Buscidia and Pentaz are more excited than one would expect when they spot the rickety wooden wall on the horizon. They have not enjoyed the last three days of their journey and are stained by the muck from the bog they had so recently emerged from in their eastward march. The stains go all the way up to Pentaz’ knees and just an inch or two beneath Buscidia’s.
They lead their steeds and pack mules the remainder of the way to the fort, and a heavily armored
Zaltruscan calls down to them from the top of the wall, “State your business.”
“Just passing through,” Buscidia responds.
“Most are. Welcome to Last Stop,” he shouts down, signalling for his partner below to open the gate.
Pentaz and Buscidia enter, passing the single man guard tower on their right and the adjacent building which serves as a barracks for the dozen men in the village’s garrison. The entire population of Last Stop lives within the fort’s walls and number barely seven dozen adults. Buscidia sets about restocking what supplies she can in this small, out of sorts settlement, and when done they make their way to Last Stop’s only inn.
After stabling their animals and storing their belongings they go to the common room for a simple meal and plenty of white ale. They spend hours drinking and talking with the locals, learning about the people and land around them through a number of stories which are sometimes jocose, sometimes morose, and almost always slurred.
They discover that Last Stop is not truly the village’s name, but only a sort of joke among the guards, passing merchants, and a few of the more fatalistic yet good humored of the villagers. In fact the place has no real name, for no one feels a need to give a name to such a doomed place. Every year the Restless Bog inches its way closer, and none doubt that the village walls will sink into it by century’s end.
The Restless Bog itself is merely a small section of the swamp covering the entire western third of the Badlands and intruding significantly into the region’s heartlands. The Bog is far less grand though, being an area of deep, thin mud stretching from the region’s southwestern border eastward until ending just over four miles west of Last Stop, and running north about forty miles before being further diluted into a salt marsh which stretches for another thirty miles before ending at the coast only clearly distinguished as such on maps.
The Restless Bog gets its name from the tendency of those folk who’s final beds are made amid the muck to forget the finality of their slumber. Occasionally these forgetful dead find their way to Last Stop, and this is the reason why such a small garrison in such a small village is so heavily armored. The shambling corpses are slow and easily enough put back to sleep, but their bite carries with it a considerable danger. It is well known that bite wounds from these abominations almost immediately become gangrenous, and all who die from such infections soon forget that they have done so. A few of the storytellers display misshapen stumps as proof of the rushed and brutal field surgeries they had to undergo in order to escape this fate after being bitten during the long harvest days of years past.
The waters of the Bog had stretched themselves beyond the borders seen above ground once just over fifty years ago, and caused quite a ruckus in the village’s graveyard which at that time lay two miles west of the fort. If not for the valor of the Zaltruscan soldiers posted there at the time, then Last Stop would have met its end. Since then the burial ground had been moved three miles east of the village and just a mile south of the trade route which Buscidia and Pentaz plan to set out upon tomorrow.
With the stories told and both of their heads having an appropriate bit of hoppiness to them, the innkeeper’s wife tells them that the bath Buscidia had requested is ready. Once in the inn’s sole washing room they strip and get into the tub with a small pit of still red embers beneath it. The tub was made for full sized humans who are easily taller than either of them, a fact that allows them both to sit in it at the same time even though it is quite cramped while they are doing so. Neither of them are bothered by such close quarters, however, and in fact they very much enjoy the intertwining of their legs which this brings on as they face one another.
Pentaz repeatedly moves his hands down to his sides in order to massage Buscidia’s feet and ankles, taking more than a bit of pleasure at the sight of the satisfied smile this brings to her face. On the third such occasion a continuing curiosity finds its way to the surface and he asks, “So just why did you decide that we should come through the Badlands. I mean, just before we met Llargas you said that we should never set foot here.”
She pulls her feet away from his hands in order to regain her power of speech and answers, “At no point have I said that we should never set foot in the Badlands. I just pointed out that at the time it would have been foolish to try it, seeing as how you weren’t back to full health yet and needed to hone your skills. Now, however, you’re in wonderful health and quite delightfully skilled in many ways.”
Her voice shifts to a near purr at these last words and she leans forward while running her hands up along the insides of his lower legs. She continues running her hands upward, but allows her voice to drift back to normal as she continues, “But more to the point, you’re skilled enough in your magicking now that with my help you’ll be able to get us through and back to civilized lands. Hells, you fought Turideas and not only lived, you also landed a blow on him despite your poor swordsmanship, so that’s proof enough of your magical skills.”
“Trying your hand at undue flattery now I see,” Pentaz shoots back with a dismissive chuckle and splash of water before continuing, “We both know that I wouldn’t have survived that fight if you hadn’t saved me.”
“No, what we both know is that if you weren’t as skilled as I said, then you would not have been able to hold off a man as deadly as him long enough for me to show up and save you,” she is quick to respond, punctuating it with a more powerful retaliatory splash against him.
After clearing the water from his eyes, Pentaz gives voice to a newly revived curiosity, “I’ve been wondering...”
Buscidia interrupts with a brief laugh and says, “Gods! Here I’d dared to think that after a year together you would have left behind your wondering ways, but I see that I was terribly mistaken. You really should give up the habit though, its nothing but trouble.”
Biting his tongue against his immediate thought, Pentaz takes firm hold of Buscidia’s feet and massages her into submission before speaking again, "As I was saying, I’ve been wondering just how you knew Turideas, and how he recognized you.”
With a soft moan she consents to answer, "Baron Caldus was one of his biggest customers, not to mention his uncle, so I’m sure he had probably seen me around the estate at some point. Seeing as how I was with Caldus, under his employ for years. As for how I knew Turideas, he was a very famous man, so there are few who don’t know who he is.
"Enough of this though," she says upon thinking to pull her feet from him again. “We’ve been soaking here long enough, and I’m suddenly feeling a strong urge for us to go to bed, so we should actually wash up and rinse off now."
Buscidia takes hold of the soap floating in the tub and sets to scrubbing Pentaz. He gives her hands free reign and returns the favor, washing her feet and legs before she finishes with him and leans back to finish washing herself. When their bathing is finished they rise together and rinse off with water from pails set next to theroom’s fire, and then dry themselves a bit before dressing in the woolen robes set out for them.
Finally they head to their room where they quickly abandon the scratchy bed in favor of the floor as they partake of their new favorite hobby, one which the need to remain alert and watchful for danger over the past month of travel had forced them to abandon. It is pursued now with a renewed vigor through the night.
After a small breakfast in the morning they leave Last Stop behind. The guards advise them that shelters are set up every few miles along the road to provide safe haven at night. They advise to always stop at one of these before sunset and to always be sure that nothing is lurking about inside before settling down and barring the doors to the windowless buildings. It is two to three weeks ride to the next town.
As they leave one of the guards yells, "If the two of you have any sense then you’ll join a caravan to cover the next leg of the way back to Zaltruscas, for it is the worst part of the trip."
Buscidia and Pentaz pay close attention to all of this, and once outside of the walls she mounts Seshanan and he mounts his unnamed steed. After tying their mules harness straps to their saddle horns, they set out at a steady trot east along the trail, passing the wrought iron cemetery gates less than an hour later and immediately leaving these behind and forgotten.
Buscidia sits facing Pentaz with her naked legs wrapped around his waist. She slides a thin blade up his cheek, removing the last of the scruff clinging to it. She rubs his newly smooth face with satisfaction and puts up the blade, thankful that he had finally agreed to allow her to take over the shaving duties. She’d always been sure that one of his nicks would get infected, and her steady hand now keeps him free of shaving wounds. His complete stillness while she goes about this daily task helps greatly in this, and she can’t help but feel gratified in his complete trust of her. He would never tell her that he freezes up every time she nears him with the blade because images flash through his head of her skinning animals during the first few days after they met.
She rises and puts on some loose brown pants to match her somewhat oversized shirt as Pentaz stands to rinse his face a bit at the room’s water bowl. As they both put on their boots he asks, “Any word yet on when we’ll be setting out?”
“I’m going to Donovan to see if he’s finally set a damned date. You’re welcome to join me if you want,” she replies.
“I’ll pass. I don’t feel the need to be picked up today. I’ll just explore around town a bit. If you don’t find me before, I’ll be back here for dinner,” Pentaz says with a shake of his head.
“Then I’ll see you after I’ve hopefully gotten Donovan’s fat ass moving,” she says and walks out of the room.
Pentaz follows, pulling on gloves to cover his lightly scarred hands as he exits.
Caasan is seen as a metropolis in the Badlands and is thought of as its capital, though this does not say much in a region with only four established settlements. The city has just over a thousand citizens, most of whom are far too aware of their home’s status in the region.
While not a very large city by the standards of the wider world, it does have an unusually large collection of oddities for sale and general viewing. These are typically fantastic and often dubious body parts such as vampire fangs and shifter’s skins.
Pentaz strolls about this bazaar for less than a quarter hour. He is staring at a zombie’s eye, watching its pupil expand as he shields it from the light only to move his hand away to allow the light in and cause the pupil to contract when he hears the shouts of excitement. Curious, he hurries towards these shouts and Caasan’s entrance.
Buscidia weaves her way through the clutter of the caravan’s wagons and supply crates. She heads purposefully to the center of camp and the large man who lounges half napping in a hammock there. His hair and beard are well trimmed and those portions which have not grayed show signs of being light brown. His clothing is of the finest silks and cottons all expertly cut to suit his frame.
He notices Buscidia’s rapid approach from a dozen feet away and quickly exits the hammock, nearly spilling onto the ground. He stands just over a foot and a half taller than her with shoulders almost twice as broad as hers. His form is hefty but it is apparent that a good deal of it is muscle save for his rather opulent belly. He stretches his bear like arms out to prepare for an embrace but this motion is brought to an abrupt halt by the repressive authority of Buscidia’s frown.
“Buscidia-love, why the long face?” he bellows out.
“You damned well know why Donovan,” she answers crossly.
“The dwarf not quite enough for you I take it. My beloved wife will likely kill me when she finds out, but I’ll step in to meet your needs if it’ll put a smile back on your beautiful face, Buscidia-love,” he offers with a wide grin.
A barely felt punch to his oversized gut reinforces her annoyed tone as she responds, “You damn well know what my problem is, and that is not it. When is the caravan moving out? I can’t very well wait until the hells freeze over!”
“We are very much alike Buscidia-love, though I believe myself to be in more of a real hurry than you. You’ve had no troubles putting yourself and your very small lover up in Caasan’s finest inn for nearly a month now, and have even had coin enough to spare for some rather fine wining and dining, at least by this backwater’s standards. No, Buscidia-love, you have no need of my dozen brass wings, and if you were truly in a hurry you could have joined up with any of the caravans that have moved north since you got here.
"I can see a bit of surprise in your eyes at how much I know of your going ons here, Buscidia-love,” he says while pointimg lightly at her, then retracts his finger as he continues, “I always make sure to keep track of my employees. Poor business not to. No, something lies up north in Zaltruscas proper that you have at least half a mind to avoid for a while more I’d wager, and I only gamble when I know I’ll win. My answer still remains that we set out once the Hunter shows up to aid us. He’s got goods I need, and he knows how to best deal with the difficulties we may face, Buscidia-love.”
“Don’t ever assume to know my intent,” Buscidia replies with more than a hint of anger, “As for your continued talk of this damned Hunter, it cost me a full silver claw to get just ten of my javelins up to your mythical Hunter’s recommendations. I really do believe that you’re full of...”
She is interrupted by an outburst of jubilant shouts from nearby at Caasan’s main gate. She glares at the Coinletter, strongly suspecting for a moment that he has bribed the townsfolk to elatedly cry out, “The Hunter!”
Seeing the large man rush off in seemingly genuine surprise, she follows after him to investigate. By the time she arrives at the entrance, a crowd of nearly a hundred has already assembled, primarily women. Buscidia pushes her way through the crowd, past numerous onlookers and women of all ages who fan themselves against the heat brought over them by the new entrant to their town, until she makes her way to the side of Donovan the Coinletter at the crowd’s front.
Moving down the aisle made by the crowd is a wagon drawn by two horses and driven by a single plain looking man in shabby clothes. A large square of burlap covers the wagon’s contents, leaving the vaguely human forms outlined in the burlap and a lone furry, clawed foot barely poking out from under cover at the back as the only hints of the horrors lying beneath.
Few in the crowd note the wagon though, for their attention is almost universally focused on the man leading a horse and a mule in front of it. His form is statuesque, with an earthy skin tone that lends itself to the popular view that his chiseled form was sculpted from the light mud of some celestial river bed. Jet black hair flows neatly to his shoulders and his face is cleanly shaven.
He moves forward with a grace both entrancing and frightening, like some great beast creeping up on its prey, and runs his dark brown eyes over the crowd, letting them linger a bit longer on the women, especially the freshest looking of the presumed maidens. The touch of his gaze carries with it the impression of a threat, and usually much longed for promise, that he will soon rob these young ladies of their overly vaunted virtue. A smile and a nod from him is more than enough to cause many of these women to fall into a swoon, a reaction he takes visible satisfaction in.
His eyes cease their frolicking when they find Donovan and Buscidia. He turns toward them, examining Buscidia from a distance as he moves forward. She returns the attention, taking note of his attire. He wears a chain shirt covered with spiked strips of metal laid over top, gauntlets and greaves formed into small claws at their ends, and under his arm is a full helm crafted to look like a wolf’s head. All of this armor has been polished to a bright silver sheen. Buscidia particularly notes his padded leather pants that are as tight as functionally possible.
Moving her eyes beyond him and to the animals he leads, she is able to catch sight of the weapons he has secured to them. There are two bows, one a long footman’s bow and the other a shorter cavalry bow, two cavalry sabers, two thick bladed scimitars, a horseman’s lance, and a long spear.
The Hunter arrives in front of Donovan and Buscidia at the same time as a black haired dwarf pushes his way through to the front of the crowd opposite and unbeknownst to them. Donovan steps forward and begins to greet the Hunter, who immediately steps around him and tenderly takes hold of Buscidia’s hand. He bows at the waist while raising her hand, until his forehead lightly touches her wrist.
Raising himself back upright without lowering her hand, he stares down into her eyes and says, “Looking upon such a beautiful sight as you, I must offer my aid in freeing you from whatever binds you so close to the Coinletter’s side.”
Buscidia is not able to reply before Donovan moves his hulking form back to interject, “None of your lechery now, M’hshi’im. She’s an employee, not a debtor.”
“Those who start as one often become the other with you,” M’hshi’im replies with a glance at Donovan beforereturning his smiling gaze and voice to Buscidia. “You had best be careful when dealing with the Coinletter. If you have not already learned it for yourself I give you a warning. He earned that name through his remarkable power to drain anyone around him free of every last coin they have. More important than any number of coins though, just what name can I put to this marvel who stands before me?”
She barely has time to get out her name before being nearly tackled by Pentaz, who lashes one arm around her back and clasps her waist before glaring at the earthen hued man with a barely hidden fire. The Hunter recoils a bit at this new arrival, sliding away but not fully relinquishing her hand as he asks, “Is this your cousin or some other ward?”
Her face lets him know that this is not the case and his hand slides away a bit more so that now only their fingertips touch, and with a tone of slowly dawning defeat he asks, “Your son?”
“My partner,” she is quick to answer this time, and Donovan’s deep laughter is enough to show the real meaning of this term to the Hunter, a meaning which is unnecessarily reconfirmed by the continued burning glare from Pentaz, and he moves his fingertips fully away from her hers.
“Partner indeed, Buscidia-love,” Donovan bellows out between laughs. “Bunk mate would be a more apt term now. I’m afraid you may be a bit too big a man for the lady’s taste, M’hshi’im. No more jesting though, I can see the little lady is quite at the extremes of her patience over it, much as she is to leave if her daily pestering is to be believed. Perhaps you can relieve our curiosity by telling us just when we can set out on the northern road.”
“It’ll take me until tomorrow night to conduct some needed business here and prepare the skins you ordered,” he says with as he hooks a thumb over his shoulder at the wagon. “After that I require but a day off to relax and partake of the local fare before I can escort you beyond the hunting grounds.”
“We set out three mornings hence then. Good, Buscidia-love? Perhaps you can leave off harrying me now?” Donovan inquires with mock exasperation.
She nods her approval and walks away. Pentaz stays with her and keeps his arm around her back as they move. He looks over his shoulder a little as they depart, glaring at the Hunter as he indulges in a study of Buscidia’s walk away.