Sing muse! A tale of darkness and grime. A tale of hope and of purity. A tale of heroism and adventure in a place opposed to both and in a place naive to both. Sing a tale of invasion and destruction, of insidious outsiders who wish only great harm on all things. A tale of a world in peril and a world destroyed by blight. A tale of a city by the sea, situated on a smattering of islands, and the actions of its inhabitants.

Down in the darkness below the bustling streets of Port Delta, all that can be heard is the sound of rushing water. Nearly inaudible, below the level of the flowing sludge is the almost silent scratching of small rodents searching for savory morsels of food in the rapids. These rodents may once have been able to be called rats, however if we could see them (which we can, as omnipotent viewers), they would look little like the familiar plague vectors we know and love. Horribly mutated as they are, many have more limbs and teeth than expected, while some others still have fewer. One even appears to have transcended physicality entirely, and bobs serenely through the air as a ghostly rodentine apparition.

Our story isn’t about them though, interesting and transfixing though they may be, we suddenly see a light appear from one of the many side passages, illuminating as it approaches the sturdily constructed brick walls with incomprehensible sigils glowing with powers both apocryphal and arcane. The approaching light is cast without appreciable heat, from what seems to be a normal torch held by the shorter of two figures. He also carries with him an ancient, beautiful but viciously pragmatic looking war-axe and is clad in a time worn yet somehow functional chain shirt. His taller, but still average height companion awkwardly wears cheap, second-hand looking chainmail with a notched greatsword. They both carry mops. They have most certainly been walking in silence for some time, the awkward uncomfortability of two strangers forced to spend time together in order to earn wages.

“Hey Dougan, why are we here?” The human asks his dwarven companion

“Look, lad. I know it’s your first day, but try to keep up: we’re here because there was an extradimensional disturbance somewhere near the outskirts of the sewer, and the college has a standing agreement with the city not to allow anything dangerous into the general population’s sewers. Since none of them high and mighty wizard types are likely to come down here and get their fancy robes all mucked up, we’re the suckers getting paid to do this. It was only an hour ago that we were told this, you ought to try to keep up,” Replies the dwarf, obviously a little chuffed at have to explain this.

“No, I mean more generally,” The human replies.

“Um, well. You see… I suppose perhaps you should be talking to a priest, lad,” The dwarf says, obviously treading uncertain ground here.

“Okay, maybe a bit more specifically than that” The human is obviously growing exasperated. “Why are humanoids still used as janitors in these places?”

“Ah. You’re new, aren’t you lad?”

“Well, yeah, you said yourself it’s my first day”

“No, I mean do you have any previous experience?”

“Not as such, but I’m pretty sure I’m qualified. My grandfather was a wizard.” This time it was the human who sounded uncomfortable.

“Ah. Well, you see, my father was a wizard’s janitor, and his father before him, and on back three generations, and I myself have been doing this close on 350 years now. All told, my family has more years of janitorial experience than the city senate has been around. I’ve been put out of this very job by any kind of horrible tame beastie you can imagine, only to have to come back and clean up after their messes. Go on and propose yourself a replacement for the likes of you and me.”

“Ok, well I guess we should start with the most obvious: animated constructs! Surely they would be thousands of times more productive than even a pair of sentients like us, and don’t require any pay at all. Not to mention the advantages of no longer needing to follow labor laws, deal with union negotiations, or worry about employees not liking each other. They’re even immune to most magic, so don’t need all these expensive magical safety precautions.” The human asks, pulling at the rune engraved rubber hip waders he was wearing over his loose armor.

“Aye, they’ll work all day and all night, but don’t rightly know when to quit. This means they usually require full-time supervision to make sure they aren’t doing something they aren’t supposed to. In fact, they’re the very reason why the college’s sewers connect up with those of the town proper. Some hapless neophyte fell asleep at the control rod while they were expanding the sewers, thinking as you do that there isn’t much that can go wrong. Before he knew it, the university’s dirty laundry is crawling up somebodies outhouse and rampaging through the town proper. Suddenly my job becomes part of the safety of the city, and requires tracking down and killing anything even remotely dangerous.

Besides that, do you have any idea how expensive those things are?! I’ve heard it took the full graduating tuition of a dozen students to pay for one of the blighters. Mind you, that’s just to pay for their creation; say nothing of the upkeep cost, control rod cost, and paying for one of the neophytes to babbysit the damn thing for the whole time it’s in use. That limits their usefulness as well, since not many neophytes are willing to stay up all night looking after a hunk of rock and metal and magic that ought to be able to think for itself. Not to mention the fact they smash up everything with their constant stomping about, you think these rune engraved dwarven bricks are cheap? Even if all those weren’t good enough reasons, some of the monsters down here are smart enough to smudge off the animating rune on the damn thing’s face, or kill the squishy little sentient holding the rod and doing the commanding.”

“Okay, Okay, those are some very good points. Well, what about just getting an enormous army of the undead. Sure they’d also need more supervision, but they’re cheap, tireless, and replaceable. It’s not as though there isn’t a surplus of people dying each day, they may as well be used for something that helps others. Plus it allows for family members to visit with their dead relatives, which has to be worth something.”

“Aye, but they stink to high heaven. Ye’re also neglecting just how difficult a veritable mountain of corpses is to come by without resorting to shady tactics, that lot upstairs are academics not adventurers. Besides that, they’re prone to carrying all kinds of dreadful diseases, and are otherwise considered by even the roughest of company to be more than a little off-putting. But the end-all, be-all, number one reason not to use mindless undead as cheap manual labor is that it screams out for all to hear in great blazing letters: Hello, all nearby religious institutions and paladin organizations, please quest on up to our doors and proceed to shove your burning holy longswords right up our collective jacksies.

You’re acting like you don’t even know the story of how a few students of one of the universities went off into the adventurer’s districts to have a few drinks (against university rules, mind you). They wound up in a loud discussion about how that darn necromancy college is probably up to all sorts of weird shady things, no matter how many senate led investigations were mounted into the belly of that black obelisk they used as a school. Some group of murder happy adventurers got it in their head that these dark necromancers had to be up to something fishy, and rounded up a group of the more religiously minded murderhobos to teach those black wizards a lesson or two in respecting the sanctity of life. That’s the very reason there isn’t a necromancy school in the city to this day, nobody wants to get murdered by a bunch of drunken zealots with more faith than sense.”

“Ah. That is an excellent objection on moral grounds. Okay, well what about those organic consuming oozes like gelatinous cubes, or one of those horrible garbage eating aberrations?”

“Oh, aye, just stick them in the hole and forget about ‘em, eh? Well, those cubic bastards absorb whatever junk they eat. Leave the buggers down there long enough and they wind up as half mad, part ethereal, frozen, electric, acidic, extraplanar monstrosities. Euch, that one was a terrible fight. Killed my grandpappy before we even had any idea that the bastard was anywhere near us. Just sucked him into its quivering mass, froze, shocked, teleported and ultimately dissolved him before we even knew it was near us.

Same goes for those horrible otyughs. Just gain an unfortunate amount of magical abilities that make it damn near impossible to fight without burning a crap load of magical charms and potions yourself, barely worth what we spent in order to murder the bugger. I still have nightmares about one of those tentacles reaching through a portal toward me, imbued with every kind of energy you can imagine, all while the bugger slung some horrible mutated spells at random. The worst was that I could see just a bit of the world it was smacking me through in a bit of the portal. Twisted alien landscapes inhabited by similarly twisted and alien monsters, near enough to drive a person mad… Both of those monstrosities killed over twenty students, and that tentacle-beast killed me own brother.”

“Okay, that’s something I wouldn’t have thought of. Well, what about bound outsiders? Demons, devils, angels and the like? They’re damn near invulnerable compared to most nonplanar creatures, and have all kinds of amazing spellcasting abilities that don’t have the limitations of what normal spellcasters have. Besides that, they’re tireless, powerful, and many are actually very excellent critical thinkers.”

“Well, you know all those lovely sounding positives you just listed off? Those are the main reasons they aren’t used as bloody janitors. I’m sure you can tell the biggest issue there is grudges. Those bound outsiders will always outlive their binders, and odds are they’ll come back and take revenge on whatever foolish organization hired that chump who enslaved them. Provided it still exists, and even if it doesn’t some of the more spiteful buggers will go after the offspring of anybody who was associated with the organization. Sometimes they’ll kill people who just walked by the building once, if they’re mean enough, and strong enough to get away with it. That’s if they don’t have pals back on their respective planes willing to come and bail them out, usually by murdering everybody that wizard has ever even heard of, and then murdering the wizard and devouring his soul and dissipating it into the astral plane. The higher planes are not good places to have on your bad side, no matter which plane you’re talking about.

The chaotic planes resent your intrusion onto their freedoms, and really don’t have the attention span to accomplish anything anyways. Besides that they aren’t terribly strong physically or reliable at all. The lawful planes will follow commands and are physically quite capable, but always think they have better things to do and see you as interfering with their purpose. The problem with evil planes should be evident, as they’re just waiting for somebody stupid enough to show up to torture. The good planes are the worst of the lot though, since binding one of them interferes with their holy mission making you the most evil sort that a mortal can be, who deserves whatever horrible punishment they can think up for you.”

“Okay, okay, okay. I get it now. Why don’t the colleges just hire adventurers then?”

“Ah, now you’ve hit the nail on the head son,” The dwarf said, while checking a map and turning down one of the many sewage offshoots.

“I have?” The young man asked, perplexed.

“Oh yes. Don’t you see? They did exactly that,” The dwarf said.

“Now listen. I don’t know about what you do in your nights and weekends, dwarf, but I’m certainly no adventurer,” The young man stated, a little offended at the implications.

“Well, not in name, and the city certainly doesn’t see you as one (not that I’m too torn up about that) but by all other accounts the biggest difference between us and adventurers is that an adventurer would have to be crazy to go into the same crypt or tomb or cavern every day for their entire professional lives. They know very well they cleaned the joint out of treasure the day before, but who’s to say there aren’t any more beasties come to tear them a new one? Or that they didn’t miss some, or that some weird experimental magic interacted with a ley line and broke open a portal to the elemental plane of earth.”

“That can happen? Wait, so you’re saying we’re basically on-call adventurers for a group of jerks living over a dungeon? That we basically exist to do daily troubleshooting for any dangerous messes or monstrosities that may pop up in the basement?” The young man was obviously beginning to become distressed.

“Well, look at it this way: how many unbelievably sized rats did you yourself kill on our way to get to this point today?”

“Oh god…” A look of horror slowly crept over the young man’s face, “my father will be more displeased than I originally thought.”

“Well, very few people think of it that way these days. Most humans, especially, forgot that we were ever looked at this way (no matter for how short a time it may have been). Besides, the job was created by a treaty between the city and the universities. That automatically adds an air of authority to any occupation, even one as smelly as ours. We also protect the city from all sorts of unspeakable magical creations every few days, whereas a group of adventurers could only claim to have done it once or twice in a decade, any good metropolis destroying plot requires decades to come to fruition. All them wizards upstairs manage to make it happen in the course of a few weeks, what with all that magic they dump,” The dwarf explained, holding his light close to map straining his eyes to see where he might be going.

“Wait, monsters? I sort of thought this job was just cleaning up messes from the wizards,” The young man sounded worried now.

“Well, you didn’t think we were going to be swabbing an extraplanar stain did you?”

The young man simply gulped.

“Ah, think of it this way lad,” the dwarf began, seeing the young man’s concern, “You’re getting paid a steady wage to do what an adventurer only hopes is going to pay off big. Adventurers are mad gamblers, stumbling into whatever holes they find and praying to whatever deity they worship that there is a stinking huge pile of gold or gems or some kind of magic doodads to make the whole thing worthwhile. Then they return topside and head straight to the nearest tavern to drink themselves into a stupor and fight a whole gaggle of other adventurers. They don’t get vacation time, no lunch breaks, no union representation. Hell, they aren’t even allowed into the regular parts of the city unless they’re registered and agree not to cause any trouble or damage. Conversely, we get paid time off, sick leave, compensation if ye’re injured on the job, and we know we’ll be getting a nice paycheck at the end of every two weeks.”

“Plus the satisfaction of knowing you didn’t have to sleep in the sewers a couple of days in a row,” The young man chimed in.

“Aye, now you’re getting it. Now ye ought to be quiet now, we’re coming up on the area where the ping sounded off. Put them goggles on so ye can see once I turn this light off, and ready that chopper.”

The young man placed the goggles over his eyes, and pulled his greatsword out from its sheath (but not without some difficulty) and signaled his readiness.

With that, the dwarf whispered a quiet word over the light, and it winked out leaving the pair in total darkness.

“All right kid, let’s get going towards whatever this thing is. Be quiet, keep behind me, and follow my lead, right?”

“Gulp” Was all the human could manage.

Port Delta RPG stuff Short stories

I missed a deadline in there, two weeks ago, I believe. I know that’s not really a good way to start going off on my writing endeavors, but I don’t think that was too terrible since the deadline fell in a somewhat unfortunate time for me. In the past three weeks I have: graduated from pharmacy school (thus becoming doctor jerkpriest), moved from Las Vegas, Nevada to San Antonio, Texas (if you had told me I would ever live in either place I would have called you a liar), and managed to secure myself a position as a pharmacist (at an enormous chain), been pre-qualified for a pretty decent home loan (provided I manage to pass my boards), and left my wife and dogs in Vegas for the next few months (which isn’t very fun). This meant I haven’t really had time or ambition to write anything, especially since I’m trying to get used to living in a completely new area that is drastically different from the area I used to live in without my favorite person and my two little boys. I’ve also been furiously studying for my boards, so that I can practice my job in a way that both maximizes my money and allows me to purchase my first home (not too bad for a snake person, Eh?). So I’ve got a little story I’ve whipped up to hopefully make it up to you guys in some small way, even if it is a little bit Twilight Zone.

 

The man sits quietly.

The man sits quietly by himself.

The man sits quietly by himself on a park bench in an empty park.

It is just before dawn and the man is sitting on a park bench in a park with no one else around. He reflects that he does this quite often these days. The man then reflects that he reflects quite often these days. He also reflects that he does things that he does quite often quite often these days, and then reflects that this is starting to get a little ridiculous.

There are a lot of things that are ridiculous about this situation, The man thinks to himself.

It seems like a long time since The man has seen a person sitting alone on a park bench, besides perhaps in movies or television shows. Seems like people nowadays are too busy running around with their jobs and technology, working out how to use little handheld devices to figure out how to make their lives simpler and endlessly more complicated. Using smart phones to precipitate a rube-goldberg like assortment of expensive bits and bobs to perform simple actions like turning on a light, an action which would take seconds using a device that admittedly took millenia to develop but is issued to most humans in double digits (which The man realized is a reasonable pun, since he’s thinking of fingers). Ordinarily, The man would have a better things to do as well, but things had changed a reasonable amount in recent weeks.

The man realized he had gone several days without speaking to another human, not that he had particularly enjoyed the company of humans in the past, but to a certain extent, a person always needs at least some casual interaction with others. Humans are absolutely creatures with a social nature, and as such consider absolute solitude to be anathema.

At this point, The man’s imagination gets the better of him, and he imagines complex histories for a number of people he has seen recently. The young lady who looked perhaps like she was part of a large family: maybe the oldest child who had responsibility and expectation thrust upon her at an early age, or perhaps the youngest child who had to fight tooth and nail for any small measure of respect for her accomplishments. Perhaps she was lost in the throng of middle children, forgotten in the complicated lives of those older siblings or the constant basic needs of those younger. Perhaps he was wrong, and she was an only child: knowing little of the petty rivalry, but reveling in the attention and affection of her doting parents.

The middle aged man, face marked by times implacable advance. Were they lines of laughter, etched with the joy of a life full of joy and love? Or were they the remnants of recurrent scowls, the trademark of a sour, sullen man whose only joy was in the sorrow of others? It becomes impossible to tell, when a face is viewed in a passive state, as the one worn by the sleeper. A single line could be the result of any impossible combination of stories, known only to the bearer (and then only in passing, as a life’s worth of memories is a burden beyond the ability of most brains to process, much less maintain).

It is amazing that humans have lasted as long as they have, The man thinks, due to this last fact. A person can live their entire life around another, and have long, involved discussions on every subject with them and still know only so little about them. A person behaves as a kind of bizarre mirror, after a fashion, reflecting back upon the viewer a vision of that person tinged and tweaked for the sake of the viewer. This is accepted, as each person views others through the film of their own perception. In this way, one can experience another only as a kind of twice distorted ghost, The man thinks. A person mostly exists for others as memories. Memories both of the two people together, and of memories shared between the two people. Movies played through one’s mind into the others, transmitted on the waves formed in the words of a story. The man discovers he likes this image, of sharing memories of experiences like one would share episodes of a television show, perhaps.

When a human meets another, they are treated to a view of the person that person wants them to see, The man decides. This sort of thought is probably why he has such a difficult time relating to other people, The man thinks. It may also contribute to both the fact that he hasn’t seen anyone in several days and the fact that he is sitting here alone on a park bench on this freezing pre-dawn morning. People have found him to be alternatively compelling or off putting, though he tries to meet people in as earnest a way as he can muster, and hasn’t given more than a passing thought to conforming to other people’s views since he was considerably younger. Mostly, The man had done it as a means to overcome their preconceived notions of him in school, when he was not entirely confident of what he wanted or who he was. Briefly after this, when The man went away to college, he entertained the idea that he could become whoever he wished. Escaping, as it were, from the previously formed ideas about who he was, and what he might be capable of. He reveled in picking and choosing who he might be at each juncture of meeting a new person, swapping and changing personae as one might change an outfit or a mask. A hyperkinetic child with a bag full of costumes at a halloween party.

But this became tiresome and hollow quickly, as each new mask felt dull and muted, and keeping the act going became too much effort. The man decided honesty was best, with the exception of preserving social niceties. He would hide bits of himself behind a mask of slate grey: dull and flat almost emotionless. Revealing bits of what lay beneath when it became apparent that the person could accept it. Safe, was a word that could be used to describe it.

The man had always concerned himself with safety. Worrying from a young age not about animals, monsters or other fantastical creations of the mind, and instead worrying about the very real risks other people posed to him: concerned with burglars, kidnappers, and ultimately that which comes to us all in the end. That which is here already for most. The man worried about death as a child. Adults quickly tried to assuage his fears, the religious explanations were numerous and unimaginable. Eternal damnation or joy? Those didn’t seem terribly likely. The concept of forever is just as foreign to the human mind as the concept of nothing (real, true nothing, not the kind thought of by mathematicians or physicists). The man realized eventually that living your life in constant fear of death, watching what you do to please some invisible taskmaster, invalidated the life as it was lived. A life devoted to thinking about death is hardly a life at all. That living a certain ascetic lifestyle in order to experience eternal happiness or avoid eternal suffering seemed like a kind of cruel joke, especially when presented with the temptations and tribulations suffered by those around him on a daily basis.

The man decided to live how he wished now, as there was no surety about what comes after.

The man realized that what comes after was coming sooner than ever. Well, that’s always the case, isn’t it?

Yes.

Always.

Each second ticks down inexorably towards the end, unable to be reclaimed. An hourglass that can never be flipped, each morsel of sand a moment to be savored and lived within, as it would never return.

The man was freezing.

No.

The man was burning up.

The man seemed to be both at once, his traitor body incapable of deciding which series of electric impulses to send to his failing brain.

The man was dying.

The human was dying.

Each human was dying, or dead, or in some transitory state between the two.

Thinking back, the last human he had seen had been The child. Young, so young, and full of potential and waste. The child was crying, gripping at his shirt’s collar and desperately begging for help. The child had been sick, as had been every person The man had seen before it. The man knew almost certainly that he had been sick, or about to become sick. The plague claimed all and spared none. No matter how careful, or smart or safe.

No woman.

No child.

And certainly, no man.

Short stories Writing

Sing muse, lend me your voice, give me the power to speak the tale of that deftest, and perhaps daftest of adventurers.  He whose exploits are beyond compare, whose endangerment of those whom he considers to be allies is among the greatest of his most known achievements.  Give me the will and endurance to sing the somewhat exhausting tale of that asshole that I adventured with that one time, the story of “sir” Gustav the Great!

dark foggy graveyarde

As dusk set over the defunct graveyard, a thick fog, almost viscous in nature, rolled in.  This was not due to any prevailing climatic conditions, but instead due to an arcanophysical constant in the physical and narrative fabric of the plane, requiring large burial sites (professional or amateur) to be coated with fog starting at about twilight regardless of religious blessings or protective magic.  At any rate, and for whatever reason, the effect served to make an already eerie place substantially more haunting.  In this soupy twilight, a solitary figure creeps silently out from the door of one of the mausoleums.  As the figure moves into the near dark, we can see from our omniscient vantage, a crude sack of burlap slung rudely over one of his shoulders.  As our grave liberator jauntily strolls towards the ornate entry gates to the ancient graveyard, quite pleased with his haul but still terrified that some non-existent passersby will catch him and turn him in to the local constabulary, we see a group of thin figures following him and one colossal figure approaching from the gate.

As our grave robber reaches the portal, he spots the looming armored giant.  The man is enormous, easily six foot five, wearing a large suit of dull charcoal full plate dotted with fearsome looking spikes and a full helm, featureless save for the spikes spelling out “GRET” right above the eye slits.  The giant is veritably bristling with weapons of all kinds, a great wicked glaive currently grasped in his gauntleted hands.  The grave robber goes stiff, shocked both at once to see anyone at all, and more specifically to see such an imposingly monstrous figure.
The hulking ironclad figure draws back the wicked pointed glaive and let’s loose with a strike that arches slightly at first, then plunges headlong towards its target somewhere above the smaller man’s shoulders. The grave robber sees his life pass before his eyes:

Growing up on the dingy, garbage filled streets of copper district, clawing and fighting family and enemies alike to survive.

Learning to read while ferrying notes for senators in the civic district, selling the juiciest bits of information to brokers in the thieves guild.

Getting a job archiving maps in the library of The Great University in town and discovering the location of a graveyard forgotten by time, and relieving it of all its loose valuables.

The eyes shut.

The blow connects with a hollow thud and a dry shattering.

The eyes open, only to find themselves still alive, but not yet spared of their nightmare apparition. The poor scribe falls heavily on his backside, releasing all the in his lungs from its fleshy entrapment.

The glaive must have passed just over his shoulder, the only evidence of its passing a small nick on his earlobe. This fact is realized later, as his brain is focused on processing the fact he is not deceased.

The talented behemoth treads forward, mindless of the crumpled form just ahead of him, even as it rolls reflexively to avoid being crushed. The glaive is discarded rudely onto the hood’s head, and a heavy maul is rattled quickly free and swung in one fluid motion into what appears to be an emaciated humanoid.

While pondering this odd behavior for what must be some kind of mechanical construct, the thief places a hand gingerly beside himself and discovers a mostly intact human skeleton (it appears to be shy a skull, and the rib cage has been indelicately trodden through). This brings much into sharp clarity, just as the maul flatters through the last of the undead somewhere nearby in the fog.

Fear sets in quickly, running through his body like wildfire. Why were those skeletons here? They weren’t here before? Where did that armor thing go? Is it done killing them and preparing to move on to killing me? These thoughts rush through his head in a fraction of a second, just before ‘I should get out of here’ and ‘I need to stand up’ stroll by lazily in that order.

Just as he was about to begin action on thought two and one, the dark shadow of the other man looms leisurely out of the fog.

“Ho-ho! You appear to have lost your balance, my dear colleague!” Booms a deep voice, slightly muffled from behind the helmet.

A large gauntleted hand reaches down, hesitates for a split second before clenching around the burglar’s rough-spun tunic and hauling him unceremoniously to his feet.

“Ah! I see you found my long pokie proddy thing. It’s good that you did, I’m always forgetting my weapons when it’s just me.” The titan proclaims while tossing the glaive skyward with a boot and snagging it at its apex.
“Uh…” Blubbers the thief.

The jovial man secures his armaments, and begins to pry his helm from his head. This act exposes a swarthy man of middle age with dusky skin and tightly curled hair and a look of excitement and mirth, tinged slightly with apathy and something more savage.

“Oh yes, you must not recognize me because of this silly hat! The blacksmith charged by the letter, and I had only enough for the first ‘E.’ I am sir Gustav the Great, an adventurer of some repute.”

“Buh?” Asked the thief.

“Well of course I will accompany you to the city gates, my new friend! In fact, I will let you buy me a drink as repayment for my services. This is an excellent deal, as it usually runs a significant portion of the profits.” Gustav advised carefully, with a pointedly absent implied threat.

“Well…” The thief attempts to protest.

“Very good, my man, we shall travel together. These roads are not safe this late at night!” Gustav bellows to the world at large (certainly to the things making the roads unsafe) while clapping the robber on his back and unsubtly shifting him towards the exit.

***       ***       ***       ***

As the pair walk towards town, Gustav regales the grave robber with some tales of his adventures, while the thief struggles to get a word in, or slip off unnoticed.

“I once spelunked with a party of all brothers, let’s see, there was a priest, a wizard and a bard. One of those proper bards, mind you, lute and song not those cut rate drummers, dancers, flute players or mimes you see so much of these days. Well anyways, we were wandering around in a cave they had heard some children had disappeared into, and it turned out to be housing some weird cult. Screamed something about being asleep and waking up while I ripped em up, I never listen to a dying man (my pappy’s dying wish). Well anyways, we get to this door, and I’m gonna open it but they all throw a fit. So I sit down while them brothers fuss over whether or not it’s trapped, I mean as though someone’s gonna trap a door. Eventually they seem to come to the end and tell me to pop it open. So I boot it in, while those three babies are standing twenty feet behind me. And don’t you know it, but it is trapped! I hear a noise, and the clever bastards had put a pit trap twenty feet in front of the door and they had all fallen in! I laughed about that all while tearing those cultists apart. Of course, the three brothers had been skewered to death by the stakes at the bottom, but that’s a risk of the job. Now what were their names again? It was something foreign, I think. I can never remember”

“Talking to yourself again, Gustav?” Shouts out a voice from the approaching city gate.

This visibly snaps the thief out of his horror induced trance. He didn’t want to go to this gate. This was one of the adventurer’s gates, if he went in through there looking like this he might not be able to get home. They didn’t let adventurers through into the main city without paying through the nose for a pass, even if they were born in the city. The smaller man looks around desperate for a way to sneak off, someplace to stash the loot, some kind of wild animal to chew him to pieces and end this nightmare.

No such opportunities arise, and the pair inexorably progress up into view of the gates and the highly trained soldier and his complicated and invincible construct manning it. Panic and fear melts away into resignation, with a tinge of hope: maybe my new friend can help me with this new problem.

“Hey Gustav! And wait, Is this someone you met on the road? I’ve never seen you coming back into the city with anyone. At least not an entire someone!” The guard states with incredulity, part fake part real.

“Why no, this is one of my colleagues whom I met in battle with a few skeletons back a ways” replies unfazed by the ribbing.

“Well, he’ll have to give his name to see if he’s on the list” the guard begins.

“Nonsense” interrupts Gustav “he is most certainly not. I’ve not seen him before this night, he’ll have to be scanned.”

“Perhaps that explains his surprising longevity. Okay then, G67a, scan this fellow here.” The guard spoke cryptically to the world at large, perhaps.

Suddenly, the great metallic humanoid springs into motion so fluidly the brain tries to  convince itself this thing has always been moving, instead of the menacing stillness it just had. Up to the robber it stalks, stopping uncomfortably close, just inches away.

SCANNING ADVENTURER SCUM!

“PRESENT HANDS FOR SCANNING, ADVENTURER SCUM” the mighty golem booms.

“Ack!” Stammers the grave robber, pulling back quickly. Unfortunately for him, his hands suffer from having mass, and remain in place.

Seeing this, the golem shifts forwards seizes the man’s left hand into a cavity in its own hand and does its work. A heated blade comes down, severing cleanly the end joint of his pinky finger.

“Bluh!” He shouts with something of a taper at the end as he begins to feel faint from the pain.

“SCANNING ADVENTURER SCUM NOW!” The horrid thing blasts.

“This’ll just be another minute then.” The guard says, obviously boring of this already.
“I don’t see why it has to take so long, Jerry. I’ve seen those mages hurl flames so hot it can turn a man to glass,”

“Ulp…” Stutters the swooning thief, ending up on his backside for the second time that night.

“Hush now, friend, it’s rude to interrupt.” Gustav chides him.

“You know as well as I do that I’ve got no control over it, I just say scan and it scans. I’m no more wizard than you are, mate.” The man we now know as Jerry says somewhat automatically (as though he processes this request several times per day).

“I’m merely saying that these magic types have too damn much power to be trustworthy.” This last begins to trail off, as though Gustav comes to the realization (uncharacteristically) by the look on the guard’s face that he has perhaps touched a difficult subject. “So how are the wife and kids?” The man booms out unnecessarily loud, as though to recover some lost confidence.

“Fine, fine. The wife keeps bothering me to take a safer post, but I’m confident ol’ G67a could give even you a rough time in a tussle. Then my youngest spontaneously manifested magical abilities, which has lead to all kinds of unfortunate and difficult messes to clean up.”

“Ah, well, that can be tricky to deal with. Do you reckon it came from the wife’s side or yours?”

“Haven’t the foggiest. Though my father’s mother had some odd tendencies. It sure opens up a lot of possibilities for the lass though, with some of them colleges in town and all.”

Just as this gripping expository small talk seems about to kick into high gear (Gustav’s color was rising, and he seems very near to an offensive tirade), the great behemoth’s constant shrieking changes topics.

ADVENTURER SCUM IS UNREGISTERED AS ADVENTURER SCUM, SOME FEES MAY BE REQUIRED, HAVE A GREAT DAY, SCUM

“Ah, first timer eh? Local lad with dreams of adventure maybe, looking to live the high life and see what it’s like to have money? Maybe escape your nagging wife and the concerns of your children, crippling mortgage and dead end job? Trying to make a big change and see what you can do making your way on your own? Without any obligations hanging over your head, just you and your mates fighting for your lives and your livelihoods? Camping out under the stars, and eating whatever you want?” The soldier’s eyes glaze over dreamily as he speaks.

“Uhhhh?” This bizarrely personal seeming diatribe seems to confuse the two onlookers briefly.

“Well, perhaps not all of that, but it certainly seems my mysterious friend has his roots in this very city.” Gustav manages to spit out after a few seconds, almost without thought (or at least with less thought than he put into his normal actions).

“Yeah, I guess so. Well… Uh, the rate for first timers is about 1000 gold, and the rate for the registration is another 500 on top of that, and in addition there are taxes, tariffs and levies to pay, which come out to about 750 gold. If you’d like, we can just pour that nice hefty sack through the tabulator on old G67a while you place your hand on that hand shaped plate and he’ll make sure the city gets its due.”

Our hero is so flabbergasted at the size of this bill that he barely notices as the guard and adventurer seize his lucre and hand respectively, placing each in the place required for the process. A grand rattling sound is made, emanating from deep within the horrendous machine as though there were an avalanche’s worth of rocks in a hurricane encased within (which may well have been the case, these things are made with elemental spirits encased within). The rattling continues for about fifteen seconds, and suddenly the golem dispenses a small, fist-sized sack that jingles as it thuds onto the ground below.

“A decent haul, my friend!” Booms Gustav, earnestly.

The grave robber looks over at the oaf, with his mouth agape in a face of shock that quickly turns to a murderous glare that gives the seasoned adventurer pause.

“One of the benefits of being paid up is being revived when you die, though this costs a nominal fee of course, but most adventurers seem to prefer it to being dead forever.” Jerry says, attempting to give a bright side to the situation.

“I’ll pay with one of these, then Jerry.” Gustav says, hefting a small sack off of a bandolier of identical looking sacks and tossing it to the guard.

“Then you both are free to head on in. I heard that Rick’s is having some kind of shindig tonight, if you’re looking for a drink.” Jerry said, mentioning the tavern in the adventurer’s district (everybody knew Rick’s).

“Thanks for the head’s up, this newly minted adventurer was just off to buy me a drink for assistance rendered!”

And with nary another word, the duo was off in the direction of the greatest cacophony and collection of brightest lights in the outer twelve.

 ***       ***       ***       ***

 At Rick’s, a stout, nondescript dwarven man sits at the crowded bar. The bar is crowded, but each nook and cranny contains as many as the bar clamoring around hooded figures in perpetually darkened corners. The dwarven man looks on with disdain, though he appears similar to many of the dwarves in the joint, his armor is stained more with mud or possibly nightsoil, and he wears a stained mop slung across his back. He carefully takes deep drafts of the beer in his stein, staring at it and considering it as one might consider a baby bird, or some other fragile item of great worth. He seems to be remembering events from his past, drinking as a means of enhancing the memory and blunting it at the same time, as though he was on the verge of desiring their loss, but not quite ready to let them go at the same time.

Suddenly, this placid scene of serenity in an unexpected locale is broken by the bursting open of the outside doors, with an accompanying roar from the giant Gustav and a panicked squeal from the grave robber. As one, the entire bar shifts focus straight to the door and the interlopers who had chosen to disturb the relative peace of this crowded, raucous establishment. The bar’s collective eye examines Gustav, while briefly noting the small man standing beside him, most find a man whose reputation precedes him and turn away. The moment of quiet turns into a grumbling crescendo back to the noise abandoned in shock.

Gustav is unfazed by this lukewarm reaction to his entrance, and eases his way over to the bar with his new friend clutched tightly in a headlock of companionship. Upon noticing the filthy dwarf, his path adjusts to bring them into berth at the bar next to him as he makes the face of a moray eel who is waiting for a nearby rock to notice how cleverly he has sidled up to it.

So what's up? Just sitting here eh? Still a rock? That's cool.
Hey buddy! Eh? Eh?

The dwarf takes a sip gingerly from his drink, ignoring the armored giant next to him who is almost certainly taking up the entirety of his peripheral vision.

“Hey Dougan!” Gustav chirps as the dwarf is mid-drink.

“I told you what to call me, but you never listen.” The dwarf says, sighing.

“Oh, right. Mr Sludgehammer. I’ll never get how you dworfs are called by your last names first and first names not at all.”

“That’s not it, it’s a matter of self-respe… Ah never mind, I know you wouldn’t get it anyways Gustav.”

“I’d prefer ‘Sir’ Gustav.”

“You’re a knight?”

“Yep.”

“Since I know you didn’t join the Order of the Questing Hand, which Lord knighted you pray tell, in a democracy that hasn’t had a royal visitor in two hundred years, since you humans murdered the last one?”

“Nobody, it’s just a fancy title that makes me killing things and taking their stuff more respectable.”

“Well, at least it’s in keeping with the historical traditions.”

“Yeah.” Gustav says in something of an excited query.

“Well, who’s this? Never seen you in the company of anyone but me, an old fool.”

“Oh, this is my new companion, and the man who is about to buy me a drink!” Gustav says while gesturing to the man in the white suit behind the bar, who serves up a pair of frothy overflowing beers seemingly without moving.

“So Rick’s tending the bar tonight?” Gustav asks.

“Ayuh.” Dougan grunts in response.

The three sit in silence for a while, each one seemingly considering the decisions and events that brought them to this stage in their lives over their brew. Each man seems to come to a very different conclusion, as the grave robber slumps, Gustav stares glassy eyed ahead with a grin slowly creeping up the sides of his face, and Dougan grimaces and sighs.

“Well, what have you got this time?” Dougan dejectedly asks.

“Me and my former companions, may the Nameless One shepherd their souls to the next world, were out walking one of the old roads and came across this old cemetery and our priest wondered ‘Where is the church for this cemetery?’ So we wandered around for a while and discovered a church to a dead god, who was buried and forgotten in their own crypts. So we wandered around the church for a while, picking up a few idols and holy symbols made from precious metals and gems, as well as a few minor magic items on the mouldering corpses of long dead priests, when we came across a great gilded mirror set into the wall.

Our wizardess discovered it could be activated to be a portal to some other plane or another, where the god itself was interred with some of it’s possessions. We poked around in there for a while, and they told me not to touch anything, but I kicked what looked like a barrel made of some ethereal silver. Y’know, just out of boredom. All of the sudden, out pops this enormous amorphous wolf-man beast covered in thousands of shifting faces. Well, it just menaces for a few seconds, when our burglar leaps out of nowhere and drives his dagger into it’s back. From there we fought a running battle back to the mirror.

I saw them all fall under it’s slashing claws and biting jaws, but as I made it back to the portal I struck a final killing thrust with my big stabby sword. This blow, and the gods subsequent final death, released a great multitude of screaming ghosts back into the world. As I stepped through the portal back into this plane, the dead rose up to greet me. I hacked my way through them back to the cemetery gate, when I saw a gaggle of skeletons surrounding my friend here, which I promptly dispatched. We then hastened ourselves back here, where I discovered my this young man had completed his first true adventure and that we needed to celebrate this fact.” Gustav explains, long-windedly

“So, ye ticked off an ancient god. Then ye killed aforementioned dead god, releasing the souls of it’s followers. Then ye killed them too, all for a paltry sack of gold coins?” Dougan asks.

“Yeah, I suppose.” Gustav replies somewhat doubtfully.

“Hardly seems worth it.” Dougan says dismissively.

“You’re only saying that because you don’t have the guts to get out there and do it yourself.” Gustav replies, hurt.

“Ach. You’re full of yourself, just like all these other adventurers. You lot just aren’t responsible enough to hold down a steady respectable job, so you go out there and kill people to take their money. I’m heading back to the University.” Dougan spits in disgust, chugs his beer, and gets up to leave, in the span of a few seconds.

“That’s where you’re wrong, mostly we kill things that have killed people and took their stuff and take that stuff for ourselves! It’s one step removed, you mop jockey!” Gustav shouts after him in a feeble self defense.

“Ah, forget that loser. Let’s get down to the business of celebrating your joining the ranks of adventurers.”

 ***       ***       ***       ***

Pain.

Throbbing agonizing pain.

Various other adjectives describing the pain further, perhaps something like stabbing, maybe nauseating.

Slowly the grave robber realizes that there is a head attached to the pain and a body complete with various organs and appendages attached to the head.

Several of these are experiencing pain as well.

More sensations congeal gradually, the cold smooth stone below, speckled with straw and dirt but comfortable in it’s coolness. The sound of footsteps growing and receding rhythmically, like the waves of an ocean slowed down to geologic timescale. The smell of ale and spirits and grave-soil, the smell of the first prom-cum-funeral held for the most nihilistic fraternity. The taste of copper, or iron, or some other transition metal that might be used in a coin (zinc? Nah, probably not zinc).

The eyes are detected, and attempt to open.

They fail.

One more shot, and if we fail again, we’ll just let the body die, right?

With tremendous effort, the eyes splash open with a sticking noise.

There’s the stone and hay, and some blood looks like. Moving upwards, there are some sturdy looking bars.

As though by magic, this sight energizes the grave robber and he leaps up to his feet, grasping the bars and peering out to see his captors.

“Ah, finally awake are you?” a quavery voice asks from somewhere behind him.

The grave robber jerks his head to look, forgetting it is between the bars. His head sticks as his chin strikes the bar, and the grave robber grunts in pain.

“You were out for a full day, friend. Picked you up for adventurer disturbing the peace, adventurer disorderly conduct and adventurer resisting arrest. The boys couldn’t pinch your big mate who was doing the fighting though, he got away. Unfortunate for you, all party members are responsible for any party member’s actions, you’re on the hook for 10 years.” Says an older man with a long salt and pepper mustache and a suit of scale mail under a blue tabard with the symbol of the city.

“But, I was unconscious!” The grave robber yells, uncharacteristically.

“Ayup, made it pretty easy for them to book you. Looked like you’d been knocked out by some kind of bar fight, which Rick said was started by that big buddy of yours.”

“All I did was rob a few graves!” protested the grave robber. “That monster Gustav did everything else!” What a chatterbox.

“Oh, aye, I’m sure you did. Unfortunately for you, the city has cracked down real hard on adventurer crime. That’s why you’re here in this special adventurer prison, guilty of special adventurer crimes.” The old main explains helpfully.

“What? I’m not an adventurer, at worst I’m a grave robber!” This grave robber is just too talkative.

“You’re registered as one; besides, there’s not much of a difference, in this town. Most of the adventurers got their start robbing graves or cleaning up battlefields, then slowly worked their way up to killing rats, kobolds and goblins. You can’t enter into the business all willy-nilly, you have to be careful who you associate with in your early days, build up skill and reputation, as well as money. Now you wind up in prison for a long time, with no adventurer support network on the outside, and that Gustav guy is running around free with no recourse. Seems like a bad deal for you, maybe you should have tried for a steady job like being a scribe for one of those universities in town.”

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