses in surprise as he prepares another.

    Meanwhile, Vanguardius has torn into the bulky, stinky creature's calf. It turns on her and splits open her back.

    Nearly dead from shock, Vanguardius flees. Blind and unfocused from fear, she nearly runs into a tree.

    "Move!" orders the man, which confuses her. Move? But she needs to run, to escape the-

    She turns around and finds the sharp-edge leveled in her direction.

    Fiery agony. Howling.