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Writer of schlock dressed up in some decent clothes.

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Solange - The Faded Lantern Tavern & Inn

A person is only ever as important as others believe them to be.

Solange seemed a paragon of patience as she lounged at the bar, her scientific note taking shifting into a rough, idle tracing of Percival the barkeep. The faintly sketched image was marked with the occasional heavy, dark line, brought upon by the brief moments when her actual frustration at being kept waiting seeped through to the surface. She was quick to cool her head with a sip of wine and a nibble of cheese. The cheese, like the wine, was an expected disappointment, but she felt obliged to attempt to eat it anyway.The food had been a collective gift from the girls, paid for by the coin of the sailors.

Solange hadn’t intended for her visit to the Faded Lantern to turn into a chance to expand her market, but it seemed that word had spread amongst the girls of the tavern. A few more of them had drifted over to her individually after the first one, all with different approaches to similar problems. The exchanges were more brief than the first, and by the time the fourth or fifth girl had sauntered over to drape an arm across her shoulder Solange already had a fold sheet of paper ready, the prescription sliding up from between her long fingers to quickly be plucked away by the other girl as she whispered into Solange’s ear.

Her wrist felt like it was cramping from all of the writing by the time Vargas finally entered the bar proper. She straightened her back and turned in her chair to smile at him, a look that wavered as he turned towards the door. Silently seething, she snatched her goblet and sauntered through the crowd to see what future dead man was keeping her payday away. She lingered behind Vargas, far enough to not be seen as eavesdropping but close enough to attempt to get a bead on the conversation. However, a swell of music and a rowdy cheer from the card table made the task a difficult one. By the time Solange made a move to close in, the other man was already gone.

“Miss Belgard! It has been too long,” said Vargas, stepping in to embrace her.

“My Lord Vargas! I was beginning to worry it would be longer still, darling,” said Solange, welcoming the hug and giving Vargas a quick peck on either cheek. She pulled away rather abruptly, keeping up the act that she was afraid Fontaine would do something if she saw them being friendly. In reality, she didn’t enjoy the company of Lord Vargas very much. Sure, he was a bit handsomer than a majority of the men she dealt with and certainly wealthier than a number of them, but there was just something about him that just annoyed her. She leaned back and looked towards the door. “What was all of that ruckus about?”

“Nothing to worry your pretty head about, my dear. I took care of it, as I always do. Let us talk in private,” he said.

Solange allowed Vargas to take her arm in his and lead her through the tavern. He started to hold a conversation with himself, interrupted by her occasional probe to continue his mindless prattling, as she began to iron out exactly what it was about Vargas that she did not like. Part of it was his condescending nature that he thought to be chivalrous in the way he’d protected her pretty little head from the dark details of something interesting. Part of it was how he had the pretense to call himself Lord, a title he’d bestowed upon himself instead of others giving it to him. A lot of it was how easy he had been to snare, proving to Solange that he didn’t deserve to be a pawn in the game, let alone a major player. Vargas was in love with her lie, and she loathed him for it. Solange motioned to Percival to bring them drinks, the thought of listening to Vargas fawn over her while sober beginning to prove to be a daunting task, as she was pulled upstairs to his personal table.

“...and, I must say, it was truly a marvelous letter, but why didn’t you just come and find me?”

“Where’s the fun in that?” asked Solange, pausing at the top of the balcony to look down at the crowd below. It always felt right. One of the working girls waved at her. She smirked, and turned to Vargas. “That reminds me. You know the woman who delivered the letter?”


“She confided to me in secret, and while it pains me to betray her trust I couldn’t possibly allow for such a thing to go on behind your back and ruin the reputation of your fine business. You see, she’s got—oh, I’m too embarrassed to say,” said Solange with a choke, dramatically turning her face so that her hair hid her smile as she swallowed a laugh. “She’s got a gift that no man would want, and if they learn that present came from here then it’d be a disaster. I worry not only for your business, but her life as well. I’ve heard stories of men who kill women over less. If one of your girls was taken out for something like that it’d just be absolute ruin. I don’t want you to fire her, but it’s the best thing for her safety and the safety of your business”

“Oh you precious thing, I can see on your face how difficult it was for you to tell this to me. I will take care of it, as I always do,” said Vargas, biting into the bullshit sandwich Solange had fed him. The only thing difficult was to not guffaw at her own ingenuity—serves that woman right for bothering Solange when she was trying to have a nice evening.

“Could you make up some other excuse? I would die if she found out her trust was misplaced. She’s a bit advanced in age, perhaps you found a younger girl that would draw more of a crowd...”

“If I had that I would’ve fired her years ago,” said Vargas.

“I have a few I know. Can you from any lost profits.”

“Then consider it done.” As they continued towards the table Vargas said, “As always, I appreciate everything you do for me.”

“The appreciation can wait until after everything I do to you, love,” she said with a wink and a sing-song voice as she spun free of Vargas’ arm, grabbed the sliding partition to the private table and open it with her back to it, and then gestured towards the table where her business proposition would be agreed upon .“But first —” Solange’s voice fell flat as she looked into the room to notice a man and a woman in their spot “—ugh! Why are you here?”

It was precisely at this moment that Percival arrived with the drinks Solange had ordered, allowing for the situation to be explained briefly before Vargas grabbed him by the arm and escorted him out to the hall. She heard Vargas yell at Percival from the hall, asking him if he knew what the word “private” in “private table” meant. The corner of her lip twitched up. She liked Percival, but not as much as she liked hearing someone get belittled. From the lambasting that was happening outside, it seemed like it would be a moment before Vargas joined them.

Solange saw an opportunity and took it. She walked to the head of the table and took the seat that was normally reserved for Lord Vargas. She sat straight, shoulders back, her fingers bridged as she looked down the table at the two. She tilted her head up towards the sailor and gestured for him to take a seat, and then she turned her head to the woman. Solange lifted her nose ever so slightly and smiled at the woman as she acted as if she were a person of any sort of importance instead of just a frustrated prostitute looking for a new gig.

“I apologize for the uncomfortable moment there; Lord Vargas and I had this room reserved for our own private meeting. Seeing as how busy we always are it’s rare for the two of us to have a moment alone to consult one another on operations. My name is Solange Belgard, Lord Vargas’s business partner. Anything you want to say to him can be said to me,” lied Solange, her eyes twinkling with the slightest bit of amusement while sitting with an otherwise affirmed stance that portrayed the fabrication. “Don’t worry, dear, as a favor from one woman to another I will convince Lord Vargas to not give either of you the same treatment he is giving to poor Percival right now.”

Solange clapped her hands and rubbed them as she leaned back with a hungry grin. “What were the two of you discussing before we so rudely interrupted?”

Tisa snatched the map away from Hazel like an impudent child not wanting to share her dollie. The former witch hunter managed to stop her hand halfway as it shot out from behind her back to grab at the coveted map, noticing that yet another detail was off on the western shores of Lanced Lake. She let the look of surprise fall from her face as she politely smiled, the embarrassment clear but the bruised ego hidden, and stepped back from the table to make it obvious to the others that Hazel wasn’t in any position of power—and there were so many others here now than before when she’d started to mess with the map.

The hopefuls that wanted access to Exusia or the riches the Queen would provide were a motley bunch. As Hazel had been talking Tisa to tears about topography she’d watched from the corner of her eye as the new arrivals arrived one after the other. At first the lot of travellers seemed mundane enough as normal human after normal human crossed the threshold. Of course there was never anything normal about humans, especially not the kind who were stupid or desperate enough to seek out quest. Still, things shifted as an elf brought his horse into the tent, and the people that followed—a bug, a madman, the earth, and a mother of monsters— seemed like part of a long setup for a bad joke with an off-color punchline that was only told after two looks over the shoulder. At least the bug and the madman were aware enough to laugh at the gag they were taking part in.

Hazel felt her temple pulse as she stood back now and looked out over the others as Tisa talked, taking the time to study them. Hazel’s hand twitched and rested at her hip, a few inches away from her scabbard, as she watched the Kaimerian broodmother. An Ember Maker primary target was always witches, but that didn’t stop them from putting so-called monsters to the torch when there weren’t any “dangerous” midwives around. Hazel grimaced and tired to shake the thought away, but it’d already sparked. She felt a cloud of black smoke swallow and choke her mind as she looked around the room, seeing a monster and a heretic in every corner as the immaterial smoke began to blind her eyes.

Some devils were more obvious than the others, but any Ember Maker worth their salt could always create one from almost nothing. The Kaimerian and the Gi-Syn-Yi were abominations through and through, guilty simply for existing. The Golem was a creature created by magic and therefore a puppet of witches, best to be ground into sand before allowing them to pull a single string no matter how polite they seemed. While the Sun Elf had bizarre customs and treated a horse like an equal, the real problem was their fae blood meant they likely had a knack for magic or could pass on a knack for magic and should be best turned into a short lived star for safety’s sake. The Short Man skin seemed to have changed since he had first arrived, hinting that he was some kind of shifter and a danger to all of society. One Human had covered herself with the markings of strange arcane runes and writings, flimflam sold by charlatans and a sign of a corrupted mind.

The other Humans were guilty by association alone, if not for with these devils then for with the mages they had all sought out. The best thing to happen for all of Deadwood would be for this tent to catch ablaze this instant and turn all into ash, and if not that then perhaps she should pull out her sword and start lopping off heads until they overwhelmed her. Hazel winced and coughed, the ghost of old hatred taught to her by the Ember Makers escaping from her lips. Stupid thoughts implanted in her brain by stupid people, which made her all the more the idiot for ever believing in them. Destruction only led to more empty destruction, while understanding had actually been fulfilling and there was so much more she needed to know.

Hazel gave the ground an apologetic and guilty look, which might’ve been misread as a negative reaction to something Tisa had said as it lined up right when she mentioned relinquishing materials for magic. An accidental betrayal, enhanced by Hazel smoothing out her stachel and tightening the latch. She hadn’t expected them to actually be taken to Exusia and given an audience with the Queen, and while she understood the precaution she couldn’t imagine anyone being insane enough to attempt regicide. Assassinated rulers always served as rallying points, strengthening the resolve and the unity of a people. A better way to kill a ruler was to make their people hate them and those who had supported them. It’d been the go-to tactic for Ember Makers when a provincial mayor gave them pushback.

There was a moment of hesitation as Hazel considered that perhaps she should be the one worried about getting killed, going weaponless and magicless before a Queen that people declared to be insane. The thought that she could be killed was insane in its own right. She paused and huffed at the ridiculous idea as a few of the people agreed to the terms and conditions.

“The terms are fair, Lady Iruve,” said Hazel softly, tossing a glance towards the Gi-Syn-Yi. She didn’t have the heart to point out that they were, in fact, not fair, thanks to some of her compatriots having natural weapons like the Gi-Syn-Yi’s pincers. Instead, Hazel just linked her hands behind her back and hoped that by playing nicely the delegate would let her have one more look at that busted map.

Blue eyes glanced up over the top of an old, yellowing book at the sound of the tent flapping open, took account of the new arrivals with thankfully unfamiliar faces, and lingered as a hand swept a page back and forth to continue to the illusion of reading. Hazel had arrived early to Hope Passage and found herself a cozy corner of the tent to make herself at home in, her lumpy satchel serving as a makeshift ottoman for her to cross her legs upon. Her travel through the Bone Sea had been quick and without much peril despite her avoiding the path of pilgrims and future martyrs—Hazel understood the sense behind safety in numbers, but certain things were easier when she was alone. Once she’d lost the Ember Makers back at the bordering lands of the Bone Sea there had been next to no excitement with the notable exclusion of seeing Exusia for the first time and finally having a moment of respite to plow through a few chapters of her book.

However, the arrivals were distracting her from her the old Moon Elf piece of historical literature that was so chock-full of needless character development, flowery and overly-descriptive scene dressings, and extremely graphic and prolonged passages about undressings that it made the political and historical views from the author seem unreliable. She sat perfectly still and watched from her corner while mostly blocked from their sight thanks to the woman reading the map. The short man whispered something to the larger woman, but Hazel couldn’t make it out and nobody was paying her to be an eavesdropper anyway. Her eyes glanced back down at the faded novel, read the random paragraph she’d flipped to, and they widened. Oh no...

A plume of red rose to her cheeks as she snapped the book shut loud enough to alert the others of her half-obscured presence. Carefully, Hazel kept her hand over the title of the book as she slid in into her satchel, heaved the bag up onto her lap, and kept it there like it was cuffed to her wrist and filled with precious gems. She cleared her throat, took a swig from her waterskin, and felt the heat in her face die down. Now it made sense why she’d found the book hidden under a mattress. The title ought to be changed. The Trysts and Temptations of the Moonlit Kingdom? It was clearly referring to political affairs and the trade of consumer goods, not the smut found present in chapter three. Hazel felt more in danger of being judged for having such a book on her than her spell tome here that the thought of burning it crossed her mind.

She inhaled deep and collected herself. The idea of destroying something just because she didn’t like it or understand it were the thoughts belonging to an Ember Maker. She slung her satchel over her shoulder as she stood and stretched, her knuckles popping like a wet log in a flame. Just two years ago and she would’ve seen fit to turn this whole desert encampment into a burial mound of twisting glass and burnt bodies. The Ember Makers tolerated the Exusians solely because they stayed locked up in their city and because, secretly, they were terrified of their capabilities. Only Magistrates like Hazel would have the spine to dare stand up against them and their magic, and Magistrates like her were becoming a thankfully scarce resource these days. Despite their boasting of unity against evil they were little more than just another creature of destruction bent on keeping Deadwood from ever regrowing. There was no doubt in Hazel’s mind that this little request of the Queen would be deemed heretical for some reason or another. Not like it mattered; the Ember Makers couldn’t excommunicate her twice.

Hazel walked towards the table in the room. She acknowledged the other arrivals with a head nod but not a single word out of fear of interrupting their conversation—although she was deeply curious as to what they were saying. They seemed to be human like Hazel. She pretended not to notice the amusing nature of their extreme height difference and suppressed a smile as she approached the delegate. Here, she would be able to listen in on the conversation while still making herself appear to be of some use. Hazel freed her map case from its hook and set it down on the table, careful not to disturb any of the work the other woman had done.

“Excuse me. You’ve been studying this for awhile. Mind if I look?” asked Hazel to the delegate, her voice low and scratched. She didn’t wait for permission as she leaned over the table. After the briefest of beats Hazel sighed and shook her head. “I feared as much. This map is a little outdated.”

With a flick of her wrist Hazel unscrewed the cap to her map case and retrieved a stack of rolled papers. She undid the ties on a few that still looked a bit crisp and stuffed the rest back into the case. She pressed the maps flat out before herself and the delegate, knitted her brow, and bit her lip as she studied them. Slowly, she began to pinpoint with her finger the discrepancies between the map on the table and her own stockpile.

“Here. This mountain passage is now collapsed. Better to strike off back here and skirt around the rot grove, otherwise you waste a day or two’s travel before having to either turn around or cut right through it—not ideal. This crossing is still accessible but extremely dangerous to attempt due to one of the Bone Clans claiming it as some kind of holy land. There’s another shallow crossing to the east that they don’t watch right This town, this town, and this town have all been abandoned. The refugees have formed an outpost called Treloch here that might serve as a respite, assuming you have goods to offer.”

Her hand had grabbed a quill and was about to start marking the map when she finally looked over at the delegate and stopped, carefully setting the feathered inkpen back down. With a sheepish grin she said, “Sorry, I have overstepped my position. Mapmaking is a bit of a hobby of mine. Is this even the planned route for the excursion?” She took a step away, her arms folded behind her back as her thumbs wrestled with one another. “Feel free to consult these maps either way. I’ll, uh, just quietly observe, if you don’t mind and...”

Hazel felt her eyes get drawn back down to the map. She shifted her weight and grimaced before her hand struck out like a cobra, jabbing at the name of some salt lake before it retreated back to being clasped behind her back. “That’s dried up. Sorry,” she whispered and then looked away, aware of the nuisance she had already become.
Here. Take a human.

Solange - The Faded Lantern Tavern & Inn

They would settle for silver even when gold is just around the corner.

The pen slashed like a switchblade in the hands of a streetrat, bleeding out ink upon the page as a long finger idly traced the rim of her wine glass. Solange couldn’t remember when she had exactly picked up the habit that blocked other fingers from getting near the rim, but she imagined it had to be sometime after she’d spiked her first drink. She remembered standing next to the lavatory door with her ear cupped against the grain, holding back a smile as she heard the sobs and wretches from the otherside before giving away her position with a gentle knock. A few kind words, a hand to hold back the greasy locks of hair, and one embroidered handkerchief she never got back later and Solange had turned a rival into a lifelong friend. It was a shame that whatshername’s life didn’t end up being so long, but what could one expect from someone foolish enough to attempt to steal from Fontaine?

Solange never wanted to find herself in that girl’s spot, so desperate for the kindness of another person that she’d waste her life just because they offhandedly mentioned how they’d love to wear Fontaine’s necklace. She huffed dismissively and lifted the wine glass up to her mouth, nostrils flaring ever so slightly before she pressed her lips to the rim. Cautious, yes. Paranoid, perhaps. Safe, certainly. Solange took the smallest of sips, her face wrinkling ever the slightest at the swirl she had ordered. It was yet another thing the Red Sail had over the Faded Lantern. She set the glass down on the counter, twisting it ever so slightly so that the embellishment faced her, and returned to tracing the rim as she wrote.

“Whatcha writing?”

Solange closed her eyes, inhaled sharply, and smothered the sigh in its infancy. Another thing the Red Sail had over the Faded Lantern: the girls there knew when to not pester the customers. Solange opened her eyes, fixed a soft smile on her face, and looked up. The tavern had filled since she had sat down. Tables were crowded with sailors and dockhands drenched in a potent mixture of rain, sweat, and spilled grog. A game of cards was going. Solange smirked as one of the men slipped an ace out of his sleeve before her attention turned to the woman who had sidled up against the bar, her black hair chopped sloppily at her chin, her heavy makeup, the branding used by all of her peers, rivaling that of a court jester.

Solange shifted in her seat. Comradity wasn’t a common occurrence amongst the competition—the daggers the girls had first shot Solange when she’d entered the tavern made that clear. Perhaps the other prostitute had noticed the shift in the shoulder when a man had approached Solange earlier and made a show about dropping his coin purse on the counter to make the gold jingle. Perhaps she, like Solange, was trying to avoid work. Then again, the way she was marketing herself by folding her arms underneath her bosom and pushing up meant that perhaps she was the kind who didn’t limit her market. Perhaps it was just muscle memory. Solanged snapped her book shut.

“Why do you ask?” asked Solange, her hand completely cupping the top of her wine glass.

“No reason. Just don’t see whores writing much.”

“Careful, love. Imagine how insulted I would be if I were a lady,” said Solange, fully aware that no lady would drink alone or even desire to step foot through the doors of the Faded Lantern. “Things considered, I feel like you wouldn’t see many other kinds people writing in this place either.”

Solange gestured toward the card table as emphasis, where one man was now yelling and pointing at the card sharp. Seems like he noticed the color on the back of the card was off, too. The woman shrugged. She seemed to be waiting for Solange’s reply to her original question. Flipping the book back open, Solange twisted the page so that it was easier for the other woman to read as she began to explain her process of categorizing and budgeting medicinal herbs for a quick-acting muscle relaxer she was working on. She neglected to mention that the relaxer would, ideally, make it impossible for a man to stand upright or defend themselves, turning them into a pile of bones and flesh long enough for someone to ventilate a jugular.

She caught the woman’s eye as she continued to explain about her process and saw a familiar look. It wasn’t the usual look of confusion or distrust she received when gushing about the marvels of medicine, but rather the familiar look that Fontaine’s girls gave her when something was off. Solange snapped her book closed, drained her drink, and snatched the woman by the hand. “Oh you pretty thing, why didn’t you interrupt me?” “I wanted to be sure it was you. I—” “Shush, not where others can hear. Lead me to your private chamber.”

Solange allowed the woman to drag her out of the common room right as a crack cut through the chatter and was followed by cheers as the card sharp ate a right hook like a champ. Solange wrinkled her nose; something always came up just when things were getting good. She heard a surge of energy, a bellow, a pause in the music, and then several echoing shouts behind her as the fight was carried outside as the music picked back up without even missing a note. Solange cast a glance over her shoulder to make sure they were not being followed as the woman led her up three flights of stairs and into a dimly lit room.

Solange joined the woman who sat on the bed and gave her hand a squeeze. This close she could smell the alcohol on the woman. Even in the lowlight and with the makeup it was clear that the woman was much older than Solange, perhaps twice her age. Tears ruined her rouge. Something about all of this was crushing, as if a door had been laid on top of her and weighted down with stones. Would this be Solange’s future, drunk and seeking comfort from a stranger, if she did not get out of the trade? Thoughts of how she could exploit the woman surfaced in her head next; she pushed them to the side for now and wrapped an arm around the sobbing older woman.

“There, there. Seeking help is the hardest part and you have already climbed that mountain. What’s your name, dear?” asked Solange, her low like a lover’s whisper.


“Okay, Magarette, we’re going to get through this together. Now then,” she said, the warmth in her voice falling away as she produced her journal. Solange shifted on the side of the bed, pulled back from the other woman, brushed a wisp of red hair behind her ear, and tucked a leg under her knee. “Tell me everything and I will make it all right.

The sad truth is that most people enjoy being lied to if it makes them feel safe.

“Can you read? asked Solange, her voice punctuated with the sharp thunder of a sheet being torn from her journal. Scratched upon it in fine, flowing script was a detailed list of ingredients and instructions. Magarette shook her head no, to which Solange folded the sheet into a triangle and pressed it in the woman’s hand with a single gold piece.“Go to Thistleleaf Apothecary and give this to the man behind the counter. Don’t worry, he’s discrete, but do not give the letter to his wife unless you want the whole town to hear about your ailment. The gold will cover the components with enough bits to spare to get a scone from the bakery next door as he prepares the order. Just get the paper back once he is finished. If none of the girls here can read then ask for Renata at the Red Sail if I am not there. Garlic and acacia can be used to prevent it from happening again, although know that you know what to look for I imagine prevention will happen earlier.”

“Thank you, thank you. I have no clue how to repay you.”

Solange smiled. Fortunately she had a dozen methods already planned, but there was only one she could cull and knowing the woman could not read made it all the better. She reached into her bodice and plucked out the letter, sealed with wax to make it look official and spritzed with her perfume to entice interest. “Do you want to watch your boss polymorph into a giving man?” asked Solange, winking as Magarette took it from her. “Tell Lord Vargas it’s from his secret admirer and that she refuses to allow you to deliver that letter unless he gives you the night off. Mark my words, love, he’ll give you the week.”

Solange watched as Magarette carefully tucked the letter into her shirt and quickly left the room to do as she was told. A sweet woman, but a stupid one. Solange shifted down the bed until she sat next to the nightstand and tried the handle. It jiggled, but didn’t slide open. Solange smirked. The old hag was smarter than she had thought. Reaching back, she plucked a single pin from her red waves of hair, crouched down beside the bedside table, and slid the pin into the tiny keyhole. With a flick of the wrist and a light bump against the handle, Solange’s face fell as the hairpin snapped. A second and third attempt saw equal amounts of failure. Anymore she was risking not looking her best for Lord Vargas.

Frustrated, she slid the broken hairpins under the bed and returned to the bar. The music was still a lively jaunt, and the empty spot at the card table had been filled once more. Even her seat at the bar was still open, as if the world dared to not inconvenience her any further. Fine, she would forgive it for the day. Solange ordered another glass of red, which she guarded as dearly as the last, and flipped open her journal to review the notes on the men who had last slept with Magarette. Potential piggy banks each and every one of them, assuming she could ever find them based upon her largely useless descriptions to even try to crack open their porcine and porcelain bodies for the bounty hiding inside. Still, a girl could dream. She sipped her wine and schemed her schemes, humming quietly to the tune as she waited to hear word from her latest victim.

Solange Belgard
Level: 1
Class: Seducer/Thief (novice)
Currency: 9G, 52 bits
Ammunition: Verbal
Armor: +0, Common Clothing

Vitality: 10
Status: Scheming (0)

Solange's Misfortune
Aw yeah it's time to get rolling, @Arkitekt.

Get it? Because there's dice mechanics and...I'll just leave this here and show myself out...

Gonna formally submit my interest. So good to see this come back.

It was difficult to tell by the black scarf covering his mouth or the determined look in his eyes, but Ezra was furious that they were all marching through the woods following some teenager with a hard-on for confrontation. He’d thought that Arabelle’s idea to get in touch with the cult’s traitor had been the most solid of the one’s proposed, but his family had drowned out logic with bickering and infighting. Now what was the plan? Show up at their front door, hope to hit them with a couple of suckerpunchs, and run them out of town? Stupid. An icy cloud of breath escaped from Ezra’s scarf. His boots cracked on snow and twigs and he continued after Justin in silence.

His body felt like it was being weighed down. Ezra tugged on the duffel bag hanging from his shoulder to try to make it less strenuous, but it seemed to change nothing. Perhaps it was just a drawback from lugging around the Masterpiece while walking through the woods. Maybe the weight he was feeling was a different one, tied to firearm squirreled away inside of his long, black winter coat. Going to kick in the door and bloody their noses as some chest-beating sign of strength would just keep the cycle of violence spinning, but amputating a few choice limbs would force the cult to let go of the merry-go-round, smack their head open on the concrete, and get the dangerous, rusted playground equipment permanently removed from the park. Justin had insisted that they avoid killing, but Justin was also a naive kid who’d probably think that every confrontation could be solved by gathering in a circle and singing Kumbaya.

"Alright, team, huddle," said Justin right on time, causing Ezra to break his silence with a quiet chuckle.

Ezra heard the branch snapped above and sidestepped to avoid the sudden shower of snow as he made his way over to their pee wee football coach. In the trees above, Nisha giggled as her foot broke a weakened branch and had to catch herself from falling with the Slaugh’s Long Arms. She’d joined the Vanburens on their woodtime assault even though nobody had asked her and, quite frankly, nobody had wanted her. Nisha knew from experience that only fun things ever happened in the woods at night, especially if some chucklefuck was stupid enough to bring a few bottles of Buckie with them. Besides, her “family” needed her to infiltrate the cult’s hideout and pretend to be joining. That was the plan right, after all? She had been distracted by Georgie’s little outburst to focus on the task at hand. Nisha smirked, thinking about how the girl had just dunked on her entire family. She was an utter bitch; Nisha quite liked her.

When they had made it to the woods, Nisha had taken it upon herself to play the role of the lookout. In actuality, all the girl had done was give herself an excuse to swing from the tops of trees like some kind of tentacled Tarzan. The Phantom Limbs had made it simple for her to scale up on, and every now and then the Vanburens would hear a branch shake from above as Nisha made her way through the treeline above. She was surprisingly silent with the exception of the occasional laugh when something bad happened or when she dropped snow on someone.

When Justin called for the huddle, Nisha dropped down from a branch with the same intensity of a jumpscare on a haunted trail. The only thing stopping her from crumpling to the ground were the watery limbs jutting out of her shoulder blades that snapped back into her as she landed softly on the snow below. Her bare arms were riddled with tiny scrapes and scratches, and one cut on her temple from a rogue branch was deep enough to cause it to bleed a tiny, harmless trickle. Nisha seemed as unbothered by her cuts as she was by the cold, still dressed for lounging on a couch while binging episodes of trashy teen dramas instead of a nighttime excursion in the woods. She bounded over to Justin, eager as ever, ready for a winter rumble.

"... Why you all look like you're ready to go to war."

Nisha turned with Justin and let out a surprised little shout as she saw the suited skeleton speaking. Instinctively, the four Phantom Limbs shot out of her and grabbed on to the trees behind her, slinging her back a few yards before snapping back into her body as she felt a warmth in the back of her head. Ezra’s reaction was more muted. He had seen what he thought was a deer approaching at first, and when its true form came clear he was able to keep his shock down to a simple eyebrow raise. He let the duffel bag slide from his shoulder to his hand as the thing spoke, ask questions that were strangely pointed. Ezra slid his scarf down to under his chin, a slightly amused smile on his face as the creature told Justin off.

“It sounds like you already know the answer to that question,” said Ezra, his steady voice managing to hide the fear he felt in the pit of his stomach. “So what of it? Are you a friend to those cult freaks? An ally of the Triple Goddess?”

“Are you her ex? Casual hookup?” asked Nisha loudly. These were the important, helpful questions that would crack open this mysterious intruder and spill the beans on his plans. Her smile was smacked from her face as she caught a sharp glance from Ezra. Under her breath, so she would avoid being hit by another piercing stare, she muttered, “You two do a lotta boning?”
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