26 January 2022

Fever-Dreaming in Marlinko, part 8

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 Checker, an estranged son of a powerful mage
  • Victory Alder, a young vampire


prior | next

All over Marlinko, late morning to late afternoon

Stopping by the Chicken Scratch shop, Victory collects all the supplies that Attin has ordered yesterday and loads them on a pair of donkeys that will surely come in handy on their venture, too. Then she takes the uncooperative animals all the way back to Atiin's apartment, leaving them tied to the well railing in the yard and giving a random urchin a silver coin to keep an eye on them.

"Hey, Tadz, do you think we could pass a message to your father?" she asks as she sees him through the open door to the apartment.

As she walks further in, though, she notices that he is acting awkward - although a different kind of awkward from the fidgety paranoid seen earlier. Restrained, but still on his toes. A couple of guys, both tall and rather rough around the edges, are standing just around a corner and talking to Tadz.

"Mm-kay. You have your paperwork to fill up if you're taking the job," says one of them. He looks bored. Or tired, maybe.

"If not, the boss needs to know as soon as possible," says the other, all no-nonsense-like. "That means tonight."

Tadz nods and they leave, barely acknowledging Vic's presence at all.
"What job?" she asks Tadz after waiting for their footsteps to disappear from the stairs.

"They say Atiin was at the League HQ just the other day asking that giant handler guy for more work. I do not know the details - I don't even think they know. The only more specific thing that they told me was that Tiny Tomáš says that the big boss says 'It has to be the girl.', whatever that means.

And they left a bunch of forms for us to fill out in case we take the job. Again, no details. Basically just them disclaiming responsibility for our actions regarding any nondescript shit not previously covered by other paperwork we already signed."

"Well, that sounds like something that Atiin didn't share. Where is everybody else, anyway? No, wait! I needed to ask you something... Yeah, would it be possible to talk to your dad, or give him a message? Not that I'm really looking forward to meeting him again, but there is something he should probably have a look at."

He frowns as Vic mentions his dad. "W-why would you want to talk to him? I mean, sure, I- If you succeed in scheduling an interview with the big shot wizard at his phallic seat of power, then yeah. Good luck with that, though. He simply loooooves to remind everyone how busy he is all the time. Rosalind would prolly have a slot for you as soon as six months from now."

"I don't want to make you do anything, but... There's a chance that one of the city gods has broken free from the Tomb. Remember that crazy pantsless barbarian we saw the other day? Apparently, he cracked one of the coffins in the Tomb. Anyway, it will be nice to leave the city for a few days. The Frog Demon Temple sounds quite tame by comparison."

As much trouble as Tadz may have when listening to anything that has to do with František, Victory has his undivided attention now. When she tells him everything she knows, sans the murder, that is, he begrudgingly admits that he may be able and willing to broker a meeting with his dad.

"I don't even know if your dad could or would do something about that, though," Vic hesitates, seeing him fighting with himself to help her.

"I don't know anyone else in the town who could give it a shot, much less anyone else that would give a crap. So yeah, I think you should tell him right away." He pauses for a long few seconds, then offers a little twitchy, a little uneasy smile: "If you wish, we can go together."

"Yeah, that would be great. If you don't have something else, we can go right now."

And they do.

"Why did you go into the Tomb, anyway?" Tadz asks Victory to fill out the silence as they walk past Fraža's Brokerhouse and get just across the street from the Checkered Mage's Onion Tower. He looks so strung up he would probably resonate if strummed.

There are all sorts of stalls in the streets, everywhere where it hadn't been cleared for the racing track. Vic stops at one stall to buy some freshly baked quark buchty and also to buy a second to think. Why did she do it? Was it only a stupid, senseless, spontaneous idea born of some suppressed fascination with the Tomb?

"Frankly, I was curious about the Tomb ever since that barbarian guy went inside," she ventures eventually. "And tombs always feel so... welcoming, I guess? The door were open and waiting and, ehm, tempting me? But I might have just been a bit drunk, too," she chuckles and looks up at the Tower.

It is an imposing structure that casts its onion-domed shadow over a long stretch of the city. One could gawk at its colourful intarsias and manifold fine architectonic features for quite some time.

However, they both know they are simply nervous and stalling, so after a brief moment of more awkward silence, they cross the street and walk into the arched entryway, guarded on both sides by half a dozen statuettes of bugs. It leads up several stairs to a double ogive-shaped door crafted out of walnut wood and brass. Tadz grabs the handle and knocks twice.

Five minutes later, the heavy door opens at a narrow angle, just enough that an older, short, bespectacled and red-haired lady can stick her head out to greet them.

"Master Tadzio, I am so happy to see you!" she says, still not letting them in. "And who is your stunning friend?"

"Hi, Roz. This is Victory. Ehm, Alder. Vic, this is Rosalind, the reason dad's still alive and in good health."

Rosalind chuckles and waives dismissively towards him, blushing.

"Look, Roz, uhm," Tadz continues, "I know we don't have an appointment nor anything like that, but we gotta see dad. Vic has crossed the Tomb's threshold and... uhm, one of the town gods' vaults has been breached. One of them's missing."

Rosalind's eyes widen and she goes even paler than her naturally tanless complexion. "Come on it," she says and locks the door behind them.

The entrance hall is massive and richly decorated with tapestry from a variety of places and periods. There are multiple pieces from the second Němetzian empire, some from Kezmarok's golden century, more than a few from the time of the Ancient Pahr horselords and others that Victory cannot place at all. At the back of the hall is a large desk, with piles of books and expensive-looking writing implements neatly arranged on top of it. A crystal orb sits there as well; it lights up when Rosalind touches it.

"Yes?" resonates from the artifact in the Mage's voice.

The secretary quickly explains the situation to him. Then there's a sound like a thousand mirrors shattering, but silent, and before Tadz and Vic have any chance to even process it, their surroundings flicker and change completely. They are now standing in a lofty, well-lit library.

Stepping down from a floating disk that had been hovering along a massive bookshelf that encircles the walls is an extremely well-groomed man in his fifties. He has perfectly trimmed, greying sideburns and wears layered capes and robes with overlapping plaid patterns that should be visually busy and distracting but somehow aren't. He seems to never waste a movement or a frown unless it is imperative to do so. He comes to them and firmly shakes Vic's hand, yet shows no intention of doing the same with Tadz, whom he greets with a cold nod instead.

"Dad," Tadzio replies sourly.

František, the Checkered Mage, addresses Victory instead: "Do you give me permission to touch your head? It would greatly expedite things."

"Okay," she says, caught off-guard a bit by the sound of her own voice. This up close, with the aura of easy, unwitting power, František suddenly reminds her of her Master.

She doesn't like that thought.

"Thank you. I promise you I will not abuse it," he says as he touches her forehead with only the tips of thumb and index finger. "But it is not uncommon for some unrelated memories or fleeting thoughts to conceal or even become entangled with the ones that are of interest to..."

His train of thought is cut off by something else. It originates in Vic's mind. The image of her creator, her sire and Master. That memory of him was clear in her mind, at the top of her head. František sees it too, and pauses. A little vexed, he mutters "Not you." though more to himself than to let anyone in on his thought process.

Digging a bit deeper, he looks at something more relevant. It seems to upset him. Victory's memories from last night's delve. He reaches through them in reverse order. Or rather in a reverse jumble. He bears witness to the murder of bro-dude, yet that doesn't seem to faze him. Maybe because he's already seen the cracked vault, the silvery orbs and the floating amoeba-thing.

He stays a little longer, just to make sure there's nothing else, and looks over Vic's shoulder as she sits in the Tomb's hallway and copies the runes onto that piece of paper. He emerges with her from the Tomb and watches as she deflects that peddler's curiosity by scaring him to death. He's still with her as she gets back to their flat earlier today and it feels so much like the times when her Master went to see the Sun and the daylit Marlinko through her eyes.

He is there in the flat with Vic and Tadz. He stands in a corner and listens to their conversation, or the parts of it that Vic's mind highlights, anyway. He sees her take on Tadzio's fears and vulnerability, and with that memory comes another and another, giving him every talk she had with Tadz and her every thought on him. They are both exposed and laid bare and so helpless, and that feeling of utter helplessness conflates the mental images of the Mage and the Master. There's a dry vanity at the corner of František's mind-eye as he recognizes his own power reflected in this mirror of sorts, but he does not dwell on it. Instead, he moves on to-

Instead, Victory's mind plunges deeper into that helplessness that hides beneath the stolen calm and confidence she shouldn't have and never had while she was still a human.

There is the young seamstress who took the wrong turn and got lost in the alleyways. Once sated, Vic took the package she was carrying, a beautiful black dress probably just about to be delivered to a client. The very dress that Victory now wears.

There is the alchemist's apprentice, all bashful yet boastful when Victory had drawn him into a conversation. She recovered the few potions she now has from his body.

There is the old lady whose cab driver had to take a leak. Victory used to be so proud of her stealth at that time, as the cab continued on its marry way with a bloodless corpse inside while Vic had kept the lady's onyx cigarette holder. At first, she used the smoke to mask the smell of blood, but she grew fond of the habit.

But it was all stolen. She made herself up of stolen things and lies stacked atop each other until they started to resemble a real person. But she is not a person, was not for quite some time. And she stacks more and more lies and stolen things on top of that ever-sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach, in the vain hope that she can build herself up faster that she crumbles. In the foolish hope that there is a way how to fix-

František's grip over the inner motions of Vic's spirit is released and ceases abruptly.

She realizes that the Mage has pulled what appears to be the tail end of a lengthy string of... something from her mouth. The string is coated in this glowing slime.

"Don't worry. Nothing was subtracted from you. This is merely a copy. A document, if you will," he says but doesn't look at her. He is winding the string around a spindle.

"Wonderful. Yes. Ehm... Thank you for your time," Vic manages to say.

"The silver containers," the Mage continues, "the fact that you have them might be enough to put a target on your back."

"And why is that, dad?" Tadzio's question is basically bursting with spite. "Are you gonna rat her out to the city gods? How does that even work?"

"The orbs and the pulpit are not related to the city gods' vaults nor to the Tomb itself. The latter are the work of the most powerful arch-sorcerers among the old Pahr tribes. The former are Eld in nature. The Eld have somehow hijacked the Tomb without anyone noticing, and appear to have been hoarding whatever mystical energies they can steal from Marlinko."

He finishes winding Vic's string of memories and places it in a delicate, etched glass casket.

"We have met an Eld. Xoxx was his name. He was looking for some old artifacts, I believe," Vic hears herself say, giving a quick and concise report on the information she has and that her Master might find useful. She shudders.

"Yeah, we might want to find him," Tadz says.

"I believe the Tomb itself is now our best chance. Their tools are there, and the gate they have opened is still operative, according to your memories of earlier today. I will be taking care of that at once," the Mage says and performs a subtle gesture. There's the soundless breaking of glass again and with another flicker, all three of them are teleported to the Main Council's entrance hall, spooking the few bureaucrats hanging out in there.

"You seem to have understood how serious the situation is," František turns to Victory. "I ask you to bring me the orbs that are currently in Glamdalf's custody. If an Eld agent is scrying those, I have the means to identify and locate them. Now, if you'll excuse me, I must inform the Council of my intention to enter the Tomb."

"Fuck the Council!" Tadzio's voice reverberates throughout the entrance hall. "If you abide by their rules, you'll be stuck, still filling out paperwork by the time the Eld decide to make their next move!"

František stares, mildly disturbed by Tadzio's conspicuousness. Then he sternly reminds his son that he, the Checkered Mage, is a prominent member of the Council. Victory quickly looses track of the spiel as he start alluding to a larger philosophical debate about the eternal struggle between Law and Chaos, and how the town's laws, however flawed they may be, are a significant instrument to fend off the chaos energies perennially seeping in from the Weird. Finally, he turns and heads upstairs through the large curled staircase.

When he is out of sight, Tadz mutters: "Fuck that. I'm going in. You coming with?"

"Yes," Vic says, sounding unsure.

She hates feeling like this. Ever since her father's house had burned down and she was rid of her Master, there was this veneer of confidence and drive carrying her through. Sure, it was also tinged with bloodlust, but it kept her acting and moving and smiling. Suddenly, there are cracks in that confidence and what she only sensed and suspected was hidden below can be clearly seen through them. She cannot look at the cracks. Out of sight, out of mind, right?

"Yes," she repeats, more firmly.
They turn around and head across the Plaza. More people have gathered to watch the race as six jockeys ride their horses at full speed going from Sevrnu to Vychodi streets, therefore passing right between the Council Hall and the Tomb. The jockeys jump over a contraption of spinning serrated blades, and Vic and Tadz wait for them to pass. The people cheer and try to follow in procession.

At long last, they can circumvent the guardrails and cross the racing lane to get to the Tomb. The drunken dancers from before are still there; some of them asleep on the ground, cuddled together in couples or threes. The girl with the belts around her head is well awake now, however. She sees them coming her way and yells: "There she is! I told you I had seen her come out alive! There she is!"

The other dancers slowly wake up. The commotion attracts more attention from the procession headed to follow the race. Soon enough, there's a whole audience.

Tadz pays no heed and walks right inside.

Victory stops in front of the door to the Tomb, her back to the gathered people. She forces the smile to return to her face and soon, it feels like it's coming back on its own. She turns around and waits until she has the full attention of the crowd.

"Good citizens of Marlinko, my friends! It is indeed I who went into the Tomb of the Gods, and I have returned to tell the truth of what I've seen. And I shall tell you the whole truth, the only truth, just as I have told the great Checkered Mage himself: Our gods, the true gods of Marlinko, are not dead!

They have never abandoned us, it was us who failed them! We were tempted and led astray by the foreign priests who came to our glorious city and preached their heresies, who poisoned our minds with their sweet lies and empty promises! But the gods of Marlinko are infinite in their wisdom and mercy. They were sleeping and dreaming of things yet to come, looking out for us even as we turned our backs on them. But now, a great storm is coming to Marlinko. The gods have foreseen it and they have told me and now I tell you: A great darkness shall sweep over the land and our gods shall emerge from their tomb in our hour of greatest need!

Prepare yourself for their glorious return! Prepare yourself for their righteous judgement! The faithful shall be rewarded, while the traitors shall burn!

Go, go now, good citizens of Marlinko! Spread the word, tell everybody! Tell your families and friends of the things to come! Tell them about the glorious return of our true gods!

And everywhere you go, watch out for the devils with blue skin who walk among us. They are the strombringers, the agents of darkness. They are the enemies of the gods. Remember: Thou shall not suffer a blue devil to live!


Lies stacked upon lies, but enough lies can fill up the cracks until one feels whole again. Before any questions can be voiced, she slips into the Tomb after Tadz, hoping the fear of that place will dissuade any pursuit.

Tadz is examining the glowing amoeba, confirming what he has been told about its instincts to avoid a physical presence. He turns to Vic and says: "I've heard you. You're into this shit, aren't you? Sowing chaos."

"I guess so? There's a certain power in it, isn't it? When everything around is thrown into disarray and you're the only one who seems to know what they are doing. The same people that would normally sneer at you will suddenly listen when they are confused, lost and scared. They will do what you say as long as you can say it with confidence. I guess I really like having some power.

Anyway, the spheres and the pulpit are in the next room, behind the amoeba. You have any plan, or are we winging it?"

"Dad said something about a gate left open in this place. My guess is this is it. This ugly thing right here," he points at the amoeba. "We should at the very least try to shut it down or something. I can think of ways to trick it into not avoiding us, but I have no clue how to make it go away for good. Any ideas?"

"I might, actually. I spilled some blood on the pulpit and it enclosed it into one of the silvery spheres, plus your dad said that the spheres are hoarding energies of all kinds, right? Whatever the glowy thing is, it has some energy and it retreats when we approach it. There are two of us, we could try and manoeuvre it over the pulpit, maybe that will suck it into a sphere."

Tadz grins approvingly. It takes some time and effort, but between the two of them, they successfully herd the glowing pink formless thing towards the silver pulpit.

As that goes on, Tadz returns to the topic of chaos: "I get what you were saying, I guess. About the thrill of persuasion, of driving others to do your bidding. Maybe that is the one core experience where both law and chaos really overlap, don't you think?"

And again later, when they have the amoeba nearly to the pulpit: "Because, you see, that's what the great Checkered Mage, despite all his impressive erudition and sharp mind, gets wrong about this whole Eld situation, I think. There's this thing I've read some time ago; it had to do with morals and its relation to Law and Chaos. Well, according to the piece, there's this common misconception (among the few scholars who have heard of them, that is) that the Eld are a force of Chaos, which would mean that their ultimate nature would be aligned with the Weird. But in actuality, all their known actions point to the conclusion that they're rather-"

Tadzio's lecture is interrupted by a sudden loud humming emitted by all the spheres on the shelves at once, as well as by the pulpit itself. At this point the floating amoeba is pushed as far as a few inches away from the pulpit. Enthralled by his own words, Tadz did not really notice how close they are.

All of a sudden, the air feels electrified and staticky. The pulpit doesn't try to envelop the amoeba in silver and the amoeba doesn't flinch away from the pulpit. Instead, the whole pulpit is sucked into that strange body with a split second of flickering.

Then the humming stops and the amoeba remains there, hovering in place.

"Well, that was... unexpected? But it still probably thwarts the Eldish plans, I hope," Vic says. "Maybe we can clean all their equipment from here?"

She starts taking the spheres from the shelves and throwing them at the amoeba. Tadz quickly follows her example. The amoeba swallows the spheres without a hitch.

"And as you were saying, I have frankly never heard about the Eld until yesterday. Do you know who they are? What they are? Or what do they want here?"

"Not many people have. I know of them because they're a topic of interest of dad's and a few other scholars. As far as I can tell, certain artifacts have been found in the Weird a few generations ago. Mostly gear, but there's been talk of a wrecked ship. It was Kuuk the Vapid who named this unknown people 'the Eld'. Back in the day, dad says, the Nefarious Nine used to claim that they had fought beings wearing similar armour, wielding similar weapons. People with pointy ears and pointy heads. More recently, there's been talk of Eld activity in the Dunes to the west. And now this.

As to what they want, well, we can only speculate. The Sun Lord knows that's all those flat-arsed scholars have been doing for years. There's this energy theft theory; sounds half-baked to me. My own guess is that they abhor the Weird as much as we do. They probably think that we are part of it, same as us when we theorize about them. But as I say, it's all wild theories and nobody knows anything."

Victory smiles: "I think we should find one to have a talk, then. I wouldn't give it a high chance of them actually talking to us or telling us anything, but it's worth a shot at least. Maybe if some people bought my babbling from before, the Eld will have more trouble staying hidden now.

Which reminds me, I have talked with Steelpike about Xoxx before going to the Tomb. He basically told me he knows nothing and to stay as far away from the Eld as I can."

"Okay, I thought that came out of nowhere when you mentioned them to dad. Did Steelpike sound like he was lying about not knowing more? If so, we could press him. Probably not as urgent as destroying this thing, but... at least I'd have an idea how to go about it. Or we could try and jump into the pink blob ourselves. To test the theory that it is indeed a gate. If it is, we should be able to cross back. If it isn't, then we might end up dead. Yeah, now that I say it out loud, that's a really bad idea."

"Steelpike was really, really scared of the Eld. He might have been lying, but I think it's more likely he is doing his best not to know anything so that there's no target on his back. And I'd rather bring the others before jumping into a weird maybe-portal. Sometimes it's nice to have a backup. But what if we pushed it out of the Tomb? We can try to get it all the way into the Town Hall, then your dad or someone will have to deal with it post haste!"

"What a lovely idea," Tadz grins.

Soon, the door of the Tomb of the City Gods are opened wide and two figures can be seen herding a wobbly, semi-solid expression of pink high-dimensional energy all the way from the Tomb's entrance to the Main Council. Now the people on the Plaza are really intrigued. There is much shouting; all sorts of fears and hopes are aired around the pair, but the drunken dancers have formed a semi-circle around them, led by the belt-crowned girl, and keep the crowd at bay.

Then the guards inside the Council Hall threaten to stop Tadz and Vic, but the whole religious aura around this moment and the mass of people following seem to dissuade them from stepping in. Rather, they step back and try to regroup. The floating thing is pushed all the way upstairs.

Victory turns back to the crowd, standing above them on the stairs, and shouts: "Behold, a trial of faith! Shall the Council of Marlinko prove themselves worthy, dear citizens? Or shall they be exposed wallowing in corruption and sin?"

The dancers seem to have been waiting for just such a proclamation. They raise their own voices.

"Witness, Marlinkans!"

"The truth shall be unveiled!"

The meeting room's door are wide open. At the head of a long table stands František, and seated near him are the chief undercouncilmen of the Sullen Apiarian and the Yare Domesman districts. Jarek the Nagsman and Hurloj Kladivo are for some reason present as well.

"As you can see, gentlemen," the Mage says and motions toward the amoeba, "my reckless son has made a judgement call. I do not endorse it, but it certainly has the potential to speed things up. This is an extraordinary situation. As such, I would advise you that putting the red tape aside for a moment is the wisest course of action here."

"They have broken into the Tomb of the City Gods! This profanation has to be addressed," the Sullen Apiarian representative jumps in, also jumping up from his seat.

"The trespassers should be kept in custody for the time being, perhaps?" ventures the Yare Domesman representative, a meek red-faced man. As he speaks, his voice keeps dropping in volume and he slowly half-submerges behind the table, shaken by all the attention he got by speaking up.

Some guards have finally managed to force their way up the stairs and they stop the crowd from getting to the council room, though the entrance hall is clogged up and full of shouting.

Kladivo approaches the amoeba. He is known to be rather heavy-handed in everything he does. When he walks, he strides. When he shakes someone's hand, they better not respond with a limp handshake, or they won't be using that hand for some time. This is how he has thrived in this world. He owes it his own success, to an extent. Now, this same personal energy pushes - nay, throws the wobbly entity back. The pressure of multiple nearby people flicks the pink alien thing sideways. It rebounds from the table, then the wall, practically touching it. Then it looks like it will bounce off Jarek the Nagsman, the owner of the Tiger Pit, and continue ricocheting-

Instead of stopping short and bouncing back like before, it touches Jarek's body. It swallows him. Now you see him - flicker - now you don't.

The room falls silent.

The moment stretches on, but before the emotions have a chance to blow up, static fills the air. Victory tastes metal and the frustration of interrupted coitus. The colours in the room fade.

František shouts: "Everyone out of the building, NOW!"

The people don't move and the guards are as dumbfounded as everyone. Kladivo stares at the Mage as the latter mutters and gestures the same bit repeatedly, more and more irritated at every iteration. He suddenly nods and roars in a voice that knows no refusal: "The Mage is right, we gotta go!"

Kladivo sprints out of the room, ramming through the clogged hallway, then quickly turning to an empty side corridor.

"Dad! What's happening?"

František stops whatever he was doing and grabs Tadzio, dragging him along on his way out. The undercouncilmen follow, as does Victory.

Taking the same way as Kladivo did, they run down a secondary staircase that gets them out via the west wing. Some of the drunken dancers are still with the group. The air still feels electrified. The Mage keeps running. They get just past the Plaza when the world's colours vanish.

All sounds go away.

Victory somehow manages to hold onto a door handle as nearly everything and everyone around gets sucked into a stop-motion vortex. She sees the girl with the belt crown in mid-air, dragged back to the former Council Hall.

All sounds return and it's as if a storm has ravaged the Plaza. In the Council Hall's stead, a sore wound in reality is pulsing, a roughly vertical slit the size of two houses looming in the middle of ruins and rubble. There are people crumpled in the streets. The ones who managed to get ahold of something just in the nick of time. Many are hurt, bleeding.

Victory roams through the debris for a while. Eventually, she finds Tadz and his father. Both are shaken. Both.

"What in both Hells was that?" Vic snaps at the Mage.

"Whatever that was, it must have been triggered by something or someone on the other side. How else have you interacted with the gate?"

"We tried to get it contained by that pulpit in the Tomb. It didn't work and got sucked through."

"So master Jarek was not the first object to pass through the gate today. They have known that we know. It took you some time to get it from the Tomb to the Hall. Enough for someone on their end to take action." He pauses and rubs his temples. "But why retaliate instead of just closing it? Thus far they appeared to have had no intention to take direct violent action."

"They panicked?" Victory offers. "Feared retribution and wanted to eliminate all witnesses?"

"Where are the others? The councilmen? Kladivo?" Tadzio asks.

"Could have been accidental, could have been a move to eliminate the town's leadership," František says. "We know nothing. We're in the dark at this point. I'll go look for the representatives. You go bring Irenka to take care of the woun-"

A flicker and Tadz with Vic are standing at Irenka's porch. A simple sign by her door says 'Irenka, healer'. She needs no advertisement with the reputation she has.

"Did your dad do this to you all the time when you were living with him? Because it's seriously getting on my nerves already," Victory grumbles before knocking on the door.

"Not really. It's been a crazy day."

Irenka appears at the front door and is quickly brought up to speed. She grabs as much medicinal supplies as they can carry and then they all rush back to the Tomb Plaza. They spend the rest of the afternoon tending to the wounded.

prior | next

21 January 2022

Dirt Simple Deterministic Group Initiative

Initiative is seized by the group which

  1. has magic that lets them act first,
  2. springs an ambush (and they also get a surprise round),
  3. can see clearly while the others can't,
  4. has already drawn their weapons while the others didn't,
  5. has weapons of longer reach.

Resolve in the given order.

If none of the above settles initiative, then it's a matter of luck and circumstances. Both sides roll a die and the higher result wins, with ties going to the PCs.

Ambush goes before light, so you don't need to
give away your location with torches.
From here.

Ambush is the (second) best for securing initiative and winning the fight before it has even begun, so that should push the players to never fight fair. Good.

Number three mostly applies when only one group has a light source or means of magical vision. Light is vital in the dungeons.

Natural weapons and maybe a dagger hidden in your sleeve can be always considered drawn.

Number four together with five lets you rush archers that are not ready to fire, but otherwise you should take cover. Also spears and polearms get a little buff.

19 January 2022

Fever-Dreaming in Marlinko, part 7

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 Checker, an estranged son of a powerful mage
  • Victory Alder, a young vampire


Banana Slug Bounty by Molly Reusser


prior | next

The Tomb of the Town Gods, night

The interior of the featureless black cube is just as black and featureless. The rock itself appears seamless - almost like it was poured concrete or cut from a single chunk, rather than constructed by block. A deathly quiet hangs over the empty central hall, dominated by five immense stone doors, sealed and covered in glyphs. The only illumination is offered by the scant flicker of the bro-dude's torch and a fluctuating pink glow at the back end of the hall.

The guy jumps a little when the door behind him slams shut. He didn't see that Victory pushed it close. She nudges him forward.

"What is it?" she whispers.

The glow is coming from an amoeba-like form floating silently in place. It doesn't seem to register the two intruders at all.

But the bro-dude is just standing there, shuddering instead of moving. In fact, he is starting to lean a little too much on Vic and when she tries to take a step forward, he shies away and stumbles, sending them both to the floor.

Their fall echoes across the hall.

The torch rolls out of the guy's grasp, sputtering and throwing deep shadows everywhere.

"You're useless, aren't you?" Vic hisses as she pushes him off of her.

He starts to say something, but the words die on his lips as he sees a dagger in Vic's hand.

She cuts his throat.

Halfway standing up, he staggers and clutches his neck, trying to get the bleeding to stop. Red bubbles come out of his lips instead of a scream of terror, but Vic grabs his hair and drives her blade into the base of his skull. His limbs go limp and a spray of arterial blood paints a red angel-like silhouette in brisk, abstract strokes on the dark floor.

Vic kneels by him and laps up the last beats of his heart.

Satisfied and in a much better mood, she goes through his pockets. Nothing really interesting, save for a letter from his parents agreeing to send him more money for his studies.

However, when Victory turns her attention to the five enormous doors, she realizes that they are actually huge coffins embedded in the walls. The last one, though, is no longer safely sealed shut. In front of this coffin lie small crumbs and shards of black stone; they are consistent with the cracks and disruptions on the otherwise smooth borders of the lid and wall around it. That door has been pried opened, just barely.

Taking the fallen torch, Vic peers into the cracked coffin. She can barely make out more glyphs perfectly carved into the inner walls of this narrow yet still massive chamber - a coffin for a giant. There's nothing inside, so Vic snatches one of the black shards from the floor, at least.

Curious, she then also approaches the flying amoeba. Like a bubble of oil mixed in water, it seems to be immediately pushed away by Vic's proximity. It slides back through the air, then keeps wobbling in its new place. Although now that it's further back, its glow reveals an access point to another room.

Giving the amoeba a wide berth to keep it from flying around, Vic walks through a short corridor to what appears to be a study room or workspace of some sort. There is a pulpit at the centre and unusually thin "shelves" lining the walls, perfect silvery spheres floating above them. This room is also too far from the entrance to still fit within the Tomb of the Town Gods.

Unlike the whole rest of the Tomb, the pulpit (and the shelves) is not made of black stone, but rather some sort of immaculate, perfectly polished metal, of the same silvery hue as the floating spheres. The pulpit has a few very precise indentations of uncertain purpose, long straight double lines that stem from the base of each side and elegantly spread in opposite directions at the top. A faint sunlight frames a rectangular window high up at the ceiling of this room, even though it should be pitch black outside.

Vic comes closer to the shelves and as she holds her hand out closer to the spheres, she can feel faint vibrations in the air, a constant humming sound just below the normal human hearing range. The spheres remind her of something... Something she has seen? Where has she seen them before?

She grabs one sphere. It's cool to the touch and surprisingly normal. Just a ball of metal.

Undeterred, she takes out the bottled blood of a hruz-head from the night before and spills it all over the pulpit. Instantly, the top of the table becomes liquid metal, as if it were a lake's surface just disturbed by the blood spilled. The waves slowly coalesce into silvery liquid tendrils that wrap around the blood, pooling it into the centre and forming a silvery sphere that solidifies and starts floating above the once again immaculate and undisturbed pulpit.

Vic takes the orb, making sure not to touch the metallic surface beneath it.

With no more room and no secrets or treasures to be found, Vic returns to the grand coffins to have a better look at their engravings. Much of the writing is comparable to Old Pahr, but the notation seems more angular, more formal, perhaps. Vic doesn't understand a word, but maybe Atiin could, so she takes the letter from the bro-dude's pocket - blank on the flip side - and uses his blood as an ink and her hairpin as an improvised quill.

There's a lot of writing, but Vic is patient and doesn't need to sleep.


The Golden Swine district, morning
It's just past seven o'clock and the Great Race has already started. There are guardrails installed on each side of certain streets and traps at specific corners and junctions where the competitors will have to evade them. Many a horde of hungover party-goers pass by Atiin as he shuffles down these streets. A bunch of kids crosses the street, unwilling to walk by a crumpled figure noisily vomiting on a street corner.

Atiin does a double take when the figure waves at him. Yeah, it really is Ed.

"This morning I feel like death instead of just looking it," Ed says. "Hope you're having a better morning than I-ahh, eugh, bleurgh!"

Atiin takes a step back and leans on the wall. "Could always be better. What happened to you? Wanna get your taste buds refreshed in a bar?"

"I would say if I could remember. I... have that image... like a dream or something... dozens of others with holes eaten into their flesh by the disease... same as me, like a hidden pandemic, or... Oh crap, I think Jackass was supposed to have that duel! And I'm his second!"

He staggers to his feet and with Atiin's help, actually manages not to slump back into the pool of sick.

"I should prolly rush back to - eugh - Kytel's," he adds.

Atiin sighs and grabs Ed's arm to support him. "Okay, let's go."

On their way to Kytel's abode, they have to take detour after detour to avoid all the traps set up for the Great Race riders, some already sprung and bloodied. When a set of barbed wire hurdles makes them go though a particularly dark alley instead, they suddenly hear a wet noise from the shadows, like someone making fart sounds with their mouth. Then a moan of pain and a scrannel male voice calling: "'uuhy! O'er 'ere!"

"What the..." Atiin stops and stares.

It's Littlest Pavol. He looks desperate. Doesn't take a genius to see that it is due to the fact that his tongue is abnormally swollen, involuntarily sticking out of his mouth and preventing him from speaking in any intelligible manner.

"Whoa, ugh... Take it easy man," Atiin rushes to him, leaving Ed propped against a stack of crates.

At least Littlest Pavol is not choking, it seems. However, the problem is not merely that his tongue is swollen; rather it looks like it took a life of its own, as it has turned into a large slug, complete with eye-stalks and what appears to be the tiniest little mouth. It attempts to communicate independently of Littlest Pavol's protestations, by means of this super high-pitched, barely audible honking sound.

"Your tongue is a snail!" Atiin screams. Then a thought strikes him: "Perhaps, ummm, should we use that syringe and extract from it like you did last night?"

"I 'ow 'y 'ongue ish a 'ail. Ee' wantsh 'o 'reak 'ree 'rom 'y 'outh! Ohh ee' 'uurrtsh!" Littlest Pavol says.

"Oh, ehm, let's take you to a doctor," Atiin grabs him and picks him up from the ground.

He goes to grab Ed again, too, but Edward pushes his hand away: "No, I... gotta get to the duel. Good luck, I guess?"

He starts down the alley, an arm extended and fingers tracing along the wall for stability.

Atiin drags Littlest Pavol the other way, to one Doctor Franz he's heard some talk about. This guy is a barber-surgeon not yet thirty years old, purportedly a dropout from the Němec University. He's dressed in a greasy night robe and slippers when he answers the incessant pounding at his door.


Atiin points at Littlest Pavol: "He can explain it better than I."

He lets them in and half an hour goes to waste as Littlest Pavol utterly fails to explain what happened to him while that bloated thing stuck in his mouth peeps and honks. Occasionally, the slug seems to parrot a word or two from Pavol, filtering it through its high-pitched, squeaky nuisance of a voice. Somehow, it is getting clearer and more enunciated with every word it manages to say, though.

"Well," Doctor Franz finally interrupts, "I wouldn't know what to suggest in this case. I mean, I've heard rumours that a couple of security guys in the Temple of Revoc have experienced a similar malady. They too are said to have consumed the hruz paste, so... uhm. I don't know what to say, really."

He stands up and walks to his medicine cabinets, then beckons Atiin to come closer. There he leans close and whispers: "Look, this guy here, he's Kladivo's son, isn't he? I will tell you this, I will not risk my neck performing surgery on him. All I can really do for him is cut this thing out and cauterize it. That will leave him tongueless. Brilliant. What do you think will happen to me next? How long do you think it will take for his dad to come after me?"

"But he can't go to his dad like this broken junkie now, can he?" Atiin mutters. "Could you bleed it? Weaken the snail somehow or perhaps salt and boil it so the snail dies but the tongue remains? Perhaps more hruz? Medicinally, I mean. It could cause the snail to grow enough that it leaves of its own volition. Yeah, I don't know. We are paying customers and he needs his tongue. You figure it out."

The doctor looks momentarily pained as he makes the decision not to get paid, but that's what it takes to not have Littlest Pavol as his customer and his problem.

"No. I can't," he says. "I can't afford rubbing Hurloj Kladivo the wrong way. Just... Please leave and don't ever mention this visit to anyone. You were never here."

He stomps to the door and holds them open.

"Wah?" Littlest Pavol pipes up, followed by a peep from the slug. "Wah a'out 'y 'ongue?"

"Give me a cloak!" Atiin orders the doctor.

"Wha- a cloak? Why?"

"He can't just walk around looking like this, people will recognize him and ask questions. He needs a disguise!"

Doctor Franz hesitates for a moment before handing Atiin a dark plague doctor's cloak. Atiin throws it around Littlest Pavol's shoulders and then helps him stand up, to get him out of there and find some actual help.


The Tomb Plaza, very early morning
Standing before the closed door out of the Tomb, Victory takes a deep, steadying breath. She makes sure to stow away all her possessions and especially her dagger. She dishevels her clothes a bit and puts on a properly shell-shocked expression. Then she steps outside.

It's still dark, maybe another hour before sunrise, and a dozen drunkards dance in a circle around the Tomb. Thankfully, they are really drunk and turn a corner without paying attention to anything and anyone. Except for the last in the line, that is, a young woman wearing a makeshift crown made of belts. She has a bottle of slivovitz in hand and a mixed expression stamped on her face - of exhaustion and alcohol-soaked joy, but now that she sees Vic emerge from the Tomb, also awe.

She just stares, but a nearby peddler who was just about to call it a night notices, too. After a second of unbelieving silence, he exclaims: "Oh my Celestial Mother! SHE IS OUT! SHE CAME OUT!"

His voice carries throughout the mostly empty plaza.

Vic fights to keep a spaced out expression on her face and tries to just walk away. If she can get to some smaller side street, she can get lost without attracting a crowd of gawkers.
But the peddler gets in her way: "Are- are you alright, miss? You lookin' pale. I- I think you should have a sit. No! Maybe see a physician first of all." He grabs her arm, now insistent. "Here, come with me! I'll take you to see a priest, I mean, a physician!"
"No!" Vic says. She thinks back to the time with her Master. To the way he talked, because when he talked, people listened and believed. She tries for that, for his tone and way of speaking, when she continues: "The priests, the Sun, they have lied to us. They have come to us uninvited, they told us that our gods are dead."

She leans close to him, stage-whispering right to his face: "The old gods are not dead! They are watching us, they are watching over us. They shall return, and when they do, they shall judge us all. The faithful shall be rewarded, while the traitors shall burn!" She glances back at the Tomb, then turns back to him, wide-eyed. "Tell everybody! Tell them about the deception of the Sun! Tell them about the glorious return of the true gods!"

Finally, she pushes him back: "Go! Go now and tell everybody! They shall return! I have to go and tell my family, now!"

He scats, leaves his cart behind and runs.

Vic hides a little smile as she leaves the town square unharassed and takes the back streets to the apartment.

As she gets home, though, she is welcomed by a shaken Tadz. He is lurking in a dark corner of what passes for their living room and brandishes a kitchen knife.

"Godling's crap! You scared me shitless!" he runs to her and slams the door shut. "Have you been followed here? Did you see anyone suspicious out there?"

"I hope not and I did not. What's happening?"

"Word in the streets is that the Free League has found a buncha bodies in a slum apartment just behind the Undercouncil Hall. Sounds familiar?"

"Who told you that? As far as I know, nobody saw anything, nobody remembers who was there, they can link nobody. And by tomorrow afternoon, we should be on our merry way to the Frog Demon Temple, letting things cool down a bit."

"Oh, I'm telling you, shit's getting serious. I have heard the news from the landlord - fucking Mr. Gorz, of all people." Tadz starts pacing, nearly jogging in circles around the room. "He stopped me by the stairs to mention that some League people were asking questions around the neighbourhood. Now, when I asked Gorz if they approached him, he gave me some vague shit, went all like 'things sometimes can get a bit rowdy in this building, can't they?' Fucking prick," he gestures with the knife. "He knows something, might have seen or heard something, is what I'm thinking."

"As I said, we will be gone for the next few days, stuff will blow over."

Vic grabs his hands and eases the knife out of them, pressing a cigarette in them instead. "Here, have a smoke."

Hands shaking, he lights it on a candle. Vic also has one and then another, sitting there with Tadzio as he slowly calms down.
They talk and the Sun rises and it strikes Vic that Tadz doesn't fear getting caught as such. He fears what his father will say when he finds out. At a distance, a series of flintlock shots announces the start of the Great Race. People cheer, hoofs hit the ground in a syncopated cadence. The city settles to its normal activities, though many people are gathering around pre-established points peppered along the racing lane to watch the competitors run by.

Somehow, it is almost calm, the storm still on the horizon.


Kytel's Abode, late morning
The breakfast is delicious, but the mood has soured a bit when Kytel brought up yet another snag brought about by the duelling rules. His fingers are drumming at the cover of The Art of Properly Duelling and he clears his throat for the third time this minute, embarrassed and exasperated with himself.

As it turns out, according to the Proper Rules of Duelling, accepting a duel where part of the agreement is a transferral of money is straight out of the question, as it would stop being a gentlemanly duel and become simple work instead, or even worse, a bet. And working, let alone gambling, is neither gentlemanly nor Proper.

"I really should have known," Kytel says, "before opening the door to this preposterous monstrosity, duelling for money! I'm so sorry I strung you along."

He clears his throat again and then bolt upright, his chair nearly falling over.

"If you'll excuse me," he says, "I- I need to find a solution."

And he stalk off, leaving Jack and Auntie Mimi sitting in awkward silence.

She lets a few seconds pass and when Kytel is safely out of earshot, she says: "Do not worry about it. I know you need the money and I will cover the gold regardless of how the duel turns out. When he comes back, tell him that you wish to do it for your honour or something silly of the sort. What matters is that he will have his chance to do what he loves for once, you know? Kytel is so precious to me, and he has given up so much to stay behind and take care of me. He deserves to have things go his way for a change."

Jackass starts smiling and then he nods. When Kytel returns, Jack stands up: "You! I have never really intended to duel you for money! That was all just a test of your gentlemanly fortitude, and you passed! However, I do feel mightily insulted that you would string me along and then let me hang! Therefore, master Kytel, I challenge thee to a duel for this affront! What says thee?!"

Kytel's expression turns to worry, then puzzlement, then realization, which lifts up the gloom and gives room to a smirk. The smirk grows to be a proper, tender smile, and the unexpected bursting out of laughter. Soon enough, all three of them are laughing together. Before they can say much more, Edward barges in, overflowing with apologies for his tardiness.

They finish the breakfast and consult Kytel's book for the proper arrangements for a duel. From now on, the two rivals' seconds, Edward and Mimi, are in charge of all their affairs. The contenders must cut off all communication between them, so they sit in the smoking room in silence, sharing a bottle of good brandy.

Auntie Mimi is having a great time having to pretend to be all serious and diplomatic. Being the proxy for the challenged party, she has the right to pick the ground. She proposes that the duel should take place outside the city's southern gate, on the bridge near the menstrual huts.

Edward gets to choose the time. "High noon has always struck me as a good time for duels."

"I will consult with master Kytel and will be back with an answer as soon as possible," Auntie Mimi bows and excuses herself. As she turns around, she can't help but giggle at her own silliness.

But of course today's noon is fine. Kytel cannot wait any longer. The theatrics must be abided by, though.

"Thus it shall be. A duel of honour, to the first blood," Auntie Mimi extends a hand.

"Thus it shall be," Edward replies and shakes her hand.

She grabs him and secretly passes him the pouch of promised gold, all hush-hush, wink-wink. Then she bids farewell to Ed and retires to her quarters, humming a Němetzian song.
Jackass finishes his glass of brandy and leaves the house without a word, Ed a single step behind him. Their exit is mightily dramatic.

Kytel is left alone, brimming with happy and excited nervousness.


The House of the Nine, morning
A pigeon watches Victory intently as she comes to the fence and whistles. Then a magic mouth sprouts from the wall to her left: "Oh, it's you, early bird. Wait a sec, I'm sending Leland to buzz you in."

A minute later, the familiar gust of wind allows her to hop over to the other side. Down in the basement, Glamdalf is drinking coffee, still in his underwear.

"You're not one to sleep in, eh?" he says.

"I'm not one to sleep, really. And I would never guess that you like animal pattern underpants," Victory winks.

"Hah! Yeah, that's pretty much all that's left from my glam period," he chuckles.

"You mentioned yesterday that you might be interested in something from the Frog Demon Temple and I hope we're leaving today. Plus I have a few things that you might like to have a look at, or I might like you having a look at."

She empties her satchel on the table, revealing the shard of black rock, the two silvery spheres, the copied symbols from the Tomb and also the amphora stolen from the Undercouncil Hall.
"You've been busy, I see," he says casually, then: "Holy shit!"

He scans over the goods, focusing on the copied symbols more than on anything else.

"Where did you get this? Don't tell me that..." he raises an eyebrow, likely already guessing the answer.

"I kinda found myself inside of the Tomb of the City Gods tonight. These symbols were inscribed on the coffins inside. They seem similar to Old Pahr, but what do I know? This rock is a shard from one of the coffins that was cracked open, and the silvery spheres were lying on a shelf near some strange table-thing. Well, one was. The other was created when I spilled some blood over the pulpit. What are they?

Oh, and there was a glowing amoeba thingy. Quite shy, frankly.

And the amphora is from elsewhere. Seems magical, so maybe you would know what's inside?"

Victory is talking quickly and loudly now, and smiling unwittingly. Somehow, she is so excited. Glamdalf looks worried in his animal pattern underpants.

Following a long pause, he crosses his arms and rests his chin on his hand: "Kiddo, I was afraid you were gonna tell me just that. 'Cause, you know, it does not come as a surprise that you were looking for trouble inside the Tomb, given your big ask yesterday."

He pauses again, then waives a piece of paper: "Now, uhm, this is a containment spell. Powerful, powerful stuff. Kinda beyond my pay grade, to be honest. Wheew. Okay. Okay," he takes a deep breath. "Let me see if I got it right. You said this is from the coffins, which makes sense. But did I hear you say that one of the coffins was found unlocked?"

When Vic nods, he holds the fragment of black stone between his index finger and thumb, examining it closely.

"If that is true, I believe I don't need to spell it out for you what it means, right? One of the gods is out in the open." Then it hits him what he just said. "O- o- o- or maybe it isn't. It better not be. Pray that it isn't. Uhm, shit. Okay, okay, okay. Okay. Tell me more about this amoeba thing."

He continues to examine the wealth of evidence Victory brought, nodding as she describes the glowing, floating, retreating shape. He seems to be doing a pretty good job at multitasking, in fact; taking notes, consulting old tomes, collating all sorts of information at once. He calls for Leland on occasion, and when he does the wind responds to his instructions.
"-because of the pantsless barbarian that had broken into the Tomb just two days prior, I think? I guess the cracked coffin doors might be related? Oh, the coffin was cracked, not unlocked," she finishes.

"Yeah, yeah. I've heard about the barbarian. But since those kinds of tall tales of people venturing into the Tomb are getting so old by now, I paid it no mind. I should have known that something was afoot, though, or my pubic hair would not be this bristly." His forehead is all wrinkled and creased now, all his former levity gone. "But I can't be the only one feeling these weird vibes. Isn't it odd that the big shots haven't done anything yet? Like the Checkered Mage, for example. If anyone can do anything about this level of batshit cosmic mess, it's him."

"So, what would you say is the chance that nothing bad will happen if we just ignore the problem and let the Checkered Mage or somebody else handle it? Because this is frankly way, way over my head," Victory asks.

"Letting somebody else handle this level of fuckery is the code I live by, so you know you'll get no judgement from me. On the other hand, these things have a way of escalating quickly." He seems momentarily lost in thoughts. "I think you should keep your ear to the ground, 'cause this might blow up in all of our faces sooner than later. And I appreciate you coming to me with this first hand. I can now - I don't know - plan ahead, I guess. Might have to even get the hell outta this town to avoid being here, just standing in the epicentre of whatever is brewing."

"Yeah, I'll do that. Which reminds me, you needed something from the Frog Demon Temple?"

"Yeah. That. Wow. So much all of a sudden on my plate, I had completely forgotten about that." He puts the notes and books and paraphernalia aside. "It should be simple enough. I would like you to map the place. Take notes, do the boring cartographer's job. I'd appreciate it immensely. Would you know how much to charge for your troubles on that particular front?"

"For intel? Hm, I'm thinking no money, but rather magic item identification for life. Which would also, by the way, mean that you get first dibs on any magic stuff I want to sell. What do you say?"

"Deal," he smile and shakes her hand. "For as long as I'm around, you can bring me the good stuff and I will do my best to assess it. Starting with these, I suppose." He gathers the silver orbs and amphora from the table. "Give me a few hours and I'll tell you what these trinkets can do."

"Great! I'll be back later, then."

And she leaves him to it, thanking Leland for hoisting her over the fence again.


Near the City Gates, late morning
On their way to the next 'doctor' that Atiin knows of, he and Littlest Pavol get a glimpse of the Great Race riders as their horses gallop their way down the street. Looks like the Golden Swine district is looking at another sure win this year.

"Eh, Athhhn," Littlest Pavol suddenly stops Atiin and points at the tavern they are just passing by, called The Flaming Goat. "'etsff 'oo 'ore 'rugs, 'oundff 'ood?"

"Huh, whatever man," Atiin says, dumbstruck.

He lets Littlest Pavol push him towards the entrance: "Onfffe een thffere, afffk pfffor Pfffaprlpfawa. Pffay thfat you wanwa buy pffockff."

"Sure, sure," Atiin says and goes in, then catches the first serving boy he sees: "Hey, got any sarsaparilla?"

"Don't know anyone by that name, sir," the barefoot boy answers dismissively and keeps sweeping the floor.

Atiin blinks slowly. "I'm here to buy the stuff. Your stock. Sweet, sweet sugar, eh?"
The boy stops sweeping the floor and stares at Atiin instead. Then he turns to the kitchen and screams: "Farfalla, there's a guy here. Says he wants to buy socks!"

A loud female voice answers from two or three rooms away coming from that direction: "Is he armed?"

The boy studies Atiin carefully. "You got anything?"

"A gun and a knife."

"A gun and a knife," the boys yells down the corridor.

The female voice replies: "Tell 'im to put it all in the box!"

The boy drops the broom on the floor, goes behind the counter and comes back with an empty fruit box. "Here, sir. You heard the lady."

When Atiin complies, the boy lets him into the corridor, which connects the kitchen to a few other rooms. The female voice's source is in the last room - a short-haired, scrawny woman wearing a yellow dress and tons of imitation jewellery.

"So, how many socks would you like to purchase?" she asks without ever looking at Atiin directly.

"I have four friends, how much do you think we will need?"

"Well, that depends. If you're in a time crunch and will, uhm, need to change socks before you go to work or something like that, I have these." She lifts a tarp, discreetly showing him a bunch of flasks labelled 'juice'. "But if you prefer to, as they say, get your feet warm, then I recommend you these." She lifts another tarp, showing a thick glass box full of living slugs. "Some precautions are in order before you put them on, but I believe you, uhm, know how it works. I'm not gonna tell you how you are to wear your socks. Anyway, these are two hundred a piece. The other ones are forty for a bottle. If you have four friends, you already know how many you'll need. Unless sharing the same pair of socks is your thing."
Atiin scratches him neck. "Any first time buyers rate? If you are sure of your product it should be a cinch I come back."

It takes a while of Atiin smiling at her sweetly and her glaring somewhere over his shoulder before she lets out a deep sigh. "Fine. Sure. Why not. First time buyer's rate. Well, how much d'you have?"

"Hundred and fifty. I'm hoping for two snails and maybe one of those fast potions?"

"That'll be enough for one of those at best," she points at the slugs, scowling. "Or you can have three bottles for a hundred, but that's that. A woman's gotta make a profit."

"One snail, one drink?" Atiin basically drips sugar with his smile.

"Oookay. Here," she rolls it into a sheet of old newspaper. "But be aware that this is a one-time deal. Next time, better have the coin on you."

"I promise I'll be back," Atiin says.

He retrieves his belongings on the way out. Cloaked Littlest Pavol is waiting nervously on a corner, halfway hiding in an alley.

"Got it," Atiin shows him. "Maybe we watch the race from a rooftop or something while we slurp this snail?"
Littlest Pavol snatches the bottle from Atiin, nods happily, wipes the drool from his own snail-tongue and takes a deep gulp of the philtre. The snail tongue is kinda singing a squeaky song as he stops drinking.

"Except we need, like, cooking supplies, right?"

"'on't yoh 'aaff pffotff a' your pfflacffe? We cffould, wike, gwo chffill thffere."

"I have a bunch of room-mates and they are pretty judgemental."

"Bffummwer. Wellw, 'ow abffoutff we gwo chffeckff thffuh swum outffide tffown?"

"Up to you, man."

Littlest Pavol heads outside of the south gate, where most homeless people and the really really shitty slums are. On the way there his mood appears to improve somewhat. He's quite chatty, but unfortunately very little of what he's saying comes across, given his current condition. Something about not many known faces there where they're going, maybe?

He knows his way about this place of tents and trash. He gives a hobo a few silver pieces, and the hobo immediately vacates his tent so that Atiin and Littlest Pavol can use it for privacy. Cooking implements are included, if quite dented and dirty.

As Littlest Pavol starts to prepare the snail, Atiin sips from the flask and watches. He's not really sure what he's doing with this guy he should be killing for Eliška yet who's becoming more like a homie, but it feels all right for now.

When Littlest Pavol offers him the warm hruz, he declines: "Holding off on it for a while. I had a real bad trip last time. I'll stay to something weaker for today," he says and cradles the bottle.

His arms and legs slowly loose their discreteness, even if that makes no sense. Atiin knows he's tripping, because he can see that his body hasn't changed, yet it feels like it has mashed itself together into one single squishy, cosy blob. Incidentally, Littlest Pavol has finished all of the hruz by himself and is sticking out his gross snail-tongue and pointing it in Atiin's general direction.

"Fuck off," Atiin cackles and smacks it away.
Both Littlest Pavol and the snail-tongue cry in pain. The latter one sounds like a tiny weeping fart that just keeps going.

"Sorry man. Thought the drugs would have, like, helped. They made it worse or something?"

The tongue recoils for an instant and then tries to lick Atiin once more.

"Whoa, back off, man! What is your snail doing?"

Littlest Pavol mumbles something incomprehensible, but his gestures make clear it was: "I have nothing to do with it!"

Atiin crawls back as the tongue flails around and fart-peeps. He pulls out his green, bejewelled knife stolen from the Undercouncil Hall.

"Aww-right, calm down. This knife is magic! I'm thinking we give the tongue a poke and get rid of your problem without hurting you too badly, okay?"

"Oh 'uck! Wot 'ee 'it fftayff wimp fffowevuh? Wo' a'out mah caweer?"

"That's why we are doing this, but no guarantee it'll work. Also we don't want this snail getting to your brain."

Littlest Pavol blinks slowly, his eyes hazed over slightly, and Atiin starts smiling way too wide, both due to the drugs and his weird jaw.

"O'ay," Littlest Pavol says eventually, hesitant. "'ee 'yentwe, pffweasze."

He leans forward, closes his eyes. The snail thrashes about more and more, peeping and squeaking, until the tiny fart-voice becomes utterly clear all of a sudden. In its annoyingly high pitch it intones:

"Light the first light of evening, as in a room
In which we rest and, for small reason, think
The world imagined is the ultimate good.

This is, therefore, the intensest rendezvous.
It is in that thought that we collect ourselves,
Out of all the indifferences, into one thing:

Within a single thing, a single shawl
Wrapped tightly round us, since we are poor, a warmth,
A light, a power, the miraculous influence.

Here, now, we forget each other and ourselves.
We feel the obscurity of an order, a whole,
A knowledge, that which arranged the rendezvous.

Within its vital boundary, in the mind.
We say God and the imagination are one...
How high that highest candle lights the dark."

"Oh Sun Lord," Atiin sputters out and stabs.

A lilac-coloured ooze gushes out of the wound in Littlest Pavol's mouth. He gurgles on it and falls backwards, eyes bulging and wild. Atiin crouches there, freaked out and harrowed-looking, and Littlest Pavol fumbles for the cooking pot and swings it at him, catching him painfully in the shoulder. The snail tongue is visibly hanging from Littlest Pavol's mouth, completely limp.

They both try to get away and dismantle the tent in the process. It all collapses on them, entangling them in filthy tarp. Littlest Pavol is screeching in pain and fear and confusion. Atiin cannot see and cannot move and keeps stabbing at the tarp, panicked.

After what must have been only a few seconds, though it felt so, so much longer, Atiin manages to cut a hole through the tarp and extricate himself. His knife glows bright green and the figure still under the tarp is no longer moving.

Hobos all around are looking and gasping, some of them yelling for help. They are not really inclined to come any closer to the man with a glowing knife, but a few curious ones form a circle around Atiin and the crumpled tent.

Finally, one of them steels herself and, keeping a wary eye on the shocked and stock-still Atiin, pulls away the tarp. Everyone recoils in horror at the sight of a completely faceless corpse. The body that once was Littlest Pavol is still wearing his clothes, streaked with a combination of red and lilac blood, but his face has been replaced with smooth, featureless flesh with the faintest tinge of green.

At the nearby gate, the guards seem to have finally taken notice of the ruckus. They're coming to investigate.

Atiin runs.

prior | next