Thursday, June 7, 2012

Chapter 12 - Flirting with Disaster

 The sun beat down on the docks mercilessly, as if it had a vendetta against the very pavement that lined the nearby shops and could only make do by slowly cracking it over the course of several decades.  Spend more than a few minutes there and you would leave with a severe sunburn.  After a full day, however, and you would have a hardy tan, contrary to logic.  The only thing that made it bearable to live or work there was the constant 5 mile-per-hour breeze that coated everything in a fine layer of salt.  As such, every piece of exposed metal was soon rusted over if not cleaned thoroughly each day.  At regular intervals along the shore, fish markets would attract customers by assaulting them with the putrid smell of half-rotten mackerel - a sure sign of a good market in Kell.  Surly characters of all sorts hobbled, sauntered, strutted, dragged, and snuck about the place - anything but plainly walked.  It was a place where if the merchants didn't swindle you out of your purse, the throng of thieves would.  Despite all these things that some would call deterrents, droves of people lined the narrow street and boardwalk.

"I simply do not understand.  Why are there always so many people here?" Mel asked as she stood under an awning to keep in the shade.  Eaups was bent over a short dividing wall of stone and shell that was only waist-high, watching someone in the distance.  Beside him Aryx periodically pecked preened himself and glanced about at the crowd.  "And what is the forsaken mephitis?"

"Forsaken... huh?" Eaups said distractedly, not looking away from the pair.  They were engaged in a conversation with a rather tall, lanky man whose straw-colored hair was thin and shone in the sun.

"The stench.  It smells like carcass and man sweat."

Eaups didn't answer right away, but when Mel leaned against the wall beside him, he jumped in surprise.  "Oh!  I'm not staring!  What?  Oh, the smell?  It's just the market..."

"What are you looking at?" Mel asked him as a curious smile appeared on her lips.  She followed Eaups' gaze to see Jesz holding Manfred's arm as they talked with a rather sea-worn man.  Mel looked back and forth between the couple and Eaups several times.  The wistful expression that creeped onto his face was undeniable.  "Do you have a thing for-"

"Mel!  Eaups!"  Jesz waved at them and ran up to them as Manfred and the man followed.  "I think we found a ride!"

The man walked awkwardly, as if he hadn't developed his land legs quite yet, but there was a strange jerking that rocked his entire body with each step in a way that neither Mel nor Eaups had ever seen before.  He had a thick stubble that was so wild, it had to have been groomed that way.  His sun-bleached hair had apparently once been red, but was now starting to turn grey in places.  Dull green eyes darted about once in a while, animated with caution.  Combined with the salty aura thick enough to be tasted, he gave the general impression of a man who truly did have sea water in his veins.  Beside him, a large black dog trotted along.  It had a hint of white around its muzzle and a small knick in its left ear.

Jesz bounced to a stop in front of Mel and Eaups with an irrepressible smile, rocking from heel to toe as she spoke.  "This is Scurvy Legs McGee!"

"Call me Legs," the man said in a rough voice that made Eaups want to buy an absurdly large bucket of snack food and sit in a room full of people watching a brightly lit screen.

"Legs here has a boat that's heading to Oakley Island!"

Legs shook his head with a spray of salt.  "We're only headin' near the isle, little miss.  But the cap'n might be convinced to drop ya off, fer a price, that is."

Mel narrowed her eyes and walked up to the man, who was a little shorter than she.  Aryx obediently hopped along the low wall to remain close to Mel, but a sudden bark from the dog sent up a flurry of feathers.
"You are not the captain, then?  I demand that we speak with the captain!"

"He never goes ashore in Kell.  Tis the smell."

"What?  Well... I suppose that makes sense.  But how do we know he will honor your offer?"

"I'm first mate, miss.  I speak for him.  He trusts me.  Tis why he sent me here; to look fer bodies to work the schooner."

Manfred stepped past the noisy encounter between the dog and Aryx and spoke up.  "He said they're shipping art to some neutral island village nearby.  It sounds too strange to be made up."

Mel shot a glare at the dog and made it cower before replying.  "I am not convinced," she said.  "Perhaps there is another ship that can take us."

"We've looked," Jesz said under her breath.  "No one else wants to go near that place."

Eaups rolled his eyes.  "Gee, could it the curse I told you about?"

"Curses don't stop the crew of the Crimson Zephyr," Legs chimed in, getting strong looks from the others.  He looked back and forth between the sets of eyes, then took a step back so they could talk amongst themselves.

"Something just does not feel right," Mel said as she leaned to the side and crossed her arms.  "He seems... shifty."

"Everyone is shifty around here," Manfred said, then smirked and nudged Jesz.  "Including this one."

"Hey!"  Manfred chuckled at her blush and even the punch she landed on his arm.

Eaups stepped away from the wall and into the huddle.  "Look, we don't have any other option, right?  We have to go with them or wait until Murphy-knows for another ship to show up, if it even happens." He looked up at Legs and nodded.  "We'll go with you."

Jesz stared at Eaups' back and leaned in close to Mel.  "What got up his ass?"

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Chapter 11 - A Grand Pain

The man's skin resembled an old leather chair that had been left in the sun and then used to soak up dirty bathwater. Over long years of penitence and guilt, the frown-lines in his cheeks had become deep fissures that would qualify for sight-seeing tours had it not been for the overwhelming caustic scent of medication and ointment. They framed a short, stubby nose and thin-lipped mouth. Along with the jowls that flapped against his chin whenever he became excited or animated, his features gave the man the distinct appearance of a hound that had willed itself to walk upright and study metamagic theory for 40 years in a dark tower. He was wearing a robe that at one time had been filled with thick stripes of vibrant, living colors, but had, like his face, worn out until everything was just an off-shade of grey.

"Mister Sydai?" he asked in a stern tone that made everyone in the room feel like they were about to get detention. Eaups peered out from behind Mel with the familiar look of innocence that nearly always graced his face.

"Y-yes Grand Hierophant Bernard?" He was greeted with a basilisk stare.

"The dormitorium is strictly off-limits to guests. You are an Avatar; surely you know this."

"Yes, sir. They were just leaving, sir," Eaups replied, lowering his gaze.

"You are supposed to be an example to the other students," the hierophant said. He stared at the group, sizing up each person individually. "Miss Adina. Must I tell your father that you have been fraternizing in a man's room?"

Mel shrank back as a good deal of blood drained from her face. "N-no Uncle."

"When I introduced you to Mr. Sydai, it was purely for professional reasons, and I expect it to remain professional. The fact that you dragged along... her," he said, sharing Jesz in his cold gaze, "is bad enough. And who is this?"

Jesz, who did not seem to care one way or the other that she was being verbally chided, spoke up. "That's Manfred." This earned her a punch in the arm by Manfred and a gentle kick in the foot by Mel.

"...I see. Mr. Sydai, as you know, I am very busy with the preparations for the Great Council of 6. I'm far too occupied to be called in for every noise complaint in the dormitories. I assume this will no longer be an issue." This last sentence skirted the line between statement and question.

"No sir, w-we were just on our way out."

"Out? You'll do no such thing! Your... friends," Bernard said with a sneer in his tone, "should be leaving, but you will remain exactly where you are. Or have you been so preoccupied with your gallivanting around that you are unaware of the decree?"

"De-decree? We haven't... I haven't heard of any decree, sir." Eaups had already drawn back to his desk.

"By Royal Edict, no one of the noble houses, member of the royal family, high priest, or Avatar is to leave the confines of his or her place of residence until further notification, excepting that the confined is on an official duty with escort. The last time I checked, Mr. Sydai, you have yet to be given a Mission by your deity, so you will not be leaving these grounds."

Jesz started to protest, but before an intelligible syllable could pass her lips, Bernard interrupted her with a stiff, bony index finger. "Do not waste your breath. The Spatlese Guards have been on high alert for an intruder discovered last night in the royal palace, and no one has seen Aska, the highest Judge in the Skepian Court, since this morning. Doubtless it is the fault of the intruder. And on top of this, I've learned that one of the Great Faculties has been missing for weeks. The Eye was just on loan to us... what am I going to tell the Patriarch?" Bernard trailed off, muttering mostly to himself as he turned away. He had lost all sense of location and presence of mind as he rattled on about chores, dead friends, and fish that he was sure was off but he had to eat it anyway or else insult his host.

"S-sir? Grand Hierophant? Bernard?!" Despite the group's attempts to bring him back into reality, the old man turned and shuffled off down the hallway, leaving them behind.

"What... was THAT?" Manfred asked.

"My uncle. He makes sure all the gods and their Avatars are given equal representation in the Pantheon. And he sometimes... forgets where he is." Mel was looking down the hallway as Grand Hierophant Bernard disappeared around a corner. "He is a very busy and important man."

"He's a loony," Jesz said, earning a sharp glare from Mel. "Whaaat? It's true! He's older than dirt and is more enchantment than man by now." Jesz unapologetically tossed the Gazer from hand to hand as she walked towards the door. "Come on, let's go. You too, Poindexter."

"But, but I can't! The decree! The Hierophant! He'll hang me by my toes!"

"Psh! Yeah right!" Jesz was grinning mischievously at him as she walked back into the room and pushed him towards the door. "What was it he said? An official duty and bodyguards. Manfred?"

"Yeah? I mean, stop calling me that!"

"You want to go to the Oak Forest thing, right?" Manfred nodded to her in response. "And your god Murphy told us to do what this guy wants. Sounds like an official duty to me!"

Eaups' eyes widened as he realized what she was getting at. "What? N-no! It doesn't work like that!"

"Oh? Why not? You've got your mission, and we're your 'escort.' We won't let anything happen to ya, right guys?" Mel and Manfred both agreed and started to help pull Eaups out of the door, adopting the same impish expression as Jesz.

"Yeah, we'll keep you safe. And besides, rules are there so that we don't have to follow them," Manfred said.

"What? That doesn't-"

"If you get in trouble, we will all take the blame. I will make certain Uncle knows it was not your idea."

"Heh, yeah! We're practically kidnapping you as it is!" Jesz smirked and pushed him the rest of the way out of his room, shutting the door behind her. "Do you want to complete this mission and find out what that thing does or not?"

Eaups let out a long sigh and slowly nodded. "Yeah... I do..."

"Well then, let's get going! What's the fastest way to the docks?"

After putting up the required amount of resistance, Eaups finally gave in. "Fine... we'll go. But if we get caught, you guys tied me up and carried me against my will, got it?"

Manfred leaned in close, his crooked smile gleaming in the light of a nearby window. "We can always arrange that."

"N-no thanks... L-let's go this way. We'll have to go out the back way, through the kitchen if we don't want to get caught."

Friday, February 24, 2012

Chapter 10 - The Eyes Have It

"What... the heck... was that?" Jesz asked between breaths. She had slammed her back against the dark grey stone wall of Eaups' dormitory room in exhaustion. It was a simple, clean room, one that looked like the person who lived there was either OCD or never home. There was a dresser, a desk with a few religious paraphernalia placed neatly along the edge, a bookshelf that reached from floor to ceiling with books placed neatly in order of size, and the bed with folds so sharp and neat that they had become a permanent part of the fabric.

"Sshh!! Not so loud! I'm not... supposed to have... guests!" Eaups was also panting as he leaned against the large wooden door.

"Well we could not go... to my family's house," Mel said as she lay on the bed, an arm over her eyes. It was probably the first time a female ever graced Eaups' bed, though the circumstances were not as he would have liked. "They would shoot first..."

Manfred pulled the chair out from the desk and sat on it backwards, the back between his legs. "I don't know about you guys, but I think that was actually kind of fun." The rest of them shot glares at him. "I'm just saying, no one got hurt... well, none of us anyway."

"Remind me why we have not turned him in yet?" Mel asked, returning the crook of her arm to her eyes.

"Murphy wanted us to help him," Jesz replied, pushing away from the wall and folding her arms in front of her. "Does this have something to do with your Mission, Eaups? I mean, you've met Murphy before, right?"

He nodded to her. "Yeah, but I'd never been possessed by him before. There's a ceremony we perform where we commune with our god in spirit. It's just, he always wanted to play poker."

"What mission? What are you talking about?" Manfred had pulled out a long needle from somewhere on his person and began to pick his teeth with it.

"I'm the Avatar of Murphy, the god of Fate. I have to do what he tells me. That's my Mission. I'm supposed to have a team of helpers, my Companions. That's you guys," Eaups said, pointing to the others vaguely. "Apparently, my Mission is to help you achieve your destiny." He gave Manfred a half-hopeful smile. "You... wouldn't happen to know what that is, would you?" This just got a shrug out of Manfred.

Jesz started to pace around the room, swinging her legs stiffly in front of her. "Whatever his destiny is, it better pay well. Something tells me we aren't going to get paid for that last job."

"We are not in this for the money, Jesz. We made an oath to help Eaups, even if we come away empty-handed." Mel rolled into a sitting position, her arms resting on her knees.

A knowing grin worked its way into the red-head's features and she began to toss a small golden ball from hand to hand. "Oh, I wouldn't say 'empty-handed' exactly."

"Is that the Gazer?"

"Heehee!" Jesz swiftly pulled the ball up to her eye. The mechanical iris contracted and began spinning with a pleasant whir. "Let's see... what did she say about it telling us the truth?"

She peered at Mel with the Gazer. Through the small hole in the back, she began to see words appear around her, or more appropriately, they appeared in Jesz' mind.
Melody Adina Tanger
Age: 22
Height: 5'10"
Weight: 158 lbs
Occupation: Noblewoman, Austringer, and Companion.

"Your name is Melody?!" she blurted out and giggled. It seemed that the longer she looked, the more information it would give.

"Hey!! I hate that name! Where did you get that?" Jesz continued to look through the Gazer, but soon the taller woman was lunging at her, trying to take it. "Give it to me! We can use it on our mystery man over there!" It quickly became a sisterly game of keep-away, with Jesz hunching over and turning her back to try to keep Mel away from it.

"It's mine! I picked it up! No fair, your arms are longer!" Suddenly, everyone paused as the mechanical eye slipped from Jesz' fingers and landed on the floor with a dense thud. It rolled loudly up to Manfred, who picked it up out of curiosity. The moment his finger grazed it, the Gazer's pupil dilated fully and the iris stopped spinning. The gentle vibration that had come from it before ceased completely. Manfred raised it to his own eye, looking over at the pair of girls who were paused in mid-nelson.

"It's not working." he complained, tapping it a few times on his leg before trying it again.

"Jesz! You broke it already!" Mel said. Eaups walked over to him and took the device, trying it out for himself. It remained still and silent, giving him no information. He quietly walked over to the bookshelf and pulled out a few tomes, placing the Gazer on the floor as he sat down and spread some books out in front of him. The others just ignored him.

"I didn't break it! You shouldn't have grabbed it from me!"

"Shh! We don't want to be too loud, remember?" Manfred interjected. Jesz and Mel both shot a glare at him.

"Maybe you broke it? It didn't stop moving until you picked it up, right?"

"Yes, maybe you are here to sabotage us. Are you positive you do not remember anything?"

Both of the girls had stopped fighting and had come up close to Manfred with accusing expressions plastered on their faces. He leaned back in the chair defensively. "I... I remember running along the rooftops at night. I think I was injured, dying." His hand raised up to his side, where the small hole from the night before had become considerably larger and showed the healing wound beneath. It had already begun to scar over. "Suddenly, everything went purple... and the next thing I know, I'm in your room and you're taking off your..." He stopped and gave Jesz an innocent smile, getting a scowl in return. "Shoes..."

"Purple? Sounds like Murphy's doing, alright..." Eaups said distractedly, his eyes never leaving the books that he was flipping through.

"You guys keep mentioning him, but why would he choose me?"

"Who knows? Why do the gods do anything they do?" Mel said with a shrug, returning to the bed. Several moments of awkward silence passed. Manfred took the opportunity to look over each of his new acquaintances and try to develop his first impressions of them.

That one, Mel, is always so serious. She doesn't trust me. I don't think she even likes me, and I don't blame her. I don't know if I like me. But she did save my life...
Eaups is so nervous and innocent. I think he needs to get laid. But at least he seems trustworthy.
Jesz... is a bit unpredictable, but kinda cute. In a cut-your-throat way. I wonder if I have a thing for flat-

"AHA! I knew I'd seen it before!" Euaps cried cheerfully as he jumped into the air straight from his cross-legged sitting position. He was holding a heavy tome entitled "Ackmee's Catalogue of Holy Trinckets and Tincktures" in his hands and beaming at it.

"Seen what?" Jesz asked him curiously. "That eyeball thing?"

"Yes! It's called Occam's Gazer! It says here is was part of a set but it doesn't mention anything else about the set. According to the book," Eaups said, his tone getting more serious as he pushed past Manfred and splayed the book out on the desk, "the Gazer was designed to be used by the Avatars of the gods." He ran his finger along a line of text as he read directly from it. "When one who hath been Chosen by a god layeth a finger upon the Eye, it prepareth itself for its new master. Once the ceremony of Rayban is complete, the Eye will reveal to the Avatar his true path."

"Chosen?" asked Jesz.
"True path?" asked Mel.
"Layeth?" Manfred muttered.

"It doesn't say much else... Only that the ceremony is to be preformed at some temple in the Oakley Forest."

Mel furrowed her brow in thought. "I have heard of that. The Oakley Forest... I believe it is on an island between Mayford and Drysen. I was told that it is a dangerous place. Neither country claims it because neither wants anything to do with it. They say men have sailed to the island only to return hundreds of years later."

Jesz, who had been using the tip of a dagger to pick at something in her teeth, picked up the Gazer and turned it over in her hand. There seemed to be writing on the bottom of the Gazer, but it was in no language she had ever seen before. "I'm sure we could be in and out, no time at all. We did agree to follow you into any danger..."

"I didn't agree to that," Manfred said, but was largely ignored.

"I want to go! If this thing can show me what I'm supposed to do as the Avatar of Murphy, then what's a few hundred years? Besides, I'm sure Murphy will keep us safe!" Eaups' eyes were sparkling with hope and excitement at the prospect, as if he had just been told he was going camping with Mountain "Lion" Jack, the object of his childhood affections. As he looked up at Manfred, his expression changed subtly, from overwhelming joy to overwhelming hopefulness. "You'll come with us, won't you Mr. Chosen?"

Manfred pulled back just a little, unprepared for the display. He glanced up at Mel, who was ignoring him, and Jesz, who was biting her lower lip. "Look, I'm not... chosen or anything. I don't know anything about this Murphy or whatever. And I want to remember who I am and what I'm doing here. ...But I suppose I do owe you guys for saving me. I'll go, but only if you promise I'll be back this century."

Eaups' smile returned full-force and he crossed his finger over his heart. "I promise! Avatar's Honor!"

"If we are going to go to Oakley Island, we better get our supplies ready and look for a ship. Provided we can find one with a captain that crazy." Mel stood up and stretched her arms over her head, pushing her bust out a little to get the boys' attention. She brushed up against Jesz, who had been smiling at Manfred, and smirked. Mel never missed an opportunity to show her up. "Sooner is better than later. I am sure someone will be asking about Aska soon, and I would rather not be around when trouble comes looking for us." They all agreed.

"Alright! We'll meet down at the harbor then?" Eaups asked.

"Yes, in two hours. We will travel light. Manfred, you go with Jesz..." Mel had picked up her bow and had opened the door to Eaups' cell of a dorm room, only to find a rather humorless man blocking her way.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Chapter 9 - Holy Craps

Twin cubes careened down the soft, green, velvet-covered pit and bounced chaotically off the spiked wall. As they eventually lost their energy and came to a rest, they were greeted by loud cheers.

"Seven!" shouted a young man dressed to the nines. He was surrounded by a crowd of spectators, all a clamor. Each person there was tall, beautiful, and well-dressed. Fine jewels gleamed from the necks of their owners like constellations. Several hands were embellished with rocks so large wars would be fought over them. The combined riches of the crowd would be enough to let an entire kingdom retire peacefully.

In the middle of this crowd, however, was a Man dressed to the elevens, as if being dressed to the nines was just not enough. His pure white and incredibly suave smile could light the room, literally. The tuxedo he wore sparkled so much that it could probably be seen in a pitch-black room. Atop the Man's head was a short, stiff hat that was tilted ever-so-slightly; it would look odd on anyone else, but he made anything look good. His every movement was born out of some seemingly limitless supply of confidence, even as he leaned into the pit to simply pick up the dice. In fact, one might even believe that he, himself, was somehow the source of all confidence in the world, and that all other boldness was just a shadow on the wall of a cave.

Dice in hand, he grinned at the audience in general and winked at the women, eliciting a sigh from each of them (and even several of the men). He brought the dice up to the Lady who was standing beside him. Like him, she seemed to effuse a warm glow. She was tall, almost as tall as he was, with hair the color of the midnight sky spilling down her back and shoulders, some of it constantly covering part of her face. The dress she wore revealed just enough of her perfect, lightly freckled skin to kindle the imagination of any who spent more than a passing glance on her form. No jewels graced her figure, as they would only detract from the splendor. Full, kissable lips were twisted in a seductive smile as she blew on the dice in the Man's hand. "For luck," the Lady said. At the sound of that voice, teenage boys would gladly go through puberty in a matter of seconds.

The Man threw the dice again. "Seven!" the young man called again, much to the delight of the onlookers. This time, the Lady leaned over, making sure to show off just a little more of her flesh to the handsome young announcer, and grabbed the dice.

"MURPHY!" came a shrill shriek over the crowd. The Man turned around with a confused, yet still strangely confident smile on his face.

"Ah, Skeps. I didn't expect to see you at such an... establishment," Murphy said as the crowd fell silent and drew back a little. In a matter of moments, they had dissipated and gone on to other tables with other games.

"Believe me, I would have preferred spending the next eternity blissfully unaware of this establishment and all others like it." Skeps was a severe-looking woman with blond hair tied up in a tight bun. She wore a business suit with a long skirt that hid most of her legs. It was impossible to tell her age. As she looked up and down the pair before her, she pushed up on the bridge of the small, square-framed glasses that adorned her face. "I see you brought your little... Lady."

Murphy frowned at her, an entirely unnatural expression for him. "Her name is Felicity," he said. "It comes from the old language and means-"

"I KNOW what it means. Send her away; my business is not for the ears of Minors." Skeps drew closer and lowered her voice. As she did, the color faded out of the scene around them. Soon, it was as though they were walking in the middle of a black-and-white, 3-dimensional painting.

"What is this about, Skeps? You know she cannot be ordered."

Before anyone could answer, there was a small burst of light nearby. Out of it walked a squirrelly young man, his arms full of books. The stack he carried was enough to hide his face from view, but a few glances gave away some of his features. He, too, wore glasses, but unlike Skeps, it seemed he actually needed them. "M-Mistress," he called out as he blindly walked towards them. There was almost no confidence in his voice.

Skeps rolled her eyes and sighed. "Can you not see I'm busy, Caret? This had better be important."

Caret lowered his arms just enough to peak over the books at Murphy. "O-oh! S-s-Sir Murphy! I-I'm sorry, I didn't... this wasn't on your schedule..."

"Meetings with him rarely are," Skeps said under her breath.

"Ma'am, you wanted me to tell you when..." Caret said, but as he stared at Murphy it slowly dawned on him that there was a woman standing there with him. "L-Lady!" A fierce blush erupted on his cheeks, made even deeper when he stumbled and dropped all the books he was carrying to the ground in a series of muted THUMPs. "Ack!"

Murphy's smile returned as he saw this. Skeps could swear she saw a gleam of something mischievous in his eyes as he turned to whisper something to Felicity. The Lady grinned and nodded to him, politely curtseying to Skeps before walking over to Caret.

"Tell me what?" Skeps demanded in a terse tone. Caret was distracted as Felicity knelt down and started to help him pick up the books. It didn't help that she looked up at him and winked. "CARET!"

"Oh! M-Mistress! A-as you know, the Council of 6 is set to meet soon. The Minors have decided that you should be the Arbiter." Caret turned his attention back to the books, trying hard not to steal a glance up at the beauty helping him. It was not very often that the gods, Minor or Major, interacted with each other, and even less so with Caret. He spent most of his time with books. Fiction, nonfiction, educational, interactive, written, drawn - it mattered not. He had read almost everything that ever had been or ever will be written, so it was no surprise that he rarely got to see the other gods and goddesses.

"Is that all?" Skeps asked.

"Yes, ma'am," he said, standing up as Felicity began to pile the books into his arms.

Skeps set her jaw as she leaned in close to Murphy, her cold, steel-grey eyes staring straight into his. The volume of her voice was low, but it was dangerous. "I will make this short and shorn. I know you are after the Senses, Fate. There are no coincidences, especially when it comes to you and your favored. One of my best judges has passed on, and now the Eye is missing. If I ever catch you involved in the death of one of my judges again, I will make sure the Council removes you. Permanently. And if you continue this futile pursuit, I will stop you."

Murphy simply stood there, a small smile on his face. "I'm sure I don't know what you're talking about, Order." He presented the dice in his hand to her. "For luck?"

Skeps narrowed her eyes, almost like she was trying to bore a hole through his skull with her gaze. "Come, Caret!" she demanded. Before turning, she hit Murphy's hand, sending the dice flying towards the pit. A few feet up from his hand, the color drained out of them and they paused in mid-air. "There's a lot to prepare for." Felicity stood up as Skeps walked over to the them, grabbing the young god by the ear. In an instant, they, and all his books, were gone.

Without warning, color flooded back into the scenery and faces of the people as time began to flow properly once more. The dice resumed their aerial arc, bounced off the floor of the pit, and rebounded off the wall before coming to a halt

"Eight!" the young man announced as the crowd let out a painful groan.

Chapter 8 - Rubble

The sun was high and fierce by the time Manfred and the others arrived at the predetermined meeting space. After they had captured The Duke, Mel sent Aryx off to relay a message to their client, the judge, saying when and where to meet. It was always a good idea to find a neutral place for these things, and the group had been using this one for several weeks with great results. Very little was spoken as they led their bound mark out of the busier sections of the city and into the ruins of the old sector.

Tall buildings filled with busy people turned into tall ruins filled with lazy pigeons. The crowds thinned until the only people they saw were each other. This part of Kell had fallen into disrepair long ago because it was too far from the merchants, temples, homes, and other sites of interest that had risen in the newer sections. There were even rumors that it was cursed or haunted, but generally people didn't talk about the area at all. In some parts, carts, buckets, ancient fruit stands, and children's toys remained behind, scattered about on the streets and in aleys - a testament to some long forgotten exodus.

"Where are you taking me?" The Duke asked eventually as Mel prodded him forward. His hands were tied behind his back and Mel kept the blunt end of her kukri pressed against him.

"We are going to see Judge Aska," Mel replied with a grin. "You have something that does not belong to you."

Before The Duke could protest, the cry of a bird sounded from a clearing in the buildings. Aryx was perched atop a column, one of many that encircled a small stage, perhaps where an altar of a neglected temple was once placed. Mel grinned and raised her left arm. Almost immediately, Aryx launched from his vantage point and flew straight toward her, talons outstretched. The Duke squealed and ducked as the bird flew at him and grasped onto Mel's arm just a few inches behind his head.

"I was beginning to think that you would not show," came the resounding echo of a firm, yet feminine voice. Its owner stood on the stage in the middle of the columns. What surprised Manfred the most was that this judge was a woman. Despite not remembering his past, he distinctly felt that female judges were fairly uncommon. She was tall, wraith-like in feature, and had a strong, angular face. It was a face that had condemned thousands of men and women to unfair punishments without flinching. Then again, in her court there was no such thing as unfair. She was wearing the red robes of a judge with her graying, thin hair tied up in a bun. The moment Manfred stepped into view, her cold gaze shot to him. "Who is that?"

"He is… our apprentice. Pay him no heed. We are here to settle our bounty." Mel took charge of the situation, pushing The Duke in front of her as she stepped before Aska. Jesz sank back behind Manfred, all too eager to let Mel take the lead. If there was anything a thief did not like, it was a judge.

"Hmph. Fair enough, let us stick to business." Judge Aska said as she took a step off the altar towards them. She was just as tall as Mel and gave off a fearful aura that commanded respect and attention. "Let us see if the item is still intact." She grinned and walked right up to The Duke She swiftly reached to his face with a bony hand and tore the crimson patch away from his eye.

"No! You cheated me!" he shouted, closing his eyes hard and turning his face away. "You said that in exchange for giving that false testimony, you would show me the truth about the witch who took my eye!"

"Oh dear Cameron, or should I call you 'Duke?'" Aska purred, a sound that was so grating it could cut cheese. She roughly grabbed his cheeks with one hand, pulling his face up to meet hers. "I never renege on a promise. Surely you did see the truth."

"Yeah, I saw it, and I couldn't stop seeing it! No one should know what this damned thing told me! My girl was cheating, my boss thought I was a fool, my friends lied to me - even my own mom was keeping secrets, secrets that should have stayed that way! This patch is the only way to stop it from telling me things!" He shuddered in Mel's grasp as Judge Aska pulled out a strange, pointed device with a small cup in the center. "Wh-what are you gonna do with that?"

The judge pointed this device, which looked like it could easily have been given a spot in Auntie Payne's Torture Digest, directly at The Duke's false left eye. "I only lent it for a week. I'm just going to take back what is mine."

Manfred, Jesz, and Eaups were grateful that they could not see what happened next. The Duke screamed, and a moment later there was a strange sucking noise. The next thing they knew, there was an eye in the device. The eye did not look normal, however, but appeared to be put together from many overlapping layers of gold leaf. The iris and pupil seemed to be mechanical, but it was far too complicated and small for any jeweler, clock-maker, or gold smith to assemble. In the back of the eye was a small, dark hole. Judge Aska grinned as she held it up in the mid-day sun to look at it. "Ahhh… Occam's Gazer. You're finally home."

The Duke clenched his eyes shut. Mel let go of the rope and let him fall to his knees. The object was back with its rightful owner and he was no longer needed. "Fine, take it! I never could find a buyer, anyway." The Duke stumbled to his feet and pushed past Manfred, hands still bound, heading for the busier sections of town. Manfred was about to stop him when Jesz put her hand up in a gesture that said, "Let him go."

"It is with its rightful owner, now," Mel said, shifting her weight as she started to put the kukri away. "Now for our pay." Under normal circumstances, a proper exchange would have taken place, with money and item changing hands at the same time. But it was a tedious, stressful affair that often ended up in needless fighting or hostages. Besides, everyone knew you could trust a judge.

"Yes," Aska said as she continued to look over the eye. "You know, this little gem has been blessed by Skeps, the goddess of Law and Order herself. Had you but looked through it, you would have easily seen the truth. That I was lying." She held the device up to her face so that she could look at the group through the eye. "The longer you look, the more truth it tells you. Oh my, aren't you a naughty boy," she said as she looked at Manfred and smirked. "Had you used it on me, you would have known that I can't be trusted. Why should I pay for something that belongs to me? But, since you know I am capable of lying, I can't very well have you leaving here alive and telling people, now can I?"

With a snap, half a dozen men armed with crossbows stepped out from behind several of the columns, all of them trained city guards. Mel pulled back, launching Aryx and taking her bow off of her shoulder. Jesz lowered her center of gravity and pulled out her pair of knives. Eaups held his staff out in front of him, and began preparing a spell. Manfred, however, just stood there dumbly, looking at the men as if they were having tea and biscuits. But all of their actions were in vain, because each one already had an arrow aimed at them.

"I should have known," Mel growled behind clenched teeth.

"Oh, don't kill yourself over it," the judge said as she stepped back onto the altar area. "That's our job." With that, she raised her hand. In unison, the guards all raised their crossbows, improving their already deadly aim. "I wish I could promise that it won't hurt, but... what is that noise?"

For some time, the distant sound of thunder could be heard from somewhere in the city. But as Judge Aska and her guards prepared to attack, the noise had grown, and changed. Here it was a CLINK clink... there it was a the deep rummmmble of stone on stone... soon it was replaced by the almost melodic, distressed sound of a bell that had fallen out of its steeple and was rolling along the ground. Behind Manfred and the others, Aska could see that it was indeed a bell, now misshapen and wobbling down the road with a pitiful sound. It collided with an abandoned fruit cart, which sent the cart careening into a pole. The pole teetered for a moment before slapping a sleeping cat on the back, which jumped a good ten feet in the air and landed on huge piece of masonry that was precariously balanced along a wall. Slowly the chunk of rock started to roll, making the cat jump off, and collided with the first column in the abandoned temple. The guards were all looking up at the column as it leaned forward, its balance fighting with gravity until finally it collapsed on the second column, which fell on the third and down the line. Too late the guards realized that they were directly in the line of fire.

"Sod this!" one of the guards said as he started to scramble away, but too late. The columns fell all around them, burying the guards in a cloud of dust and a ton of marble. Judge Aska looked up, the second to last column now leaning against the final column, which would fall directly on her. She started to back up, but smiled and relaxed as the final column one held firm... until...
MEOW! Jesz saw it all in slow motion. The cat had landed directly behind Aska, and as she took a final step away from the offending column, she had stepped on the poor cat's tail. The cat let out a sound that had no right coming from such a small animal, then jumped straight up with all its tiny-yet-incredibly-sharp claws out, and attached itself to the judge's head and face. Aska screamed and started to run wildly, dropping Occam's Gazer and pulling at the cat with both hands. Just as the cat was pulled free, Judge Aska ran head first into the only standing column. This small force, unfortunately, was enough to send the ancient piece of marble crumbling to pieces on top of her.

Within 13 seconds, everyone left alive, even the Duke, had made it a good 300 yards away from the rubble.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Chapter 7.5 - ...

"Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong." Over the years, this simple adage has come to be seen as more than just a simple phrase. It has been recognized as a law of nature itself, the aptly dubbed Murphy's Law. It was not truly coincidence that the first human to utter the phrase was named Murphy, but most people believed that it was. Surely the god of Fate had nothing to do with that. The law has proven itself time and time again, as countless magicians, engineers, cat burglars, performers and explorers can attest to. People have even come to add variations, corollaries and addenda to the law. A common magician's corollary says that any spell which seems to be a dud will inevitably go off at your mother-in-law's at the most inopportune time. Likewise, a famous cat burglar was quoted as saying, "The one trap you didn't plan for will always be the one you run into 20 feet from your mark."

Few people realize that Murphy himself did not invent the law. That was actually made by Skeps, the god (at the time) of Order, though this was a matter of much regret later. However, even though Murphy he did not make the law, there is a simplicity to it that he always found charming. If Murphy had a law at all, it would be, "That which Fate wants to do, Fate will do." Either that, or "Never bet against the blind man at 6-card flop."

One of the best examples of Murphy's Law was unfolding along the busy streets of Kell, right before the eyes of Miss Ruby. Ruby was known far and wide as the friendliest tavern wench above the age of 30 in the kingdom (though no one would ever admit this to her face). She had been sitting outside The Saucy Saucer for half an hour, waiting for the tavern owner to come around so they could discuss her pay. Ruby always made it a point to be fashionably late, but her boss always made it a point to promptly forget any important meetings until an hour after he should have been there. Strangely enough, it always worked out for them. They often had meetings to discuss her pay, but this time as her boss, a rotund man with a permanent blush, approached her he could tell that something was different. Ruby had been watching some scaffolding slowly folding in on itself a block up with intense interest.

"Well Rube, what is it this time? Another pay raise? You know that coffee isn't going to pour itself," the round man said.

"What? Oh... yeah... say, Mr. Goldberg, what do you suppose that is?" Ruby pointed up the street as a ladder teetered on two legs and fell over, hitting a fruit cart and causing the large melons it carried to go flying every which way. One of the melons, a rather large, green thing with a rough rind, rolled down the middle of the street in front of the two onlookers.

"That's a watermelon," Mr. Goldberg replied.

"Yeah, yeah, but I mean... this whole thing..." As the watermelon rolled down the street, it collided with a small boy on a bicycle, causing him to veer off course and run into a wall. The resulting collision knocked a potted plant off a window sill several feet up. As the pot shattered on the ground, a single shard of pottery launched itself with incredible precision, hitting a young man squarely in the back of the head, which made him stumble and run into a nearby barrel. Water poured out of the barrel and down the street, washing several rat-like clumps of dirt towards a group of young women. The screams which followed made a carpenter lose his footing and knock over an entirely new set of scaffolding a block down the street from the two onlookers.

"That? I'd say it's one o' them things we just don't get involved with, Rube," Goldberg said. Off in the distance, the sound of clattering wood, screams, and even an explosion or two could be heard as the city-wide domino effect snaked its way throughout the town. Murphy was rather proud of his work.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Chapter 7 - Connotations

"Hustling and bustling" is often used to describe busy streets filled with merchants and travelers and random passers-by. Whoever thought up of this term, however, had not seen the mercantile streets of Kell. Both the words denote some actual movement, but for the most part there was no real movement in the streets from the hours of 9 to 11 and 5 to 7. This was the busiest time of the day for merchants, catching people going to or coming from their various places of business. And this was very easy to do when everyone was stuck in one place.

Since Kell was also a major port and the capital city of Mayford, everything imaginable could be found within its formidable walls. The very gridlock keeps some purveyors of the less "popular" goods in business. It is, after all, hard to say "no" to someone who has been pushing for you to buy a jar of "Uncle Bunk's Acne Creme, Expectorant, and Degreaser" for the past hour, knowing that you get to spend another hour in his presence.

Manfred had never seen city streets so full of life and exotic fragrances. At least, he was pretty sure he hadn't. The quartet did their best to blend in with the crowd while keeping to the actually hustling and bustling alleyways and side streets which allowed passage at a time like this. Manfred was wearing the tight-fitting black pants he had on the night before, but a blue shirt had been purchased for him to help him fit in a little better. Nothing stood out like a man dressed entirely in black.

"Just how long was I out?" he asked conversationally.

Jesz chimed in with a matter-of-fact voice, not bothering to look back fully at him but just turning her hide to the side slightly. "3 years."

"What?!" The color drained out of Manfred's face for a moment.

"Oh yeah, we thought you weren't gonna make it. I was gettin' ready to harvest your organs for magical experiments. It's good pay." There wasn't even a hint of joking in Jesz's voice.

"Oh, do not listen to her," Mel said. "That is nonsense. Everyone knows an intact cadaver is worth far more."

"Ha ha, very funny," Manfred replied. "I don't believe you. If it had been 3 years, I would have grown a beard, wouldn't I? Huh?"

"Oh, I've been shaving you clean and selling the trimmings to witches," Jesz said loudly to be heard over the din. "But don't worry, Manfred, it'll grow back."

"Stop calling me that. That's not my name!"

"Oh, then what is?" Jesz looked back and winked at him. He was silent for a moment.

"Where are we going?" he asked the group in general as they meandered and slithered through the labyrinthine crowd. He would rather change the subject then have to try to out-think her.

"I told you, we are following Aryx," Mel said from the front of the group. Her eyes were trained on the sky most of the time.

"Yeah, you told me, but where is she lea-"

"He," Mel interrupted. "Aryx is a boy."

"Fine. Where is HE leading us?" Manfred rolled his eyes. "I mean, what is this bounty you're all talking about?"

Jesz looked back at him for a moment. "His name is Cameron Giancolli, but he likes people to call him 'The Duke,'" she explained. "We were hired by some judge to find him. Apparently he stole something of hers and she wants it back... you know, under the table-like."

"Jesz!" Mel said sternly. "We cannot trust him! And stop flirting! I do have eyes in the back of my head, do NOT make me separate you two."

Jesz blushed slightly, her tanned face darkening as she looked forward again. "Sorry…" she said. She was third in line, behind Eaups, who had been silent most of the time they were following Aryx.

The crowd was beginning to thin out as the group worked their way to the outside rim of the city. In the distance, Manfred could see several large buildings standing as sentinels over the city. One was built like a majestic fortress with its own high wall surrounding it - which Manfred believed must be the palace. Another just off to the side of the first was a single massive tower that was crooked and gnarled, seeming to defy all laws of physics and common sense by refusing to fall over. The last, placed in the center of Kell and closer than the other two, stood like a series of sword-spires that dared to strike against the heavens. Each pointed spire was identical in shape to the others and they were arranged in a 12-point circle, 6 tall spires alternating with 6 short spires. The sun reflected off the blades in a sharp rainbow across their surfaces.

"That's the Pantheological Cloister," Eaups chimed in. "Each spire is dedicated to one of the gods." He smiled, looking back at it. "I'm in that one farthest to the right from here." Manfred wished he could pause and get a better look, but Jesz pulled him along. Soon, his view was obstructed by wooden scaffolding and catwalks. It seemed this part of the city was under repair, and by the look of things, under constant repair. Some of the scaffolding had to be fixed with more scaffolding attached to it. Buildings had several different styles of architecture all crowded on top of each other. There were even some parts that had permanent "danger" signs posted, often in stone. "This is the Alchemists' District," Eaups said.

"Yeah, better known as Boom Town." Jesz chuckled to herself. "Some poor sap is always blowing hisself up around here."

"Sshh!" Mel pulled the group to a small alcove. Above them, Aryx was circling in a descending pattern. Soon, he landed on a nearby piece of scaffolding. With a motion to the others to keep out of sight, Mel peered around the corner, scanning the crowd. "That is him," she said as she spied that familiar crimson eye patch. The Duke was sitting at a table talking with another man whose back was to them. "And it looks like that idiot guard of his is not even around."

Manfred backed into Mel. "I wouldn't be so sure of that," he said in a quavering tone. Mel looked back to find the other three with their hands up, a crossbow pointed at them. The brutish bodyguard from the night before approached them.

"Move it. 'Gainst the wall." Mel put her hands up as well, doing as she was told and backing up against the wall. She glanced up for a moment, hoping to call Aryx, but the bodyguard practically shoved the crossbow in her face. "Don't e'en think it, love. I ain't stupid, I know yer a hawker. I've been followin' ya."

"Not..." Mel corrected in a quiet voice. "You should say, 'I'm not stupid.'" Grammar was a pet peeve of hers. It had taken her years to get over Jesz's abuses of the language, and she liked Jesz. Yet now, despite having a cocked crossbow at point-blank range from her nose, she still couldn't help herself when a stranger polluted her mother tongue.

"Wot was that, 'awker?" She was fairly certain he was messing up his words on purpose now.

"I am an… austringer." Mel winced and bit her lip.

"What'd you say?!" the bodyguard demanded.

"I am an austringer, not a hawker. Austringers train hawks, hawkers sell goods." Her voice had grown steady and without inflection as if she was simply reading out of a text book. Although she knew that technically the bodyguard was correct, the connotation of being a hawker irked her even more than his atrocious grammar.

"Oh, I'm gonna turn ya inna 'awk feed," the guard said with a wicked, mostly toothless grin. He raised the crossbow another inch and pulled the trigger.

Again Mel winced, but soon realized that she was still… wincing. And breathing. As she opened her eyes, she saw Manfred, holding the arrow and smiling at the well-muscled bodyguard.

"Didn't know I could do that, huh?" he taunted. "Neither did I. Wanna find out what else I can do?" The bodyguard dropped the spent crossbow and put his hands up slowly, seeing that Jesz was already pulling out a small blade. Yet before she had a chance to use it, he struck with incredible celerity at Manfred. It was simply not fair that such a huge man could move so fast, but, as Manfred was learning, life is hardly fair. He took the blow fully and was knocked back to the wall before grabbing onto the man's arm.

Jesz did not hesitate. She swung at him with a small but devilishly sharp dagger, the blade held underhand, away from the thumb. The man cried out as she sliced through the muscle in his arm, but a moment later he crossed his other arm over his body and grabbed her. Just as he was fast, he was also incredibly strong. His grip had her in tears almost instantly.

By this time, Mel was joining the fight, calling to Aryx for aid and pulling out her kukri. Eaups had already set up a spell to keep passers-by away from the fight, a long snake of smoke that surrounded the brawl. In all this commotion, however, no one noticed that The Duke was already running away.

"Oh no you don't," Manfred squeaked as he tried to breath again. He held firmly onto the bodyguard's arm and suddenly moved like a man possessed. His motions reminded Jesz of a roaring river or winding stream. Manfred deftly ducked under the man's arm, twisting it forward as he moved and forcing his assilant to hunch over. Wracked with sudden pain, the bodyguard dropped Jesz and swung wildly at Mandfred, but it was already too late. With a pull from Manfred, he felt all the bones in his arm strain against each other. In order to prevent his bones from snapping, he fell forward and rolled onto his back. His legs hit a large support of scaffolding and dislodged it, causing a catwalk to teeter to and fro precariously for several seconds before it clattered to the ground nearby. Following this, the entire scaffold leaned over, knocking off workers, parts of buildings, buckets of plaster, piles of stone and brick, and loads of lumber. Everything rained to the ground with a thunderous and continuous clatter, moving quickly down the line of buildings. Just as it seemed to stop, a lone cat would jump off one unstable support and land on the back of an unsuspecting worker who was across the street on another catwalk. The worker thrashed about, knocking over more random construction tools and detritus before he, too, hit one of the supports and sent scaffolding on his side of the street crashing to the ground. One by one, bits fell and the chaos ran down the street. The roar disappeared off into the distance as more and more dominos of industry fell.

By the time the dust settled enough for people to see what had happened, the bodyguard had fled and The Duke was half-buried under a pile of wood and rocks.

"How fortuitous," said Mel. She and Manfred approached the entombed man. "Quickly, before the Alchemists' Guild gets here," she said, pulling out a rope from the mess.

"What about the city guard?" Manfred asked as he started pulling up masonry and crossbeams to dig the dazed man out.

"Oh, trust me. They are not the ones to be worried about for this mess."