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  • Originally posted by Nightwinder View Post
    • "...now's as good a time as any to train. Who's up for some practice? Serge?
      "
    Might as well start working on the weaknesses we have as a team
    I'll go with this.

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    • "...now's as good a time as any to train. Who's up for some practice? Serge?"

      "I'm game," answered Serge. He stood up and began stretching his arms and back.

      "Seres?"

      Seres' expression soured. She shook her head. "I'd rather hunt. We could use some more meat." She abruptly stood up and began walking out of the camp. "I'll be back later."

      Ash raised an eyebrow. "Alright, then. Miss Bo, will you stay here with Lans, or...?"

      Bo pursed her lips. "I should gather more herbs. We have little datura left, but I saw more growing nearby."

      "Watch out for hoop-snakes," said Serge. Bo looked at him quizzically, and he shrugged. "I don't know what they are, but I've heard they live around here. Better be careful."

      Bo gave a slight smile. "I will. Fare well, master Serge, mistress Ash." She gave a slight bow and walked over to where her mule was grazing with the horses.

      Ash turned to Serge. "Let's go out a bit and give Lans some space."

      They walked a ways to a part of the plain that was light on grass and heavy on rocks. Ash had brought Judgement and Absolution, and Serge had his claws.

      "What say we start with some light sparrin'?" suggested Ash. "No weapons."

      "No objections, ma'am," said Serge. He gave her a cocky smile.

      So they boxed. Ash was quicker, but Serge had reach, strength, and endurance. He'd put up his guard, weather flurries of Ash's punches, and swing in with a hard right hook whenever she slowed down. After she'd taken a few bruises, Ash decided it was time to step up.

      "What say you use your stoneskin trick?" suggested Ash. "I'll mask up."

      "No objections, ma'am," said Serge. His cocksure attitude had settled into more of a stoic determination.

      Ash turned away from him and pulled the bandanna around her neck up over her nose. The Ranger heard a noise like two rocks scraping together behind her. When she turned back, Serge's skin had turned grey and rough. He smacked his fists together, and they sounded remarkably like a firewand going off.

      They went at each other once again. The Ranger was much quicker, easily avoiding Serge's slow, heavy swings. But her counter-punches didn't have much of an impact. Serge would throw a punch, the Ranger would dodge, and then she'd strike him in the jaw or kidneys. Serge might flinch, but he showed no sign of injury.

      Once the Ranger's knuckles were well bloodied, she backed off and held up a hand.

      "What?" said Serge. "You had enough?"

      The Ranger shook her head and reached for the flamepieces at her belt. She drew them both and, noting Serge's look of alarm, flipped them over in her hands. She gripped Judgement and Absolution by their barrels and gestured at the claws hanging from the rope at Serge's hip.

      "Weapons now? Well, if you're sure..." said Serge. "No objections, ma'am," he added, though it seemed like he might have a few.

      The third round was barely a contest. Serge's claws never touched the Ranger. She wielded her flamepieces like a pair of clubs, hammering Serge with blow after blow. Dust flew and stones scattered around their feet. Finally, The Ranger hit Serge with a one-two combo - first a jab at the stomach, and then an upward swing into his chin. Serge fell over on his back and laid there, staring into the sky, while the Ranger silently counted to ten. The grey roughness of his skin faded, leaving behind bruised flesh.

      Ash pulled her mask down and stood over Serge. "Hey. You alright down there?"

      Serge shook himself. "Yeah." He raised his head and started to get up. Ash offered him a hand, and he took it. Rather than helping him up, he nearly pulled her over. But still, he got to his feet. Then he sighed and hunched over.

      "We got a bit away from 'light sparring', didn't we?" he said, sounding tired.

      Ash looked at her hands and chuckled. "Yeah, we did. That was - "

      "Don't worry about it," Serge interrupted. "Now I know what you can do, and I know what you can do. That's important for tactical planning." He slowly straightened himself up. "Got some ideas, if you're willing."

      And he explained to her the basics of small unit tactics - order, marching, flanking, and how to make synchronized attacks by keeping one eye on your team mates and one ear for the commander's orders. Ash listened, asked questions, and gradually came to understand how Serge meant to apply strategies made for infantry on a battlefield to their little band of eclectic warriors.

      They found a particularly large and tall rock, one that came jutted up out of the ground and just reached Serge's chest. As the sun climbed to its zenith, they practiced paired attacks against it. They'd approach it together, then attack roughly at the same time - Serge swinging down from above, and Ash ducking down to attack from below. Or they abruptly split from each other and attack from two directions. Or Ash would lead with a double-blast from her flamepieces, and Serge would rush in and strike at the stone before the smoke had cleared. Or Serge would go first, then abruptly shove off the rock, giving Ash room to fire. All simple ideas, but they took careful, practiced timing to execute.

      By noon their practice stone was chipped, covered in scratch and burn marks. Both of them were fatigued, but Ash felt very confident about their odds of defeating immobile rocks. They walked back to camp tired, sore, and pleased with their efforts.

      When they arrived, they found Seres by the fire, turning a large hare on a spit. She waved as they approached. Bo was nowhere to be seen. Lans sat nearby, squinting at some faded papers in his lap.

      "You look like you've been working hard," he said, looking up.

      Ash nodded. "I think we both learned somethin'." She turned her attention to Seres. "That's a nice catch, Seres. But I didn't see you go out with a bow, or any traps."

      "Don't need 'em," said Seres, nonchalantly. "I just run 'em down and break their necks." She prodded at the fire with a long, charred stick, then resumed turning the spit.

      Serge said nothing. He only walked over to his bedroll and collapsed on top of it. He rolled onto his back, covered his face with his hat, and shortly after began to snore.

      Bo rode in on her mule a short while after, carrying a basket full of leaves. She dismounted and carried her load over to where Serge lay. Bo sat down beside him, pulled a mortar and pestle from her pack, and began mashing the leaves into paste.

      Soon, Seres proclaimed the hare was done. Bo woke Serge. They all carved up the carcass, ate, and rested through the hottest part of the day.

      As the afternoon began to turn to evening, Lans loudly cleared his throat and declared "I believe I've found it."

      Ash, who had been tending to King, gave the lizard one last head-rub and mosied over to join the old hand. "What have you found?"

      Lans held up a few sheets apart from the larger collection in his lap. "Dilatro was most interested in the legends of the Dunefolk - specifically, their folklore suggesting that a civilization existed in this region long ago, in a time when it was not a desert."

      Ash looked over the dry plain around them. "Hard for me to imagine anything else here, but never mind. What did he find?"

      "His letters to me don't refer to any specific objects, or to previously unknown ruins. But he did mention that he believed that the seat of this civilization was a short distance west of here, in the foothills of the Deadrock mountains. He established a research hub of sorts in the town of Salsola, where a group of scholars and treasure-seekers he regularly met with made their home." Lans frowned. "It's not much, but if there was anyone else who knew if Dilatro or Dolh had found something of note, I would first suggest their own hirelings."

      "Well, it's somethin'," said Ash. She looked to the sky. "We've still got plenty of daylight left. Shall we go west?"

      Lans nodded. "I'd like to continue reading, but I can do that as we go."

      "Yes, let's get a move on!" Seres piped up.

      "If that is what you wish," said Bo. She had finished mashing plants some time ago and was now carefully putting away the paste in jars.

      Serge snored. He'd only gotten up to eat, and then gone right back to sleep. Bo prodded his face with a finger and he woke with a sudden start.

      "I'm up, I'm up," he said, blinking blearily. "What's happening?"

      "We're movin' on," Ash answered. "You can go back to sleep when the sun's down."

      "Shit," said Serge.

      The posse packed, ate a few trail rations, and got underway. They followed the setting sun towards the mountains. The journey was uneventful, until...
      • ...they came across an odd boulder with a blanket over it.
      • ...they witnessed the legendary Ghost Riders.
      • ...Seres fell into a nest of hoop-snakes.
      • Something else?
      OOC Commentary
      If I had to express how the Ash/Ranger split works in mechanical terms, I'd put it like this:

      Ash can never spend so many motes at once that her anima banner would flare up, or she has to spend more motes suppressing its effects. She can't do anything that's clearly magical, either, unless she can pass it off as sleight-of-hand. This means using small excellencies, social charms, and little else.

      The Ranger, on the other hand, can use any charm and as much power as she pleases. But being unable to speak or show her face means that she cannot make social Ability checks at all. Fortunately, Righteous Devil style already includes a charm to enable "being so cool that you scare/impress people just by standing there."
      Last edited by semicasual; 07-24-2017, 08:56 AM.


      On the frontier of the Wild South, there's only one woman with the grit to take on its most dangerous outlaws and bring them Back Alive, or Maybe Dead.

      Avatar by K.S. Brenowitz

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      • Oh it's GOTTA be...


        I post Artifacts in this thread. How I make them is in this thread.
        I have made many tools and other things for 3rd Edition. I now host all of my creations on my Google site: The Vault of the Unsung Hero

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        • Nah, sleeping boulder gets my vote.


          Thoughts ripple out, birthing others

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          • The posse packed, ate a few trail rations, and got underway. They followed the setting sun towards the mountains. The journey was uneventful, until...
            ...they came across an odd boulder with a blanket over it.

            Comment


            • Gotta give it to the nest of hoop-snakes.

              Comment


              • HOOP SNAKES


                The artist behind the quests From Out of a Dream (complete) and Back Alive, or Maybe Dead (running!). Go give a read and make your choice!

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                • ...Seres fell into a nest of hoop-snakes.
                  It was the kind of accident that could've happened to anyone. Their trail led up the side of a steep hill covered in loose rock and dirt. By chance, Seres was riding a little ways ahead of the others. Her pony stepped on a patch of ground that gave way beneath her hooves, slid, and stumbled. Seres overbalanced and fell off.

                  She tucked herself in and rolled when she hit the ground... and then kept on rolling, because she'd gone off the trail entirely and was now tumbling down the hill's slope.

                  The other members of the posse gave shouts of alarm - except for Serge, who was riding in the back, had been a bit woozy since Ash woke him up, and wasn't looking ahead when Seres fell - and began to give chase.

                  Ash and King had no trouble on the slope, and neither did Lan's surefooted steed. But Bo's mule was slow and awkward in climbing down. Serge was slow to react, as I said, and once he did get moving his nag refused to climb at all.

                  So the group was strung out when things started to go downhill - metaphorically speaking. Seres caught herself and came to stop some distance from the trail. When she looked down, she saw she was practically standing in a den full of serpents. -> When she looked down, she saw she was practically standing in a den full of serpents. Her hoes here inches away from the coils of an enormous snake, a dozen feet long. It was brown and spotted and blended in with the sun-soaked hillside rather well, if you weren't paying close attention. On the end of its tail was a sharp, bony barb that would have been ideal as a railroad spike. As Seres watched, the monster was rapidly drawing itself up. Around it, a knot of similar but much smaller snakes writhed in agitation.

                  Seres gave a yelp, jumped clear of the snake pit, and began to run further down the slope. But the biggest snake gave chase. The serpent curled itself up, stuck its tail into its mouth, and cartwheeled after her. Rolling downhill, it was able to match her speed. Noting this, Seres turned around. She made a brief downward slide, followed by a sprint back up the hill at an angle to the direction she'd come from. The snake tumbled through where she'd been, but then wheeled around and began rolling after her. In defiance of reason, it was no slower pushing up the hill than it had been falling down.

                  So now Ash, riding as quick as King could carry her, was moving to intercept Seres sprinting another way. Lans was ahead of her, doing better and gaining ground. Then, suddenly, he veered off to ride towards an old dead tree further down the hill. It was little more than a stump, no higher than your waist, bleached by the sun and gnawed up by woodworm. Lans drew his saber and, still riding at a gallop, sliced through the trunk as he passed. The old tree creaked, leaned over, then split in two pieces - the roots, and the the rest of it. Lans rode on, turning around in the saddle to shout "GRAB IT!" in Ash's general direction.

                  Ash, thinking quickly, grabbed for the lariat hanging from her saddle. She threw the loop towards the severed chunk of tree as King rode past. The loop snagged on the log, drew taught, and then Ash was dragging the tree behind her, bouncing it over rocks and dry, exposed roots.

                  Seres and Ash closed the distance between each other. Ash slowed down slightly, hauling in the log, and then...
                  • ...she flung the heavy, dense hunk of wood at Seres. "CATCH!"
                  • ...she swung it around on the end of its tether, pitching the log and the rope right through the hoop of the snake.
                  • ...she rode in between Seres and the snake, pulling the log into its path.
                  • Something else?
                  OOC Commentary
                  For those curious about the paths not taken, the bit about the blanketed boulder comes from this story. And the Ghost Riders are from a Johnny Cash song. Up till now I've mostly relied on my knowledge of mid-to-late 20th century film for inspiration, but I'm thinking that moving forward I can make more use of odds bits of Americana and Native American mythology.
                  Last edited by semicasual; 07-26-2017, 03:09 PM.


                  On the frontier of the Wild South, there's only one woman with the grit to take on its most dangerous outlaws and bring them Back Alive, or Maybe Dead.

                  Avatar by K.S. Brenowitz

                  Comment


                  • Seres and Ash closed the distance between each other. Ash slowed down slightly, hauling in the log, and then...

                    ...she swung it around on the end of its tether, pitching the log and the rope right through the hoop of the snake.

                    Comment


                    • Log through the hoop!


                      I post Artifacts in this thread. How I make them is in this thread.
                      I have made many tools and other things for 3rd Edition. I now host all of my creations on my Google site: The Vault of the Unsung Hero

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                      • ...she swung it around on the end of its tether, pitching the log and the rope right through the hoop of the snake.

                        The rolling reptile caught on the rope. His circular form bent into an ellipse, but he didn't stop turning. Ash held onto the rope as best she could while King turned to run parallel to the snake. Meanwhile, the log was now skipping and bouncing beside and slightly behind the snake. Ash began reeling the log closer to her, pulling into the snake's body.

                        Hoop-snakes are clever beasts, up to a point. This one turned slightly, rolling ever closer to Ash and King, using the rope as a guide. When got close, he suddenly uncurled and sprang off the ground, freeing himself from the rope. He spun in the air and whipped around, bringing his barbed tail to bear. But he hadn't counted on Ash suddenly hauling the rope in and flinging a wooden shield along his trajectory.

                        The snake's barb caught in the log. Ash let go of the rope and watched as the beast fell to the ground, stuck in an anchor, and awkward flopped a ways down the hillside. It vainly thrashed and jerked to free itself. The wood made a hissing noise and quickly began to grow darker in color, starting from the base of the snake's tail.

                        Ash brought King down to a slow walk, took a breath, then whooped. "Did y'all see that? Best snake-ropin' I ever did!"

                        Seres, who by now had made it back to the top of the hill and was looking down at the scene, said nothing.

                        Lans and the rest caught up to Ash in their turn. "Well done, Ash. That was impressive," said the old hand.

                        Ash stood up in her saddle and made a slight bow. "Thank you, thank you." She re-seated herself, rubbed King's head, then went on. "You didn't expect any less, did you? I mean, I can only guess you threw me a log because you read my book."

                        "Yes, that story about how you won the Dry Gulch Rodeo of '47 was... particularly memorable," said Lans, with one of those smiles you make when you're trying to be tactful.

                        Serge, balanced awkwardly in his saddle, looked past Ash to where the snake was still thrashing on the ground. "Should we...?"

                        "Naw, just leave 'em alone," said Ash, following his gaze. "Don't you know, a hoop-snake in a fightin' mood can't die 'till sundown?"

                        Bo gave Ash a skeptical look. "Is that true?"

                        "I don't know. Probably not." Ash turned to Bo with a cocky smirk. "But I don't see the need..." She trailed off as she looked up and saw that Seres had vanished from sight. Ash's face fell. She pursed her lips, flicked King's reins, and began riding back to the trail. "Come on. We've got a way to go before dusk."



                        (music)

                        They caught up to Seres shortly and rode on. But things felt different. Rather than riding at the front, Seres seemed to be lagging behind. The posse crossed miles, coming closer to the base of the Deadrocks, but Seres was never closer than twenty feet behind them the whole way. While Ash and Lans traded stories about riding competitions of years past and Bo fussed over Serge, the youngblood loitered in the rear. Eventually, Ash decided it wouldn't help things to let Seres be, and told the others to keep going on ahead while Ash fell back to join their poky companion.

                        "Hey," said Ash as she came close.

                        "Hey," said Seres back.

                        "...Are you alright?"

                        "...Yeah." Seres wouldn't hold Ash's gaze.

                        "From where I'm sittin', you've been awful strange since Santa Mela," Ash casually countered. "Seems like you're not yourself."

                        "...I've got a lot on my mind." Seres shifted in her saddle. "Why? Is that a problem?"

                        "Well, that depends. If you can't focus when it really matters..."

                        "Do you want me to leave, Ash?" Seres' tone change suddenly from quietly defensive to sorrowfully bitter. "Is that it?"

                        "No, Seres," Ash answered, careful to keep her voice calm. "I just want to know what the problem is."

                        Seres was quiet for a while. Then she said, "I don't know where to start. I just... things ain't goin' like I thought they would."

                        "What things? That fight at the auction?"

                        Seres scrunched up her face. "That was bad but it's not all that. It's... I dunno. When I joined you, I figured on ridin' out, fightin' an outlaw, and rollin' home with fame and fortune, like..." she trailed off and winced. "...like in a story. But instead, it's just a lot of ridin'. And ridin', and ridin'... We've been on the trail for more than a month, Ash, and I ain't seen Stitch-Eyes yet. Hardly heard about him except from you."

                        Ash cocked her head. "That's not all, is it?"

                        "There's... ugh...." Seres mouth turned down hard. "The fightin'. I know, fightin's not a picnic, but..." she seemed to be struggling, until she forcefully blurted. "I don't like killin'. If it's a fair fight, I can take it, but..." she trailed off again, shook her head, and continued. "Hardly any fight is fair. An' the ones we've been gettin' into feel..." Seres paused to take in breath. "...raw. People dyin' in awful ways. People who weren't even tryin' to fight, but they were there and..." She closed her eyes.

                        Ash suppressed her feelings of chagrin and kept her face blank. "I was never much for killin', neither. It's a nasty business. But there's still more, isn't there?"

                        Seres took another breath. "I just... keep thinkin' back to the town hall. And there was all those people, screamin'... we saved some, but I keep thinkin'... I did that wrong, if I was faster, or smarter, or if I didn't...." she paused and shook her head once again. "I dunno. I just, I just... I didn't think it was gonna be this way. I didn't think it would be this hard." Seres swallowed, then went on, face now contorted into a mask of rage. "And I keep kickin' myself because I should've known that. I should've known it wouldn't be simple and clean. But it didn't get through to me, until..."

                        "..yeah," said Ash, finishing Seres' thought when she broke off. "So, if I'm gettin' this right, you're just now seein' that the adventuresome life ain't easy. And you're not sure if you want to go on."

                        "Yes. No." Seres closed her eyes and ground her teeth for a moment. "I don't... I don't wanna quit. But I don't know if I wanna keep this up. But I know I'll cuss myself every day if I leave." She rubbed under her right eye. "Shit, it's a mess."

                        Ash let that thought sit for a moment, then said...
                        • ..."It wasn't easy for me, either, early on. But I toughened up quick, and so can you."
                        • ..."You're stronger than you know, Seres. More than I was at your age. You can do this."
                        • ..."You've kept up so far, Seres. Might as well see it through to the end."
                        • ..."If you're havin' doubts, you should go."
                        • Something else?
                        OOC Commentary
                        Hoop-snake venom is incredibly lethal, and even more incredibly difficult to harvest. In actuality, it's a complex combination of substances that is constantly mixed within the hoop-snake's body, meaning that it loses potency very rapidly after it exits said body or if said body is dead. This makes it nigh-useless as an extracted poison. However, it does have another unusual property - it can virtually petrify wood, turning ordinary lumber into an unbelievably hard and dense material. The Dunefolk used to carve swords and spears out of oak, contrive to cover them in hoop-snake venom (most often gathered from very young snakes by killing them and immediately cutting out their venomous glands), and in so doing so create weapons that were hard as stone but lighter than steel. Today, this is a lost art. Venomwood weapons are highly prized heirlooms and collector's items.
                        Last edited by semicasual; 08-01-2017, 02:57 PM.


                        On the frontier of the Wild South, there's only one woman with the grit to take on its most dangerous outlaws and bring them Back Alive, or Maybe Dead.

                        Avatar by K.S. Brenowitz

                        Comment


                          • ..."You're stronger than you know, Seres. More than I was at your age. You can do this."
                          Time for a touching story about Just Ash methinks!

                          Comment


                          • Definitely a touching moment in the making. "You're stronger than you know, Seres. More than I was at your age. You can do this."


                            I post Artifacts in this thread. How I make them is in this thread.
                            I have made many tools and other things for 3rd Edition. I now host all of my creations on my Google site: The Vault of the Unsung Hero

                            Comment


                            • Ash let that thought sit for a moment, then said "You're stronger than you know, Seres. More than I was at your age. You can do this."

                              Comment


                              • "You're stronger than you know, Seres. More than I was at your age. You can do this."

                                Seres looked up, a mix of emotions playing over her features. "When you was my age?"

                                Ash nodded. "I was... not the steadiest girl when I was younger. When my blood woke, about the same time yours did, I spent a long time runnin' from it. Didn't have no teacher, at first. I tried to stay away from people, so much that I walked out into the wastes alone to escape from 'em."

                                Seres said nothing. She seemed to be studying Ash.

                                Satisfied she had the girl's attention, Ash went on. "Before I met Gaze, I'd burst into flame if ever I was angry or scared. Didn't have enough discipline. And I'd get scared of losin' control, that didn't help. Bein' painfully honest, I was no good to anybody, 'specially not myself. And I wasn't even doin' anythin' particularly dangerous, other than tryin' to live as a thievin' vagabond."

                                Seres gave a nervous laugh. "I can't picture you bein' like that, Ash. Seein' how you are now."

                                Ash shrugged. "Times change. People grow. It might not feel like it to you now, Seres, but you're doin' good. For a girl in your position, just survivin' is a real accomplishment. But you can do even better than that - if you stick with it, you've got a shot at greatness. It ain't always gonna be easy, or pleasant, but doin' what's difficult is how you become a legend."

                                The youngblood took a deep breath, then nodded. "Ok. Thanks, Ash."

                                "Anytime," said Ash with a smile. "Now, you mind pickin' up the pace? Don't want to see you fall behind, now."

                                A day or two later, they arrived in Salsola. It was mid-morning, cloudy, relatively cool and dry.

                                Salsola was built up along a hillside beside a creek, and the lightly-forested land around it had been cleared for buildings and gardens. Try to picture a lumber camp that is gradually turning into a town. Around the edges are tents, shacks, and temporary shelters. In the center are a collection of wooden buildings, some fairly tall, grouped around an artificial pond. On a pale, cloudy, dry day like this, it all looked very stark and somber.

                                Now picture it being dead quiet. Nary a sound except the squawking of birds and the wind. No people around. No signs of industry. The stillness was peaceful at first, but it soon became unnerving, and then oppressive.

                                Ash, Seres, Lans, Serge, and Bo rode into the town limits in high spirits, talking and rolling along, but the quiet seemed to affect them more as they got deeper in. Their conversation died out. Nobody mentioned the conspicuous absence of humanity aloud, but they all began looking around, unconsciously checking their weapons.

                                They found Gaze waiting for them along the main road into the town center. Ash, happy to see anyone at all, greeted her warmly.

                                "[Teacher! I have not seen you for many days. Are you well?]"

                                Gaze leaned on her staff and squinted at Ash as she approached. "[I am well, but beware, child. Darkness has touched this place, and its taint lingers.]"

                                Ash's smile slipped away. "[I... had seen... teacher, where are the townspeople?]"

                                Gaze looked down the road, toward the center. "[You shall see for yourself. Go on, child.]"

                                "What's she saying?" asked Serge, a bit harshly.

                                "Somethin's happened, but she won't be specific," answered Ash. "Come on. Let's go find out what's up."

                                It was at about this time they began to hear singing. Just one voice, an old man's, singing something like a folk song or a dirge. The words faded in and out as the group went along.

                                "O' Death, I come, to take the soul, leave the body and leave it cold... drop the flesh off of the frame, the earth and worms both have a claim... O' death..."

                                The singing grew louder and more clear, until finally they came to the middle of the town. There, in front of a simple wooden chapel beside the pond, someone had dug a deep, wide trench - six feet deep and and a few dozen long. A great pile of fresh dirt lay beside. A sickening smell of rot permeated the area. Ash knew before they drew close enough to see for themselves what they would find - bodies. Many, many human corpses, stacked along the bottom of the trench like firewood. They were men, women, children of all ages, all backgrounds. Most looked like they'd had their throats cut, or their bellies slit open.

                                A series of muddy red trails led from the mass grave towards the chapel, in through its wide open doors. The grim song echoed from inside, then gradually became clearer as someone came out. They were walking backwards, hunched forwards, dragging a man's body by the shoulders.

                                The undertaker was dressed for a funeral, wearing purple robes so dark they were almost black. They were also stained with mud, blood, and who knows what else. His entire head was shaved, his face was riven with worry lines, and his lean frame shook a little as he pulled the dead man along and sang.

                                When they arrived together at the edge of the pit, the undertaker turned and his charge until the dead man lay parallel to the grave. The undertaker knelt down in the mud, shoved his hands beneath the body, and gently rolled it over the edge. Then he stood up, took a deep breath, and started his song again as he walked slowly back into the chapel. At some point, he surely looked right at Ash and company, who were still taking in the scene. But if he even noticed they were there, he didn't knowledge them at all. His eyes seemed distant, focused on something other than what was in front of him.

                                Ash decided she'd had enough.
                                • She followed the undertaker into the chapel. "Hey! Old man!", she called after him. "Who are you, and what in every gods' name happened here?"
                                • She turned to the others. "These folks are beyond help. Lans, we should try to find where Dilatro's scholars lived. Serge, Seres, could you stay here and keep an eye on the undertaker?"
                                • She gestured for the others to follow her and rode back to where they'd met Gaze. The old woman was still there, lurking in the shadows. "[Teacher,]" Ash asked, quiet but urgent, "[did you see what killed them?]"
                                • Something else?


                                On the frontier of the Wild South, there's only one woman with the grit to take on its most dangerous outlaws and bring them Back Alive, or Maybe Dead.

                                Avatar by K.S. Brenowitz

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