I think my beard looks fuller from a distance...so I'm a bit further away for this final picture. Enjoy!

So I made my word count for NaNoWriMo last night, but I'm still a chapter or two (maybe a chapter and an epilogue) away from finishing the story.

But I'm getting up at 5AM tomorrow to take my son on a scout trip to a battleship. So I've decided I don't need to stay up past 11PM to hit word count and thus...I won't.

Will I give you a follow-up post tomorrow with the end of the story? Maybe. Or maybe this was my clever (read: "accidental") marketing scheme. Give you an unedited first draft from an unknown inexperienced writer all the way up to the end and then...BAM, leave you hanging.

How does it end? You say.

Will Ranson and Geon survive the final battle? Why did Krissa attack her allies? Will Jeff find a way to create the longest run on sentence in the history of language? And what about the beard? Is Ranson finally going to get to shave and start his life anew?

Well I could answer all those, or I could leave you in suspense and make you come back to the site a bit later. Which you'll want to do anyway, because in a day or two (not week or more like some times in the past, right?) Cmaaaarrrrrrr! will be posting this year's HoNoToGroABeMo awards.

Mwha ha ha ha ha...it would all be very cruel, indeed, if anyone had read the story to this point so far.

On a side note, I'm fairly pleased with the story I've crafted. I think it went well. I'm considering a few options with what to do with it. I'm thinking to self-publish (probably focused on e-book options more than PoD) and sell cheap and perhaps podcast it as well. Any thoughts/suggestions? I'm more considering it as an experiment than as a career move. I'm not particularly interested in becoming a career writer, I just like telling stories.



Who has two thumbs and won NaNoWriMo on the first try? This guy!

And so, with this I surpassed 50,000 words. NaNoWriMo winner, right here, baby!

I still have at least one more chapter to wrap things up (my outline still calls for two more, even after I mashed up two chapters in the outline earlier for the day I skipped writing). So I'll still be able to post a chapter for you tomorrow.

Hope you're enjoying it.

And while I'm at it, thanks to my father in-law, William Roach for his recent sponsorship. Also, to Mrs. Nuttle, Olivia, and Camryn for their cash donations today at school. I'll be adding those contributions to the total tomorrow. It won't likely keep me up with the likes of what I expect to see from Cmar and some others tomorrow...but it'll be enough to make a difference.

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“I always liked you better clean shaven.” Elum would say to me with a smile followed by a kiss. I took heart in those moments before my certain death that I had known and married a woman who loved me. Together we had created a son, Geon. Now he was in danger and I am not going to let something happen to him. Not without giving everything in my being to stop it.

Now I stood in the cold, fast flowing waters of an underground stream with a small pack of unruly and inexperienced miners around me. More kept spewing out out from their mines as I plotted out my attack strategy and whispered instructions to Brin to pass on to her crew.

But we couldn’t wait too long, these miners weren’t meant for this sort of work. Many more and we’d be caught and without the element of surprise we’d be caught in the water where we would be slow. We had very little in our favor in this fight and every little thing could make a difference. Things had to go perfectly if any of us were going to get out of here with our skins. I’ve been in more than a few fights in my life now. Things never go perfectly.

Elum and I used to walk the streets of Tropol together, hand in hand, carrying the infant Geon in one of our free arms. He’d take in the city with a sense of wonder and excitement. There was nothing more that boy loved more than watching people and taking in the sights of the city in those early days of his life. We’d take those walks at least once a week, my favorite time being in the autumn when the leaves were turning and the air was crisp and refreshing.

I stood up straight and walked towards the shore, the cold water streaming off me. My twin crossbows raised as I took my first step and I fired from each of them simultaneously.

Thunk.

Thunk.

Two shots and two hits. They weren’t expecting the attack and their guards were down. The advantage of surprise was successful. What’s more, my aim was true and the magic of the crossbows worked to great effect. Two shots, two kills. Even better, needed to wear down the defenses around Grayt and Andronis. With the opening shots of this fight, I just killed two of the Guild-trained killers. The fight wasn’t over, but the early success brought a sense of hope to spirit.

Geon and I would often get out of the city for a day or two to experience the wilderness. Things in the heart of the Empire of Ramis around Tropol were always safe. Highwaymen, barbarians, and monster attacks were unheard of in those parts. So much so that folks like us would take a cheap sort of entertainment going out and sitting around a campfire and spending the night under the stars. It seems stupid now, I’ve seen plenty of folks doing that out of need and wishing for nothing more than a roof and a bed. But for Geon and I it was a relaxing retreat. On those nights it was him and I. My life in the Guild just faded away. At least for a day here and there I could just be a father.

I leveled the twin crossbows at their next targets as the miners started to come rushing out of the water. With my head start and slower pace we reached the shoreline about at the same time. They followed their instructions as planned. These miners had more discipline that Grayt’s crew ever had. There was that hope again. Maybe I wasn’t going to die today.

They were to keep Grayt’s gang busy. That was where they were going to have the most luck. Once they’d cleaned up those thugs they could help me with the enemies that have talent. Grayt, Andronis, the four remaining Guild killers, Kral and Krissa. Any one of those would have been a challenge for me. There was no chance of me holding off all of them, let alone kill them. But I, alone, probably had a better chance than the miners and I couldn’t send them to certain death without leading the charge, I guess.

My next two shots went to the same target. Kral was a bigger fellow and everyone was on their guard now. I wasn’t likely to get the easy kills. But while Kral may be strong, he was just as slow. Maybe slower. So I figured if I was going to get to drop anyone easily he’d be the next best shot.

My planning paid off. One shot went right into his neck, leaving him spraying blood in a very flashy show of gore. The other shot went into and came out the back end of his right knee. The ogre-blooded brute fell in a shower of blood and screams. He wasn’t dead, although he might yet bleed out, but he wasn’t in this fight anymore either. I’m calling that a win.

Elum used to make the most wonderful rolls. for years I wasn’t sure what she would do with them, from what I could tell in the early days of our marriage she seemed to be following the same routine everyone else did when making rolls. But her rolls were sweeter somehow. Geon and I couldn’t get enough of them and she loved how much we love them. I never did have the heart to tell her that a few years after Geon was born I caught her secretly adding a few drops of honey into the batter and then brushing some honey-butter on to the top as they baked.

After Krall fell things started getting a bit harder. The amateur gang started fighting back and met the miners head on, dropping two miners for every thug that went down. And on my end the trained killers and Krissa would be on top of me soon. Andronis held back, and Grayt pulled out a wand and called on his magical attacks.

While my crossbows reloaded themselves Grayt fired a small bolt of lightning at me. My jacket saved me from most of the attack, but it still gave me a good shock and put a stagger in my step. Grayt was going to be a problem if I couldn’t get him down. As such, he became my next target.

Even with the five other trained warriors bearing down on me, I fired past them to try and get a shot at Grayt instead. This, it turned out, was the first moment when things stopped going perfectly. One crossbow bolt flew high and clattered against the stone of the alcove the weasel was in. The other bolt would have scored some sort of glancing blow, at least distracting the greasy man, but he had a magical barrier of some sort protecting him and the shot ricocheted off it instead.

There was one time that Emperor Ramis, for his birthday, was holding celebrations all over the empire. There was a play that Elum and I managed to get to. The whole thing was happening while Elum was very pregnant but when were we ever going to get to see a play again. I honestly couldn’t tell you what the show was about, but I can describe exactly how it felt when my wife took my hand. She entwined our arms and laid her head on my shoulder and soaked it all in. I know women do these things out of a sense of loving and seeking security, but I can most assuredly tell you that I felt more secure in those moments than I had ever felt before. At least until she went into labor in the middle of the third act.

I dropped my crossbows onto their hooks on my belt and pulled out my trusted axe. Just in the nick of time I raised it to block the first attack. I was quickly surrounded and in a full defensive mode. I was holding off the four killers from Tropol well enough. Krissa could have thrown the whole thing off, but it seemed she was having a hard time finding her moment amidst these four warriors who had trained in the same style for years. A style she didn’t know.

As I fought off all their attacks, taking a few blood letting nicks here and there I noticed, between the sword slashing, Grayt was preparing another attack. Even if my jacket protected me from the brunt of it, another moment of hesitation like it gave me last time and one of these guys would introduce my heart to their steel. Likely more than one.

Then I got distracted. I couldn’t see the attack coming in the rush of trying to not be killed by one of those deadly blades flashing around me as I danced of survival. But, oddly, the bolt of lightning didn’t come.

When I did get another glance at the alcove I saw Geon, hands around Grayt’s neck, choking the life out of the man. Andronis seemed to have just noticed what was going on and kicked my son. Sent him sprawling. I tried to surge forward. I couldn’t let Geon die. It just couldn’t happen.

I got sliced by every single blade for my trouble and knocked to the ground. I lost sight of Geon, but just as one of the killers was about to fold in my skull with his blade I saw the tip of a long knight suddenly protrude from his chest.

In shock, I looked over and saw Krissa remove her blade from the man’s back. The other three killers quickly sprang into action, but there was enough time for me to scramble to my feet while I defended myself.

That’s when several dozen soldiers of the empire came charging through the tunnels into the cavern. In their lead, a fey-looking man in a white jacket and hat. And almost as soon as I thought the cavalry had come to the rescue, I saw a half-dozen arrows and crossbow bolts go streaming for the Marshall. The man was talented. He could have likely single handedly turned the tide of this fight. Before he could do a thing, the Marshall was shot and dropped to the ground.

The Marshall wasn’t going to be getting into this fight, maybe no fight ever again.

I looked at him, blood splattered and laying on the ground wheezing for breath. I remember his clean shaven, overly handsome face. “I always liked you better clean shaven,” Elum used to say to me.

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Next up...

Chapter 29: It Ends



See it? Look real close and you can see my greying beard hairs.

It's on now. The lead up to the penultimate chapter...sort of. I'm actually only 950ish words away from hitting the word count for NaNoWriMo. So that's awesome. I'm going to be a NaNo winner my first time out.

I'm also pleased with how the story has turned out. There's a few elements I'd like to clean up in a revision some day. Solidly set Geon's age. I neglected it as the story went on and I'm wanting to reference now and then lately. For example.

I can also go back and weave in some more foreshadowing of some things that ended up happening that IW wasn't entirely expecting.

In any case, this chapter is all about set up. Set up for what? For the next chapter, which is the big fight scene.

That's going to be tricky for me. I basically have a chapter long fight scene planned...can I do a fight scene for an entire chapter without it getting boring? I guess we'll see.

Also, today a student commented that my beard makes me look old because it's full of gray hair. At the same time, I got another $100 in donations. Thanks to my co-worker Chris and my Victor Wyatt. Good people both of them. Now I get to be in first place again for just a wee bit longer.

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“Well, I’ll be. I didn’t think I’d be a’seein yerself moseying down through my tunnels again. And steaming hot, ya seem, like a potato right out the fire. Hooie!”

I wasn’t in the mood for Brin’s down home country speak that seemed more and more prevalent the more one was tied to life out here on the edge of civilization. I did, however, need Brin to at least not get in my way right now. If I had to cut through the miners and the gang down in Martel’s mine my suicide was almost assured. As if it wasn’t already just about a sure thing.

“You sure this is the lug, Brin?” One of the miners asked, “I was there, and this man don’t hardly look like the talker we saw that day. This one’s all bearded and scruffy, that fellow was clean cut, in control, talked smooth. That guy had his act together.”

“You know your right.” Brin responded, placing a defiant hand on her hip as she cocked her head to one side and put on an over the top expression of investigation. The sort you put on when you’re pretending to check out a new pair of oxen that you’ve already decided your going to buy. “That fellow, he was smooth and cool. This fella he’s hot...burnin. Unkempt, ready for a row, not to eager to fight now, are ya, fella? Seems you been through a rough patch.”

I had been standing and taking this all in. My stance was entirely not aggressive, but my muscles were all coiled and ready to spring. If these miners decided to take their anger towards Grayt and that day out on me right now, and they’d have every right to do so, my lot would be to get through them, not take them down.

“Grayt’s a weasel and he deserves to be sent to the hells that spat him out.” I said, “I know it now and I knew it when I first met you. I didn’t want to see anyone hurt. I tried to resolve things without a fight. I hope you remember.”

“Oh, we remember,” another miner commented. “We also remember how that gang killed several of my friends. Good folk, too. Some with families. I remember how you were in the thick of that fight as much as anyone...and you weren’t fightin fer us.”

“I do recall somethin odd about this one that day, though.” It was an odd miner, an elf. Odd in that their not the sort to typically enjoy underground work. Elven miners are rare, especially out this far from both the cities and the woods. “I recall paying careful attention to the talker, here. Seemed off to me. Something odd to him but at the same time he seemed about the deadliest person in that room that day. So I kept my eyes on him. Strange bit was, I saw him have many chances to cut one of ours down and he never did. He hurt folk that day, but I can tell ya now, he didn’t kill a single person.”

“Well now, that does make you an odd bird, doesn’t it Mr. Talker?” Brin came back at me. “If it’s true, if you didn’t want to do us in, why’d you come along tethered to that slime Grayt?”

“My son.” I let it hang out there for a moment. “He knew where my son was. I’ve been trying to do nothing more in my life than to get back to my son for going on 3 years now. I made some mistakes...did bad things to try and save my wife. I failed, she died, I went to jail. I’ve been trying to find my boy since I got out. Grayt knew where he was. Now he has him and if I don’t get to him he’ll be dead. Or worse, he’ll become every bit as bad as Grayt is. I can’t let that happen.”

“Oh ho!” Brin called out to the miners who were still gathering at the sound of our conversation. “Man’s got a cause.” She suddenly got weirdly serious, stared into my eyes, and softly added, “And it’s a good one.”

She returned to her normal, boisterous attitude, the seriousness passing, “But I can promise ya this...Grayt ain’t been down these tunnels since that day we sent you lot runnin with yer tails tween yer legs. Ya come ta the wrong place ta find that one.”

“No. He’s in Martel’s mine. That’s how we got out of your tunnels. There’s a stream, it runs to a cavern in Martel’s mine. That’s where he’s been hiding. He has my son, he has Martel, and what’s more, Grayt’s not the real problem anymore. His boss...my old friend from Tropol is here. A man named Andronis. They conspired to steal a pendant from the vault several days back. A bit of magic that might just hand this common criminal the reigns of the empire.”

“Woah ho ho!” Brin jumped in, “Now yer sayin that yer gonna save yer son and the empire itself? Whooie, you got a lot on yer plate, son. And yet, you go barreling down that stream alone into a gang of thieve’s her gonna die.”

She stroked her chin as if she had the beard that lived on my face and she was in deep contemplation.

“Alright, we’re in.” She said and murmurs erupted amongst her miners.

“I can’t ask you...”

“Ya didn’t ask. But I’m goin. I kicked Grayt’s tail before, I wouldn’t mind a chance to do it again. ‘Sides, if’n I’m not mistaken that pendant’s sposed ta be mine. I found it down here in these holes...my holes. So it’s my pendant and I’m not aimin to have it used to cause a ruckus. Don’t fret none, you’ll be leadin the way, but me and any o’ mine with a backbone’ll be right behind ya. Now how’re we gettin down there?”

She grabbed her shovel and a pick axe and came up next to me. A shovel. There was no way that this rabble was going to stand a chance against trained killers after half-drowning themselves just to get into the place. But it was their lives, their livelihood, their community they were protecting here. And while the Empire of Ramis didn’t care anything about them so long as the goods kept flowing, it was their empire they were defending, too.

The entire mining operation grabbed their tools and fell in line. They, to a person, had steel-eyed looks of determination on their faces. And here I was worried about going down there without an army. I had better than an army. I had the people of Haven.

I led them all down to the stream we’d found. I described to them all what to expect, when to hold their breaths, I was even able to give some ideas about how to avoid the dangerous parts of the stream. With forewarning there’s no reason anyone would have to get hurt getting into the cavern. The problem was that we’d have to space out a good amount. I may have an army of miners at my back, but they’re going to be joining this battle one person at a time.

With everyone aware of the plan I made sure all my weapons were secure and I leapt feet first into the stream. Before I knew it I was shooting out of it into the cavern where Grayt and Andronis were hiding. Luckily the men were all packing up and breaking camp. It meant I had made it in the nick of time. It also meant that they were making quite a ruckus. The noise echoed all over the cavern. Between that and the roar of the water I got in completely unnoticed. I worked my way over to the beach to get a better look, but the only part of me that was out of the water was my nose, eyes, and demon-skin hat.

Keeping to the shadows and down in the water I was able to get close enough to get a lay of the situation. Grayt and Andronis were in conversation to the left in a side alcove of the cavern.

Most of Grayt’s gang were breaking camp, getting ready to move on, thinking that they had everything they needed from Haven and that it was time to head to the next venture.

Andronis’ crew, however, were not inclined to engage in the menial labor of the others. They stayed close to their master. While there were four that were with him at the jail when they tried to see to the end of me, there were two others with them now. They must have been left behind with Grayt’s crew as backup, in case anything went wrong.

I did see two folks with Grayt, however, not helping to break camp. Standing opposite Andronis’ six killers was Kral, the monster of an orc that I gave the beating to back when I first arrived in Haven. The one who I was meant to replace when I joined up with the gang. And next to him was Krissa. I respected Krissa. I could almost come to like the poor girl if she didn’t have such a hard edge to her that kept pushing her into crime. I hoped I wouldn’t have to kill the girl saving my son. But save him I was going to go.

There, behind Andronis and Grayt, was Geon. Beaten, bruised, and bleeding. Near him was the weak old Martel, clearly having been abused for several days now and looking to be at the end of his thread. That poor man didn’t deserve any of this. He had never been anything but kind to everyone he saw, despite the fact that they all mocked him, sometimes to his face.

There was no way I was going to get to Grayt and Andronis without everyone on that beach noticing. This made it equally impossible that I was going to get to Geon and Martel. But that was okay, for now. I didn’t need to get to them unseen. All I had to do for now is sit tight and wait.

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Next up...

Chapter 28: The Big Fight



My Ranson-stare apparently can double as a teacher glare. Good to know.

An early night for me. Whoo hoo! I have two more hard nights to pull off to finish this story. Tonight and tomorrow night. Word count is going to be easy at this point, but finishing the story is another thing all together.For that I still need a chapter per day.

I honestly thought today's chapter was going to be shorter than planned but it filled out at the end nicely, so I went over word count again (like I've done for 24 other chapters).

Things are running straight ahead to the end of the story and Ranson is rushing headlong into an impossible situation.

Meanwhile, fighting breast cancer continues to be a totally handle-able situation...we just need your help and sponsorships. Thanks to Elton Dickens for his support today. Good guy!

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Hot, red, dry, roaring, pain and suffocating weight. This was my entire existence for some moments. Moments which seemed to be hours, days, eternity.

Suddenly, the crushing weight on top of me was lifted. Things felt cooler. There was still pain and fire but there was also a soothing breeze.

Slowly it all faded away. The roaring. The hot. Even the searing red pain started to at least fade. Then there was a voice, “Please. Come on, Ranson. Be alright. Healers are coming...I shouldn’t have done it. I don’t care what he threatened, I shouldn’t have...”

“Marshall?” I tried to say, but it came out as a raspy unrecognizable whisper.

“Thank the gods.” He said with relief. “Here, have some water. You’re going to be alright.”

I felt the coolness cross my burned and blistered mouth and slide across my tongue down my ash-filled throat.

After a few moments I was able to sit up and look around. I was in the middle of the street, down the way from where Bra’kt’s soldiers were fighting the fire of what used to be the jail and almost became my tomb. Men, women, dwarves, humans, elves and others. Everyone came together, set their problems aside, and fought to save their town...their community was something greater than them all and if they knew it outwardly or not, I could see it clearly in that moment.

I took an assessment of myself for a moment. The soldiers had taken my weapons when they locked me up, luckily they left me my jacket and hat. The demon-skinned apparel protected me from having the flames burn me alive. The heat was still unbearable and the protection doesn’t cover my whole body. All that said, there’s no doubt in my mind that had it not been for that protection I’d be a charred corpse right now. The irony of it all wasn’t lost on me, either, that gear having been a gift to me from Andronis back when I was working for him in Tropol.

The beam and subsequent debris from the collapsing building, however. That injury was real and serious. Within a few minutes, however, a healer was at my side administering their restoratives and filling me with soothing magical regeneration, causing my torn body to reknit itself into working condition. The healing wasn’t enough to end the pain or completely restore me, of course, but my body was my own again. The entire time I was being looked after in the middle of that street in the dead of night Marshall Bra’kt stood and watched the entire time, his guilt written clearly on the expression of his face.

After I was restored to the point of being able to I stood, still wheezing from the ash and soot I had inhaled, not to mention the chronically injured lung from my previous fight with the Marshall.

I took a few steps towards Bra’kt leading him to start to apologize again, “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have...” is all the further he got however.

POW

I hauled off and knocked the guy to the ground with one punch. It must have looked odd, such a small, frail looking Marshal being accosted by a massive brute of a man like me. His hat went flying, silhouetted in the still raging fire and not a single person did anything about it.

The Marshall stood back up, staggering a bit as he came. He was about as unaggressive as someone who was just knocked upside their head can be and there was no anger on his face. He still looked guilty and his features begged for forgiveness.

“I’ve done wrong. I know it. I knew it when I did it. I didn’t see another way, but...but you said something that got me thinking. Thinking about not going down the road of doing evil things for good reasons. It’s what you’d been doing for years. I get that, I’ve always understood it and even back when we met the first time I wanted you to find the goodness at the end of that road. But in my heart, I pitied you. I pitied the man you’d become and was glad I never had to make such impossible choices before.”

“Then Andronis came to you, didn’t he,” I finished his idea for him.

“Yeah, he came and he gave me two bad choices. Two horrible things that were going to happen. Rather than stand up to him, I picked one. I needed to realize what I think you also came to realize yesterday when we talked. There are never only two choices. We make our own choices and we sow our own harvest from what we choose, but their ours and others can’t force false choices onto us.”

“Where’s my boy? Where’s Geon?” Now that I could breathe and move again I couldn’t care less about Marshall Bra’kt, his conscience, or the philosophical realization he’d some to. Geon had been taken away and I needed to get to him now, before he was lost to me forever, again.

“Your son?” He seemed unprepared for the shift in conversation. “Of course, yeah...” His eyes lowered and he hesitated, clearly not wanting to answer the question.

“What did you do? Where is my son?” I demanded.

“I meant what I told you yesterday. I had things all arranged. He was going to go live with some folks I met in another town and they were going to get him back on track with his life. I’m so sorry...”

I was yelling now, “WHERE IS HE?”

“Grayt...while Andronis kept me busy and timid Grayt took the boy. They have them. I don’t know where they went, I don’t know what’s happened to him. But...”

POW

I couldn’t help myself, I hauled off and laid the Marshall out a second time.

It was worse than I had thought. I hadn’t just lost Geon, had him taken away and sent off to another unknown place where he would simply run away and hide from me again. He was back with the two most despicable people I’d ever had the pleasure to know. Two people with every reason to want to hurt me and who knew that the best way to do that was through Geon.

“Where are my weapons?” I demanded. The Marshall nodded from the dirt towards one of his soldiers who handed me the twin crossbows and the axe. I was honestly a bit surprised that Andronis hadn’t demanded them as part of the deal with the Marshall, but for whatever reason, they were back where they belonged and ready to do the job I needed them to do. Stowing them in their proper homes I stomped off out of town, unstoppable, like a too large boulder rolling down a hill.

From his spot on the ground Marshall Bra’kt called out, “Where are you going? Ranson...Ranson!”

I was single minded and I knew where to go. Grayt took him, they were at Martel’s mine and it had been less than a day since I got away from them with the pendant. They had to still be there, and I had to get moving before it was too late.

I should have asked for the Marshall’s help. It was stupid of me to march into those mines myself when inside the weasel called Grayt had his crew of several dozen left, battered though they were. And they had been bolstered by Andronis and at least four killers he brought with him. Guild trained, experienced killers from the capital, each probably my equal in a fight.

I’d spent years of my life able to accomplish relatively mundane tasks with surprising efficiency and consistency simply by the fact that I didn’t run off half-cocked doing stupid things.

As I marched tirelessly across the wilderness between Haven and Mad Martel’s mine my tactical mind started to overcome the emotional beast I had become. The emotional creature that I’d never really allowed myself to let loose before. I was a changing man, it was clear to me in that moment. And I wasn’t sure it was all for the better...but I was determined to try and make sure it was.

I couldn’t go back to the Marshall for help, and even if I could they were busy putting out the fire and I couldn’t by all rights ask the town to sacrifice itself in order to help me save my son. And going through the tunnels into the cavern where the gang was hiding was almost certain suicide. They had no reason to believe any lies I might come up with, no matter how convincing I might be. That herd had passed and wasn’t coming back.

Besides, so far as the were concerned I was already supposed to be dead. They’d almost surely shoot me on sight. So I needed to get to them without being seen. Seemed easier said than done, but an idea was starting to percolate in my mind.

I was at a loss as I considered how I was going to get Geon out of there safely. Concern for my own safety had passed at that point, but Geon had to be safe. Getting in, however, I had that part figured out. I already knew there was more than one way into that cavern. We originally discovered that cavern going in through a different route.

I changed my course slightly, no longer heading directly to Martel’s mine. The sun was just starting to come up over the plateau where all the mining tunnels were I pulled my had down to cover my eyes and felt the breeze run through my beard. I still had a beard, the fire must have have scarred the flesh of my face too badly then.

If the sun was up, maybe they would already be there getting ready to work. Maybe they’d remember that I wasn’t the villain in their story earlier. Or maybe they’d beat me to death for showing my face.

It didn’t matter, I had to try. They had my son.

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Next time...

Chapter 27: The Beginning of the End



Word to the bearded.

Not much extra to say tonight. Beard's going strong. Didn't make an appearance in today's chapter, but we got the backstory between the previously hinted at first meeting of Ranson and Marshall Bra'kt.

Not much else to say today...other than, sponsor me? Go ahead, you know you want to.

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I had been on the road for six or seven months when I followed Geon’s trail into the town of Tar’ek. It was an old orc-town, as the rumors went. Created when an encampment of orc barbarians decided to not leave for several years. Slowly the orcs traded tents for huts and eventually, when the Empire of Ramis found that they were there and behaving in a relatively civilized way, they sought ways to conquer without violence. They immigrated.

The stories say that the Empire of Ramis just started moving people in. Merchants at first, to facilitate trade. Then craftsmen that could support the merchants. Farmers to feed them all. And on and on. Until this day when Tar’ek is a fairly typical imperial city, on the cusp of being in the lawless wilderness, with a slightly higher than normal group of folk with orcish blood.

Tar’ek, however, was a bigger than typically town out here, but it also wasn’t too far out of the proper part of the empire. Combined with high quality of the local soil and the weather being quite cooperative for growing, this place was a virtual bread basket for the empire and that brought folks in for all sorts of work.

It was also one of the older fringe towns in the empire. Many of the buildings were stone, rather than wood. And even some of the wood still stood on firm stone foundations and had stone floors. They lacked the broad, decorative columns and high arches of the civilized portion of the empire, but it lacked the real lawless wild abandon that the other fringe towns I’d been in on my search.

My source told me that Geon had headed here looking for a job. Seemed he wanted to get in on some muscle work and that there was a gang in Tar’ek that was known for doing a lot of that sort of work and not being too picky about who they took in.

When I arrived in town I followed my normal routine. I went to the tavern and started asking anyone who would talk to me if they’d seen my boy. I’d give descriptions, try to spot the sort that might have run into him. And when that, almost always went no where, I’d start asking around about where I might find folks who had seen him. In this case, members of the local gang of muscle.

After I’d spend several hours I’d then look to get cleaned up, find a room, and get a meal. All this before following up on my leads and digging into my deep hunting frame of mind. I was never much of a detective in my life before hunting for Geon, but after all the time I’d done almost exclusively that, I was getting to be a bit of a hunting dog for clues.

Then I’d get to talking to folks. I’d scour all my leads and get any information I could until I eventually found something that got me somewhere and I’d follow that doggedly until eventually I’d learn that Geon left town and off I’d go. And so it would go, round and round.

Sometimes, along the routine, I would run into a bit of trouble. I could tell early on that Geon was running towards a rough crowd and that meant I was running into rough crowds all too often. In Tar’ek it was the Rough Nose clan.

A mostly orc and half-orc crew, I can’t imagine why Geon thought he could get in other than he was young and stupid. I caught up with them outside a horse pen, getting ready to rough up the owner, or sizing up the steeds for which would be best to steal, no doubt.

I wasn’t messing around anymore, beating around the bush. I marched right up to the largest orc in the gang and got in his face and demanded the information I wanted. Let’s just say, I was aggressive and they didn’t take kindly to it. A fight ensued, I took some good hits, but I soon had them laid out or running. After picking up the few coins I could from the fallen, that’s when I ran into real trouble.

“Excuse me there.” Came the voice that I wouldn’t soon forget. “It seems you’ve been part of a bit of a row.”

When I turned around to face the speaker I found a well groomed man, thin and agile, almost fey in his features. He wore a white jacket and had that matched. On his flanks were three of his deputies, his soldiers. It wasn’t nearly the size of the legion he had with him in Haven. I should have noticed the signs that the Marshall was up to something when he rolled into town with that many law makers.

“You see, there’s been reports,” he continued, “folks saying that you came along and picked a fight with these toughs. Why don’t you tell me a bit about who you are and what your up to.”

“I...I’m new to town. Not sticking around long,” I put on a bit of a stammer, an old Guild trick to make folks think you’re a bit more innocent than you might actually be. “W...Why I just be coming along here, seen these orc fellas. They called out to me...tried to start up some trouble and all.”

“Son, you can drop that act. You took apart four tough thugs who’ve seen more than their share of trouble. Then you sent the other two running. Plus, when I finally came up on you, you were quickly robbing the men. You are no stumbling innocent here. I’m no moron and I’d appreciate you not treat me as one.”

“Alright,” I was going to have to fess up, mix a bit of truth in with my explanation but not give up too much. If he found out who I was and did any looking around he’d see my record and probably hear about a dozen or so crimes I’d committed while looking for Geon. “Sorry for the deception. You never know who you can trust. I hear even some lawmen are in the pockets of some gangs.”

“Truth is, name is Barlet, came here from farm outside Yardley, a day or so out from Tropol.” I used the names and locations of my youth to allow for details I could account for easily. “I’ve been traveling about...”

“Don’t tell me you’re looking for work, son. I can see your gear, I can easily tell the sort of work you’d be into.”

“Well, looking for work of a sort, off and on. Been hunting bounties for the empire for several months now. Has me all over.” Lies that account for some things I didn’t want to explain. “But largely, I’m looking for someone. A boy, young teen, named Geon. He’s been running all over this place.”

“A boy...what on this green ball of mud would a bounty hunter be doing asking around for a teenage boy for?”

“His father,” subtle layers of truth that still conceal the needed parts, “been looking for him. Started the hunt in Tropol and dad would do...and pay, just about anything to get the boy back. Turned over his life, started things a fresh to make things better and try and get the boy back. He can’t likely afford what all this time, expense, and travel would normally afford, but how could I deny a man like this. I pick up other work along the way when I can, so it’s not all loss.”

“Hmmm...I see.” the Marshall seemed to be thinking on the story I’d told him. To roll it over to look for holes in it.

“And this father, you say he’s started fresh. Fresh from what?”

“Ahh, he got himself into some trouble in his younger years. Spent some time trying to dig out of it. Seems he hasn’t yet learned that you can’t dig out of a hole, you can only get deeper in it. But he’s trying and I’m determined to see if I can’t help by bringing his boy back.”

“I see, Baret. Well, here’s the thing you need to know. Around here, I’m the law. Me and my deputies. If I have folks running around, stirring up the local gangs then suddenly that’s my business, isn’t it. I’d think a bounty hunter would know this sort of thing. If your looking to start fights, you check in with me and I’ll help you handle it legal, like.”

“Sorry, Captian...”

“Marshall, actually.”

“Ah, right. Sorry Marshall, I’ll be sure to look for law folk next time I’m looking to get into it with some ruffians.” Lies piled on lies now and I got the distinct impression that he knew I wasn’t telling the truth. A real bounty hunter would know to contact the law. A real bounty hunter would know from the look of the badge if the law maker he was talking to was a Captain or a Marshall. I’d made too many mistakes, there was no doubt he knew I was lying.

Slowly, I let my hands fall onto the crossbows at my hips. If I needed to I could get two shots off, drop a few of these law makers if I was lucky and keep the others busy tending to them so I could get away.

I was about to take my shot when the Marshall suddenly turned around. “Well, Mr. Baret. I suspect you’ll need to be on your way now. Off hunting your boy...the one your after, that is.” He had his thumbs looped into his belt and he was looking up as if enjoying the sky and the breeze.

“I’m a believer in second chances, after all. It’s why I do this job. To give everyone the chance to make the decision that they know they ought to make. If this fellow in Tropol needs his son to help him turn over a new leaf, that’s seems about as worthy a task as any. Just be sure you don’t stir up any more trouble along the way.”

He continued, “After all, I’m not digging deeper into the fight with the thugs, so seems to me you’re getting a second chance, just don’t expect a third.”

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Tomorrow...

Chapter 26: Second Chances



See that...right there! That's the bit that's starting to drive me nuts. But I'm so close, I can't trim the stache now...I WON'T!!!

I have returned home and am ready to return to school/work tomorrow. I didn't see half of what there was to see but I'll also be glad to sleep in my own bed and take an actually hot shower tomorrow.

This chapter we finally meet Anrdonis face to face. I had an ambitious list of things to do in this chapter and I did them all. It meant a longer chapter than previous ones but I think also one that moves a lot of things forwards and has a lot of action.

Hope you enjoy...also, sponsorships.

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I didn’t sleep well that night. Every time I closed my eyes my mind filled with arguments and angry speeches that I should have given to Bra’kt to convince him that Geon was best served with me. When I wasn’t doing that I was feverishly working up situations in my head that might, but probably wouldn’t come up. My brain needed to work on a problem so it created situations where it might find a way to gain my freedom. If the guards moved me and did this, or if the Marshall got close to the cell then I’d do that.

Plus my mustache was getting too long and irritating my upper lip.

On and on it went until finally, my endlessly active brain shut down for a moment. I don’t believe I slept for very long. Honestly, I question if you can even call it sleep. I think it was more just a few moments when my mind was allowed to turn off for a bit to take a break. Then I heard the footsteps.

It wasn’t rare to hear footsteps outside the jail, I had learned from my time here before. No matter if it was the middle of the day or the dead of night like it was now. The jail was on the main street of Haven. It wasn’t a big town and most of the businesses were right on the one strip of straight dirt called a road. Branching off that were the less visible buildings. Homes, businesses that were generally not wanted in the middle of town, butchers, blacksmiths, and the like, and some farm estates here and there that enjoyed the protection of being town-adjacent.

These footsteps, however stood out to me. At first I thought perhaps I was being paranoid. Was my sleep-deprived, fevered brain invent a threat so that it would yet another thing to deal with? Then the footsteps stopped. Then moved again, getting closer. Then I thought I heard voices muttering too quietly to be understood.

There was something going on.

It almost sounded like a couple of kids about to pull a prank, but I didn’t believe that for a moment. Not after what I’d been through. It was almost certainly townsfolk come after me, maybe miners who remembered my role against them, what was now several weeks back. It could have been Grayt’s crew, out to check on me, or kill me, if he’d figured out what happened to the pendant. Whoever it was I was certain they were up to no good and I needed to be ready.

Luckily I wasn’t left alone. Honestly, if I had been I likely wouldn’t still be in jail at that moment. There were a handful of guards left behind to keep me safe and secure. Snug as a bug in a rug. They, however, didn’t seem to notice the footsteps and muttering.

“Gentlemen.” I said, causing them all to suddenly stop sit upright and turn my way. Three women and a man. An elf, a dwarf, and two humans. I can recall their faces perfectly.

Thunk. Thunk. Thunk. Thunk.

Four crossbow bolts. Two through the window, two through the door. Each hit their target perfectly. All four guards dead in moments before anyone could raise any sort of alarm.

I hurriedly searched about my cell for some sort of weapon, some sort of protection. I quickly turned my bed over, intent on breaking off a leg to use as a club and to hide behind the frame in hopes that it would block any crossbow shots, meaning they’d have to come in after me.

I was just about to give the bed leg a good kick to break it off when striding through the door, with every ounce of confidence and false aplomb, came striding Andronis, himself.

Apparently I had escaped Martel’s mine with the pendant just in time and when Andronis discovered what had happened he cooked up a little scheme for me. My old Guild captain, however, was not reliant on the unseasoned amatuers that Grayt had in his service. He brought some skilled killers with him. The sort that could kill off four of the empire’s law-makers before they even knew there was a threat.

“Well, well, well,” Andronis said, even now using the false charm that had been his mask for so many years. It wasn’t as if his charms mattered at this point. He was here to kill me, of that there couldn’t be any doubt. All charm in the world, false or otherwise, wasn’t going to make a difference in how this all played out. But Andronis has been playing that part for so long, there was no way for him to turn it off anymore. Did Andronis even have a personality all his own, anymore, or was he only the mask?

“You ran off so fast, back in Tropol, I started to think you didn’t like me anymore.” Two of the killers that came with Andronis stepped in after him. They wore the dark tunics and breeches that was common amongst thieves of the empire’s core. Out here, though, on the fringes of the world, they looked out of place. Tunics were impractical and overly warm. And the frilly, colorful attire that Andronis wore, as usual, while being the height of civilized fashion, I’m sure, just looked silly. In places like haven, a good pair of breeches, sturdy boots, a jacket to keep the dust off, and a wide-brimmed hat to shade you from the sun sufficed for most.

My only response to Andronis at this time was to narrow my eyes. To give him one of my hate-filled glares.

“I know, I know how you must feel and I know how you must be upset. But look at it this way, you were valuable to me. Loyal. Competent. You were a good lieutenant. You are the sort of person that is going to be useful to me again when I move on to bigger and better things. There’s still a chance you come out of this ahead. There’s still a chance for you to come back to me.”

“No.” I had made a choice yesterday when talking to Bra’kt. No more compromises when it comes to my decisions. I would no longer make bad choices for good reasons.

“I’m sorry to hear that. I’m sure Geon will be upset as well. Don’t worry, I won’t let the Marshall send him away. I’ll always make sure he’s taken care of...”

“The answer is still no.”

Even I am surprised I was so stalwart. I had done everything for my son. I had done many things I wasn’t proud of. I had done things that made me a bad person, of that there was no doubt. I wasn’t doing those things anymore.

Besides, looking back at it, if I had said yes I would have been lured right back into my old life with Andronis. He would have always held Geon, and threat to him, over my head to keep me in line. Best case, I would have become loyal again, to a point where threat wasn’t needed and once again I would have failed my son.

My conversation with the Marshall effected me in ways I hadn’t even realized. Maybe he was right, maybe I wasn’t the sort of person that was good for my son. Maybe he would have been better off without me around. But that wasn’t going to be the case anymore. From here on out I don’t compromise who I am. I do the right thing so I can be the sort of person that is good for my boy.

“Huh...found some new back bone, I see.” Andronis’ smile faded, in that instance he let down his mask and a frown crossed his face. “I was hoping better. I was hoping it would be like it was. But honestly, you’ve been too much trouble for me lately and I need a scapegoat. At my side or not, Ranson, you’re going to serve my purpose. When they go looking for that pendant they’ll think you took it and hid it. By the time anyone learns different it will be too late. Good-bye old friend.”

Andronis turned and walked out of the jail and as he and his killers stepped into the moonlit night, large vials of oil were thrown through the window, from his other agents, I assumed. They crashed against the walls and splashed their contents all over the jail. Then a lantern got tossed in through the door and before I knew it I was caught in a blaze.

The jail caught aflame quickly. The lawmen who were guarding me would burn to a point that no one would ever be able to tell how they died and I would cook alive.

I felt the heat quickly as the wood of the place started to ignite. I searched frantically for a means of escape. The bars were metal and I’d be long dead before they were damage, but the floors and ceiling they were set into were wood. Thick. Not the sort of thing that I’d ever be able to get though unnoticed. But I wasn’t worried now. Eventually the flames would weaken the settings for the bars and then, just maybe I’d be able to break my way out.

It was a stupid plan. By the time the floorboards were that charred I would almost certainly be cooked. Even if I wasn’t and the plan worked, I would be breaking bars that were engulfed in flame and then rushing through that flame into the safety of the street.

Where were all the people, I started to wonder. Why wasn’t anyone coming to put out a fire on the main street of the town. Andronis must have arranged for the street to be empty tonight. Maybe he used his connections with the Marshall to ensure that this meeting could take place. All I knew was that this blaze should have been noticed by now. A bucket brigade should have formed to make sure the fire didn’t at least spread. But no one was there. I was on my own.

At this point I was on the verge of passing out. I had to fight that urge out of my body. If I went out I was dead. There was no avoiding it. As I inspected the floorboards that had caught fire around several cell bars I had to pull my head back quickly to avoid a burst of flame. Thats when I noticed the ceiling. The panels between the large wooden beams were aflame and burning rapidly. While this meant that hot ash and coals were constantly raining down on me, a fact I had not noticed before in the literal heat of the moment, it also meant that maybe I didn’t have to wait that long.

The floorboards were thick and sturdy. But above me there was no second floor. The fire was reaching up with glee to consume the ceiling. If I was going to get through these bars it wasn’t going to be when the floor burned, it was when the ceiling was sufficiently consumed.

I gathered up a long board I had broken off the bed in preparation for breaking out and took a practice swing at the upper part of the cell bars.

Clang.

They still seemed solid, but I found I could get a proper angle from here with the long plank. I gave it a few more swings and to my joy the bars started to give a little. That little bit of hope urged me onward. While I tried to shield my eyes from the burning ash and sparks falling on me, I kept banging away at the bars.

I was certain that there was little chance of getting out alive, still, but this was my best chance and I wasn’t giving up on life now. Then, when I was certain I couldn’t take anymore, a bar finally gave way. Then, with a few more swings, two more. I wrapped the bed sheets, or what was left of them, around my hands and gave the bars as hard a shove as I could.

All around me the jail was falling down in a deadly hellscape. The area where the fire had stared barely had anything left to it and just as I was starting to make progress pushing the bars down, literally bending them at the floors, one of the large support beams fell.

I felt the entire building shift and list. That beam was heavy and, what’s more, apparently helping hold up the entire structure. This was it, I needed to get out of here now or never. I pushed on those bars with all my might and bent them low enough to scramble over. I dashed across the way for the door and as I did so heard a loud crack and a rumble.

I remember red, and pain, and helplessness, and finally darkness.

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Tomorrow...

Chapter 25: A Friend



I thought being surrounded by the King's weapons in the Williamsburg Magazine would infuse me with generations of American manliness and help me grow my beard. Did it work?

This moment in the story is a turning point for Ranson, but not necessarily in the most obvious way.

Also, today I spent all day trying to learn how the colonials grew beards. It was for naught. Turns out beards aren't very popular in the colonies back in the 18th century.

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After my very public betrayal and arrest by the Marshall I was taken back to the same cell where I had awoken back when my deal with the Marshall was originally struck. The bitter irony of that place was not lost on me, even in that moment.

I was stewing in the betrayal from the Marshall. I didn’t know now when I knew then, but I knew that a deal was struck to get my life back and of all the people involved in my life who I didn’t expect to go back on a deal, it was Marshall Bra’kt.

I couldn’t sit still. Sometimes a person gets angry and their body shuts down. Sometimes the emotion paralyzes them with rage. Sometimes it provides them with an energy that they have no way to direct. An impotent hatred. That is how I felt.

It didn’t take too many circuits pacing around my small cell before I started to think about my situation. I knew that the Marshall wasn’t a bad person and that he wasn’t likely to betray me like this without a reason. I just needed to learn that reason and see what couldn’t be done to better my situation.

I’ve spent a long time, now, getting myself into bad situations and then compromising to make more bad choices to try and dig myself out. This was just another of those times, it seemed. All along this journey, however, I’ve always come closer and closer to recovering Geon. That singular prize of worth that was mine until I squandered it.

I needed to figure out what the Marshall was up to, find out his plans for me and my son, and then find a way out of it. Betrayal always stings, but the folks who survive it the best are the ones who can move past that sting and figure out how to move on from it.

After letting me simmer in my own thoughts for an hour or two, it seemed, Marshall Bra’kt came into the jail and sat on the stool next to my cell like he was when I awoke in this place after the battle. After this same Marshall put a piece of steel into my chest and hamstrung me, leaving me with a permanent limp.

I could tell that he hadn’t slept well in some time. His normally carefully groomed hair and beard were starting to look a bit ragged, I could see as he removed his hat when he sat down.

I thoughts went to my own uncivilized look. I could see from a mirror across the way from the cell that my beard had become quite scraggly and featured more gray in it than I remembered there being in days gone by.

As the Marshall sat I approached the cell bars right next to him and stood, looking down at him. He looked dejected and sad as he sat there, looking to the floor. After a few moments he let out a sigh that ended with a click of his tongue and his eyes moved up to me. It seemed it wasn’t quite looking me directly in the eyes, but it could have been a trick from the angle of my vision.

“I’m sorry about this, Ranson. I really am,” he started. “I’m a man of my word and...”

“No,” I stated with the force that demanded acquiescence.

“I understand you don’t...”

“No,” I interrupted again with equal firmness. “We are done playing games with each other. I think I’ve earned that. No more verbal sparring. No more beating around the bush. No more making implications. We speak plainly and truthfully from now on.”

“Agreed, I’ve always tried to speak only truth in...”

“No,” I ended his statement again, taking advantage of his timid attitude at the moment. “We start by not saying lies. Even the mundane or polite lies are done between us. You keep saying that you are a man of your word, that you speak only truth. These are lies. Perhaps they used to be true, but not so long ago, on this very day, those things stopped being true for you.”

The Marshall lowered his eyes to the floor again. “Very well,” is all he said in obedience to my demand that he admit his faults.

“Good. Now, you had some things you wanted to say.”

“I just wanted you to know that I didn’t do this because of you. When we first met I knew you were someone in trouble with a good heart. I don’t find that any less true now and it breaks me up that this is where things have gone.”

“Yes, you are a pillar of virtue. Clearly the days of my troubles have ended at the behest of your graciousness.” The sarcasm couldn’t have dripped from my tongue any more clearly.

“I understand. But know, if I hadn’t taken you and recovered this pendant, all the good folk of Haven, and a dozen other towns here in the Northern Wilds would be in a hard place. Many would die, more would suff...”

“I get it. You were put between a rock and a hard place and you choose to throw me in there to save yourself. Welcome to my world.”

“Look, I just wanted you to know that Geon is being taken care of. He wasn’t involved in any of this and I have no reason to hold him.”

I could feel in the pit of my stomach that this wasn’t moving in a direction I was going to like.

“I found a lovely place for him, a couple of folks who will look out for him. A orphanage to start over in while he builds his own life, since he’s too old to really live in an orphanage now.”

“No,” I was back to being forceful.

“I’ve looked into this. I’ve known for some time where this was going and it’s a good...”

“I said, ‘no’. Was that unclear?”

“Well he can’t stay here, with you.”

“Find another way. Find a way to let me go. Find a way to do what’s right. If you put him in an orphanage again I’ll lose him, like I lost him the last time he went into an orphanage. He’ll go back on the run and I don’t think I’ll likely ever see him again. You are not going to put him into an orphanage again. No.”

Marshall Bra’kt respectfully heard me out, but his demeanor changed and he signaled a return to confidence by standing from his stool. It was clear now that he was looking me right in the eyes. I didn’t back down one bit, though, and two men, one a lithe fey man of deadly skill and the other a brutish orc-blooded father with a mind for tactics and a desperate need to do right by his son.

The Marshall spoke with as much finality as I’ve ever heard from him, “He’s going and there’s nothing you can do about it. Fact is, his only parent is in legal custody and I, representing the empire, have determined that he’s not able to be on his own.”

He then leaned in closely to me and said at only a little above a whisper, “And quite frankly, I like you Ranson, but you are a danger to the boy and you’ve been a bad influence on him since the day you joined up with Andronis. Fatherhood just isn’t for you, right now. Make yourself a better person and be ready for fatherhood and I’m sure the gods will see you to being reunited.

“Using the gods in this way, to remove your own guilt for making a bad choice is the way of cowards. Now bring me my son...” the anger in me was growing to a white hot rage.

“No,” it was the Marshall’s turn to interject. “The decision has been made. Geon will be better without you as his father. You are a danger to yourself, to those around you, and worst, to your own son. You will not see the boy again, he has already left.”

The anger the filled my heart now was cold and intense. I was thinking unclearly in my rage. My mind was clear and collected. The hatred filled every part of my body with cold, calculating anger.

“Understand this,” I called out as the Marshall was about to walk out of the jail. “You have done worse to me than anything anyone has ever done to me before. You have made a bad choice with bad people for bad reasons. No good will come of this for you because I will see everything dear to you torn down around your feet.”

“I will escape this imprisonment,” I continued, “and when I do the towns you protect will suffer. The family you have will be lost to you. And when you are at a loss of words to describe your anguish, then I will end it for you. This is my vow, my promise. All who are responsible for your betrayal on this day will never be forgiven and will live in fear of my wrath.”

“From here on out, I am a free man. I work for no one and I achieve no one’s goals but my own. By all the gods in the heavens and hells, never again will I be the instrument of someone else’s striving. And my goals right now involve seeing your world in ashes at your feet and watching you realize that helpless to do anything about it.”

This moment was a turning point in my life. But the Marshall did not turn. Did not even acknowledge what I’d said. He just hung his head low and left the building.

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Next up...

Chapter 24: All Ablaze



While at Yorktown I found a headless statue of Nike and decided that my head was a natural fit. So I climbed up for a photo op that I'm pretty sure involved me breaking several rules. But if the American Revolution didn't teach us all to break the rules whenever possible I don't know what the American Revolution was all about. Note the angelic glow that was not me haphazardly using iPhoto to blur out my shoulders...I think it speaks to God's approval. I'll leave the other (and more obvious) jokes to you...I've already made them in person. :-)

Today I saw the beginnings of this nation I call home, twice. I visited Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement that would lead to the colonies that would eventually become this country. Then I went to Yorktown, where the patriots finally defeated the English in the American Revolution.

Good times, all around.

This chapter, by the way, presented a unique challenge. I have a narrator who is the main character in the future telling the story, via flashback, for a character that is not him at a time/place when he was not present. I think I did it fine, but I wonder if there are too many "I heard" or "it seems" sorts of statements.

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I learned later, after a bit of digging around, that Andronis had fallen on some difficulties back in Tropol, which led to his work all the way out in Haven. It seemed that things with the Guild in the capital started to fall apart with my failed vault job.

One botched job, generally, isn’t enough to put that big of a damper on one’s career in the criminal underworld. Especially when one has had the sort of long term success that Andronis had enjoyed. But it seemed that that vault job was the beginning of the end.

I was his prized lieutenant, it turned out. It seemed he had been promising some pretty big moves to the rest of the Guild captains and without me, he didn’t have anyone he felt could really lead those jobs. He tries his other crews out. I heard he even gave Dal the nod and let him take the reigns on a couple of jobs.

That’s how I know he was desperate. Dal was uncreative, poor at reading people and situations, and often made stupid mistakes. If his replacement for me was Dal, I was more valuable to Andronis than I had thought.

For a while I used to wonder, then, why he was so quick to dismiss my request to find Geon after I got out of jail. Eventually, I was able to sort out a justification I could accept, regardless of if it was the real reason. But I figured that he was angry with me for starting him on that downhill slope in the Guild and at the same time he wanted to hook me in. If I wanted nothing more in the world than to have Geon at my side then if I had that I could get out of the life of crime. Andronis couldn’t afford that. He might have been mad at me, but he needed me.

Then I didn’t fall back into that life the way he expected me to. He gave me the latitude to do a little looking around and realize that I would need the Guild to eventually find my boy. He underestimated my anger at having been denied the help I wanted earlier. Before he could lay out the hook and reel me in, I had already left town, hunting for my son.

I have come to understand that Andronis spent the last several years finding a way to make some big moves for the Guild to rebuild his reputation and his resources. That’s why, I discovered, he started branching out. He was supporting various gangs and crews all over the empire.

It was all small time amateur stuff and, as a rumor I heard told, actually diminished his reputation considerably. The other captains were a bit aloof and haughty, it seemed. If you couldn’t make your bones doing proper crime in the capital then perhaps you were no longer worthy of being on an equal footing with them, was the attitude.

Andronis appeared to have been undeterred. It would, after all, only take one bit score. One extremely successful crew to turn everything around for him. Or, barring that, one hundred minorly successful gangs would still bring in a profit for him that would make him one of the wealthier captains in Tropol.

As I look back on it, it was a very good idea, as a business strategy and one that I expect others to emulate in the future.

All this time, Andronis was building a network all over the empire that no one else had. He had agents, of general competence, sure, in every fringe town in Ramis. Information flowed to him and he was always scouring it for jobs that could turn the tide for him.

He even, occasionally, checked in on me. He knew I was out there and he knew I was familiar enough with him to throw a mess of trouble his way if I wanted to...and I suspect he also wanted to get me back if he could. But he never approached me or had his agents do the same over the course of the year that I searched for Geon.

I sometimes wonder if he learned where my son was long before I did. If he perhaps already knew where he was when I first asked for help finding him. This seems a mystery that will not ever be solved, however, and it’s answer, ultimately, holds no importance.

A few months back, it seems, Andronis ran into some information that fit his bill perfectly. A magic relic was found and had worked it’s way to, of all places, a small town on the edge of the empire. A town barely scraping by after the gold and silver mine that caused his founding dried up. Haven.

I was never much for the ancient history of the Empire of Ramis, but everyone knows that before the empire was founded there was a great goblin empire in what is today the northern wilderness. The same part of the empire that held Haven and dozens of other similar towns.

Andronis discovered word of a magical pendant which had a twin that had appeared in the empire 50-some years back. I never learned the actual abilities of either pendant, but the legend held that the woman who wore the original pendant used it to some great effect. That with that pendant she was, they say, able to manipulate the Senate and the Emperor himself. To change the course of the empire, alter law and set herself up for success.

It’s sometimes speculated that this woman didn’t even understand the abilities of the things enchantments. That if she had she would have been able to bring the empire to it’s knees.

None of that mattered, for this unnamed woman, however, because in the end, the story goes, she was caught, tried, and executed. The pendant has never been seen or heard from since. Some say that it was destroyed immediately but other still whisper that it is in an imperial vault somewhere where the emperor hides all the greatest and most powerful treasures ever to enter his borders.

If Andronis could get his hands on that pendant’s twin and learn it’s abilities he could not only regain his place in the Guild but raise higher than anyone every would have expected from him. He was good at what he did, but he manipulated criminals, maybe small time politicians, a senator or two at his best. He did not steer the course of an entire imperial government and he shouldn’t be allowed to.

When he discovered that Brin, out in the mines, made such a discovery while sorting out her tunnels looking for another vein of value, he immediately put things into action. That meant Grayt. He didn’t like Grayt, much, but the man was profitable, so he received the resources and aid he needed. Nothing more, nothing less.

That is why Grayt was sorely under-prepared for the magical defenses of even an edge of the empire vault, like the one in Haven. That’s also why Andronis arranged for some insurance.

Andronis needed to see to things himself, but he also needed to be secure in this task. He needed it done, but he couldn’t take too many risks. If he gambled here and lost the other captains would surely see it as a failure of his new strategy of reaching out to other criminals. He would likely be ostracized from the organization, and live the rest of his life scraping to get by, if he was allowed to live at all.

So he wasn’t in Haven directing the job himself. He was a few towns over this whole time. Some village called Breg, I’m told. He kept his agents keeping him informed to the situation in Haven, but it was slow going, sometimes being weeks between messages. It left him unable to directly manipulate events.

So when the local law enforcement came through town he saw, not something to fear, but an opportunity.

It seems that Andronis and Marshall Bra’kt had a bit of a meeting a month or so back. I don’t know what was said, or how it was handled, but I do know that a deal was made...and a threat promised.

Andronis always did his best to put on a face of charm and confidence, but it was never sincere. Bra’kt always put forth his best face as well, a righteous and just one, but one that loved the law, and it was always sincere. I can’t imagine that the Marshall would fall for any of the manipulations that Andronis typically would use.

Any promises of wealth, power, or favors would likely be meaningless to a righteous man like Marshall Bra’kt. So it had to be something else. Andronis wouldn’t often go to that well, but when he moved past the bribery level of manipulation he was an artist. He could always find a way to give you a bad choice that was better than making any other choice.

I like to think, now, that that is a lot of what dragged me into many of my bad decisions, but I long ago decided that I can’t blame others for what I chose to do or not to do.

The deal that was made between the Marshall and Andronis was that if Marshall Bra’kt handed the pendant over to the captain of the most powerful Thieves Guild in the empire, then he would withdraw all support and resources from the entire region. Thousands of people would not be intimidated into poverty. Hundreds would not be beaten and possibly killed. The lasting good of not having the Guild involved in work out here was hard to ignore for one like the Marshall, I’d guess.

Of course, if Andronis ever got the pendant and was able to use it as he expected, none of that would matter anyway. He’d have an empire at his fingertips and a few bands of small town crooks in the northern edges of the empire would be inconsequential. And he could always betray the Marshall. Andronis had no problems committing betrayal.

Then there was the threat. That if Andronis was not handed the pendant by Marshall Bra’kt, that if any other gave it to him, and note that there was never any doubt that Andronis would get the pendant, the entire region would suffer. The Marshall didn’t realize that Andronis was on the edge of influence within the Guild, at that time. That he was likely unable to carry out his threat, but could the Marshall really take that risk?

Andronis was promising to double the resources in the region from the Guild. To increase payments from the gangs to him in Tropol, making the frequency of crimes increase, which can only lead to more resistance. I saw first hand how that can get out of control in the mines when Brin decided she couldn’t take any more.

If Marshall Bra’kt did not comply the safety of the people under his protection would suffer and if he did help this criminal his people would be safer. It seemed the only moral choice was the one that helped the master criminal. I still marvel at the artistry that Andronis could weave into his manipulations.

The part of the whole deal that really chapped my hide was the bonus. When Andronis heard that I might be headed that direction he offered further reward if I, a known criminal, was sent back to Tropol in chains. Be that because he could then manipulate me more easily back into the fold or because he could get rid of me, a loose end that still had the potential to botch things up for him, I never learned for certain, but the way things went down hill after being arrested I can also assume he wanted me dead.

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Next up...

Chapter 23: The Vow



I had my beard judged in the King's own court...and I was found lacking. Something about facial hair being the providence of scoundrels and mine not even being well developed at that. I recall hearing the phrase, "A crime against humanity" or some such. You know how judges are...

Every other year I go see new things for Thanksgiving. This year, we are getting colonial with it here in Williamsburg.

This, combined with a food coma has left me exhausted. So I drank some coffee for the first time since I was a teenager, I believe. I don't know if this has helped keep me awake to do my writing today. Or if it has made me slightly insane.

I guess what I'm saying is, if this chapter only makes sense to my deranged mind, that might be why.

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I had gone into full scheming mode. My mind was racing with strategies and half-baked ideas. I needed to get the pendant out of Grayt’s pocket and then get out of these tunnels and back to Haven without raising suspicions.

The last thing I wanted to do was fight my way out of here and especially with Geon here as well. That raised a whole other complication to the situation. I needed to do all that, and get Geon out with me. It was a task that was sure to be impossible.

I couldn’t come up with a single reason way that I would be able to do all that. I might be able to do some of them. Get out, sure. Get out with the pendant? If I was lucky. Get out with the pendant and Geon? I just couldn’t see it happening.

Over the next day and half, or so, I made like one of the gang. I stewed about, played cards, and grumbled about the conditions and why we couldn’t get out to find some food. I hadn’t been there long, but even I was sick to death of half-charred bat.

I managed to sit with Geon now and then, as well. I continued to give him his space, but now and then our paths would cross. It was a small cavern, after all. At first he would ignore me and walk away. Eventually, however, he came to tolerate my presence. I considered this a victory, considering.

All the while, I continued to try to subtly sow the seeds of discontent amongst the remains of the gang. If I was going to do what I needed to do I’d have to have a distraction and some unrest wouldn’t hurt. This was one way to see that done in a long game, while I kept my eyes open in the short term to see if an opportunity came up. Part of what I did that caused folks to call me a strategist was that I kept my eyes open for opportunities, but also knew how to make those opportunities. Meanwhile, I wasn’t married to any of one solution, instead staying open to whatever solution I ran into first or looked the best.

It seemed that things between myself and Geon were reaching a chance for me to take a more active role in mending our relationship, so when I had him more or less alone at one point I looked up at him and tried to make amends. “I am sorry.”

It’s all I said and then I walked away. If we never got anywhere as father and son I at least wanted him to know that I regretted the life I gave him and wished I had done better.

I walked over to Martel, I wanted to be sure he was okay. He’d been down here for as long as anyone but he wasn’t one of the gang, or even a prospective member like Geon was. I needed to be sure he was alright.

“Don’t be coming over here, young man.” he called out as I walked his way, “I’ve given you more than you need.”

He then looked to the side, as if something, or someone, had called for his attention. Then turning back to me he continued, “Alright, fine. Yer on the path. Yer gettin there, ya see. There’s heartache on this path. There’s blood on this path. But there’s a sort of happiness there too. Just know, if you show the scars and ask the question, you’ll escape and be locked up. Now git!”

With the last statement he tossed a rock in my direction like I was a wild cat he was warding away from the dinner he was cooking, which is a description that didn’t match either of us in that moment.

Mad Martel. I remember thinking the man had an odd wisdom to him before. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe he is just mad. How could I escape AND be locked up?

I quickly moved on from the man and decided that, cold as it was, it was time to wash the grime of living this time in a guano mine. As I was bathing in the river, careful not to get swept up in the current, I noted some of the thugs off to the side getting into a bit of a heated conversation. No one else seemed to notice and I wondered if the seeds I planted were going to bear fruit soon.

I was so distracted keeping an eye on them that I didn’t notice Grayt approaching the shore near where I was bathing until he called out.

“That Marshall sure did do a number on you.” Grayt was there, inspecting my mostly healed, but still inflamed and tender wounds. “Almost killed you, you said, yes?”

I started walking towards the shoreline, having decided that my bathing was concluded.

“Yeah. Damn Marshall is going to get it back from me sooner rather than later. When Andronis shows up, we’ll be bolstered and the lawman will be dead by my hand before he leaves town.” I had to be sure to make it seem that Andronis and I weren’t on the outs, it would help build trust with Grayt. Trust I needed.

That’s when my fruit became so ripe it fell right off the tree.

The two thugs that had been arguing moments before suddenly broke out into a full fledged fist fight. They were smart enough to not draw weapons on each other, but they were ranging all over the beach and headed this way quickly.

One made an attempt at a running tackle as the other one tried to dart off for higher ground on a rock near the shore. He caught the feet of his prey and sent him flailing to the ground, right into Grayt. Or at least it would have been, except my quick reflexes allowed me to dash over and push the weasel out of the way.

He still stumbled and fell to a knee, tangled up with myself along the way. This was my chance and I took it. While we were trying to disentangle from each other, I managed to slip my hand into his pocket and snag the pendant. I even managed to slip a small stone I pulled from the river bottom a moment before and replace the magic item. Maybe this would buy me a few extra minutes and that could be invaluable.

Now that I had robbed Grayt there was no going back. I had done much to try and build some trust with him, but if I was caught in this act likely none of that would make a lick of difference.

I managed to stash the pendant in my small clothes, which was all I had with me while bathing in the river.

So far things seemed to be going well and I had pulled off step one of my plan without getting caught. Getting caught was only a matter of time, mind you, but if I could pull off the next two steps I’d be gone and with Geon by then. That was a big if.

Once they’d plowed over their boss the struggle between the two thugs ended pretty quickly. Just as I had hoped the men were at odds and tensions were high due to the frustrations of the living situation. Having just proven my loyalty once again, I took a shot at the next part of the plan.

“You know, Grayt. I’d been slinking around Haven for a few days before I figured out where you were hiding out. I got food easily enough, I could probably do it again.”

Grayt’s eyes narrowed in contemplation and I knew he wasn’t entirely sold.

“I couldn’t care less. I mean, I wouldn’t mind not eating bat tomorrow, but I’ve laid low in worse conditions before. These men, however, their weak. Lack discipline, which you know or you wouldn’t be gunning to get out of here. They keep going like this, someone’s going to do something stupid. First thing I learned from Andronis, you want to survive in this game, you can’t surround yourself with people who do stupid things. It only takes one act of idiocy to put an end to everyone.”

Grayt thought on it for a moment. He was coming around, I needed to let him play things out and make a decision on his own now. But if I was going to get everything, if Geon was getting out of here with me I needed to push things a bit harder.

“I’ll just need one of your guys to come with me.” Was I getting too greedy? Maybe I could just come back later with the Marshall to save Geon. No, that would mean almost certain death for him once they’d learned what I’d done.

“Hmmm...alright. You’ve been about the smartest thug I’ve worked with before. We’ll play it your way. If Andronis trusted you, I guess I can too. Besides, not like your going to risk running into the guy that gave you that.” He nodded towards the red scar in my chest.

I stepped a bit closer and whispered in his greasy ear, “Speaking of Andronis. He’d not do it in front of the gang, but there’s no way he’d let such stupidity go unpunished. Those two need to learn that just because they were lucky this time they can’t be acting that way. Especially if you don’t want them falling into idiocy again with Andronis set to arrive any day.”

He thought on it again. It was a risk, I knew. This man was good at reading people and if he figured out what I was up to I’d be dead soon. Maybe it was the days of being on edge and the fact that he was probably fraying at the edges like the rest of the gang was. But he bought into it all.

“Your right. I wish you’d have come to town months ago. We’d have already got out of here. I’ll be recommending you to take over here in Haven when I get promoted.”

He then turned to the two brawlers, “You two morons. Come with me.”

He then led them into a side tunnel and I immediately went to work.

“You boy. Grayt wants me to head into town, get some real food for the others. You have some things to learn if you’re going to make it in this life, come along.” I was yelling, of course, at Geon. Grayt, who could likely hear me down the tunnel, however, had no idea that I was manipulating the situation.

Once we were into the tunnels I picked up the pace and insisted that Geon keep up. He was hesitant to go with me, but part of him was eager to follow orders. Was he still hopeful that he’d get into what’s left of Grayt’s gang, after they’d held him captive in order to manipulate me? Perhaps he’d wised up and recognized the opportunity to get away. Of course, it could just be that he was eager for something to eat other than bat on a stick.

We made it out of the tunnels soon enough and as we reached about half way back to Haven we were accosted by riders. Marshall Bra’kt had scouts out looking for me, it seemed. Geon looked like he was about to bolt when it became clear I wasn’t going to confront the law makers, but even at three, there were too many of them for him to escape. Plus they were on horseback.

The rest of the trip into Haven was quick, riding along with the scouts.

We met Marshall Bra’kt back at the jail where he seemed to be dealing with some more of the prisoners.

“Ahh, my friend Ranson. You have returned with your prize.” He looked at Geon and Geon glared at me with eyes refilling with anger. “But the question is, have you returned with my prize?”

I reached into my pocket after sliding off the saddle of the horse and pulled out the pendant and tossed it to him.

“I don’t know how you keep doing the impossible, Ranson. You are an amazing man. Also, you are under arrest.”

The soldiers near by all pulled weapons, several aiming crossbows at me. Geon started to flail, kick and yell.

My muscles tensed for a fight but then Geon started to flail, kick and yell as two law-makers grabbed him. I stood from my ready stance and put my hands in the air realizing there was no winning here. I’d betrayed Grayt for Marshall Bra’kt and in return, I’d been betrayed myself.

All I could yet do is narrow my eyes at the Marshall in a glare full of hatred. “You son of a...”

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Tomorrow I bring you...

Chapter 22: Another Deal



I'm continuing to practice my Ranson squint...this time I think it just makes me look sleepy.

Here it is...a pre-holiday chapter.

I had originally planned to actually get a little further in this chapter, but was I look ahead I think can get in the bits I didn't get to and put them in the next chapter.

Also, my story veered from my outline a bit again, today. I think in a way that will make it better and won't impact future points on the outline much. So it's all good.

Enjoy...and SPONSOR MY BEARD!

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After a few days with the Marshall’s healers I was back on my feet. He was right about the injuries, though. I’d reached spot where they said I was healthy and I felt able to live again, but my chest was tight whenever I took a deep breath and it took considerable effort to walk without a limp.

If I had changed my life when I said I would, back when I arrived in Haven, had a clean shaven face and the resolve to move on, I wouldn’t have a body that refused to work now. And now I had several days without jobs to pull, miners to scare, or battles for my life to fight, and I was so focused on other things I still hadn’t had a chance to shave again.

It had been the better part of a month since I first arrived in Haven and I felt further away from getting Geon back than ever. Sure I generally knew where he was now, if he was still alive, but he was harder to reach now than before.

The Marshall had his men scouring the area for information trying to get a bead on where Grayt might be hiding. For they had no idea how to track a criminal. Ironic, for law-makers. Must be why the crime groups in the Empire of Ramis were so successful. If the law in Tropol was enforced with half as much incompetence as the soldiers here used I’d have never gone to jail.

Don’t get me wrong, the Marshall seems to have a good head on his shoulders, but he’s a military man. He’d never known crime so he couldn’t think like a criminal. This went doubly so, it seemed, for the rest of his legion.

Once I was able to get up and about I started giving them a clue where to start looking. The people won’t know where Grayt his hiding, not in any way that they’d recognize. You have to know what to look for. The gang still had several dozen members, by accounts of survivors of the battle and estimates of members who weren’t there.

Dozens of folks would need certain things to survive, a gang of criminals would have other needs as well. First, we need to narrow down required resources. Food and water. Food they would probably have to get from town. The wasteland out there was fine for grazing cattle and horses, but there’s no orchards to hide near or lush gardens to pilfer. While they might stake out near a ranch and steal the animals for food the fire required for such a thing would give away their hole pretty quick. So we needed to talk to the local grocer. Find any orders that stand out and start to narrow down our list of possible spots.

Water would help us narrow it down, too. There was a river near town which had a good sized creek that fed through town. Those are the spots where water would be readily available above ground. But we’d need to check spots with wells and the like, too.

They’re in hiding and not a small group, so they’d need a spot where they wouldn’t be seen easily by some rancher casually out checking on the herd or the like. An old barn or some such.

If we waited long enough they’d be stirring for some entertainment, too. Which would give us a window of opportunity. Of course, after the scare they had, they’d likely hold out on that long enough that if we didn’t find them soon after that the Marshall would be forced to move on. Of course, that also put Geon at risk. The longer he was with that weasel the more likely something would have happened to him.

I needed to move things along faster than that.

While the healers told me to stay put, I kept pushing myself to investigate and help the scouts, because that’s the closest thing the Marshall had to an investigator, sort through what they found. We were sorting through some supply requests from the grocer, an elven woman named Nell, seemed to hate it out here, but was happy to serve a customer and especially a handsome fellow like the Marshall. She seemed less affectionate when she saw my mug limping along with.

While we searched through the papers I noted something odd. It wasn’t an unusual order, like I’d expected to see and had told the others to look for. It was a missing request. Martel. Mad Martel, as they say, seemed to make an order every month. He apparently liked to stay out in his guano mine for weeks at a time without having to come back to town.

He was due to come in with his month’s order three days ago, he never came.

I remembered the exit I made with Grayt and his crew from the mines. We came through an underground river...of course. A fresh water source from the river, a place to hide in the cavern, and Martel would offer little resistance. I hadn’t sorted out how they’d got food yet, but hells, they could be eating bat dung for all I cared. Everything fit together.

I gathered up my gear. The Marshall wouldn’t let me have my weapons or jacket and hat until I was heading out on my task, but he he didn’t hesitate any longer than a gnat blinks once I told him I had a lead.

Within the hour I was headed out into the afternoon sun towards Martel’s mine alone.

I arrived, exhausted, covered in dust caked sweat, and angry. It was perfect.

I found that Martel was not outside in his camp near the entrance to his mine. I also did not run into him as I worked my way down through the upper tunnels, trying to remember the way from my previous visit.

I got nearly to the cavern with the river before I heard the voices starting to echo down the tunnels. The river, cavern, and thick layer of bats must be deadening the sound so that it bounce down the passages like it did in other caves.

I came hobbling out into the cavern without making any attempt to hide my approach.

I was immediately confronted by a handful of guards who immediately backed down. Either they recognized me or it was the look I gave them as I approached. Likely a combination of the two, but they backed down immediately and without a word.

The were fewer left in Grayt’s crew than I expected. Two dozen, at most. And off to the left I saw Geon and Martel sitting by a fire. My relief was overwhelming. I realized just then how much I doubted, in my heart, that Geon was still alive. But I had to bury that down. I could be glad to see him alive, but I couldn’t be surprised by it.

Straight ahead I saw Grayt, debating with some of the losers in his crew about how long they should stay underground. I made no hesitation nor attempt at formality as I hobbled right up to the man.

He looked up at just the last possible moment to see my fist flying towards him. I clocked his greasy head hard enough to send him sprawling, as much from the surprise as anything, I’d wager. It was about the most satisfying thing I’d done for as long as I could remember. I could be happy making a life out of beating down folks like Grayt. But that, that emotion I did have to bury. I couldn’t let him see me glad.

“What the hells!” I yelled, “I put my life on the line out there. I open up your escape route, save Krissa with my own body, and take on the gods blasted Marshall one on one for you and when I’m wounded you leave me behind?”

Grayt was starting to get back to his feet. Sliding his stringy black hair back, off his face. He was appropriately put out, but got over the injury enough to compose himself and replace the mask that he wore. That fake smirk that he placed on his face whenever he needed to show everyone that he was in control.

It was also in that moment that I saw the glint of a gold chain fall partially from his left pocket. The pendant.

“My gods. You are a tough orc aren’t you, Ranson. Why, I saw the Marshall cut you down. You took one right in the chest, I was certain you were dead.”

“Take more than a bit of steel in the chest to kill me. Found a draft of a healing potion on one of the dead when I woke after the battle. Kept me alive and I’ve been wandering since, looking for you guys but keeping the hells away from that blasted Marshall. Now I finally find you and learn you’ve been lounging down here the whole time, not even looking for me.”

“Well, it’s too late for that now, isn’t it. What does matter is that you see I’m a man of my word. You stayed true to me and young Geon is here, safe and sound. And what’s more, soon I’ll be quite wealthy as well.”

“Your a bit short in the head, I’m thinking. Your gang is gone. All you got left is this rabble.”

“Ahh.” Grayt said, putting on his airs of superiority as thick as he could. “But you are the short sighted one after all. You think yourself so smart, but failed to realize all along that the loot from the vault was secondary the whole time. No, no. I got what I needed from that vault and in a few days my captain will be here and I will be rewarded.”

He continued his monolog and I wasn’t about to stop him, “I’ll finally be out of this backwater. Haven,” he practically spit the name of the town making his contempt for it clear. “Not a person still here worth taking with me, too. When Andronis gets here, I’ll get him what he wants and I can get to a civilized town, where I belong.”

That’s when I started to realize just how much I hadn’t escaped my old life. Even all the way out here my old life hunted me down to drag me back. Andronis? My captain from the Guild in Tropol? Coming here? If he discovered me here, after running off a year ago, I’d be screwed up more than a twister on the plains.

I couldn’t help but show my shock. It was impossible to bury that emotion. It was too strong and too much of a surprise.

“Ahh, you know my captain, Andronis. Mind you, I’ve not met him in person yet, but he’s sure to reward me with a new position when he gets what he wants. Well, you might as well settle in. We’re not moving an inch until he gets here. We should be able to hold out on what food we have for a few days, and he should be here any day now.”

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Next chapter...

Chapter 21: Betrayal