23 February 2021

Fever-Dreaming in Marlinko, part 3

This is a game of Finders Keepers set in the city of Marlinko. The dramatis personae are:

  • Atiin Brigantia, a brilliant but lazy lunatic
  • Edward "the Wild" Bleestocles, a leper disowned by his wealthy family
  • Jacobin "Jackass" Valentin, a soulless bastard
  • Tadzio, an estranged son of a powerful mage
  • Victory Alder, a young vampire

 


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The Squatter Apartment, night
"So, how are we doing this?" asks Jackass after Victory describes her plan of entering the main trophy room via the rooftop route.

"It's just a narrow alley," Vic grins. "We jump to the roof and go for the ceremonial room window. Soulless Rooftop Crew, let's go!"

And before Jack has the time to voice his concerns, she leaps out of the window. And falls short, fingernails scraping on the gutter, plunging the two stories down.

Thankfully, she lands on some crates full of super-smooth leathery goods from Bad Rajetz, crashing them open. Apparently, the alley is narrower at the bottom than it is at the roof level.

Nobody comes running to check on the commotion as she staggers out of the debris, though, so she hobbles back to the tenement, cursing under her breath.

In the meantime, Jackass assembled a grappling hook and he manages to stretch a rope over to the Undercouncil Hall's roof by the time Vic limps up the stairs. He quirks an eyebrow at her.

Both carefully climb over the alley and creep towards the ceremonial room. Moonlight allows them to make out only a few nondescript shapes through the dark windows, but the room seems empty. Vic carefully unlatches a window with her dagger and both crawl inside.

There's a large-ish figurine posted right in the middle of the room, a horse. It is a mechanical marvel, with a winding key on its rear end.

Vic is more interested in the reinforced door of the trophy room, though. She takes one of her hairpins and with a little bit of fiddling, the door clicks open.

There are tens of dozens of trophies lined on shelves inside, but they are still blocked by a portcullis set just beyond the door.

"Jack, you do know how the Great Race trophy looks, don't you?" Victory asks as she meddles with the portcullis.

"...No?"

She stops and turns to him in disbelief, giving Jack the time to notice and point out the guillotine-like device that nearly sliced her hands or head off. They manage to disable it and walk into the main trophy room proper with no idea what to look for.

So they start to stuff anything that might be a Great Race trophy into a sack.
 

***

The Temple of Revoc, meanwhile
Atiin, dressed into the dead guard's uniform with bloodstains covered with food stains and wearing an outrageous fake moustache, steps into the temple. The horses are asleep, as are the few remaining stable personnel in the room. There's also a priest lighting candles near the altar and two guards that seem not quite sober.

However, there's something much more wrong with the guards. While their focus seems to be entirely devoted to poking each other's faces and giggling, Atiin realizes that something is going on with their flesh: It looks excessively soft, squishy, moist, malleable. Oh, fuck. That one guard's left eye is sticking out of its socket, as if it is the tip of a feeler of some kind.

Atiin stares for a second, but then decides to just push past them, pickpocket their keys and check out the nearby minor trophy room.

"Your mother was a hamster," he yells at the priest in greeting.

As he takes the keys from a guard's pocket, though, that guard stops giggling. He gives Atiin a very languid stare. Then he closes his eyes and opens his mouth, leaning slowly in Atiin's direction, as if he's misread the whole situation as a key moment in a rom-com. His tongue is protruding from his mouth, and it is slimy and abnormally big, like a tentacle.

The other guard clasps his hands together and, with a mellow expression, goes: "Awww!"

Atiin slaps the kisser: "Not in church, man, not in church."

"Guards!" the priest addresses all three of them, "what is going on over there?!"

Atiin doesn't deign to answer him and with the keys in hand, he slips deeper into the Hall. The minor trophy room is right the next door down the hallway, but unfortunately the key ring has a lot of keys.
 
Behind him, the priest approaches the mutant guards and a second later cries out: "OH MY SUN LORD! HELP!"

Atiin continues to fumble with the keys, but other guards have heard the shouting. He hides the keys behind his back as they turn the corner towards the temple.

"Hey! Are you okay? You look jumpy, man," one of the guards asks him.

Atiin adopts an expression of pure horror and backs away from the temple door: "Ther... th... they..."

The guards hurry to peek through the door he left open. From the looks of it, the stable boys have woken up and subdued the mutant guards. They are currently kicking the crap out of them. On the one hand, the victimized guards' elastic flesh probably makes it look worse than it really is; on the other hand, it sure is brutal.

The guards from the main hall rush in to intervene: "By Revoc and the Sun Lord! Stop it!"

"Back away from them! Dubnov! Little help here!"

"What is going on?"

But the last guard notices the keys in Atiin's hand. He raises an eyebrow.

"They are high or something and freaking out! Someone told me to fetch a trophy to try and distract them with something shiny, so it doesn't come to blows. Although I think a stiff breeze could take them," Atiin says and goes back to unlocking the door.

"The... what?" The guard comes closer and inspects him from top to bottom. "I don't think we've met before. When did you start working here?"

Atiin turns and salutes, dropping the keys: "Uhhhh... first day sir!"

"Really...? What is your name? Where were you stationed before?"

"Rodriguez, south harbor."

"South ha-? Stay where you are, you scoundrel!" the guard barks and blows his whistle.

"Uhhh whaaaa... Something's happening... Please, help..." Atiin clutches his stomach and then open his mouth wide and even wider, more than any human should be able to. Though it has nothing to do with hruz in his case, he could do it as long as he can remember. Used to freak out girls with it when he was younger.

The guard's face goes ashen white, he lets the whistle fall from his lips and shrieks like a little girl. Then he darts away and out of the Undercouncil Hall.

Atiin chuckles.

"What the actual fuck?" says one of the guards coming back from the temple. "Alesh and Janosh are in a terrible shape in the temple. It looks like the Weird got to them. Now who's that one fleeing? Should we give chase?"

"After them!" Atiin shouts.
 
The guard nods and runs to the security room. A few seconds later, three abnormally agile guards emerge from there, twirling and pirouetting their way out of the building, going after that poor frightened guard.

Atiin is left alone with the trophy room door and his ring of keys, once again.
 

***

In front of the Undercouncil Hall, also meanwhile
Tadz gives Edward a look when a scream can be heard from the Temple of Revoc behind them, but after a moment of deliberation, they don't do anything about it. They are lookouts, after all, so they should be looking out.

Instead, Tadz produces some beef jerky from his pocket, gives it a generous bite and offers Ed what's left.

"Thanks, Tadz. Ya think Atiin's doing alright in there? I figured he'd be the one gunning for lookout duty."

"I don't know. He's not the type to blow everything to shit at the first sign of trouble - not like someone I know, right?" He does a whole wink-wink-nudge-nudge routine at Ed. "So I'm not too concerned. But why d'you ask? Wishing you were there, risking your neck?"
 
"Just wondering. It's a bit weird to go from like, silk sheets to criminal lookout. Victory an' Jackass seem real well adjusted to all this though..."

"Bah, silk sheets are overrated, I can tell you. I wouldn't trade our current lifestyle for a ticket back to dad's Onion Tower. No amount of money can persuade me to go back to that. Not for money nor for a godling's blessing."
 

***

The Undercouncil Hall, on the roof
Back on the roof, Victory and Jackass decide to also check out the trophy vault adjacent to the Chief Undercouncilman's office, in case he has the Great Race trophy locked in there, prepared for tomorrow. If they just steal all the trophies, they can sort them out and find the right one later.

"Wait up, V!" Jackass whispers as they scale the top of the roof. "You got that vampy stamina I gotta keep up with!"

He struggles to climb properly with the sack full of trophies on his back, but it's Vic with her sprained ankle who slips on the wet shingles and goes tumbling down from the roof, again.

This time, they are both tied to a rope, though, and Vic ends up swinging in front of an upper floor hallway window.

A guard opens the window and shouts: "I think I saw you fall from the sky, ma'am?"

He holds his breath as long as he can, to no avail. He starts with a "tee-hee", only to burst out in hysterical laughter a few seconds later. From the next window, two other guards do the same.

"Oh yes, I am an angel, ain't I?" Victory tries to untangle herself, failing at first. "So, how do you do? Saw any interesting arena match lately?"

The first guard laughs so hard that he seems to be locked in a permanent grimace. He has last exhaled, what, ten seconds ago? He looks as if, should he not take a breath soon, he's going to asphyxiate.

There's a commotion downstairs, with whistling and shouting and someone running, but the guards do not seem to care. They're just laughing and mimicking the noises that are coming from downstairs, which makes them laugh even harder.

"Hey, wanna join me out here? The view is magnificent, you would love it!" Victory smiles at the guards. "Come on, you guys!"

One guard goes for it immediately, but he just bashes his head against the window and falls on his butt. They all keep laughing.

But there's a fourth voice coming from the hallway, a little ways away and out of sight: "You, morons! It's chaotic downstairs. I cannot believe you haven't noticed. What are you even doing over there?"

The one sober guards stops dead in his tracks as he spots Victory still hanging behind the windows.

"IT'S HAPPENING!" he screams. "THEY'RE AFTER THE TROPHIES!!!"
 

***

In front of the Undercouncil Hall
"Don't look now, but I think I see the nun-maenads over there," Tadzio nudges Ed. "What do we do?"

"Smile and wave?"

They both do, effectively revealing their position to the two women, who immediately head towards them.

"Oh fuck. That made it worse," Tadz hisses.

Ed shrugs and smiles at the nuns.

"Well, how are you faring, boys? Any developments on our little project?"

"We have located some... potential allies to help the particular cause," Ed says. "Non-believers, but the bleeding-lamb god works in strange ways. We're waiting for them to meet up."

"Recruiting already, huh? That's... good, yes."

"Yes, good. We can see you're doing the good work, brothers."

A high-pitched whistle sound can be heard from inside the Undercouncil Hall, followed by a girly scream. Then followed by a guard running for his life.

The nuns exchange looks.

"I'm still somewhat new around here," Edward says, "but is that a normal experience for this temple?"

"Pfft! The Revoc cult is a joke," one nun pulls a face.

"Ditto, sis," the other nods.

Upon hearing that, Tadzio launches into a spiel starting with: "Well, actually-" and continuing to point out the many interesting cultural features that the Revoc's cult expresses.

Edward just rolls his eyes.

Then three ridiculously acrobatic guards sprint right past them.

"Well," says a nun-maenad, "now I'm curious. I'm going to take a peek."

The other nun-maenad shrugs and follows her to the Hall's main entrance.

Ed exchanges a look with Tadz and starts a coughing fit, excusing himself profusely but making as much of a ruckus as he can. He hopes the others will hear it and withdraw.
 

***

The Undercouncil Hall, minor trophy room
"I knew it," says a guard just as Atiin finally unlocks and enters the trophy room. "I knew there was something fishy about you. You're coming with me, you-"

Unfortunately for the guard, he is standing at the other end of the hallway, so Atiin just flips him the bird and closes the door in his face, swiftly locking it again.

There are shelves and display cases with trophies everywhere. Really everywhere, with loads of trophies, and the guard is already rattling with his keys.

There is a second entrance, though, a smaller door leading back to the temple. Atiin grabs the two closest trophies and goes for the door, making it a fumbling contest of who finds the right key more quickly. Atiin wins, barely, and can enjoy the sheer fury on the guard's face when he closes and locks a second door on him.

However, the violent stable boys are still in the temple and they notice the commotion. They start after Atiin when he tries to walk out.

"Hey, you were here before this mess," one motions towards the bound pair of deformed guards.

"Yeah, you did something to them, didn't you? And who's that you locked in the trophy room, eh?"

In a single motion, Atiin turns around and pulls his firelock pistol: "Everybody back off!"

They back off.

"I'm leaving with the Great Race trophy and no one is going to stop me," Atiin shouts and runs out of the door.
 

***

In front of the Undercouncil Hall
Victory finally manages to free herself from the rope, and as nobody noticed Jack yet, she yells some insults towards the one sober guard to keep his attention and starts climbing down from the roof.

This time, her leg holds and she lands right in front of two raggedy, foul-smelling, middle-aged women. Then she turns around, lights a molotov and throws it towards the Hall's main entrance.
 
The women seem stunned to silence.
 
"Holy shit!" yells Tadzio.

From the temple entrance, Atiin comes out sprinting and disappears into a side street.

"Wha- wha- what is happening?" yells Edward, no longer coughing.

"We suck as lookouts, that's what's happening!" yells Tadz again.

That one sober guard has climbed onto the roof, but instead of following Vic's precarious route, he shakes his head and turns back to the window. Where Jack is crouching in the shadows.

Jackass puts down the sack of stolen trophies, stands up and start calmly walking towards the guard.

"You must be under orders from the Sullen Apiarian district," the guard says. "The Grandmaster of Hives tries to pull out something like this every year. Well, it's over now. Hands behind your back. We're keeping you here until the authorities arrive."

"Oh well, ya got me," Jackass shrugs and fakes a stumble, shoving the guard.

The guard manages to keep his balance even on the slick shingles, though, and draws his sword. "Stand down, you fool."

"Stand down? Heh," Jackass grins and unsheathes his new rapier.

They circle around each other, eyes locked and legs carefully searching for steady footing. The stoned guards cheer them from the windows.

Then the sober guard lunges, deceptively fast, and Jack is a fraction of a second too slow in his parry. He feels a trickle of blood running down his left arm where the blade cut through his sleeve.

"Stand dow-" the guard tries again, but Jackass just strikes out. The rapier seems to push the other sword out of the way and slides right through the guard's mail shirt and torso, cleanly piercing his heart. Then it vibrates, still stuck inside of the dying guard, and the guard's eyes go blank. Like, literally chalk-white.

An ominous wind blows when Jack pulls his weapon out of the corpse and lets the body slide down from the roof. The rapier feels different, somehow.

With the stoned guards too stunned to do anything (and some still laughing), Jack drops the sack of trophies to Ed and Tadz, then follows Victory's path down from the roof. They all turn the corner into a back alley just as the team of the unnaturally nimble guards returns back to the Undercouncil Hall.

The two nun-maenads exchange a glance.

"That was..."

"...something."
 

***

Atiin's apartment, the small hours of the night
With the stolen trophies safely and imaginatively hidden under one of their beds, the guys all crash it for the night. Even Edward stays, sleeping on the couch this time, everybody too tired to complain about his stench.

Only Victory remains awake, sitting in an armchair, unable to sleep ever since she was turned. She bandages her ankle, still hurting from the fall, and then takes out the vial of hruz-head blood she had collected earlier. Maybe this could be a way to unwind. She gulps it down and the world around her slowly falls apart, replaced by a whirlwind of hallucinations and memories.

She dreams of Edward.

Edward knew Victory in a previous life, though not in the metaphysical sense. For him, it was a previous life as it was before being diseased and expelled from his family. For her, it was a previous life as she was still a human, then. Once a week, she used to deliver meats and sausages from her father's butchery to the Bleestocles mansion. Sometimes, she would see Edward there, though he had probably never noticed her. She was just another servant, after all.

She might have even fancied him, in the way that a girl fancies a young bachelor well above her station.

She used to work at her father's butchery and would have inherited the shop and the job. Sure, it should have been the eldest son, but Vic's father only had her and her two younger sisters.

She used to hate butchery. "It's unbecoming of a young lady to slaughter animals and cut them apart," she thought to herself. As if she had been a lady.

Then one night, Victory went to a dance and found herself a tall, dark stranger. He told her how he could whisk her away from it all, to see faraway lands and dance in palaces instead of taverns. She invited him to her home.

He drained her father, her mother and her sisters before her eyes, and then he bled her, ever so slowly, to death. When she finally drew her last breath, he gave her three droplets of his blood and she woke up at midnight three days later.

For a year she served her Master's every need as he took residence in the house of her family. Her Master spent all the money her father had saved up to give his daughters a better life, and then he made Victory go beg for loans from every friend and acquittance she or her family had. She helped him pick up women for his nightly snack and when he was done, she cut up the bodies and disposed of them. She deflected every question and concern for her family, until people stopped asking. She killed the debt collectors and loan sharks.

Eventually, the hunters found them. Victory was too young a vampire to shrug off a crossbow bolt, but also too young to be finished off by the garlic extract infused into it. She slunk off into the sewers as they set fire to her family house.

When she recovered enough to come limping back, the house had been burnt to the ground and there was no sign of her Master to be found. She never learned what became of him, or the hunters. She was alone and she wandered the streets for a long time, lost in her sudden freedom. She didn't know what to do. She was not only dead, but also deadened.

Then she saw Edward, barely on his feet due to disease and booze, and followed him to an inn where the rest of his friends were drinking. The next morning, she passed out in this very room for the first time, having drunk more slivovitz in one night than her father had drunk in his entire life.

Somehow, she felt like she could learn to belong.
 

***

Atiin's apartment, early morning
Victory wakes up to incessant, angry banging on the apartment door.

prior | next

16 February 2021

Fever-Dreaming in Marlinko, part 2

This is a game of Finders Keepers set in the city of Marlinko. The dramatis personae are:

  • Atiin Brigantia, a brilliant but lazy lunatic
  • Edward "the Wild" Bleestocles, a leper disowned by his wealthy family
  • Jacobin "Jackass" Valentin, a soulless bastard
  • Tadzio, an estranged son of a powerful mage
  • Victory Alder, a young vampire


prior | next


Atiin's apartment, morning
Around seven o'clock, Atiin returns home and finds Jack fast asleep and an envelope slipped under the door. It's the floor plan of the Golden Swine Undercouncil Hall.

"Riiight! I forgot about Jarek and the trophy. We should really see about that..." Jackass says over the breakfast.

"Hey fellas! Guess who just joined a cult!" Edward shouts as he flings the door open, Tadz trailing behind him. Both display cross-shaped blood stains on their foreheads.

"DAY'UM Eddie," Jackass grins. "Let me guess - was it you?"

"You know it. Once we finish this trophy business, I promised to drag some heretic's reputation through the mud."

"Sounds like a worthy cause! I personally could never see myself joining a cult - too much effort - but the blood cross looks good on you. You too, Tadzio!"

"We should wash it as soon as possible, though," Tadz replies. "I'm pretty sure that the first orthodox Solarist who sees us walking around with these will be quick to report us as heretics."

"Right, right," Ed frowns, "good idea."

"You smell nice for once, Edward. You should keep the blood on," says Victory, emerging from another room. She's clothed in a fancy black dress and surrounded by cigarette smoke from a cig in a long black holder.

"So what are we up to?" she adds.

"We need to steal a trophy for no money to keep our kneecaps (and looks), and then I need to besmirch a specific heretic," Ed helpfully provides.

"Interesting," Victory says. "Oh, and Atiin? The landlord was here earlier. Kept knocking on the door, saying that rent is overdue."

"Shit," Atiin replies. "Well, I might have an idea for that, at least..."
 

***

League of the Free Handed HQ, late morning
The whole gang makes their way to the Golden Swine district's north-eastern section. The amount of slum shacks and beggars lining the streets is rapidly increasing, and while not a new sight for anyone from the group, it is always striking how sudden the scenery shift is from their neighbourhood to this dreadful state of affairs.

Placed on a slope next to the Square of the Bog Haruspex is the headquarters of the League of the Free Handed - the most poorly kept secret in Marlinko. The building looks like a pile of rotting wood; all askew and falling to pieces, really. To the regular Marlinkan, it manages to be an imposing view nonetheless, for it is from this building that the feared One-armed Jiří rules over the town's criminal underbelly.

Two bouncers with arms crossed lean against the wall next to the main entrance. State-your-business-or-fuck-off kinda deal.

Atiin approaches them: "Hey, we're looking for some work. Know anybody that owes your boss and we could help collect?"

One of the bouncers grunts in response, opens the door and shows the gang in. They walk through narrow, shadowy corridors. Behind most doors, bits and pieces of conversations can be heard, aplus one heated argument that quickly degenerates into insults and furniture-crashing.

The bouncer parks everyone before a tiny little office crammed with all sorts of papers and books and writing implements. Sitting behind a desk that occupies nearly the entire room is a massive individual dressed as a bureaucrat, but the outfit is at least one size too small for him. It's a bespectacled, muscle-bound, middle-aged man, and he looks dead tired. The doorplate on the office door reads Tiny Tomáš.

"Came looking for work, like debt collecting or something," the bouncer says and leaves.

The huge man stares at the gang and takes his time to speak: "Here's the thing. As crucial as regular repo jobs are for numerous reasons, and to us especially from a PR point of view, we at the League are prioritizing slightly different venues."

He drops a pile of files on the desktop. "Several of them are really variations of repossession claims, but far more lucrative. We call them 're-appropriation indulgences', you see. Short version is: instead of pressing the people who are contractually obliged to restore a given sum or goods to their rightful owner, but resist to do so for one reason or other, we go after said thieves and charge them with a trimestral fee that ensures that we will not be bothering them, for a while, about said contractual obligation which they have acquired relative to a third party. For an additional symbolic fee, we can also provide protection from said third party taking punitive measures towards them. As most of those appropriated items are far more valuable than years worth of our fees, most of them keep paying us instead of returning the overdue sum or item."

He pushes the top file over to your side of the desk: "This fellow, for instance. Steelpike the Younger, he is called. He's taken a map for a job he was hired to do for Fraža, the Curio Dealer. Thing is, he's never finished the job, never came back to Fraža. He just vanished and pocketed the map. It's been six months. Two days ago, one of our associates has spotted Steelpike in town. He's probably staying at the Drunken Troll inn. If you want a quick and easy job, I can pay you one hundred gold total. All you have to do is get this guy to pay us his five hundred gold fee so he can keep his damn stolen map."

The gang quickly agrees, but then has to submit to a tedious process of filling in membership applications and signing contracts. This involves posing for hours as an artist draws their portrait that must be included with the documentation, then getting a stack of forms-to-be-filled dropped in front of them.

Many more hours later, they are good to go as the newest members of the League of the Free Handed, one of the most solid and most legally confusing institutions in Marlinko. They even get new papers identifying them as initiate members.
 

***

The Drunken Troll inn, evening
"Have you seen this man?" Victory asks the barkeeper, holding up a portrait of Steelpike they were given.

The innkeeper silently stares at the picture, then stares at Victory. He stays... silent. And goes back to drying glasses and cups with a rag.

"Tadz?" Vic tries, "Would you please give this fine gentleman a token of our appreciation for his cooperation?"

Tadz shuffles behind Victory: "I mean, I'm kinda broke too, Vic. And dad's cut my allowance," he taps his pockets. "But maybe if we show him our new credentials?"

Ed pulls out his papers and says: "Look, sir, the faster you tell us a negative or a confirmatory answer the faster we can all leave."

He sighs, drops his rag on the counter and answers in sign language.

Which no one among the group knows.

And neither do they have a pen and paper.

And the regulars are just watching them with mocking grins.

However, Victory takes out a vial of an off-white, lambent liquid and pours two shots, then pushes one in front of the barkeep and downs the other one.

"This should let us have a chat," she motions towards the potion.

The barkeeper takes another look at the League papers, then at the crowd now expectantly watching him. He gulps, gives Vic a meaningful, concerned-for-my-own-life kind of look, and drinks the shot.

A whole lot of conflicting thoughts gets jumbled together in their two heads at first. It takes a second for them to tune into a viable frequency. They exchange a few misfired thoughts initially, until each of their minds gets used to its interlocutor's thought patterns.

His mind's voice is prickly and dry. It smells like fresh mortar for some reason.

I don't mean no disrespect to the League of the Free Handed, he thinks. This guy has a room here, for sure. Second room on the left, just upstairs. Paid in advance. Spent a lot of money on my finest brew, the Radegast's Dark. He's been in contact with a foreigner, never seen this other guy before in my life.

Would you be able to describe the foreigner? Vic wonders.

The barkeeper thinks of this tall, thin-boned stranger. He wears a veil and a hood. Odd choice. He is pale, a bluish kind of pale. Victory sees many fragmented images of the stranger in her mind, although it is uncertain whether those are the innkeeper's memories, or whether he's actually just quite vividly imagining the foreigner. Perhaps it doesn't really matter. The result is clear enough.

"Thank you for your cooperation, I will be sure to mention you in positive light in my report to superiors," Vic says.

While Atiin and Jack mingle with the patrons and Ed with Tadz head outside to keep an eye on the passer-bys, Vic goes upstairs and knocks on Steelpike's door.

"Open up, we're here on an official guild business!"

There's no answer, not even a peep, and the door is soundly locked.

Meanwhile outside of the inn, Ed and Tadz can only stare as out of the blue, the very same pantsless, tattooed barbarian who passed out in front of them yesterday decides to enter the Tomb of the Town Gods.

No one has ever pulled such a stunt before.

That strange building had been there for centuries before Marlinko was even a settlement. Huge taboo-braking going on right there. People are all about it, watching in awe, but no one is stopping the barbarian. As people in the Drunken Troll get the news, they flock outside to watch as well - the inn, after all, sits at the very edge of the Tomb Plaza.

Nobody is paying attention to the inn entrance.

Inside, Victory returns to the taproom just in time for someone matching the description of the foreigner to enter the bar. He sports this weird veil and hood over his head. And his skull appears to be elongated at the back, kinda pointy.

The strangely bluish man approaches the innkeeper and asks him: "Greetings. I look for lodger. Called Steelpike. Is there?"

"Excuse me, sir?" Vic addresses the alien, "I couldn't help but overhear that you are looking for Mr. Steelpike? Funnily enough, I too am here because he arranged a meeting with me. Unfortunately, he didn't yet show up and frankly, I am getting a bit bored of waiting."

The stranger raises an eyebrow - his features are easier to make out beneath the veil, standing as close to him as Vic is right now - and says: "Steelpike not say there is other meeting. You let me ask name?"

"He did not mention you either," she gives the man a tight-lipped smile. "Victory Alder, pleased to meet you, sir... ?"

"Yes, pleased. My name Xoxx."

"I am sorry to pry, master Xoxx, but you don't seem to be from around here?"

He seems to grow slightly impatient. "N-no... not from... here. From... other town. Bad... Rajetz?"

Of course, his accent is everything but a Bad Rajetz accent.

Someone from the street sticks her head in and loudly announces: "The pantsless guy did it! He's broken in!"

"I haven't had the opportunity to travel, so I must say I'm quite intrigued! Tell me, what is it like in Bad Rajetz? Have you liked it there? Any place you would recommend to visit?" Vic continues to snoop with the friendliest smile.

"Y-yes... Bad Rajetz... very... good." He looks around nervously.

At this moment, Steelpike walks into the tavern.

"You're not gonna beli-" he stops himself as he sees the stranger chatting with Victory in the nearly empty room. The innkeeper's pathetic attempt at looking chill probably factors in as well.

"Well hello, Mr. Steelpike," Vic smiles widely, showing off her long, sharp fangs. "We are already waiting for you. Would you like to join us?"

Steelpike turns pale: "Wh- whu- wha- what is this? Who are you? Whu- what d'you want?!"

"You have something that doesn't belong to you, Mr. Steelpike. The League of the Free Handed doesn't look kindly on such things, especially if they were not informed and properly reimbursed. But we shan't discuss these matters here, shall we? Why don't we go somewhere more private, and we can find a way to reach a mutually beneficial agreement?"

Steelpike freezes in place. For the time being, at least. "I- I- don't know what you're t-talking about! I- I- I'm no thief! I'm an- an- an explorer!"

"Exactly, and we would like to keep it that way, wouldn't we?" And Vic motions for him to follow her upstairs.

Xoxx says: "I think I go now," and disappears from the inn as quickly as possible without running.

As Xoxx leaves, Steelpike casts a desperate look to him, which the stranger ostensibly ignores. Jack and Atiin are standing by the door, smiling. Defeated, the man walks with Victory to his room.

"My superiors have sent me to you, Mr. Steelpike, due to your exploration contract with master Fraža. The League is concerned about you defaulting on said contract and disappearing with the map that master Fraža provided to you, and we will, unfortunately, be forced to inform master Fraža about both your presence in Marlinko and your dealings with master Xoxx." Victory smiles especially widely, once again flashing Steelpike with her fangs.

"However, we are not unreasonable and we fully understand that unforeseen circumstances can lead to a certain shift in priorities. We even offer... let's say protection to our clients who have found themselves in need of freeing themselves of past contractual obligations. For a fee of only seven hundred and fifty gold, the League can help you maintain your so far secret presence in Marlinko and provide security against any punitive measures that master Fraža would take towards you, should he found out about you. The question now is, Mr. Steelpike, would you like to become our client?"

The man says nothing as he unlocks and lets her into his room. He opens the dresser, plunges his hand into a backpack, produces a pouch and quickly closes the dresser.

"Here is your money," he says, handing Vic a little bag full of coins.

"I do believe there's no need to count the money, is there," she says. "Thank you, Mr. Steelpike, the League of the Free Handed is glad to count you among its clients now. I will be your agent, so feel free to contact me. Good luck in all your future endeavours."
 

***

The Golden Swine district, morning
The next day, the gang pays a visit to the League headquarters again, to report a job completed. They also hand over the five hundred gold they were supposed to obtain, receive their payment and get their papers stamped. Tiny Tomáš seems quite happy with their quick, incident-free success.

While everybody is cheered up by their newfound funds, Jack, Edward and Tadz are starting to get antsy about the whole steal-a-trophy-tonight-or-loose-your-kneecaps quest imposed upon them by Jarek.

See, people in Marlinko are very much into horse racing. The Great Race is the most celebrated event every year. It also provides the occasion for the districts to enact their everyday rivalries in a more civilized framework. The Golden Swine district has been winning the Great Race for the town gods know how long, and all of their trophies are stored in the Undercouncil Hall.

The Sullen Apiarian district, on the other hand, has been losing the race for ages now. They may be the richest quarter of Marlinko, but they sure are known all around as the butt of many jokes involving horses and swines.

Jarek lives in the Sullen Apiarian. The Great Race starts tomorrow.

The gang idles in the streets and talks about the way they should approach this for a long time. They also notice the new rumour circulating among the people of Marlinko, about the pantsless barbarian who went into the Tomb of the Town Gods and remained there. No one else dared to follow him.

Eventually, a stall set on a dreadful little corner next to a foul-smelling tannery catches their eye. A sign (ineptly) placed to its left reads The Five Blades - Exotic Novelties and it holds all manner of... well, blades.

"That is a hefty price to pay for two daggers, old man," says Victory to the blacksmith when she notices the prices written in chalk by each weapon. "I do like your craft, but still..."

He mumbles something in response to the remark, but nobody can understand him.

A robo-dwarf  standing next to the stall clarifies: "Master Ondřej says that he is sure that he has crafted at least one of these blades with unusual materials gathered in the Weird, which would result in a superior performance and, perhaps, an additional (and, as of now, unpredictable) functionality. Unfortunately, he cannot remember which weapon has been endowed with such features, so he raised the prices of all of them just to be sure. He apologizes for that and promises that he will do his best not to tax his customers for his own stupidity next time."

With that, Victory and Jackass decide to spill some of their freshly gained coins on a pair of daggers and a rapier, respectively. Finally, Jack has a proper duelling weapon.

And while Edward disappears on a supplies run, everyone else goes to stake out the Undercouncil Hall.
 

***

The Undercouncil Hall, afternoon
Half of the Hall is devoted to a Temple of Revoc. Great copper fixtures thick with green verdigris decorate its exterior and its doors are wide open, with worshippers always entering and exiting the building. Its interior is vast, the ceilings a dozen meters high. On the far side, a massive statue of Revoc defiantly sticks out its serpentine, razor-bladed tongue as its hands are fixed in a gesture by which the god seems to incite an enemy to engage him in combat. At the icon's feet, people yell all sorts of insults to please their god.

The whole place smells of horse shit.

Jack shouts a few inventive vile invectives to fit in, then cusses out the closest person and asks if the temple has any events tonight.

That person happens to be the cutest old grandma with a handkerchief wrapped around her white head. She slams back without missing a beat: "THAT'S WHAT YOUR MOMMA TOLD ME LAST NIGHT, YOU FREAKING WUSS! REVOC BLESS YOU AND YOUR FAMILY, ASSHOLE!" Then, switching to a super sweet mode: "Not that I know of, dear, no."

"Thank you, you old hag! May Revoc whip you into shape."

Meanwhile, Atiin heads upstairs and confronts a guard stationed at the door to the Chief Undercouncilman's office.

"Hey! I heard someone calling out for help in that room over there! It sounded like a child! You have to help him!!!" he says in a frantic voice.

"Wait, what? Calm down, citizen. Tell me what's going on."

"There's a child locked over there, in this room!"

"Oh my! A child, you say? How did that happen?"

The guard fumbles for his keys and unlocks the room. With the door opened, Atiin manages to peek in. The interior has similar aesthetics to those of the temple, except that it is an obvious derivative at best. Plenty of frescoes on the walls seem to tell a story about how Revoc used his razor tongue as a whip on a bunch of barbarians and orkish people, so they would thrive in their journey through the Northern wilderness.

There is a mechanical horse in the very centre of the room, and a reinforced metal door to the north.

"I'm sure I heard something," Atiin mumbles.
 
"Well, sir, I can't hear a thing," the guard clears his throat and takes on a more severe look. "Now, why are you here again? Have you lost your child or something?"

"I was actually looking for a bathroom but then this happened! Goodness gracious! I even found a child's toy outside on the ground when I heard him crying for help." And he pulls out a set of nesting dolls, showing it to the baffled guard.

"Alright, pal," the guard says, "I think we have established that whatever you think you heard isn't there. Now move on. You cannot be in here."

As Atiin is on his way to the ground floor, a couple extra guards are moving up to join the other guy. The door to the Chief Undercouncilman's office open as well, someone demanding to know what is all this fuss about? But while the guard stutters an answer, Atiin is already gone.
 

***

The Slum Tenement, afternoon
Victory doesn't feel so sure about treading on a hallowed ground, but right behind the Undercouncil Hall, there is a particularly tall slum tenement, separated only by a narrow alleyway from the Hall's roof. Vic goes in there to look for a place with windows directly overlooking the roof and soon finds a suitable apartment, its door slightly ajar.

Inside, there are four stoned hruz-heads. Probably squatters. Two of them are passed out, the other two all tangled together. They are all filthy; the apartment as a whole has been trashed. An improvised stove and a crusty cooking pot bubbling with the remains of the hallucinogenic mollusc paste sits in a corner.

Slowly, Victory creeps closer, but the two addicts never stop making out.

With a great effort, one of them eventually steers his gaze in her direction. He flashes a stupid smile, but does not otherwise react. The other hruz-head is on top of him, being lewd. She says to her partner: "You're made of, like... mist... That's wild, dude."

Victory kneels next to her, winking playfully at the guy. Then she grabs the girl's hair and slits her throat, pushing her aside and stabbing the man in the heart. They both wheeze and trash about, but can't manage a single scream.

It's still enough, however, to wake up the other two addicts from their drug-addled sleep. They stare as their friends bleed out in front of their eyes, uncomprehending.

Vic pins one on the ground and opens his carotid artery, but the final squatter starts crawling away from her: "Y- y- you- UAAAAAAAGH!!!"

The hruz-head finds her footing and runs towards the door, but with a deft throw, Vic buries a second dagger in her back.

She grabs hold of the door, fights to open them, but her legs give in and she slides to the floor, struggling to breath and eventually failing.

Carefully, Vic tastes the blood spilling from their wounds. It bears a clear, pungent tang of the hruz paste. Not something one would want to drink before a heist.

Instead, Victory drains some of their blood into a vial, and pours the leftover hruz from the pot into another vial of hers. Then she drags the bodies into a sideroom and throws some rags over them.

With a roof access point secured, she goes back to the Undercouncil Hall, even more hungry now that her cravings were excited by the smell of freshly spilled blood.
 

***

League of the Free Handed HQ, late afternoon
With everybody else busy still nosing around the Undercouncil Hall, but having drawn too much attention to stay himself, Atiin decides for a quick visit to the League.

"Back so soon?" one of the bounders asks. "I don't recall Tiny Tomáš mentioning yet another appointment with you guys."

"Yeah, no. I came for some advice on how to deal with locked doors, y'know, discretely..."

"Tiny Tomáš is in a meeting now, but you can wait."

"Sure, sure."

After a little bit of waiting in the narrow corridor in front of the office, the door open and a bald, unassuming little man with a furry vest walks out, all business-like. He nods politely as he passes by Atiin.

Inside of the office, Tiny Tomáš listens to Atiin's request.

"Oh, that's serendipitous," he says. "I can arrange someone to teach you a bit about locks, but I might also have another job for you. Boss was just here telling me about this thing he wants to get his hands on. An axe. But it's dangerous. I'm not sure this would be wise. Maybe we should let the boss cool down his head. Maybe tomorrow he'll come by and say 'Ah, forget it. That's stupid.' You know what I mean?"

"He wants it done in a day?!?"

"What? No! Are you even listening? I'm saying I think we should let the boss sleep on it. You wouldn't want to break into Lady Szara's mansion, would you? I know I wouldn't. The Sun Lord knows how it would mess with Marlinko's power balance.

Basically, the boss says that the old hag Szara has something that belongs to him. An axe. Says that it belonged to his grandpa and that it is some precious heirloom. It's been stolen and considered lost long ago. Then one day  - just the other day -  the boss was paying Lady Szara a visit and he saw the axe! Apparently it was sitting there among her knick-knacks in the antechamber.

Boss tried to negotiate a price - He offered her a fortune! A fortune, I say! - but Szara wouldn't let go of the relic. So he came to me, put me in charge of setting up this break in. A team of our agents would sweep her house clean, as clean as they'd be able to. The axe would be taken, and it would look like a simple robbery, something unrelated to the boss. The agents would be allowed a cut of the loot, twenty percent to be precise."

"Quite the job indeed."

"Right. But as I said, let the boss sleep on this and if he'll still want it done and your crew would be interested, the job is yours. Now, about those locks..."

And Tomáš tells Atiin how to navigate the headquarters to find a storage room where Old Míla can show him the basics and gear him up. After an hour of paperwork, of course.

On his way back to the others, Atiin nearly bumps into Eliška. She's dragging along a dishevelled young man. His tailcoat is covered in wine stains, his cravat is loosened (more like hanging from his neck, really). His once-charming five o'clock shadow is beginning to look like a hobo stubble.

She also notices Atiin, but her poker face is flawless.

"Oh man, oh man!" Atiin rushes to the dishevelled man. "Littlest Pavol, it's you! Can I have an autograph? The guys aren't going to believe this!"

The booze spirits are keeping a strong hold on Pavol's tongue. It twirls and turns, trying to deliver at least one single word that doesn't sound like it comes from someone having a stroke. But to no effect.

"You will excuse my brother," Eliška chips in. "I'm afraid he's had too much... excitement this last night. Or was it three?"

Upon hearing this, Littlest Pavol smiles a proud smile: "Cold Hell yeah, Lishhh."

But she slows her pace.

"Oh my, well, right this way, sir..." Atiin props up Pavol, taking the weight from Eliška.

"Oh, there's no need, sir..." she says rather loudly, only to whisper: "Do you have anything prepared? I should be able to come up with a story once I get home."

"Um, kinda? We frame him for some depraved acts in this drug den a friend told me about, then we help him lie low until the heat dies down. He'll be gone for a while," Atiin whispers back.

"I hoped you will have something more dramatic for the kidnapping per se. It would help me sell my story back home."

"Ah well, maybe you are right. Here, when he sobers up tell him he met an agent that wanted him for some poetry gigs. I will think of something more dramatic and find him later."

She wants to say something more, but changes her mind. She takes over Pavol again and both are on their way to the Sullen Apiarian district.
 

***

The Undercouncil Hall, evening
Victory spends the rest of the day with the guards in the Hall's wing opposite to the Temple of Revoc. She engaged some in conversation, and soon found herself sitting in the guard room, listening to their stories and keeping an eye out for their patrol times, breaks and itineraries. And when there is a moment of no one paying attention, she empties her vial of hruz into their tea kettle.

Finally, the day shift is over and Vic approaches the guard who first brought her into the guard room.

"Hey, I know this... private place real close," she says. "Would you like to... hang out some more?"

"I'll be with you in a second, ya pretty thing. Just clocking out, gathering my things." And he can barely conceal his enthusiasm.

Victory leads him to the squatter flat.

"It's a bit of a mess, I know, but no one will bother us here."

With eyes all over Vic, he misses the still drying bloodstains on the floor. She starts undressing him, undoes the belt so that he has trousers around his knees, pulls his shirt over his head and tangles his arms in the sleeves. But this is no hruz-head, and he may be aroused and all, but he is sensing something off. He starts looking around.

Victory is hungry, though. She already killed today and restrained herself not to get all high before a heist. The blood in the room is getting to her. She is also aroused, in a sense, and does not want to stop.

She bites, and he swears and pushes her off, trips over his trousers and falls prone. Victory jumps on his back and stumbles for her dagger.

"We could've had a nice moment," she hisses in his ear. "Did you know that some people asphyxiate themselves just to get that rush of too little blood in their brain? It could've been just like that for you, a momentary pain and then a rush like you've never experienced. Instead, you chose to die snivelling in fear. Suit yourself."

The blade draws blood and he gurgles something in response. Blood spills over from his mouth.

"But don't worry, you can still die knowing you made a woman happy," she says and finally has a drink.
 

***

The Slum Tenement, night
Atiin, Victory, Jackass and Tadz are sitting by the windows, watching the lights in nearby houses slowly going out. The Undercouncil Hall is mostly dark now, except for the occasional flicker of a patrol's lantern.

"Hey hey, I'm back," Edward says, entering the flat. "I got some nice shoes! Good for tip-toeing. Didn't find no masks, but I got these dark robes here... And moustaches of course. Also rope and hooks."

He comes to a halt, taken aback by the thick smell of death and puddles of gore on the floor.

"Woahhh - where'd this blood come from? There a serial murderer about?"

"Don't worry about it, it's just bad neighbourhood," Victory smiles.

Edward blinks as the rest of the gang is staring at him.

"Come on, Ed," Jack makes a face. "How could you not notice that our Vic is a vampire?"

Ed looks from Victory to Jack and back.

"I just thought you were anemic," he says.

prior | next

9 February 2021

Fever-Dreaming in Marlinko, part 1

This is a game of Finders Keepers set in the city of Marlinko. The dramatis personae are:

  • Atiin Brigantia, a brilliant but lazy lunatic
  • Edward "the Wild" Bleestocles, a leper disowned by his wealthy family
  • Jacobin "Jackass" Valentin, a soulless bastard
  • Tadzio, an estranged son of a powerful mage

 

From Fever-Dreaming Marlinko

 
Jarek's Tiger Pit, late afternoon
It is true what they say about the air in Marlinko: It carries a strange, impalpable lightness; one could swear it sometimes spreads some sort of glow around the buildings and even on the people walking on the streets. The air, it has a dreamlike quality about it. One just cannot be sure whether it is a good dream, or a bad one.

Jarek's Manse and Tiger Pit is one of Tadzio's favourite places in town. The rest of the gang usually bets on him, since he's proved himself time and time again to be unnaturally gifted (or lucky) when it comes to dealing with such beasts. And there he is right now, at the pit's very centre, wrestling a big cat; having started this one with the upper hand, Tadzio suddenly loses his footing for a second there; the tiger takes advantage of this brief opening and jumps on its prey. Yes, Tadz is starting to look rather weary; the tiger, as expected, tries to chew the poor guy's head off his neck. It's not so sure he's going to get away with his life this time.

From the middle of the rowdy crowd of some eighty or so drunkards, all apparently cheering the cat's imminent victory, Tadzio's friends watch with growing unease.

Edward is a once-handsome man of noble birth who earned his moniker "the Wild" by gambling away much of his family holdings in these very pits, until he was disowned and banished. With nothing left except a few odd trinkets and the strange disease he picked up from a woman-of-the-night slowly eating away at his flesh, Ed is seriously considering suicide-by-tiger to at least offer his friend Tadz a chance at life.

The man known as "Jackass" is a smiling bastard in a tricorne hat. He's conventionally handsome but personally odious, with a reckless attitude and a foul mouth. Until now he'd been drinking and schmoozing his way around the Pit, but now has paused to catch Tadzio's imminent demise. Seeing Edward, he approaches the gambler.

"Holy SHEEEYIT Eddie! Tadz is going out as kitty dinner! Huh. I wouldn't've seen that coming... Should we, like, do something?"

Somehow, Tadz has managed to pull himself out of the tiger's embrace and, more importantly, his head out of the animal's mouth. He's bloodied alright. He gasps and wheezes as the tiger's booming voice fills the pit.

"You son of a bitch!" the tiger growls, pointing his big paw at Tadz: "In this death trap of a circus you killed uncle Smokey, my cousin Theo, his cousin Lucky and my own pa! You're done. Let this be remembered as the day that Bandit has sent the Cat Killer to his demise!"

Still catching his breath and glancing at the audience, Tadzio mutters: "...I guess I'm more of a dog person, after all."

The sound carries, though, and the audience revels in response to the quip. Bandit, humiliated, dashes forward, roaring, and rakes Tadz over the chest, leaving bloody claw marks behind.

Edward sighs and tells Jack: "Eyo, I've got a gun and I'm thinking about causing a ruckus - see if we can get this all called off in the madness. You in?"

"I'm definitely in!" says Jack and gulps down the rest of his drink.

As they get up and approach the railing, they nearly trip over an individual sleeping on one of the lower benches, drooling slightly from his way too large jaw.

Jack looks down at the guy: "Wake up, Atiin! We're about to make a ruckus!" But Atiin only rolls over on the other side.

"He's got a gun!" Ed yells, shoots into the air and starts running towards the access gate to the Pit with Jack in tow, just as people all around are starting to get up, alarmed.

Something about the arena's acoustics definitely helps with the ruse, so that both the gunshot and Edward's voice sound like they've originated from over there - no, there, farther away, behind that corner, perhaps? Anyway, half of the attendees are attracted to the bang and start running towards its multiple presumed origin points with idle, dumb curiosity. The other half flees to the closest exit.

The portcullis closing off entrance to the arena proper is unmanned, with a note on the stool where a gatekeeper usually sits saying "BRB". Together, Ed and Jack manage to crank the gate open.

"Over here!" Jackass calls to Tadz, motioning for him to come to the open portcullis. His yelling distracts Bandit the vengeful tiger for an instant. He turns to Jack with an unreadable expression and Tadzio immediately grabs a random plank from the ground and hits the big cat on the back of the neck, then runs away.

This gives Edward a clear shot and he gleefully takes it. The tiger roars in pain and falls on the ground, stunned, but not dead. As Tadz sprints over the arena to the open gate and the tiger struggles to stand up, Ed carefully reloads his firelock, takes aim and blows the tiger's head off.

Tadz makes the rest of the way to the gate with a smirk on his face.

"Wheew! Close call! I thought that was it for me this time."

He seems to be about to say more, but then turns his focus to something behind Ed and Jack. From there comes a screeching cry of pure desperate rage, followed by: "YOU KILLED MY BAN-BAN! WHY?!"

***

Jarek's Tiger Pit, on the stands
Meanwhile, Attin has finally woken up when someone accidentally dropped their beer on him. He sit up and screams: "THE TIGERS ARE REVOLTING!!! RUN FOR YOUR LIVES!!!"

Some people nearby disperse in a hurry, but most just stay there, dumbfounded. A big, tattooed guy without pants stares at Atiin intently. He says in a nasal voice: "Hell yeah, man. About damn time. About damn time." And off he goes.

"Right-o," Atiin says and grabs after a stuffed sack someone forgot on the bench right next to him in their hurry to run away.

However, so does a sneaky young lady with wild blonde hair, wearing a fancy dress. Her eyes meet Atiin's, startled for a moment, then quickly narrowing to slits full of mischief and determination. Atiin's fingers slip on the bag, but he plays it off as if he was giving it to the woman, with a wink.

"Divide and conquer or would you prefer to hold hands?" he says, fidgeting with his clothes a bit.

The lady chuckles in response, now casually holding the pouch. She opens it, takes a peek inside, glances back at Atiin.

"Well, I suppose I could pay you a drink or two at the Drunken Troll, if you promise me that this stays between us."

"I'm Atiin. Give me your name and I will meet you there later."

"You don't need to know my name just yet. Meet me there in, say, a couple of hours? Perfect. It's a date, then!" she says as she stands and quickly exits the upper gallery, leaving behind a soft scent of geranium.

***

Jarek's Tiger Pit, access tunnel
Behind Ed, Jack and Tadz stands Jarek the nagsman, tears pouring down his reddened eyes. He owns the Tiger Pit and most definitely just saw how they put down one of his feline employees.

"Who-what? Where am I? Grandpa, is that you? I'm coming towards the light!!!" Edward screams and then dramatically "faints".

Jack catches the falling Ed and addresses Jarek: "Excuse me, Sir, we'll let you mourn in peace, if you'd kindly step aside... Tadz, we really need to get Eddie some air! Grab his feet, we'll carry him out."

Jarek, however, is not amused: "You must be out of your minds if you think this charade is going to fly. I can see your friend's literal smoking gun right there! It is literally still letting out smoke!" He calls for the gatekeeper: "Georg, get in here!"

Jack glances at Tadzio and mutters: "Can't you just, y'know, buy him off?"

Tadzio steps forward: "Jarek, c'mon, man. I've killed a bunch of your tigers myself in previous fights and still you keep letting me do this every week. Can't you just let us off the hook on this one too?"

Jarek takes a deep breath: "You stupid rich boy! Only reason I let you do this is your dad, whose generosity has consistently compensated me for every single carnage you have thus far promoted on my pit. Is he gonna pay for your friend's as well? Excuse me if I have a hard time buying that."

Tadz turns back to Jack and shrugs: "Well, I tried, but he's got a point. Dad's not gonna pay to save your asses."

"Not to mention the sentimental value! Bandit was my best fighter!" Jarek's tears resume. He wipes his nose on the back of his hand. Georg the gatekeeper is glowering from behind him.

"Look," Jack says, "I understand you lost a valuable asset today, but I almost lost a friend today and, uh, isn't friendship the most, uh, something of all?" Then he drops Ed, tries to shove past Jarek and make a run for it, but immediately bounces off of Georg and falls flat on his butt.

Jarek sighs and motions for Georg: "Get him and that clown who's playing dead."

Tadzio asks in an annoyed tone: "This is bullshit. Can I at least be excused? I did nothing to your tiger this time."

"Like the Cold Hell you didn't," Jarek spits. "These are your clique. You stay the fuck where you are. Your dad and the Grandmaster of Hives are going to hear about it later today, as I've been personally invited to a Council meeting that will discuss the details of this year's Great Race." He looks pretty proud of himself as he mentions it.

From the stairs up to the stands comes Atiin and approaches Jarek: "Clearly you are in charge here. I wanted to personally thank you for catching these, eh... criminals that would, ummm... pervert the great and noble Tiger Pit." And he spits in the direction of his friends. "I humbly offer my, uhhh... assistance with their, umm... transport."

Caught off-guard and perplexed, Jarek offers only a long silence. But then he clears his throat and says: "Ah, thank you, my boy! See that, Georg? What a... fine... what's the word I'm looking for here? ...Hmmm... ...Hmmm... Citizen! Yeah! Citizen! A fine citizen, indeed. Reminds me of a very serviceable gentleman I once met at Lady Szara's manse, during the the annual Bathe in the Blood of Your Servants Charity Ball..." He sighs. "Very well, then. You take care of this one. Now follow me!" And Jack ends in Atiin's hands.

The whole group crosses the garden and heads to Jarek's big house, to which the already imposing domed building that houses the Pit is but an appendage, then continues along the ample stairway to the upper floor, as Ed's limp body goes bonk-bonk-bonk, still being dragged by Georg, and Atiin notices several painted portraits of Jarek next to minor local celebrities, all decadent aristocrats that look bored and annoyed as hell. On the second floor, Jarek leads everyone into a room; its walls only half painted. A couple of ladders and the contractor's tools are all the decor it has to show for now. He points to a long bench and the gatekeeper just drops Edward on the floor.

"So," Jarek begins as he walks from one side to the other, "the way I see it, you don't have a lot of options: I could send you to the Guild of Bloodletters, but that sounds to me like it'd be too mild a punishment. I could turn you to the Council and press them to charge you with Premeditated and Non-Licensed Murder, but that would result in either public execution or, best case scenario, you'd be repurposed as convict-jockeys at the Great Race. And I bet you all suck ass as riders, don't you?"

He lets a long rhetorical pause go by.

"So what I'd like to offer you here is the opportunity to pay me by being useful in another fashion. I'd like you to steal the Great Race trophy from the Golden Swine district Undercouncil. Thing is, it has to be soon. Ideally in two days, just before the opening ceremony to this year's Great Race."

"I don't know how I got here," Ed replies groggily, "but I'll do it or die trying!"

"Ummm," Atiin starts, "I will leave you to your business then, Sir. Uhhh..." Yet he awkwardly lingers.

Jarek spins and stares at Atiin, a formal grin stuck across his face. He keeps grinning, but his eyes start to dart around, clueless. Then it hits him.

"Ah, yes. Of course, my lad." And he shoves hands in his shirt pockets, all hidden under kilos of bling, probing for something. "Here it is!"

Jarek hands Atiin a piece of paper. There's an etching stamped on one side. It is a representation of Jarek sitting on a regal-looking chair. He has a tiger cub on his lap. It says: "Jarek the nagsman and Bandit wish you a prosperous new year". Dated from four years ago.

"Thank you for your services, kind citizen. And... err... Go Bees! Am I right?" he chuckles unconvincingly.

Atiin heads out the door, but quickly says: "I will treat this as an IOU, then." Unwilling to be seen reconvening with the others, he heads off to his date at the Drunken Troll Inn.

Jarek turns back to the other three: "Sleepyhead there is in, he says. What about you, fools?"

Tadz shrugs. "Sure, whatever."

Jackass sighs, but smiles: "What can I say? I've been looking for just such an opportunity to come my way for some time now! Count me in!"

And Jarek is rejoiced, shakes everyone's hands, and has Jack, Ed and Tadz escorted out of his mansion, this time in a slightly less rough manner.

Just before getting back inside, Georg says: "A messenger will come looking for you at your residential address within twelve or so hours. They will hand you the blueprint to the Golden Swine's Undercouncil building. Master Jarek advises you to study it as carefully as you can. The trophy room is heavily monitored. If you get caught, do not try and pin this on us. We will deny any involvement, and we will know where to find you."

He is halfway back to the manor when he suddenly returns to ask: "By the way, where do you live?"

Ed smiles wildly: "Currently slumming it up with a nice man with a box. You know, the Nice Man with a Box Inn. Only place I could afford, it's in the Mendacious Mercator."

Everybody else lives in a shared apartment in the Golden Swine neighbourhood where they are far behind on rent, but while they can put up with a lot, they couldn't put up with the ubiquitous scent of rotting meat and pungent medicines that accumulates in any room where Ed spends too much time. Thus he was booted a few weeks ago. Georg has to bear hearing all this before he is given the address, too.

He nods: "Very well. Seems like we will be sending two messengers, then." And he is gone.

"Anyone knows where Atiin disappeared to?" Jack ventures. With no answer to be had, he goes off, muttering under his breath.

Now that they have apparently dodged quite the bullet, Ed and Tadz are back to loitering about the Sullen Apiarian district. Tadz is bragging about how he would have resorted to punches if Jarek kept pressing them and insulting them like that and whatnot. His babbling kinda fades to the background, honestly, as they all walk past those once majestic, now decayed buildings in which the fancy-pants live.

It's nearly evening now, and they're not the only ones with nothing better to do on the streets. It just so happens that, around the Sullen Apiarian, people tend to dress nicer than Ed, even nicer than Tadzio who enjoys dressing below his station.

A bunch of such well-dressed guys now goes out of their way to pick on the duo: six young men in wigs and nice coats, cackling and drinking from bottles, singing out of tune - a stupid song about the Sullen Apiarian's inescapable victory in the upcoming Great Race. Lined up, taking up all of the sidewalk's space, they are headed right for the duo, probably up to no good and playing a game of chicken. They seem intent to see if they can force such sorry-ass hobos out of the sidewalk.

"What are we if not animals who enjoy fun," Edward mutters as he tears some of his clothing to reveal the nasty holes in his flesh left by his mysterious disease. "BACCKK! STAY BAACKKK, LEST THE GREAT PLAGUE STEAL YOUR BEAUTY AND YOUTH! FOR STATION IS OF NO CONSEQUENCE TO THE WINDS OF DISEASSEEEEE!! BAAACCCCKKK I SAYYYYYYYY!!!!"

He embellishes his sudden outburst with lots of coughing and rattling of his fists at the sky like a mad prophet.

"Awmuhgawd, he's got the Plague!" says one rake.

"J-j-just get going!" squeaks another one. "G-g-get outta here, ya destitute sod! We wouldn't touch you with a ten foot pole if we had one, so don't worry!"

"He's got no damned Plague! It's just one of Lady Szara's guests, I'm positive." ponders a third one upon closer inspection.

"However d'you mean?" goes the first one.

"Y'know, like that scoundrel Kugel. He used to pay Szara a visit every other day. Now you don't even see 'im any more! And when you do, he's got that sick look about 'im, like the fellow's skipped 'is own funeral or sum'n."

"Oh, ghastly. Just the other day he- blah blah blah" and they are already away, headed to the Flaming Goat tavern by the western gate, most likely.

Tadz pats Ed on the shoulder: "Well played, Ed. We should have mugged them, ya know. Smug pricks. Next time, I guess."

"But we should be looking for ways of getting paid somehow," he goes on. "This Jarek business may keep you guys out of jail, but I'm not sure how long the landlord will refrain from pressuring us. Pretty sure he's kept to himself so far just because my dad. He'll build up the courage, eventually, though."

"Right... wasn't sure we could take that many. Anyway ...moneyyyy..." Edward ruminates on that for a bit.

***

The Tomb Plaza, evening
"Where could he have disappeared to," Jack mutters for himself as he's approached by a crazy-moustachioed man dressed like a fucking dandy.

"Hello! My name is Kytel. You and me. Single combat. Fifty gold. I bet that I can draw blood from you, fine gentleman, before you can even scratch my shirt," the man says.

"Kytel, ya old so-and-so!" Jack exclaims. "I'll duel ya, sure."

For a second, Kytel seems nonplussed, but then he smiles widely: "Ah, yes! Atta boy, that's what I'm talking about! En garde, then! Waitaminute, where's your rapier?"

"Does a rapier wit count?" Jackass asks, then wiggles his eyebrows playfully. "Besides, any true martial enthusiast knows swords are so overrated!"

He bangs on his shield. "Same bet - I'll make your pretty moustached face bleed with just this! Fifty gold AND the suit off your back!"

"What kind of barbaric animal are you?" Kytel looks truly offended, terrified even, at the mere thought of a duel that does not involve the complete set of rites and props he has dedicated his whole life to master. "I see now. You're no gentlemen... My mistake. Won't happen again."

"Aww, come on Kytel!" Jack calls out. "I just said that because you're cute when you get all huffy! Besides! Isn't it unsportsmanlike to renege on a challenge? Show me what skill a true swordsman has!"

"Fiiine," Kytel says, still pouting. "We will have our duel. However, I cannot allow you to engage me without a proper blade. Now come, if we hurry we might find the South Market still open." And he links arms with Jack, leading the way.

***

The Drunken Troll inn, evening
Atiin walks into the inn and upon quickly scanning the tables finds his lady. She sees him as well and nods discretely. She's sitting by herself at one of the tables at the eastern corner. Atiin joins her, ignoring the bartenders lopsided scowl.

"You showed up! I guess you really needed that drink, after all."

"Your company was irresistible," Atiin grins.

The lady has dark brown eyes and a piercing, disturbing gaze. Her body language sometimes appears to be a bit too on the mark, as if she's quite literally acting a part. Also, she's wearing a different dress, a deep green bodice with purple waistband and flounce. Still pretty fancy if one looks closely enough, but designed to look more like a commoner's than the one she was wearing earlier.

She smiles. Just smiles, confidently, no blushing. She instructs the innkeeper to bring a bowl of halušky, since "My friend here is looking famished."

The two engage in a vapid flirtation as the night settles. She's fun, Atiin's fun, everything's is going well.

Then, out of the blue, she drops the bomb: "Where would you draw the line on morally abject acts? Hypothetically speaking, of course."

"I'm very middling on the fence. As you could see from when we first met."

"What are your thoughts on assassination and kidnapping, in that order?" She leans forward, elbows on the table, chin resting on her hands.

"I don't often think of them. Guess it would depend on who was involved."

"That would be Littlest Pavol, Hurloj Kladivo's youngest son."

Kladivo, that much Atiin knows, is the master of the Guild of Accipitraries, Drovers and Ankle-Beater, and Littlest Pavol is a self-proclaimed poet who's actually never written a single verse.

"Is he supposed to be assassinated or kidnapped?" he asks.

"That depends on where you draw the line, love. I can work with either."

"Kidnapping, then," Atiin smiles and drinks deeply from his tankard. "And now that we're accomplices, what should I call you?"

"Eliška. Eliška Kladivo."

They discuss things further and enjoy the fine ale and each other's company for a while longer. Eventually, they retire to her room at the Drunken Troll.

***

Somewhere in the Golden Swine district backstreets, evening
"Are you... on a... quest... too...?" a hulking figure wearing a shirt, some sort of animal hide, boots and unfortunately nothing else asks Ed and Tadz.

"Oh, my fellow star-crossed-but-pantsless man," Ed replies, "how I wish I weren't! If only my luck and decision-making were even a tad more favourable my life would have been so much better. But yes. I, too, am on a quest, one that I shall either prevail or my life (or at least my kneecaps) will be taken from me forthwith."

The barbarian glares at the air around Ed as he speaks. "Your words are caramelling, man."

He seems like he's about to give Ed a hug, but something distracts him. "I hear you, quest-brother. We are on the same quest, that's what the Son of Mulmak always says. All quests will meet eventually, as all dungeons are but sub-sections and hallways leading to the great All."

Then he barfs, splattering the shabby-looking building just next to Edward and Tadz, and collapses. He starts to snore loudly.

Incidentally, though, there is a strange symbol carved by the door. Stylistically, the symbol is akin to the Sun Lord imagery, but something about it whiffs of heresy. Squinting his eyes, Ed can almost see a... map... of sorts? Nah!

"Tadz, you see this?" he says quietly. "Got a notebook or something? I wanna make an copy of this and then modify it some. My Da always said that drunken barbarians were tied to great treasure... although... now that I say it out loud it sounds a bit weird. I'm almost certain that's what he said, though. And surely he meant it literally..."

Tadz hands him a piece of paper. It's crumpled and already used on one side. There are names of tiger wrestlers and human wrestlers from Jarek's pit. Next to each, there's a list of pros and cons.

Ed copies the "map" and then starts defacing the carvings on the wall, just in case in really was a map to a massive treasure.

"Well done!"

"Yes, well done! That will show him, the heretic, with his mockery of the holy imagery!"

Two raggedy women appear behind Edward and clap their hands perhaps half-ironically, but most likely approvingly. Some like these could be seen preaching around the city for a while now. They are the nun-maenads, a group of fanatics associated with the Church of the Bleeding Lamb-God.

"Yes, indeed, here's one who gets things done!" they keep on, as if wooing Ed. "The Church could use someone like you, boy."

Edward nods appreciatively as he finishes: "Thanks, thank you, ahem- where would I go to find out more about joining?"

The nun-maenads huddle up and mutter stuff to each other for a few seconds, drowned out by the loud snoring of the barbarian. Then they decide.

"We can show you the way if you want. It's not far from here."

They look excited in a slightly scary way. Edward agrees wholeheartedly and thinks nothing about their group huddle and excitement.

The two raggedy women lead Ed and Tadz inside a narrow, unassuming, slum house. There is a single room, bare of any furniture. In its centre, a threadbare carpet is not enough to conceal an oversized trapdoor and a winching device. Four stubble-faced, intimidating altar boys guard the entrance.

"We're here," the nuns declare, motioning towards the trapdoor.

"You must be joking," says Tadz.

"No need to come if you're not feeling spiritual, Tadz, but I think these folks are rather intriguing," Ed retorts.

"I mean, dude, this whole joint looks off. Is this gonna end badly? For sure. Do I wanna leave right the fuck now? Hell yes. Will I abandon you as you walk into a death trap? Absolutely not."

Edward is touched, thanks Tadz graciously and then says: "Only one way to see if it's a death trap or not!"

And into the hole he goes.

***

The South Market, evening
Jack arrives to the South Market, arms linked with Kytel the Duellist. He tugs on Kytel's arm: "Ooh! Maybe ol' Fražie has a blade in his shop? A storied blade with a duelling history perhaps?"

He nudges Kytel with his hip to steer him towards Fraža's.

Fraža is a scrawny fellow wrapped in a puffy outfit, complete with a ruff and feathered bonnet. His emaciated face telegraphs weariness and indifference.

"I was about to close. Please be quick," he says in his horn-like tenor.

Jackass goes straight to business, stepping ahead of Kytel: "What do you have in the way of weaponry, my good man? And specifically swords?"

Fraža rolls his eyes as he sighs. Sighing, one could even argue, is somehow an integral part of this man's very essence.

"I could show you indeed a vast collection of exquisite weapons, made to be used in either melee or ranged contexts. I could entertain you with a detailed presentation of magic blades and firearms that provide all sorts of pluses to hit according to the revised Gaxx scale, indeed, and others still, which store magic charges of great power within them and allow themselves to be recharged by expert hands. Your low-born demeanour and dreadful garments prevent me, however, from doing so, unfortunately, as I believe you simply cannot afford such artifacts. In addition to that, you smell vaguely like the homeless man who, during my childhood, used to yell at me whenever we crossed paths by the Tomb of the City Gods, and that makes me highly distrustful of you. Hope you can understand, sir."

Fraža is widely known to bear the curse of veracity, but he's also just a prick.

"I don't smell that homeless," Jackass grumbles and mutters. "And I'm not even buying, mister! My friend here is one of the greatest duellists in the city, and he's buying me your finest blade so we can hack away at each other!"

Upon hearing that, Kytel gasps and coughs and wipes his sweating forehead with a scented handkerchief. "To be frank, my friend, I was hoping you'd be willing to sell, pawn or barter some of your own gear in exchange for a sword so we can get on with our appointment. I apologize if I expressed myself in a misleading fashion, I'm deeply embarrassed."

Fraža looks at them both, like, super bored. There's a long, awkward silence.

At last, the merchant addresses Jack: "Well, if you need money to purchase an item, I'm looking for mercenary work. An expedition to the Weird, to retrieve a valuable magical item. You strike me as the sort of man who would take on such a task. If you accept it I would still be distrustful of you as I honestly cannot shake off the mnemic association your bad hygiene evokes in me, but I would at least have evidence that you are not a cutthroat coveting my invaluable collection of curios and arcane artifacts for a quick profit, but merely one among the many poor, uneducated, ignorant and insolvent, but otherwise reliable sods that I often employ for just that sort of endeavour."

"See, you're getting all flustered again!" Jackass teases Kytel. "Okay Mr. Fražio, I'm game for any mercenary activities. What does said retrieval entail?"

"I have information, collected on good authority, regarding the whereabouts of the Abstruse Relic of Kuuk. I will pay you four thousand gold for retrieval of said relic whole, magically-functioning, and in no way altered, splintered, copied or otherwise adapted in form by you or a third party. It is well under the actual value of the item - especially when factored in with the extreme and likely fatal risk of obtaining the relic from the nearby Frog Demon Temple - but the slope of your skull offends my eye and I fear the enrichment and social advancement of people of your background. So four thousand gold is my one and final offer."

Jackass reasons that Fraža means it, and nods in agreement. Besides, it might be easier to renegotiate once the item has actually been recovered.

"Very well, I'll accept that offer! Now spill the details..."

And Fraža spills. The Frog Demon Temple sits on a marsh located about twelve miles west of Marlinko. Trouble with both supernatural entities and human cultists who worship said entities is to be expected. Unfortunately, Fraža confesses that the literature is fuzzy on the appearance of the relic, as scholars have had access only to second-hand descriptions of the artifact. Some argue that it looks like two pens attached to a hybrid variety of apple-pineapple on each end, while others insist that it is not two pens, but a single long pen sheathed into an apple-pineapple-like structure made entirely of alien materials. Others yet posit that there are no pineapples at all added to the composition. Anyway, the Old Pahr dialect lends itself to lots of divergent readings sometimes. Anyone's guess is as good as Fraža's, who's been studying the manuscripts for two years now.

"And what exactly does the Abstruse Relic of Kuuk actually do? Since, y'know, full functionality is part of the job parameters at all..."

Fraža blushes at Jack's question. "It makes you-" Mutters something unintelligible, eyes casts down and blushing even more.

Kytel jumps in: "Sorry, sir, I'm afraid I didn't catch that last part. It makes you what?"

"IT MAKES YOU A SUPREMELY FINE DANCER, OKAY? It's a modular artifact, that requires the user to disassemble it first, then reassemble it in the ritualistically correct order. If executed properly, the ritual will infuse the user with the dancing skills of all its previous users. And the sources say that it has only been used by the most skilled and talented dancers among the ancient Hyperboreans. Now go away, I'm already way past the closing time."

Jack and Kytel bid farewell to Fraža and walk side by side for a while.

"Hey, Kytel, would ya want to lend your sword skills to this cause? With the money we can buy the greatest, fanciest swords and battle each other to our heart's content. What say you, Kytel?"

"I thank you for the opportunity, sir, but I seek neither money nor the thrill of exploration, as do many in this city. In any case, I pray that you do come see me when you're finished with your quest. I can help you find the best blade that the Cantons have to offer."

He hands Jack his personal info on a card. It displays exquisite calligraphy and smells good, just like his handkerchief. He also volunteers (en passant) to be Jack's champion if he ever decides to challenge Fraža for the many insults he managed to squeeze into the short time they were speaking.

"That man is no gentleman. In fact, he is nothing but an entitled, backward-thinking, provincial bully," Kytel grumbles.

Jackass takes Kytel's card with surprised silence. Before walking away he turns back to the duellist: "So... you're not just a stuffed shirt and slick moustache, like those other so-called 'gentlemen' of the city. Guess you're the real deal, huh? Well, good to know. Thanks. I'll, uh, see ya when I see ya..."

***

The Bleeding Lamb-God catacombs, night
Edward and Tadz take a well-built ladder down to the bottom of the hole. Straight ahead there's a large-ish corridor with a bunch of alcoves at the end of it.

"Interesting - good craftsmanship," Ed mutters in awe about the ladder or corridor. He's not sure himself. "Well! I'm definitely all in. What's next?'

"Oh, we will inform our overseer of your arrival. In the meantime, you may wait in the mess hall. It's this way."

And the nun-maenads giggle and exchange creepy looks, but seem otherwise friendly enough.

They lead Ed and Tadz further into the facility. First through the corridor lined with alcoves - They are, in fact, burial nooks, each storing a surprisingly high number of humanoid skeletons. The skulls are decorated with a ritual blood smudge. - then they turn left and show both guys to a plain wooden door.

"See Tadz? They're real cordial," Ed grins.

"This place looks... new," Tadz points out. "Like it's just been built."

One of the raggedy women replies as she opens the door to what appears to be an animal pens: "It is new. We nuns dug most of these tunnels with our own hands. Been three years since the excavations started, and there's still a lot of work to do in the name of Him Who Bled for our Sins, blessed be."

"Blessed be," parrots the second raggedy woman.

Nine goats, six white lambs, a soft-eyed rabbit and a mangy badger are tethered in the pens. The room is adjacent to the mess hall, where Ed and Tadz are lead. Part open kitchen, part serving area with long, white pine tables. A cooking pit and chimney sit in the north-east corner, a rickety, empty bookshelf kinda leans against the eastern wall. There are four people here; three are eating, one's baking.

"We'll be right back. Treat yourselves to some halušky while you wait, and make yourselves comfortable," says a nun and both of them head out.

Obediently, even enthusiastically, Ed immediately helps himself to some halušky.

"What joy," begins one of the three people at the table - a middle-aged man with a comb over and an aggressively welcoming smile plastered across his face. "You must be here for the induction ceremony, to be held tomorrow morning, yes? Oh, welcome, brothers-in-the-Lamb!"

The others nod to each other, and to Edward and Tadz. Same damn angelic grin on all their faces.

Ed nods, too: "Yes, I suppose so. I'm Edward."

The man slides closer, shaking Ed's hand. "I'm Vilem, pleasure to meet you. These are Svetlana-" points to big lady with a round red face, "-and Casimir," points to twitchy young man with long hair. "Over there at the oven is... Hedvika, I guess." Gestures towards a nice old lady, whose eyes seem to be entirely covered by layer upon layer of wrinkled skin. "We're looking forward to meeting the most honourable Vatek, son of Vatek in person, right, guys?"

They all nod in response, still smiling.

Ed doesn't even try to hide his slight confusion: "Pleasure to meet you!"

Then he hears a faint sound coming from the next room, apparently. The four believers in this room do not seem to notice it, or be bothered by it. Vilem, however, catches some of the confusion at the mention of Vatek son of Vatek.

"How have you come to know about Vatek's teachings, if I may ask?"

"To be honest, I know little about the church and was here to learn more - some nice nun-maenads invited me here upon my inquiry after witnessing and applauding some defacing of heretical imagery."

Vilem nods more vigorously: "Oh, righteous man, you are! And with no previous knowledge of the doctrine, imagine that! Righteous and inspired by the Lamb, indeed. The nun-maeneds were guided by His hand so they could find you, my good boy, in the middle of this depraved town. Filthy, filthy town!"

He spits on the floor. The old lady stops what she's doing, grabs a rag and goes on to wipe it clean.

Edward can still hear that faint sound coming from the other room. It's clearer now: a child crying, as quietly as they can.

Agreement fades to confusion as Ed nods again and excuses himself to talk to Tadz at the side.

"Do you hear that?" he whispers.

"Yeah, man," Tadz whispers back. "Also, what the fuck?"

"I know! If they hate it here you'd think they'd just move. Anyway, we should probably check that out. I don't mind being the distraction or the scout... or I guess we can just demand to know what's in the room."

"Yeah, yeah. Go check it out, I'll entertain these clowns." Turning to Vilem, Tadzio asks: "Hmm, wow. I hear you, man. Quite the moral statement right there," he points to the spit stain on the floor. "Now, where do you guys keep the booze?"

The wrinkly old lady and twitchy long-haired lad quietly watch as Ed dramatically "sneaks" into the adjacent room while Tadz rambles on. Their eyes idly follow, but they do nothing.

It is a dormitory. There are a few bunk beds lined against the walls and personal belongings casually peppered all over. Yet another door connects this room with a third chamber on the room's far side. At its threshold, a little girl rubs the tears off her face. She sees Edward and flees out of view into that one dimly lit room.

"Hey, wait!" Ed calls quietly and follows.

The room seems to be packed with shelves, crates and sacks of various descriptions. A foul smell of feces and urine overwhelms the senses.

Somewhere in there, Ed can hear the girl's trembling voice: "Did they kill him yet? Did they kill Pan Jesev?"

"Ah, shit," Ed swears out of habit before adopting as much of a calming voice as he can. "I don't know, little one. Do you want to get out of here?"

"Mum likes it here. She says this is going to be our new home. But I think this is a bad place. They kill all the pets so they can pray better. It smells bad in here. I wanted to free Pan Jesev, but they wouldn't let me."

"Where-uh-where did they take Mr. Jesev?"

"He was with the other animals, tied to a leash. He was so thin. So was the bunny. I tried to sneak in there to give them food, but the nunnies wouldn't let me."

"Can you lead me there please? I want to set him free too and I think they'll let me."

She stays silent, but she's moving her head in response, either shaking it or nodding. "I... mum will be mad with me if she sees me leaving the bedroom. But if Pan Jesev is still alive he should be in the room with the sheep and the goats and the rabbit."

"Wait. Is Mr. Jesev a man, or a badger?"

She giggles: "He's not a man, silly! He's my pet! Badger, yes. I guess that's what he is."

"Oh-kay. What's your name, Miss?"

"I'm Matka, pleased to meet you, Sir."

Edward tries to cheer up Matka with a short story about pet badgers joining a nice truffle-filled forest heaven when they die, but only sends her right back to her previous mood. She resumes sobbing and wailing lightly as he hurries back to the mess hall, just in time to listen to Tadz finishing his story about how he earned the "Cat Killer" moniker. The believers look amused.

"I have learned that the badger's name is Pan Jesev, and that young Miss Matka is upset about his eventual passing," Ed announces.

"Oh, don't pay attention to my daughter," Svetlana, the red moon-faced lady, replies. "She does not understand the liturgy yet. But she will, eventually. Give her time."

Edward nods and tries to engage in listening to Tadz or the others present, happy to wait a while now that he's reasonably - and perhaps foolishly - assured that the worse that's going on here is some animal sacrifices. The nun-maenads soon return to inform the guys that they have been given permission to spend the night in the facility, if they'd like. The next morning, all inductees are to attend a mass. They will then take the vow and be baptized by Vatek son of Vatek himself. Following that, there's something they could take care of for the betterment of the church.

"Tell me more! I've liked everything I've seen so far," Ed insists.

"What would you like to know?"

"What task must I undertake? And what does my journey look like post-baptism?"

The nuns exchange looks, then lead Ed and Tadz to a corner, away from the lay believers. Once there, they invite them to one of their rather conspicuous group huddles.

"That would be more appropriately discussed in private," whispers one of them.

"Indeed. And after you've been baptized and fully incorporated as members of this congregation," says the other.

"However," resumes the first one, "since you've already demonstrated such guile back at the entrance to the home of that heretical pan-dungeonist who dubs himself Son of Mulmak, I believe we can let you in on a little secret."

They both giggle. Their rotten grins and high-pitched, barely muffled cackling send Tadz shivering in fear.

"We need to get rid of the false prophet. Pan-dungeonist heresy may be a fad, but its appeal is getting to the poor. The promise of Son of Mulmak's false doctrine is at odds with the truth of Vatek's teachings. As such, it puts people's souls in danger of damnation as few other heathen cults' belief systems could."

They stare at the boys expectantly, without breaking the huddle.

Edward nods: "Alright. You need him... silenced? Or gotten rid of? I'd imagine going about this wrongly might result in the backlash of martyrdom. Also, is that where he's located?"

They seem truly puzzled at the remark on martyrdom.

"We... hadn't considered that possibility, to be honest. But you make a... good point. We would need to bring his reputation to the gutter first," one ventures.

The other hag says: "Yes, that building on which the pan-dungeonist symbol is carved, the one that you have defaced, that is the enemy's abode."

"Right. Well, I can certainly try to besmirch his reputation, then."

"Excellent. Now, are you going to stay in the compound for the night, yes? Vatek's sermon is scheduled to take place at the Fane around five in the morning."

"Yep yep, we'll be staying!" Ed beams.

The believers retire early to their beds. The nun-maenads apparently have their quarters elsewhere in the facility. Once Ed and Tadzio are the only ones left in the mess hall, Tadz lets on a worried expression.

"So, what's the angle here, Ed?" he inquires.

"See what it's about," Ed whispers back. "Been feeling a bit drifty since catching this... stuff. Figured there's no harm in chasing the rabbit a bit. And if it's rubbish, well, we raid the coffers. Religious places always got gold plated knick knacks and tithing bowls you can sell for a penny."

Tadz chuckles: "Now we're talking. Yeah, that's good enough for me."

They scrape the pot of halušky clean before going to bed.

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