The Adventures of a 5e GM and her players, part 4 + 5

Because I’ve been super duper busy this week with work (things are looking somewhat up!) I didn’t have time to write this up. However, I am here now and I am writing this up from memory of what happened, as I largely remember everything last week and definitely remember this week. Well, enough excuses, let’s get on with the juicy details.

As a reminder, the group consists of:

  • Joey “Gruzark” Smith – Half-orc barbarian (berserker)
  • Ownka Bronson – Half orc bard (college of lore)
  • Hank – Human ranger (beastmaster)
  • Andarius Rhyn – Half elf druid (circle of the moon)

Our adventurers found themselves outside a village that they had been heading towards last session. They couldn’t see much activity and saw that the village did not have any walls or farmlands. The group, conscious that most of the world outside was rather xenophobic, approached the town cautiously. However, they weren’t met with torches and pitchforks; or rather they weren’t met with anything. It was incredibly quiet. The streets had no activity and as the group continued into the village they started to notice it was strange. They headed towards the centre of the village, finding the local tavern. They knocked on the door and were greeted by a human in chainmail, wielding a greatsword.

Now this human was… a tad hostile. He didn’t attack the PCs, but also had no interest in talking to them and it was only due to one of the other citizens stepping forward that the PCs were even allowed into the tavern. This civilian told the PCs that a strange man had come into the town last week, but had left soon after. However the next day the town found themselves under siege by the undead. Most of the village population was dead (and risen into undeath) and most of the survivors were sick and injured. The armor clad human turned out to be a paladin of Ghyllis, the god of death, and was protecting the town as best he could, but was only one man.

The PCs rested, but were rudely awoken by an undead attack during the night. A flesh golem was at the head of the charge, with a pair of skeletons and a pair of zombies. Joey looked out the window and took an arrow to the shoulder immediately. He proceeded to jump out the window and go into a rage, which started the combat in full. It was not a particularly challenging fight, with the main issue really being the fact that the flesh golem seemed to absorb their attacks and took a while to go down. Well, and the fact that my players were introduced to undead fortitude when one of the zombies just refused to go down until the paladin hit it with some radiant damage.

The group rested and then tracked the undead the next day, following their tracks to a small, wooded area (where Andarius failed a nature check to notice something plot related. Oh well…). Within this area they found a tunnel that led underground that seemed to be a natural cave (though Joey was insistent they were elven. Rolling a 0 on an intelligence check will do that to you).

This is where the session really ended. It was a bit of a shorter one as I think one of the players had to go and I didn’t want to start the dungeon crawl at that time as I knew what was coming up in room number 1…

Zombies. And skeletons. A whole lot of them. The PCs got into a fight with a room full of undead as soon as they entered. Due to torchlight, the PCs were well illuminated and got shot by crit archers. I call them crit archers because the number of natural 20s I rolled with them this session was disgusting, though they were all firing from out of the PCs’ darkvision and torchlight, so they were getting advantage. The PCs took a surprising amount of damage from the sheer weight of numbers, but were able to come out on top, though Andarius triggered an explosive trap when he cast a spell over it without knowing it was there, dealing Joey a hefty blow as Joey was standing on the other side of it. Joey then proceeded to charge right over the next explosive trap, the blasts totally incinerating his pet mouse.

After a short rest, the party moved ever onwards, more cautiously since the two explosive traps almost incinerated Joey as well. Joey felt wind from one way, so they decided to take that tunnel, managing to avoid the trap that lay in wait for them there. Exiting the tunnel they found a huge underground chasm and some spider webs. Andarius decided to start burning the webs like the good(?) druid that he is, which saw the PCs get attacked by a pair of giant spiders. However, the two spiders were quickly dispatched by the players and Hank harvested enough venom for a single dose of spider poison.

The PCs walked along the chasm, which Joey discovered had water at the bottom by dropping a pebble down and hearing the (very) faint splash. As they made their way along the chasm, using a dancing lights cantrip from Ownka to light their way, they found a naturally formed bridge across. While they debated whether or not to cross, Ownka’s lights came into sight of more undead who immediately attacked the party, firing arrows at Joey. It was here that the dynamic lighting feature in Roll20 came into its own. Joey, having been shot, went into a rage. He could see a pair of zombies advancing through the tunnel and charged down to them. As he reached them he noticed there were more than just two and quickly got swamped by zombies and skeletons, while the archers continued to harass the others as they came around the corner. As they were all grouped up, Ownka used shatter on the melee, hitting the entire crowd of undead but also hitting Joey in the process.

And this is where something big happened. Joey went down in a flurry of zombie attacks. The first one didn’t drop him. The second caused his half-orc endurance to trigger, as it would’ve knocked him down but instead reduced him to 1 hit point, the third attack dropped him unconscious and the fourth caused two failed death saves. Once again, for the third time this campaign, Joey’s survival came down to a d20 roll, but this time luck was not on his side and he failed his third and final death save. Yes, we had a player character casualty this session.

The party eventually managed to fend off the remaining undead, with two zombies being particularly stubborn and causing more damage than they really should have through constant undead fortitude successes, but a fog cloud cut off the archers sight lines so they were unable to harass the back line and stopped causing the multitude of failed concentration checks that they were causing. The party retrieved Joey’s body and retreated outside the cave system to lick their wounds and plan their next move.

I enjoyed this session, though the death of a player character is never an easy thing to deal with as a GM. This particular player character went down with very much a fight, but the PCs were just unable to carve a path to him in time as he was surrounded by zombies and skeletons. I (hope) it has put some foreshadowing into the players’ minds that their three months of jail time has meant that things have definitely progressed in the world and the threats are very real.

I do like that this is a very threatening location. Necromancers in this setting are incredibly dangerous and should be approached carefully; there are reasons why the majority of the non-elven population fears magic and I feel like the PCs are encountering one of them now. I was happy to start introducing another aspect of a big bad as well, rather than just bandits and wild animals.

I believe that next session the players are diving back in, but I sincerely hope they re-evaluate their approach. There’s a lot of potential XP on offer here, as well as a very decent reward, but there’s also a large risk associated with this.

I look forward to see what next session brings.

All Roads Lead – Prologue

I said to myself that I’d write more now that I have more free time, and reading through my current projects I decided that this one is one that grabbed my attention, possibly due to the fact that I’m also a member of a Pathfinder group, so traditional fantasy is more prevalent in my brain than it usually is (come on, I’m totally a sci-fi nut. Swords and sorcery isn’t my usual style). I’m going to work on this story and try to actually finish it, though it will take a while as I believe it will be the length of a full novel. If you read it and see things that just don’t sound right or have any suggestions, let me know as I will be compiling it all at the end and it’ll help on the editing if things are nipped in the bud now.

The human city of Cymeria was the jewel of Cymer. The Adalen family had ruled over the lands of Cymer from their keep in the northern section of the city, adjacent to the knights quarter and the cathedral. Cymer’s climate was temperate, far more agreeable than the majority of human lands, but nowhere near as pleasant as the Elven Empire to the east, a land imbued with pure magic energy that allowed the elven wizards and sorceresses to manipulate the very weather. Relations between the Imperial elves and the rest of the world had drastically worsened since the elves ceased trade with the rest of the world and abandoned any of their race who still dwelt on the other continent, and all out war was only prevented by the great ocean that lay between the elves and the rest of the world.

A gentle breeze sailed through the marketplace in Cymeria’s trade district, the mid morning sun casting a warm glow over the stalls and merchants peddling their wares. The trade district was full of life, commoners and nobility perusing what the market had to offer, a mix of simple clothing, gaudy and outlandish outfits worn by the nobility, tabards of the knights and the armoured forms of guards, sellswords and adventurers all roaming about the same roads. The most recent ruler of Cymer, Lord Rein Adalen, was more liberal than most other human lords and it rubbed off on his people. Over the past two decades, the Cymerian nobility had become far more accepting of the commoners, the Cymerian culture taking a more co-operative approach to the traditional human class system. There were still limitations by class, but at least the nobility did not step on the people below them.

“Oh, that’s wonderful. Is that… Dwarven craftsmanship?” a woman in leather armour asked one of the vendors as she pointed to an emerald pendant on his stall, her voice well-spoken and almost elegant, rolling off the tongue with ease; she had to be nobility, or at least have taken speaking lessons. The vendor was foreign, that much was apparent in the way he dressed, favouring the heavier clothing from the northern settlements, but also his skin tone was paler than most in the city. He looked like he was about to keel over in the heat, his clothing too thick for the Cymerian climate.

“That it is, m’lady. Made by my buddy, Rolan Ironhammer. Real quality Dwarven smithing went into that beauty.” The merchant smiled, picking up the pendant and extending it to the woman. “Would the lady like to try it on?”

The woman raised her hand with a smile. “No, thank you. I am not seeking purchase today, though I wish to commend your friend’s workmanship. It is a true work of art.” The woman was not joking; the pendant outshone most of the wares in the entire marketplace, gold surrounding a modest emerald. It was simple, but it held a simplistic beauty that escaped the more common, gaudy items.

The merchant’s expression dropped momentarily, but he persevered. “Are you sure. It would look beautiful on one such as yourself, m’lady. For you, because the most beautiful jewel in the market belongs with the most beautiful jewel, I will give you a special price. Only seventy gold mers.”

The woman shook her head. “You haven’t even seen my face, so how can you make such a claim, merchant?” she replied as her lips curled into a grin, though her lips were all that was visible underneath her hood. Her features were well hidden, though this style of attire was not too uncommon amongst travellers and mercenaries. It was strange, but not so out of place that it would raise suspicions. “Your words are most kind, but necklaces such as this would put me at a disadvantage in combat. I am a sellsword, after all, and would have no real reason to wear such a thing.”

The merchant seemed surprised, but ultimately admitted defeat; the woman raised a valid point. “Very well m’lady. If you ever change your mind,” he answered before turning his attention to another potential customer, eager to make his day’s profits. The woman turned and continued on her way through the marketplace, casually observing the bustle as she kept watch for the items she needed to buy. Food, mostly, but also various medicinal herbs not native to the Cymerian climate. What she stumbled upon, however, was not what she wished.

“Genuine leather armour. Boots, bags, coinpurses; we’ve got everything.”

The woman’s eyes darted to the leather stand, examining the goods for a moment before her eyes widened with realisation. There was a stark difference between elf leather goods and elven leather goods. The elves that lived in the human lands were viewed as nothing more than animals, perhaps the only point where Imperial elves and humans agreed. The elven clans on the great western continent were viewed as savage beasts, often hunted for sport by the humans that inhabited the lands, both civilised and hill clans, or the savage orcish tribes. If any elf managed to get to the eastern Elven Empire, across the sea that separated the two continents and to one of the many merchant ports, they would be executed or enslaved on sight; their fates were often not pleasant. That being said, creating leather goods from an elf’s skin was not commonly practised, the similarities between the races prevalent enough to largely prevent it.

The woman covered her mouth, holding back the desire to vomit and turning away from the stall, colliding with a fruit stand and drawing the attention of everyone around as she stabilised herself against a wall and acquiesced to her body’s wishes, bringing up the contents of her stomach into the gutter.

“Hey! What’s the problem here?” came the voice of one of the guards as two barged their way through the crowd that surrounded the hooded woman. Her eyes darted to the guards, vibrant violet eyes quickly moving, assessing as she wiped her mouth.

“That woman barged into my stall and then threw up in the gutter,” the fruit merchant called out, pointing a finger at the hooded woman.

“Look, I’m sorry…” she started, though the leather merchant cut her off, pointing his finger at her.

“She’s a spy! An elf come to take our secrets back to the Empire!” he yelled in an accusatory way, “I got a glimpse under that hood, she’s got ears pointy as daggers!”

“You don’t honestly believe that the Imperial elves care about a market, right?” the woman replied, venom dripping from her words but the words had already been spoken. Now the guards were suspicious.

“Lady. Hood down. Show us your face,” the first asserted, putting one hand on his sword. The other already had his crossbow trained on her.

A silence filled the marketplace for the first time since the early morning.

“Lady. I will not ask again. Show us your face,” he ordered for the second time, drawing his sword and walking towards her. The woman’s eyes were darting all around now, panicking, searching for a way out like a trapped animal.

The only thing that kept her resolve strong was the knowledge that this was how these humans would view her; a trapped, savage, wild animal. She intended to prove them wrong. If she was an animal, she would prove that she was a superior animal to them. She looked up, her eyes locking with theirs. “That’s not a good idea.”

She darted to the side, narrowly avoiding a crossbow bolt that flew past her head. Had she stayed where she was standing, she would not have been standing any longer. She darted through the crowd with unmatched speed as hands grabbed where she had been a split second before. She heard the guards calling after her, but she didn’t listen, her focus on her escape plan. She leapt upon a weapon stall, dodging the swing of the merchant as he brought his axe arcing around. She could hear more people getting riled up now, this was nothing more than a mid morning hunt to them. They were either hunting a wild animal or a spy, either was reason enough for everyone who owned a weapon to grab them. She sprung from the market stall, grabbing onto the wall that separated the trade district from the knight’s quarter. Knights and their squires were typically not suited to pursue a quarry such as her, and it was a better bet than making her way around to the keep and the town guard barracks.

“Stop that elf! She’s a spy for the Empire!” one guard yelled, loosing another crossbow bolt at her. His aim was off by a few degrees, but the woman did not stick around to risk any more shots, dropping off the wall and into the streets below. The guards had not mobilised completely yet, she still had time to follow her escape plan. She darted through back alleys, pulling her sword from its sheathe and ducking beneath another sword swing. The man wore a chain vest, cloth trousers and, most noticeably, a tabard of one of the Cymerian knights.

“If you come peacefully, you won’t be harmed,” he said as she passed by, though she wasn’t listening, darting past with a speed that she knew he wouldn’t be able to match. She broke out into the street and made her way for the guard tower at the opposite corner of the knight’s quarter, a risky move, but if the whole city was up in arms she would never make it to the sewers from where she currently was. She could hear them behind her, a mix of regular, armoured, and even hoofed steps. She burst into the guard tower, blocking a pre-emptive strike that was aimed for her neck.

“Going to make a trophy of your ears, elf,” the guard said, his face close enough to hers that his words were somewhat less threatening than his breath, the stench of last night’s ale still lingering stale in his mouth. The elf didn’t say anything, opting to artfully spin his sword from his hand and barging past. He ran after her, grabbing his sword from the floor but she was already putting distance between them. Most of the guards had already left the tower to look for her, so she met almost no resistance on her way up, breaking out onto the balcony that overlooked this particular area of town and overlooking the plains beyond Cymeria’s walls. She leapt over the edge, dropping down outside the city limits. She landed lightly, rolling as she made impact with the ground and breaking back into run. The humans wouldn’t let her go, fearing that she may be a spy for the Empire. Foolish, she thought to herself, harbouring no love for the Elven Empire in the east. As she reached the forests, she climbed upwards into the tree canopy, the familiar branches offering her cover and concealment from her trackers, as well as eliminating any footprints she might leave.

She dashed through the treetops, leaping from branch to branch as she put the city of Cymeria behind her.

The sickness spreads. We cannot hold it back.

The words played through her mind, weak, as if spoken by a dying man. She did not have time to ponder on their implications before the branch she landed on snapped and gave way, sending her tumbling through the canopy and landing with a thump on the dirt below.

“I heard something that way,” she heard someone announce in the distance. The ground rumbled lightly as her hunters closed on her position, the humans able to cover far more ground on horseback than she was able to leaping from tree to tree. Head spinning, she clambered to her feet.

Run, child!

A sharp pain shot up from her leg and she crumpled back to the ground, a crossbow bolt finally finding its mark, tearing through muscle and rendering her leg completely useless. She heard the clip-clop of horses draw closer, rolling on the ground as blood started to pool beneath her leg. Four individuals on horseback approached, wearing a mix of chain shirts and regular tunics; they all, however, wore tabards of the Cymerian knights.

A silent chuckle escaped her lips as consciousness slipped from her. At least it took the human ‘elite’ to finish me off.

I took a hit from the inspiration bat

Right to the face too, my nose is still sore!

Anyway, I got a massive amount of inspiration this evening and got down to properly starting on my fantasy novel (it’s a long process). I will be trying to get this work published, so I will not be posting it up, but I will post up excerpts once the website is fully armed and operational. More website restructuring and new pages need to be made, but we’ll get there eventually.

I’ve just been in a fantasy mood recently, and have about a week left before Star Wars: The Old Republic – Shadow of Revan comes out (which I am mildly looking forward to, but interest has fallen as of late).

However, first chapter has been finished! I’m happy with it as far as first drafts of first chapters go. I have plans for where I want the story to evolve to and I firmly believe that there is enough material queued up to make two, well sized novels. Fingers crossed I can find a publisher who doesn’t hate my work!

Wednesday Fiction Is (Belatedly) Here: Post Apocalyptic Chapter 5

Sorry for the delay on this one, but I already gave my reasoning for that in my post I made yesterday. It is now, however, here and I am much happier with this iteration than I was of last night’s.

Things are really starting to pick up in this piece. Plots are starting to take form and serious things are starting to surface. Click here to go and read “Chapter 5: Weird”.

Also, 40k fans, do not worry! There will still be 40k Thursday today. I will be posting later on starting a tactica series for a new faction, partially because I’ve had enough of Space Marines and partially… Well… Mostly because I’ve had enough of Space Marines. When I come up with more army lists I will post them up, but I feel that there is a decent tactica base there for now. Next faction I cover will be… Well, I don’t actually know yet. We’ll just have to see!

Wednesday Fiction: It’s Not Here! (Yet)

I will make this post brief. I was writing parts of my post-apocalyptic fiction as I often do on Wednesday, but I then looked at the clock, realised that it was getting late and was not happy with what I had. Therefore, I will be posting it up tomorrow (well, technically later today) in addition to the impending 40k article.

So, not much else to say for now. Expect two posts tomorrow!

Monday Fiction: Modern Day Fantasy – Chapter 3

It’s Monday, the start of the week, so what better way to start the week than to write up a chapter for a modern day fantasy setting, huh? We’re getting pretty deep into the plot of this now, which seems to be a pattern for all of the stories that I write.


Chapter 3 can be found right here, as usual, by clicking on this link or by navigating via the bar at the top of the page. I hope you enjoy it and remember to let me know what you think of this story!

Wednesday Fiction: Post-Apocalyptic Chapter 4

Don’t worry, it’s a short one after the behemoth of a chapter that was posted last week. The intensity hasn’t quite toned down (made some minor edits to chapter 3 as well!) though there will be some plot consolidation next week. A lot of questions unanswered will be answered, or at least hinted to 😉

As always, you can find the chapter in its position in the Original Fiction section at the top. Or you could click this handy link. That works too.

Tuesday Fiction: Cymeris Chapter 2

Changing the way I do these, so instead of posting a duplicate page and post, I will create the page which can be accessed later on through links and then create an announcement post or something along those lines.

The chapters for Cymeris are tending to be a lot shorter than the others, though this is more due to the way the plot is going at the present time. Scene setting and build up needs to happen and I would like to space it out as it tends to jump around a lot. You’ll see next week when we introduce a whole other side of the story!

Regardless, here is the link to Chapter 2 of Cymeris. If anyone reads it, I’d be grateful for the feedback so I know where I should be going with this!

Chapter 2: Research

“Hey,” came a female voice as Li walked through the arches of the main gate, “what’s your business here?” Li turned to see a grumpy looking security guard staring at her with narrowed brown eyes through the window, her expression openly distasteful. She wore a standard navy blue uniform with short, brown hair tied into a bun. Li smiled in response and walked closer, taking out her purse and retrieving a small card that she held up to the window.

“I’m here on business, could you point me in the right direction?” Li asked politely, still smiling. The security guard glanced at the card, then back at Li. The card looked like a normal driving licence from a distance, featuring a picture of Li with her name, date of birth and identification number, though on closer inspection, it turned out to be her identity card within the American Occult Lore department. The local school also happened to feature a direct link to one of the largest occult libraries in England and all the people who needed to know were familiar with this.

“Hmph. Obviously a fake,” the guard responded apathetically, turning back to her computer screen. Li was not impressed and tapped on the window with a frown.

“You’d rather call up the department? Run my number through a database? I’ll wait whilst you do,” she responded with contempt, the passive racism of the people getting under her skin a little. The guard glanced up, then tapped away at her keyboard without a response to Li. “Well?”

“Keep your wig on,” the guard snapped, “I’m running your number through the system.” Li smiled again and placed her card back into her purse, depositing the purse into her bag soon after, standing with her hands clasped in front of her. The security guard continued to tap away before raising an eyebrow in surprise. “Right. You’re clear apparently, Miss Li. Head to the entrance to the right of the main entrance, if you follow the wall, you can’t miss it. The library is by the boarders’ dormitories there and the code is seven-four-two-one.” The guard paused, peering at Li suspiciously. “If you cause trouble, sorceress, we’ll fall on you like a pack of wolves, understand me?” the guard uttered in a threatening way, causing Li to step back a little, her face betraying her shock at the sudden change of pace. The security guard grinned, having successfully intimidated Li with smug knowledge as she slid a ‘visitor’ badge under the glass to Li before returning to her monitors. “Have a nice day.”

Li walked away from the booth in haste, not willing to engage in a verbal duel with a security guard for the sake of her pride. She did not have the position or pull to get away with speaking her mind to such people, so she gritted her teeth and just made her way to the entrance that she was directed to, pinning her visitor badge to the breast pocket of her coat. The main courtyard of the college was very well maintained, though the season had taken its toll on the vegetation. The grass remained green and well trimmed, though the trees had lost their leaves and the flowerbeds lay bare. Cars adorned each side of the road, parked close to the curbs leaving enough space for cars to get through the four way junction in the middle, as long as they were not as wide as an American hummer. A slight breeze had picked up during the morning, the temperature dropping since the clouds had covered the sky. Li could easily predict what the weather was doing if she had the reagents, as well as the clearance to perform a weather prediction ritual in the middle of the school grounds. She chuckled to herself at the idea as she walked towards the main building, taking a right as she reached the front entrance. The building was very old, the architecture very old fashioned and reminiscent of a castle. She reached a heavy wooden door as she followed the wall to the right of the main entrance. Then, she pushed the door open and walked inside.

The interior was no more modern than the exterior, also bearing more similarities to a castle as opposed to a school. She shrugged as her eyes darted around the small, yet tall room she stood in. To her immediate left was a pair of vending machines, one for snacks and one for drinks. On the opposite wall was a door that led to the nurse’s office, and to her immediate right was a set of stairs that led upwards. Li frowned, scratching her head. She did not see the dormitories anywhere yet. It could not be in the nurse’s office, and she had yet to hear of an occult library located inside a vending machine. She took her chances with the stairs, walking past a group of female students in white blouses, regulation skirts and ties. Li opened her mouth to talk once she had passed the group of girls, though no words came out and she closed her mouth as quickly as she had opened it. There was no way she was going to ask a group of random students where the occult library was, and asking where the boarding house was would just be asking for suspicion. At the top of the stairs, she noticed a door with the placard reading the name of the dormitory block to the side of it. With a sigh of relief, she began looking for another door. There was one to her left, though as Li approached it, she could hear the sounds of an English class on the other side. She could identify the lines of Shakespeare being read out by students; the start of Romeo and Juliet. She smiled to herself as one of the students started his line; she had always liked Tybalt. She looked around herself cautiously as she pulled out a notepad, scribbling on an empty page in pencil what looked like some sort of arcane diagram. She placed her pencil hand onto it and closed her eyes, stepping forwards slowly. For a moment, she wandered around the small room seemingly blindly, until she eventually stopped to the right of the door leading to the boarding house. It was a standard, concealed pathway. Down the right hand side of the page, she drew the symbols VII, IV, II and I, before tearing the page out and placing it on the wall, the side with the drawing pressed against the wall. Immediately, she walked through the wall, to some degree, emerging into a rather large and ornate looking room filled with books, scrolls, glass jars, straw mannequins, old fashioned chalk boards, ragdolls and lots of cushions. There was no way this huge room would fit in the side of the school building, however large the school building was. It was simple portal magic, though she knew she was still nearby. Portals such as this one were only capable of transporting an individual a short distance.

“Um… Hello, madam,” came the voice of one of the librarians, and old man in his sixties with blue eyes and a receding hair line, “we weren’t expecting visitors today, but you’re obviously not lost. How can we help?”

“Hello,” Li said with a bow, “I was wondering if I could browse through some of your books?” she inquired, causing the man to raise his eyebrow. She shook her head, smiling, “I work with the American Occult Lore department.”

“Of course, madam,” the man said rather solemnly, “we’re always glad to help our American friends. Who’s your handler?”

“Walker,” Li replied, suppressing her distaste for the man, though the librarian saw right through it.

“You’re not fond of Walker? He’s efficient and gets results, I’ll give him that,” the librarian paused, grinning, “but he’s also a hot-blooded American. They have no sense for the subtleties of social interaction and etiquette, I can see why he may be harsh to you.” The librarian walked off before Li could really answer. If she could pin the stereotypical old sage badge on any individual at that moment, she’d stick it right to his shiny, balding head. Regardless, she was inside the library and was free to go about her business. It was sparsely populated, a few librarians of all ages shuffled about, tidying and re-arranging books and a few initiates practised under the supervision of an instructor. Li grinned as she walked to the bookshelves and started to scan from left to right, row by row, though as she thought on it, her grin turned to an expression of sadness. It was comical how much the British Occult Division resembled Harry Potter, she had made jokes about it in the past, though she knew that if China and its allies moved against the world, then Britain would have to lead the counter charge. This would not cut it. She sighed, blocking the thoughts from her mind, focussing on her books.

Hours passed in the occult library as Li trawled through the texts, jotting down anything that may be useful in locating the vault. History books, spell books, even a selection of fictional works based on Smith’s life, nothing was left to chance. Many groups had come and gone, librarians had changed shifts, and changed again. The custodians had also changed shifts, one keeping a menacing eye on Li. No one trusted her in this place, she was an outsider and a fairly unwelcome one at that, but they would not do anything without her doing something wrong first. Li stretched in her seat and checked her phone for the time. Four twenty seven. It was getting late, and she was starting to get a headache from all the reading. She stood up, stretching once again as she tidied up after herself. She may be an outsider, but she was at least going to show these people that she was a respectful outsider, placing all the books back in the exact places that she had retrieved them from. She gathered up her belongings and thanked the librarian she had spoken to when she entered, making her way back to the entrance portal.

“It’s disgusting what they practice in the East. They’re nothing but monsters!” Li overheard a young, English boy say to his instructor with typical, youthful enthusiasm. He was no older than fourteen, though she frowned, gritting her teeth again as she curbed her tongue once more and hastily made her way back to the portal before she said anything stupid. She took out the piece of paper that she had used to enter and pressed it to the wall, walking through and emerging back at the school, in the small room outside the dormitories. Again, there was nobody there and even if there was, she remained invisible to the naked eye until she spoke the conclusion to the spell, which she did in short order.

“How the hell is this country leading the occult field?” Li muttered to herself as she made her way down the steps, though she stumbled and almost fell to the bottom, grabbing onto the hand rail to prevent tumbling. Of course, portal magic was a taxing ritual and she had accidentally skipped lunch in her research.

“Miss, are you all right?” came the voice of one of the students in full uniform. Li looked up at the girl, nodding her head with a smile.

“That’s kind of you to ask, but yes, I’m fine. I wasn’t watching where I was going and I slipped,” she answered, getting to her feet, walking past the student who then went on about her evening tasks. She kept walking to the entrance, sliding the visitor badge back to security at the front gate with a smile. As she walked, she thought on what the boy had said in the library. “Monsters?” she muttered to herself as she made her way back through Kemp Town, “kid, we’re not all like that, though you’ll be lucky to even lay a finger on some of the… things that they’re making over there.” She stopped at a newsagent’s on her way back to the bus stop, buying a Galaxy bar and a small bottle of orange juice that she consumed as she walked. “They’re taught to control magic, they’re taught how to practice it in safety, they’re taught about its roots,” she paused, sighing and pressing the button on the pedestrian crossing, “but they’re not taught its practical uses. They’re not taught non-magical talents to go hand in hand. Half of these little boys and girls would be deceived, seduced, betrayed or just straight up murdered before they could even start to fight. Tradition means nothing when faced with superior training and preparation.” Li went silent as group of students from the school approached the bus stop, probably to get the bus back home. Li checked her phone for the time again. Four forty five. She quickly put her phone away as she noticed the bus pull up, stepping in first and showing her all-day return ticket to the driver, who grunted with a nod, much in the same way as the first bus driver had. She took a seat, looking out of the window again. Again, she found a lone tear stream down her cheek which she carefully wiped away with her hand, still careful not to smudge her make-up. Without realising it, in her monologue, she had sounded exactly like the people that she had fled from all those years ago and this did not sit easily with her. She sat in silence, staring out of the window at the sea to clear the thoughts from her head; she had done a lot to separate herself from them. It was starting to get dark, so visibility was not as good as it had been in the morning, but it was acceptable.

“Oh, hey!” came a familiar, slightly northern English voice. She glanced up to see Albert, the man who had knocked her over in the morning. She smiled uneasily as he sat next to her, the same feeling that something was odd about him gnawing on her thoughts.

“Oh, hello,” Li replied quietly, turning to stare out of the window again. Albert frowned at her projected apathy towards him.

“We didn’t exactly get off to the best start, and for that I’m sorry,” he said quietly, now in a more public place, “I’m not trying to flirt or anything, I’m just trying to get to know my neighbour a little better.” Li remained silent. “Well, uh, I hope you had a good day?” he asked, causing Li to frown and turn around to face him, staring at him for a moment.

“Sorry, this is my stop, I need to get off,” she said coldly. Albert sighed and got up almost as soon as he had managed to sit down so that she could walk past, though as she did, he slipped something small into her coat pocket without her noticing. Li got off at the next bus stop, completely oblivious, though still cautious of Albert. He grinned, taking out a notebook as he relaxed in his seat, watching her from the window of the bus as it drove past and placing an earpiece into his right ear and adorning a pair of thick rimmed glasses, not too different from her own.

Li wrapped her coat around herself tightly. The English evenings were far colder than the day time, far colder than her old home. She shuddered slightly, either thinking about Albert or the cold air and pulled out her notebook, reading through her notes as she walked back to her flat. She had a way to walk, as she had gotten off the bus at an earlier stop than usual to avoid that man, which also caused her to feel uneasy for a reason that she could not fathom. This Albert fellow was far too strange. An enemy counter-agent? Had the Chinese sent him? She shook her head, dismissing the thoughts and getting back to her notes.

“Eric’s guitar points the way, the underwater kingdoms remodelled. But alas, he was not talking about Sussex,” Li read aloud, thinking to herself. She had no idea what it meant, but it was the best clue she had to go on. She had found an excerpt on this vault in Brighton, but all it left her with was this cryptic phrase which she had already translated from the original Latin. “What the hell does that even mean?” she exclaimed aloud, causing a few people to turn their heads and look at her as if she was a madwoman. Li’s cheeks went bright red, an embarrassed smile on her face as she started to walk faster, almost running back to her flat the whole way. She arrived in the main lobby and checked her mail. It was empty and so Li made her way to the stairs, deciding against the elevator as she saw Albert standing there again. He was everywhere, and it was starting to annoy Li to the point where she thought about confronting him about it. If she could get him alone and incapacitated, she knew a few interrogation rituals that could be used to rip the information from his mind, though they were not pleasant rituals and left permanent damage. However much she hated the Chinese occult education system, she had to admit that her prior teachings it had its uses sometimes.

She halted that train of thought as she reached her front door, unlocking it and walking inside. She took off her coat and hung it on the coat stand near to her front door, before taking off her boots and walking further in, down the hallway. Her flat was warm, a welcome change in temperature rose to embrace her as she walked into her bedroom and allowed herself to collapse onto her bed. She was exhausted. Skipping lunch, combined with portal magic had really drained her, though she was hardly surprised. She grabbed her phone to check the time from her bag that lay next to her, though a few objects had spilled out since she had fallen onto her bed, namely her foundation, notebook and letter from Huojin. Quarter past five. She cursed to herself in Mandarin as she sat up on her bed, getting to her feet and entering the bathroom. She turned on the shower, allowing it to warm up as she did in the morning, as she undressed and removed her make-up in front of the bathroom mirror.

She took a leisurely shower and, once she had returned to her bedroom wrapped in her towel, took her time to choose her outfit for the evening. She picked out a shimmering, tight-fitting, black cocktail dress with a single, thick strap that went from the right hand side of her chest, across and over her left shoulder, as well as a pair of translucent, black tights. She made her way over to the long mirror in the corner and got changed, examining herself at length as she did. She stood in front of it for a few minutes once she was fully clothed, turning and examining herself in great detail. Eventually she decided that she was happy with her outfit, smiling to herself and checking the time. She frowned and picked up the pace a little, blow-drying and brushing her hair, deciding to keep it loose before applying eye-liner, a darker shade of red eye-shadow than the one she had worn during the day, and a layer of matching, dark red lipstick.

The doorbell rang.

“Just a minute,” Li called as she made her way to the door, opening it and looking up into the eyes of Paul, her boyfriend. He was fairly tall, just under a foot taller than Li, with short, light brown coloured hair and dark green eyes. Physically, he was an imposing sight, being a personal trainer at a rather serious, body-building gym on by the seafront near Hove, though Li knew him for the gentleman he was. He wore a white shirt, unbuttoned at the top, under a grey suit jacket that matched his trousers, smart leather shoes adorning his feet.

“Sorry I’m late, traffic was terrible,” he explained apologetically. Li raised her eyebrow quizzically.

“Late?” she responded in a surprised tone, to which he held up his watch. It was twenty past seven. “Oh, one moment,” she said quickly as she dashed back into her bedroom, taking a small collection of black and silver bangles and placing them over her right hand, allowing them to loosely hang around her wrist before gathering a few items and placing them into a small, leather handbag. For a moment, she stared at her notebook, wondering if she should take it with her.

“Uh…” came the voice of Paul from the hallway, interrupting her train of thought.

“Oh, sorry!” she called out, taking her bag and dashing back to the door. “Sorry, it’s been a really long day, my mind must’ve just switched off for a moment,” she said apologetically as she got her shoes on, a pair of black leather pumps with slight heels. On the spot she had decided against bringing her notebook. This was an evening of enjoyment, not work.

“You mentioned that you had a tough day,” Paul started as the two of them got in the elevator. He pressed the button for the ground floor as he finished his sentence, “what happened?”

“Oh, it’s nothing really,” Li replied a little defensively at first, “lots of paperwork, I had to skip lunch to get everything done.” Li hated lying to Paul, but she had not worked up the courage to tell him that she was a sorceress, a taboo subject in itself that was made worse by the fact that his parents hated magic of any kind, let alone of a foreign origin. She had promised herself that she would tell him if their relationship became serious, if she ever made it that far.

“Skipping lunch?” Paul started in a teasing voice, “your personal trainer wouldn’t want to hear that. Oh, wait, I basically am your personal trainer!” Paul laughed as they left the elevator though Li’s expression dropped as she caught a glimpse of Albert in the lobby again. She did not want to catch his eye and so she positioned herself carefully so that Paul’s comparatively large figure would conceal her, at least for the most part. He’s either a stalker, or a counter agent. You don’t just see someone this often and get such an uneasy feeling around them every single time, Li thought to herself as they walked outside and down the road to Paul’s car. The car was an old MG convertible that Paul had maintained to a meticulous standard. The relative size of the rather small vehicle in comparison to Paul always caused her some small measure of amusement. They got into the car, Li with slightly more ease than Paul, buckled up their seatbelts and drove off towards Brighton city centre, taking a route along the seafront.

The car hummed gently as they drove along the seafront, Li was thinking about who this Albert could be and what she was going to have to do about it. The car stopped at a set of traffic lights and Paul turned to face Li. “Are you all right?” Paul asked with a concerned tone. “You’ve been deathly quiet, and in the lobby you looked like you had seen a ghost. If there’s something on your mind, you know I’m here for you, right?” he asked, placing a hand on her shoulder. He was right, Li had been silent for half of the car journey, lost in her thoughts. She smiled and shook her head.

“No, no. It’s just the long day, I’ve got a lot on my mind,” she paused, looking down for a moment as Paul put the car in gear and continued to drive. She turned to look out of the window. “But that’s not important this evening,” she continued, leaning over and resting her head on Paul’s shoulder once he placed his hand back on the steering wheel, “you never told me where we’re going.”

“I didn’t, you’re right,” Paul grinned as he spoke, “for all you know, we could be going to get a kebab!” Paul broke into fits of laughter at the idea, receiving a playful punch on his arm from Li as she sat up straight again.

“Yeah, sure,” she started with a chuckle, “Mr. Gentle-personal-trainer is going to take his girlfriend to get a kebab. How romantic.”

“If you must know,” he uttered with a smirk, going silent.

“Yes, I must,” Li put on a bossy attitude in jest, putting her hands on her hips in an over-exaggerated way.

“If you must know,” Paul said again, though this time after a brief pause, he finished his sentence, “it’s a surprise.”

Li shook her head, raising her hands up, letting them drop with an exaggerated slapping sound as they landed on her legs. “You’re a real effort sometimes,” she exclaimed with a jovial tone, adjusting her seating slightly as they pulled into an underground car park near to the centre of Brighton. Paul parked the car in an empty space near the exit and the two of them got out, Paul paying for a ticket at the nearby machine whilst Li stood by the car. The brief conversation had set her mind at ease, forgetting about the recent negative events. She was in a good mood. “So,” she beamed as she took Paul’s hand in her own, “ready to tell me where we are going yet?”

Paul remained silent as they left the car park, merely tapping the side of his nose as they turned right along the seafront road. Li did not have time to respond, crossing a single road before Paul led her through the front doors to the first restaurant that they came to, a seafood restaurant on the front.

“Hello, how can I help you?” asked a waiter standing near the door at a large book, glancing at the two of them. He was tall, wearing a white shirt and smart, black trousers.

“Yes, I have a tabled booked for seven forty five? Name is Simons,” Paul responded, taking a step forwards. The waiter looked through the book, searching for the booking, though he frowned after a while, flicking to other pages.

“I’m sorry sir,” the waiter replied after a minute or two of searching, “we don’t have any bookings by that name at all.” This surprised Li. She knew that Paul was not the most academic of individuals, but she knew that he was not that disorganised either. He would not just forget to book a table. Li reached into her hand bag for her note book. It was not there. She silently cursed to herself, remembering that she had left it on her bed. There were, of course, other methods available for detecting magic, though Li was not carrying the necessary reagents for some of the more subtle methods and overt methods were obviously out of the question. She closed her eyes and focussed, relying on her passive ability to detect magic that being a sorceress granted.

This is foolish and reckless, she thought to herself as she reached out, feeling the ambient magic residue that flowed around her. She could feel the life of the immediate area around her, though she felt the strain once she pushed her ‘vision’ outwards, only managing a few centimetres before she felt like she was about to collapse. She just did not have the energy for any magic at the moment, having only eaten a pain au chocolat and a Galaxy bar all day, with one cup of coffee and a small bottle of orange juice to hydrate her. She opened her eyes, returning to reality to notice Paul and the waiter having the most calm and civil argument that she had ever seen. Paul was saying that he had booked a table, the waiter was saying that he had no record of this. Li put her hand on Paul’s shoulder, feeling a little weak from attempting to cast an expanded magic ritual, her eyes fixed on a table in the far corner. It took her a while, but she could not help but notice Albert sitting at a table, eating what appeared to be a plate of shellfish. Her eyes widened and she looked up at Paul, who looked a little worried at her appearance.

“Paul,” she started, though she stopped, clearing her throat as the words were far weaker than she thought they would be, “it’s not worth causing a scene over. Let’s go.” Before Paul could answer, Li had walked out of the door, her walk normal, though she knew in her mind that she was beyond exhausted. If Paul’s polite and gentlemanly arguing did not cause a scene, she’s fairly certain that a Chinese woman collapsing in the middle of a restaurant would. Paul walked out after her, placing his hands on her shoulders.

“Li, are you feeling all right?” he inquired with the same concerned expression. Li looked over her shoulder. Her face showed her tiredness, as much as she tried to hide it.

“I’m not feeling so well, I’m sorry. Could you take me home?” she asked apologetically. It was a lie, mostly. Again, she did not enjoy lying to Paul, but this was not the time nor place to explain the whole truth of the situation, the magic as well as the mystery that surrounded Albert.

“If that is what you want,” Paul replied, his voice carried a slightly disappointed tone, but also a small amount of frustration. “If you don’t feel well, perhaps it’s for the best,” he concluded as he took her hand and led her back to the car. Li could not blame him for his feelings. She knew that he had planned the night, she knew that the table should have been booked. She clambered into the car, sitting in the passenger seat as Paul paid the ticket price. The chair was comfortable, seemingly more comfortable than before and she soon drifted off to sleep.

“Li? Li, wake up,” Paul said as he shook her gently. Her eyes slowly opened to the once again concerned face of Paul as he tried to gently wake her up. She stirred groggily, stumbling out of the car with the help of Paul. She noticed quickly that Paul had driven her back to her flat, parking near to the front entrance.

“I’m really sorry for all this,” Li apologised with a smile as they entered the lobby. They walked over to the elevator, Paul pressing the button to call it. It arrived fairly soon after.

“No, don’t worry about it,” he started as they got into the elevator, pressing the button to get up to the third floor, “I mean, it’s not your fault that the restaurant staff are incompetent.” Li smiled, she could tell that he was disappointed, though it meant a lot to her that he did not plant any of the blame on her, despite really deserving a share of it.

“Thank you,” Li replied as they got to her door, which she unlocked quickly, “again, I’m really sorry.” She leaned in to plant a kiss on his cheek before they merely bid each other farewell, Paul returning to the elevator and Li going into her flat, locking the door behind her. She slipped off her shoes and stumbled into the kitchen, her expression moving from a pleasant smile to one of near despair. She walked to the refrigerator, grabbing a carton of soy milk, as well as a Tupperware container full of some hoisin duck and noodles that she had made the previous night, as well as a small, yellow pepper from the vegetable drawer, taking it over to the counter. She took a glass from the cupboards and poured herself out a cup of milk, drinking it rather quickly before pouring another one. She took a knife from the top kitchen drawer and a pair of ivory-coloured, plastic chopsticks, chopping the pepper into strips and placing them on top of the food in the Tupperware container, deciding to just eat it cold rather than go through the hassle of re-heating it. Not eating for a whole day has a tendency to make food taste better than it probably is, she thought to herself as she ate at a rather alarming pace.

Her thoughts were cut short as she thought she heard a sound, turning to look out of the kitchen door. There was a man standing to the side of the doorway, around the same height as Paul, though remarkably more skinny. He held a gun in his hands, an ornate Browning 9mm, and appeared to be wearing smart-casual clothing, a pair of slacks and a red shirt.

“On the ground, now,” he ordered with a normal tone. He did not shout, nor did he try to intimidate which in itself was more intimidating to Li. She placed the Tupperware container on the counter slowly and deliberately. “Now,” he repeated, motioning towards the floor. Li tried to reach out to his mind, though her magic was suppressed, unable to even sense his presence. A man able to just get into her apartment with no tell-tale signs? A magic suppression field? The former she could write off as a skilled burglar, though the latter pointed towards the Occult Inquisition.

Without warning, she darted towards him. Seeing what the English sorcerers were like she hoped that he would not expect someone quite so trained as Li as his target.

There was a loud bang, then she stopped in her tracks and crumpled to the floor. There was no outside disturbance at the sound of the gunshot, confirming Li’s suspicion that there were multiple barriers at work in her apartment.

“Oh shit,” the man said to himself, “shit, shit, shit,” he continued to curse, holstering the pistol and immediately pulling out a phone from his pocket, dialling up a number and placing it to his ear. Li tried to shift her weight with a quiet whimper, clutching at the wound with one hand whilst she used the other to push at the tiled floor which now shone with a slick crimson. She was bleeding very badly, her black dress now with a large, sticky patch where the blood was seeping through. The man started to speak after a while, causing Li to look up. He was speaking into his phone, explaining what he’d done rather apologetically. For a moment, Li wondered what he was sent here to achieve, though the fact that she was losing blood at a phenomenal rate halted her train of thought. She would not last long in this state. She reached for the broom in the corner, pulling herself towards it, though the man was too busy getting yelled at over the phone by whoever hired and sent him on this errand. She grasped it in her hand, feeling the weight of it as she looked up at an A5 sheet of paper that hung in the corner. She poked at it with the broom, causing it to flutter lightly to the ground next to her.

She recognised the symbols on it; it was a simple magic suppression field that was easily broken. She dropped the broom and reached for the paper, instantly tearing it up as the broom clattered to the floor, causing her assailant to look over at her again, having hung up the phone a moment before. He pulled out his side-arm and pointed it at her again, dashing back over to her position. She smiled. Turnabout is fair-play, yes? she thought to herself as he clutched his head and screamed in pain. She knew that the sound suppression field was still up, having only torn up a piece of paper that she knew was for magic suppression. Nevertheless, she was in his mind. He jerked about her apartment, knocking the coat stand over and kicking shoes in all directions as he flailed madly. Whoever sent this man had underestimated her abilities, it seemed as she tore into his nervous system. In an instant, the man fell to the floor with a thump. He was still alive, though completely paralysed.

She was curious about the phone call, her eyes darting to the still-lit phone that had fallen from his grasp, but she knew that the phone call would mean nothing if she could not live to chase it up. She turned, heavily supporting herself on the kitchen counter. Her vision blurred, her hand over her wound pressing harder. She lay in a pool of her own blood by now and her vision blurred. She whispered an incantation under her breath, hoping that her regenerative magic would be enough. It would have to be enough as she slipped out of consciousness, her hand still pressed to her wound.

Chapter 3: Old Business

Eleanor’s eyes flickered open into a bright light, bringing her hand up to shield her face from the sudden change in ambience. She felt like she had been run over or trampled by an entire gang of raiders. Her head throbbed with pain, her limbs ached as if she had just done the mother of all gym work outs and her chest felt as if her rib cage was pressing hard against her lungs and heart. Sweat had formed across her brow, though that could have been the heat as much as anything else.

“Shit,” came a male voice, followed by the shuffling of feet, “sleeping beauty’s finally awake.” The voice sounded familiar and the tone seemed to have equal parts light hearted to concern, like some sort of odd, exotic cocktail that she would rather be sipping on a pre-end of the world beach. Somewhere in Florida. St Pete Beach, perhaps?

“Unexpected, but nothing to fret over. She should be fine, there aren’t any wounds to speak of, so she probably just forgot to stay hydrated or something,” came another, different male voice. This one was tired and seemingly apathetic, though that was not the feeling that Eleanor garnered from the man’s tone. Tired, maybe, but not uncaring.

“Hey, Ellie? Can you hear me? Can you see my face?” came the first voice as a blurry outline of a man’s head came into view. Eleanor tried to focus, but the blurriness did not appear to fade.

“Zack? That you?” she hazarded as her eyes tried to clear away the blurry mass of out of focus human face.

“Oh thank God,” he uttered with a sigh of relief, his head hanging so all she could see now was his shaved head. “What happened to you out there? What was in the house?” he asked, looking back at her now, concern all over his face.

Eleanor paused for a moment, thinking back to what happened in the house. She frowned. “It was empty. Asshole who gave me the job had his information messed up.”

“So how come we found you a few blocks away just passed out on the side of the road? What happened to you?”

“Dehydration. I don’t fucking know,” she retorted in an irritated fashion, though raising her voice caused aches in her chest to flare up so she brought the volume back down to a quiet, calm level. “I went to the house, there was nothing there so I started on my way back. Collapsed a few blocks from here and that’s the fucking tale. I didn’t drink enough water, big fucking deal.”

“It is a big fucking deal, Ellie,” Zack replied, gripping the side of the table that she lay on so hard that the edge of it started to crack. He quickly loosened his grip and took a deep breath. “People die out there due to dehydration all the time. You would have too if I hadn’t decided to check up on you.”

“Check up on me?” Ellie spoke out immediately as he finished his sentence. Even though it pained her to do so, she pushed herself into a seated position, though the other man immediately rushed over and steadied her as she wobbled from side to side. “Check up on me?” her voice grew louder and more aggressive. “I’m not some fucking child that needs to be watched and checked up on. I’m a gun for hire! I settle my own shit so well that other people hire me to settle their own! And you presume that I need ‘checking up on’?”

“Ellie, you know I didn’t…”

“Didn’t what, hm?” she interrupted, locking eyes with his, though hers were still slightly wild and out of focus. She could at least clearly make out his features now. “Didn’t think before you opened that big, stupid mouth of yours? Didn’t think that I was capable because I’m a woman? Fuck off.” She shoved at his chest, her hand impacting with the cool surface of his metal armour, though she immediately withdrew it and cradled her forearm. She still ached all over and getting worked up over Zack’s words had brought no small amounts of pain and it showed in her face. She allowed the other man to slowly lower her back down into a lying position. She turned her head to face away from Zack.

There was a brief moment of silence before she heard the sound of his metallic boots impacting with the floor of the house, before finally she head the door close. She turned her head again to look at the door, a lone tear streaking down her cheek before she closed her eyes and allowed herself to drift off to sleep again.

When she awoke, the house was empty. She pushed herself up into a seated position, despite the aches, and rotated so that she was sitting with her legs dangling over the edge of the table. Her vision had cleared up at least, she could identify medical supplies left on surfaces and in half open drawers, as well as what seemed to be a door that led to a bedroom of sorts. She got to her feet slowly, her quads aching as they took her weight. She felt at her waist, her holster was not attached to her thigh. Where the fuck did they put my gun? That should be the first problem to solve, she thought to herself. She pressed her hands to her chest, and my protective vest. Fuck. No sooner had she started to look around than a curious face poked around the corner of the bedroom door.

“Up and about already?” the face asked as the man rounded the door. It was the same man as before.

“Look, I just want my stuff and then I’ll be out of your hair, okay?” she answered, taking a step backwards, as if she was intruding on his property. The man smiled. He was older than her, age lines had long started to form on his face, with short, greying hair and a dirty lab coat. His appearance was smart, especially by contemporary standards.

“The man who was in here earlier is taking care of your belongings,” the man replied with a shrug, “if you want your stuff back, you should go talk to him.”

Great, she thought to herself, her expression dropping. She did not leave Zack on the best of terms when they conversed earlier.

“Oh, and don’t worry about the cost of care. Your friend took care of that too.”

Eleanor visibly recoiled from the statement, biting her lip and making her way for the door as fast as was comfortable. She opened the door and hurried out onto the street. She instantly knew where she was. Denver. Jameson ran his operation from Denver and had a lot of influence. This was a place where she did not wish to be. At least the problem was simple: find Zack, recover her belongings, get the hell out of dodge. Simple.

She made her way through what remained of the streets, weaving through side streets to avoid as much of the open area that she could. Reducing the chances of running into one of Jameson’s goons meant that the chances of him learning of her presence in the city were also reduced. There was not much going on, a few locals going about their daily routines, travellers bartering with merchants for food or ammunition, among other items though food and ammunition were the most valuable commodities that everybody wanted these days. She made her way to the local bar, the Denver Drop, with little problem or even interaction with others. The bar was fairly empty. Must be around midday, considering the number of clients, she thought to herself, looking around at each patron. It did not take her long to find Zack, his metallic armour made him incredibly easy to spot.

She pulled up a stool next to him, about to call the bartender over until she realised that she had nothing to barter with at the moment, so she settled next to Zack and rested her arm on the bar, staring at him. He continued to drink what remained of his beverage, placing the cup down on the bar with a heavy thud before returning the stare.

“Don’t give me that look,” Zack started, though Eleanor’s pent up anger remained evident.

“You have my stuff. I want it back.”

“Too bad.”

“Too bad?” Eleanor replied, her hand clenching into a tight fist. “What do you mean, ‘too bad’?”

“I mean, too bad. You’re not getting it.”

She considered punching him. The thought crossed her mind many times, but she held herself back and took a deep breath.

“Why not?”

“Because you’ll go off and do something stupid. Again,” Zack replied dryly, keeping eye contact with her. He was far more calm in this situation than her and his expression showed it.

“My affairs are my business. Not yours. Not anybody else’s. They are mine.”

“Yeah, well I’m making them my business too.” Zack sighed, shaking his head. “You can’t just pull this shit and expect your friends to stand by and watch you kill yourself. We’re obviously going to intervene.”

“You think I’m going to kill myself? Shit, Zack, you know I’d never hurl myself off a building or anything like that.”

“That’s not what I’m worried about. Your antics just outside of town are a prime example of what I’m worried about.”

“Look, I did something stupid, but not packing enough water is not exactly something that I’ll be repeating.”

The two of them fell silent, the conversations of other patrons filling the ambience with drunken words of jobs gone wrong or bad trades. The only people in the bar at this time were generally down-and-outs; failed entrepreneurs or mercenaries too injured to continue.

“Fine. Keep my stuff. Like I give a fuck; just stay out of my business in future,” Eleanor broke the silence, standing up from her chair with a pronounced thud from her boots impacting with the wooden floors. “My business is mine, and mine alone. Not yours, not anyone fucking else’s, ok?”

“Not strictly true, Ms. Carter,” came a man’s voice voice from behind the two of them. Unfortunately, it was one that Eleanor recognised. She turned around with a reluctant and nervous smile.

“Harley, long time no see, huh?” she replied with a forced, friendly tone. Harley was not a large man, around the same height as Eleanor but almost twice as wide with pasty, pale skin, blonde hair slicked back and empty blue eyes. “How’s Jameson doing?” she asked, keeping her distance from him. He was flanked by a larger man with a more tanned colouring and a shaved head much like Zack. They were both wearing expensive looking body armour with stock-less, pump action shotguns in hand. Harley rested his shotgun on his shoulder.

“Ask him yourself. You have an appointment right about now.”

Eleanor laughed nervously, shaking her head and holding her hands up in a non-threatening manner. “I don’t know what you mean, Harley. My business with Jameson was concluded.”

“He doesn’t seem to think so. Word is that you burned him on the last job.”

“Look, Harley, it was simply business. He was the one who burned me, I just wanted the payment that we had already agreed on. I’ll just get out of Denver; Jameson won’t hear from me again.” She started to make her way around them and to the door when Harley lowered his shotgun and pointed it directly at her.

“That’s a no-go, Ms. Carter,” he replied, causing Zack to slowly move his hand towards the shotgun on his leg, though the other man instantly pointed his at Zack, causing him to stop and retract his hand, raising them in a non-threatening manner much like Eleanor had. “Jameson pens you in for an appointment, you go to the appointment or you get a chest full of lead. That’s how this works,” Harley continued, his tone far more threatening and sinister than it had been before. Eleanor stopped in her tracks, looking over at Zack who was obviously sizing up the two of Jameson’s goons for a fight. Stop me from doing something stupid, huh Zack?

“Fine. I’ll go.” She sent Zack a quick shake of the head as the two goons flanked her and grabbed her by the arms. She shook them off, glaring at them both before going along with them on her own accord.

The walk to Jameson’s dwelling was not long. Eleanor was escorted at gun point through the streets, earning sympathetic, yet wary looks from the merchants and their customers, as well as the locals. She was occasionally shoved forwards as a reminder of where she was and where she was going, every time replying with some snarky comment about how chivalry was dead or how ungentlemanly the two enforcers were.

They arrived at the front door and the enforcers showed her the way in. Jameson had taken up residence in what had obviously belonged to an affluent family before the end of the world, though it did not take long for the two enforcers to lead her to the door of Jameson’s office, open it and then shove her through before following in themselves. Jameson was a stocky man, his dark skin tone colliding with his off-white suit. It was clear that he was wearing some sort of protective vest beneath it. He had a lot of enemies, such as Eleanor, so the protection was perhaps a good idea.

“Ah, Ellie, I’m so glad you could make it on such short notice,” he started, standing over by the door that led on to the balcony outside and smoking what appeared to be a cigar.

Eleanor brushed herself off, a frown across her face. “Cut the bullshit, Jameson,” she retorted, glaring daggers at him. “And don’t call me that.”

Jameson turned to face her, flashing a yellow grin at her and beckoning her forwards. Harley motioned her forward with his shotgun and she started to walk towards him, eventually taking position about four metres from Jameson by the window. “Come on, Ellie. Is that really a way to greet a friend?” he asked, blowing smoke out the door and into the outside air.

“You are not my friend, you piece of shit,” she answered, earning her a hard smack to the back of her shoulder from Harley. She still ached and the hit to her shoulder did not help. Jameson frowned and shook his head.

“You see where I am now, Ellie? I pretty much run this place. Denver is my little slice of heaven in the wasteland,” he said with a proud tone, “I am its leader, its ruler; its president, if you’re feeling old-fashioned.” He flashed a toothy, yellow grin again.

“Yeah, well to me you’re still just street scum. Nothing but a fucking thorn in the side of honest people.”

“And you would classify yourself as one of these ‘honest people’?”

Eleanor broke out into a loud laugh at the concept.

“Fuck no!” she replied through the laughing, bringing her laughter back in check, “but at least I’m not a fucking parasite on society.” Jameson’s expression dropped, turning to face her with an anger all over his face. Eleanor grinned at him. “Tell me, how many cocks did you suck to get your position? Ten? Twenty?”

She was interrupted by a solid thump on the back of her head as Harley slammed the butt of his shotgun into the back of her head. “You dare speak to Mr. Jameson in such a way, you insignificant little wasteland rat!” he yelled as he stepped forwards for another hit, his shotgun raised. She fell forwards, bracing herself on the edge of the door, on the other side from Jameson, dazed and disorientated.

Jameson held a hand up, stopping Harley in his tracks.

“Ellie, you are trying my patience. If you keep this up, I will rescind my offer.”

Ellie was still trying to get her bearings as Jameson waited for a response. The blow would have been enough for her to lose consciousness in this state, but she held onto consciousness through sheer determination bolstered by her absolute hatred for these individuals.

“You still have a place at my side, if you can learn to behave yourself,” Jameson continued, walking over to his desk and stubbing out his cigar. He straightened his suit as he walked back over to the door where Eleanor had struggled back to her feet. “You would be the most powerful woman in Colorado. Think about it. Think about what I am offering you, despite your constant and unsolicited hostility towards me.”

“And all I need to do,” she spoke through the disorientation, her eyes out of focus for the second time that day, “is be an obedient, good little wife and kiss your nut sack twice a day. Fuck that.” Asher eyes came back into focus she shot him a hostile expression. “We all know how this is going to end, so just fucking get it over with and kill me before I hurt your pride even more.”

Jameson sighed, shaking his head and walking onto the balcony. He gestured for his enforcers to follow and, naturally, Eleanor as well. The two enforcers dragged her out to the balcony, following Jameson to the edge. She could see for a long way from the balcony, overlooking the town square. Denver may have been a city once, but with the way it was it could no longer be defined as one.

And by contrast, most of the population could see her.

“Didn’t want to have to do this, Ellie, but this was your choice, not mine.” He signalled at his two enforcers who forced her to her knees. She gazed out to the streets below. People were starting to look up at her now. “Got to make an example of you.”

Great, she thought to herself, summary execution in front of a crowd. I’m sure my brains will make a fine decoration for the walls.

The two enforcers held her there. Jameson loosened his belt. Eleanor’s eyes widened with terror.

Oh. Oh fuck no. This isn’t happening. You’re killing me right here, right now you fucker or not at all.

She sent her fist hard into Jameson’s crotch.

Harley’s going to raise his shotgun.

Her hand other hand darted to intercept Harley almost instinctively. She grabbed the barrel and swung it away from her face, the shot taking a chunk out of the floor and shaking her grip from it with a jolt as Jameson stumbled backwards, holding his crotch as one may cradle a child, his face now covered by agony.

Harley’s holster is shitty quality. He still needs to pump. Big and tall should be swinging right about now.

She ripped Harley’s pistol from its holster with the hand she had struck Jameson with. She pointed it behind her, under her opposite armpit and pulled the trigger. A scream of pain. The clatter of metal hitting the floor. The sound of an empty shell casing hitting the floor.

Harley’s pumped.

She swung around, taking a stronger kneeling position.

They wear expensive armour.

She pulled the trigger. The loud bang that exploded from the muzzle of the pistol drowned out the sound as the contents of Harley’s skull sprayed from the back of his head and ran down the wall behind him.

Not finished yet.

She got to her feet, adrenaline had long since numbed the aches and pains. The other enforcer was reaching for his shotgun. Eleanor stepped on his wrist with a heavy stomp.

Not today.

She pulled the trigger. The enforcer’s brains exploded against the floor, fragments of grey matter and bone spraying away from the trajectory of the bullet and, fortunately, away from Eleanor. Her attention turned to Jameson, who had pulled himself up on the edge of the balcony. He was reaching inside his jacket.

Eleanor rushed over to him, sending a powerful punch across his jaw, forcing him to the floor. His hand was still in his jacket.

I’m going to make a fucking example of you, you pile of shit.

She reached inside his jacket, wrestling his pistol from his grasp with ease. The doors to the room inside swung open.

Like lambs to the fucking slaughter.

She darted to the door, both pistols in hand.

Two more.

She unloaded the contents of both pistols into the oncoming enforcers, the bullets impacting against the walls. Against the enforcers’ bodies. They dropped in pools of their own blood.

She looked back at Jameson who was still clearly in a lot of pain, blood now streaming from his lip where Eleanor had hit him. She dropped the pistols and picked up a shotgun as she walked past the now headless remains of Harley and the other enforcer. It was Harley’s. Pre-pumped.

“Hey, listen, I…”

Eleanor slammed the butt of the shotgun into Jameson’s chest, cutting him off.

“No. You listen to me you sack of shit!” she countered, slinging the shotgun across her shoulder and grabbing him by the collar. “You should have just fucking killed me. I should have just fucking killed you last time too, we all make mistakes.”

Jameson raised his hands submissively as she slammed his back on to the floor, his head now hanging over the edge of the balcony where the railing had broken. “I never meant…”

She punched him again, hard. A trail of blood exiting his nose as it moved out of place. Eleanor recognised the look in his eyes. It was the same look that he had the last time the two of them met. Fear. She would not be so merciful this time. Not after what he tried to do.

“Shut up!” she screamed at him, shoving him further over the edge so that his head hung backwards. “You see down there? Those are honest people!”

She pulled him up again, his eyes locking with hers once again. Murderous rage had long since flooded her and her eyes showed it.

“Me? I do the dirty work so that these people can continue living honest lives!”

She aggressively slammed his body down on the wooden floor of the balcony. A fairly large number of people could be seen down below.

“And you?” she started, stomping her foot down hard on his chest, again and again, as hard as she could. She stopped after a short while and took the shotgun from its position slung over her shoulder into her hands as she heard and felt his bones fracturing. “You are a parasite who preys on these honest people. Using people like me.”

She fired. His chest exploded into a mess of bone and sinew.

She was breathing heavily now, staring at the bloody mess that used to be Jameson. She felt a tear run down her cheek. She dropped the shotgun.

More footsteps, this time quieter than before. They were moving in quietly this time.

Shit. I need to get the fuck out of here.

The drop was not far from the balcony, but the fall would break bones for sure. She could probably survive it, but it would leave her at the mercy of the remnants of Jameson’s goons. That was not something that she wished.

One of the enforcers barrelled through the door, a broad shouldered woman with a black mohawk adorning her head. She eyed Jameson’s corpse, then Eleanor, horror spread across her face.

“I’ll see you dead for this, bitch!” she yelled, levelling her pistol and squeezing the trigger, sending a bullet that shot past Eleanor’s ear.

It’s now or never.

Eleanor dropped from the balcony, holding onto the edge. She heard the sound of the woman running across the wooden floor above.

Eleanor let go.

She dropped past the window below and grabbed onto the outer window sill, though she was unable to get a proper grip on it. It did its job, however, breaking the speed of her descent at that point. She continued to fall the last story, impacting with the ground with a thud. It was a jarring thud that hurt like hell, but Eleanor did not have the luxury of waiting the pain out. Another bullet impacted near her. The woman was aiming at her from above.

Eleanor struggled to her feet and ran into the crowd. She heard enforcers chasing from the house, but the crowd seemed to make room for her, only to fill up behind her. Jameson had few friends amongst the common people it seemed.

She ran as fast as she could back to the bar where she had left Zack. Her heart pounded in her chest. Her blood was pumping.

Zack was still there, this time playing cards with two other men around a small table. She darted to the table and slammed her hand down in front of him, her breathing was incredibly heavy now.

“What’s up?” Zack inquired, a cautious look on his face.

“I really, really need my stuff back. Now.”