From the Journal of Tur’lokk, The Bandit King.
“I’ll never reveal His plan to you, savage!” stammered Clem through a bloody throat.
“Quite right, you’re a man of your word,” I told him as I sprang to the window, “but I still have plans for you, my honest man.” His eyes widened as he noticed the momentum wasn’t slowing down. My rakish grin was likely the last human visage he ever saw. Lucky devil. I wonder what it says about a man when he knows how to fall just so onto another’s sternum such that one soul is snuffed from a body, while the other’s shoulder absorbs no more than the slightest jolt?
And so my charge began. Such a noble and glorious task such as world-saving could hardly be put in more capable hands. I have in the last hour been saddled to a motley crew of tinkers, jugglers, arrogant pigs, swordsmen, witches, and the gods know who else. My soul is bound to theirs in a struggle to save the world from magical machinations and the end of this, my earthly dominion. Lesser men would see a geas as a curse, a saddle of poor fortune, a sentence of a future ruled by the fates and not the ambitions and aptitudes of said geas’ bearer. And that is why they are lesser men, and I am the Bandit King!
As I ran off into the night my plan was already taking form where others would have only seen void. Those beetles were made of gears and, lest we forget, gold. Gold has been precious since man first invented that noblest of creations, the coin. The day the first coin was minted was a glorious day for the merchant and the Owners of Things. The night was a glorious night to my people, the people of shadow and burglary . Where there was gold, there would be gold shipments. And where there were gold shipments, I would find my people.
~ ~ ~
A few boasts, false promises, and drunken whorings later, I found myself at the hilly crossroads of Milasan. In recent months there were reports of highly protected shipments traveling northwesterly, fading into the regular merchant caravans traveling southeasterly at this very spot. Once the caravans made it to their next stops, the guards and shipments were dispersed and their valuable carriage cargo was lost in the morass of textiles, spices, and impostor relics. They blended in, and that camouflage was their greatest asset, hiding their true purpose.
A wise King does not forgo a good plan, even if it does come from his enemy. I would acquire this golden freight as it reached the crossroads, and fall into a false merchant wagon driven by my men. In this way I could stop these Enders of the World in my own fashion, using my own natural talents. And if I’m to line my pockets with enough gold to make the angels blush, so be it! I take it as my tithe from the Fates for putting me on this path.
I was able to accrue a score of good and honest local thieves to jump the one-wagon shipment just as it arrived at the wagon ruts leading into the southeastern merchant parade. They were due to meet just before midday when the sun wouldn’t be in my marksmen’s eyes. My black powder charges were set in the wheel ruts, my men had their guns and bows cocked to dispatch the guards forward and aft, and I had pockets, sacks, and straps by which to load as much gold as humanly possible onto my person and my borrowed horses. They were thirty meters from my mark as I lost my hold on the situation, and all hell, as it were, broke loose.
A giant bolder, the size a small cottage, crashed down the side of the hill opposite my station and turned the horses hauling the wagon into mere memories of their former mortal equestrian pride. The wagon tipped and crashed against the road as the shipment broke into a thousand shards of twisted metal and shattered wood. Black-powder charges exploded from hiding spots not housing my men, killing half the shipment guards outright. And in my confusion and outrage I heard what is the most aggravating sound ever to pass over my ears. As the death rattle of a babe to its mother’s ears, this voice is to my soul. It is worse than the call of a husband to his wife as you lie next to her in their bed. It is the music of perdition, and the song is a ballad of sorrows.
“You are in the domain of Manuel, the Lord of Thieves! The treasures you carry are now the property of me and my band of warriors! Surrender now, and you will not suffer the same inglorious end as your comrades-in-arms!”
Sure, he has the swordsmanship of a fighter, and a dexterity that I’m man enough to admit I envy. But what does that make him? A thug? A thief? It doesn’t make him a leader of men! He was scraping by on cast-offs when I was studying philosophy and tactics. He can gut a man, but I can steer his passions! Fool. And it seems that by some miracle he stumbled into the same plan that I had. Lucky fool!
“Seize their weapons, men!” I bellowed “ And hold your ground! Cover the standing guards and carriers, you dogs!”
Manuel, my old rival, spun around in bewilderment at being robbed at his own robbery. But when he saw my magnificent visage cast against the dull scrubs of the hills he grinned a hateful grin, knowing his betters when he saw them. Or, at least, he recognized me. And he recognized my ability to acquire twice the men that he could. And twice the muskets pointed at his head.
“Tur’lokk! My old… friend. You’re in the wrong country! You’re supposed to be exiled in the Ussura wastes! Or, that is what the local magistrate and I decided for you, when I last saw you. In stocks” he said with a sneer.
“Aye, you did. And I thank you for it! I made many a friend in those wastes! And before they furnished me with a hide-bound boat to paddle back to the lands of man, they entrusted me with much forbidden knowledge of man and beast. You can never curse me, Manuel, only bless me in disguise!”
“Are these your men, Oaf of the Islands? They are stringy and-“
I never heard the Castillen’s summation of my troops, as he was cut off by a blaze of light and thunder bursting from behind the tipped wagon. We spun our heads to see our men fall like the wheat at the threshing. They dropped without complaint or contemplation as they fell to a weapon I’ve never seen wielded outside of the magics of the north or the fury of the gods at the High Sea. It was accompanied by a smell that I last smelled at the funeral for that crazed old madman who gave me this world-saving curse. A smell that alchemists I’ve encountered have called ozone. I smell I will forever associate with machinations. All the guards were on their knees in the dirt except for one. One mad and extraordinary warrior. A devil in a very, very nice suit.
He sat pale as ice on his giant, ugly steed. His features were gaunt, like a man dead and dried for a week before burial. His eyes were sunken and red like a demon’s. He held in his hand the queerest blunderbuss I’ve ever beheld, still smoking from a recent discharge. It was made of mirrors etched with gold and jewels. He had a long dueling sword on his side, a narrow black cylinder strapped to his back, and was all the way ‘round ensconced in one hell of a fine leather suit!
“This gold is not yours, foolish children,” he condescended to us in hollow and evil tones. “It is meant for your betters. Run along, and I’ll let you continue your audacities another day.”
“Fool?” cried Manuel in a fit of unearned ego, “Who call you a fool, you devil? You shall face my sword!” With that cry, and sword held aloft, he lept from his hilly perch onto the threatening skeletal warrior.
While I respect bravery as much as any monarch, I find pragmatism to be a better route in all situations. Seeing that fool Manuel engage the barely-human thing-of-violence, I took it upon myself to serve His majesty’s estate as well I could. I ran to the shipment, loaded my strongest pouch with as much gold as I could fit, and ran as though death itself were on my heels.
I made it past my trapped ruts, and was in spotting distance to the merchant caravan coming the other direction, precise as… well… clockwork. I was readying my leap onto my planted merchant wagon, when I was toppled by a massive blow to the small of my back. I tumbled round, under, and inside out with a smoking lump that had just crashed into my back. I sprang back to my feet as a weary , smoking, and bloody Manuel rolled onto his heels in a fighter’s stance. I could smell the ozone all over him that came from that thing’s mirrored blaster. He held his sword in one hand, and somehow, the canister from the thing’s back in his other.
“You bastard, that gold is mine!” Manuel spat as he lashed the tube to the inside of his thigh.
“Nay, Manuel, all treasures belong to me and my people! You just don’t realize it yet! Join me as my vassal, and you’ll get your share,” I informed him as I slid the pouch of gold into my inner shirt pocket.
“Guards!” intoned that devil’s voice, “Take up your weapons and kill those two vagabonds!” At this, the previously capitulating guards regained their feet and took up their weapons in our pursuit.
“Tur’lokk… this seems a bad day for our people. Truce?”
“Truce, with the Lord of Lies? Not if the gates of hell were opening and-“ A guard’s musket rang out, causing the dirt to erupt at my feet. “A truce. For one hour.”
And we both leapt into the first wagon we saw. A dress-maker’s wagon as it turned out. We buried ourselves into the silks and linens of the wagon, finding only enough room to hide if we pressed against one another chest to chest. I found his parrying dagger against my throat, and he found my pistol lodged against his kidney. There are few places I could think of more shameful or exasperating than laying in a pile of dresses with a megalomaniacal swordsman’s blade to your throat as a score a guards stop a wagon train searching for you. I’ve been in worse spots, but not ones that I ever brag over.
~ ~ ~
For four hours we thus lay. Whispering curses into one another’s ears. Jabbing one another’s sides with our weapons. Feeling oh so very un-kingly each and every time the wagon wheel met a bump and his body jolted down upon mine. Very un-kingly.
This was interrupted unexpectedly as the sound of the wheels made a marked shift below us. We were now rolling over a steady and relatively flat series of wooden planks, and a rush of water could be heard below.
Sensing the bridge under us and the river below that, Manuel sprang from his hiding place, throwing dresses this way and that. He met my eyes and said “We will never speak of this again, barbarian. But I have no doubt that you will have found it memorable!” With that he flung himself over the edge of the wagon and dove into the rapids below.
I readjusted my body and waited for the blood to start circulating again, checking my body for wounds and felonies. I reached into my breast pocket and removed my pouch. Indignities aside, this will serve as an excellent bankroll for my new kingdom!
You must imagine my rage as I upturned the pouch into my hand and out spilled volcanic glass shards. The kind only found in Castile. That slimy, sneaky son of a bitch! I stole that gold from him honestly!
I considered this treachery as I uncapped the cylinder he had lifted from the skeletal warrior. Manuel never could tie a good knot, you see, and I had plenty of time to consider his thighs given the extraordinarily unfortunate positioning of my right hand during our confinement.
I upturned this tube and out spilled into my hand the most beautifully carved jewel ever seen by man! It’s intricacies and perfections were unlike any stone I’ve ever seen! More and more came out and each was the same, imperfect only in their perfection. They spilled out magnificently and greedily when I slowly realized that they were indeed too perfect. As a man who has stolen many a diamond and sapphire, I can tell you that these were no jewels. They were glass. Lenses perhaps, or something else. Something mechanical.
Well shit. This won’t bankroll anything! I’d need an artificer of no small talent to even tell me what these are intended for! Wait, wasn’t there a gear man in that last town with the mad count? A fellow geas brother. He can tell me how I can get rich off of these! And I might as well grab some dresses for the ladies as well…