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!
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.
“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.
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?”
“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.”
*** *** *** ***
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.
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.”