- Plane Weaver
HOUSE ESTEBAN would be grateful for couriers to complete a single, one-off financial transaction. No prior experience necessary. Please present yourselves within the week, citing Account #000013B.
Nikolai and Xenon arrive at House Esteban where a clerk explains the job. All they need to do is deliver an interest payment of one miyan to the holder of a financial bond: the Guild of Artisans. It sounds a simple, straightforward task until the clerk marks the location on their map, right inside the Wastes.
Still, a job's a job, so the pair head out to the wastes. They encounter some troublesome house crabs which swarm on them. They fight off the crustaceans but no sooner than the last is smashed, the ground shakes and up erupts a huge fiddler house crab with one massive claw which snaps at them with vicious fury. Working together, they manage to smash off the bigger claw before breaking through the tough shell.
Ahead, the former Guild of Artisans stands, crumbling, wrapped in purple tendrils. Curious critters emerge from the rubble, demanding secrets and throwing cheese. Nikolai and Xenon, perturbed by the aggressive behaviour of these creatures, push forward, learning a number of damning secrets as they bash their way through to the shattered doors.
The building creaks and groans, the sounds of distant slithering and squelching carried on the air. Xenon calls out but the only response is an echo. They move on, into the dark building, Nikolai's mutated eyes helping him to see. With a hiss, mutated snakes begin to slide out of cracks in the walls. As they fight, the flagstones crumble beneath them. Testing the floor with his staff, Xenon determines that the middle of the hallway is least stable and they keep to the sides.
At the top of a flight of stairs, they find a corroded brass plaque which once read “Master Artisan of the Guild”. From within emanates the sound of squelching and slurping. Entering with caution, they see a writhing mass of opalescent slugs upon the desk. One detaches with a yawn and lurches forward toward them. Horrified by this monstrosity, the party fight it back but more and more slugabeds leave the core to assail them. It takes some time but finally they manage to defeat the central mass.
They begin searching the records held in the cabinets around the room and locate the folder which should contain the bond… except it is empty. Someone has been here before them!
As it happens, they hear more squelching from the adjoining room along with the sound of snoring. Fearful of what they might find, they peer cautiously around the doorway. A woman lies fast asleep as smaller slugs converge on her. Nikolai and Xenon rush to the rescue, beating back these slugs and picking up the sleeping person. What follows is an incredibly slow chase as they carry her between them, pursued by slugs which ooze out of cracks in the floor and drop from the ceiling. After nearly losing Nikolai, they manage to escape through a door just in time, slamming it shut.
Once the person they saved is awoken, she explains that she is Anoushka, a scavenger operating out of the Barrens. She takes them to the safety of her base camp where they meet her business partner, Dmitri, who insists that his accreditation from the Shapers' College is proof of his competence. When they are asked about the missing bond, Dmitri sheepishly admits to playing a prank on a former member of their group, Roderika, who left them five months ago to join the Order of the Rod. He used unity of intent to mark Roderika as owner of the bond so that it would follow her around and result in her being technically liable for the upkeep and taxes of the Guild of Artisans.
While the scavengers look over their finds, including a strange intricate lattice which Dmitri claims is a shaped item but can't get to work, it soon becomes clear that they have differing views about Roderika. Anoushka is still mad at her for leaving but Dmitri seems to have a soft spot for her.
Having assured the scavengers that their operation appears to be legal and, in return received an open invitation to visit them at the Pickled Inn (“Just ask for Anastasia,” Anoushka says), they head to the Order of the Rod. Since Roderika is an exceptionally common name among those devoted to the Rod, it takes a bit of searching through records but they find out that she's away on a routine mission into the Forest. Checking with the Foresters' Guild, they learn that the expedition was near the easternmost village of Edge (not the village of East Edge - that's somewhere else entirely) and that its return is overdue.
They head to Edge to await Roderika's return. The Forest has encroached dangerously close here and crooked men, rot monsters and moss poppets lurching from the treeline. Realising the village is in danger, Nikolai and Xenon valiant defend the settlement until an excited Rod paladin emerges, talking excitedly about her recent battles and ripping the head off a moss poppet. Once the final crooked man falls, Xenon asks this paladin, clearly Roderika, about the bond.
Her smile falls and she runs away, shouting about how she's “not gonna make that mistake again!”
Having made sure the villagers are safe, Xenon and Nikolai follow her trail back to the Order of the Rod where they are confronted by two rod paladins – Roderick Rodson and Roderica (with a C) – who are furious, having been told by Roderika that they had insulted them and her!
Roderick delights in fighting the Imperial Commissioner while Roderica is very disappointed to be paired with the sickly Xenon who refuses to fight. She and Roderick bicker as Roderica takes a break to heal Nikolai, only for Roderick to knock him down again. Eventually Roderica manages to goad Xenon into fighting and is summarily trounced.
Xenon and Nikolai leave the two paladins to their theological argument over healing and head to Roderika's room, 7C. This time they manage a civilised discussion and Roderika asks them if they would help her conduct an Act of the Rod to break her bond to the bond. Not the bond - she's tried that – but the bond bond. She explains that they'll all have to enter the act together for it to work. Before they can ask for a better explanation, she smooshes them all together.
Nikolai and Xenon find themselves faced with psychic manifestations of strength. Feeling the gaze of the Rod and compelled to never surrender, they fight. The Rod is impressed both by Xenon's strength and skill and by Nikolai's resolve and tenacity.
The manifestations fade and now they see a huge, monstrous Anoushka and a diminutive, adorable Dmitri. They fight against the hateful Anoushka who chides them as being unworthy, weak and unwanted while Dmitri offers encouragement and support. Together, they manage to bring down Anoushka and her form shifts to be human once more before she and Dmitri fade away.
Roderika rejoins them and explains that they're only part way there. “It's like when you want to smash something but it's inside a box so you have to smash the box first,” she says. “We've only broken the box.”
And so the three of them push onwards, finding the link between Roderika and the bond. Swirling, incomprehensible fragments of legalese assail them and red tape lashes, trying to entangle them but they break free and shatter the most dangerous-looking clauses. As the final word falls, they find themselves standing back in Room 7C with Roderika. Her name is gone from the bond.
Now all that remains is to ascertain who actually has legal ownership of the bond. Enquiring at the bureaucracy, they are directed to ask the Imperial Commission about matters relating to the Wastes. When they arrive there, the air of uncertainty which Nikolai has been ignoring is definitely still prevalent. There are deep claw gashes in the wall and… is that blood dripping from the ceiling?
The records room is deserted and unguarded and they set about tracing the ownership of the land. Just then, two figures stumble in, muttering and screaming. Their black eyes bleed salt and black wings have sprouted from their backs. They look to be trainee commissioners but are insensate and attack. Nikolai and Xenon subdue them and drag them to an infirmary where some senior commissioners accompanied by Carmen Montiel take over and assure them that there is nothing to concern themselves with.
Returning to their files, Xenon is able to establish that when the Guild of Artisans refused to sell their land to the Imperial Commission, the Commission simply absorbed the Guild. Therefore, the official owner of the bond is the Imperial Commission. Nikolai accepts the interest payment on behalf of the Commission and files the paperwork correctly. His diligence is noted by his superiors.
Having first checked with Nikolai, Xenon brings the documents recovered from the former Guild of Artisans to the Circle of the Enlightened Mind who are quite interested. He also enquires about the lattice that Dmitri found and one of the professors recognises the description as being of a simple spinning toy. Xenon is recommended some reading material and goes on to consider the existence of such artefacts as proof of the glory of the Empire of Rastaban.
Nikolai heads to the Pickle Inn where he speaks to Anastasia who reluctantly permits him entry into a back room where he meets Dmitri and Anoushka. He convinces Dmitri that he should go and see Roderika. With her colleague gone, Anoushka offers to buy Nikolai a drink.
Meanwhile, Xenon has returned to the Order of the Rod and convinced Roderika to go to Dmitri. There's an awkward moment as she kicks in the door to the backroom of the Pickle Inn only to discover that Dmitri has left to find her. After a brief argument with Anoushka which Nikolai sensibly refuses to involve himself in, Roderika kicks her way out the back door and leaves.
That night, Nikolai – dressed inconspicuously so as not to bring the Commission inter disrepute – and Anoushka go for a romp around the Barrens, with Anoushka taking him on a tour of many of the seediest spots and dankest dives.
Romance is in the air elsewhere in Rastaban as Roderika and Dmitri reunite.