Chapter the Second: A Lesson On Proper and Improper SheltersRats. How wonderful! I always wanted to spend the night in a rat infested cave with a naive, misguided religious nut. My new life wasn't turning out to be nearly as good as I hoped it would be. Then again, considering I started it by cleaning out my old home for quick gold it wasn't really all that different in the first place.
I'm normally not too fond of mages, but I had to grudgingly admit that Virgil's talents were quite handy. I suppose I never truly realized how long it had been since I actually had to live like this. I'd gone soft in the years in-between and my fumbling was embarrassing. I am being wounded by rats. It doesn't get any lower than that.
At the sight of the dead body I almost shrieked. Of all the caves to crash land next to, I had to crash land next to the cave with a human corpse in it. Something was out of place about it, though. The rats were aggressive, but the only reason I was even hurt was because I'd spent the better part of the last decade off the streets. Despite my reservations I was determined to ignore it. I'm not about to let a silly little corpse get in the way of my shelter. It's just one corpse. I've seen corpses before.
As I drew near to the corpse a haunting red spectre rose out of it, facing me with malevolent eyes. The shriek that had been begging to escape my throat made its way out then. My panicked voice was absurdly loud in the confines of the cramped little cave. To my surprise, Virgil seemed almost completely calm. If anything he was concerned about how I was handling it, but the ghost didn't bother him at all. I made it a point to ask him more about himself at a time when we were not being confronted by the tortured spirits of the dead.
The spectre spoke to us, then, with a raspy voice that echoed despite the small space and sent shivers up my spine. I was no stranger to death, but this was almost more than I could take. My body trembled and the desire to run welled up in the pit of my stomach, but my curiosity got the better of my fear and I asked, "What happened to you?" My curiosity is going to get me killed one day.
It hadn't been rats after all. At least... not as far as I could tell. The ghost was a very poor liar, though. The cave had obvious trappings of a semi-permanent hideout, he certainly hadn't just stopped in to take shelter for a night. Besides, the foothills around the Stonewall Mountains weren't exactly known for their evil cults. I'm sure there's a few, but they have to have better things to do than cursing people who hide out in caves. I'm hiding out in a cave, too... or at least attempting to. What does that say about me? "I don't know... why should I?"
At last, now this ghost was speaking my language. I definitely needed more money after having wasted so much on a stupid dress and a damned zeppelin ticket. Whatever this ghost's true story was, it didn't really matter as long as I got paid in the end. I couldn't really get him to tell me the truth anyway, so it didn't seem like I'd ever know. "I'm listening."
Killing? No, it was an accident! I am not a killer by choice! A horrible image flashed across my mind very briefly, an image I'd been desperately trying to forget. Sudden movement, then a flash accompanied by a loud bang.
The ghost could've offered me wealth and power beyond my wildest dreams and my answer still would have been no. Defending myself was one thing, but I no longer had it in me to wantonly kill another human being whom I had no quarrel with. Even one as low as myself still has a code of morals to follow. "I am not a killer. Good bye." I could've tolerated a simple corpse, but a murderous spectre was too much. It wouldn't be my first night without shelter.
Although travelling during the night was dangerous, I felt it was a better idea than hanging around the zeppelin ruins. Who knows when the next ogre would show up flying one of Maxim's strange machines. Virgil and I headed towards the only exit out of the valley when we encountered that silly religious altar he had mentioned earlier. I suspected I was in for another sermon.
Right on time. I would've let out a sigh if it wouldn't betray just how little I wanted to hear what Virgil was going on about. I didn't dislike the fellow, but all of his religious nonsense was rapidly getting on my nerves. Especially since I seemed to be at the center of it. I thought that maybe if I tested his faith he would shut up. "And the evil one? Who is that?"
It never failed. This man was definitely not just another simpleton, babbling the same vague prophecies over and over again, handed down by priests and elders for god knows how long. When he acted like a real person I actually found him at least the slightest bit charming. That had its limits, though. I didn't like the idea of being sent off to fight anybody, let alone a 'last battle with the evil one'. Nevermind that whole worship and protect me nonsense. "I'm glad you find this amusing, because I don't at all..."
Damnation! Now he's got that puppy dog look again. It makes me feel bad no matter what I've done. Perhaps guilt is an instinctual reflex of mine. I sighed, unsure of what to say. In the end I settled on nothing. If I said anything he'd either get hurt more or he'd be tempted to write it down. I cared for neither.
In the distance I saw a man with distinct elven features begin to approach. He was wearing a dark, hooded robe to mostly conceal himself, but the shape of his face was a dead giveaway. The look in his eyes was searching, calculating... he was headed straight for me. If that weren't suspicious enough all of this business Virgil was mentioning about elves had set me on edge. I didn't trust this man one bit.
It struck me as odd that the man was acting almost hostile instead of concerned. For him to arrive so quickly he would've had to be near enough to hear the crash, if not see it outright. Why, then, was he not interested in the survivors? This man would get nothing out of me. "I just saw the acc..." Virgil interrupted me.
I wasn't the only one who noticed, then. Virgil seemed to have more he wanted to say, and it would likely do me good to at least hear it. It is best to consider all of one's options and all that. "What do you recommend, Virgil?"
On the one hand it would be an interesting sight to watch, but on the other hand... I didn't feel comfortable having Virgil sticking up for me. I was torn, but in the end I decided that I had to learn all over again how to take care of myself. I learned the hard way the first time and it was the quickest way to learn again. Practice makes perfect, after all. "Listen, Virgil. I do the talking. I'll hear no more of it..." I winced. That was perhaps a bit harsher than I had intended.
I knew I'd gone too far, and I felt terrible. I instinctively adopted a motherly tone, "I'll do what I think is best, Virgil..." Did my mother ever say things like that to me? Where did I pick it up from?
The man was an utter scoundrel. He could tell that we were onto him, yet he persisted as if we owed a proper explanation to him. Nothing else would more quickly have lies spilling out of my lips, although I wasn't exactly a stranger to lying either. Everybody lies, don't they? I'm not any worse than they are. "I saw there was a disturbance and came to investigate..."
When am I ever going to learn that sweet and innocent never works for me? The man's peculiar suspicion made me uncomfortable. There was little reason to believe I was on the zeppelin, it was far more sensible to assume otherwise. I didn't like the way his posture shifted, either. Something was not right about the situation at all. I placed my hand on the hilt of my dagger, "Are you doubting my word, sir? I wouldn't recommend it..."
This man was too sure of himself, too cocky. I know he noticed my hostile intent and he didn't even skip a beat. There were foul intentions behind his presence and I wanted no part of them. Perhaps it would've been better if I'd let Virgil deal with the man after all. Keeping my hand near my dagger I made as if to brush past the man rudely. "I've had enough of your questions. Good day to you..."
He stepped in my way with a sinister grin. My dagger was in my hand within an instant. "I don't like your tone, sir. Get out of my way..." Go ahead, I dare you to try something. You think I won't fight back, you arrogant bastard? I'm not dying that easily.
Just what has that damned zeppelin ticket gotten me into? This is just my bloody luck. There was far more to this zeppelin business than I had ever anticipated, but I didn't really have any time to consider it - there was an overconfident elf in desperate need of a good stabbing.
Just two inches to the left of the spine... and down goes the elf. It's all starting to come back to me... but is that really what I want? Do I want to go back to that? Dozens of thoughts came rushing to the surface of my mind, but I pushed them back down. I would have time to think about all of this later. For now all I needed to worry about was that somebody wanted me dead.
Really? I hadn't noticed he was trying to kill me, I just stabbed him for the fun of it. What kind of a fool do you take me for? I thought about it for a moment, unconsciously patting the ring in my pocket. The gnome had seemed so serious about whatever he was referring to... I really didn't think he was joking. I could only assume the gnome, the deliberate attack on the zeppelin, and now this assassin all had something in common. "Yes... it seems that way. Perhaps it has to do with the gnome...?"
I certainly didn't know a damned thing about jewelry except for what it was likely to fetch at a junk shop. Even then I had no skill at appraisal... I'd just 'found' more than a few rings in my past. The need for information was as good of a reason as any to visit this town that Virgil had been wanting to drag me to. I could at least get a warm bath, if nothing else. "Perhaps there will be some answers in Shrouded Hills..."
"Yes, let's go to Shrouded Hills," he sounded satisfied. I pulled out my map. It's a good thing I didn't get on the zeppelin unprepared.
I noticed the mark that the spectre placed on my map, where the supposed evil priest lived. When am I ever going to learn that my curiosity only ever gets me into trouble?
"Virgil, I think I'd like to make a bit of a detour first. It'll be quick, I promise."