The Culling Season | IC thread

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    Father Gormsten’s last sermon, delivered just before toppling from his pulpit and passing through the Last Door: “The world is ending, though few lend such thoughts credence. Great powers seek to sweep the board clean, I have seen it! For centuries mankind has persevered, offered its foes cold steel, held fast in its faith, and bared its teeth toward adversity. As the new moon waxes, however, shrill voices echo throughout the night and fear cloaks people’s minds, blunts their courage. They are no fools, I say. It is right to fear. Watch your neighbours and fellow men and women, for the enemy lies within. No walls shall keep it out. The world is ending, and soon this will be a charnel-town, drowning beneath the malignant shadow of evil.”

    IC information:
    Fear, anger and suspicion grip the town of Gramheim as more and more people go missing or are found gutted on street corners. There are increasing reports of the most heinous crimes committed with gleeful violence and defiled remains strung up on facades, lantern posts or strapped to statues in morbid mimicry. The burgomeister himself has vanished without a trace, his left hand bearing the city’s signet ring the last clue as to his whereabouts. The interim government has called on the Count for help, but no answer has come. So far the aldermen have proven signally impotent, unable to deal with the growing chaos. Citizens bar their homes before nightfall and stand guard in shifts, mindful of their families and belongings

    There is talk of the supernatural, of curses and witches, vampires and werewolves. Others believe one or more serial-killers are the cause of the calamity that has befallen Gramheim, whereas there are still those who maintain to be blissfully ignorant and dismiss the concerns and rumours as idle gossip. After all, what delusional mind would believe in something as ridiculous as corpses shambling through the alleys or vicious packs of beasts? Graves emptied? Surely the work of grave-robbers. Howling in the night? Mongrels and mutts fighting for scraps.

    Atrocities happen nightly. Strange markings are found on walls, claw marks on doors and shutters, archaic scripture painted in blood on signs. Concerned for mass hysteria, the City Watch has devoted more effort to silencing these vile acts rather than hunting down those responsible for the murderous tide that sweeps through Gramheim’s cobbled streets and bloodies the gutters. Things have nevertheless gotten so much out of hand that no matter what labour dedicated to hiding the bedlam is sufficient.

    However, even in the darkest of times, there are always heroes to be found – sometimes in the unlikeliest of places. As Gramheim cowers and tears itself apart, some champions are united by capricious fate. There is strength in working together, but whom can one trust in times as these? It remains to be seen whether these would-be heroes, have what it takes to survive, let alone find out what evil is behind these disappearances and killings.
    OOC information:
    Located on the south bank of the river Gram, the town serves as a regional capital and trading hub. Famous for its stockyards, where the great cattle drives end in the heat and stink of a Gramlander summer. For several days, the streets are filled with livestock being brought to market and retainers of the cattle lords eager to spend their pay. The Gramheim City Watch often hires more help during this time to keep at least some control over the "celebration". The stockyards are near the docks where the slaughterhouses and abbatoirs are located, so the cut meat can be salted, cured and loaded onto barges for easy transportation downriver. Recently, a cabal of merchants has begun experimenting with ice brought from the mountains and kept magically cool, to keep the meat fresh during transportation. The Salter's Guild of Gramheim, fearful for a loss in profits, in turn has threatened violence if the experiment continues.

    Even though the town is growing more unsafe, business must go on. It is the culling season, and the great cities down the Gram River are not going to supply themselves in terms of beef and pork. During the day charlatans and wizards make golden deals, though there is quite some risked involved in their trade. Not all luck-charms or protective wards work. Paying for a bundle of crow-bones from a street wizard is stupid and dangerous. Trying to cheat one’s customers is even more so. The people of Gramheim might be scared, but they are angry too. Knives are drawn much faster these days, and swindlers never stay in town long. These unexplained crimes form the perfect opportunity for a variety of accounts to be settled.

    Link to the OOC (includes character sheets, rules and additional information)
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  2. Flicking away the whickered bottle, a last lurch at its mouth, he shouldered his pack and followed the main street to the town’s square. There appeared to be no system to its manure-reeking streets, instead it was a wild collection of twists and turns until suddenly he arrived at a cobbled square. Gargoyles hung from several facades, the town houses there clearly owned by the wealthier merchants. He trudged on, down a side-lane and towards the docks where the cobblestones eventually gave way to a muddy, grimy ditch that had to masquerade for a street.

    Winter was coming soon, already doing battle with the end of autumn. There was already strength in its frosty fingers. The winter season was stubborn in Gramland, and tended to outstay its welcome every year. At night temperatures plummeted, leaving the puddles in the road frozen over, and the cobblestones slippery with ice. The ground lay hard as bones come dawn, and the fattened cows and pigs herded through the streets complained loudly when ushered into their pens at the quays. Some broke their legs on the way over, and were slaughtered on the spot, their meat sold at the morning market.

    Men wrapped themselves heavily against the encroaching bites of frost and looked at the grey skies in anticipation of the snows and deep winter. Afterwards would come the Gramlander short spring and even shorter summer. Families huddled together around flickering fires, mindful of the infringing shadows. Folk said it was during the longest nights in midwinter that the Wild Hunt rode out in force. Everyone had grown up with the tales of the spectral riders racing through the air, devils swooping down to steal souls and children. They were told, time and again, memories of an ancient era passed into myth. Yet, there were rumours now that those ancient memories were not simply that, but forgotten truths come back to haunt Gramheim.

    Little to no work could be done on the poor fields any longer, and the countryside was empty but for the murders of crows and solitary coal-burners or shepherds. The culling season had begun, and no hands could be spared from the cattle business. Slaughter, sell and send on its way – after the beef and pork would float on heavy barges down the river Gram, people could hibernate, yet for now there was work to be done.

    When the sun rose, its light was pale as if coming through milky glass. Its weak rays barely managed to provide any warmth, and when the sun passed again beyond the horizon for another long night the cold returned with a vengeance. A low-hanging mist was slithering into town from the docks.

    Cregan took an angry look around him. He felt tired, dirty and ill. The streets were nigh on empty at this time of day and he himself wanted a place to get even more drunk, find something to eat and rent a bed. It was as if his bones had been burnt, and he had to drag his limbs through a muddy bog.

    In the faint light of dusk, the narrow hovels clustered together tightly, as if gripping one another for support. They rose from the refuse and filth of the streets in uneven, jagged rows like a crone’s teeth. Out of all the houses in front of him, only five had slate roofs and straight walls of dressed stone. The others were made of wattle and shoddy brickwork with thatch-roofs and crooked corners.

    The region of Gramland was not a wealthy place, torn apart by squabbling nobles with a claim to one title or other. Somehow they managed not to deal with the bandits hiding in the hills and deep forests. They were too preoccupied with counting their silver and tourney-play. There were more poor places than rich in the world, Cregan knew. Gramheim might have been the largest port and only true town of Gramland, but it also had some of the poorest buggers as its inhabitants. The local count and his court preferred to dwell for the majority of the year in their private estates near the south-eastern borders, so they could hunt and train their falcons. Only in deep winter did the count and his retinue trudge back to the regional capital, sheltering in the massive castle overlooking the town. The vast keep ensured they were isolated from the worst cold and the worst squalor of their subjects.

    Those who could afford it constructed their town houses and manses at the foot of the hill upon which the Gramburg sat perched, as close as they could to the stone fortress. Those who could not buy or rent a plot of land there had to try their luck in the lower districts, where the squalid dwellings were crammed together, shoved up against one another and the militia-men patrolled in strength to keep the peace.

    Cock and Bulls, the sign read, displaying a big red rooster and two green bull-heads. The joke was not lost on him, and a low gargling noise emerged from his well-smeared throat. He was laughing. Especially since the business adjacent to it was clearly a brothel, advertising The Salty Clam for its illustrious name. In spite of the allusive moniker, the Cock and Bulls seemed respectable enough, likely hosting a variety of patrons.

    Cregan pulled his longcoat tighter around his brawny frame, the stitches almost giving as the heavy fabric was drawn taut across his broad back and shoulders. After another glance down the street he moved toward the two establishments, one of the only ones where light poured from the stained windows. There was some carousing to be heard from within. The hand-painted - badly painted, mind you- sign hung from the doorpost, and he had to duck to pass under it and into the inn. He snickered again because of the name of the alehouse.

    After letting the door fall shut in its creaking hinges, Cregan observed the gloomy room. A slow, sullen murmuring filled his ears, sharp laughter and high-pitched giggles cutting through which made his head hurt. Or rather, which made it hurt even more. He sensed the mood was stifled, surly people sitting at trestle tables and aged benches. The room was a low one. Old straw lay in the corners, reeking and mouldy. Tallow candles sputtered with greasy flame, streaking their alcoves and the daub walls with black.

    A quick look was all it took to realise they were mostly scum or downtrodden. Just like me, Cregan cynically told himself. There were others too though, sat at the better furbished back of the room, closer to the hearth and more beyond on an elevated level. Not just the downtrodden attended the Cock and Bulls. Some of the patrons turned to look at him enter, most turned back to their drinks, conversational partners or bought women. Most, Cregan noted, but not all. One man with a salt-and-pepper beard kept his calm eyes on the newly arrived guest. A frown sat etched on his forehead, much like on Cregan’s. Then, after a few moments the fellow returned his interest on the tankard in front of him.

    His thick boots made the wooden floorboards squeak as he marched forward toward the bar. Cregan ignored the bearded lout. The old fool probably lusted after Cregan’s warm and heavy coat. He can try and take it if he wants, he thought grimly. Better men than him had, and failed.

    “Beer,” he told the woman standing behind the bar, his voice gravel-coarse. She was wearing an apron, and busy with counting coppers into a clay jar. Slightly overweight, it seemed her best years were behind her. “Something to eat.”

    The bitch looked at him irritated, as if serving customers was not her task even though employment at or ownership of a business like this one implied as such. “Keg or bottle?” She screeched.

    A single brow went up at the question. To have beer from a glass bottle was a rarity, an oddity. Cregan ogled the ones on show carefully, trying to discern whatever was written on the faded labels that stuck to the deep green and thick glass. Long corks protruded from the bottlenecks. The characters he attempted to read were foreign, angular and non-sensical. Plundered stock then, he surmised, anything could be in them. I better not.

    “Keg,” he said, throwing a single silver piece onto the tabletop. The woman got up and filled a tin tankard with a dark brown liquid. There was practically no head on it, none of the usual froth dark heady beers had. Cregan took a sniff. It almost smelled like beer, almost. But there was more than a bit of the drain about it too.

    Nevertheless, Cregan took it up and shuffled over to one of the benches lining the daub walls. Sitting down heavily, he noticed the man with the salt-and-pepper beer had left, but none of the other clientele paid him any attention. He sighed and took a sip of his drink, dropped his pack next to him. The metal and apparel within jostling, mixing with the jingling of glasses and cutlery of the heated room. The beer had a sour finish after the initial sweetness subsided, but he had had worse. Much worse, as he recalled the rubbish he had drank in Engelfold. It was wet, it would take the edge of his mood and ease his burning bones and sluggish arms and legs. Not much else mattered for now.

    Cregan pushed himself back against the wall, reclining and then letting his legs stretch out against the floor, studying his feet. His boots had once been something to be proud of: expensive leather, expertly sewn, steel in the heel and tip of them. Now they were just like him, faded, battered and worn-out. He grunted in self-loathing and shifted his pale eyes to his legs. Though it was hard for him to remember, he had been considered tall. Handsome even. Now he just looked big and weathered like an old willow. The muscles that had swung steel and iron were still there, but were encased in an unwelcome layer of fat he had put on in the last two years. His features had become lined and hard from the elements and the sea. His dark hair, jet-black in his youth, was now ragged and stained with white from the sea-salt. It was slowly coming off, but the tresses kept on a grey colour. At least when he looked in a silver platter or bowl of water he saw the colour of his eyes -grey like the flank of winter wolf- had remained the same, even though his eyes themselves were set in a stranger’s pale face and underlined with red. When he looked at his sorry reflection he saw his father’s eyes stare back at him, and then cursed his curiosity. Even from beyond the Last Door the bastard managed to haunt him, find him wanting and unworthy of his legacy.

    The dark beer went down easily, too quickly. Before he knew it, the drinking flagon was nearly empty. Cregan left the dregs where they were, bubbling like molten grease at the bottom of his tankard. You never really wanted to know what was in those dregs. He gestured the woman for another. She brought one over, grumbling as she approached.

    “And? That silver was enough to cover one pint and the meal. You want another? Pay up.” she said, holding out a grimy palm. Cregan paused. His payment should have been good for it. His stash was almost empty, just like his cup. He had paid in silver after all, minted in Murwick across Marten’s Gulf, taken from a trader braving the Western Enderid. That merchant and his cog now rested at the bottom of Cyn’s Deep. Nobody in this town probably knew any of those places, Cregan presumed bleakly.

    Cregan was about to protest, but the alcohol had sunk deep into his body, almost as deep as the Murwick cog had in the sea, and had made him lethargic. Who cared if he was being swindled? The money would be gone soon enough anyway. Let this cunt have it, he thought indifferent to his own misery. After pressing a second piece of silver into her hand, she skulked off. He took a thoughtful sip, for the amount he was paying he should make it last and try to enjoy it.
    A second sip followed soon after. And a third. The familiar warmth and solace spread through his leaden body. Watching the common room, taking in the scent of cooking food, he managed to slink into something of a relaxed state of mind.
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  3. When Fingal Skinner fawningly offered up his place at the head of the family trestle table, Algernon knew it was all over but the shouting. He had been concerned the overextended rancher might try to hold out, bound to ruin by stubborn pride, but Mr. Skinner's wide, desperate eyes and pained smile now seemed to assure him otherwise. He respectfully obliged his host, wedging into the chair with difficulty until he attained something passing for a comfortable sitting position. With jutting knees and elbows and a head that nearly brushed the kitchen's low ceiling, he seemed rather like a giant who had stumbled into a dollhouse, which Maude, the youngest Skinner girl, remarked in a fit of giggles.

    Mousy and rheumy–eyed Mrs. Skinner shooed her daughter away and made pitiful groveling noises at her guest, telling him what a pleasure it was to receive one of Mr. Alehorn's men, asking after his health, and inquiring if he might not care for some refreshment; Algernon turned her down politely. Mr. Skinner, fidgeting on the adjacent bench, drove out his wife and children with the irritable barks of a man fraught with worry, and the two of them settled into the business at hand.

    Their interview consisted largely of Algernon elaborating the family's dire straits with the aid of many sheets of dark, sumptuous parchment with very fine typeface, a storm of top–shelf words and legal terms as wholly obscure to Mr. Skinner as a wizard's cant, and Algernon's painstaking clarification of them. With each new clause and proviso raised, however, the look of apprehension on Mr. Skinner's drawn face hardened into suspicion, and finally resentment. It seemed Algernon had misread the man's initial flattery, imagining his client to be on the cusp of surrender, when he had actually been harboring the delusional hope for some saving grace at the eleventh hour. Though not an educated man, Mr. Skinner knew enough to see he was instead getting the wrong end of the stick, and feeling the fool, was determined to spitefully dig in his heels. By the time Algernon had finished his patter and withdrawn a quill pen and inkwell, the other man was glaring back at him with naked animosity. He would have to be cutthroat beneath all the courtesy if he wished to avoid leaving empty–handed.

    "So, you see, Mr. Skinner," Algernon was concluding, "I've done everything I possibly can for you. Believe me, this is the best offer you're like to receive anywhere. No one's going to want what my employer turns up his nose at, or elsewise appears to – at least not at market price – and the ugly truth is you simply cannot survive the coming winter without making this deal. You gave it your best, Mr. Skinner, a valiant effort, truly. But now it's time to put your ambitions aside and look to your family."

    Algernon gestured to the other members of the Skinner family crowded around the yawning doorway that led to their shared sleeping–room. The head of the house could not bring himself to glance over his shoulder at them, only able to reluctantly let his eyes stray off to the side before scowling back at Algernon.

    "You like watchin' a man's dreams die right before his eyes, do ya, boy?" he hissed. The veins in Mr. Skinner's thin neck were standing out and spittle flecked his lips as he quavered out the words. "That what getchoo off?"

    Algernon sat back, steepled his fingers. "I don't think there's any need for–"

    "When you run on back to that short–arse master o' yours," the other man persisted, pushing up wild–eyed from his bench, "'n you tell 'im everythin', why the two o' ya must get hard as diamonds in the dead o' winter, I'd wager!"

    "Mr. Skinner, if you please, let's not get nasty," Algernon said with an upraised hand. "My employer has kept to the arrangement which was agreed upon when you declined to sell last spring. All decisions as to the management of your ranch were entirely your own." You just went and made all the wrong ones, you slack–jawed churl.

    "Yeah, 'n all the bad luck, too!" Mr. Skinner fumed, pacing up and down his kitchen. "I ain't get one lick o' help from that puffed up li'l runt when all them heifers 'round these parts started dyin' off. Nor reimbursement neither."

    "Mr. Alehorn is a businessman, as I'm sure you understand," Algernon replied coolly. He would have to speak as if to a child. "In addition to the earnings he makes off his own assets, he is known to provide services – and occasionally compensation in the form of monies, materials, or livestock – for such cattle farmers as furnish him with joint possession of their lands. So when some of those cattle die and Mr. Alehorn replaces them, it's simply a matter of taking care of his investments. Investments, Mr. Skinner, in which your ranch was not included. As per your request. Now, if you had taken my advice originally and shared ownership of your property, or sold to us before the auction season..."

    "Ferget it!" Mr. Skinner snapped. "Ta hell wi' Alehorn 'n ta hell witchoo. We'll make our own way."

    In the next room, there was a small squeak as Mrs. Skinner began to sob. Algernon regarded the broomstick of a woman as she sought vainly to stifle her weeping with a handkerchief, her children staring up at her with looks of muted concern and incomprehension. The littlest one, Maude, glanced to her father, and Algernon was struck with odious inspiration.

    "Come here, child," he called to her. Maude hesitated a moment, squeezing a stuffed troll doll in her arms before waddling over beside him in her father's chair. "How old are you, my dear?"

    "This many." The girl held up four of her tiny fingers, then presented the toy in her hands, comically big–nosed and snaggletoothed. "I just had my birfday. Papa brought me Misser Kwuntch from town."

    "That's because your papa loves you," Algernon said. He tousled the little girl's hair and lifted her up to sit on his lap.

    "Your daughter reminds me very much of my own sister when she was little, Mr. Skinner," he told his client. "She was about the same age, too, when my family lived out here."

    Mr. Skinner had gone quiet, eyeing his guest warily during the exchange with his daughter. At Algernon's words, he scoffed. "You ain't ever live like this. I know a city man when I see 'im."

    "On the contrary, I was born beneath the hills. My father dreamed of being a successful rancher just the same as you."

    Algernon reached for the troll in the girl's hands, and she shared it happily, wrapping its felt arms around his neck in a hug. He put the stuffed toy on his knee and made it dance, much to her delight.

    "And, also like you," he continued, "my father thought he could get by without any help from anybody and not suffer any of the consequences that come with going it alone."

    "If yer just tryin' ta–"

    "Do you know why I seem a city man to you, Mr. Skinner, and not another rancher such as yourself? Do you know what befell those heifers you mentioned, the ones that died so mysteriously?"

    "I know how ta use a gun," Mr. Skinner rejoined, "so's my eldest boy."

    "Oh, you know how to fend off wild animals, I am quite sure. You are capable enough to scare off a few stray wolves or the rare bear or big cat, I have no doubt. But all these things are far from the worst of it, Mr. Skinner."

    'Mr. Crunch' began to lurk across the surface of the trestle table, Algernon's fingers bringing the troll to life and on the prowl.

    "There are other things out here, on the plains, beyond the hills," he went on, "terrifying things that prey on civilized beings for bloodsport. You would have been wise to accept the protection Mr. Alehorn alone can provide to folk outside the city when it was first tendered to you. But the best you may hope for now is the payout he has so generously permitted me to offer you and your family." And it's a damn sight better than you deserve.

    "I am sorry things had to turn out this way, but you can always start again. Not every man is made for life out here, and most die before they find that out." Algernon handed the doll back to the girl, and mussed her head again while staring at her father. "Or do so only once they've paid the dearest of costs."

    His host's eyes darted back and forth between them. He was haunted, Algernon knew, by nightmarish fantasies and possible tragedies. Behind him, Mrs. Skinner had sidled up to lay a hand on her husband's shoulder. She whimpered softly, and he held his hand over hers.

    "Fingal, please..."

    Algernon asked little Maude to hand him his briefcase at his feet. She obeyed awkwardly but eagerly, playing as if Mr. Crunch were using his considerable trollish strength to pull it up. Algernon then set her down with a final pat on the head, and deftly began to shuffle out the necessary paperwork to complete his business. Mr. Skinner's lip curled when he observed this quick turnabout, but when Algernon presented the inkwell and held out a lustrous quill pen, the rancher snatched it from his guest's outstretched hand and, in lieu of a signature, scratched one angry 'X' after another onto the desired sheaf.

    "I'll hafta move us back in wi' my idjit brother's kin in a godsdem beat–up ol' flophouse now..." he grumbled when they had finished.

    "It's good to have loved ones close in trying times like these," Algernon opined tritely. Taking back his pen and rolling up the contract, he quickly gathered his things and bade his hosts farewell.

    Stepping out into the chill air, Algernon stole a glance at some of the Skinner chattel, haggard, emaciated things penned in by slapdash timber fencing and grazing with little success on dying grass. He doubted they were worth half the price that had been paid for them, but Mr. Alehorn was a perfectionist about such things; he would not be satisfied until he had everything he felt owed. Algernon imagined that what his employer felt owed was everything, but had decided long ago to leave such concerns to Mr. Alehorn's competitors and confessor, and to simply do his job as best as he was able. If the gods or the free market didn't want the old dwarf to gain a monopoly, well, they could do something about his rapacious expansion themselves.

    Algernon unhitched his horse waiting nearby, a sturdy speckled mare he'd named Patience and had purchased with his first (and surprisingly inflated) paycheck after decamping his uncle's law firm (Mr. Alehorn had offered to hire him a personal coach and driver, but Algernon preferred to ride). Placing his case in the saddlebag and caressing the horse's long snout with affection, he mounted and urged her out across the plain.

    Glimpsing over his shoulder despite himself, he saw the Skinner family ranch set like a house–shaped bundle of kindling in the middle of vast and shabby prairie preceding a huddle of craggy foothills. Well–trampled earth was turning hard from the cold, and the sod sparse and sallow. Even without Algernon's fearsome implications, the various ranches would have a hard time of it feeding themselves and their livestock through winter. He turned away and looked forward towards Gramheim, content that there was a silver lining to the necessary misery he so frequently had to deliver.

    Poor fools, he reflected, they've no idea their luck when men like me come kill their dreams.

    (If the format I've chosen is too difficult or taxing on the eyes to read, just let me know and I'll revert it to something more vanilla.)
    #3 dreamshell, Jan 22, 2016
    Last edited: Jan 23, 2016
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  4. By the time Hemlock emerged from the small house, the sun was hanging low in the sky, its weak rays struggling to penetrate the fog creeping along the dingy streets. It was nearly dusk, and what little light did manage to break through was cold, grayish light that suggested winter would soon be bearing down on Gramland. It was coming earlier every year. Leaves that should, by all rights, still be changing and colouring the world with brilliance had fallen, brown and dead. Even cold-hardy plants were withering under the chilling touch of icy winds blowing in from the North. For the very young or the very old, the cold was already enough to pierce the lungs, bringing cough and fevers. Apart from the biting cold, however, something else gripped bitterly at the edges of the town as though it were trying to take hold-- but what it was, he couldn't say.

    This winter, thought Hemlock, is going to be a bad one.

    As a general rule, the witch did not stay in Gramheim once the sun began to set, not if he could avoid it. He had gotten a late start today, having spent the majority of his morning harvesting the last of the herbs he knew could no longer tolerate the declining temperatures, as well as scouring trees in the deepest parts of the forest to collect any remaining lichen. It was past midday by the time he reached the town, and nearly dusk by the time he'd made his usual rounds. His pack was heavy; people were keen to purchase this week, perhaps in anticipation of the coming cold, and he had reaped a myriad of payments. Now, instead of herbs and tinctures, the little leather satchel was neatly packed with wrapped tallow, a jar of milk, and even a bit of bread leaven. A small handful of coins were tucked into an embroidered pouch at his hip, procured (at his opposition) from the family he'd just left.

    Their youngest son had taken ill with cough and, when the town physician's attempts to draw out the "bad airs" had failed, the mother had sought out Hemlock in a bout of desperation. After assuring the woman that the boy's blood was best kept inside of his body, he had given over a pouch of lungwort and osha root, instructing her on how to brew from them a tea that would help clear the lungs. He also instructed her on what would seem common sense: keeping the boy out of the cold, encouraging rest, and cleaning (with soap) the wounds left from the physician's treatments to ward off infection. He neglected to mention how absurd he thought blood-letting was, but he couldn't help wondering how physicians still got away with such practices. (He had read accounts of medicine, how some physicians were developing new methods of curing the ill as they abandoned what they considered to be ignorant and barbaric practices. Gramheim, it seemed, was behind the times in that regard-- as it was in many. What could be done about that though, he wasn't sure.)

    In return, and perhaps for not involving scalpels or leeches, the woman had pressed coins on him until he reluctantly accepted. He didn't like to take coins when he could avoid it; he'd long since found that he would much rather trade than buy and sell. There were even times he would've been happy to give, not expecting anything in return, but most wouldn't hear of such. Even when the townsfolk had to tighten their belts for the makings of a bad winter.

    The better part of it, he supposed, was that people were unlikely to cheat a person if they feared being cursed.

    In all reality, such a notion was ridiculous. Hemlock hadn't the slightest knowledge of curses-- though he felt it wise to keep that to himself. Sometimes it seemed that fear was the only thing keeping some of the less savory citizens away. Which was, admittedly, most of them.

    A wind kicked up around him as he continued down one of the cluttered side streets, bringing with it a sting of cold and the faint but pungent smell of blood. That was one thing the cold was good for-- the blood spilled during cattle culling mostly froze in such weather, preventing the reeking stench from overpowering the town. Given, the town smelled appalling either way, but he supposed every little bit helped.

    Drawing the woolen, fur-lined cloak tighter about his thin frame, the witch braced himself against the cold and continued on. Racing the fading light wasn't a concern to him, even without a lantern. He knew the paths into the forest by heart, and the weather would be milder once he was back in the still shelter of the trees. There was always the small risk of predators, but given the choice, he take them over some of the townsfolk.

    Predators hunted out of need. People, it seemed, often hunted out of spite.

    What he had failed to anticipate was the increased number of militia patrolling the streets. More than most anyone, the patrol seemed to favour hassling him-- stopping him to ask inane questions and posing mild accusations for odd happenings around the town. There was, of course, never any credence to their words. He supposed they did it out of boredom, or perhaps even curiosity they did not wish to admit. Some, he felt, did it out of would-be malice, though when it came down to it, no one had ever done more than poke around his satchel, only to find a disappointing lack of severed fingers or disemboweled frogs.

    Usually, there was a routine patrol. It was something that Hemlock had memorized so he could do his best to avoid the confrontations. He had nothing to hide, but he preferred not to be stopped when possible. He didn't always know what to say to the men who stopped him, and he knew that people talked. Every now and then, the patrols would change or the men would walk a different route, and every now and then he would run into one or two.

    Now, there were more than usual. Throughout the day, Hemlock had seen at least ten different men, and he couldn't help but feel that some unnamed thing was lurking at the edges of Gramheim-- like some great shadow, waiting to fall upon the town. Outsider though he was, even he had been privy to some of the late-night murmurings of the wary and the superstitious that had begun to circulate.

    Whatever the cause of this nameless fear, it came down to the fact that there were more people patrolling the streets, and Hemlock had just experienced the misfortune of running across a pair or surly-looking militia men. Had it been but a little darker, he would've been able to slip into the shadows and avoid them outright, but their sudden appearance around the corner of a haggard tavern had taken him by surprise.

    "Well, well, wouldja lookit that." The taller of the two men had stopped, elbowing his companion with a chuckle as he gestured at Hemlock. "What you doin' outta them woods?"

    "Run outta goats to keep 'im warm, I wager."

    Peals of raucous laughter sounded along the street. One of the men placed a heavy, gloved hand on Hemlock's shoulder, though the action wasn't an amiable one.

    "D'ya give 'em names what before you have your way with 'em?"

    "I don't raise goats," said Hemlock passively. He had been taught never to rise to people's taunting; never get angry at the ignorant. The older he got, the easier it had become to ignore the jeering.

    There were times, however, that were more difficult than others.

    "Right, i's chickens he keeps." The shorter, wider man grinned at him. His yellowing teeth were bared beneath his dripping, protuberant nose. "That makes you a cock-fucker, eh?" He pulled roughly at the beaded feathers that decorated Hemlock's hood, and more laughter followed.

    Hemlock said nothing.

    This is misery seeking company, he told himself. They don't want to be out in the chill alone.

    Seeming to realize they would fail to get a rise from the man, the patrol took a few more jabs at the witch before shouldering roughly past him and continuing on their way, leaving the him alone in the growing darkness.
    #4 DinoFeather, Jan 22, 2016
    Last edited: Jan 23, 2016
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  5. Dusk approached and the patter of footsteps in the halls slowed. Groundskeepers walked with the bulk of the students taking their leave, lighting scorns hung on the walls along the way. Like the cold season, the academic year had only just begun. Furthermore, Gramheim University was a large and winding place apt to disorient newcomers. The institution spanned a hundred acres southwest of noble-born surrounding the hill. Centuries of history took place or were otherwise recorded in those halls. Few knew them all, of course. Snowbeard professors and their grey pupils might, but learning of such seemed a great privilege. A privilege all the more unlikely so close to sunset when the students an hour's ride or more dared feel the cold's bite. As the skies grew darker and the groundskeepers stoked the hearths, few remained in the corridors of the university -- few, but some.

    Edwin sat at a wood slab table in front of an old leather codex, a notebook, and his fob watch. His white shirt sleeves rolled up to his elbows, revealing a watch and a few black tattoos from the northern lands. The bags beneath his eyes took on a darker hue and his he'd loosened his tie some time ago too. Still, the man across from either did not notice or did not care to take a hint. Some time ago the first bell rung. This was a courtesy warning of sunset in a few short hours and, typically, when most wrapped up their work. The second bell would soon sound as a final warning. He doubted the man would notice that one either and his boy looked utterly pleased too. They looked alike, aside from the great many lines rising from the father's brow. Both wore fine blue tunics and fashionable furs upon their shoulders. Their skin was pale, hair dark, and where the lad had patches of scraggly hair upon his cheek and chin, the father boasted a full beard, if also a touch scraggly. Edwin recognized the crest upon their tunics. The family lived in a modern home at the base of the hill not far from the university of Harbeo Manor, either. No surprise the man felt no rush to leave.

    "Draining me coffers for the boy to learn an' you teach'em gutter-shite wives tales? Thomas'll be the family treasuruh one day. No time soon with all this, I'd say," the man growled, slamming a fist against the table.

    The boy, Thomas, leaned over the table and to add, "Yeah! Came tuh learn numbuhs an' whatnot. What's uh treasuruh to do with werewolves an' wizards an' make-believe?"

    Reclined in his wooden chair, Edwin waited a moment for the father-son duo to finish. For half a minute he made to speak, going so far as to open his part his lips, only to shake his head and quizzically look to some high-up bookshelf. He did this until finally opening the child-size codex in front of him. The table rattled as the cover hit the wood and, notebook in one hand, he placed a finger on a line of handscribed text. Edwin glanced to the pair over his round-rimmed glasses. "Allow me to share a line or two..."

    "On the first night the body of a stag appeared at the edge of town. The city watch noted an influx of huntsmen, wrote it of as a foolishness. A hundred silver paid to increase patrols. On the third night two ox found dead, stomachs slit and innards scattered about the streets. The city watch cited two known vandals. Public hearings held, vandals too poor to pay, and two hundred silver paid in total to right situation. On the seventh night heaps of flesh were found on the doorsteps of the chapel, bones near and within the well, and a great howling was reported in the night. Burgomeister ordered monks place hold cleansing ritual throughout town, patrols increased, and a thorough cleaning of public wells. Six hundred silver in all paid for services," Edwin looked to Thomas over his glasses once more. "A total of how much was paid in city funds in this week? Quickly."

    Thomas squirmed in his seat. One could almost see the equation in the lad's mind, not quick, but not slow either. The lad's eyes opened wider and he sat straight. "Nine hundred silver," he answered, his pride in knowing quickly turning to surprise. "In one week? Gramheim couldn't afford that."

    "I fail to see your point, Harbeo," Thomas's father interjected. He pointed to the book with a raised brow. "An' what nonsense is this?"

    "Sharp mind, Thomas," Edwin said, winking over his glasses. "This is a daily log of Gramheim transcribed by the monks by order of the count centuries ago, after the Red Prince. Each city maintains one and periodically sends reports to the count's office. They do so to track corruption, dissent, et cetera. Listen to the boy. A proper treasurer uses our history as a guide with which to estimate future costs and whether or not we might endure them or run completely dry. Important so close to the culling season, doubly so with recent events. Now," Edwin shut the codex hard and fixed his gaze squarely on the father. "I mean to teach young Thomas to identify the cues necessary to guide wise decision-making. Cues weaker minds might see as happenstance, he shall see as an evolving market. A few weeks and his eyes have already opened. Alas, if you don't trust my words look to my past students. Mathias Hemming of the Lord's Court, Algernon Bell with Baron Alehorn, the navigator Lisandra Salander."

    The father scowled and spat, "I'll take each name."

    "I trust you will. And I trust while you track them down you will leave me to my work," Edwin replied sternly. He took his notebook and the codex in a hand and stood. "Thomas, study hard. A sharp mind like yours, I am inclined to arrange a few introductions."

    Edwin made his way through the main corridor toward the exit. His footsteps echoed and with few left in the library, the sound seemed to carry throughout. He could hear the father's grumblings and the boy too. He expected a word from the headmaster, but paid it little mind. The library had a few exits, this one leading to the main hall, which further down connected to the professors' wing as well. He stopped by his office on the way out, leaving the codex and grabbing his cloak and scarf. He paid special attention dressing himself so that when was said and done little more than his eyes could be seen. Re-merging into the main hall, Edwin found Thomas and his father nearing the university's main door. Edwin quieted his steps and took care to walk near the ornate pillars lining the wall.

    "Looked a touch ill, to you, yeah? Puhaps he's uh beast behind these horrors. Aye, boy?"

    "He's not unkind, pa. I change muh mind, I'd like to stay."

    "If yer sure. Doubt he'll see spring anyway, whatever sickness has'em."

    The half elf hid himself leaned against a pillar as the two took their leave. He expected few horses remained at the stables and preferred to avoid an awkward goodbye. Besides, he looked ill? A finger ran down his cheek, despite the gloves, he thought they felt sunken. Some warm food would help, but so would blood. By the nine, the very thought still felt wrong. He hadn't drunk for a few days. He'd note that, three days without and some would take notice. For now, however, the time passed and Edwin started to the stables and home. He would take a meal and in a few hours after the drunkards stumbled out into the streets he would take his drink.
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  6. [​IMG]

    Grin wiped his brow and looked at his creation. He was currently applying a scrolling filigree on the barrel of a six-shooter. He had a chisel in one hand and a massive magnifying glass in the other. It was very rarely he was paid to apply an aesthetic touch to guns. Humans always wanted their weapons utilitarian and not much else. “I just want et to shoot in a straight line, yah hear?” Yet, this customer paid extra for some personalization. He wanted vines, powerful and beautiful. Grin was being paid a nice sum for this.

    “Going out for drinks tonight,” he said. Even though he went out for drinks every night. Each day prompted its own accomplishment to be celebrated. This one, though, was somewhat legitimate. He leaned back into the gun. The bell in the front of his shop jingled loudly as someone entered. Their tread was heavy, fast, and crude. He’d have to stop doing what he was doing to do deal with this.

    The workshop was in the back of his store, behind lock, key, and chain. No one could get into facility unless they were extremely strong or extremely crafty. After that all they’d find were various work benches, machines, and gun parts. Grin never left fully crafted weapons in the workshop. From the workshop, moving forward, was his counter. It sat behind metal and wooden railing. It had a stand with stairs that gave the impression he wasn’t as short as he was. Usually, he liked a bit of warning before he presented himself. That was so people couldn’t see him walk up it. Unfortunately, this visitor didn’t seem like the type to turn around if he asked.

    “Coming,” Grin yelled.
    “You better be,” the customer responded. Mechanical clicking came after that.
    Grin frowned. Was it another robber? Was it an unhappy customer? Did he owe anyone money? Grin figured it was a “maybe” for each of those questions. So, he took the fancy pistol with him. He grabbed a bullet for it from his waist pouch and slid it into the barrel. If it was a robber, now would be a good time to test how well the gun worked.

    Grin sauntered up the three steps to the top of his stool. The man on the other side of the bars was human, of course, and looked like he’d rolled around in mud and forgot to bathe. Grin held the gun underneath the view of the counter. The human had a massive hand cannon that was not of the dwarf’s make.

    “What you got there?” Grin asked.
    “Look, I need this gun fixed,” he said, shaking badly. “It ain’t firing.”
    Grin held out his hand, through the railing. It was big enough for him and a gun—not many humans could boast the same. “Give it to me.”
    The man recoiled.
    “Look some people call my gun-smithing magic, but I’m not magical. I’m going to have to see it. Otherwise you need another gunsmith.”
    The man sniffed. “I hear that dwarves are the best. I don’t see how though. All you got going for you is how short you are.”
    “Awe,” Grin said. “You’re adorable. We’re a smaller peoples with smaller hands. Now you either show me gun, or you show your ass the door.”
    The man tentatively handed Grin the gun. The dwarf sat the filigreed masterpiece on the stair next to his feet while he looked at the strange man’s hand cannon. It was apparent why it wasn’t firing. The hammer was shit. It would strike a bullet like Grin could strike a water tower without jumping. He didn’t think fixing this weapon and handing it back to the dirty human was a good idea. The man would just use it for bad things. Or at least that is what Grin assumed.
    Against his better judgment, Grin used a screwdriver to the gun. He twisted it against nothing. He didn’t fix anything, and it still wouldn’t fire. The man didn’t need to try to shoot anyone. He handed it back to the dirtied human.

    “There,” Grin said. “One of the screws was loose.” There were no screws in the gun. Not that the dirty human knew that.
    The man nodded and looked over his hand cannon. “Thanks,” he said. “I ain’t going to pay you though, dwarf.”
    Grin shrugged. “Easy fix. I didn’t think you had to.” I other words, Grin didn’t expect it and didn’t feel put off by it.

    The rest of the day went by seamlessly. Grin locked the filigreed pistol at his abode, which was unknown to pretty much everyone. He then made his way to the tavern. The bartender recognized him almost immediately as he sat down. Next thing he knew, he had a whiskey and a water sat in front of him.
    “Water?” he asked.
    The bartender hissed through their lips. “I know how you get, Grin.”
    The dwarf only laughed and downed the whiskey.
    A few of the tavern’s patrons joined him . They played a rousing hand of cards before Grin took their money, lost it, and then broke even. They scattered as the dwarf was finishing up his fourth whiskey.

    He laughed, wildly, downed his drink and then pulled money from his pocket. The barrel of a cold gun pressed against his temple. “You lied,” the voice said. It was the human from earlier. This was not his jammed hand cannon. It was something he trusted to fire.
    “Look, “Grin started.
    “No,” the human said. “You lied to me, and now you pay.”
    The dwarf looked around, but everyone was too lost in their revelry to see what was happening to him.
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  7. The sun disappeared completely by the time Edwin arrived to Gramheim proper. He made quick work of tying his horse within the quaint stable a little ways from the tavern and jogged the distance. His was heavy and stiff as if dampened first by the rain then promptly frozen in place. Added to a growling belly, Edwin entered the Cock and Bulls wearing an expression none too amused.

    Edwin removed his cloak and took a seat at the bar. His sleeves rolled once more, he felt surprised by the warmth of the bar-counter. A welcoming feature if curious. He saw two tending the lengthy bar, one a man on the cusp of youth, the other a woman a little older, both dressed to attract the eye. Unfortunately, he was far from alone in seeking refuge from the elements. Dozens filled the tavern telling stories and challenging one another small feats. A little ways down the bar Edwin watched a bartender bring two cups to a tan skinned dwarf playing cards with a handful of others. Between the clamouring tankards and hearty shouts it was all too easy to lose himself to the tavern mentality. Edwin loosened his tie and undid a button or two of his shirt.

    "Whaddya say we sate that thirst, aye?" the barmaid offered, her voice so sudden that the half-elf jumped.

    Bottles of liquor stacked behind the counter with names Edwin knew little of. He replied slowly, "I say something full-bodied and red, if you would."

    A dark green bottle appeared from behind the bar immediately. She smiled at Edwin's surprise and pointed the cork between the two of them. "Thought so. Fancy myself a Merlot too. Folks in this town prefer the stronger stuff mostly. You a vintner?"

    "Far from it. I appreciate a strong red, though. I don't believe we have vineyards near Gramheim, do we?"

    "Poor guess I suppose," the barkeep laughed with a finger pointed to the window. "Northward along the road a day or so. Wonderful vineyard with large cellars housing all sorts that passes their wines through here. Worth the trip if not for the strange happenings. Hell, fright makes it hard to get into the cellar here lately."

    Edwin offered a nod as she poured them both a glass. The woman did not appear weak in body or mind, in fact quite the opposite. To fear so greatly simply did not seem in the nature of one accustomed to handling drunkards and ending fights with nothing more than a hard look. Yet, in her eye he recognized a shadow and in that shadow something shaken to the core. She had seen something most had not.

    Though not a proper glass for the wine, the playful hints of blackberry and oak filled his nose and pleased his tongue. Edwin smiled to the barkeep who appeared to enjoy her sip as much as he. Finally, they met eyes and he gave voice to his thoughts, "I wonder what has one so strong so deeply afraid. You've a personable charm, a tavern full of patrons, and look quite capable too. What do you suppose awaits in those cellars aside from fear itself?"

    "Truthfully?" the barkeep sighed. After a long drink she glanced to each of those at the bar and the many more seated at tables. She paid each a brief look, long enough for Edwin to follow, but quick so that their quantity was clear. "Strange marks decorate doors at dawn and alleyways are found slick with blood. Bodies found strewn about. Cloaked figures all in black seen on the outskirts just watching. Only just, that is, when seen. You look a learned man. How large is Gramheim? What are the chances a few of the folks in here know of these horrors all too well?" Her voice broke. She eyed someone further along the bar. "I've another bottle in the cellar. Half price if you get it yourself. Whaddya say?"

    Edwin glanced down the bar and spotted a dingy looking door behind the crowds. A darkness collected there despite the glowing scorns. Once his eye returned to the bar the woman was further down the bar serving another. She glanced his way and briefly nodded to the green bottle still sat across from him. Her smile was cold, as if to say 'I know'. Edwin took another drink and did his best to ignore the blighted door looming in the corner of his eye.

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  8. Much to Hemlock's relief, he encountered no more patrolmen on the remainder of his travel from the town. It was nightfall in earnest by the time he reached the small, familiar path leading toward the trees and a chilling rain had just begun to fall, the heavy droplets tapping out an arrhythmic beat on the cold ground. Lightning briefly illuminated the clouded sky and a faint rumble of thunder followed. It was unusual to have such storms in the colder months, but they weren't altogether unheard of. Hemlock hastened his step. The trees would provide some shelter from the oncoming storm, but he would very much like to be indoors when the brunt of it hit.

    Another few moments saw him to the edge of the forest, though he stopped just short and peered into the trees, an unsettling feeling washing over him. Because of the clouds there was very little ambient light, but the witch thought he could make out a large object to one side of the path. Remaining in place, Hemlock conjured his will into an illusory haze about himself. While this would not make him invisible, it blurred the lines of his form and helped him to meld with the shadows of the trees. Of course, if the dark shape was a predator, such an enchantment would not hide his scent-- and Hemlock waited in place, ready to run if needed.

    After several moments, the strange shape remained unmoving.

    Something is wrong.

    Slowly, Hemlock raised an open palm to his lips and gently blew into life a small, glowing orb of blue light. It flickered now again, likening itself to small flames, but seemed unaffected by the increasing downpour. When the shape still did not move, Hemlock cautiously began to approach the trees, the light gently cupped in a hand extended in front of him. As he closed the small distance between himself and the still form, Hemlock frowned.

    The object, as it were, was the body of an immense stag. It was laying on its side with its head at an odd angle and blood had collected at the corners of its mouth-- it was clearly dead. Steam was faintly visible in the sparse light, and Hemlock moved closer, crouching down to more closely observe the scene. The steam was rising from a small pile of viscera which looked to have been all but ripped from the animal. The wounds opening its stomach were not clean ones, the flesh ragged and split as though done with claws or teeth.

    This, he thought, doesn't make sense.

    The kill was recent, as the steam was only just beginning to disperse; a predator would not abandon a kill like this unless another predator forced it away to claim the spoils. There were also no signs of predation; nothing had eaten from this kill.

    Drawing a steadying breath, Hemlock again examined the organs that had been messily pulled from the animal. None of these looked to have been chewed or eaten at either. But, he noticed with a sickening realization, the intestines were missing.

    Slowly, Hemlock got to his feet and again surveyed the scene before him. He had heard of haruspicy, but he didn't think anyone in or around Gramheim practiced something so archaic and cruel. He knew there was another occultist who practiced unusual traditions, but she seemed a decent woman-- not capable of something like this.

    For a moment, his mind went to the murmurs of the townsfolk and a cold, unusual fear began to settle in the pit of his stomach. Whoever or whatever had done this couldn't have gone far.

    Hemlock took a few steps back and stared into the darkened trees around him. Never before had he felt unsettled in the forest, but it was as though the feeling of unease had followed him from the town.

    Lightning flickered once again and, in the few moments of light, the witch caught sight of something that made his heart skip a beat.

    The body of a man dangled overhead, the great branch of a tree serving as a gallows. It was difficult to tell in the momentary glimpse he had, but Hemlock was sure he now knew the purpose of the deer's entrails.

    A sudden sound behind him caused the witch to start and he wheeled around, eyes straining to spot the source. The rain was drowning out much, but it sounded as though heavy footfalls were retreating toward the town at a run.

    Before he even knew what he was doing, Hemlock had bolted from the forest, sprinting back toward Gramheim. He could not see anyone ahead of him, and it felt as though he were giving chase to shadows. Still, he was sure he had heard someone there, someone who was very likely responsible for the violent act against man and nature; someone who was very well headed into the town.

    What he would do if he caught up to this phantom, Hemlock didn't know. He wasn't often one to act so rashly, but the sight at the edge of the forest had shaken him, and he was spurred on by an unfamiliar sense of outrage.

    It took only a few minutes for Hemlock to reach Gramheim, though he could see no one in the dimly-lit streets.

    Now what?

    His lungs were burning, his face and fingers numbing from the cold sting of the rain, and his cloak was soaking through. It would be wise to get indoors and dry off before walking back to the forest once more, but he hardly knew where to go. He also felt a need to tell someone-- to give warning that the one responsible may well be hiding within the town, but he wasn't sure who to tell. He doubted the patrol would take him seriously, if they were even out in this weather after dark.

    Unsure of what else to do, the witch approached the first establishment that appeared to be open. Dim light was spilling from grimy windows and the murmur of talk could be heard even outside. He cast a wary glance up and down the street before sliding in the door of the Cock and Bulls tavern. A brief silence took the room as eyes fell on him, but the talk and clamour began almost as quickly as it had died away. Hesitantly, he lowered his hood and looked around the room. It was crowded with dozens of patrons, all blissfully unaware of what had just transpired.

    Hemlock was shaking as he approached the bar, his drenched cloak dripping a trail behind him.

    "Excuse me," he said quietly. He was unsure of how exactly to garner the attention of the barkeeps who were too immersed in their work to notice him. "There's a situation people should know about-- they may be in danger."

    #8 DinoFeather, Feb 7, 2016
    Last edited: Feb 9, 2016
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  9. Some more beers followed the first, and after gobbling up his meal Cregan felt fortified enough to shake off his damned lethargy to look around the crowd. He spotted a short fellow, but there was no mistaking his heritage.

    The Dwarf had been admonished and treated as was expected with non-humans. All across the lands, most of them were the target of ridicule if not outright hatred. Nevertheless, the one that had swaggered in through the door seemed to be of a sufficiently genial sort to win a few hearts and minds over. If anything, watching the little but burly figure provided Cregan with some amusement. He contemplated joining in on the card game himself, but it would likely cost him the last of his silver and he needed what little he had for lodging tonight. Tomorrow he’d work the slaughterhouses or stockyards - those places were always looking for a sure pair of hands.

    So it was that Cregan found himself close enough to hear the exchange between the Dwarf and what seemed to be a disgruntled customer. Perhaps it was the alcohol warming his blood and bones, or a vestige of charity that sparked his decision, he knew not. What surprised him though, was that as yet, nobody else had noticed the fire-piece pressed against the Dwarf’s neck. “Hey now,” he offered, putting his hands up harmlessly. Cregan had left his pack leaning against the bar, where he could keep an eye on it. Sadly, it was also out of reach - and with it, his weapons. “I’d rather not you shoot this little one, unless you intend to pay me in his stead?”

    The man pressing the gun against the card-playing Dwarf bared his teeth, or rather what he had left of them. “What?” he spat through their gaps. “Bugger off, I’ve got a bone to pick with this ass-muncher. Can’t trust his kind. Said he fixed my gun, doesn’t work for shit!”

    “Seems like you’ve had a few rough couple of days - I get it, but the bastard owes me money,” Cregan lied blatantly. Spend enough time lying to people though, and you get good at it. Spend enough time bullying people, you get good at that too. “Look here,” Cregan rumbled, making his voice a bit sharper than before. He rose to his full height, straightening his brood shoulders. “You kill him, it’s you that owes me money. Taking a quick glance at you though, that tells me it will be a problem. You’re dirt poor. Where did you even get those pieces?” Cregan cocked his head to the side. “You want to be my problem?” Come to think of it, the beer might have made him slower than he was, but it had also made his fists itch. He would not mind punching this cretin’s teeth all over the floorboards. Cregan had always been good at picking fights, but he’d rather the Dwarf would live to see it. “Kill him, and I’ll shove that piece you’re waving about so far up your cockerel you’ll crow till morning.”

    A gamble. But not a contemplated one. The gunman seemed to be alone, and had caught the Dwarf unawares. Cregan judged the man a coward, and once faced with tenacious adversity would slink back from whatever gutter he had crawled from.
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  10. Twilight was falling as Algernon made his way back, along with a fine rain whose dark, gravid cloud cover promised imminent downpour. The young solicitor had half a mind to turn for his fashionable little brownstone and celebrate the new contract with a few ample servings from the cask of Ole Hammermasher's malt whisky his employer had gifted him, but routine and learned meticulousness demanded he first visit his office. He reached Gramheim by a narrow postern located in the warehouse district and exclusive to higher-end traders and other privileged personages; the gatekeeper recognized him easily from his frequent trips outside the city and ushered him through with a wave and a nod.

    Urging Patience to a light trot, Algernon briefly crossed paths with some bedraggled workmen just off duty who brooded up at him with resentful eyes that stood out starkly against their grimy faces and matted beards. He left them behind without incident, proceeding down cramped, cobbled streets that snaked hither and yon, passersby in long coats and hooded cloaks slinking around his horse's flanks like sullen alley cats. He held his head high all the while, and though he supposed he would cut an intimidating enough figure even were he not on horseback, Algernon could not help but recall some of the grisly stories that had been circulating of late. He stifled a shudder, flashing back briefly to childhood days he had no desire to relive. At length, he entered unmolested onto Main Street as the last of the shopkeeps and civil servants were closing up and scurrying off homeward before the coming deluge.

    Emptying the saddlebag and hitching his mare, Algernon hastened under the office overhang as he rifled through pockets for his key. The workplace was dark beyond the door's windowpane, on which had been printed 'Mr. Algernon Bell, J.D., B.Comm., Solicitor & Licensed Conveyancer' in fine white and gold. At the bottom, in smaller lettering, read, 'Alehorn Land & Cattle Co.' Finding his key and letting himself in, Algernon took out a match and lit one of the candles set in sconces on either side of the doorway, carrying it over to a holder on his secretary's desk before making his way to the backroom.

    While his desk was itself unremarkable, it was crowded with such papers and paraphernalia as would betoken a very preoccupied young lawyer with several clients in the queue. Sitting atop all these documents was the day's correspondence, which he had not had the chance to peruse on account of the delicacy of the Skinner contract. Giving his post a look over, Algernon found nothing pressing in any of it and was ready to lock up his paperwork and away when he spotted a telegram sent by his sister.

    Need to speak with you. Urgent. - Carmella

    It wasn't much, but it was all she need say. Blowing his candle out in its holder, Algernon had put away his things, locked up again, and set out on Patience within moments.


    "Master Algernon?"

    Loud rapping had obliged a frail, bent old man to peek out from behind the ornate wrought-iron doors of Lilybridge Hall despite the lateness of the hour and inclement weather. Across the court, he spied one of the family stablehands bringing a speckled mare out of the rain.

    "Rather poor time for a visit, isn't it, sir?" the man at the door croaked. Algernon stepped inside and removed his slick oilskin duster, handing it over.

    "Couldn't be helped, Hemphill," he said, smiling down at the hoary domestic. He put a hand on the older man's shoulder. "Sorry for the bother, old boy."

    "Not at all, sir. It does a body good to be of use." Hemphill shuffled off into another room with the coat. Algernon's gaze idly swept the hall and he found he hadn't really missed it much; every angle seemed shaped by his uncle's cold austerity, no matter the soft touches of his aunt.

    "I say, Hemp," he called, "what has Aunt Hildy got herself into just now?"

    "She and Master Ignatius are entertaining guests in the parlor," the weedy servant said, returning. "Shall I announce you, sir?"

    Algernon dismissed the idea with a wave. "Nevermind that. Is my sister with them?"

    "Off to bed early, sir. She claimed to be feeling faint."

    "Show me to her, would you?"

    The old man's gaunt face became a brief mosaic of troubled wrinkles. "Forgive me, sir, is that wise?"

    "Please, Hemp, I insist."

    Hemphill yielded decorously and led the way up the hall's imposing, finely-carven staircase, slow-moving but surefooted.

    "To tell it true, it may do her good to see you, Master Algernon," he conceded on their ascent. "There has been an air of disquiet to Miss Carmella all through today, if you don't mind my saying it." He chuckled like a shaking rattlesnake's tail. "Of course, Miss refuses to admit anything of the sort."

    Algernon hemmed. "Yes, she is very jealous with her secrets."

    They stopped just outside Carmella's room and after Algernon assured the old manservant he would neither be spending the night nor wished for anything from the kitchen to steel him for the journey home, Hemphill departed with a nod. He made to knock gently on his sister's door, but it opened even as he raised his hand. Carmella was standing there, already wearing her dressing gown for the night and her long, blue-black hair spilling down around her shoulders. No sooner did he open his mouth to speak than she was retreating back into her room; his sister often seemed asynchronous in this way.

    "You wanted to see me?" Algernon closed the door behind him as he entered. "Your telegram said it was urgent, and I hear you've been in a funk all day. Is something the matter?"

    She sat before her vanity, its every inch covered with superstitious odds and ends, newspaper clippings, poems, esoteric tinctures, and incense. Her dark eyes were locked on those of her mirror image as if in genuine search for answers she herself lacked.

    "Algy... I'm worried," she said finally, sounding distracted.

    Algernon approached her, placing his hands on her shoulders with brotherly affection. "What about, dear sister?"


    "Baldwin? Which one is he?" He pondered a moment. "...Oh, yes, the 'outdoorsman,' is that right? I didn't think you much cared for him."

    "He is a bit dull, a bit too conventional, true," Carmella admitted. "Still, rather sweet in his own way. Sort of gallant and chivalrous, you know, like the old knights in the stories?"

    "You're being kind. He's an absolute prat and a lackwit. The only asset he carries is his pocketbook."

    Carmella's reflection gave her brother a weary smirk. "You aren't the only one to say such things. The poor man was making all to-do about a hunting trip he had planned and how he was sparing no expense to obtain the finest equipage. And now, just this afternoon, I hear tell he's missing. Separated from his mates the evening before last, and the rest of them since come home with not the slightest clue of his whereabouts. Or so is said."

    Algernon glanced at the floor, opted to ignore the obvious imputation.

    "Well... the fool fancies himself a hunter, does he not? And doubtless a spring of manful resilience. It might be he's thought to extend this silly excursion on his own. More of a challenge, no one else to steal his glory, and so forth."

    "Perhaps, but..."


    His sister turned round to stare up at him, placing a hand on his. "Even if this story his friends are telling is the truth, they say such terrible things have been happening lately, Algy. Out there. After dark..."

    Their eyes locked, both of them thinking back to the half-forgotten and wholly unspeakable horrors of long bygone days on the plains. Algernon swallowed his rising gorge with some difficulty and broke off from his sister. His eyes fell to an old toy of hers, a stuffed, smiling little cow that was nearly falling apart at the seams and whose soft, piebald fur had worn away in places with the passage of time. He was painfully aware of the parallel to be drawn to the tiny Skinner girl's doll from earlier.

    "No worse then what they say happens on the streets after dark," he argued flatly. "'They' always say things, Mellie, but it's all tosh. Whatever is or isn't going on, it's just people. Rotten people doing rotten things."

    Algernon sat himself down roughly on her bed, tossing a lacy pillow over the plush cow.

    "You oughtn't waste time listening to such morbid gossip," he grumbled.

    "My brother." Carmella smiled to herself. "He'd rather have a deaf sister than one who might hear upsetting things. But if I heard nothing, or saw nothing, I could in no wise be ready for whatever untoward things might befall me."

    "That won't happen."

    His sister reached out to him, took his hand. "I know you only wish for my well-being, Algy. Which is why you'll look into this curious business with Baldwin for me, won't you? Say you will."

    Algernon frowned knowingly.

    "If it's what you really want, then of course," he sighed. "Though, I daresay there's nothing more to it than the fool has gotten lost in the woods or some damned thing."

    Carmella's usual confidence was resurfacing now that she had won his promise of inquiry. "No doubt you're right," she purred, stroking her hair and admiring it in the mirror. "But I feel so very much the better knowing you're checking into it."

    Algernon grinned at his sister's transparency and hurled the lacy pillow again her way before quitting the room.


    At the foot of the stair, Algernon found his uncle waiting for him. He and Ignatius Lilybridge bore a strong and regrettable resemblance to one another, though his uncle had grown out considerably in his advancing years in complement to his height and, so was truly formidable at a glance. His auburn hair and mustache had also gone almost completely white.

    "So it's you." The master of the hall glared at him from beneath a snowy brow. "I thought old Hemphill was being evasive about who was at the door."

    Algernon displayed a cool smile, the kind he reserved for new clients. "I only popped in because Mellie sent after me, uncle. I'm just leaving now."

    He attempted to circumnavigate the larger man.

    "Ah, but this isn't the first time you've 'popped in' since your departure from the firm," his uncle accused. "Your aunt is a very clever creature, but she never could keep from seeming the cat who ate the canary."

    "Please, uncle, let's not disrupt each other's night over it."

    Ignatius Lilybridge seemed to take offense to this, as if it were his gods-given right to ruin the mood of whomever he so chose. He prodded Algernon's chest with a meaty finger.

    "You've carved up another little sliver for him, have you?" he growled. "Divines know, he's practically got everything north of the Gram to himself now."

    Algernon scoffed. "You're exaggerating, uncle." He swept the man's arm away and adjusted his shirt and vest. "Mr. Alehorn barely represents a quarter of the agricultural interests in this region."

    "While my partners and I have managed to scrape together a trifling eleven per cent," Lilybridge rejoined, his fleshy face starting to flush; Algernon could not recollect ever having witnessed such emotion cross his uncle's features. "And when everyone else with a claim is some disinterested blueblood who inherited it along with a dozen others or a soft-headed ranch-hand who thinks having a share makes him next in line for king, we're damned sure the only thing approaching competition your friend has got out there!"

    His voice boomed through the hall, and he gestured to the far wall in near apoplexy, as if Alehorn were just in the other room.

    "In every way but in name," he continued, low and bitter, "that dwarf has built himself his own little fiefdom right under our noses."

    Algernon's false smile had fallen away, replaced with open and icy disgust.

    "Sir, with all due respect," he said, his own voice a sharp edge, "I don't much fancy you and yours had anything too different in mind when I was working under you. The only distinction I can see is that Mr. Alehorn has succeeded turning into reality what you have left as wishful thinking."

    His uncle's thick hand rose into the air as if to strike. "You ungrateful-!"


    The two men looked off into the adjoining room to see Hildegarde Lilybridge, silver-haired and twinkling in her bejeweled evening attire, scowling at the both of them. A few uncomfortable dinner guests shadowed her, while old Hemphill stood off to the side.

    "Nine's blessings, what do you think you're doing?"

    Ignatius' broad shoulders slumped in resignation. "If it hadn't been for poor Matilda or your indulgent aunt," he seethed, "I should've left you to fend for yourself on the streets..."

    Algernon heard Aunt Hildy cluck with incredulity.

    "Then my gratitude is best preserved for my mother and your darling wife, uncle," he replied curtly. "And with that, I say good-night to you." He nodded to his aunt. "My apologies, madam, and good-night to you as well. Hemp?"

    The weedy old servant dragged his feet across the hall as fast as he was able. Algernon followed after, striving to display the utmost sangfroid.

    "If you step into my home again..." he heard his uncle say behind him. He turned round and was met by the man's usual mask of haughty dispassion. His aunt was already ushering the guests into another room and, at the top of the stair, Algernon caught his sister's bright eyes observing the scene. Emboldened by her presence, he took a step forward.

    "Careful with that, uncle," he whispered. "With the resources now afforded me, it would require no great effort to unearth a few skeletons you'd have rather I left alone and which are sure to hurt your standing in this community quite sorely."

    He smiled as his uncle reeled back at the threat.

    "Of course, I'd hate to put the ladies of the house through such a scandal," he continued on, "but I'd be only too happy to offer them the hospitality of my new home where they might seek refuge. And with their master's reputation in tatters, who knows? The staff may find new positions in short supply with your name looming over them; I had best take them in, too. They all adore each other in this house, after all, and with a little time, why, it will be as if nothing changed at all. Excusing the absence of one old man."

    Algernon put his back to his uncle, who stood gaping impotently, and slipped on the coat which Hemphill had been awkwardly holding at the ready. Thanking the old man a final time, he left the hall to retrieve Patience and head at last for home.
    #10 dreamshell, Feb 14, 2016
    Last edited: Feb 16, 2016
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