Location:The Great and Glorious Embassy of the Khutan Empire.
Iswann, The Bastard as the locals called him, contemplated the state of his affairs. He was sat one of the many reception rooms in the Great Embassy of Khutan. He eyed the remains of the lavish breakfast he’d consumed and considered the merits of another round. It had been some time since he’d spoken to Antiva, the Monk-priest and he felt good about that. Oh, they’d resolved their differences after the falling out they’d had when investigating the mansion after they’d banished the mad Frog Priest Spune. Antiva had much more invested in the ways of the Old Country then he had. He was obsessed with this search for some long lost power – the arcane ruled his life and that wasn’t high on Iswann’s agenda.
Iswann, in contrast had been the Bastard in residence in Lankhmar for so long now, and the official duties of Bastardy were so esoteric and light that privately he felt very little loyalty to the Empire any more. Of course he never gave Voice to these thoughts but no one in the Embassy would have dared batter an eye-lid if he did.
He was more interested in the family business and getting the Swordsmans’ Guild back into the state it deserved to be. For this he needed pots of cash – really pits of cash. That’s where the Jade Gluditch of Solitude came in. Or rather it didn’t because fuck knows where it was.
He really couldn’t recall all the finer details of how it fell into their possession and why Burli was entrusted with keeping it. It was something they’d got from the Dough Magnate – Pilsbury. They had made substantial money out of saving the city and getting the Jeweller back to safety. However the real deal breaker, and what could get the Guild and his personal estate back into the black that his mother insisted he sorted out was by selling off that Artifact. Problem was – no one would touch it with a barge pole. Then Burli had been robbed. Then he’d been charged with manslaughter in the first degree in passionate flagrantly – or whatever it was the lawyers were calling it today. And just to kick them firmly in the teeth – the Last Princess of the Cold Wastes – stone-cold fucking dead. He threw a dagger into the wall disconsolately as a passing minion tidied up around his largesse. Of course the minion didnt speak – they were trained not to. Nor did she show any outrage or reaction to his outburst. They all knew better than that. She just silently plucked the dagger from the priceless stucco-decorated wall, popped it onto the tray to return with the other things and made a mental note to inform Gregorious of the need to hire the famed Artist to come and re-do the face of the Third Inglorious Bastard. Again.
He toyed with his cream-cheese bagel as the minion cleared things away. He stared for a moment at the smoked salmon on his fork. Fish. Fishing. It rang a bell. The fisherman and that hedge-witch type. He struggled to recall their names. Amberrh had sensibly left Lankhmar to lie low and keep a low profile. Burli had gone with. They’d got caught up with some Marshlanders. Ironically this escapade had brought them back to the city. Antiva had been involved – somehow. So the princess ended up being in danger again. It made his head spin. His thoughts turned to the death of Grendowynn. Now the death of the princess. The Bastards were infamous instigators of mass death – well, his great, great grandfather Tehrwann was the last Bastard to raise the Warrior-Caste into battle.
His eyes fell on the dramatic painting that depicted the Almighty Destruction of the Gerhun. No Gerhun lived it was said. The wrath of the Caste had been such that the battlefield was impervious to life and remained so to this present day. The desert of death as it is known now, the tenuous transcendental inter-planar junction to the after-life. So many had been sent to their deaths (so the record-keeping caste told him) that a bridge direct to the underworld had to be built by the Magus. Problem was he never quite figured out how to dismantle it afterwards. Another thought tickled him but he pushed it away as sheet insanity.
Oh there’d been skirmishes since then, all presided over by the Bastardy. None as great as his ancestors. When that fateful day he ascended the Endless Stair to meet with the God-Emperor, and in doing so was appointed the task of the office of Bastardy his mother had been insufferably proud. Auspicious she’d called it to have two of their line in such a prestigious role.
What had it brought them? A posting to the Heathen Lands. Banished to this forsaken pit of seething villainy. How he loved it. Everything he could do to prolong the need for the Empire to have the Embassy at Lankhmar was justifiable to Iswann. Even if that meant arranging for the Last Ambassador to have an untimely accident. Well those reports he wanted to send – sedition! Recommendations for the cessation of political indemnity. Insufferable!
His fingers stroked the Writ of Legal summons. Once the seal was broken you were magico-legally bound to appear before the issuer. This was heavy stuff. Shame he’d not undertaken to open it. But then he had no need to. The Emissary had invited him anyway. So he could appear and not be bound by the magical imperative and hear out the evidence that Burli’s defence lawyer required for the hearing.
Maybe he had the opportunity of getting Burli off the hook without recourse to strong-arm diplomacy. Perhaps he could find out if the Emissary had encountered the Artifact. If so, there was a chance to at least tie up that loose end if nothing else. In the meantime perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to see if he could locate the Hedge-Witch and the Huntsman. Maybe they could e d value after all. They’d been partly responsible for bringing the Princess and the Toymaker back to the city ill-advisedly early. So from his point of view they could at least make amends for this mess now that it affected him and the House.
He turned to the serving-boy who had been stood stock still for at least a half-hour by the doorway. He uttered four words that catapulted the boy into action.
“Bring me that priest”. He bit his tongue after saying it, however he could see no other way of getting things to happen without dealing with Antiva again. He stabbed the fork into the arm of his chair, rose, adjusted his swords and swung his cape majestically around his shoulders before heading off to his first appointment of the day.
Here is the current state of my character concept sketch for Iswann “The Bastard”. It’s worth noting that his so-called nickname is in fact the closest translation of his Kutanese title, rather than some insult to his family status.
Gracie Buttertreacle sat silently in the street’s filth. She watched the strangers scoot past her and eyed them expectantly. She was on the look out for trouble and the possibility of food or a coin. Or information. After all Fourfingers had promised the Ratboys a tidy sum for the right kinds of knowledge! Suddenly her heart quickened – there he was – the Furriner they called him, the Bringer of Death. This was her chance. She lifted her hand and croaked “Hey mister, spare us a $merduk can yer?”. The furriner just sailed past oblivious. His gnome companion, whom they said thought he was a dwarf looked at her piteously, and chucked her a coin. She blinked a couple of times and then ran as quickly as she could. There were more $merduks waiting for her from Fourfingers for keeping him up to date with the Death Bringer’s movements. She glanced back long enough to see Liam tumble from his hiding place and stalk the pair as she darted off to the Spiced Apple tavern. That’s where Jimmy’s second in command would be waiting for her news, and where she could spend the $merduk on some decent tucker and a place by the fire.
Liam winked at Gracie as she pelted off. He crouched on the rooftop and watched the pair stroll up the street to the College-Temple. He let them get a comfortable distance before he shinned down the pipe and darted in pursuit. Like most of the Ratboys he was almost preternaturally stealthy and agile and he reveled in following people without their knowledge. This was easy money – yessiree! He bit into the crab-apple and sucked in its sour goodness. He watched them enter the temple and then settled himself into the rooftop of the fairly run down house over the road. It was probably going to rain, but that wasn’t going to stop him from earning his keep, and avoiding a beating into the bargain for not getting the job done. Boy that Fourfingers was a hard-ass when he wanted to be. What drove him to want these two goons he’d never figure.
Liam woke with a start. It was pelting down but that wasn’t all that drew his attention. The College-Temple was turning into a fungus ridden puff-ball nightmare. Huge tendrils of fungus were everywhere! He’d never seen anything like it at all in the whole miserable 13 years or so of his life. What on Nehwon was this? The bakers cart was stopped in the street and Higgins the bun-seller was gawping open mouthed at the scene. Then he seemed to have a sudden, desperately worried thought, or some kind of odd reaction. Next thing he was back in his cart and whipping his pony for all it was worth. He was off in a hurry. Liam looked after him, and then back to the Temple. Then he saw the filamental spores drifting, catching the early light. Now he could see why Higgins had left it. This place was, umm, infectshious. Yes that was it – it was some kind of putrid death trap! He hopped off the backwall and onto the next roof. Time to report in. No sign of his quarry – maybe they’d carked it or were still on duty. This was news – if he could get to the Bell Mews before Higgins he could break the story and still tell Fourfingers what was up before it hit the press. Double down! He sped up his pace as he jumped from one roof to another. Down below in the streets the pony whinnied as Higgins applied some whip-based encouragement. Shortly thereafter he was knocked sideways as 8 stone of smelly Ratboy ruffian slammed into him from above, skittering him onto the cobbles. Liam whooped as he took the reins and the pony bolted off.
Ulris the White contemplated the fate of Lankhmar. This seething canker – this putrescence of a boil on the Temple. Clearly it was Putrexia returned. Angered by the betrayal of her High-Priest, now incarcerated, she’d seen fit to visit this abomination of disease upon her own and blight the foul quarters. If Huw, Varek and Hooknose don’t get the components for the Spell of Asepsis from the good Doctor, as laid out in the Tome of Advanced Precautions, then there was practically nothing he could do to prevent this catastrophe. Already the sick and dying were starting to impact on the City. So the questions now tugging at the mind of the Wizard Ulris were: would Dr Carom be up to this task? Furthermore would the trio he’d steered into undoing this great wrong follow it through? Ulris fervently hoped that the answers to these questions were – yes and yes. Much hinged on this and unless this was successful he didn’t rate the chances of the population doing anything much more than adding to the legions of the dead over the next few days. The Undead and Life disadvantaged league were bound to have a great deal to say about all this! Was this the Year of the Putrexian Fungal Death?
Session Five: The Ballad of Huw and Varek by El’ton the Bard of D’Jonne.
Burli Stronginthearm was led away in shame. Due to be tried for manslaughter, if not the murder of Corporal Lint knowing Judge Jules. Later that evening his private Legislative advisor Henry DeCoyote reviewed the facts. He didn’t care for them at all. He turned away yet another newshound from the guild and denied them access, interviews and all that ‘freedom of the press’ stuff they kept on insisting upon. He read the broadsheet and tutted to himself – so inaccurate – if only the press got news more directly rather than all this gossip and hearsay!
The college-temple of Putrexia cast a gloom over the grounds of the Gated Community of Quorn. Alicia the Scribe perused the Gnome Varek’s paperwork. What a strange Gnome he was, he thought as she ran through the questions with him. She didn’t like this pro-bono arrangement with Dr Carom but, it was, literally something of an unlife saver.
Varek now had two jobs. He pondered his interview with Dr Carom and the fact that McKinley was a dwarf judging from his tomb. It had been a topsy turvy job hiring. He had a retainer! His mind turned to their task for the temple and getting the jump on the Guild of Thieves. He hoped fervently that Huw wasn’t getting into bother.
He started the shift on his own and did the rounds. The new ‘under Sargent’ was a feckless individual and that made life a lot easier. He was concerned when half of the first shift was over and still no sign of Huw. He made preparations and did the rounds.
Eventually Huw turned up, shabby, blood speckled, mystified and encrusted with ice over his chest. What on Nehwon had happened? It would take forever to get to the bottom of it! Nevertheless – there was work to do. With his grabbers made at Markoni’s workshop – strange little Gnomish man he was – he readied himself to tackle the boxes.
From his skilful application of detect magic he knew something was up with his locker and that was not the same door. Gingerly he grasped the coin and gauntlet and nothing happened. He could hear nothing. Then he realised he could hear NOTHING. He looked about, Huw had wandered off to open up the secret chamber.
The barbarian choked down another pork and apple sandwich in the kitchen. Opposite him Kliff, the under-Sargent, had joined him for a middle of the night feast. It was one of the few ways you could get something out of the temple. The priesthood were all out at the Theatre – again. Obsessed if you asked him – and most people wouldn’t ask a Barbarian of the Wastes a god damned thing. He pondered his conversation with Varek and Huw earlier. He seethed at the injustice of their mistreatment.
When Huw completely failed to hear him coming and then later signed that he could also not hear stood next to Varek they figured out it was the Gluditch. Enchanted somehow by someone. So useful but also it made communication tricky whilst making moving stuff silently a doddle. It was like they were being helped! This puzzled him. They got on with the task of moving all of the small valuable stuff and stashing it in the McKinley Hearse. The coffin filled up nicely.
They both paused for a moment and stepped far enough away from the coin to catch a snatch of conversation from outside. Two voices they thought – didn’t recognise them – in the grounds.
Varek and Huw had to investigate. They finished their stash job and he gave the horse an apple. It looked at him approvingly. They scampered to the outbuilding tracking using infra sense. He saw that the lock was untouched and bolts on the door had been moved. He pressed them and the door opened.
Inside was a lot of booty and stuff, valuables, money and half eaten food and clobber. A lot of weapons. A stairwell led down. It was devoid of life so they crept together down the stairs. Now Varek regretted not keeping the coin rather than planting it in the secret room but they couldn’t keep it. What a noise they made! He shifted Betsy in his hands. They kept on making their way down and down. Eventually they could make out a pair of Gnolls in a small boat arguing over the oars and who should row. There was a lantern lit on the gondola. Huw slipped and slid down the final portion of the stairs and provided a fine distraction as he landed flat on his face of the sewer chamber’s floor. He moaned and eyed the boxes stacked being offloaded or loaded. He wasn’t sure which. The Gnolls panicked as Varek took advantage and shot one in the head. His compatriot screamed and dived in the water. Huw saw him bob up in the tunnel as Varek scrambled down the last turns of the stairs with his crossbow.
“Don’t feckin shoot me! Please don’t fecking kill me!”, called the pirate Gnoll wading out with his arms in the air. Varek squeezed the trigger and dispatched him ruthlessly. Perfect alibi – the thieves caught red handed. First time in college-security history that a felon had been caught: ever!
And that was the story that was in the press the next day. Heroic night guards foil pirate Gnolls robbery of College-temple. Golden statue of the Goddess discovered! Taken as Omen of the return of Putrexia! High priest: arrested. The citizens flocked to the pews now that the Goddess herself had shown mercy on the temple souls. It turned out though that the High-priest had been hiding this wealth all along and clearly Putrexia sought retribution for his mis-deeds. Of course he claimed no knowledge and foul play! Foul play!
Jimmy Fourfingers was far from pleased. Their authorised job was bungled and he was a suspicious as hell. However he was happy to be able to get a lot of revenue off the temple for the Guild and in a strange way he couldn’t really do much about the Gnome. He could do less about the furriner because of his “diplomatic immunity”. On the other hand there were others whose hands were less tied than his and morals were, umm, more black and white. He resolved to have a quiet word. To a friend, with a friend.
He reviewed over and over in his mind the conversation he’d had with Varek and Huw in the Black Widow. Like a dog gnawing at a bone long since sucked clean of meat and marrow. It had taken all his self-restraint not to call upon all the thieves in the tavern to cut their throats there and then! Something niggled.
No use picking at it. No way to profit from this without following the rules. Letting unlicensed thieving pass unpunished, even if it was attached to the some temple and the priesthood, wasn’t going to be an option. On one hand he was annoyed that the job was ruined, on the other satisfied that the boss above him would report to the boss above him to whomever it was that was in charge that Fourfingers had pulled in the haul.
El’ton the Bard strummed his fingers lightly over the lute as the revellers lapped up the fourth re-telling of the Gnome-security guards story. They were rolling drunk at this point although you couldn’t tell that the furriner was pissed except for a slight sway. The story got wilder and wilder as the crowd appreciated it more and more. The Grey Minstrel had never seen such a night since the story of Iswann the Bastard and the defeat of Spune the Frog-Priest. That had been the summer of no bread because of the Flour drought.
El’ton finished his last stanza and standing on the table regaled the crowd with his final version of the Ballad of Huw and Varek. It was now 33 verses long and made the heart leap at the daring doo and the definitely didn’t! The day watch didn’t care for verse 14 and stomped off to their shift two men short and considerably deflated and certain that their careers were either over or about to get considerable worse.
Excerpt from The Diary of Kris Kristoffersson, Watch Guard Captain, 2nd Class, In the Service of the Sherriff of Lankhmar and Under the Shadow of the Overlord.
The crowd parted and the body of Amberrh, The Lost Barbarian Princess of the Icy Wastes was held high and placed sensitively onto the awaiting hearse. Jeremiah Goldstein hung what remained of his exquisitely stitched head in deference as the inconsolable some time Wrestler and Toymaker Magnate – Burleinthearm was led away by the Sherriff’s cowering men.
The imposing shadow of Bummingham Gaol would engulf that man’s sorrow. The dread feared master of the Diamond Spider Tavern eyed the crowd. Behind his back one of his dancing girls quaked, but it wasn’t the cold Lankhmarian air that she was shivering over. It was the sight of the old enemy. One of them.
Huw stood impassively as the Watch scraped what remained of their own from the cobbles, walls and bystanders. They were asking a lot of questions. I looked at the document for the nineteenth time and focused on the seal on the stranger’s document of immunity. His own soldiers killed over a woman and this man he couldn’t arrest! Somehow he was the cause of all this trouble from what could be gathered but the witnesses barely managed to string a coherent accusation together.
All I can do is escort him to his embassy for safety purposes. What a fucking mess this was – when the Underlord got the news via the Sherriff and then the Overlord heard – who knew what would happen?
The death of a princess? Was this the Year the Icy Waste Barbarians waged war on Lankhmar after all? Long had half maddened prophets scried and warned of the hordes descending from the Wastes. They would freeze the swamp and descend upon the city of thieves and cut out the beating heart of all those who stood in their way. And that was one of the more optimistic forecasts! If you get a Putrexian Augur to cast the bones – Phtt!
I turned to the furriner and said, trying to hold the terror in my belly at bay, “You must return to your Embassy – these guards will ensure your safety….sir”. Quite frankly I decided then and there to get some new guards because from what I’d seen no one lived for very long around this Huw bloke. He was strange, dangerous and seemingly impervious to permanent harm. I mean to take a blast of the icy chill-spell like that and not be dead! Oh yeah – and he had a very strange sense of dress. This notwithstanding he’d faced down and survived the assault of Amberrh of the Wastes, and her lover boy friend who shot a Ballista of all things through the head of that little shit Lint. Awful. What would I tell Petunia about her Lint’s demise? And what would the Guild of the Watch say about not being able to touch the trouble-maker?
Enough of this. The mess is mopped up. The toy maker will be wallowing in gaol soon enough and be up in front of judgement a few days hence. The furriner ushered clear of the scene and encouraged to the embassy. The crowd slowly disperse, some clusters talking to each other and eyeing up the departing figures. I stomp off to make my report. There was a lot of hard spelling to do – decapitat.. Decapitatshun. This was going to be a long night over the nibs.
Jeremiah Goldstein led the dapple grey mare who looked balefully at him to the cemetery. No rush job this one, oi-vey, which nothing ever was to the zombie staff of McKinley’s. After all no need to snag his new stitching on anything sharp was there – the cost of thread alone and the time taken to repair was enough of an deterrent. Let alone the rents.