Chapter the Nineteenth: Mysteries and Abominations of the Known UniverseI wandered around Tarant for a good long while, nearly until the evening. Various shops were closing up and I still had no idea where to start looking for the skulls. Matt had mentioned they would be in a warehouse somewhere, but they certainly weren't at 57 Mulligan Bone Alley nor were they in Simon Plough's warehouse. If I were going to track the damn things down I really needed to put some thought into it.
Out of nowhere the thought suddenly hit me. I remembered that old foppish bastard Ristezze (how could I forget) talking about a museum of oddities and legends right here in Tarant. Not too far from the gate to the old castle I found it: "H.T. Parnell's". It was certainly worth checking out.
There were all manner of strange things inside, or at least that's what the proprietor wanted customers to think. Most of them seemed like cheap knock offs or rumors made real through the expenditure of coin. It didn't instill a great deal of confidence.
There was a rather poorly carved rock labeled a 'petrified dragon', which seemed quite silly. Living creatures weren't often petrified, let alone the now-extinct dragons. Their bones, certainly, but not the whole creatures. Even beyond that they belonged in a more proper location like the zoological society, not just another knickknack in a run down tourist museum.
Another exhibit was labeled, 'Amazing Miniature Steam Engine! Actually works!' Hogwash. If such a thing existed the rich would be driving their own personal trains all around Arcanum.
I almost laughed when I read the plaque describing a misshapen rock as 'The Evil Arronax'. Well if I'm supposed to fight THAT I suppose this Living One business is a piece of cake.
A glass case held a collection of moth-eaten bear pelts stitched together poorly and labeled 'The Stillwater Giant'. Just great, a backwater legend given life by bad sewing skills
The last plaque I looked at described an actual living, breathing creature: "The amazing Gar! The World's Most Intelligent Orc!"
I was rather at a loss for words. What exactly does one say to the world's smartest orc? "I do not know. What is your area of expertise?"
He grunted and let forth a rather crude belch. "I know much things. Gar tell all. Politics. Mathematics. Tea."
One of those things didn't seem to fit. "Tea?" Virgil started checking out another nearby exhibit which claimed to be an authentic Kree shrunken head.
"I'm not much for the black teas, I prefer green myself." Frederick had introduced me to them and I never went back.
How strange. "You were going to say something else, weren't you?"
He grunted again and looked around the room nervously. "No. Gar say only what Gar means." A likely story. I smell a fraud, just like everything else in this damned 'museum'.
"Nevermind then. What can you tell me of the politics of Tarant?"
Hah, well put... for an orc. "What else can you tell me of politics in Arcanum?"
He was right, of course. Too right for an orc. I suppose that was what the 'smartest' bit was all about, but I still didn't believe it. "Alright. You said you know mathematics, right? Tell me, what is 4573200 divided by 6543?"
"That may be, but orcs are idiots." It was rude and blunt, but so very true.
He started laughing a hearty belly laugh. "You smart. Now you understand. Gar world's smartest ORC"
I decided to take my leave before the green paint covering his skin started to flake off. I wandered over to the proprietor, the grand windbag himself, H.T. Parnell. "Pardon me, sir. What can you tell me about Gar the Orc over there?"
The general populace must be even more gullible than I thought. "Right, then. What about the cow with two heads?"
"A man eater? Sir, you stretch the bounds of believability." There's got to be a hole in here somewhere. I will expose you.
He started acting shocked and hurt by my comment, "Madam, I would never gild the truth! I am a man of honesty!"
Right. Of course you are. "Then what about the petrified dragon? Surely no living, breathing creature could succumb to complete petrifaction?"
The way he shrugged off my questions was more than irksome. "Magnificent, is it not? I find it one of my saddest exhibits, a remnant of the world gone by. The young dragon, spearated from its mother for all eternity!"
He had an exceptional amount of practice at deflecting suspicion. Perhaps the locals weren't as gullible as I'd first thought. Ristezze on the other hand.... "How about that strange rock? The one you have labeled as the 'evil Arronax'? Is it really more than just a rock?"
"That is the face of none other than Arronax, mysteriously burned into the rock by mystical forces during his banishment to the nether realms!"
Ugh. There's got to be a weakness in here somewhere. "Well, how about the engine then? Surely no mechanical device that small could actually function for real?"
"That is an exact scale replica of the first Bates steam engine, made exclusively from toothpicks and string! And it works, too!"
If it truly worked, it would be a burnt out husk after its first operation. Toothpicks are flammable you idiot. "Then what about that monstrosity behind you? The pelt of the Stillwater giant? Such a creature does not even exist, good sir!"
"How did you come to acquire such a rare and mysterious pelt from a creature of legend?" This ought to be good.
Yes, right. I'm sure a modern day hunter tracked down a legendary beast that fell extinct decades ago. "And then what happened?"
"One of its own claws? Sir, that seems a bit farfetched. I think your entire museum here is nothing but a farce."
He looked at me with downcast eyes, "Madam, that is terribly rude of you. Just what are you insinuating?"
I was almost angry at his blatant lies. It was so... deceitful! I wished I'd thought of it first. Do you really think me that much of a fool? "I am insinuating that you are a pompous, lying windbag of the worst possible sort.
"More likely honed stealing money from old ladies and children. Have you no shame, sir?" It felt kind of hypocritical to say that, but at least I only stole from old ladies who also happened to be rich. There weren't many rich children or I'd probably have stolen from them, too.
Much to my surprise, Mr. Parnell picked up the rifle leaning up next to the glass case and began firing at me. "What in blazes?! No! Stop! Please, stop!" It was too late. Jayna took cover behind a sofa and Virgil was advancing on Mr. Parnell with his staff. The orc drew a blade and ran after Virgil with it. Dammit!... please... no... another fine mess my mouth has gotten the lot of us into.
I couldn't very well leave Virgil to die, which he most certainly would have outnumbered and outgunned as he was. I snuck behind the orc and stabbed him in the back, hoping to merely disable him instead of kill him outright. The orc groaned and his blood began to drop onto the floor. H.T. Parnell turned and fired at me, but I was rather well concealed behind the orc. The shot struck the orc clear in the stomach and at such close range it caused quite the greivous wound. It seemed unlikely for the poor thing to survive, so I put it out of its misery.
Growling, I leapt at the man with the gun and jammed my dagger straight into the side of his neck. Blood came rushing out as though from a fountain and the man's grip on his gun loosened. I stabbed him again, lower in the stomach, and he sank to his knees. Virgil took the opportunity to give him a good thump on the back of the head and he toppled forward, no longer moving.
"I... I'm sorry, Virgil." Tears started to come to my eyes, tears of utter shame. "I just can't seem to keep my bloody mouth shut, can I? What next? How am I going to try and get the whole lot of us killed next time?"
He shook his head, "Think nothing of it, mad- er... Samantha." He shrugged sheepishly. "You said nothing which was untrue."
I sighed and stared around the room with a frown, "I could've just said nothing at all, you know. ...and that poor, orc, he didn't know any better. Well, he probably did... and he's probably not an orc either... but I feel horrible. Are you all right at least?" Jayna poked her head up from behind the sofa and stared at me with wide eyes.
Virgil put a hand on my shoulder reassuringly, "I'm fine. Not even a scratch on me. That bastard's aim was as bad as those stories he was telling."
I sighed and picked up the fallen rifle, shoving it in my purse. "Come on, Virgil... Jayna... let's go." The three of us walked down the street and were already several blocks away by the time several guards went rushing into the museum to investigate the sound of gunshots. I tried to shake off the foul mood that I could feel coming on in the wake of yet more needless killing. Virgil wasn't upset, and even Jayna seemed fine. She was a bit quiet, but she had been ever since she had to patch Virgil up with a few of her salves. I idly wondered what had been on her mind.
I tried to think of where else I could look for the skulls, preferably somewhere that wouldn't end up with me horribly maiming anybody else. I passed by a sign advertising 'Delores Beston, Seer of the Unknown'. I suppose I could use a good cheering up. Either I'll get a few laughs or the location of the missing skulls, either is fine by me at this point.
I stepped into the shop and a woman about my age stared at me expressionless from across a small table. I tried to be polite, "Good day, madam Delores. Could I ask for a reading?"
"I'd assume so. Perhaps I could assist you in finding another?" Option three, another opportunity to make more gold. I wasn't going to pass by any opportunity for more money at this point. I needed money badly and my options were growing more and more limited it seemed.
"Let's not get carried away, madam..." Just tell me how to get a replacement, I'll get it, you'll pay me, and we'll both be happy. Shove off with all of this seer nonsense, please.
There were a lot of things I'd do for 200 coins. Stealing a crystal ball from wherever I could find it was hardly low on the list. "Of course... I'd be glad to assist you."
Crazy wench. Whatever, it's not like my hair is doing me any good anyway. "Of course."
I had to admit I was almost interested for a very, very brief moment. "Where?" She was definitely a good actress.
Why does this all sound awfully rehearsed? "Madam Toussaude? Do you know anything of her?"
Ah, a competitor. Of course, I should've guessed. Still, 200 coin is 200 coin. Why should I care which liar ends up bilking more out of the gullible? I briefly toyed with the idea of telling the woman just how phony I thought the whole thing was, but I quickly realized I'd better just keep my damned mouth shut. If I couldn't control myself I would have to buy myself a muzzle. "I will, dear lady. Thank you for the advice. I'll return later..."
I set out to find this 'Madam Toussaude'. It was as good of a place as any to swipe the crystal ball from, after all, and I had no other leads. I found her shop exactly where I was told it would be, ignoring the bordello rather purposefully. Well, I could just stop in and... ugh. Am I really getting that desperate for money? I snuck into Madam Toussaude's tiny shop quite carefully, but the woman suddenly spoke to me without even looking up, "Hello. I've been expecting you, traveler."
Damn... she saw me so easily. I was a bit unnerved at her perceptiveness, and especially her attention to detail despite the darkness of the shop. She'd been able to spot the signs of my travel easily. "Really? And why would that be?" I tried to play it off as mere observation.
Things were starting to get just a little bit creepy for my tastes. She can't know that, can she? Was she spying on me? No, I would've noticed... hell, I'd better not try lying my way through this one. Best play it safe. "What do you mean? She merely wants your crystal ball..."
I did NOT like the woman's tone of voice at all. She sounded like she was threatening me. The rumors can't be true... can they? Is this woman really...? "Just tell me what's going on..." I tapped my foot nervously.
The woman stood up from behind her small table, her eyes nearly glowing in the candlelight... at least I hoped it was the candlelight. She shouted at me, "CHOOSE, COWARD, OR I WILL CHOOSE FOR YOU! On which side will you fall? Mine, or Delores Beston's?"
I was admittedly frightened, and justifiably so. The woman's reputation preceded her and everything I'd witnessed up to that point suggested it was true. Perhaps she was naturally gifted, or maybe she'd studied in Tulla, I didn't really care. I was convinced she was the genuine article and I wasn't about to risk my life just for another couple hundred coin no matter how desperate I got. "I side with you..." All right, so I'm probably not getting paid for this one. If I really, really must... there's always the bordello. Ugh, I can't believe I'm even thinking about it.
My fear started to subside, and in its place lingered only confusion. "What? But I thought..."
"Things aren't always as they seem, traveler. I ask you to do this for me... will you?" Her eyes were positively frightening. I didn't dare refuse. This is completely crazy. I'm like some specialized beacon for trouble.
Crazy or no, I decided to nervously try my luck. "What do I get in return?" Besides the priviledge of continuing to live, that is.
Hmm... perhaps I can still recover the coin from Delores anyway. There's still profit in this... and continued living. "I'll do it."
Madam Toussaude smiled and gently handed me her crystal ball. "I shall await your return" I left her shop quickly, trying to shake off the shivers on my spine as I did so. Virgil and Jayna were uneasily silent.
I wasted no time in traveling quite directly to Delores' shop. I didn't want to hang onto the crystal ball any longer than I had to. "Here you are, Delores, just like we agreed. Madam Toussaude had the crystal ball exactly as you predicted. May I have my 200 coins now? I really must be going, I'm in quite the hurry today..." I hoped my nervousness didn't show.
Coins... please... must go... "I'm sorry... what do you mean?"
I'd heard those same rumors... and I'm inclined to maybe believe them. "And what did she say?"
"Of course..." I suppose I am the death of a lot of people. Doesn't take a seer to figure that one out.
Oh no, I wouldn't dare... she'd see me coming a mile away. "I never said she was dead, Delores..."
Her face went immediately white. "Wh-h-at? How did you get the ball...?"
She started backing up, getting as far away from me as she could before reaching the back wall. "She gave it to me. To give to you..."
"I don't... no... please... get it away from me...!" she screamed.
Apologies, but I'm doing what I was told to do. If she's a fake, no loss for me. If she's real, it's your fault for starting this business in the first place. "It's a gift, Delores. Just for you..." I tossed her the crystal ball and, without thinking, she caught it.
As her hands touched the glass a malevolent red specter rose from the ground with an awful groan. It enveloped her entire body, pulsating. Her screams faded quickly after her torso separated through the middle. At the sight of blood pouring out of her separated halves I ran out the door as quickly as possible. I ran far and fast, nearly reaching the entrance of Tarant before I stopped to catch my breath.
I grabbed Virgil by the shoulders, "What in the gods just happened?! Tell me!" I noticed Jayna clutching onto his arm as well. It seemed I wasn't the only one who was frightened.
Virgil looked quite sad and startled as well. Although he wasn't panicking nearly as badly as Jayna and I, there was still fear and uncertainty in his eyes. "I... I don't know. There are some things in this world that aren't quite so easily understood. If I may say one thing... I think it would be unwise to get on Madam Toussaude's bad side. We should at least tell her that we've done as she asked. It's the safe thing to do."
Tears formed in my eyes out of panic and fear, but I acquiesced. "Yes, Virgil, you're right. We'll do just that... and then let us never speak of this again."
Madam Toussaude was waiting for me expectantly yet again when I returned to her shop. "It's done, you cruel wench. She's dead."
I gulped, my habits getting the better of me. "Yes... payment would be nice..." No, no, I'm sorry... I didn't mean it, really. You don't have to pay me. Just let me live!
I was extremely confused. "What? What did you do?"
She smiled a sinister, all-knowing smile and for once I wasn't going to question just how much she did or did not know. "You'll find out in time. Trust me, you'll be happy when you find out..."
I wasn't about to argue. "Thank you then, in advance. Good day to you..." I got the hell out of there as fast as I could.
These bloody skulls will absolutely be the death of me, I'm sure of it.
Bonus ContentHistory of the Isle of Despair
Perfect environment for that element due to both its geographical and magickal properties.
Geographically, the Isle of Despair is perfect for housing criminals and derelicts. Being that it is surrounded by water, with the nearest coast almost 1000 miles to the east, there is little danger of its inhabitants swimming to the mainland. The Isle itself is situated between three strong ocean sub-currents; consequently, the waters around the island are invariably rough, and violently crash upon the rocky shore both day and night. Massive whirlpools are known to appear suddenly and without warning. There is an account of three Ashburian merchant ships being swallowed by one of these very whirlpools in 1783.
But it is not only the geographical characteristics of the island that make it the perfect prison. Inexplicably, the island seems to negate certain types of magickal practices, but most importantly those of the Conveyance College. Mages find it impossible to transport themselves from the island's surface to the mainland. Various theories have been postulated concerning this phenomenon. Some scientists believe that the island itself sits upon a massive vein of mithril ore. Mithril, having the ability to harbor magickal flows, might just be the cause behind this most curious distortion. Archaeologists have theorized that the Isle of Despair might once have harbored an ancient civilization that used an early form of technology, and that old ruins might exist beneath the island's surface to verify that fact. Both theories might be scientifically sound, but none has yet been proven.
Regardless, the Isle of Despair will continue to harbor our social convicts until the day comes when its vagaries are no longer sufficient, or until we, as a society, no longer have the need for it.