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A Leash of Foxes

Knightfall

Blazing Wordsmith
First off, wait a moment in order to assure that the plant is truly dead and to try and calm down the Pokemon in the stalls. (If there's any feed or treats for them then you might want to use that)
Also, it might do you some good to investigate the plant juice, or perhaps later, have someone investigate it who might be able to tell you a bit more about the plant. Who knows? The juice might be valuable.

Secondly, after you do those things, you should go check the wagon and see if there's any bandages or spare clean cloth and water you can use to clean off and wrap your wound.

Thirdly, once you are done and not bleeding anymore, you should probably get some more sleep if you can. If sleep proves to be unobtainable, then you should probably try and find someone to tell them about this incident with the twisturne and its need for a gardener. Perhaps John or Rosalind?

Knightfall signing off... ;005;
 

Cutlerine

Gone. Not coming back.
First off, wait a moment in order to assure that the plant is truly dead and to try and calm down the Pokemon in the stalls. (If there's any feed or treats for them then you might want to use that).

You pull out the pitchfork and turn the Cacnea over with one foot. It's definitely dead.

In the stalls, the Gogoat and the horse appear to have calmed down – at least, they've stopped making noises. You suppose they must have realised that the threat has been eliminated; they must have seen Cacturne or Cacnea on their past journeys, and know the sounds and smells that go with their riders killing them.


Also, it might do you some good to investigate the plant juice, or perhaps later, have someone investigate it who might be able to tell you a bit more about the plant. Who knows? The juice might be valuable.

The short answer is that it isn't. The long answer is that it's Cacnea sap – thin, watery stuff that, in this case, seems to have begun fermenting. The poor plant was rotting from the inside out; it was as good as dead even before you stuck a pitchfork through its stem.


Secondly, after you do those things, you should go check the wagon and see if there's any bandages or spare clean cloth and water you can use to clean off and wrap your wound.

Shutting the window and leaving the Cacnea for the morning, you return to the wagon to look for a light. There's a dark lantern near the chest where you found the blankets, and a box of lucifers that ignite with a burst of white sparks and a thick stink; with the light situation sorted, you examine the wound on your arm. It's not as bad as it looks – the Cacnea's spines were poorly formed and many bent or snapped rather than entering your arm. If it hadn't struggled so violently, there wouldn't be so much skin missing.

You've had worse, you think, although of course you don't actually remember having it. You pluck a few truculent thorns from the wound, rinse it with half your canteen water, and use the ruined sleeve of your shirt to bandage it. It ought to be all right, but you'll check again in the morning to make sure.


Thirdly, once you are done and not bleeding anymore, you should probably get some more sleep if you can. If sleep proves to be unobtainable, then you should probably try and find someone to tell them about this incident with the twisturne and its need for a gardener. Perhaps John or Rosalind?

Your heart has calmed down and your nerves are no longer tingling; once you put out the lantern, it's relatively easy to get back to sleep – especially with the pitchfork kept within reach. A little extra security works wonders for one's peace of mind.

You think you dream of being under the earth again, but you aren't sure. There are other things mixed in with the shadowy figure – thorns and the squelch of putrefying vegetable-flesh, circling vultures and the long narrow faces of foxes. When at last you wake, you aren't sure that you feel all that rested: between the scuffle in the stable and the dreams, you feel like you've spent half the night in action.

But dawn comes and you brush it off; Rosalind will be here soon, and you need to get ready to go. You check your arm – looks fine – and wander over to the saloon, where, following the smell of food to a small and somewhat dingy kitchen, you find John making breakfast.

“Morning,” he says. “You're early. Ros ain't even up yet.”

You tell him that it isn't about that – you killed a Cacnea that grew out of the twisturne last night and you thought someone ought to know.

John blanches. He almost drops his pan, but sets it down on the stove just in time.

“Jesus,” he says. “You don't mess around, do you?”

You suppose not.

“Where is it?” he asks.

It's in the back of the stables, pinned to the floor with a pitchfork. Which might need a wash before it's used for hay again, you add helpfully.

John shakes his head.

“Now who the hell are you?” he wonders. “You wake up in the middle of the desert, memory gone, in search of some old gun, and your first night in town you kill some twistspawn – what kind of person does that?”

You, you suggest.

“Yeah, I guess so.” He sighs. “Well, uh, when she's up I'll tell Ros to see if there's a gardener in Scourston looking for work. Looks like we'll be needing it.” He gestures out to the bar. “Go on, take a seat out there. I figure you've earned yourself a free breakfast.”

It looks like monster-slaying has its perks. You return to the cool of the taproom – the heat of the rising sun has yet to find its way in here – and sit yourself down at a table near the bar. A moment later, Rosalind turns up, scratching her neck and yawning.

“Mornin', nameless,” she says, sitting down opposite you. “John up?”

You nod towards the kitchen.

“Right. Sleep well?”

You stabbed a mutant cactus-monster in the chest with a pitchfork.

“Right, right― hey, what?

You explain what happened earlier, and she blinks at you speechlessly.

“I – I – you know that people would normally be a little more bothered 'bout somethin' like that, don't you?”

You shrug, and suggest that perhaps you're used to it.

“Maybe.” She frowns. “What kind of life were you leadin' before the desert, I wonder?”

You think John was wondering the same thing. It's curious how fascinated everyone else is by your past; you want to know too, of course, but they're the ones who keep talking about it.

John comes with the food, and Rosalind asks him if he knows about the Cacnea thing.

“Yeah,” he says. “Tell you what, Ros, you take this 'un with you and you could go through the Pads without even worrying.”

She grins.

“We'll see, John, we'll see.”

The two of you eat, and John sends his boys out to oversee the loading of the rose oil into the wagon while you do so. Once you're done, you head out to join them, and see several men and women wheeling handcarts loaded with small kegs towards the wagon, where John's boys haul the cargo aboard. There's certainly a lot more than you came with; these are small barrels, but they're impressively numerous.

“Told you we had a bumper crop,” says John.

“I can see,” replies Rosalind. “It's more'n I thought it would be.”

“Can you take it all?” he asks, suddenly concerned.

“Oh, of course,” she says. “My girls'll take it, no problem.”

“Miss Cogburn!” calls someone – the man with iron-coloured hair from yesterday, hurrying across the crossroads. “Good morning, Miss Cogburn,” he says, coming closer. “You're settin' off now, I take it?”

“Soon as that oil's loaded,” says Rosalind, glancing at the commotion near the stable. It seems to be dying down; the last cart is being emptied. “What is it?”

“Your payment,” he says, holding out a purse. “Wouldn't want you leavin' without it now, would we?”

“No we wouldn't,” agrees Rosalind, taking it. “Thank you. An' actually, I'm glad I ran into you. My friend here killed a Cacnea last night in back of the stables – grown out of the twisturne.”

He looks shocked, but only for a moment. After that, he just looks resigned.

“I thought it might happen soon,” he sighs. “That thing's rotten to the core.”

“It ain't irredeemable,” argues Rosalind. “I seen worse. But I was thinkin' I could ask in Scourston if there's a twistgardener lookin' for work – only, if there ain't no money here for 'em, no one's going to come all the way out here. So I was wonderin'―”

“If I could allocate any town funds.” The man nods. “Well, I don't rightly know how we'll afford it, but I guess we don't have a choice.” He turns to you. “I got to thank you, stranger,” he says. “That's my brother's horse in the stables – he's the ostler. Looks like you saved her.”

You insist that it was nothing; anyone would have done what you did.

“I appreciate it all the same,” he says. “You did a good thing.” He looks over in the direction of the stables. The handcarts are being pushed away now, and John's boys are securing the kegs in place with cables. “Anyway,” he says. “I better go and tell him that there's a corpse in his stable. He'll take it best from me, I think.” He tips his hat to Rosalind, and to you. “Miss Cogburn. Mister – er, Miss – er, well. Ahem. Have a safe journey.”

He walks off towards the stable, and you ask Rosalind who he is.

“The mayor,” she tells you. “And the owner of the store.” She clears her throat. “Anyway. Looks like we're about done here.”

The three of you cross to the wagon, and you and Rosalind each take charge of a goat, getting them into harness. The night's disturbance doesn't seem to have done them any harm; they toss their heads and bleat eagerly, ready to be off again. Or perhaps, you think, they simply want to leave Rust and its degenerate twisturne behind.

The insect-armoured mercenary appears as if from nowhere, leading a horse that looks as though it would quite happily kick you and everyone else in the vicinity to death if its rider didn't hold it back, and introduces herself.

“Lily of Padtown,” she says, which is the last thing you expected from a six-foot shaven-headed warrior with more knives in her belt than a fox assassin. “I'm riding with you. Did John say?”

You expected a voice rougher than Rosalind's, if that were possible, but she speaks with the accent of someone with rather more education than mercenaries normally have. There is money in her voice, and breeding. Neither of them matches the spiked, brutish rifle on her back.

“Yeah,” says Rosalind. “He did. I'm Rosalind, an' this is – well.”

You explain that as far as you know you don't have a name – which information she receives with apparent interest.

“You'll have to tell me about that sometime,” says Lily. “For now, we should get on before the sun rises too far.”

“I hear that,” agrees Rosalind. “Well, then.”

You stand by the wagon as she says her goodbyes, feeling out of place. You have only one of your own; once you've wished John well, there's no one else you feel able to talk to.

At last, Rosalind climbs up onto the box and you leap up at the back, ready to keep a rearward watch. Alongside, Lily mounts her fearsome horse and twitches the reins: you are on the move at last.

The children run alongside the wagon as Bessie and Margot trot along, hooves kicking up little puffs of dirt; they shout and wave, and further back, so do their elders. Rust is, you think, not such a bad little place, and you wave back just before the twisturne gates creak shut behind you. You know it is only a wall, but you can't rid yourself of the conviction that the monstrous plant is swallowing it up – consuming the town bricks and all. The thought makes you shiver in the heat, and you are glad to be distracted by Rosalind calling you. She has the reins in one hand and her spare gun in the other.

“Here,” she says. “If you're going to be a guard, you at least got to have a gun.”

You take the butt of the pistol in your hand. It feels familiar and unfamiliar at once; you know immediately how to use it, but you can't help but feel that something is wrong with it. You frown at it for a moment, then switch it to your left hand and smile as something clicks. This is right, you know; you might have temporarily forgotten your handedness, but it's come back. Your hand remembers, even if you don't.

“Something wrong?” asks Rosalind.

No, you tell her. It's just fine.

You move back to the rear of the wagon and sit down to watch Rust shrinking away. To your right, Lily rides on, eyes flickering across all points of the horizon. She does not notice the shape that rises from the top of the wagon – and neither do you until it is too high to see properly, circling once again, trailing you back across the desert.

You narrow your eyes. You are finding it harder and harder to believe that that thing is a vulture.
 
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Chibi_Muffin

Smart Cookie
(This is really good!)

Once again see if you can pick out anything about the vulture that's unusual - appearance, cries, actions etc. Whether you can or not, ask someone if they know or have heard anything about the vultures here, particularly unusual ones (if you can work something out from analysing the vulture, refer to that).
 

Knightfall

Blazing Wordsmith
I agree with the previous poster in that you should try to observe the bird as much as you can. Try to notice anything new about it, especially since you are now not dying of thirst and are of generally sound mind.

Secondly, talk to Rosalind of what the plan is from here on out, mainly after reaching Scourston. See if she might be able to help with contacting Joshua Stone (or perhaps not contacting, but rather ... something more stalkerish in nature if it proves to be so).

Thirdly, see if you can strike up a conversation with Lily. Find out more about her if you can. She might be a powerful ally on your side if you get in a jam somewhere down the road (which is very likely at this point).

Knightfall signing off... ;005;
 

Cutlerine

Gone. Not coming back.
Once again see if you can pick out anything about the vulture that's unusual - appearance, cries, actions etc. Whether you can or not, ask someone if they know or have heard anything about the vultures here, particularly unusual ones (if you can work something out from analysing the vulture, refer to that).

Try to notice anything new about it, especially since you are now not dying of thirst and are of generally sound mind.


The bird flies too high for you to see anything of it beyond a silhouette; the most unusual thing you can see about it is that it won't leave you alone. It does not cry out. It does not flap its wings, or at least it hardly ever does. It just hangs there, tracing wide loops on the sky, and follows.

Also, you're no expert, but you're fairly certain birds normally need to eat and drink. This one doesn't seem to have stopped trailing you long enough to do so.

You decide to see if Rosalind knows anything about it, but she simply shakes her head.

“There ain't nothin' unusual about the birds round here as far as I know,” she says. “Where's this one?”

You point, and she leans forwards, craning her neck back to see the bird soaring on above.

“Maybe it's hopin' we'll drop somethin',” she suggests, but you disagree, telling her that it's been following you ever since you first woke up in the desert. “I can't explain that,” she says, frowning up at it. “I don't like the sound of it, though.” She settles back into her seat. “Whatever it is, it's out of gun range,” she goes on. “Which means there ain't nothin' we can do about it. Besides, it ain't done anythin' yet.”

Nothing except watch, you think.

You can't really talk to her now, but you make a mental note to mention the bird to Lily later.


Secondly, talk to Rosalind of what the plan is from here on out, mainly after reaching Scourston. See if she might be able to help with contacting Joshua Stone (or perhaps not contacting, but rather ... something more stalkerish in nature if it proves to be so).

You ask Rosalind what she's doing once you get to Scourston.

“I got to deliver these to the man who'll sell 'em on,” she says, waving an arm at the barrels. “After that, I'll buy up a load of supplies an' cart 'em out to some nowhere town where the big trading caravans don't go. Galvan Bluff, probably. I've got a good feelin' about Galvan Bluff.” She pauses. “What about you?”

That is actually what you wanted to talk about, you confess. Does she know how you might get access to Joshua Stone?

She shakes her head.

“That ain't goin' to be easy,” she tells you. “He don't exactly keep an open house.”

You ask if she could show you where you could find him when you arrive.

“I'll show you to his company headquarters,” she says, “but I don't know how you'd get in. An' as for his house – well, he's got better security than the governor, and I doubt he's one to let in uninvited guests.”

It makes sense. Stone must have a great many enemies and a huge amount of wealth to protect. Unless you suddenly remember a distinguished career as a master burglar, then you're going to have to come up with a very impressive plan to get into either his house or his offices.

“What are you going to say to him, anyway?” asks Rosalind. “'Hey mister, you an' I probably don't know each other but I think you have my gun'?” She sighs. “I don't know that botherin' Stone is such a good idea. He's not a man you want to annoy.”

You think about that for a moment, and tell her that that's a chance you're just going to have to take.

She rolls her eyes.

“Well, don't say I didn't warn you.” She sounds irritated, and you tactfully retreat to your post at the rear end of the wagon.

On the other side of the canvas, the bird falls back silently in line with you.


Thirdly, see if you can strike up a conversation with Lily. Find out more about her if you can. She might be a powerful ally on your side if you get in a jam somewhere down the road (which is very likely at this point).

A little after noon, Lily signals that she needs to stop for a few minutes: her horse needs to drink. You take advantage of the break to stretch your legs, and to ask her a few questions.

To break the ice, you tell her that she has an impressive horse. There aren't many that can run through the desert all day like that.

“He's bred for it,” she says, patting his side. It makes you flinch; anything that even vaguely resembles an act of violence towards a horse this ferocious makes you horribly worried that he'll turn and kick someone in the head. “Aren't you, Gryngolet?”

Gryngolet twitches his ears. It seems to be all the response Lily needs.

You ask if she's noticed the bird that's been following you. She hasn't, so you point it out; on seeing it, she glares at it for a while, then shrugs.

“I don't know what that might be,” she says. “Maybe it likes you.”

Maybe, you agree.

When you ride out, you notice that Lily keeps looking back in the direction of the bird. She doesn't like it, that much is clear. You don't like it either, for that matter.

The day is uneventful, but such is the way of travelling in the wasteland. You can see anyone approaching from miles off; if there's going to be trouble, it will come at night, when the desert animals are most active and human enemies can sneak up on you unseen.

As dusk begins to fall, Rosalind brings Bessie and Margot to a halt. They haven't drunk anything since morning, and unlike Gryngolet they haven't needed to; their succulent leaves are still swollen with stored water. You help Rosalind remove their harness, and they wander a few steps away from the wagon before sitting down and planting a few thin roots for the night.

Rosalind strikes a lucifer on the iron tyre of a wagon wheel and lights two lamps, hanging them from hooks on the side of the chassis. Now you realise why hers are dark lanterns: if you see anyone about, you want to be able to shut off the light before they see you.

The three of you gather in the little circle of brightness, and eat salted meat and pickled false-cactus root as the air cools. Rosalind has relaxed, but Lily is more on edge than ever; protecting the wagon is her job, and the time of day when it is most in danger is fast approaching.

“So,” she says, licking her fingers. “What's this about you not having a name?”

You explain the events of the past couple of days to her. She does not often look at you – her eyes keep roving over the horizon – but you can tell she is interested.

What about her, you ask. How does someone end up a mercenary?

“I'm from Padtown,” she replies. “A lot of us end up as mercenaries.”

Padtown: one of the few places in the East the foxes are entirely willing to cede to the Orrene colonists. It's right on the borders of the Cactus Pads, the great spawning ground of the wasteland's Cacturne; at any one moment in time, there are hundreds (sometimes even thousands) of the ambulatory vegetables planting or guarding their seeds there. You don't know why anyone thought it was a good place to build a town; Padtowners have a habit of dying young from predatory-cactus-related injuries.

“My parents sent me to school in Scourston when I was young,” Lily goes on. “Hence the elocution.” For a moment her voice is a parody of itself, and then it fades. “But I was always better with a gun than a book.”

Her skin gleams like burnished bronze in the glow of the lanterns. Like Rosalind, she's a true Orrene, descended from the people who lived there before those who now own the country came. Perhaps you are too. You aren't sure: whatever your natural skin colour, the scars and the desert sun have left it unrecognisable.

Fair enough, you say. It's not for everyone.

“Mm.” Lily takes her rifle from her back. “I'm on this watch,” she says. “Then you.” She points at you. “Then you.” Rosalind. “Then me again.”

You tell her you can do more than one, if need be. You don't seem to be much of a sleeper.

“It's fine. I'm getting paid for this. You're not.”

“Well, if that's settled,” says Rosalind brightly, “then I'm tired as hell an' I'm headin' to bed.”

You bid her goodnight and she replies in kind as she vanishes into the wagon.

Lily looks at you.

“Aren't you going?”

You say that you aren't tired yet, and she gives you an odd look.

“If I was a suspicious woman,” she says, “I'd think you were up to something. Is there something you want from me?”

Actually, you really were not yet tired. But perhaps there is something more you could ask.
 

Chibi_Muffin

Smart Cookie
Ask Lily what's up. She appears to be looking at the horizon an awful lot; something must be bothering her about it. If it's about the dangers that she says are common at this time of day, maybe ask what kinds of things are dangerous - is it the monsters, bandits or something else? Ask if there's anything you can do to help; if anything goes wrong, all of you are going to pay, so a contribution at this point could be vital.
 

Knightfall

Blazing Wordsmith
In addition to the horizon (ask her is there is any specific threat she was warned about), see if she has any more opinions on the bird. She openly disliked it, so it seems she might know something.

And, unfortunately, she seems to have exhausted much of the conversation topics earlier, but perhaps you could ask her about how life is out here, and see if you can jog your memory just a tiny bit. Perhaps she knows something of Joshua Stone?

Then, as Chibi_Muffin suggested, see if there is anything you can do to help her at all. If there is not, then go off to sleep until your shift is up.

Knightfall signing off... ;005;
 

Cutlerine

Gone. Not coming back.
Ask Lily what's up. She appears to be looking at the horizon an awful lot; something must be bothering her about it. If it's about the dangers that she says are common at this time of day, maybe ask what kinds of things are dangerous - is it the monsters, bandits or something else? Ask if there's anything you can do to help; if anything goes wrong, all of you are going to pay, so a contribution at this point could be vital.

Ask her is there is any specific threat she was warned about.


You ask if there's any more than that. She has been on edge all day, after all.

“Tonight's the night we'll be attacked, if we are attacked,” she tells you. “Tomorrow night we'll be in safer territory – within the patrol borders of the Scourston rangers. But tonight, we're in the middle of nowhere. If I wanted that oil for myself, tonight's the night I'd take it.”

You ask if it is likely that someone will try and take it.

“I don't know,” she replies. “I don't like not knowing – in fact, I make a living out of my suspicion. Well, that and a very large gun.”

Is there anything you can do to help?

“Not really,” she says. “Not unless you can see the future.”

You can't even see your past, you reflect. The future seems something of a long shot.


Perhaps she knows something of Joshua Stone?

You ask if you could perhaps put a different question to her, and she grunts with satisfaction.

“I knew there was something else,” she says. “Go on. What is it?”

Has she ever worked for Joshua Stone?

She blinks, surprised.

“Well – yes, actually, I have. Why do you ask?”

You tell her that you need access to him to help uncover your past, and show her the note. She hands it back almost instantly; she's not lying about that education.

“I don't think I can help with that,” she says. “I did a stint in his militia protecting the mines out at Alumont, but I didn't like it and struck out on my own.” She shrugs. The motion is almost invisible beneath the heavy plates of her insectile armour. “It's not a friendly organisation.”

You nod. It makes sense; you don't see Lily as much of a team player. Or indeed as someone that people particularly like.


Go off to sleep until your shift is up.

You bid her goodnight and return to the wagon, leaving her to make slow circles around it with her rifle at the ready. Sleep comes easily – if the bird is out there still, you reason, it's unlikely to take any aggressive action with Lily outside – and before you know it you are back beneath the earth, watching the figure with the three glowing eyes in the dark.

There is a long silence, broken only by the shifting of the earth around you. You would like to leave, but you feel a certain obligation to your sinister host, and anyway there does not seem to be a door.

“WAKE,” says the figure. Their voice is too big for the tiny space, a tornado trapped in a jam jar. Clods of soil pop free of the walls, and you nearly lose your balance as the world quakes around you. “WAKE!

With that word, the cave seems to collapse in on you, and you start back into the desert night with a short, near-silent gasp. You almost sit up, but it still feels as if the earth is tumbling down on you, crushing your chest, filling your mouth up with bitter soil – and then, almost immediately, the feeling has gone. You can move again, and you sit up in the dark, trying to catch your breath.

You pause.

What was that Lily said about tonight being the most likely night to get attacked by would-be oil thieves?

There is someone at the other end of the wagon.

And they are climbing aboard.

Evening! Just to let you know: my revels now are ended and I'm back at university, which may mean I'm a bit slower with my responses. I won't be taking a break, however, so feel free to keep posting. Thank you all for a fantastic first couple of weeks; you've really made this story. In a surprisingly literal sense.
 

Deadly.Braviary

Well-Known Member
It would seem you have two options: take the loud approach, raise the alarm and scare off the robber, hoping it's an actual human, or take a quiet look around, determine who it is and what they're doing, and then make your move. I say, put yourself at risk and check out what's going on. If you judge the threat to be a major one, scream until you wake the dead.

~Deadly
 

Cutlerine

Gone. Not coming back.
It would seem you have two options: take the loud approach, raise the alarm and scare off the robber, hoping it's an actual human, or take a quiet look around, determine who it is and what they're doing, and then make your move. I say, put yourself at risk and check out what's going on. If you judge the threat to be a major one, scream until you wake the dead.

You lie down again, shifting onto your side. From here, you have an unobstructed view of the person climbing into the wagon. They are taller than you, and broader, but you can't make out any more details than that; it is almost pitch-black, and their silhouette is faint against the struggling moonlight.

Clunk.

They pause. You freeze. That is a heavy footstep. It is the footstep of a very large person, or one wearing a formidable set of armour.

This is not a Cacturne, then, looking for a midnight dinner; this is no mere monster. It's a person, and a person armed for battle.

You feel for the revolver, lying at your side, and grip it tightly. Will regular bullets work? You hope so; that's all that's in the gun at the moment, and if you take a shot it will be at point-blank range. Unless this person is armoured so heavily that the desert sun would boil them in their own sweat, you should be all right.

The intruder starts moving again, a little faster now. Your eyes flick back to them, straining through the dark, and just about make out flanges around the shoulders, and spines.

Wait.

You know that armour.

You let out a quiet sigh of relief: it's just Lily, come to wake you for your shift. She steps gingerly around Rosalind and your grip on the gun slackens; you are about to sit up when she reaches you, and with a sharp, brutal motion brings her sword down―

―into the blankets where you were lying just a moment ago. You roll to the side with reflexes you didn't know you had, bring the gun up and fire.

There is a boom and the inside of the wagon fills with smoke almost immediately; Lily staggers back, but you know that Bugshell armour of hers will have saved her and you curl into a space behind a row of oil barrels as she lurches forward again, plucking the sword from where it has stuck in the boards.

“Lord!” yowls Rosalind. “Who is it? Where? Are we dead?”

You aren't listening. You're emptying the cylinder of the gun out onto the floor, fumbling at your waist for the pouch of houndtooth bullets―

Swish.

The great sword flickers an inch past your face. It's the kind they call a desert woodsman, designed for lopping off the heads of Cacturne; if Lily's aim had not gone awry in the blinding gunsmoke, it would have taken yours off just as easily.

She stands over you now, whipping the sword back up again as easily as if it were a fishing rod; now she brings it down, tearing the smoke asunder, and you have not yet loaded the bullet

“Jesus!” cries Rosalind, and there is another gunshot; it does not hit anything, but the noise and sudden cordite stink catches Lily off-guard and her blade misses the mark, thumping into the side of a barrel.

You take your chance.

Be bold, be bold, but not too bold.

Why those words again? Why now? It doesn't matter. The houndtooth bullet roars out of the barrel as if in slow motion, a glowing ghost of a thing packed with Houndoom marrow and white phosphorus―

It hits.

A flower of whitish fire blossoms on Lily's chest, the Fire-type energies ravaging the Bug armour, and she takes a step back, crying out in pain and panic. You jump to your feet before the fire can spread – the wagon is wooden, and very dry – and set one shoulder to her midriff, fire licking inquisitively around your hair. She falls, the jags of her armour tearing through the canvas―

―and you land next to her in the dust outside, already scooping up sand between your hands. You throw it over her, and the flames gutter; a kick at the dirt and a second cloud settles over her chest. The fire is soon out, and now your positions are reversed: you stand over her, gunsmoke curling lazily out from the hole in the wall behind you. Your revolver is aimed squarely at her face; there will be no need of houndtooth ammunition, not this time. It does not take fire to pierce human skin and bone.

Lily looks up at you, and the expression in her eyes is unreadable. Regret? Hardly likely. Perhaps it is resignation. Oddly, you are not sure that there is any anger.

You tell her that you have some questions.

“I knew you were more dangerous than you looked,” she replies. “I wasn't expecting there to be anyone else here; you put me right off. That's why I had to kill you first.”

You point out that she hasn't exactly succeeded in that respect.

“I'd noticed,” she says.

“Jesus Christ!” shrieks Rosalind, jumping down from the wagon and wafting smoke away from her. “What the hell was all that? Did you get him?”

“Yes, they did,” replies Lily. “They got me.”

Rosalind stares.

“What – you?”

“No one would have known,” says Lily. There is a listlessness about her. “The wagon leaves Rust driven by you. It arrives in Scourston driven by me. You met an accident on the road, I sell the rose oil, I sell the wagon and the goats and I've enough to live on for two years.”

Except you got in the way, you add.

“Yes.” Lily sighs. “It was a calculated risk. I should have listened to my instincts and called it off.”

“You're mighty relaxed for someone starin' down the barrel of a gun,” says Rosalind, who seems to be getting annoyed.

“I've done it before,” replies Lily. “It's not all that.”

“Well, uh, good,” snaps Rosalind. “'Cause that's what's happenin'.” She turns away, shaking her head. “God damn it. Get on your horse and get out of here.”

Lily blinks.

“You aren't killing me?”

“I ain't a barbarian,” she retorts. “Get up. Leave. An' if you feel like comin' back, well, I ain't so little a barbarian that I can guarantee you won't end up dead then.”

You look at her, and she nods; you step back, keeping your gun trained on Lily, and let her get up and mount Gryngolet. The huge horse fixes you with a baleful eye, but it doesn't concern you. Your recent performance makes you very aware that you could at this moment put a bullet in Gryngolet's brain and another in Lily's before he even had a chance to charge.

It is not comforting knowledge. What were you before – a mercenary? Some wasteland scrounger living by your skill with a gun? Whatever you were, death is not unfamiliar to you. You wouldn't baulk at ending a life. In fact, you know exactly how long it would take you to kill everyone around you and steal the rose oil yourself. The idea is not repellent, but the fact that it isn't is, and a faint shiver passes down your spine in the warm desert night.

Lily gives you a long look.

“You could kill me six times over before I finished this sentence,” she says. “I won't forget that you didn't. But I won't forget that you set me on fire, either.” She turns her horse around, ready to ride off; your gun arm never wavers. “You'll probably never see me again,” she tells you, “but if you do, you should watch out.”

And she is gone, riding away across the darkened sands.

You turn to Rosalind, who shrugs helplessly.

“Well, how was I meant to know? I didn't even choose her,” she says.

You aren't blaming her. In fact, things seem to have turned out pretty well.

“Let's hope she really don't come back,” says Rosalind, peering into the dark from under furrowed brows. “She could―”

She won't do anything, you assure her; she will not return. Lily has a soldier's eye for danger, and she knows she won't best you easily. Privately, though, you almost wish she would come back. You want to know what more she sees in you; if anyone could tell you what you are, it would be someone with her blade-sharp instincts.

“And while we're on the subject,” Rosalind goes on, “what the hell was all that?”

You reply that you're better in a fight than you thought.

“I can see!” She shakes her head. “Honestly, nameless. I've known a lot of people, but I've never known anyone attract trouble like you do. Never known anyone put a stop to it like you, either.”

There is something in what she says, you think. Some kind of danger follows you, mutating with each step from vulture to heat to cactus to mercenary; a labile evil that can be traced only by the blackened angel above you, like the tall fin of a psammic requiem.

Rosalind does not quite trust your hunch that Lily won't be back, and decides to move on immediately. The goats uprooted the pegs they were tethered to and fled when they saw the fire, but they have not gone far, and it is not long before you are on the road again. Rosalind drives; you sit in the back, gun at the ready, and wait.

The night is uneventful, except you are utterly exhausted; by dawn, you are struggling to keep your eyes open, and tell Rosalind that you have to sleep. She nods – she is a little better rested than you are, but only a little – and the pair of you agree that you will sleep until mid-afternoon, when Rosalind will stop the wagon and you will keep watch until a few hours before sunrise.

You have no more dreams when you sleep. Perhaps they only come when you need them.

You are beginning to realise that you do not really remember how dreams work.

When you wake, it is the beginning of a long vigil that leaves more time than you are comfortable with to think about what it is you are. You are a killer: that's undeniable. Lily was trying to kill you quietly, it's true, and was forced to use a blade rather than a bullet – but she is a formidable opponent, and the way you dealt with her was not that of an amateur.

But being a killer is not so strange on the frontier; there are men and women and other things putting lead and steel and less tangible weapons in each other wherever you care to look. Ending lives is not exactly pleasant work, but with the war and the difficulty of governing such a huge and hostile area it is inevitable that it should happen every now and again.

No, what concerns you is how skilled you are. You set a woman on fire and pushed her through a wall without a second thought. Even here, where blood and sand mix freely, that isn't considered normal.

You find no answers, of course, and your watch passes without incident. Lily does not reappear. No Cacturne or foxes attack. When you wake Rosalind, you are more bored than afraid – bored yet slightly excited; in twelve hours or so, after all, you will be in Scourston.

Close to sunrise, you see a band of men and women riding northwest on sturdy desert horses. They wear flexible Krokorok-leather armour with the rougher scales filed flat and regimental insignias painted across the breast: they are government rangers, patrolling what wasteland they can in an effort to maintain law and order.

Rosalind glances at you as they ride closer.

“They seen us,” she says. “They're comin' over.” She pulls on the reins and draws Bessie and Margot to a halt. “Listen, you're the one with the hunches. Do we tell 'em 'bout Lily or not?”

It's a good question. You don't have to; Lily accepted her defeat with good grace, after all, and kept her promise not to return.

Maybe you feel that you ought to encourage what honour there is among thieves. But maybe you find it hard to forgive someone who tries to cut your head off with a desert woodsman.

It all depends, you think, on what kind of person you are. Or, since at the moment you aren't really anyone at all, what kind of person you think you are.


Note: Feel free to debate that one among yourselves; I'll count up the for and against and run with whatever most people are in favour of. I won't just go with the first suggestion someone makes unless it's the only one. I mention this solely because at points in the story when I offer you direct choices like this, they make a big difference to later events.
 
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teamVASIMR

Plasma Rocket
Hey you're doing one over here now, nice!

I flipped a coin, result was yes, report the Lily incident to the proper authorities.
Cutlerine, if others reply please ignore the above.

Gryngolet is such a cool name. Though Lily is no Gawain. Ohwelltoobad.

Back to the story:
It may be wise to prepare a fight-or-flight-or-hide plan in case the "government rangers" turn out to be hostile.
Also note it has not been confirmed whether Nameless is in good standing with the law.

OK that's it for now.
 

Knightfall

Blazing Wordsmith
Sorry for the lack of replies! I really should have found the time for this. But, that is neither here nor there.

I am on the fence about whether to tell the patrol about Lily or not. ... I believe that it will be better for you if you abstain from telling them about her. While she did vow that she wouldn't be friendly on another encounter, if she sees that there isn't a bounty on her head from the incident, she may go back on that statement. Or something. I have a hunch.

So, don't tell them about Lily, and generally be cautious with these patrols. As TeamVASIMR said above, you have no idea who you are and airing on the side of caution shouldn't get you arrested or killed.

Knightfall signing off... ;005;
 

Deadly.Braviary

Well-Known Member
I believe that it will be better for you if you abstain from telling them about her. While she did vow that she wouldn't be friendly on another encounter, if she sees that there isn't a bounty on her head from the incident, she may go back on that statement. Or something. I have a hunch.

So, don't tell them about Lily, and generally be cautious with these patrols. As TeamVASIMR said above, you have no idea who you are and airing on the side of caution shouldn't get you arrested or killed.
Seconded; don't rat on her.

~Deadly
 

Cutlerine

Gone. Not coming back.
I flipped a coin, result was yes, report the Lily incident to the proper authorities.

It may be wise to prepare a fight-or-flight-or-hide plan in case the "government rangers" turn out to be hostile. Also note it has not been confirmed whether Nameless is in good standing with the law.

I believe that it will be better for you if you abstain from telling them about her. While she did vow that she wouldn't be friendly on another encounter, if she sees that there isn't a bounty on her head from the incident, she may go back on that statement. Or something. I have a hunch.

So, don't tell them about Lily, and generally be cautious with these patrols. As TeamVASIMR said above, you have no idea who you are and erring on the side of caution shouldn't get you arrested or killed.

Seconded; don't rat on her.


The die is cast: ash blows through Tarnasshe on a plangent wind. Was that a movement, in the dust?

You are wracked with indecision. Lily has left; is it really necessary that you make her a wanted woman? She did try to kill you. But your skill with a gun tells you that she wasn't the first to do so; attempted murder isn't so uncommon out here on the frontier. It's easy enough to justify the attitude that if someone fails, there's no harm done, and no need to get the law involved.

The rangers are closer now. Their horses are thick-shanked and pale, like smaller versions of Gryngolet; their guns and swords glint in the first light of dawn. One wears a helmet carved from a hollowed Cacturne head – not regulation issue, but undoubtedly effective protection, and certainly better than the tattered Murkrow plumes in your hat. His mind would remain his own, if foxes attacked.

It's also terrifying, but that's neither here nor there.

There is a disturbance in the dirt that comes from more than their horses' hoofbeats. As the riders draw near and halt, you see three sleek, stubby heads erupt from beneath the sand: a Dugtrio, presumably brought along to warn them of any subterranean assault. Its whiskers can detect vibrations in the earth from hundreds of feet away.

The Cacturne-helmeted ranger prods his horse, and it steps forward slightly. The others stand aside, waiting for him to speak.

No, you decide. Lily chanced her arm and failed. Before your experience in the desert, perhaps you would have done the same. It's best to be cautious here, especially when you don't know whether or not you're an outlaw yourself. In fact, it might be good to have a plan in case you need to run.

Rosalind glances at you, and you respond with the faintest shake of your head.

“Mornin',” she says cheerily. “What can we do for you?”

When tanned right, Krokorok hide can turn a small-calibre bullet. The gun Rosalind gave you won't be enough, and neither houndtooth nor needle slugs will help here. Shellshot might work, but you have none on you right now.

“Where have you come from?” asks the leader. He doesn't remove his helmet, not yet. He does not know if he can trust you.

“Rust,” replies Rosalind. “Takin' rose oil to Scourston.” She waves an arm airily at the back of the wagon. “Take a look if you like. All above board.”

The ranger nods slowly. If you had time, you could load a houndtooth round and aim for his helmet, but you suspect you'd be dead before you could pull the trigger. There are seven of the rangers, and you are certain they're fast enough to get you. Besides, there's the Dugtrio; moles aren't generally known for speed, but there's precious little that outpaces one of them, and their claws are like ivory pickaxes.

“It don't look like you've had an uneventful trip,” he says, gesturing at the ruined canvas panel. “Is there somethin' around oughtn't be?”

You relax slightly. That's why they stopped you; it isn't that they suspect you, it's that the wagon looks like it's been attacked. If the aggressor is still in the area – well, it would be their job to relocate it. To Hell, if necessary.

“Oh.” Rosalind looks blank. “That. Uh, that was, uh, that was...”

Drapion, you finish, and the ranger fixes you with the dark eye sockets of his helmet. His eyes are invisible, but you hold his gaze without blinking. It burst out of the sand and tore through the wall. You got a lucky shot in its eye and it ran off.

“That's right,” says Rosalind eagerly. “Drapion. That's it, sure enough.”

“Drapion,” the ranger repeats. “Here. In the Scourston Riding?” He reaches up to stroke his chin and realises too late that he can't. His hand wavers awkwardly for a moment before falling back to the reins. “That's mighty strange.”

It is, you agree. They ought to look into it.

“I reckon we should.” He sounds convinced, you think. You hope. “Where was this?”

“Couple nights ago, north-north-east of here,” replies Rosalind. “A day's ride from Rust.”

“Oh, there.” The ranger sounds relieved. “We don't go that far. That makes more sense.”

Rosalind frowns.

“Since when don't you go that far?”

The ranger hesitates, and one of his lieutenants supplies the answer for him.

“Since a couple weeks ago.” She looks tired – tired and disgusted. Her work is stamped in lines around her eyes and mouth, and in the grey streaks in her hair. “There ain't enough of us.”

“I'll do the talking, Kath,” says the leader, curtly.

“I'm just sayin'―”

“I know. You always just say.” The lead ranger clears his throat, embarrassed. “Well,” he said. “We'll be gettin' on. You folks have a safe journey now.”

“An' yourselves,” says Rosalind, waving as they spur their horses into motion. “Take care!”

They gallop away, and she turns to you with a sigh.

“I think that went all right,” she says. “But somethin' ain't right with them.”

The Tarnasshe attack, you suggest. It must have taken a huge bite out of the army.

“I guess so. But still. Time was, the rangers went all the way up to Sansloy. Course, they ain't done that for months, but still...” She sucks on her teeth for a moment, then shrugs. “Ain't nothin' we can do 'bout that now. But I'll be interested to see what's happenin' in Scourston. Come on, girls!”

The goats snort and stamp, and the wagon lurches back into motion. You're back on the move.

Scourston appears a little after dawn. You could never miss it; vast, dark and crouched within its famous fortifications, it dominates the horizon. Other vehicles move towards it across the plains like ants converging on a carcase; you see wagons, caravans, horses and more exotic things still: the great unstoppable mass of a Crustle, its boulder hollowed and carved into a cottage; a fleet of airgalleys, slung beneath the bellies of Drifblim and steered by oarsmen who row with fans; a camel train, a rare visitor from the far south where the strange beasts are common. Roads begin to form in the dirt, well-trodden paths emerging out of restless sands; the caravans and riders, rowers and crabpilots, merchants and beasts and mechanical wonders all draw together onto the same trails, and the silent grip of the desert fades as a new world breaks over you. The creak of wood and wicker; the sudden passing shade of an airgalley overhead; the shouts of the merchants and the smell of their wares – gunpowder, wine, spirits, spices; the angry hiss and groan of a thundertrain, its treads crunching the sand like broken teeth; and over all, the city, growing larger and larger with every moment, rising like a monument to all that Orre has achieved in this blasted, godless land: Scourston, the great capital of the East Orrene Frontier.

It's not the sophisticated glamour of Gateon; this place is a frontier town, for all its size and wealth. It can't challenge the West Ridings in any way. But it's big, and it's dangerous, and it has its own magic that you can't imagine could ever have grown in the fertile shores around Gateon. This is the great conjuring trick of the desert: magic out of nothing, life from a barren womb.

You draw nearer, and now you can see the walls clearly, when the larger vehicles aren't in your way. They are dirt, or they were; if there is any earth still left in them, it has long been crushed into their core by the twisturne cultivated from it. The thorny fronds reach a hundred yards into the air, and are thick and strong enough that they support stone battlements on the top, complete with patrolling teams of guards.

At their base is the drum-moat: a vast ring hollowed out of the earth around the city and covered with taut-stretched canvas. Beneath it are indentured drummers who pound its surface rhythmically, endlessly, sending a low boom through the ground; the noise is barely perceptible to humans, but requiems and other burrowing predators perceive it from miles away as the movement of an unimaginably vast subterranean beast, and do not dare approach.

Here it is, then: Scourston. The mighty gates are open; the traffic, streaming in. You have arrived at last at the home of Joshua Stone.

Passage through the streets is tricky, with the crowd – but Scourston was built with crowds in mind, and Rosalind manages to get the wagon down the main west thoroughfare and off onto a less-crowded side-street without too much trouble. The people here hardly look different to those in Rust; this isn't a wealthy area of town. You see men and women in motley armour here and there, charcoal-grey sashes around their waists: Stone's militia.

There are a lot of them, you realise. And, as Rosalind brings you deeper into town, you are forced to admit that it doesn't seem like there are many government soldiers in comparison.

“The hell is up with the army?” Rosalind scans the streets, the faces on horseback or in carriages that pass you by. “How many'd they lose, exactly?”

You have no answers. The pair of you drive on in silence.

Eventually, you stop in a dusty yard adjoining a large, grey brick building that is entirely uninteresting. Apparently, this is where the oil goes.

It's also where you get off.

Men and women emerge from the building and have a brief conversation with Rosalind in the shade; you wait in the wagon for them to finish, and when they go around the back to start unloading the barrels of oil you jump down to talk to Rosalind.

You suppose that this is it.

“Yeah,” she answers. “I guess it is.”

There is a pause. You both watch the labourers for a while, rolling the barrels across the yard. The noise of the city clatters distantly in your ears – an alien clamour, after the silence of the plains.

“I can't afford to let you keep the gun,” she says. “But you're welcome to that desert woodsman Lily dropped.”

You nod, and unload your bullets from her revolver. She takes it with a sigh. You wonder what it means, but she is already handing you the sword, and the unexpected weight distracts you. It takes both hands to wield, but as soon as you touch it you know exactly to use it, and it settles onto your back with a familiar pressure.

“Now, about Stone,” Rosalind goes on. “His company's based a few buildings south of Allomach Square, right in the centre of town. You can't miss it.”

Allomach Square. You remember that name, but not what it looks like. You can tell it will be familiar when you see it.

You thank her – for everything.

“No need to thank me,” she says gruffly. “The way I see it, we're even now. I saved your life, you saved mine. Can't say fairer than that.”

You suppose you can't.

There is another pause. High above, an airgalley wafts silently by, heading for the skydock.

Rosalind sighs again.

“Take care of yourself,” she says at last. “And if you get this gun – if you figure out your name, sort all this out – well, look me up, would you? You ask around the tradin' companies, you'll find me.” She hesitates. “I'd like to call you by your name, you know. At least once.”

You promise you will. You would not like to lose the only friend you have in this world.

“Goodbye, then,” she says, and now the gruffness in her voice is very pronounced. “And good luck.”

When you wish her the same, your voice is not quite your own. You almost think about staying.

But you can't, and you don't, and you turn and walk out of the yard and into the streets of Scourston. Perhaps you'll see her again one day. Perhaps one or both of you will be dead before that happens.

Perhaps you will forget everything again, and she will wonder what became of you.

To the north are the roads that will take you to the Iron and Copper Districts. Here you will find the labourers, the cheap bars, and the foundries.

To the south are the roads that will take you to the centre of town, or further on to the Steel, Bronze and Gem Districts. Here you will find Allomach Square, the jewellers and goldsmiths, the weaponmakers, the barracks and the bankers.

To the east are the roads that will take you to the Gold and Silver Districts. Here you will find the Frontier Senate, the homes of the wealthy, and the expensive bars.

To the west are the roads that will take you to the main gate, or to the Stone Districts. Here you will find the construction companies, the civic authorities, the market and the skydock.



Note: 'Gryngolet' is the best name for a horse ever, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is the crowning jewel of Middle English literature, at least in my opinion. Anyway, Lily may or may not have more of a claim to the name than you think. Much depends on your future actions.
 
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Chibi_Muffin

Smart Cookie
The Stone Districts seem like a good choice. The markets are going to be busy with a variety of people, so if you want information that might be ideal.

After that, an evening visit to one of the districts with a bar might be wise, just to unwind and maybe 'socialise' a bit more.
 
Skydock implies airships of some kind- Maybe you could ask one of the airshipmen if they have any idea about the bird that's been following you?
 

Cutlerine

Gone. Not coming back.
Skydock implies airships of some kind- Maybe you could ask one of the airshipmen if they have any idea about the bird that's been following you?

The driftsailors are from the Argent Peaks, and they aren't known for their knowledge of desert birds; they'll know no more than you, and you know a fair bit. Airborne life is scarce out here. Those few flying creatures you do find are usually escaped Drifblim floating down from the north, following the prevailing winds. Sometimes there are vultures and hawks. Other than that, most creatures here stay low to the earth, like the Flygon who shroud themselves in singing sandstorms.

And if the bird were a Flygon, you would probably have been eaten already.

That reminds you – where is the bird? You assume it followed you into the city, but it's hard to see it here. Unlike the wasteland outside, Scourston provides enough food and shelter to support a thriving colony of feral pigeons, and whenever you think you've spotted your pursuer it flips a wing and reveals itself to be nothing but a grubby rock dove.


The Stone Districts seem like a good choice. The markets are going to be busy with a variety of people, so if you want information that might be ideal.

After that, an evening visit to one of the districts with a bar might be wise, just to unwind and maybe 'socialise' a bit more.


Despite the probable disappointment of the skydock, the Stone Districts are still a good idea. The bulk of Scourston's trade is centred in its market squares and the commercial areas that surround them, and wherever money changes hands so too does information. Secrets and rumours flow through the city with the spice and the gold. All you need to do to pick them up is to listen in on the right conversations.

With this in mind, you turn and head back the way you came. The streets are narrow here, and dark with dirt. The buildings are wooden, or the cheap kind of grey brick, and the people move out of your way as you walk. They have enough of a sense for trouble to know that you aren't someone to cross.

Some do not move: the members of the militia. There aren't that many around here, but they are given an even wider berth than you – people will cross the street rather than pass too close to one. You can see why. They all go armed and armoured, in everything from common Krokorok leather to shimmering blue Glaceon fur that gives off a cold breeze as you pass. Their weapons are equally varied: a motley selection of old rifles, pistols, swords, axes and other things that you don't know the name of. Some have Heliolisk or Sandslash pacing at their sides; others, rugged, stout-legged desert dogs.

Their numbers increase as you make your way back towards the main streets, and so too do those of the official army – but as you noticed before, there are still far more of the one than the other. If there hasn't been an alliance already, you're certain there must be one soon. The government will never keep control without Stone's assistance now.

You cross a main road and the buildings start to become sterner and stonier; they are taller here, with thick rustication at the base and ashlar marble on the upper floors. It is the architectural language of the West – here, the language of the conqueror. You don't need to be told that this is a wealthy part of town. As you get further in, there are even a few restaurants here – restaurants, in a place where the only arable farming consists of cultivating false-cactus for its roots and fruit. Virtually every single item on their menus must have been shipped in from the north or the west.

Past these streets you at last find the markets: great rowdy squares of colour and noise, smoke and smell and conversation. You thread your way through the shoppers and the stalls, ears open. There's all sorts of loose talk on the wind here, and you are going to catch it.

Under the awning of a coffee-house run by two women from the southern nations, you hear an off-duty soldier talking to a militiaman.

“I don't think you get it,” she is saying. “This is a partnership, not a takeover. You can't treat people like that.”

The militiaman, all swagger and bluster in his leather and steel, does not deign to answer. He drains his cup and demands another. You shake your head and move on.

In the vaulted arcade around the edge of Maymark Square, a honey-merchant is deep in conversation with a wandering match-seller. You lean against a nearby pillar and watch the square, listening to the voices at your back.

“... yes, it's slow,” he says. “Have you shifted much today?”

“Nothin'.” The match-seller heaves a mighty sigh. “Think everyone's gone to see the parade. I'm kinda surprised there's anyone left here at all.”

“It's people coming and going,” replies the honey-merchant, taking a deep drag on his pipe. “My guess is we'll make the most later on, when everyone's on their way home.”

“Yeah, maybe.”

You detach yourself from the pillar and walk on. There's a parade on. Why would that be? It isn't any holiday that you know of. At least, you don't think it is.

A man with the bloodless skin of the people of the distant Argent Peaks sells beer from his iced handbarrow, weak eyes protected from the sun by smoked-glass spectacles and the brim of a truly enormous hat. Two driftsailors, red and flaked with sunburn from the long row south, stand him a drink and talk to him in the susurrating language of their homeland. It sounds like drifting leaves, or the whisper of bats' wings. The Peak folk always did have their eyes on the sky.

While watching them, you feel a bump at your side. Your hand shoots to your pocket and wraps around a thin wrist – but before you can turn to see them, the pickpocket has slipped your grip and is gone, vanished into the crowd.

You raise your eyebrows and wonder why anyone would have chosen to steal from you, when all you have to offer is a bag of bullets and a piece of paper.

In a side-street, you find a row of extremely wealthy tailors': they all have large windows of smooth, unwarped glass. It's a breathtaking sight, and you stop to stare for a while. Glass is expensive but not that uncommon – but making it in sheets this big takes extraordinary skill and effort. Most glass windows here are leaded, and even they often have warped panels. These are perfect, enormous rectangles of glass.

As you stare, you hear the chatter of conversation, and turn to see two people coming in your direction.

“Come on,” says one, an individual of mysterious and indistinct gender. “I want to get to Allomach Square before we stop for lunch.”

“I just wanted to see if that funny southern chap had any more of that saffron silk,” replies their companion. “Amelia got at the length I bought last week, and I really must get some more if I want to finish this dress.”

“You can buy silk any time,” asserts the first person, “but the parade is only for today. Come on.”

They are both expensively dressed; these, you realise, are some of the Scourston elite – the kind of person Lily might have been, had she not given up her books for a gun. They sweep past you unheeding in a wave of silk and a faint smell of rosewater, and you watch them go with a little curiosity. The fair is in Allomach Square, it seems. It's on your way – you might as well stop by and have a look.


Afterwards, I suggest going to Allomach Square and see what can be done there. Look around, and be cautious.

I vote you go east, because GOLD!


You drift east towards Allomach, and soon find yourself on the fringes of the Gold District; here, there are more government soldiers than elsewhere, and the militia are better behaved. Many even show signs of having coordinated their armour into a sort of uniform – rubbery grey Donphan hide, with the treads formed into epaulettes, and polished silver pins to hold their militia sashes in place. The civilians here avoid you as they did in the Iron Districts, but it is for a different reason. Before, you were important and dangerous; here, you are unkempt and obviously poor. Their hostility is understated but unmistakeable, and you quietly slip out down an alley to find a less unfriendly route.

Your wanderings bring you back towards the main east-west road that you entered the city on. If you follow it, you seem to remember, you should end up in Allomach Square, right in the centre of Scourston. The city council used to have buildings there, until they outgrew them and moved to Iempho in the Stone Districts.

You pause for a moment. That's another little tidbit you've remembered. You're remembering quite a lot about Scourston, now you're here. If only you could say the same about your history.

Someone pushes into you from behind, and you come back to the present moment with a bump. You can't stand still in the middle of a busy public road, especially with the traffic as bad as it is; people are flocking towards Allomach like wasps to a picnic. You let yourself be caught up in the flow, and before you know it you've been sucked into Scourston's heart. The square is packed, even more so than the markets, and rings with laughter and the cries of peripatetic food-sellers – it's difficult to make anything of the chaos at all, let alone work out what it is that you're all doing here. There doesn't seem to be any sign of a parade, though there is certainly a carnival atmosphere.

You shove your way forward, past Scourstowners, turbaned southerners and pallid Peak folk, and eventually break free of the crush. From here you can see that the crowd is pressed back around the outer edges of the square, and that a few of the militia are on patrol to keep them back. It looks like the crowd extends out down the sides of main road that leads to the east, mirroring the one you entered on, and you walk forwards to try and get a better look – but a woman in Krokorok leather and a militia sash steps towards you, shaking her head and asking you to keep back.

Presumably the parade, whatever it involves, will be coming down the road from the east and will start soon. You'll just have to wait and see what happens next.

The wait is not a long one. Very soon, a titanic cheer goes up from the east, and you hear the drum and fife of a marching band. The crowd around you suddenly quiets down, and moments later the militia appear.

There are hundreds of them – far more than you ever thought there could be, their ranks stretching back down the street and out of sight. You can't help but feel uneasy. How much power does Stone have, with an army this size at his control? How much power does he need, if he only came here for rocks?

The militia march on, their armours mismatched but their feet perfectly synchronised, and the crowd bursts into wild roars of approval. Sprays of fire billow upwards through the air from well-trained Houndour; people shout and clap and stamp, and from a set of upper windows come waves of sparkling dust, thrown like confetti from some concealed Fairy-type above. The uproar is deafening, and immensely confusing. What is all this about?

Now the militia are forming neat rows on three sides of the square, facing outwards and away from the east road. Something is evidently going to end up in the middle – and, from the size of the gap they're leaving, something big. But what?

The band suddenly stop playing, and the militia stop marching. There is a long and pregnant silence.

All at once the biggest cheer yet comes to your ears from the east road, and the cage appears.

It is the size of a house – and not a small one, either; you could fit John's saloon in there without too much trouble. A team of six outlandishly oversized Tauros pull it, snorting and groaning, into the square, their driver whipping them on with theatrical gusto. The wheels creak and complain with every revolution.

Inside the cage is a Charizard.

It is bigger than you ever thought it could be – bigger than any living creature you remember seeing by a long, long way; its head is as long as your body, and you can only imagine how vast it would be if its tail and wings weren't trammelled up within the cage. Its hide is the colour of the sun and flickers of its inner light keep breaking out of a vent at the end of its tail, generating an endless flame. Scars criss-cross its flanks like roads across the wasteland. Fox-made charms of bone and gore hang from holes drilled in its horns and its wings, and from piercings in its neck and legs. Steel bands hold its great jaws shut, sealing away its fire, and hold padded blinkers over its eyes.

And it thrashes and rages in its bonds like a sandstorm trapped in a bottle.

You are amazed that the cage can hold it; the Charizard is so big, so fast, so overflowing with energy, that you can scarcely believe that the steel does not simply melt beneath its blows. When it slams its wings into the bars you wince, half-expecting them to shear through the metal as if it were linen.

Above all this, above the thrashing claws and the fire and the great blue wings, there is a man. He stands atop the cage like a god over a conquered devil, and as the Tauros come to a halt he raises his fists in victory.

The crowd goes wild.

The Charizard cannot roar through its muzzle, but the people of Scourston more than make up the deficiency. Birds explode away from the eaves in terror as their cries echo up to the rooftops. To you, down in the middle of it all, it sounds like the city is falling down.

The man on the cage stands there for a long moment, riding the rocking cage without so much as wobbling, and then gestures for silence. It takes a while, but he does not appear to be concerned. He looks like he has all the time in the world.

“Scourston!” he yells, when the crowd is finally calm, and the only noise is the relentless thumping of the Charizard's shoulders against the bars. You find yourself hanging on his every word. “I'm not going to make a long speech,” he continues, a little more quietly. “I'm not going to tell you what you already know. You can see what we've done already.”

A fleeting image of a burned town passes through your head; you see militia, and fire, and the golden bodies of unnumbered foxes in the ash.

“But I wanted to show you this,” he says, stamping carelessly on the cage. “This is what our enemies had to throw at us. And this is what we did to it.” He stamps again. Beneath him, a low hiss escapes the Charizard's muzzle, and it tries and fails to tear loose a bar of its cage. Its claws sound like flint as they scrape the steel. “This is what we can do!” shouts the man. “This is what we will do! This is a war we can win and we are going to win it!”

Everyone goes wild once again, and the man lingers for a moment before heading to a ladder bolted to the rear of the cage. It seems the main event is over. The Tauros are being led away, and brightly-coloured tents are appearing under banners that promise captured fox weaponry and gris-gris on display. The militia are dispersing, the food-sellers are roaming freely, and boys and girls in ragged clothes are pressing pamphlets containing lurid propaganda tales of heroism from the front into people's hands. The parade has apparently become a fair.

“That's the kind of man we need,” someone near you is saying loudly, to anyone who will listen. “More men like Elias Dirge.”

You stop. Around you, people swarm and buzz like excitable bees.

You have heard that name before.

Elias Dirge, the man Stone chose to head his militia.

Elias Dirge, the man who killed a psammic requiem with his bare hands.

Elias Dirge, the man they say made a deal with the Devil for unending victory.

Elias Dirge.

The man who took your gun.
 
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Try and get more information about Elias Dirge out of someone- He's clearly going to be important later. Best to do it surreptitiously though, because you might draw unwanted attention to yourself othersie.
 
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