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Amal was used to being in nasty situations, but this was a bit too damning. Already he had spotted three possible escape routes if he was ready to use a particular set of acrobatics, but none were guaranteed and he had Emmaline to think about. Still, he had been duping multiple enemies and powerful opponents for years. What's one more?

"That is an interesting story, herr Jack. Er, herr Felix" the Arabyan stated. Even he had heard of Lucky Jack, though how Jack had heard of him when he had only been in the Empire for two weeks at most was an uncomfortable mystery. "Unfortunately, we made plans with the seal. My lover has some debts she needs paid and without the seal we'll be broke paying them. You understand, I am sure."

Lucky Jack barked a laugh, his hands still in his pockets. One of his men did raise their crossbow, however. "You have daring, I'll give you that. Though I'm curious as to how you think you'll be able to get out of here without being killed by us or the city watch. I'm not here to fight you or kill you, but this simply must be done." As he spoke, Amal reached behind him to grab the case that held the Seal of Magnus much to Emmaline's curiosity, and he placed it in her hands. Jack had not stopped. "-And I'm sure you'll say that you risk yourself often. Unfortunately for you, if you don't comply we'll simply shoot Frauline Von Morganstern."

"You could try..." Amal said, shrugging. "But I doubt it would work."

"And why is that?"

"She has the seal." He said simply, and all eyes fell on the blonde who smiled guiltily, holding up the well crafted and overtly magical treasure.

Lucky Jack blinked, but Amal saw something in his eyes that showed his understanding. They were playing a game now that was to lead to a negotiation. He and Amal knew it, and likely Emmaline if she was thoughtful for a moment. Jack decided to continue the charade for a moment longer, though if he were to find a weakness in Amal's plan, the Arabyan had no doubt he and Emmaline would be executed if they didn't agree to the arrangement. "So, what is to stop us from killing you, instead?"

"Well if you do that, my lover will be quite upset." Amal woe'd in a dramatic flourish, draping an arm over Emmaline. He gave her a grin she had seen many times. "A magician of no small renown, she would unravel the seal's energies and break it out of sheer grief. Your vow would tragically be broken." Whether that was possible he didn't know, but it was good reasoning at least.

Jack took a moment to ponder on his throne, his finger idly toying with his mustache. After a few tense moments, he snickered and gave an approving nod. "Very good, Amal. Very good. I'll tell you what... you and the lovely fraulien here put the Seal back in its original place, and capture or kill the remaining members of the group that sought to steal it originally, and I will pay off all of her debts myself. I might be a criminal, but I am also a business man. My word is my lifeblood."

Emmaline and Amal shared a look, and they knew there was little they could do to negotiate further. Amal didn't doubt the men who had sought to steal it initially had done so not out of ignorance, but audacity. Emmaline held up the artifact, a few of the dice players stopping to look at it admirably. "So, you'll let us go with the Seal?"

"Of course!" Lucky Jack exclaimed. "I have no doubt you'd rather have your debts forgiven than trying to find an insane seller of an item that had every thief and lawman in the heart of the Empire looking for you."
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Realization that they weren't going to be killed out of hand had its usual salutatory effect and she felt her breath relax. Whether it would have been possible for her to wield the seals energies, or destroy it by unbinding it, were excellent questions, but questions for enchanters a good deal braver, and a good deal less practically minded than Emmaline. Not that she wouldn't have tried of course. The tension that had filled the thieves surrounding them faded away as though it had never been. A low buzz of conversation resumed and a trio of indifferently talented fielders struck up a tune. Lucky Jack seemed to relax as well although both Emmaline and Amal had seen enough to recognise it as a pose, a man like him was never really relaxed, and wouldn't be until the priests of Morr tossed the first shovelful of dirt on his face.

"The night is wearing on," Emmaline commented, "I don't suppose this can wait until tomorrow?"

Jack shook his head curtly.

"Has to be back before they notice its gone, might have been easier to just hand it back, but I'd have to admit I let such a heist happen on my watch. Bad for business," the kingpin acknowledged.

"And I suppose if we get killed trying to put it back you can just claim we are some clueless idiots who wandered into Altdorf?" Jack grinned toothily.

"That one armed dwarf told me you were quick," he observed. Emmaline scowled.

"What did he pay a crier to tell people about us?" she demanded. Jack chuckled again.

"Now now Frauline, who do you think Nobby sells most of his loot too? Either to me to move out of town, or what he sells locally he pays me my cut right? With items like you were offering I just asked a few additional questions."

"Yeah well, he still deserves to have his beard set on fire," she groused, irritation replacing fear at the prospect of breaking into an Imperial Palace that might already be alerted that it had been violated once tonight.

"Am I stretching the friendship to ask if you have any supplies we could use?" she asked. Jack made a languid guesture towards a series of racks that lined one of the far walls. Coiled ropes, cross bows modified to carry lines and other tools of the thieves arts were neatly laid out.

"Help yourself."
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Assuming they were being given them and not borrowing, Amal decided to peruse the tools at their disposal. He gave a small smile as he gazed on the strange items, many of them familiar to him, and some vaguely different to the Arabyan styles. He had never been a team player and eschewed thieves guilds back in his home country, but he had made some exceptions once or twice and it paid to be informed.

Draping a strange fabric filled with hundreds of tiny barbs along his hand, Emmaline poked her head past it, marveling at it. "It looks like a snakeskin."

"Jalad Alqarsh." He told her. "Sharkskin. Helps you climb for those unused to it."

There were far more items than they needed, but some they simply couldn't use. Glass cutters would leave behind a sign they had been there, as well as caltrops and the like. Blinding powder would do no good and more concealed weapons wouldn't help them, no matter how cleverly they could be hidden.

Emmaline grabbed a crossbow, holding it up with surprising familiarity. Amal knew she had pulled some jobs in the past, but most were confidence ones to his knowledge. She held up a bolthead, running her finger over it softly. The bolt was expensive, made of a type of Gromril that could pierce all but the hardest stone surfaces. The head was oddly crafted, with small ridges along its frame rather than barbs. Of course, the edge was razor sharp.

"Stonebiters." She explained.

"I've seen a few like it before. I'm surprised they have it."

"Only take three of those. They're expensive, as you well know." Lucky Jack said, drawing their gazes. In the end, they grabbed some rope, dark cloaks, the piercing crossbow with the stonebiter bolts, grappling hooks, and two strips of sharkskin.
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Emmaline followed Amal's lead as they followed an alley a street back from the wall of the Imperial Palace. This close to the halls of power, the houses were grand mansions, three and even sometimes four stories with sprawling gardens and coach houses which would have been the envy of entire peasant villages. Fortunately they still needed to bring in supplies and thus tended to back onto shared alleyways that would allow the common bussiness of the house to be conducted. It reminded Emmaline of anatomy drawings she had seen which described veins, the houses forming the outer walls and the alley the blood filled hollow channel.

"I don't like this," she complained, not for the first time since they had struck out from the thieves hideout. They had been led through a series of tunnels blindfolded, so that, in theory, they couldn't find their way back, but the thieves didn't seem all that concerened about the possibility.

"It will be all right," Amal assured her, given the light in his eyes he was actually enjoying the prospect of breaking into one of the most secure buildings in the entire Empire.

"You hope," Emmaline worried, gnawing idly on a lock of golden hair that had escaped from the concealment of her dark hood. The idea of breaking into the Imperial palace did have an allure to it, but this wouldn't have been her preferred method of doing so. Emmaline's experience was with confidence schemes and con jobs, both of which required extensive planning and preparation. She would have been much more comfortable entering the palace masquerading as a Priestess of Shyalla or the mistress of some functionary. Rushing in under the time limit that Lucky Jack had set made her anxious. The moon was already passed its zenith and the sense of time pressing on was almost palpable. Once dawn came their difficulties would multiply exponentially.

"This looks like a good spot," Amal announced, pausing to rifle through the rucksack he had taken from the thieves lair.
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Black Fire Pass has ever been a double edged sword because of this scarcity of accessible routes through the Mountains. It is at once a chink in the armor of the Empire, a sure path for invading armies, and also a vital trade route connecting the Empire with the remaining Dwarf Karaks, Tilea, Estalia, and the wild Border Princes. Black Fire Pass stands at the centre of a triangle, its points roughly signified by three great Dwarf Karaks, though men of any kingdom weren't pirvvy to their exact whereabouts. Even the traders met with their Dwarfen contacts at proxy locations.

The pass itself was a strange mixture of life and death. Jagged rocks marked the lanscape, some became sharpened peaks that touched the clouds, stacked atop burnt stones the color of singed flesh. Tufts of grass sprang forth on the ground, a few areas were almost fields in a small way, trampled and ruined but still alive and breathing to live another year. Areas of the pass were actually charred and rent from mortar shells and dangerous magics from previous battles fought in the bottleneck. Large groups of merchants and dwarfs, and even greenskins traveled through Blackfire every week, and Sigmar himself here fought the decisive battle so very long ago to forge the Empire of Man into the Juggernaut it was today.

Amal knew none of this, and even if he had, he would not be very impressed. After one saw the things he had, this was par for the course. Even before he shacked up with his bountiful woman Emmaline, the deserts of Araby were places of dread legend and harsh realities. His penetrating gaze watched the peaks around them, treating them like dunes that could hide all manner of bandits or monsters. At his side was Emmaline, sitting her rump on one of the wagons after coercing Heisenbach the merchant to let her make a bit of room. Amal did not mind walking. It helped him keep an eye on their surroundings, particularly the hard eyed caravan guards, the three dwarf slayers, and the two ogre mercenaries that rumbled along with them. None were likely going to the same principality, but all were trying to find fortune in the Border Kingdoms. A land of competition, Emmaline had told him. It sounded fun to the bandit.

As they moved towards the mouth of the southern portion of Black Fire Pass, they passed by a huge monument. A shrine to Sigmar, made in the form of an obelisk five stories high, framed by everflame braziers that would continue even under seasonal typhoons. Before the obelisk was a statue of Sigmar as the barbarian king he was, holding aloft Ghal Maraz. His face stern and resolute, and the trees beside it the shrine were littered with greenskin skeletons to serve as a warning to any future invasion. Of course the warnings didn't work with a race as insane as the greenskins, but it was a nice touch.

"I like your people." Amal said to Emmaline, admiring the statue in his own way. "They do not fuck around."
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Blackfire Pass was a mass of gentle undulations framed by the majestic mountains that rose high into the clear spring skies. White snowcaps still clung to the mountains, so high and so cold that they only disappeared briefly around midsummer, if at all. The road was literally beaten into the rock, worn smooth by generations of marching feet and clattering wagons. Little grew besides occasional patches of grass and the odd scrubby bush that clung tenatiously to the rocky ground. Here and there streams had been cut into the rock by water running down from the mountains, though they were never deep enough to require bridging. To Emmaline the pass was a place out of legend, she just wished that most of those legends didn't end with 'and so they fought heroically to the last man'.

Heisenbach grunted irritably at the draught horses, shaking his reigns to encourage them to pick up the pace. As a piece of horsemanship this singularly failed, the two shaggy coated browns continuing to tramp on at the same dogged pace they had maintained all day. Johanas Heisenbach had been a handsome man once, but a combination of years of rough living had worn his face down like a bluff beaten by the wind. He was heavy set though muscular, the result of the feast or famine lifestyle of a seasoned caravanner. His lank brown hair was greying at the temples and his jaw was slightly misshapen, the result of either a greenskin mace to the face or an irritated frau with a rolling pin depending on how drunk he was. He had been overjoyed when Emmaline asked to accompany his caravan back in Averland, somewhat less so when she mentioned she was traveling with Amal. In the three weeks they had been on the road she had managed to make herself useful, concocting balms and salves for saddlesores, restorative tinctures for the horses, and even improving some of the gunpowder that formed part of their cargo. Imperial arms, powder and textiles formed the bulk of the cargo carried in their four wagons, though there was an amount of wine, some books, and other small items for sale also.

"Killing orcs is part of our religion," Emmaline responded, speaking Arabyian as Amal had. Heisenbach's head snapped up as there was no word she knew for Orc in that tongue and she had spoken that word in Reikspiel. She made a calming guesture and waved a hand at the skeletons in explanations. The merchant nodded and relaxed.

"Better not to speak of them, name the Daemon and all that," he grumbled. Emmaline pulled her traveling cloak around her shoulders and scanned the hills. There was a sear majesty to it all that combined to make her feel very small and insignificant.

"If they were coming through in strength we would know it," Heisenbach expanded, doubtlessly picking up on Emmaline's sudden discomfort. He drew a pipe from a pouch and began to pack tabac into the bowl.

"There are always raiders though, and not just green skins either," he muttered. A chill wind gusted from the mouth of the pass and the skeletons hung in the trees began to clatter like grotesque windchimes. Privately Emmaline thought it would be a desperate band indeed that attacked two ogres and a trio of the most savage looking dwarves she had yet to see. Far from her shifty dwarven fence back in Altdorf, these three were slabs of corded muscle, their shaven heads surmounted by vast shocks of orange hair held in place by animal fat. Emmaline thought she could probably whip up something that did the job better and smelt a deal less foul, but the Dwarven antipathy too well known for her to risk offending them. Torvin, the most senior of the slayers Emmaline had gleaned, hawked a wad of phlem in the directions of the green skins, growling to himself in his own language and patting the hilt of a massive warhammer with a fist that could have encircled Emmaline's head. The Ogres, Gnawer and Ripper, as they were referred to for lack of any better names, ignored the sight completely, continuing to gnaw on the haunches of a dead donkey they had found a few miles back and quickly dismembered.

"This is the heart of the pass," Heisenbach explained as the caravan turned southward, axles grinding and wheels clattering. The trail split not far beyond the statue, one road, less used, continuing to the east while they took the more traveled route south. A particularly savage jolt slapped through the cart, jarring Emmaline's teeth and bruising even her well padded rump.

"Are we going to break for a midday meal?" Emmaline asked, thinking more of her battered bottom than her growling stomach. Heisenbach was attempting to get his pipe lit without much success, sparking at a flint with a steel that had almost been worn away to nothing. Emmaline concentrated for a moment and the tabac lit of its own accord.

"My thanks," the caravan master muttered, taking several long puffs and then blowing out the fragrant smoke. If he was bothered by wizards and magic he hid it well, though Emmaline in her travelling cloak and threadbare Reikland costume looked more like a milkmaid than a mage.

"And no, not yet. There is a wayfort not far ahead, we will stop early and spend the night, better to lose a little time and sleep in a defensible spot than on the open road this far east."

By the time the reached the wayfort the sun was begining to sink, even though it wouldn't fully set for several more hours. It was one of the places that dwarven traders used to exchange goods with their human partners. The term 'fort' might have been a bit of a misnomer. It was merely a small hilltop that had been topped with a wall of unmortared stone that rarely exceeded waist height. The sides of the hill were studded with rotting timber stakes that seemed unlikely to deter any very serious assault. As the wagons clattered through the gate Emmaline realised that there was a well and that several lean toos had been built against the far wall, which was somewhat taller than the ones she had seen on the way in. A half dozen dwarves, were already inside. Some appeared to be hunters and were busily dressing a side of what must have been mountain goat, while a trio appeared to be merchants, sitting around a wagon that looked to contain pelts and iron mongery. All had weapons to hand and looked tough enough to mount at least some defense if raiders showed up. Emmaline stood up and climbed down out of the wagon, rubbing at her bottom as she did so. If she ever made a trip like this she was going to invest in a cushion.

"Lets see what we can find to eat," she told Amal as the guards began to set their own camp and Heisenbach strode over to the dwarven trader to being whatever business he might be able to conduct.
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"We should probably pay for it this time..." Emmaline reluctantly suggested, rubbing her bottom.

Amal would have rather been on a waterfront, with a plethora of business men to steal from and imported meats and fruits to take and the cool breeze of the ocean to meet the hot arabyan sun. Somehow, with no sea or river in sight, the heat here was humid. Not entirely unwelcome either, but it boggled his mind how there was so much green with the only flowing water source miles away. His dark eyes swept over the hillfort and he did spy a well, which would do for water. But as for food, he desperately wanted to steal, and Emmaline could see it in his eyes. But there was barely three dozen inhabitants at the trading station, including the mercenaries that had come with the caravan. Call it prejudice, but even if Amal pulled off a theft like the master thief he was, the scrutiny would still likely fall on him. The northern merchants and mercenaries were a group apart, the ogres were too clumsy for it, and the Dwarfs were too bound by honor.

So Amal gritted his teeth and took her look to heart, deciding they would pay for food, as much as he loathed it. So Amal decided to add a bit of fun to the whole scenario. He gave her a bow fit for an Emir, almost abasing himself. "Your wish is my command, high priestess. I live only to serve Asaph's Chosen."

"Thank you," she mouthed to him, but her eyes and mouth went wide when he bent down, placed his shoulder under her belly and grabbed her legs, lifting her up to where her sore rump was sticking up, her hip pressed to his cheek and her top half gazing behind him as he trudged up the hill to the small settlement. "Think nothing of it, as I live to serve."

She playfully pummeled his back with her fists, but there was no vitriol in it. Amal knew it was far better for her than walking up hill, she could stretch her legs once they reached the crest of the incline. What took some of the fun out of Amal's little stunt were the two ogres just behind them, with iron gutplates and scimitars the size of the greastsword. The leftmost one, a tanned beast with an eyepatch on his right eye, bore his remaining eye into Emmaline's face when he said "We should find some food too."

"Sounds good to me," the other agreed, smiling his too-wide mouth her way. Amal heard the exchange and turned, swinging Emmaline around and squaring up with the large brutes, raising an eyebrow.

"This one is mine," Amal said challengingly, patting Emmaline's expansive behind for good effect. "Go find your own blonde woman!"

"But she's got some good meat on her." One of the ogres said, indicating her with a shrug of his shoulder and a lazy heft of its heavy weapon. "What if we were to pay?"

"Not for all the gold in the world." The Arabyan declared, which was surprisingly sweet considering how high his gold lust was. It nearly matched Emmaline's own.

"Don't listen to these cows." One of the Dwarf slayers said, the first of the small troupe to reach them as the rest trekked up the hill behind them. Their bodies were squat and powerful, but their legs made them end up perpetually at the back of the line. He glanced at the ogres. "Plenty of livestock up top to eat."

"Bandits in the hills too!" The next slayer said, his eyes gleaming with a vicious light at the merest hint of the promise of violence. At that, the Ogres grinned like dogs. Amal had dealt with ogres once or twice before, and they liked nothing more than finding loopholes in the laws of men where some men were less frowned upon to eat, like criminals. Satisfied they weren't going to try anything, Amal swung Emmaline back around and marched up the hill and past the plain, short wall. The dwarfs had likely smelled the livestock, before they weren't wrong. Goats and cows chewed on bales of straw as the merchants did their business inside their shantytown lean-tos and some stone ruins with makeshift repairs on them.

Amal set Emmaline down gently, spotting a black-bearded man placing some watermelons into a carriage. They looked good to him, and within two minutes they had found a nice place to sit while Amal carved the watermelon open so they could dig in.
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Emmaline was in a considerably better mood as she bit into the slice of watermelon Amal provided her. She tried not to think about the fact that she had seen him gut a man with the same knife he used to slice through the rind of the fruit, he DID clean it afterwards of course. There were more people in the hillfort than Emmaline had seen from the road, perhaps a score or more. Mostly they were busy building fires and preparing the evening meal. The sun was just beginning to sink and it wouldn't be dark for another hour or so, but Emmaline knew well that the cold in the pass at night could be as ferocious as the heat during the day, the whipping wind carrying the smell of snow down of the high peaks. The fires were, for the most part, pitiful things. Firewood was in short supply in the pass and most of it had to be brought in, which added expense in both purchasing timber at one end, which the locals of course steeply marked up, and wasted wagon space. The dwarves seemed to be doing business selling animal dung to feed the fires of those guards or merchants willing to shell out a few coins for a bit of extra warmth. Emmaline, fortunately, did not have that problem. It was a simple spell to heat a few rocks till they radiated nicely, a trick she had pulled a few times since they set out for the price of a few coins. It smelled better than the dung fires, but most of the caravanners preferred the stink to magic.

"Poor bastards wont make it till well after nightfall," Heisenbach remarked, walking over towards them with a pair of recently filled waterskins over his shoulder. Emmaline looked up in confusion, wiping juice from her lips with the back of her hand to follow the merchants gesture. Down the pass, a caravan was making its dusty way along the road, coming up from the Border Princes in the opposite direction to their own. Half a dozen wagons struggled over the rough terrain, kicking up a pall of grit, little more than specs at this distance. Emmaline nodded judiciously, as though she were in any way interested, but said nothing to encourage Heisenbach to stay. The swarthy teamster seemed to spend a fair amount of time around the two of them. Though he obviously enjoyed looking at a woman for a change, Emmaline suspected it went deeper than that. Heisenbach viewed himself as an educated man, and viewed Emmaline, if not Amal in a similar light. She supposed she was educated after a fashion, she could read afterall, and her frequent brushes with the nobility and high merchants in Altdorf gave her the barest veneer of culture. He was lonely, and not just in the physical sense.

"These are bad roads after dark," he continued, undeterred by the lack of response.

"Are there roads anywhere that get better after dark?" Amal asked, pausing to spit a stream of seeds onto the steaming rocks with a sizzle. Heisenbach gave an avuncular chuckle.

"You have some wits about you, if you decide you want to make a living as a caravan guard let me know," he told the thief, his eyes slipping, surreptitiously he probably imagined, to Emmaline's bosom.

"Was talking to old Gerd, he says there is fighting back west, an army of beast men besieging Nuln..." Emmaline's eyes swam out of focus and she was suddenly looking up at a grand house with fluted columns and darkened windows, at the same time she was staring out over an expanse of ocean from the deck of a ship. Her stomach lurched vertiginously as the hillfort, the house and the ship tried to simultaneously superimpose on one another. Something hard hit her across the face and when she blinked her eyes clear of tears. She was back in the hillfort, Amal and Heisenbach staring at her in shock. She looked down at her hand in surprise. What had happened, she had been on a ship and... smack!

"Ow!!" she exclaimed, looking at her hand in shock, she had slapped herself, her memory informed her. The snake bracelet on her wrist didn't move, but one of the wood carved eyes gave her a disapproving look.

"Ahh are you ok?" Heisenbach asked, clearly uncomfortable with watching her slap herself. The snake bracelet continued to stare at her sternly. Amal shifted slightly, his posture somewhere between moving to help her or moving to take out Heisenbach . Why he thought that might be necessary she wasn't sure but she pushed thoughts of boats and houses out of her mind.

"Just ahhh.. trying to keep myself awake," she lied, "you know with the..." she nodded towards the fire. Heisenbach nodded, apparently willing to believe that the spell might be draining her. Maybe it was, she was seeing things afterall. She rubbed her eyes with the heel of her hands.

"Well, I should see to the men," Heisenbach said after a moment. "It can get mighty cold here at night, you might want to think about sleeping under one of the wagons incase there is a frost.
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As Heisenbach left, Amal took another sip of the waterskin. He could tell the fellow liked Emmaline, as many men did. But he never did get jealous, even if he portrayed himself as territorial at times. He wiped the last bit of red juice from his mouth, a small droplet sliding down his neck into his colorful vest and top. The fellow was right, it would likely be cold that night, and so Amal pulled at a thick blanket he had procured on the road, letting his strong back rest against his pack.

"Let's warm up, yes?" He asked, pulling Emmaline towards him to sit on his lap, the two now getting comfortable and snuggling close together, her backside on his pelvis and legs lovingly entwined, their faces just beside one another. Emmaline felt his strong arms slither around her, the sounds of the camp a low murmur in the background as the sun's light began to fade and grow as black as a necromancer's heart.

"We will be in the Border Kingdoms tomorrow, if we make good time." He told her, watching her with a smile to see if she had a plan in mind or anything to say.

Amal had grown up in a country full of sin and debauchery, not the least of which was an unhealthy dose of misogyny. Had he been raised 'properly' or had been a man of means, he might have been lured into that line of thinking. Allah knows even men as poor as he treated women like prized objects at best and exposable commodities per the norm. But he did not think so, having a strange sense of chivalry in his own, bizarre way. Plus, Emmaline and he seemed kindred spirits. They both lied and cheated, just in different ways, and never did they cheat one another. He respected her as much as he respected any man, even if they did treat one another like objects at the proper times.

"I hear it a land full of opportunity, where one can carve out their own homes and even kingdoms. I do not think that is entirely true, but if it lives up to even a bit of its reputation, it sounds..." He tried to think of the next word, still trying to master riekspiel's more complicated words. "Loo-...?"

"Lucrative?" Emmaline asked.

"Yes," he said with a pleased expression, before switching to Arabyan, leaning in as his smile grew more sly. "I'm getting pretty good, right?" He slowly, gently bit under her chin, and then kissed her neck, adding the barest hint of tongue. "Maybe not as good as I am in other areas, but..."
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"Well," Emmaline purred, shifting her hips to rub her bottom across Amal's thighs, "your talents in those areas are... prodigious?" It was her turn to be a little unsure, though she had spent long enough in an Araybian harem to be pretty fluent, some of the nuances of the language still escaped her. Amal snickkered.

"That means a type of fig," he informed her with a chuckle, shifting the blanket around them, edging closer to the warm rocks.

"Well your talents are not fig like," she confirmed.

"I meant like, really really large," she giggled.

"Well that is 'prodigious'," he explained, providing the Aryabic word for her, "and it is something every man loves to hear." She thought that between the two of them they would be well positioned in the Border Princes. Provided they didn't need her to try her awful Brettonian.

"I don't know about homes or kingdoms," Emmaline purred, "but I hear it is a place anyone can make a fortune." Her voice dropped into the throaty purr it always took on when thinking about gold, the warmth of their bodies pleasant as the evening chill began to deepen. Emmaline suspected that there were covert eyes being cast their way from the half dozen cook fires, but she didn't pretend to care.
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She could feel Amal's sizeable 'dagger' stirring beneath her, and the thief briefly considered kicking the fire out so they could keep one another warm in the blackening night of Blackfire Pass. He reached to grab her head, strong fingers curled around her golden tresses, so much akin to spun gold. "I'll follow your lead, little troublemaker," He told her, and then kissed her. Lips brushed and opened, tongues rolling out to enjoy one another. Their bodies pressed and the fire felt very nice as they effectively made out with gusto, perhaps fit to take it further...

There was a gunshot.

It was loud, and close enough for the smell of the powder to flow over upon the them not seconds later. Reluctantly they pulled back from one another, Emmaline wide eyed and Amal blandly annoyed as they both turned to look northwest of their position. In the firelight, one of the merchant stumbled amongst dark figures and wagons, and fell to the ground heavily, dead. The other merchants looked up from their conversation and meals, and a cry was heard from at least two dozen men; the newcomers from the arriving caravan. Steel rang as they drew blades and more gunshots were heard over the din of shouting. Amal's eyes widened like Emmaline's. Not out of fear, but rather at how impressed he was at the foolhardiness of the bandits! They must have been disenfranchised mercenaries. Amal had only known four men in his life, himself included, who might have a go at such dangerous targets.

Sure, half the wayfront's inhabitants were tradesmen, but they had bodyguards, and the Dwarfs and Ogres and what human mercenaries there were rose up in force. The Dwarfs laughed madly and one gave a warcry to his fatalistic mohawk god, waving two large axes about and running straight at the foes. A bullet hit him in the stomach, but that didn't even slow the crazed dwarf down, hacking at the gunman and splitting him down the middle with a mighty stroke of his axe, Amal losing sight of him behind the men and gunsmoke. Meanwhile, the Ogres were overjoyed at this newfound excuse to eat, and they laughed a bit more heartily as they ran into the fray, along with the hardened mercs that had traveled with Amal and Emmaline, running with stern eyes and wielding swords and pistols.

Whatever the outcome, this was going to be bloody. It was also a good time to steal and take advantage of some goods, but Emmaline's soft form atop him made him think twice. If he was alone, yes. But he was not going to risk his love getting hit by a stray bullet for some chump change. Instead, they had another opportunity to get away as he heard some horses whinny, bandit cavalry ridding in from behind the throng to aid their fellows. Amal untangled himself from Emmaline, doing his best to calm his 'lower self' down as he stood to his full height.

"Stay behind the ruins," he told her.

"What? What are you doing?" She asked, gathering the blanket up protectively.

"Just trust me, Em." He said with a wink, gathering up some rope he had procured the week previously for just such an occasion.

Well, it was supposed to be used for the bedroom, but this worked too. He unrolled it with small movements of his arm, the roiling muscle visible in the firelight. With a subtle twist, he had it tied in a noose, and the deft theif began to spin the cord around, preparing himself for some maneuver with it. 'Taal's Blood!' someone screamed in the fray, and one of the horsemen had whipped about and ran around the furious melee, pistol in hand now that he had lost his spear. The look on his face brought a smile to Amal's when a circle of rope fell around his midsection, squeezing his arm and causing his gun to discharge in a wild direction. Violently, he was ripped from his now very confused mount, the beast kicking the ground and unsure of where to go during the brawl now that his master was gone.

Amal mounted it with an impressive spring, landing on the saddle and doing his best to calm it down. Amal was vaguely aware one the ogres swung an arm, but he didn't think on the consequences until the body of a broken man flew straight at him like a sailing rock thrown from a mangonel!

"Hya!" He cried, sending the horse forward, narrowing dodging the missile. Amal laughed, kicking his mount over to where Emmaline hid, extending his hand for her to grab. "Let us find some nice beds instead of the ground, yes?"

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All was chaos and confusion. Horses screamed and men shouted. An ogre bellowed in pain as three men menaced it with spears pushing it back. A hand gun went off and a gout of brains blew out of the top of its head in a shower of gore, the great beast toppled and smashed one of the lean to's to pebbles and kindling, smashing a hole in the low wall. The bandit attack had been a bold move, although up close they didn't look much like merchants. Scruffy bearded men leaped from beneath the covered wagons, one of which had been pulled up to block the gate. Emmaline saw a man lose a hand to the wrist, spinning away only far enough to be stabbed through the back by the rusty sword of his assailant. The reek of blood and ammoniac sweat from the horses was everywhere.

"What do we have here!" one of the bandits leered and grabbed at her, catching her wrist with dirty fingers and yanking her towards him. Something writhed and then the bandit screamed falling back and clutching at his wrist, the snake twisting back into a wristband. Black lines were already spreading up his arm as he fell to his knees.

"Shize, shize, shize," she cursed, ducking away from another man who grabbed at her and pulling the blanket up around her head to conceal her blonde hair. One of the ogres roared so loud it was physically painful as he reached down and snatched up one of the bandits, biting the man in half in a shower of blood and vicera. Emmaline racked her brain for some spell, some piece of magic she could perform, but her mind was a blank and formless as the ocean. Fortunately Amal chose that moment to arrive, his horse rearing. She was reminded for a moment of the magnificent horses she had seen in Araby. Imperials bragged and Brettonian's postured about their horses, but neither of them could hold a candle to the great Arabyians. She reached up and grabbed Amal's hand and he jerked her up. Emmaline promptly overbalanced and fell belly first across the horses rump.

"Good enough," Amal muttered, pinning her down against the horse with a hand and then kicking his heels to the beasts flanks. The horse jumped forward, vaulting over a guard who lay on the ground, blood seeping into the dirt.

"That way!" Emmaline shouted, feet flailing as she tried to point towards the break in the stone caused by the fallen ogre. Luckily Amal had already seen it and he wheeled the horse around and through the gap. The horse plunged down the side of the stoney hill, horseshoes striking sparks from flint in the loose shale. The horse kept its feet and Amal wheeled it round, he really was handy with that rope Emmaline thought somewhat inappropriately, and then they were on the southbound trail hammering south under the stars, leaving the shouts and clashing steel far behind, Emmaline draped over the back of the horse like a sack of grain.

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Amal was one of the poorer horsemen of Araby, prefering to leap and duck and swing and run than ride (at least on horses). However, that still made him quite good by northmen standards, and the stallion they rode whipped wildly in the wind as they moved further south, going at least a half a dozen miles before they halted long enough for Amal to haul Emmaline up and right her on the saddle so she could hold on to his midsection. Up ahead, the two moons shined brightly, and Amal navigated by their light as they made good time over the next few hours. As the night progressed, the mountains began to open, though that did little to make the two intrepid theives feel better, due to the opening now taking on the appearance of the vast maw of jagged, razor sharp teeth that they desperately tried to ride out of.

Thankfully, past midnight, they made it out of the pass and Amal slowed the stallion down, setting the beast as a canter as they traversed over a few scattered creeks amid the ubiquitously placed trees of some wooded area Amal couldn't even guess. After the third stream, they followed it, not knowing if it lead east or west, but continued down a path Amal spotted until the horse was likely too tired to continue.

"Keep your hands and feet atop the horse until the beast makes a complete stop, please," Amal joked wryly, glancing back at his girlfriend. Her chin was pressed onto his sunbaked shoulder, and he rolled his muscled shoulder gently to cause her to stir. He smiled. It was a strange feeling, two promiscuous people shacking up and suddenly being monogamous, at least until one of them was dead. If it was a cruel joke, Amal didn't find the cruel part of it. He was interested in her as the day he found her wandering the streets of Al-Hiekk.

"Let us stretch our legs a bit, and if your bottom is still sore, I'll carry you." He told her. The thief was no stranger to wishing for comforts, but he could carry heavy loads like a mule, and for Emmaline, he was always ready. He hopped off and helped the horse to the stream so it could have some well earned water, stroking the beast's mane, before he helped Emmaline to the ground.
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It seemed somewhat unfair to Emmaline that her ample behind should be such poor padding for riding, but after several hours of racing across broken terrain at breakneck speed, she seemed to feel every hoof beat up through her spine. Fortunately for the pair of them the twin moons provided enough light that they hadn’t tripped and fallen to their deaths during their escape. Not for the first time. Emmaline lamented having to leave the Empire. The Temple of Ranald had been clear that, while they appreciated their aid in ‘borrowing’ the Seal of Magnus and then returning it, that it would be best if they were both far away for a considerable time. Emmaline had lobbied for trying again for Marienburg, but the captain of the boat they had boarded had come upon a valuable cargo for Averland and turned around, leaving them the option of waiting for another or changing their plans. One route out of the Empire seemed as good as another, at least it did before you thought of the weeks of bumpy roads, bad food and bandit raids. Of course depending on the boat, you might trade that for bad weather, equally bad food and pirate raids, but at least it was easier on your ass.



“I can walk I think,” Emmaline told Amal almost giving the lie to her words as she slid from the saddle and found the ground strangely unsteady after the jolting ride. Her calves burned but she forced herself to stand and stretch them out. The southern approaches to the pass were more hospitiable than the the main gap, with numerous streams running with melt water from the high mountains. The water was cool and clear if slightly redolent of rock and metals and both horse and riders drank greatfully. A faint pink glow in the eastern sky suggested that dawn was not so very far off, but they needed rest. Emmaline was instinctively wary about staying in the open, and a little more backtracking lead them to a steepening gully carved by the summer torrents that raced through the creek banks.

“Do you think there are fish?” Amal asked, either reading Emmaline’s mind or hearing the rumble of her hungry belly. Emmaline was trying to think of a spell that would catch fish, when a familiar slithering around her wrist interrupted her. Asp had resumed his serpentine form and dropped to the ground with a reproachful look.

“You think you can do better?” Emmaline asked with an arched eyebrow. She swore the snake rolled its eyes and then slithered into the pond. There was a brief thrashing and a minute later a trout floated to the surface, a pair of neat fang marks above its gills. A second splashing yieled a second fish before Asp slithered from the water, he looked cold and sluggish and Emmaline knelt down and offered her arm. The serpent coiled around it greatfully and sank into her skin becoming the tattoo the creature sometimes favored. Ten minutes later they had fresh flakey fish cooked on some more mystically heated rocks. It wasn’t enough to completely fill their bellies, but it was a wonderful improvement. Emmaline was just about to suggest they move on when a sudden guttural voice split the bright morning air.

“Oi, you smell ‘at?” No human throat could have produced such a sound. Emmaline recognized the voice from their brief sojurn on Albion.



“All I smell is your arse,” another of the creatures grumbled, eliciting a laugh from a third. Emmaline and Amal froze in place, concealed as they were in the gulley. Amal seemed to be easing his blade very slowly into his hand.



“It smells like vish!” the first orc replied, closer now, somewhere off to the left.



“Yeah well so’s your arse!” the jokester retorted to further harsh guttural laughter.

“I’ve ‘ad enuf of uouze!”

“Yeah what you ganna do ‘bout it!” There was an ear splitting roar and a clash of weapons. The horse whinnied nervously but fortunately the sound appeared to be lost in the shouting.

“Any of the rest ov ya think youze so fukin’ funny?” the first voice demanded. There was a muffled chours of ‘no’ and ‘no boss.’

“Then lets get a move on, we aint gonna catch dem humize with the wagons hangin’ round here.” The sound of harsh voices faded away but Amal and Emmaline didn’t move for many long minutes. Eventually she managed to let out her breath and they climed to the lip of the gulley and peeked out. Emmaline opened her mouth to scream but Amal, sensing what was about to happen, clamped his hand down over her mouth.

“It’s dead Em,” he told her calmly. A fact that should have been obvious that the orc head not twenty feet from the gulley was separated from its body by the same distance, its bulding eyes forever frozen in a look of stunned stupefaction, its corpse steaming slightly in the chill morning air. It was wrapped in crude leather armor with a great cleaver gripped in its cold fingers that looked like it could cut a horse in half.

“Scouts,” Emmaline supposed, wrapping her cloak around her despite the warmth the rising sun was now providing.

“Likely, but if they are heading north after the bandits, best we get south and find something better than a ditch to hide in,” Amal opined.
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"Refugees, are you? Well you've come to the wrong place." The peddler informed them the next morning.

The cool air of the night lingered, but the sun's rays began to peak over the distant mountains to mingle amongst the trees. Particularly hairy hogs snorted and walked about, rutting in the mud beside the road that led into the town of what they discovered was called Akendorf. An 'imperial-like' settlement of free men and women who wanted to find their own way out of the Empire's taxes and dogmatic traditions. Emmaline rode atop the stallion, draped in their cloth blanket whilst a cloaked Amal guided the mount by its reins, having walked up the road from a mile back. Mostly to appear a bit less intimidating than an armed and dangerous arabyan thief and what they might consider of Emmaline as 'stolen goods.'

"We will not stay long. We only seek food and shelter for the night, and we'll keep moving." Amal assured him. The bearded, older fellow gave a huff of a laugh, as if what Amal had said was utterly ridiculous.

"There's not much room. But even if you've found some-" His mouth was clamped shut by a portly woman Amal imagined was his wife. She had scurried over not a moment before and shut her husband up, pulling him back a step to whisper in his ear. Whatever she was saying, it was urgent. He listened, and then looked at the two newcomers before pulling back and nodding. "Actually, yes. We have an extra bed at our house. We do need to be a bit more accomodating to folk, herr...?"

"Ababwa," Amal remarked, crossing his arms. He didn't fully understand what was happening, but as long as there was a bed in it for them, he would not complain. "My wife and I have been traveling for many days. Would you happen to have something to drink? Something strong would be good."

"Strong!" The man laughed, drawing the gazes of nearby villagers. The town of Akendorf wasn't large. Barely a step above a hamlet, with maybe a thousand villagers or less, if Amal had to guess. It was a strange oddity amongst northern settlements. Unless you were at a bedouin camp on the caravan lanes, no settlement had less than twenty thousand people, for water sources were far too scarce. If there was water, there were men and many of them. A dog had walked over curiously but then bounded off at the peddler's laugh. "We have some strong drink, yes, my new friend. Would you tell us of your journey when we ate? We would like to hear news of the south."

"We came from the north, we're going south."

"O-oh, of right. Well, tell us that too! Dear, come help his wife off the horse. We can stable your beast."

"Thanks." Amal said quizzically. He didn't know what he had done to deserve such hospitality, but he would take it.
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Akendorf was something of a surprise. Such a small town, with barely a wooden pallisade, seemed awfully vulnerable this close to Blackfire Pass. The orc scouting party were proof of that, if the bandit attack on the hillfort hadn't been sufficient warning of the dangers. Emmaline had expected the towns closest to the past to be heavily fortified, the way towns deep in the Drakwald were, with keen eyed sentries on watch at all hours. Akendorf seemed a poor enough place for all that. Judging by the bales of hay and corn that were piled up in small sheds, it proabably did most of its bussiness supplying fodder for the merchants moving back and forth through the pass. The soil here was thin and poor, yielding little beyond grass and a few fields of stubly spring corn. The kitchen gardens beside each house were a little more ambitious, but not by much.

"I'm Gelf Gertel and this is my wife Myrtle," the peddler explained as he led them through the streets. Children paused to gawk and adults shot them apprising looks as they past.

"Your name is Myrtle Gertel?" Emmaline asked in some surprised. The goodwife looked despairingly at her husband.

"I married into it I'm afraid."

The Gertel home was one of the grander in town, a stone base with the timber and plaster upper story that Emmaline unconsciously associated with Riekland. The plaster was cracked and in dire need of painting, and the tiled roof was so patched with globs of tar that it looked like it was poxed. A hog wallow and a chicken coop were attached to the rear of the house, both of which contributed to the unique ambiance of the place. The inside was made up of four large rooms, including a kitchen, and for a miracle a pair of bedrooms, as well as a large living room with an impressive fireplace.

"Our kids are grown now, gone of south where its a little...well gone off south," Gelf explained.

"Reckon the two of you can bunk in there, best your gonna find in a place like this," he went on. Myrtle pushed forward.

"Gelf, why dont you attend to your business about town, I'll heat some porridge for our guests and get them comfortable." It seemed she placed a little more emphasis than was necessary on business and Gelf looked momentarily confused before understanding brightened in his eyes.

"Yes, right you are my dear," he told her then hurried out of the room.
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Amal sat down on the bed, pressing down on it with his rump to get a feel for how much give it had. The bed wasn't bad for a hovel like Arkendorf, and it was big enough to squeeze two people in it. At least it would not be the ground. For some reason, the mornings in the north brought moisture to the land. A blessing, but an annoyance when one sleeps on the ground. Emmaline was about to sit down on his lap, but he held a hand up.

"One second, I need to take a piss." He said, and when she snorted he grinned and stood up, giving her a kiss. "Romantic, I know."

Once through the door, Amal walked out 'back' if one could call it that, though another building was so close to it, the grass between them seemed almost sad from lack of sunlight except at the highest point of noon. He cleared his throat and lowered the front of his trousers, relieving himself.

Meanwhile, Myrtle strode into the room and informed Emmaline the porridge was ready, and the blonde followed the older, portly woman into the den where she set down a steaming bowl of porridge, the aroma wafting a hint of basil and a pungent spice. The matronly woman sat down across from Emmaline and poured herself a drink as Emmaline began to eat, some juice sliding along her cheek after shoveling a few spoonfuls into her mouth. The broth was tasty and the meat chunky, but something was a bit off. Had they put a certain type of oil in it? Emmaline dabbed her cheek with an offered cloth.

"Sorry," she said, used to eating as she liked around Amal. For how ruthless he could be to the average imperial, he had many virtues in her eyes, one of those being his complete lack of judgement and expectations. Emmaline tried to swallow to clear her throat, but something still lingered in her esophagus. She grabbed her throat and took a sip of water, though it didn't really help in her endevour to clear her throat. She wasn't suffocating, but it seemed to be runoff of something within her sliding back up to the surface.

"I don't think this agrees with me," she tried to say, but it didn't quite come out except through a watery rasp. At the sound of her own voice and the mixture of both pity and relief on Myrtles face, the cogs in Emmaline's head began to spin, and it was only when Myrtle said "I'm sorry dear, but it's the only way" that she decided to make a run for it. But her 'host' was quick on her feet, blokcing her way. Or was Emmaline slower than usual? She felt sluggish.

Tired of this and wanting to find a way to Amal, Emmaline casted a spell based on memory, whispering the incantation to try and summon some sort of arcane aid, but it did not serve her as intended, causing her hands to glow and the silverware on the table to shoot off into different directions as if a child threw them. Myrtle Gertel's jaw dropped, letting out a breath of surprise.

"A sorceress!?" She said in astonishment. "Even better! He will be giddy at someone else who can perform witchcraft!"

It was the last noise Emmaline heard other than the droning in her head, as the woman slumped onto the ground and fell in an awkward position on the floor, her vision fading to black.

Back outside, Amal felt much better. In fact, he had a spur of the moment decision to try his lock picking skills. He hadn't practiced in quite awhile, and fumbled with a small iron tool he kept with the door opposite their current, temporary residence. He gently bit his tongue as he worked it, and the lock 'clacked' open in four strokes. The handsome arabyan raised a smug eyebrow and opened the door, swinging it open and closed a few times before shutting it, casually placing his tool back in the pocket of his trousers. "Still the devil," he breathed, recalling back in his youth when a cobbler had watched him pick the lock of the local jeweler's chest from across the street, shouting at the 'devilish' young man. A better compliment, he had never received.

Suddenly, Amal heard a crack that broke into a roar, as if the sound had ripped from some unknown realm of reality. His smile gone and now standing on the balls of his feet, an onlooker wouldn't have noticed just how he had drawn his knife, gripping it in his strong finger. One moment it was not visible and the next, he wielded it like a fang. Glancing back and forth, his thick mane of black hair wavered from a new breeze, moving against the wind he had felt not an hour ago. Another sound belched forth, closer this time, and with a heavy thump Amal knew something had landed at the front of the house.

Creeping swiftly, the rogue made it to the corner of the house and peered out of its back toward the main road, and his bewildered eyes were met with a ruddy scaled, leviathan monstrosity of perhaps thirteen meters in length. It was not a dragon in his estimation, but it was the next horrible thing down the line of horrible things. In its red eyes was a cunning and anger that unnerved him, but surprisingly, it did not lash out at any of the villagers. At least the few that had not fled into their homes. Amal believed they were stupid for the merest second until he saw the way they carried themselves, and he realized this was a planned affair. Gelf was with the men, some younger, some his age. He did not have time to get a bad feeling, for the very next sight he saw was Emmaline, unconscious or worse, being carried over toward the thing like she was a pig on a spit.

Amal moved without hesitation, crouched and making his way silently past the wall of the house and into the beast's blindspot, though he did not have time to be stealthy for very long. The men set down his love before the thing and backed away, the draconic thing lowering its snout to her prone form. Amal's dagger flew true, whipping end over end to cut into the beast's throat. It flinched and cried out a terrible shriek, sending everyone to their knees in pain, including Amal. It whipped its serpentine head toward the theif and growled, its neck too thick and long to be slit in one cut. Like a snake, it struck at Amal with its maw. Amal, on his hands and knees, pushed off the ground with the help of his curled toes, sending him flying to the side. The thing took the opportunity to rear its head back and step forward, placing Emmaline's form in its clawed foot as it began to spread its wings.

"No!" Amal roared, dust whipping into the air as he scrambled toward the thing. It was all he could do to grab onto the barbs of its tail before the next updraft lifted them up into the air, flinging them from the ground in gut-dropping moments.
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Under normal circumstances gold tended to predominate Emmaline dreams. Vast chambers filled with it, great cities made of it, heaping chests overflowing with it, gold in every form and variety imaginable. More rarely she suffered from nightmares, sometimes being back in the Emir’s harem, sometimes watching endless columns of sun-bleached dead march relentlessly over desert sands. Her current nightmare was, therefore, something beyond her experience. A giant ugly woman dressed for a Reikish fair, shoved a huge wooden spoon containing gloopy unappetizing porridge into Emmaline’s mouth over and over, completely ignoring her refusal to swallow it. Her cheeks budged with the compacted slop and it spilled down her front, over her chest in slow slimy rivulets. The woman’s pink pigtail wig kept slipping, revealing a stubbly bald scalp that made her look like Gerd as she crooned.

“Just a little more, he likes a witch, just a little more he likes a witch,” the first syllable of witch seeming to somehow contain a vast gush of wind, like an eagle beating its wings. Suddenly she was vomiting, but not porridge, her ejecta was dark with wine or maybe rum and she clung to the railing of a ship as it rode up monstrous gray waves and then plunged down the other side, plowing great sheets of white water up over her bow. Water whipped all around her in a storm, soaking her to the skin. Canvas snapped deafeningly and lines and timbers squealed in protest. A dashing looking sailor with a blade of Dark Elven make was shouting at her, he shook her by the shoulder and pointed aft towards the cabin, riding the heaving deck like a trapeze artist as he did so. Bile and acid burned at the back of her throat as she gripped the rail. Groggily, her eyes tracked backwards towards where he was pointing. A beastman with the head of a stag burst from the doorway of the blazing building, breakfast was evidently burning by the smell that seemed to cling to everything. It lifted a bloody axe and shook it at her roaring and spraying spittle out in a fast funnel. Raising her hands she sent a beam of porridge pouring fourth to encase the thing, the thick gloopy mess hardening to lumpy stone in the vague shape of a charging beastman.

“Just a little more,” the fat woman/man demanded, jamming another spoonful into Emmaline’s mouth. The Emir nodded, head lolling grotesquely on his broken neck, face blackened and swollen, the ligature marks of the garrote around his throat.

“You shouldn’t let your dreams upset you so,” Albrecht the Magnificent admonished, waggling a finger before turning to vomit over the rail of the heaving ship.

“Emmaline,” the dangerous looking sailor bellowed, reaching out a calloused hand to clasp hers.

“Emmaline,” Amal shouted, a dizzying vista extending far below him, climbing something vast and thrashing.

“Emmaline,” the thief called, lifting a pistol to fire over her shoulder at some unseen threat.

“Emmaline,” something vast and ageless, whispered. Suddenly she was a vast golden statue, herself but other, sitting cross legged atop some ancient temple looking out over a forest of impossible lushness, her eyes giant faceted sapphires, each facet reflecting an identical statue with identical facets, each holding identical images. She opened her mouth to scream and birds of impossible plumage burst from the forest below, great fish leaped from the ocean, scales flashing, rodents fled into the corners and alleys of the burning street. A dizzying plethora of kaleidoscopic images that spun around her in ever increasing fury, forming themselves into a tremendous whirlpool that sucked her down and down…



Stone slammed into her belly as she came to, behind her something vast swooped up and away. She tumbled and rolled, somehow, perhaps due to her ample ballast, coming up on her knees. Cold mountain air rushed through her hair and she vomited explosively, porridge and bile splattering the stone in front of her. The tempest of colors faded gray and then solidified and she felt her belly cramp painfully. She vomited again, managing to lean forward to press her palms against the stone. Bright lights stormed about her vision for a moment, mostly gold, but with hints of green, and purple, blue and grey. She realized that her inner eye was wide open and she instinctively shut her inner eye. The world returned to its normal color and Emmaline pressed a trembling palm to her head. She whispered a spell to herself, a simple foolish can trip meant to banish hangovers. Her rebellious stomach settled, Though it didn’t still the trembling in her body, a byproduct of adrenaline, or being sick rather than whatever had been in the porridge. She was on a wide stone platform of some kind, hewed out of the side of the mountain, behind her was an incredible view of the World’s Edge mountains, sweeping down from snowcapped crags to the rocky pass and even hints of green fields beyond. A tumbling mass of white water turned itself into the broad silvery ribbon of a distant river as it collected tribute from each mountain it passed. Turning away from the vertiginous drop before she grew too dizzy she saw that where the stone platform met the mountain a large door had been carved, the style of architecture unknown to her.

“Where on Taal’s scruffy arse am I?” she whispered to herself, wrapping her arms around her chest against the chill wind.

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Amal was cold as well. He never knew he could be so cold, in fact! The wind cut at his skin, and he mentally steeled himself as he continued his climb, trying to keep himself from falling to his death. His vest rippled in the wind, exposing his browned, muscled torso. Amal's cloak having long since been ripped away from the tumultuous flight. His left hand reached up and tightly gripped a one of the rocks that burgeoned from the wall he found himself scaling.

Amal had leaped from the Wyvern's tail as it had swooped down to land, banging his knee but otherwise making it out with just a few scrapes. He had spent some time resting his legs as he hung over the precipice, and after a few minutes of waiting, he realized nothing was broken. He could handle a few bruises, and so he had pressed on until the point of exhaustion, only managing to haul himself up onto a platform with the last bit of his strength, groaning in the wind.

He blinked, gazing at the next wall he had to traverse to reach where the beast had landed with Emmaline. Had it wanted to eat her, it already would have like as not, but that didn't mean he didn't have cause to hurry. Whatever was happening, it was not good for her. It was just when he began to get up again on his small ledge that something ruffled in his pack, poking around before bursting out in a maelstrom of movement. Amal's eyes popped open wide before he realized it was the magic carpet!

"Oh, look who's awake!" Amal exclaimed sarcastically, though he couldn't help but laugh. The carpet caught the wind and swung around to land just beside its master, looking around with its top half, and Amal wondered if it truly saw things through such means or if it anthropomorphized itself for Amal's benefit, or perhaps its maker simply created it to act in such a way? Amal found he didn't care. He liked the carpet. He pointed upwards, leaning in to whisper to his friend. "Emmaline is up there. Can you get us up to, quietly?"

The carpet curled itself backwards as if it looked upwards, and then turned back to Amal. Its twisted, giving itself a curvaceous form to Amal's vision, its tassels shaped to look like two pigtails as it sauntered across the stone. Amal nodded, crossing his arms and legs as they discussed matters. "Yes, that Emmaline! I know you've been asleep for awhile, but you carried her ass across an ocean."


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Emmaline had just about managed to get control of her stomach and after rinsing her mouth out with some snow melt was feeling considerably better. There was still a buzzing at the back of her head, a bit like being drunk but not as pleasant, but she supposed she was probably not about to die at this point. That did leave the rather unpleasant question of what she was going to do. She still didn’t have the foggiest notion of how she had come to this place or where or what this place was, other than ‘in the mountains’ which was less than helpful. It seemed very unlikely she would be able to climb down the snow covered mountain in her current state and in any case, night would be falling soon and anyone caught out on the mountain would certainly be frozen to death. That left the doorway she had seen when she had come too. At least it would be out of the wind in there, and perhaps she would be able to find warm clothing and supplies to help her in the climb down tomorrow. Perhaps there would be treasure. That thought brightened her mood considerably, even though the reasoning part of her mind suggested it was more likely she would be swarmed by orcs or beastmen or Sigmar on knew what else. She wondered where Amal was. It was difficult to come to any guesses given she didn’t know how she had gotten here. There was a vauge memory of eating porridge and… had Myrtle Gertel poisoned her? What reason would she have to do such a thing, and even if she had, how had they gotten her away from Amal without catching a serious case of dagger-to-guts? Was it possible they had killed him? The thought went through her like cold ice for a moment before she got the better of it. The idea of someone named Gerd Gertel polishing of Amal seemed too foolish to credit. He would be ok, he had to be, Nothing to be done about it for the moment, the best she could do was to get inside and start looking around.



At first Emmaline had assumed the place was an abandoned dwarf hold. It was a reasonable assumption, they were in the World’s Edge Mountains after all, but it only took her a few minutes of wandering the passageways beyond the black door to dismiss the notion. Emmaline had never visited a Hold, few humans could claim to, but she had been around dwarves and their craftsmanship most of her life. The tunnels beyond the door were too large, and they had an odd curve to them that was faintly unsettling. There was iconography of a sort on the walls, though it was so stylized she couldn’t understand what it was meant to represent. It wasn’t easy to read in the light of the small ball of golden light that she conjured, the spell flame seeming to render it in soft flowing panels rather than sharp and distinct. In some ways it reminded her of the lizardman city in Lustria, though she couldn’t quite have said why. She passed through several rooms of unknown function, any furnishings long since decayed to moldering dust. Though there were several side passages, they were heavily cobwebbed, a marked contrast to the clear passage she followed. It was obvious that someone was coming back and forth here fairly often. It was growing considerably warmer as she progressed deeper, and there was a strange smell on the air. She tried to shake Asp awake, as much for companionship as for need, but for some reason the snake remained an inanimate tattoo.



She had been walking for perhaps ten minutes when she became aware that there was light ahead of her. Instinctively, she doused her light, creeping forward the way Amal had been trying to teach her. The light grew brighter until it seemed like daylight, though it was far too warm in the tunnel to be the case. She gasped in shock as she reached the stone lintels of the next chamber. It was a garden. An entire garden underground! Not a peasants kitchen garden either, but something a noble might keep on an estate. Perhaps an acre of perfectly manicured trees, shrubs and bushes growing underneath a mountain. Light streamed in from above, pulsing out of a great crystal high above that seemed to counterfit the sun. By this point in her career Emmaline had seen some remarkable things, but this still took her breath away. A neat path of white pebbles wended its way gracefully through the groves of trees to an ornamental fountain that sparkled merrily. A number of small bushes surrounded it, each ingeniously pruned into shapes of fantastical beasts. A butterfly fluttered past her as she stood bemused, drawing her eye to a grove of cherries laden with fruit. Eyes wide with amazement she stepped out onto the grass, walking over to the cherry trees. After briefly examining the tree with her wizards sight, having seen enough Derek Shelft plays to worry about eating fruit in magical groves, she plucked a fruit and popped it into her mouth. It was delicious, tart and firm and perfect.





With a groan of pleasure she plucked a handful more of the fruit, chewing hungrily and spitting the pits into the undergrowth against the chance that some gardener might notice so small a theft. She wandered back towards the fountain, observing the carefully trimmed trees with some interest. One of them appeared to be a dragon though of an unfamiliar type, all serpentine and coiling with short feet and long mustache like protrusions from its snout. A bit like one of those sausage dogs that were all the rage in Carlsbad when last she had been there. Another looked like a four armed woman with the tail of a snake, each arm holding a sword of neatly trimmed leaves. For no reason she could discern, Emmaline felt a deep hatred and disgust rise up within her and was barely able to keep from ripping the plant to pieces.



“Get it together,” she whispered to herself. The last thing she needed was to be lost in flights of fancy when she needed to be focused. With considerable effort she walked across the garden and into the hallway at the other side, passing down another hallway and into another chamber. This one was considerably less fabulous, almost a disappointment, but no less welcome for all that. The place was obviously a larder. Food was piled on shelves, sacks of grain, jars of oil, wheels of cheese, bottles of wine and more besides. None of it looked like it wouldn’t be at home in the wagons that rattled through the pass, though some of the seals on the wines suggested they came from further afield. Her eyes fell upon sacks of milled oats, the very same she had seen down in the village.



“Looted perhaps, tribute,” she mused, crossing to a pile of hessian sacks which smelled like they had once contained grain. She paused, weighing her options. Perhaps she should find somewhere to hide and wait for morning when climbing down the mountain might be a better idea than taking provisions now. On the other hand, if the cooks, or whatever was eating this food, were here during daylight hours she might not get another chance. Well, when in doubt, steal now and worry later. She snatched up the sack and took several wheels of cheese from the back of the shelves where she hoped their loss wouldn’t be obvious. To this she added some dried fruit and a few jars of jam, before finally taking a pair of wine bottles and adding them to her haul. Thinking of the arctic blast of air that had greeted her, she grabbed several more sacks that, in her mind at least, she might be able to use as additional garments. Hopefully she could convince Asp to come out and assume his staff form so she could use him as a bindle stick, although she suspected such a use would offend the serpents towering dignity. Having stocked up on supplies she headed back towards the garden, thinking that she could hide in one of the cobwebbed side passages to wait for morning. Then she stepped into the light and collided with something squat and green and with too many teeth. Emmaline bounced off the thing, lost her balance and landed on her rump on the grass at the edge of the chamber, sack flying from her hands and spilling out cheese and wine bottles. She stared up in shock into the beady hate filled eyes of a goblin. It was incongruously wearing some kind of garment of muddy blue cloth, bound at the waist with a belt of knotted black. Its prominent brows were shaded by a straw hat, not dissimilar to that seen on the head of peasant anywhere in the empire, and it gripped an iron tined rake in its clawed finger. A band of black iron had been sealed around its neck, a strange angular rune stamped into the metal.



“Humie loota!” it screeched in its own tongue and grabbed Emmaline by the wrist, its rake falling to the ground as its other hand grabbed her and pulled her struggling to her feet. Emmaline shrieked out the first spell that came into her mind and there was a flash of golden light. When she wasn’t immediately killed, Emmaline opened her shocked eyes. The goblin was frozen in mid shout, a solid block of stone. Emmaline felt a momentary surge of triumph at having worked such a spell, a basic one for a Gold Wizard but a struggle for a student as indifferent as her. Unfortunately her triumph was short lived as the stone goblin, while impressive, hadn’t been anything like balanced, and it began to topple over, solid stone fingers still gripping Emmaline’s wrist. With a cry she toppled after it, finding herself on the ground a moment later, vaguely surprised not to have broken her wrist or been crushed beneath the goblins stony form. To make matters worse, she had no idea how to reverse the transfiguration spell. She pulled at her wrists but they might as well have been manacled for all the good it did.



“Shit.”

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