Post-Apocalyptic Relic Hunting Strike Force

The Legend of Tsua Goua Jo

The summer night hummed around Blaine the gnome; crickets, frogs and owls were all noisily searching for lovers. Blaine had spent the first few hours of his night watch staring dreamily up through the sparse tree cover into the stars. He accustomed himself to the sounds of this valley; the wind in the poplars, the snores of his sleeping companions, the animal mating chorus surrounding them. Once he was certain he would sense any foreign sounds he opened his pack, pulled out an extra tunic and a copper piece, then murmured a cantrip. A gentle light emanated from the copper piece. Blaine pulled the tunic over the coin, leaving only a faint glow that illuminated a few inches in any direction. His reading light readied, Blaine studied the object his tunic had protected. It was a weathered vellum folio of disparate pages. The pages had clearly not been intended to be bound together; some of the sheaves of vellum looked much older than others and many of the pages were of differing sizes. Blaine had taken this folio from the estate of Gwinnett Aidennson on the banks of the North River. Given the madman who had occupied the dwelling, Blaine did not feel too guilty liberating some of the older volumes from the library. He had already skimmed the more promising tomes he had relieved from the estate, but since his initial once-over this folio had remained unopened. Blaine suspected the contents wouldn’t amount to much, but wizards, as a rule, cannot resist unread manuscripts. Blaine’s slight fingers quickly flicked through sheaves of old vellum. The folio began with a treatise on ogres that, from the look of it, was not particularly accurate. Then came a pre-cataclysm report of “Zangqu swamp monsters”- likely imaginary creatures or greatly embellished water nagas. Blaine’s fingers flicked faster. A description of the minor artifact, The Talisman of Zagy (Blaine yawned), The Legend of Tsua Goua Jo, how to cook an owl bear…
Blaine heard a raspy voice inside his head.
“Wait! Go back.”
It was the voice of Blaine’s deity, mentor, and occasional carousing companion, Dawgg the Party God.
“You wanna know how to cook owlbear, Dawgg?"
“Not that one! Read the one before that, grasshopper!"
Blaine looked perplexed.
“The Legend of Tsua Goua Jo? You probably never went to wizard school, Dawgg, but every first year student learns that cautionary tale.”
“I went to Party University, son. You don’t even know. First paragraph, third sentence."
Blaine flicked the pages back to the beginning of the legend. He read the third sentence of the first paragraph, then paused. Blaine’s brow furrowed. Dawgg made no further comment. One of the disconcerting things about hearing a god’s voice in your head, Blaine thought, is feeling like you’ve been talking to yourself whenever the god decides to leave the plane to join another party elsewhere.
Blaine read the sentence again, this time out loud.
“When he was fifteen Tsua Goua Jo stole away from home and travelled to the Great Garnet Spire in Ojinaga, where he first learned wizardry.”
Why didn’t that sound right? Blaine cast his mind back to the old tale, one he had read and heard half a dozen times. Traditionally Tsua Goua Jo learned wizardry in Huangpu, thirty miles inland from Ojinaga. Why the difference? Blaine pursed his lips and cocked his head. Where was the last library he had been to that would have a copy of The Legend of Tsua Goua Jo? Blaine mouthed a spell and blinked out of existence. The forest did not seem to notice his absence. Neither did Blaine’s unguarded sleeping companions. He was only gone two minutes. Blaine blinked back into existence. Burning two teleportation spells was a bit of a high price to pay for a copy of a common legend- but Blaine would be memorizing new spells again at dawn so the likelihood that it would matter was slim. It actually took Blaine longer than he had expected to find a little volume of the legend. He had traveled hundreds of miles away to the stately home of the Baron and Baroness LeBrunn, but he had momentarily forgotten that Blaine’s last visit to the manse occurred in an alternate timeline. Apparently something in the changing timestream had caused the Baron and Baroness to choose a different location for their library. Blaine had accidentally teleported into the Baroness’ bedchamber. Luckily for Blaine she was a sound sleeper. It had taken a few guesses and a few dimension door spells to reach this particular timestream’s library.
Blaine recast a light spell on his copper coin then opened the messy folio and the thin bound book side by side on his lap, comparing the renditions.
Blaine immediately confirmed his guess- the bound version from the LeBrunn mansion had Tsua Goua Jo first learning magic in Huangpu, not the Great Garnet Spire. Blaine also noticed a few other differences about this folio version and the other, more traditional renditions taught at wizard schools around the plane. Most versions (including the neatly bound LeBrunn copy) began with “Once upon a time.” The folio version did not. Most versions were more flowery in their prose; the folio version was more dry and matter-of-fact. And most versions mentioned Tsua Goua Jo had lived during the reign of the Jade Emperor but did not mention how many years that reign lasted. Blaine considered these differences. After a moment he said out loud, “This folio contains the earliest known extant version of The Legend of Tsua Goua Jo.”
As soon as he said it out loud Blaine was certain of his claim. It all made sense. The Great Garnet Spire had been destroyed along with the city of Ojinaga 300 years after the reign of the Jade Emperor. At that time the ascendant Hanguk people had crossed the Pearl River and wiped the city off the map. Nothing had been left standing. Hundreds of years later, during the time of Gwinnett Aidenson, using the placename of Ojinaga would have referred to the Wu Han ring fort built in the forest that had grown up over the ruined city. The fact that a thriving city had once existed there was completely forgotten except by lore masters. That was why the more familiar copies of the Legend of Tsua Goua Jo placed his education at Huangpu nearby. The writers of those texts had lived at a time when The Great Garnet Spire and the city of Ojinaga had been almost utterly forgotten. This placed the older folio version’s creation at a date between the end of the Jade Emperor’s reign and before or soon after the Hanguk sack of the city of Ojinaga. If Blaine’s reasoning was correct (and he was certain it was), Blaine held in his tiny gnomish hand an account of the Legend of Tsua Goua Jo that was 350 to 650 years older than any other surviving copy. The reason all the other copies of the Legend had begun with the fairy tale beginning “Once upon a time” was that the writers viewed the tale and its protagonist as mythical, not historical. But even if the the author of the legend contained in the folio was a fast-aging human with a lifespan of merely 60-80 years, they would have had grandparents or perhaps even parents who had lived during the reign of the Jade Emperor. For the writer of this folio manuscript, the Legend of Tsua Goua Jo was history not myth. Blaine’s hands began to tremble. His light spell ended. Blaine hastily removed an everburning lantern from his pack. He set aside the bound copy of the legend pilfered from the Lebrun library and focused intently on the vellum version bound haphazardly into the folio.

….

The Legend of Tsua Goua Jo

It was during the venerable Jade Emperor’s two-hundred and forty years of prosperity that the greatest and most wicked enchanter ever to walk this earth lived and died. Tsua Goua Jo was born the son of fisherman, but he rose to advise the Emperor Himself before being killed ignominiously.
When he was fifteen Tsua Goua Jo stole away from home and travelled to the Great Garnet Spire in Ojinaga, where he first learned wizardry. While there Tsua Goua Jo discovered he had an unnatural aptitude for enchantment. He soon became well-known for his powerful ability to charm others.
This was a time of peace and prosperity, when men could apply for bureaucratic posts based on merit. Tsua Goua Jo travelled down the Pearl River and applied for the post of hoppo. Despite lacking a sponsor and having no connections within the government, Tsua Goua Jo scored so highly on his test that he was immediately given a position as hoppo in the small port on one of the outer islands of the Pearl River delta. Now this island port was given over to piracy and lawlessness. The previous hoppo had been killed for demanding that a powerful pirate warlord pay tax on his cargo. But Tsua Goua Jo made the pirate pay tax for his cargo and pay back taxes for the years the warlord had avoided giving the Emperor his due. Tsua Goua Jo used his enchantment magic to charm all the ruffians and pirates into paying taxes on their spoils. Soon, despite being the hoppo of tiny port in the middle of nowhere, Tsua Goua Jo was sending some of the largest tax revenues to the Golden City.
The Jade Emperor’s own finance minister took notice and invited Tsua Goua Jo to the Golden City to discuss his success. Once the minister recognized Tsua Goua Jo’s spellcasting prowess the minister granted Tsua Goua Jo entry into the most coveted government position a wizard could attain; the Imperial School. Here the best wizards in the Han Empire did nothing but practice spellcraft. Some wizards practiced to defend the Empire. Other wizards spent their time experimenting, trying to create new spells or magic items to assist the furtherance of the Emperor’s interests. Tsua Goua Jo learned well from his new colleagues but he gave little information back in return. Soon Tsua Goua Jo was so powerful that he began to manipulate the nature of magic itself, creating new enchantment spells.
Tsua Goua Jo devoted his entire being to learning and perfecting magical enchantment. Other wizards shunned him and he had no friends or consorts. But he was protected from persecution by powerful foreign Imperial ministers who relied on Tsua Goua Jo’s spells and artifacts to curry favor with foreign diplomats. Tsua Goua Jo became wealthy beyond compare. One by one he betrayed the ministers who relied on his magic; he tricked them into being dominated by his spells until Tsua Goua Jo alone ruled the ear of the Jade Emperor. Now Tsua Goua Jo had wealth and immense power. But he was despised by all except the Emperor. He had no friends and no lover could countenance his presence.
Tsua Goua Jo was now at the height of his magical powers. He could dominate anyone he chose (save the Emperor, whom he dared not attempt to enchant) yet none would willingly abide his presence. Tsua Goua Jo considered this problem. He began to seek a way to combine a charming enchantment with a domination enchantment. Tsua Goua Jo wished to find a way to make another person desire his presence, or at least desire Tsua Goua Jo’s own desires as if they were their own.
Tsua Goua Jo toiled in secret for nearly a year before achieving his goal. He locked his charm and domination spells in a mithril necklace that bound the wearer to desire Tsua Goua Jo’s own desires as their own. But Tsua Goua Jo did not desire to have friends, so his necklace would not work to find him platonic companions. Instead Tsua Goua Jo wished only to dominate those around him. So he found a comely woman, a daughter of one of the ministers Tsua Goua Jo had previously betrayed, and he tricked her into putting on the necklace. Once she wore it the woman was trapped; her desires mirrored Tsua Goua Jo’s desires, and Tsua Goua Jo never desired for her to remove the necklace. Tsua Goua Jo enjoyed the woman’s presence, and it appeared that finally Tsua Goua Jo had found a person who also enjoyed his. Before long Tsua Goua Jo grew bored of dominating just one concubine. He fashioned three more identical necklaces and entrapped three more comely women. Tsua Goua Jo might have continued to entrap others, but he found that even his own powerful magical energies were nearly consumed in continuing to hold four women simultaneously under his control. And so Tsua Goua Jo lived with his four concubines who desired only what he himself desired. In time Tsua Goua Jo came to love the women, and it seemed to him that they came to love him as well. One day Tsua Goua wished that he had not enchanted the women; he wished they could have come to love him of their own accord. The moment after he had such a thought, the daughter of the betrayed minister begged Tsua Goua Jo to remove her necklace. She said she loved Tsua Goua Jo truly now, and no longer needed the necklace to be of one accord with Tsua Goua Jo’s desires. If he freed her, she said she would continue to serve him just as she did now. Tsua Goua Jo was suspicious; but he also knew that the woman was completely under his control. She could not possibly scheme against him. In his heart Tsua Goua Jo wanted to believe the woman and so he lifted the necklace from her shoulders. In that moment the woman perceived that her mind was again finally her own after years of horrifying forced submission. She immediately ran to the other three concubines and removed their necklaces. Such was the combined rage of the four women that before Tsua Goua Jo could even cast a spell to defend himself the women viciously tore the wicked wizard to pieces, killing him. The rest of the Empire rejoiced, but the Jade Emperor was silent. Tsua Goua Jo’s selfish and chaotic behavior had nearly destroyed the order and harmony of the Empire. Tsua Goua Jo had wanted to believe it was his concubines’ desire to love him freely and truly, but in truth Tsua Goua Jo had perceived only his own desire for such a thing reflected onto the minds of his victims. Thus ends the sad tale of the Tsua Goua Jo, the greatest and most wicked enchanter ever to walk this earth.
We know that the lich Meretresh created many nefarious magical items and artifacts to tempt adventurers with their power- at a price. But Meretresh never used deception as Tsua Goua Jo did.

….

At the bottom of the last page in small letters, was written:
“Copied from the original to commemorate the celebration of the fortieth anniversary of the great General Tsua Goa Jo’s birth- a true account of the great General’s namesake. – Narfi"

Blaine searched his mind for some knowledge of Wu Han history. How long ago would General Tsua GOA Jo (not the legendary wizard Tsu GOUA Jo, but the very much historical pre-cataclysm military leader named after the wizard) have been forty years old? If Blaine’s historical recollection and Narfi’s postscript were to believed, The Legend of Tsua Goua Jo was maybe seven hundred to a thousand years old, but the vellum in Blaine’s hands on which that tale had been copied was only about one hundred and fifty-five years old. Blaine already knew that General Jo’s biographer had placed Gwinnet Aidenson with the General for a period of time soon after Jo’s fortieth birthday. It was possible that somehow Aidenson ended up leaving the military camp with what was supposed to have been General Jo’s gift from Narfi. It might explain how the folio ended up at the Aidenson estate. This gave the vellum folio a credible provenance.
Blaine weighed the implications. That meant that this Narfi character had perceived some other manuscript, now lost or destroyed, as the “true account” and made this copy “from the original." Narfi, like any good scribe, would have known the more traditional accounts of the Legend of Tsua Goua Jo. But Narfi must have noticed the same anomalies that Blaine did and surmised the same thing; that this spare, terse account with the obscure placename referents was an earlier version than the commonplace tales in wide circulation by General’s Jo’s time. Blaine wondered whatever became of the older manuscript from which Narfi had copied this account. And Narfi! Who was this fellow? Could he have been General Jo’s biographer, the one who witnessed Aidenson join up with the General? This vellum folio was proving to be most intriguing.
“Extreme, huh?” Dawgg the Party God’s excited voice broke back into Blaine’s brain.
“Extreme indeed, in a kind of scholarly way.”
“You are one of a few of my disciples who gets off on this sort of book-learning stuff, Blaine. I thought you’d dig it."
“Dawgg, what do you make of the few sentences at the end about Meretresh? Those sentences are missing from most versions of the legend, and the author of the folio version never explains what Meretresh has to do with Tsua Goua Jo.”
“Well, what do you know about Meretresh the Lich, Blaine my gnome?"
“I’ve only heard the name. Some legendary undead bad guy who was located somewhere south of here. That’s it. What can you tell me about Meretresh, Dawgg?"
“Not too much more. Meretresh is just as evil as Tsua Goua Jo was, but Meretresh is more of a ‘let’s make a deal’ kind of evil lich. Meretresh has a thing where he prides himself on always telling the truth. He wants to give you what you desire if you to willingly agree to his terms. Totally different from the deceptive, manipulative Tsua Goua Jo."
“So Tsua Goua Jo was chaotic, but Meretresh was lawful."
“Is still lawful,” Dawgg corrected Blaine. “As far as I can tell, that lich is still around somewhere, making magical items to tempt adventurers with promises of power.”
“Hmm,” mused Blaine. “I have an idea as to the connection between Tsua Goua Jo and Meretresh."
“Oh yeah, grasshopper?"
“Yeah."
“Good. You’re on the right path then."
“Wait a minute, Dawgg! What do you know that you aren’t telling me?"
“Hmm? Oh, nothing you wouldn’t already know if you had gone to Party University, little dude! Woo hoo hoo hoo!"
Blaine heard Dawgg’s manic laughing fade out of his head. No point in asking Dawgg any more questions now. He was gone from the time being.
Blaine realized Zarathustra was awake on his bedroll and staring at Blaine.
“Uh…Is it my watch yet, Blaine?"
“Oh. Right.” Blaine looked around to see the weaker stars blinking out as the gray dawn slowly gathered on the Eastern horizon.
“I think I just took my watch and most of yours by accident, Z. Could you just give me an hour two to get a little rest?"
Zarathustra stared at Blaine a few more seconds before agreeing. Maybe it was ‘talking to a voice in my head thing’ that unnerved Zarathustra, Blaine thought.
Blaine carefully repacked his lantern, the Lebrunns’ copy of the Legend, and the folio. Then he rolled himself up tightly in his bedroll, his head swirling with ideas. Blaine doubted he was going to be able to fall asleep, but he closed his eyes anyway. Blaine heard Zarathustra stretch and seat himself in zazen position. The old tellers of tales who wrote down the original manuscript of the Legend of Tsua Goua Jo, and maybe even Narfi knew something about Tsua Goua Jo and Meretresh that modern scholars had forgotten; something so obvious that the authors and scribes didn’t bother to even write it down. Blaine felt like the juxtaposition between the chaos of Tsua Goua Jo and the lawfulness of the Meretresh must be a clue. Blaine sank into sleep with one line of text repeating in his mind; a line of text unique to this older version of the Legend. "Tsua Goua Jo’s selfish and chaotic behavior had nearly destroyed the order and harmony of the Empire.” Blaine dreamt of impossibly long vellum pages crumbling to dust just before he could read the words.

View
The Ground of All Existence

Zarathustra was examining an uncomfortable feeling in his gut. He centered himself in his breathing and contemplated the feeling in non-judgment. This was made more difficult because Zarathustra was rocketing through the sky at high speed. Down in the mountain valleys the early spring air would have felt a bit chill, but up here the wind cut through his skin like freezing fire. He flew behind his traveling companion, Henry Joy, letting the scout create a draft that sliced through the stiff gusts. Slightly to their left flew the youthful monk Wally, and drafting behind Wally’s muscular frame was Blaine, the tiny gnomish wizard. Zarathustra wondered what the isolated villagers in the valleys thought of this traveling quartet. Only a truly keen eye would have even noticed them, flying at remarkable speed many feet above the ground. The spell that propelled them on the wind also cloaked them in a translucent camouflage, mimicking the bright morning sky above.
The really massive peaks were behind him, but Zarathustra and the others had to bank back and forth to avoid the smaller mountains. The frigid wind buffeted them harshly. Zarathustra knew that somewhere, far ahead, lay the mountain monastery that he called home. But Blaine and other wise folk told Zarathustra he had been away from his monastery for many years. Perhaps the land has changed, they suggested. Perhaps the monastery is there no longer, they posited. Sometimes the things he was told were difficult for Zarathustra to believe. Zarathustra examined his spirit. Was this unpleasant feeling in his gut confusion? Or fear? In the stillness of the gale Zarathustra knew it to be fear. Fear of what?
The mountains were giving way to foothills. Henry Joy straightened course and began angling almost imperceptibly downward. They slid past the tops of a row of foothills, coming so close to one hilltop that Zarathustra could have grazed the craggy peak with an outstretched hand. Henry was getting near his homeland and he must have known each hill and valley by sight, Zarathustra thought. The air warmed; first slowly, then in sudden blasts. Zarathustra perceived that the heat of the sun was reflecting off the earth; and as they descended the party was blessed with this warmth. They were nearing the desert flats now. Zarathustra could see the hills dying into scrubland ahead. Off to his right some gaunt villagers, small as mice from this distance, filled baskets with red berries from trees on the southern hillsides. If any were still alive, the monks of his monastery would be finishing their morning chores by now. Zarathustra sighed. Such thoughts led to desire for his home, which led to suffering. He recentered his attention on the present moment.
The warm whipping wind felt almost hypnotic. Zarathustra found he could close his eyes and still draft behind Henry Joy by feel. The scout flew so straight that Zarathustra need only adjust himself back into Henry’s wake by the pressure of wind resistance alone.
With his corporeal eyes closed Zarathustra used his inner eye to imagine that he flew far past the ruins of Henry’s village. Further north, Zarathustra flew above the scrubland as it turned into overgrown forest. Zarathustra continued north, envisioning Alfonso, the halfling casino magnate and gray market entrepreneur, in a small clearing. With his inner eye Zarathustra saw Alfonso in perfect detail. Alfonso was rehearsing with some barbaric-looking elves. The elves may have been dressed as savages, but sat primly on stumps and logs, staring into tiny mirrors and reapplying makeup while sipping from silver flasks concealed in their loincloths.
“We want savage, but not too savage. The safari tourists expect noble innocence, not actual cruelty. Understand? Violence yes, cruelty, no.” The elves nodded attentively. One of the savages was taking notes with a quill pen on a vellum scroll book. Alphonso clapped his little hands together with gusto. “Now! Let’s run through the scene again.” As Zarathustra sped past he saw the elves assume a choreographed struggle for dominance, including leaping kicks and perfectly timed dodges and parries. Quite convincing. Henry Joy might have felt admiration at the elves’ dexterous faux-dance. Wally may have felt anger at the thought of others being duped by Alphonso. Zarathustra simply observed in non-judgment. He flew on before the combat ended.
Speeding low above tangled foliage, Zarathustra saw with his inner eye to the east what appeared to be a small mountain tipped nearly to one side. Gnomes were bustling about the base, making calculations and muttering about gravitational force and levitation magic. Zarathustra passed them by.
To the west Zarathustra passed crumbling ziggurats of another time, grown over with vines and creeping plants, ruled only by goblins. Zarathustra flew on. In the woods Zarathustra saw packs of Krenshar scaring prey by pulling back the skin from their faces before devouring them. He flew past the ruined huts of long dead hermits, inhabited now by unknown horrors. He saw with keen clarity isolated families of demon-worshipping cannibals, waiting for the next lonely traveler. His inner eye showed him a large army of many races decamping after a winter stay, moving north and east, burning villages.
As he flew further he saw a familiar sight; a mountain, not the mountain of his monastery, but a low, old mountain with a small path heading toward a ruined tower. Zarathustra had dreamed about this place several nights ago. Now he saw it in his mind again. As Zarathustra used his inner eye to explore the mountain in detail, he recalled an echo of a memory from long ago, hundreds of years ago, if that were possible. It was the arch of a cliff that triggered it. Something about the shape pulled on a long forgotten memory. The watchtower. This was the southern watchtower for his monastery, placed on the mountain just next to his, to warn of any large attack from the Hanguk. He observed the tower now. The roof had collapsed and trees grew up through and above the crumbling walls. The path was still maintained though.
Zarathustra shivered in thrilling anticipation when he recalled where that path led. He flew further north still, rounding the slope of this mountain, following the path to the ancient road. The road was still there. He sped on, quickly now, toward his mountain, the mountain of his order, his monastery. And stopped abruptly.
There was no mountain.
Zarathustra recognized the surrounding landscape. But the mountain had been replaced with… nothing. Not even a field. There was a hole, nearly a mile wide and many feet deep. Smoke rose from this crater and the glow of lava could clearly be seen from a small tunnel at the base. Many other tunnels were dug into the sides of the crater, and track had been laid so that large metal carts could be pushed about. His mountain was now a mine. The mine looked dwarven in make but goblins were laboring to bring up slag from the depths of the tunnels. A bored ogre with a whip leaned on a piece of track, using the least amount of effort to lash the backs of goblins who slacked. The monastery was gone. Only the road remained, no doubt for use by the goblins and ogres.
Zarathustra felt the knot in his gut tighten. Fear. Definitely fear. That was what he had been feeling earlier. Fear of exactly this revelation.


Zarathustra opened his eyes. He was no longer flying behind Henry Joy. But he was also no longer hovering above the mine that replaced his monastery. Wisps of golden fog wrapped around his ankles. Diffuse light shone from an unseen source, but Zarathustra could see nothing of substance. Was he still floating? Or standing on a very soft surface? Zarathustra centered himself in his breath, reaching out with his senses in the present moment. Almost imperceptibly, a sitar began a multi-toned drone, low and quiet. Zarathustra noticed a feeling of uneasiness begin within himself. He examined the feeling in nonjudgment. As he explored the feeling, he perceived a figure slowly solidifying from the golden fog. The figure became more substantial and Zarathustra perceived his own apprehension increase. He sat with the feeling and readied his body for a quick response, should one be necessary. As the figure materialized the sitar grew and changed in tone. The figure appeared to be human and was dressed in simple cloth robes, but as Zarathustra watched, eight arms extended out from its torso. Last to appear was the being’s face. Or, in this case, faces. To Zarathustra it appeared as though many unique faces came into focus in quick succession. The faces were almost hypnotizing. Zarathustra tried to ground himself in the moment, listening to all his other senses, but they seemed to be dulled by the droning music and the softness of the light in the room. Zarathustra observed as his gaze was involuntarily drawn to the being of many faces in front if him. Zarathustra recognized that his apprehension was a gut feeling that what ever stood before him now, was an entity of terrifying power. Acknowledging that feeling as fear, Zarathustra let the emotion fall away from his body.
“Greetings Zarathustra.” The voice had an accent he had heard before, many years ago, from monks of a certain region far to the east.
Zarathustra did not know who this being of many faces was, but he knew he wanted to dictate the tone of their conversation.
“I know what I see with my inner eye to be true. My monastery has been destroyed. And I have let my desire to see it turn to fear."
The being’s many faces appeared to smile kindly, each in rapid succession. “You speak the truth. But are you not curious who We are, or where you are now, or how you came to be here?”
Zarathustra bowed his head and stated, “I am here in this moment. You also are here. I do not require any other explanation.”
The being’s head bowed ever so slightly in response, as if Zarathustra’s answer were anticipated. “And do you also not wish to know how or when or why your monastery was destroyed?"
Zarathustra’s pulse quickened imperceptibly. His muscles tensed a bit. He sat with that uncomfortable feeling for a few breaths before replying.
“Please to do not tell me these things. I have learned my lesson from the sight my inner eye has shown me. My desire for these answers is a hindrance to me.” Again the being’s many faces smiled, thousands of smiles occurring not quite in unison.
“We remember you thus. Your learning spirit is why We chose you.”
The being’s shifting faces slowly settled into a single, wrinkled, tanned visage. The face’s eyes were hidden beneath deep, smiling brows. A single letter had been branded onto the face’s forehead. That scar was red and angry; impossible to ignore, impossible to forget. Zarathustra recognized the face from a time far away.
“Tell Us who We are."
“You are the convicted killer, Kato,” Zarathustra stated matter-of-factly. "You joined our monastery after you were released from prison. I was still a young boy at the time. I believe you died only a few months later.”
The Kato-being smiled benevolently. “We did die soon after. But We toiled hard in those months before death to undo the many hurts We created in the world. And when We were reborn, We were given over to another monastery as a child, and became a Master, experiencing enlightenment. And the fires of desire having been completely extinguished, We broke free of saṃsāra. And We joined the other souls in eternal videhamukti, outside of time, in blissful egolessness.”
The sitar was now almost imperceptible, a deep low hum that hung just on the edge of perception.
With intense deliberation, Zarathustra looked away from the Kato-being, fixing his stare at a place in the soft golden clouds several feet to the left. Zarathustra breathed once, then nodded casually.
“You are Brahma, the Ground of All Existence.” Zarathustra said the words to the space a few feet to the Kato-being’s left, as if he had just commented on the weather.
The Kato-Being’s smile shrunk to wry smirk. “This one knows the name of the Godhead. This one knows how to address ten thousand enlightened Masters. This one does not grovel or bow or quake at Our feet. This is why We chose this one. Zarathustra- When We joined the brahma in moksha We brought Kato’s knowledge of your learning spirit with Us.”
“And… you froze me in suspended animation for decades.”
The Kato-being morphed back into the being of many faces. They all nodded pleasantly, slightly out of sync with one another.
“And you, Zarathustra will not ask. Because you fear that to ask Us why your friends keep saying they have seen many different versions of yourself, many different Zarathustras, would stoke the fires of your desire, desire to understand all that is happening to you. So we shall tell you without you needing to ask. But let us start at the beginning.” Here the being of many faces used all eight of its arms to politely cover different mouths as it cleared its throat. It then continued.
“We are the small part of wisdom that exists in all conscious beings from deities to the lowliest insect. We are outside time. We transcend good and evil. And We usually do not interact with mortals. We have taken you outside of time to impart sacred knowledge. There are many beings in the Outer Nothingness of whom mortals know little, and this is as it should be. Some of these beings are so large that they are capable of devouring entire planes, but, being outside of time, We do not usually trouble Ourselves with these entities. However, over the last few millennia, three of these world-eaters have banded together to destroy twenty-seven material planes. In every instance the heroes and gods of those planes have failed to stop them. The three beings have become very adept at annihilation. They entrance and convert natives on the material planes to become their cultists, who then help assist the beings in breaking through the natural defenses of the plane. There is a real possibility that left unchecked, they will devour all Matter, leaving only void. Destruction and Nothingness by themselves are neither good or evil, and they are fine tools with which to contemplate saṃsāra. But every time these entities devour a plane, hundreds of enlightened souls simultaneously join the Godhead. The experience is very nauseating and generally unpleasant for Us.”
At this, Zarathustra, who had been heretofore listening dispassionately, found one of his eyebrows arching upward of its own accord. Was judging The Ground of All Existence’s motives as petty and self-serving the path to enlightenment? Unlikely. Zarathustra took a deep breath and returned his focus to the voice of the Godhead.
“Naturally, being outside of time, We no longer are able to interact with these world-eaters Ourselves. We needed a way to inform the sentient folk still trapped inside saṃsāra of the danger and mobilize them to action. Having carefully observed them successfully consume twenty-seven material planes, We believe We have discovered a weakness; that the very tactics used by these three entities may present an opportunity to not only repel them but to kill them. Listen carefully, Zarathustra. This is why we have set you apart from the others. Prior to each planar invasion, these creatures expend considerable energy from their homes in the Outer Nothingness tempting mortals to worship them. In doing so the world-eaters must disclose true aspects of their nature. Often this drives their worshippers insane, but it also makes certain than no other abomination from the Void sneaks in through a rift meant only for the three devourers of planes. Their names act as keys to the rifts in the fabric of existence. It is conceivable that heroes of sufficient power, armed with the secret true names and aspects of these entities, may defeat them… if the world-eaters are first forced to expend large amounts of their energy entering physical existence. Too many cultist followers on your plane assisting the creatures will make their success inevitable. Also,” here the being of many faces used all eight arms to sheepishly scratch its many different necks, “even if the entities are defeated, doing so may annihilate this material plane. Or it may save millions of lives.”
Zarathustra furrowed his brow. Still looking respectfully away from the being of many faces, he calmly stated, “I understand. So annihilation is possible regardless. This is a metaphor for the uselessness of desire. I am being tested to determine my true nonattachment to all Matter. I will observe in nonjudgment as the plane is devoured and then hope to achieve enlightenment."
The being of many faces paused for a moment, frowning many unique frowns.
“No Zarathustra. One must engage with the world to achieve liberation from saṃsāra. Also, you may be interested to know that the first manifestation of these creatures on your plane included an extraplanar meteor shower that destroyed your monastery.” A thousand eyes cast sidelong glances in Zarathustra’s direction, waiting cautiously for a response.
Zarathustra centered himself in his breath. He replied, respectfully looking away from the being of many faces.
“My monastery has been destroyed. Vengeance will not change that. Destruction is part of rebirth. I will accept my fate and hope for moksha."
The being of many faces threw up eight hands and then raised its voice in exasperation. “Look. If you seek enlightenment, it is highly likely that your selfless act of sacrifice to save this and many other planes by destroying these world-eaters would extinguish your fires of saṃsāra."
Zarathustra turned to look at the many faces directly. Irritation seeped through his face. “Are you… bribing me with enlightenment?"
Eight hands slapped many faces in exasperation.
“Zarathustra. Moksha is a spiritual process by which souls join Us, a natural consequence of shedding karma. We do not have any control over which souls make the journey. Also, We are becoming rather annoyed by these entities from Outer Nothingness. Their planar destruction causes a nausea which is mildly bothersome to Us. So fine. We are asking that you and your companions destroy these entities as a personal favor to the Godhead. It is likely you could join Us afterwards in eternal blissful egolessness, but We cannot guarantee such an outcome. So no, this is not a bribe.” A thousand eye rolls, just slightly out of sync.
Zarathustra smiled excitedly. “Oh! I think I understand now. I shall return to the realm of Time and use the many other Zarathustras to preach about the dangerous cultists. That will alert some heroes to seek the forbidden knowledge of the names of these beings and deal with the issue, while I and the many Zarathustras can meditate in prayer for their success.”
The being of many faces put eight hands on its hips. “No. We are asking you and your companions, like the gnome Blaine, to save the plane yourselves. Blaine and his friends actually already have one of the names of the three world-eaters; Supreme Purity Shan-Ching, Worthy of Numinous Treasure, Custodian of Sacred Books."
“Oh! I think I understand now. You will tell me the other two names, and me and my companions will fight the creatures from the Outer Nothingness."
The being with many faces looked a thousand times over its shoulder. “Listen. It turns out that The Ground of All Existence cannot, uh, easily reach back into to time for this sort of hidden information. You will need to follow the instructions of the insane ghost Rusty to find the next two names. Rusty already has led Blaine to a fae in Diera who disclosed the first name. Rusty still has another friend, an undead sailor nicknamed The Fool. He was last seen in Diera as well. He holds the second name."
Zarathustra’s heartbeat quickened and his breath became difficult to control. “Now you listen, Brahma, or whatever you are. None of what you just said made any sense. This whole situation is… perplexing and bothersome!"
The being of many faces smiled a thousand unique smiles. “Not so certain of the right path now, hmm?"
Zarathustra grumbled something inaudible.
“Good! Then you are ready. Use your inner eye when you are unsure of the path. And remember, you were chosen for your learning spirit.”
Zarathustra perceived the golden smoke and sitar to be fading from his consciousness. He was leaving.
“Confound you many faced spirit! Wait! Wait! You told me you would explain about all the other Zarathustras! Am I supposed to… do something with all of them? What is their purpose in your ridiculous plan?”
The being of many faces’ voice echoed out from the realm of Timelessness with a mischievous, yet unconcerned tone.
“Oh, them. Well Zarathustra, as you said before; You are here in this moment. They also are here in this moment. You do not require any other explanation.”
Was this some sort of koan on which to meditate? Or was the Ground of All Existence being… sarcastic with him?
Zarathustra was still trying and failing to examine his confusion in a spirit of acceptance and detachment when he realized he was in some sort of a gnomish temple. Zarathustra got the distinct feeling he was again bound by the rules of time and space. People bustled about, cleaning up what appeared to be the destruction of an earthquake or some other disaster. Blaine, Wally and a well-dressed halfing in a cooking apron were speaking with a pair of important-looking gnomes. Henry Joy was not there. A dog sauntered over and nuzzled its snout into Zarathustra’s palm, sniffing curiously.
Conversation had stopped and everyone was staring at Zarathustra. Well, he thought ruefully, I am here, they are here; they do not require any other explanation. Best get to work.
“Guys! I know how to save the multiverse! Also, who is this prophet Rusty?”_

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Braithwaite’s Spring Auction Catalog
Exquisite Finery, Oddities & Artefacts

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1. – Shield of Open Doors – (Aura = Moderate Conjuration) This Darkwood tower shield resembles a sturdy door. Set it into the ground or against a wall & it becomes a real door and can be opened or closed normally. Use the door to transport those who enter short distances, even through walls. Opening bid: 25,000 GP
2. – Portable Pool of Lava – (Aura = Moderate Transmutation) A Braithwaite’s exclusive. This potent item looks like a silvery bag of holding filled to bursting. Unleashes a torrent of lava one thousand cubic feet in volume. Pro tip: Be at least ten feet above the ground when opening. Opening bid: 30,000 GP
3. – Mithral Full Plate of Speed – (Aura = Faint Transmutation) This exceptionally light & flexible plate armor allows the wearer to cast a spell of haste for a minute a day. Opening bid: 40,000 GP
4. – Grave Gown – (Aura = Moderate Conjuration) This funereal gown of night-black lace wraps the body like a sable spiderweb. On misty or foggy nights, the gown’s wispy train seems to diffuse into the darkness. As often as she desires between dusk and dawn, the wearer can move between marked, earthen graves within short distances; or move once a very long distance to any grave (if she knows the name of the creature interred within). Opening bid: 45,000 GP
5. – Spidery Quill of Dissembling – (Aura = Moderate Conjuration and Enchantment) This hideously deformed purple quill is crafted from the leg of a giant spider. Any magical or mundane writing touched by the quill dissolves into a chaotic mess of disjointed symbol fragments. This renders the original text completely illegible and nonmagical. More powerful magical writings transform into a swarm of spiders; forcing their way into enemy creature’s brains and making them confused. Opening bid: 60,000 GP
6. – Pure Adamantine Meteor – (Aura = Faint, No School) This oblong mass of silvery metal is blackened and pockmarked. Adamantine is an ultra-hard metal that adds to the quality of a weapon or suit of armor. Although it may appear small (3 feet wide), at nearly eighty pounds this is the fourth largest Adamantine meteor ever found. Buyers may prefer to preserve this meteor as a relic, but if one were so inclined, two suits of Adamantine full plate could be constructed from it with a bit of the precious metal still left over. Opening bid: 60,000 GP
7. – Staff of Illusion – (Aura = Strong Illusion) This staff is made from ebony wood and carved into an intricately twisted, fluted, or spiral shape. This staff casts six powerful illusion spells. The seller has not disclosed the number of charges on this staff. Opening Bid: 65,000 GP
8. – Caninae Fangblade – (Aura = Moderate Transmutation) This well-worn bastard sword has a leather-bound grip which is covered in coarse grey fur, and the notched blade sharpens the wielder’s instincts when drawn. The wielder can unleash a spine-chilling howl, intimidating enemies and helping allies shift on the field of battle. If the wielder can hit his quarry, other pack-mates can trip enemies nearby without suffering the usual dangers. Opening bid: 90,000 GP
9. – Skin of the Hero – (Aura = Strong, No School) This psychoactive skin gives one’s body a silvery hue. The skin continually grants its wearer the ability to better resist attacks of all kinds while also aiding the wearer in attacking their enemies. Opening bid: 115,000 GP
10. – Complete Raiment of the Stormwalker (Stormfire Ring, Aura = Strong Evocation; Bracers of Lightning, Aura = Faint Evocation; Robe of Thunder, Aura = Strong Transmutation; Cloudwalker Anklets, Aura = Moderate Transmutation) * The Stormfire Ring is made of faceted clear crystal and contains a faint blue-white glow. It lights up an opponent with painful lightning. * Each of these wide, faintly glowing Bracers of Lightning is made of four thin, rectangular quartz crystals joined by narrow silver bands. When the Bracers of Lightning are activated, they visibly crackle with electricity. Even touching an enemy causes them harm. * The silken Robe of Thunder roils with the colors of storm clouds, constantly shifting in shade and hue. When activated, a Robe of Thunder surrounds you in an invisible, faintly rumbling aura of thunder. Should an enemy strike you while it is activated, the robe unleashes a deafening assault on your enemy in retaliation. This robe also protects you from harmful loud noises. * Designed to go around the wearer’s ankles, each of the Cloudwalker Anklets consists of two half circles of carved quartz joined by a silver hinge and clasp. Cloudwalker anklets allow you to move through the air. * Each a powerful magic item their own right, together these items have fantastic synergistic effects. Wearing multiple pieces of the Raiment of the Stormwalker gives you the power to create clouds, call down electricity from the sky, and laugh off lightning strikes. When you wear the entire raiment of the Stormwalker, the Robe of Thunder flashes with lightning that crackles across the other parts of the Raiment. The Raiment is to be sold only as a complete set, per the current owner. Opening bid: 200,000 GP
11. – Chaos Diamond – (Aura = Strong, Varied) This lustrous gemstone is uncut and about the size of a human fist. Weighing a massive one pound, if it were merely a diamond it would be worth thousands, but strong chaotic magics also surround this gem. It allows the bearer to cast four powerful chaotic spells a random number of times per day. Lawful bidders are strongly encouraged to consider our other amazing auction items. Opening bid: 225,000 GP
12. – Philosopher’s Stone – (Aura = Strong Transmutation) This is the pièce de résistance of this auction. This rare substance appears to be an ordinary, sooty piece of blackish rock. Appearances can be deceiving. If the stone is broken open a cavity is revealed at the stone’s heart. This cavity is lined with a magical type of quicksilver that enables any arcane spellcaster to transmute base metals (iron and lead) into silver and gold. The quicksilver found in the center of the stone may also be put to another use. If mixed with any cure potion while the substance is still potent, it creates a special oil of life that can resurrect any body it is sprinkled upon. Opening Bid: Not available.

Braithwaite Auction Rules: Bidders must be authorized before opening gavel by Braithwaite’s. Catalogue subject to change without notice. Bids cannot be rescinded. Physical threats, violence, intimidation and mind affecting spells, items or abilities are prohibited. Payment in full due at the end of the auction. All sales are final. Items are sold “as is." No refunds.

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Amuse-Bouche

The door to the fine restaurant swung open, letting in the rain and a woman. She was tall, mid-twenties, pretty, not beautiful. Her delicate face might have been mistaken for that of some minor nobleman’s daughter, had it not been for the deep tan. Gentry did not work the fields. The woman’s entrance was noted at the bar. A shifty Halfling nudged a hulking half-orc sitting next to him. The half-orc, who looked as though he was about to fall asleep, was large enough to occupy not only his own barstool but both of those adjacent him. Sitting to the other side of the Halfling, a shabbily dressed human in his forties licked his lips and remarked with some bravado, “Bet you a slug of gin that I go home with that one.” The woman, who had been shaking the rainwater from her well-worn boots, stepped further into the room. A long, sturdy spear strapped across the tan woman’s back become visible. Various bulges underneath her stained traveling cloak hinted at the presence of other instruments of violence. The halfling grinned and turned toward the man and asked if the bet still stood, but the human had already buried his head in his drink, muttering something about “women these days.” The tan woman’s face was bright and honest but not simple. Despite the restaurant’s candle-lit ambiance the woman blinked several times. Her eyes had grown accustomed to the darkness of the street. Before a hostess could make her way through the crowded floor, the woman noticed the halfling and half-orc at the bar. The half-orc sucked his teeth glumly and continued staring at the floor. The halfling did not turn his head, but his eyes met the woman’s, then his eyes strayed far to his left. The woman followed his gaze past the important old men in dinner jackets and the feigned interest of accompanying bored old wives, bored young daughters, or bored young prostitutes. Sitting alone at a table set for two was Baroness Elisabeth LeBrunn. The Baroness, whose porcelain skin deeply contrasted the newcomer’s, sat very straight and still, as if she were a mannequin in a shop window. Small wisps of loosely done up blonde hair trickled down her bare neck. Her slender, manicured fingers lightly clutched a cloth napkin. A chilled glass of wine sat untasted, on the table. The Baroness’ face was a beautiful mask, her full lips parting in a subtle smile, revealing nothing. Missa thought she had the look of a lioness resting on the savannah, aware of and dominant over anything that stirred within her view. Didn’t Dieran nobles justify their rule over the poor by claiming they were born to dominate lesser peoples, like lions among deer? No matter. Missa was not easy prey. Missa weaved through the tables and sat opposite the lioness. The Baroness gave a genuine smile and leaned across the table to gently touch her lips to Missa’s browned cheek.
“So good you could come!”
After the kiss Missa found she didn’t quite know what to say in reply. Missa could hold her own social interactions but it was by instinct, not years of socialized aristocratic etiquette. Missa felt like a favored soul facing off against a well-trained high priest of Pelor.
The Baroness continued. “I apologize if this was a bit forward, but I ordered the tasting menu for two. The chef here at Mushroom is quite accomplished, the best in the North. I trust you’ll find it enjoyable."
“I’m sure I will. But I didn’t come here to discuss food.”
The Baroness pursed her lips almost imperceptibly. “Really? Because I asked you here for precisely that reason. We had made plans to help the poor of Diera with the bounty of grain from the gentry. I called in many favors to see that the High Reeve agreed to tax the rich. But with (she wrinkled her nose) Cupric left in charge of your organization, collection efforts were not accorded priority. I fear the poor may face a hungry winter despite our sacrifices on their behalf.”
Missa shrugged.
“I was… preoccupied. And from what Cupric has told me, he’s been very busy. If it weren’t for his constant vigilance the city guards would have been overmastered months ago. The city would have been given over to anarchy and foreign mobsters. I want as much as you to have done more to help feed the poor, but we need to ensure the poor still live long enough to need feeding first. Even noblewomen need the rule of law to achieve higher ends. Did I not hear that your own estate was protected from crazed looters by Cupric’s men just months ago?”
As she spoke, a waiter arrived at Missa’s arm, soundlessly poured an aromatic white wine in a chilled glass, then vanished. Missa took a long draught. It was excellent wine. She wondered how the Baroness justified spending enough gold to feed a family of four for a month on a bottle like this. She started to dislike her host.
The Baroness, perhaps sensing the sentiment, smiled apologetically. “Please understand, Missa. It has been a trying summer and fall for us here in Diera. There have ben so many horrible afflictions it sometimes seems like the apocalypse has returned- the spread of the suicide sickness to the masses, the resurgence of that despicable drug Dragon back into the community, the proliferation of that awful madness-inducing play “The King in Yellow" to the common folk. The riots never seem to cease. False prophets and demagogues abound, preaching death. Those with means have fled the city, leaving only the poorest- and those of us who love this place too much to leave it. And yes, as much as I hate to admit it, Cupric and his allies have protected many innocents from a violent death. His bard follower personally led the men who protected my manse. You are right. I… I just wish things had been different. "
Missa’s furrowed brow relaxed slightly. “How do we make the best of all this?” she asked.
“Well, it could be worse. Cupric has fought off the incursions of petty drug lords and suppressed riots on the West side of the river in the name of the High Reeve. This allowed the city guard to focus on the Eastern bank to do the same.” The Baroness failed to mention that Cupric had also “neutralized" several dissident noblemen at the High Reeve’s request, solidifying both Cupric’s and the High Reeve’s unquestioned leadership during this time of strife. But Missa did not need to have Cupric’s martial or political prowess explained to her. She already knew from Cupric himself of the daring raid he and his bard executed the very night she had left the city so many months ago, solidifying Cupric’s status as the High Reeve’s trusted enforcer. Under cover of darkness Cupric led an incursion into the fortified villa of Aenfrith, estranged wife of the exiled rebel Aethelric and mother of missing diplomat Athelstan. With no loss of life on either side, Cupric was able to persuade Aenfrith to return to the court of the High Reeve, to live under his protection. This was no mean feat. Many courtiers thought Aenfrith preferred death to once again being hostage in the High Reeve’s keep. The manner by which Cupric convinced Aenfrith to return of her own volition was still a matter of wild speculation at court.
Missa looked up to find the Baroness waiting- waiting for Missa to return to the present moment. There was that gaze again- the eyes of a patient and deadly feline.
“Sorry. You were saying.”
“You had asked me how we make the best of this. The good news is the High Reeve managed to collect much of the grain tax. And Cupric…” Here the Baroness spoke through tightly set teeth- “Took my advice in the worst possible way. I don’t know why I’m surprised. I told him he needed to ally himself with one of the nobles. He did, but the noble he chose to ally himself with was Nyle, the villain who has been buying up country estates for some reason. I keep telling you all that Nyle is likely behind some of the troubles Diera has been facing, but no one ever seems to listen.” The Baroness steadied herself, slowing her breathing. “My point is that with Nyle’s support Cupric was able to avoid a full revolt of the nobles over collecting the new tax. So we have grain. We simply need to find a way of fairly distributing it slowly over time to the people in need without it falling into the wrong hands."
Missa sat back in her chair. “A simple mission, with the city in the throes of looting and riots.”
The Baroness smiled. “A challenging mission, but a worthy one. Will you help me to convince Cupric to create a distribution system?”
“Cupric’s mind is his own. I will do what I can to help get the grain to the poor, but he has made helping this city his mission. I had… other duties. I will not gainsay him if he believes the time is not yet right."
The Baroness nodded sagely. “Very well. Let us speak of other things. The woman you… went about with- Molly. You did not bring her to Diera with you. Is she well?"
Missa wondered at the question. How much did the Baroness know before she had asked the question? Did she know about the madness that overtook Molly? The weeks of isolation and convalescence through which Missa had shepherded her lover? The day when the clerics finally stated Molly was cured? Did the Baroness know all this already? What about the last day Missa had seen Molly, when Molly had decided to return for a time to her family? Did the Baroness know about that? Missa had come upon Molly standing over a dead bird, the feathers still smoldering. “I did that,” Molly said, smiling. Missa had asked her why she had used her fire magic to kill the bird. Molly simply smiled, saying nothing. Then she had left, walking away from Missa into the golden autumn sunlight.
“Is she well?” Missa repeated the Baroness’ question. “Yes. Yes she is.” Missa hoped her answer sounded convincing to the Baroness.
Missa felt like talking about something else. “And I heard the good news about your husband, Baroness. The battle of Freeport won, Penda’s forces routed, your husband leading the victorious charge into the city. The Baron and his men will finally be coming home soon, I suppose.”
Missa thought she noticed the muscles of Baroness’ delicate neck tense ever so slightly at the mention of her husband’s return. The Baroness smiled. “Well, there are still the Ogre Wastes to patrol. But I believe the men will return for some time to the capital. Do you know it’s been three years since I’ve seen him in the flesh? His men didn’t receive any leave home, so he felt it unfair to take the leave granted him.”
“It sounds like the Baron places a high value on duty,” Missa replied.
“Oh yes.” The Baroness moved her hand closer to her wine glass. “He would give his life for his men."
“It sounds as though Diera could use a valiant leader in these dark times."
“No.” The Baroness voice turned cooler. She picked up her wine, but did not drink. “This city needs fewer leaders. Times like these are akin to a culling, and not just for the poor. The strongest will survive. But if my husband and I are among those who live through the winter…"
“Then you will be uniquely positioned for power.” Missa finished the sentence.
“We will have more power- to help the city, yes.” The Baroness’ wine glass hung lightly from her thumb and forefinger, perfectly still. Missa couldn’t hide her nose wrinkling slightly at the Baroness’ comments. She wondered who the Baroness expected to die this season. The High Reeve, her old ally? Nyle, the rival power behind the throne? Cupric? Cupric. Of course. Myself as well? Perhaps even me, Missa thought.
The lioness watched patiently, letting Missa think.
The waiter returned silently, placing two small plates in front of the women. A small cube of flesh sat on a thin wafer. Both were garnished with a green leaf.
“Amuse-bouche. The chef’s gift to you. Rice wafer, salmon roe, river prawn, basil leaf.”
Missa stared at her plate. The whole thing would fit in the mouth of a child. Missa’s eyes strayed to the menu on the table next to theirs.
“Tasting menu for two: 240 GP.” Missa read the words out loud, without even thinking. The waiter looked away. The Baroness arched an eyebrow.
“You spent that much on a meal for two?”
The Baroness smiled. “But Missa, that includes the wine as well.”
Missa was not amused. With one hand she snatched the untasted glass of wine from the Baroness’ hand while with her other hand Missa caught the waiter by the arm, viselike. In a fluid motion Missa downed the wine, dropped the glass on the table and turned to the blanching waiter.
“How many cooks are in the kitchen tonight?”
“Seven, madame.” He knew better than to demur.
“And at the bar? How many working?"
“Three, madame."
“And how many waitstaff are working the floor tonight?"
“Five, plus our hostess, madame.”
“Have I missed anyone working here tonight in this count?"
“N-no madame.” The waiter was shrinking away from Missa, but she would not let go of his arm.
Missa pulled out a worn pouch, heavy with coins, pressing it into the waiter’s hands.
“Fifteen souls. This is three hundred gold. I am buying the staff the best glass of wine that can be had for twenty gold a head- for everyone working here tonight.” Missa’s free hand strayed toward her spear. “See that everyone receives a glass.”
“Yes madame.”
She released the terrified waiter. Of course everyone was watching.
Missa looked at the Baroness dead in her feline eyes. The Baroness was undaunted.
“Dear, please do sit down. The tasting has only just begun. Try the amuse-bouche.” The Baroness’ voice had the tone of a true friend, one who wanted only to spend an evening enjoying food and wine with good company. One who sought to avoid embarrassment for her companion. Missa’s cheeks flushed pink.
“Baroness, I don’t know whether you truly care about me or see in me only a means to an end. And right now I don’t care. Do not ever speak to me again about power, only about helping those in need. And next time you’re coming to me. In the slums. I am nobody’s amuse-bouche.”
She walk away.
As Missa moved to the door she noticed fifteen glasses were lined up on the old varnished bar. The half-orc smiled broadly at her. The halfling wore a wry half-smile and a raised eyebrow. Missa realized they were… impressed. Behind them the barkeep was dutifully uncorking bottle after bottle of an old-looking red wine.
The door to the fine restaurant swung open, letting out a woman into the rain.

View
Here to Help

“Well, hu-man. I will ask you one final time. Would you really choose death rather than pay 513 gold pieces?” The voice was flat, almost robotic, but even so it held a hint of incredulity. A well-tanned man in weathered adventuring gear was bound to a flat, iron table. The human stared upward at his questioner, as if in deep contemplation.
“Would I rather be beheaded than pay your mechanical ass a 500 gold fine?”
“As I just mentioned, the fine is now 513, due to interest.”
The human stared into the face of his large executioner and slowly uncurled his middle finger in response. It took several moments for the Inevitable to register that the obscene gesture was the only response it was to receive.
There was a rasping metallic exhalation, which if one didn’t know better, might be construed as exasperation. The Inevitable hefted a large axe upward.
“Very well, hu-man. Victor James Gilroy, in accordance with the bylaw 659 of the plane of Mechanus, you have been found guilty of theft of another’s property and lying to authorities. You have refused to pay the requisite fine, despite having the funds to do so. You have already received the maximum non-lethal corporal punishment and have still resisted payment. Since you still refuse to pay the fine and subsequent interest, your recalcitrant, law-breaking head shall be removed from you body, terminating your existence on this plane.” The Inevitable lofted the axe effortlessly above its metal head.
“Punishment will be administered… now.”
At that moment a loud explosion shook the square chamber. Dust and brick blasted across the room, spraying the Inevitable with debris. It hesitated for a split second. Inevitables are programmed to administer justice above all else; however this Inevitable reasoned that there was a small chance not responding to the blast could result in an outcome that left the human alive. Taking a moment to assess for danger was the rational course. A lithe humanoid silhouette slipped quickly into the blasted opening in the wall. The Inevitable processed that this new humanoid was casting a spell. It concluded that it should bring the axe downward quickly. The Inevitable slammed the axiomatic weapon onto Victor’s neck- or would have had a spell of protection not blocked its blow. The Inevitable reared back in pain. Powerful chaotic magic was protecting the law-breaking hu-man! It turned to the breached wall, but the humanoid silhouette had vanished. At that same moment Victor felt the bonds holding his arms release. The Inevitable took notice and rushed the execution table. Sparks shot into the air as it staggered backward. This magic protection was an insult to the Inevitable’s ordered being! Victor readied himself. A few seconds later he felt the bonds around his ankles click off. A sword appeared next to Victor on the table, as if out of thin air. Victor’s sword. Victor didn’t know who was rescuing him or why, but he knew exactly what he wanted to do.
“Hu-man! You are now in violation of Mechanus penal code subchapter 28.7: Resisting an officer of the law. Given previous judgments against you I must termina-“ The Inevitable’s speech was rudely interrupted by a gout of white hot flame leaping from Victor’s sword. Victor heard soft chanting behind him, then realized he was growing in size and felt a surge of righteous might course through him. The Inevitable slammed its axe against the chaotic barrier. Victor was still behind the protective shield. Not for long. Now that he was large Victor stepped forward, meeting the robotic creature eye to eye, slamming the blade down again and again between construct’s glowing eyes. The eyes slowly dimmed to darkness as its large metal bulk dropped unceremoniously to the floor.
Victor spun around. He shrunk back to normal size. No one was visible, until some magic word was spoken and the lithe figure shrugged of the spell of invisibility. Behind him stood a slim, dark skinned human with a peculiar holy symbol on his and chest and- was that Victor’s belt and bag of holding the man was holding?
“You’re Victor James Gilroy. This is your stuff. Remember me? I’m Jamaal. I’m here to get you out of here.”
Victor grabbed his things back roughly, heading for the door as he slung his pack around his arm.
Jamaal laughed and said, “I have a better exit strategy than that. I’m here to help!” He set a small cube on the ground and pressed one of the sides. A portal appeared. Behind an undulating film a lush green landscape beckoned, slightly out of focus. Victor paused to look back, then continued to the door.
Jamaal stumbled forward. “Wait! I… I need you to come with me, Victor! You may not know it, but it’s part of the deal- Hey! What in the hells did they do to your hand?”
Victor was walking and struggling to put on his belt with his one remaining hand. On Victor’s left forearm there was a shining metal cup attached just where his hand should have been. Having finally gotten he belt adjusted, Victor just kept walking. Jamaal followed carefully, a few steps behind, grumbling “I’m here to help,” under his breath.
Victor maneuvered the ordered hallways of the detention facility as though he knew them well. He did not slow his pace to allow Jamaal to keep up, but without looking behind him he said, “In 100 paces we’ll reach the front door. Be ready to fight.”
Jamaal hustled behind, casting a several quick spells to ready himself for combat before nearly running into Victor, who had stopped abruptly.
Victor stared at the front door. It was open. The guards were gone. In fact, there was no one in sight. This was too easy.
“You know, we could just go back the way we came and take a quick jump out of this glorified grandfather clock of a plane.”
Victor turned to face Jamaal.
“They cut off my hand. For not paying a fine.”
“Villains! How could you pay the fine if you were locked in irons?”
Victor, moved slowly around the edge of the room, getting another angle of the street outside the open front door.
“Oh I had the money. It was in my bag of holding, the contents of which they had already meticulously catalogued and logged. You obviously saw my possessions log when you liberated my belongings from the evidence locker before you rescued me.”
“Wait. They had your money. Why didn’t they just deduct the fine from your gold and call it even?”
Victor tumbled in front of the door from the left side to the right. No arrows or lightning bolts shot through the doorway in response.
“Technically the money was still mine. Something in their stupid bylaws about me having to PAY the fine, as in, agree to part with my money voluntarily. Plus the fucking INTEREST.”
“Well if they’re chopping off hands it hardly seems voluntary,” Jamaal quipped.
“I would rather lose my head than pay these bastards a single copper. If they had executed me my belongings would sit in their stupid probate court for years before they’d be able to touch it, anyway. They are completely rational. They never actually expected to have to execute someone over refusing to pay a fine. Dying would have been the bigger ‘fuck you’ to them.”
“I don’t suppose,” Jamaal asked tentatively, “you could explain why you just turned down a free portal out of this place when you appear to have a death sentence on your head.”
Victor backed up toward the wall opposite the door, readying himself for a quick sprint through the opening to the streets outside.
“I didn’t turn it down. We can use your Gate cube or whatever it is. But first I have to take back something that’s mine.”
“Uh, I grabbed all of your belongings out of the evidence locker.” Jamaal was getting nervous.
“Yes. Because these metal twats and I don’t have the same ideas about what “mine” means.”
Just as Victor was about to spring out of the door, the room shook with a massive, inhuman roar. The shadows on the walls of the building ahead of them momentarily vanished as the red light of what was obviously fire flared from somewhere close by.
“Lovely. A dragon,” Jamaal said drily.
“That explains the lack of a door guard,” said Victor, sprinting out of the door. No hostile welcoming party waited for the pair. They rushed through the streets as high above them an elder and very angry red dragon was spewing dragonfire into the clockwork city. Lightning bolts crackled into the sky like antiaircraft fire. Many fizzled, stopped before they could reach their target by the ancient wurm’s resistance to spells.
“Is that monster part of your jailbreak plan?” asked Victor, as they slowed to approach his destination- the beautifully carved door to a large mansion with two perfectly still metal creatures standing guard.
“No. No it is not. I was hired by old man with a funny accent to get your ass off this hunk of metal. Dragons did not factor into the plot, as far as I could tell. To be honest, I was going to ask you if you thought it was an illusion.”
Just at that moment a detachment of winged mechanical war machines were batted from the sky down onto hapless defenders by one massive sweep of the dragon’s tail.
“Looks pretty real to me,” replied Victor. “Very real and very convenient to helping us get across town unopposed. Who did you say hired you?”
Jamaal had just cast a spell of holding against one of the two mechanical servants barring their way from an ornate metal door. They were the only two defenders standing in the way of the adventurers.
“Well, to be honest I don’t know much about him. He would only say his name was Braithwaite. He was dressed a bit like a shabby servant and said he worked for some organization called the SOE.”
Victor tumbled past the held door warden and erupted into a ball of flame, toppling both of his opponents. “Never heard of them.”
Jamaal ran his hands over the magnificent door handle and lock, then tried the door. It pushed open on well-greased hinges. “Me either. But the pay was good, and even though we only met that one time outside Freeport, you seemed like a nice enough dude. I’m here to help!” The dark-skinned man grinned with glee.
Victor ran through the open door with purpose. Jamaal followed.
They reached an unassuming locked door at the end of a hallway. Victor looked impatient.
“You got any speedy open lock-type magic, Jamaal?”
“No, but I got blinky-blinky type magic that jumps us to the other side.”
“Good enough. I’m in a hurry.”
“I’m here to help! Hold my hand, Victor.” Jamaal started chanting.
The two blinked out of existence briefly. Victor felt a bit woozy as his physical body instantly reassembled ten feet from where it had been a millisecond prior. Jamaal seemed used to the feeling.
Victor paused less than a second to take measure of the room. It was a study lined with bookshelves. Above a cold fireplace hung an old sword. A desk littered with scrolls was tucked cozily in the corner. Victor headed toward the fireplace.
“Say Jamaal, how much did this old man offer you for my safe return?” Victor gently lifted the sword from off the mantle. A bolt of lightning slammed into Victor, passing right through his abdomen. Jamaal twisted out of the way. Victor’s armor was scorched where the bolt entered and left. He winced, but quickly put the sword into his belt.
Jamaal gave Victor a dirty look. “You could have warned me that was coming.”
Victor turned toward the door. “Sorry. Next time I ask a question about finances I’ll warn you ahead of time.”
Jamaal moved in front of Victor. “Let me check the door for traps BEFORE you try to unlock it.”
“Oh. You meant the lightning trap. Yes. next time I’ll let you get zapped.”
Jamaal rolled his eyes. “I’m here to help,” he replied.
Jamaal quickly looked over the door. “Three thousand gold. The door is clear.” Jamaal turned the bolt on the door and pushed it open. “Hallway is clear. Two up front, the last thousand gold upon your safe return to the plane of this old man’s choosing.”
Victor moved quickly back down the hallway. Jamaal followed. Victor slowed at the front door. He turned to Jamaal speaking quietly. “Some movement outside. I think the guardians we wasted have been discovered. Let’s hang back for a second. Do you have to return that plane-jumping cube thing to Braithwaite?”
Jamaal caught up with Victor. “The old man didn’t mention returning it, so I’m going with no. It’s mine now,”
Victor cocked his head to one side, listening against the door. “I hear whoever was outside moving on. Something about the dragon being more important threat right now. We’ll sprint through on my mark, in 5 seconds.” Victor used the fingers on his only hand to count down to zero. “I’m no merchant, but an item like that is worth well over 100,000 gold pieces. Mark!”
Jamaal’s eye’s widened. He was left standing in the front hallway until he realized he had missed Victor’s mark.
The pair eluded capture, weaving back through the city using a different route. The red dragon appeared very real and content to raze a nearby part of the city, drawing off any citizens of Mechanus who may have otherwise tried to interfere with their escape.
“Whose house did we just burgle?” Jamaal cheerfully asked as they approached the detention facility.
“Someone rich and stupid enough to think Kamate the Iron Heart belonged on a mantle instead of in the hands of a hero, slaying foes.”
Jamaal nodded. “And someone who deserved to have the sword stolen from him?”
Victor nudged Jamaal into the shadows of a building as several massive metallic golems rushed past in the direction of the dragon. “Stolen from HER. Yes. Exactly.”
The two ran back into the detention facility.
In the execution chamber the cubic gate was still open, shimmering, with the green idyllic setting still just on the other side of the portal.
The two adventurers quickly searched the room, but it appeared that no creature had ventured onto Mechanus from the other side.
Jamaal gestured to the portal. “Shall we?”
Victor stood still, thinking. Jamaal took a deep breath in and then exhaled.
“Okay, Victor, what’s the problem now?”
Victor spoke slowly and deliberately, as if reasoning each sentence out as he spoke it.
“Well, Jamaal, you don’t seem smart enough to double cross me, but you might be dumb enough to send me into the arms of some other tyrant who just wanted a stooge to get to the sword Kamate. So I am trying to decide whether I should take my chances on this plane or jump through this portal.”
Before Jamaal had time to be offended, two tall Inevitables entered the room. Judging from the sound of marching feet behind them, they had backup.
“Victor James Gilroy and… second hu-man! You have been charged with absconding, breaking and entering, destroying private property, resisting arrest…”
Victor rolled his eyes, looking at Jamaal. “You and your coin purse are lucky I’ve taken a bit of a beating or I’d just stand here and take on the whole mechanical plane.” He leapt through the portal.
The Inevitable began advancing, continuing to read the charges. “… two counts of theft, lying to authorities, escape, eluding capture…”
Jamaal shook his head, muttered “I’m here to help,” grabbed the cubic gate and followed Victor through the portal, closing it just as the Inevitables were about to cross the planar threshold.


Jamaal looked around. It was a pastoral scene, with green meadows and rolling hills dotted at whiles with ancient marble ruins.
“A thousand gold to the good,” he quipped, perhaps a bit too loudly. If Victor was bothered he did not show it.
“I don’t suppose you have any idea where we are,” Victor remarked.
“I do. This has the look of Bytopia. We are on peaceful Dothia. And here,“ Jamaal pointed to the sky above “Is Shurrok, the wild and tangled paradise.”
Victor looked up. Where the heavens should have been there lay another plane, seemingly upside down. The tops of grest trees stared back at Victor.
Jamaal continued. “And look! It appears that old Braithwaite had your well-being in mind. There’s a temple to Heironious not a league from here that looks large enough to host a cleric of great enough stature to know the Regeneration spell.”
“Always here to help, aren’t you, Jamaal?” sneered Victor. “I am quite certain that your old man did not deposit us here out of the goodness of his heart.”
“Yeah?” Jamaal shot back. “How can you be so certain?”
“What old man do you know powerful enough to use ancient red dragons as distraction techniques? What old man do you know willing to pay twice the going rate for an extraction job, then gift his subcontractor with a magical item forty times more expensive than his already generous fee?”
“A… really cool old man?” Jamaal snidely quipped.
Victor replied, pointed his remaining index finger squarely into Jamaal’s chest with every word. “A really powerful, dangerous old man.” His voice quieted to a whisper. “An old man about whom I know nothing, yet who knows enough about me to correctly guess that I wouldn’t leave Mechanus without going back for Kamate. An old man who knows that while I was on Mechanus I had already discovered the secret location of another of the weapons of legacy. On the plane of Bytopia. In a secret catacomb. Under a temple of Heironious.”
Jamaal was staring up, a brown hand resting atop his cocked head. He was very still. Victor paused a bit, letting all that sink in.
“Now, Jamaal. The only reason I am bothering to tell you all this is because you are not so stupid that you would have thought you could have betrayed me intentionally. This Braithwaite got you to do just what he wanted. So the question I need you to help me answer is why. I need you to remember everything you can about this old man, every detail about his dress, his manner, how he contacted you, where you were, what time of day- everything. And anything about this SOE group too.”
Jamaal continued to stare upward at the birds flying between Dothia and Shurrok. “Special Operations Executive,” he said thickly, slowly. “That was what SOE stood for. I’m supposed to be met by another agent sometime after the portal jump to collect my last thousand in payment.”
“Good,” Victor said. “That’s a start. What the hells is the Special Operations Executive? Is it a group or a person?”
Jamaal didn’t answer his question. “Victor, what are you going to do once you figure out all that there is to know about this Braithwaite?”
“I’m going to do exactly what this Braithwaite asshole expects me to do- use my amputated hand as an excuse to get into that temple, then break into the catacombs and become better acquainted with Eventide’s Edge, the multiverse’s most legendary mithral shortsword.”
Jamaal turned his gaze back toward his companion. “Victor, you are aware that in addition to two very pissed off Inevitables who will relentlessly pursue us across the planes until we are dead, you are suggesting we commit multiple crimes inside the temple of the most powerful lawful good deity in existence.”
Victor shrugged. “Fuck ‘em all. I need that sword.”
Jamaal sighed. “Well Vic, I got you into this. I’m here to help.”

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Meanwhile Back in Diera...
The PCs may be fleeing on a boat, but the action continues back "home."

Cupric the Copper stood at the foot of the High Reeve’s dais. Opposite Cupric stood three men- Ingram, the Garnet Marquess, disgraced foreign minister of Deira and two prison guards. The guards had been stripped of their uniforms and were manacled together. They looked like they needed a drink. Earlier that morning Cupric had, among other things, bluffed his way past those very guards, taken a written confession from the imprisoned Lord Ingram accusing the High Reeve of treason, and disseminated the message to the entire city of Diera. Cupric had also smuggled the High Reeve’s most dangerous political rival out of the city, then turned himself in to await his fate. There was something to be said for loyalty, after all. The rest of the large chamber was filled with the courtiers of Deira. As Ordulf, the High Reeve took his seat at the edge of the dais, the room quieted. Cupric tried to work out exactly how much trouble he was in. His gaze shifted again to the Marquess and two guards across from him. If this was a court proceeding, who among them was on trial?
The High Reeve cleared his throat. “Some among you may have heard news today that was disturbing- news that I ordered our former Foreign Minister Lord Ingram to intentionally delay our soldiers, allowing our enemies to gain a foothold in our territory, and then that I accused Ingram of treason, leaving him to be executed. It is time that the full truth of this matter be heard. At midmorning today, I ordered my loyal servant Cupric to enter the royal dungeon and convey correspondence from the Garnet Marquess to-”
“Actually your Grace…” Cupric loudly interrupted. Audible gasps echoed through the chamber.
Cupric heard Ramm Forkbeard, Duke of Rutland exclaim, “To dare speak over the High Reeve? This knave ought to have his tongue cut out!”
Of course Forkbeard would still be angry; slap a Duke on the butt just once and he’s your enemy for life. But Cupric was about to do worse than merely interrupt the High Reeve; Cupric was about to contradict him- and enjoy doing it. The High Reeve hadn’t asked Cupric to infiltrate the prison of course, why would he? And Cupric was going to spoil this whole idiotic cover up. Cupric glanced at the High Reeve. The man on the dais was silent, studying Cupric intently, waiting.
Then Cupric turned to the Garnet Marquess and the prison guards. Ingram’s face was like stone, completely impassive. But the guards both looked ashen. Cupric sighed. Was the joy of blowing the High Reeve’s cover worth getting these two executed? If Cupric told the truth, the High Reeve would have no choice but to punish them for their failure. The guards were inarguably very bad at their job, but then again, Cupric was excellent at bluffing. Was it fair to expect mere prison guards to see through the artifices of a master such as himself?
“Your Grace,” Cupric began again, “I must correct you. It was early morning, not midmorning. Breakfast time.” The guards were incompetent, to be sure, but they were also loyal which was something Cupric appreciated. Cupric would play along with whatever the High Reeve had in store.
The High Reeve smiled thinly and continued. “Early this morning Cupric enacted my plan to allow Lord Ingram to share his side of the story. The Marquess’ version of events is very nearly true… with a few exceptions. While it is true that I directed Ingram to delay troop deployment I never did so with the knowledge of our enemies whereabouts. After further investigation, I learned that Lord Ingram had not, as I had believed, intentionally aided our enemies. He did, however, argue in good faith to delay our forces, ultimately leading to great risk for our nation. I am suspending Lord Ingram’s death sentence for treason and exiling him to the front lines to serve as a Colonel under General Lebrunn’s forces, so that he may see directly the consequences of his careless decisions as Foreign Minister. These prison guards shall accompany him as servants.”
Cupric watched as the guards’ color returned to their faces. They would live. The Garnet Marquess bowed low to the High Reeve; Cupric spied a ghost of wink in his direction as the nobleman returned upright.


The chamber was empty except for a few silent guards, Cupric and Ordulf the High Reeve.
“Cupric, my friend. You always seems to rush my plans. I wish you had waited until I was ready to deal with Ingram; it would have been much cleaner. Specifically he would have been executed for a crime he truly had committed, and no longer able to meddle in my affairs.”
Which was the worse crime in the old man’s mind? Treason or meddling? Cupric was still unsure whose story was closest to the truth, the High Reeve or the Garnet Marquess.
“Cleaner, your Grace? I find I work better when things are messy. I’d have just killed him- Ingram was a treasonous liar playing a dangerous game to try to avoid the sword. Call his bluff. Let his head roll.”
Ordulf smiled at Cupric, and with a hint of condescension replied, “Yes but you see then there would be doubts. If I execute Ingram after his accusation, it looks as though I did it to silence him. Appearances are important. Speaking of which- Cupric, I have… concerns about some of your recent behavior.”
“Oh?” Cupric replied innocently.
“I can understand smuggling out a message from Ingram, and even breaking Aethelric out of prison. You did not understand the dangers of what you were doing. But why free the gangster and known assassin Bron Squint? The interrogators had said that he was just about to crack. We could have learned valuable information about the Usmanov gang’s connection to the gentleman suicides. And then there’s the murdered interrogator found late this morning. It looked like he took a pickaxe to his chest.”
Oh. So the man being tortured had probably deserved it. No matter.
Cupric locked eyes with the High Reeve, avoiding the urge to glance at his adamantine pickaxe leaning with his other weapons near the entrance of the chamber.
“Your Grace, I can honestly say that I did not know that the man I set free was part of the Usmanov gang. And I could not have anticipated how furious he would be once he got free and took hold of his tormentor. Bron Squint attacked so quickly that by the time I could intervene, his interrogator was already dying. Bron clearly was, as you say, an experienced assassin. He disappeared into the darkness while I vainly tried to save his victim.”
A benign smile and nod was the High Reeve’s only reply.
Cupric searched for a sign, the slightest twitch of Ordulf’s eye, the pursing of his thin lips, that might indicate whether the High Reeve believed the bluff, or was merely allowing Cupric to believe he believed it. Was he playing the High Reeve or was the High Reeve playing him? Cupric narrowed his scaly eyelids. No way to tell.
The High Reeve handed Cupric a small scroll in a case. “This,” he said, “is a new task. One by which you and your friends can renew your loyalty to me.”
Cupric opened the scroll, reading with no expression.
“No need to involve the others, your Grace. I can tackle this myself.”
Ordulf smiled blandly. “Of course. I will contact your colleagues to inform them of the day’s events and that they are welcome to return to the city whenever they desire.”
“Your grace, they have nearly a day’s head start. They could have left in any direction. They are going to be difficult to find.”
“Nonsense. They are traveling by boat downstream on the North River with Aethelric.”
Cupric betrayed no emotion, but did not reply. Was the High Reeve guessing, trying to get Cupric to betray some confirmation, or did the man already know his friends’ whereabouts?
The High Reeve continued. “You have my word that neither they nor Aethelric will be harmed, so long as Aethelric does not return to the city. He is not a threat to our security anymore, and so long as he does not incite new unrest among the people he has been punished long enough, I suppose.”
Cupric grew tired of this. Too much intrigue. He could not sink his pickaxe into this old man’s words.
“Anything else, your Grace? I have work to do.”
The High Reeve smiled again, this time benevolently. “Indeed you do, my friend. You have my leave to get to it.”


Back at the Copper Kettle, Cupric was sitting at the bar, a glass of brown liquid in his hand. He looked at the scroll case in his belt, shivered and quickly emptied his glass.
“Celebrating or drowning your sorrows?” The voice from behind Cupric was melodious, sweet. Cupric turned to see Baroness Elisabeth Lebrunn standing at the door, her halfling sneak and half-orc muscle in tow.
“Neither. Just thirsty.” Cupric reluctantly rose to greet his guest. “You shouldn’t be seen here, Lady.” The Baroness almost seemed to emit a gorgeous glow, yet Cupric did not offer her a drink or a seat.
“Did you hear your husband the General has a new recruit?” The Baroness appeared annoyed at the mention of her husband. Good.
“I’m sure the Garnet Marquess and my husband will get along famously. But Cupric, dear; if we are to work together then I need you to be more careful.”
“Well then we shouldn’t work together. Problem solved.”
The Baroness sighed. “I do not doubt your commitment to the downtrodden of this city. We are… different… but I believe that together we can help the greatest number of the most needy people. Whatever slight I have committed against you please do not make the poor suffer for it.”
Damn. She knew his weakness. Cupric poured himself another glass.
“Alright, Lady. What precautions would have me take to make my already difficult job even harder?”
She smiled, but her voice betrayed her irritation. “Perhaps try not to alienate all of the gentry. Once the High Reeve approves my plan for a mandatory tithe, I will need to work with the nobility to provide the grain and meat that you and your followers deliver to the poor. The gentry will bristle if they know you, Cupric the insolent mercenary, will be handling what were once their own goods.”
Cupric thought she looked tired. Lebrunn usually could hide her true emotion. He casually swung his pickaxe into his hands. “Tell them we can do it the easy way or the hard way. Their call. The fewer nobles the greater need for suitable replacements. Count Cupric… has a nice ring, doesn’t it?”
The Baroness smiled again, in spite of herself. “In Deira we have a saying; ‘Power begets responsibility.’ The silver circlet of nobility is a heavy weight, but I earnestly hope you live long enough to discover that for yourself, Cupric. Please. You can be quite charming when you choose. Just pick one noble and be good to them. Offend all the rest if you must. You will need more allies than just the High Reeve before you achieve your goals.”
“As you wish, Lady.” Whatever it takes to get this woman out of the bar.
She turned to leave. Cupric sighed and was about to take a sip-
“One last thing.” The Baroness’ bodyguards were already outside, but she had spun round before leaving the threshold of the door.
“I don’t suppose you asked the High Reeve why he allowed a treasonous nobleman to spend weeks in prison without interrogating or executing him, giving the man plenty of time to secure a desk, pen, paper and a way to get his confession to the masses?”
Cupric stared back. “Nope. Don’t care.”
The Baroness furrowed her brow and turned to leave.
“Very well. Lastly-”
“You already told me that thing was the last thing,” said Cupric drily, interrupting.
“Well I lied then,” she tersely countered. “As I was saying, lastly, do watch out for Count Nyle. I keep telling you all that he’s dangerous and probably behind much of the discord in the city.”
She was out the door before Cupric could reply.
Cupric turned back to the bar, turning over the Baroness’ last words in his mind. He pulled out the scroll the High Reeve had given him, read it again, shook his head and sighed. Cupric hefted his pickaxe with his right hand, feeling its weight, taking measure of it.
“Rock,” Cupric called.
“Yes sir.”
“Get your quill and parchment. If we survive the night there’ll be one epic tale to write.”

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The Daily Leaf - Vol 37 Issue 31, Early Edition

R.J. Kradas, Publisher
The Hottest News Fit to Print for Deira – and the Multiverse!
LOCAL NEWS SECTION
BREAKING: Star Barrister Signs Confession Implicating Gangster in Murders, Suicides & Plotting to Wrongfully Execute Local Teen
In Brief:
-Investigative Reporter Taryn Leonidas Receives Handwritten Confession From Barrister Ainsley.
-Foreign Private Investigators Uncover Ainsley’s Plot.
-Ainsley’s Confession Implicates Alleged Mob Boss Igor Usmanov in Framing a Rival Boss’ Nephew for Murdering Vagrants.
-Killer(s) of Vagrants Still Unidentified, Presumed At Large.
-Bodies of Murdered Vagrants Found Under Bailey Keep with Bodies of the Gentlemen Suicides; Connection Still Unclear.
-Ainsley Confesses to Being Member of Obscure Cult Bent on Spreading Madness and Confusion.
-Court Prosecutor Unavailable for Comment on Accusations of Colluding with Defense Barrister Ainsley to Coerce Child into Copping to Murders.
-Embattled City Minister Denies Knowledge of Plot, Claims the City Guard, Himself Were Ignorant.
-Planned Execution of Innocent Teen Stayed at the Last Moment By High Reeve Himself.
-Ainsley Not in Custody, Last Seen Leaving Diera on Foot.
-Royal Barrister’s Society Considering Disbarring Ainsley.
IN RELATED NEWS:
-City Guard Deputy in the Bailey Keep Sacked for Dereliction of Duty, Fleeing Post, During Discovery of Ainsley’s Confession.

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The Daily Leaf - Vol 37 Issue 4, Early Edition

R.J. Kradas, Publisher
The Hottest News Fit to Print for Deira – and the Multiverse!
ARTS SECTION
Night at the Symphony – A Review
Arts Contributor Taryn Leonidas gives readers the dirt on the winter season’s hottest fine arts in town!

Leaving last night’s symphony performance one might easily hear the affluent audience remark that the performances were staid and starchy, innovative and refreshing, or muddled and incomprehensible. None of these opinions would be off the mark. For the moneyed, the beautiful, or the well-connected, the symphony was the place to be last night. The first performance of the evening was from our venerable Deiran Symphony, led with workman-like diligence by Maestro Aeneas Arinieus. Arinieus, a longtime cellist with the local symphony, has spent 4 years training in Nabila before returning for this, his directorial debut. Although Arinieus’ conducting was highly anticipated, his coming out party was overshadowed by a giant in the conducting universe- Maestro Zarathustra. Zarathustra, a charismatic human from Engadin, is known for his over-the-top conducting style (and for pomposity off the stage). His retinue, a quintet, is known to include some of the finest musicians East of the Wilds. Deira was the final stop on a tour beginning months ago in the steamy Pearl River Delta. Last night the Maestro eschewed the usual tails and top hat for what appeared to be weathered traveler’s robes. Zarathustra, who appeared to be unwashed, may have at first been mistaken for a novice conductor, had his obvious force of personality not lent the practiced gravitas of a master to his oeuvre. Zarathustra in fact appeared to be pioneering an entirely new conducting style, expressive, fluid, nonchalant and for some more traditional audience members, bordering on incomprehensible. “At first I thought some itinerant wizard had erroneously been allowed onstage," remarked Dowager Countess Sutton. “I assumed the tramp would recognized as a fraud and turned out into the night. But people acted as though his flailing was… provocative, not confusing.” For some time at the beginning of Zarathustra’s performance it appeared as though some audience members may have lost interest and left, but by the end of the piece younger symphony enthusiasts were literally swinging from the balconies in delight. This writer believes that we may be witnessing a revolution in conducting, beginning here in Deira. Maestro Zarathustra’s admittedly casual redefinition of his role as conductor could only come from a seasoned genius, a man so familiar with the rules of his trade that he can choose when and how to break them. We can’t guarantee that all this season’s performances will be as provocative as last night’s, but the symphony looks to be the hottest ticket around for the foreseeable future!

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Passed the Buck

In a small town just outside of our target area we have met a new group of adventures from the dome. it appears that we have not been dropping in often enough to have recruited more aid. i do not mind so much, more people sharing the responsibility gives us more freedom to find things of value instead of just the small items. A few things i do not like about meeting our new friends. they drove out VJG due to conflict. i do not pass all the blame on them about it. Victor was a bit of a loose cannon and over reactionary, but still i am not sure if loosing him was worth meeting four people we may or may not see again on occasion. also when we had our talk, they mentioned something dark, creepy, and sinister may have been on their trail. now that they have left the town four strange objects appear outside of our doors at the inn. to boot these objects have stories of the past which are as mentioned earlier, dark, creepy, and sinister. however maybe this was our burden to bare in the first place. the origins of these superstitious objects seems to be from our very destination. i know not what the next few days will have in store for us. i just pray they will be in our favor.

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And the Bells Were Silent
I Need to Find a Masterwork Fedora

Just over the hill and up to the pass. What a load of shit. Say my name and you won’t have any issues.

Having parted from the diplomatic rejects from both the Bush 43 and Obama cabinets, we made our way towards the pass. We encountered a goblin mining operation. Despite their experience traversing the mineshaft, we seemed to be able to outmaneuver them with ease. One tried to divert down a secondary shaft. Blaine and I continued after him at full speed. we didn’t realize the shaft narrowed and came to an abrupt end. We dived out of the cart right before it, little Jackson P and the rock face became one. Our farming friend joined us, and some bomb throwing midgets tried to box us in with the furry middle management right behind them. Due to solid teamwork, they were dispatched in short order. Z had thrown himself into the bottom of the warrens and “secured” the area below.

Secured might be too strong a word. As we crossed a bridge and checked out the mines, the goblins tried to blow the bridge behind us. In a selfless act of utter stupidity, I threw myself on the bomb to save the bridge and keep us from getting stranded. The bomb was mostly a dud, and very little hurt. We then dispatched the goblins in short order, and shored up the entrance to the mine as our point of rest for the night.

We then approached the Gate to the Dwarven pass. a lone statuesque dwarf gave us the you shall not pass routine. The illusion held back three humanoid white furry apes that had an unbelievable strength. They pelted us with stones from above. I quickly climbed the wall and threw one of them off of the gate walkway. hey proceeded to pummel us while an evil cleric held sway. after we took many lumps, I found the control crystal and smashed it. The last furball began attacking the cleric, and we ended the cleric and the yeti. We found the remains of the dwarf garrison, stripped and frozen.

We bedded down, and as I passed out, I felt a sensation, that I didn’t learn what I should have, and my exploits … weren’t as spectacularly amazing as I thought.

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