“Why did you bring her?” Collin asked as they got out of their vehicles beside the barn, frowning at the six-year-old girl hiding behind Alicia's purple-velvet cloak. “Don't be a dick,” Alicia said. “She's my cousin and no one else could watch her.” “So hire a babysitter.” “Nobody hires a babysitter when they have a teenager right there already. Her name's Clara, by the way. Clara, this meatwad is Collin, and that's Joe.” Luke, being Alicia's boyfriend and having driven them up to the farm, required no introduction. Fortunately Clara was not entirely shy, and the extravagantly dressed group clearly aroused her curiosity. “What are you?” she asked Joe, encouraged by his cheerful smile. Beneath his hooded black cloak (made with Alicia's help), he wore black pants, laced black boots, a black shirt and a vest embroidered in silver; on his waist hung a plastic-tipped épée and a sheathed dagger. “What am I?” he answered in a bad almost-English accent. “Bit of a scoundrel, bit of a lockpick, bit of a useful fellow to have around. But if you want to know who am I, the name's Timothy Vex, scourge of the highborn of Rania.” He placed one leg in front of the other and swept his arms dramatically in an exaggerated courtier's bow. “Pleased to make your acquaintance.” “He's a loudmouthed turd,” Collin grunted. “But we need a thief.” “Pay no attention to Master Barnabas,” Joe said, winking. “Every adventuring party has a pile of bricks to put between themselves and their enemies. Barnabas is ours.” Inside or outside the game, Collin was imposing: six-two, thick in the middle, with a glowering gaze and patchy beard. The mail shirt, bent-tin pauldrons, wooden shield and longsword only added to his bulk. “Why don't I have a costume?” Clara asked her cousin. “Because we picked you up straight from school. It's okay. We can still pretend.” “Actually,” Joe said, “I have just the thing.” They waited curiously as he opened the trunk of his Celica and returned to show them what he'd retrieved. It was a mask, bestial in aspect: ragged fur, curving yellow fangs, irregular black ears, and holes for the eyes. “Well, that's terrifying,” Alicia said. “Is that real fur?” “Real fur, real teeth, real everything. I think it was originally from some taxidermy animal, but someone cut it off and turned it into a mask.” “If it's taxidermy, what animal did it come from?” asked Joe, frowning. “You tell me. Bear? Wolverine? I found it in my grandparents' basement.” He nodded toward the country house further up the valley. “It's perfect,” Collin grinned. “Your cousin can be a kobold. She's got the hairy arms for it.” Alicia punched him, rattling his pauldrons. “There actually is a kobold in the story though,” Luke said. “It could work.” Alicia knelt and put an arm around her cousin. “You could run around and be all scary.” She made a monster face, hooking her fingers into claws. Reluctantly Clara took the mask. “Okay, everyone except Alicia inside,” Luke said, flipping through a story manual. “We're starting at an inn. Clara, you can be a serving wench. Like a waitress, but all you serve is ale, meat and bread.” “Little young to be a wench,” Alicia said. “Different kind of wench.” Alicia took a few seconds to get into character, then stepped inside and made a show of looking around before settling on the group. The three boys were seated on benches around a picnic table in the haystrewn barn (the busy inn), the afternoon sun streaming from the upper windows and falling dramatically upon the party. Gathering her cloak around her, she steered her way toward the adventurers. “Good evening, gentlemen. My name is Gemmes Sharn. I hoped I may have a word.” “You can have more than words, if you like,” grinned Joe. “Join us, have some ale!” At this a very young swerving wench swept up, holding a tray (a bit of plywood). “Would you like some ale?” “Yes, please!” Alicia said as she sat down. “What a delightful young wench! I will have one mug of ale.” The girl smiled and skipped away, and Alicia turned to the travelers. “Our meeting is no accident. I was sent to find you by my fellow mage, Tryan of –” “One mug of ale!” the wench said loudly, setting a water bottle on the table. “Would you like some meat or bread?” “Come on, now,” growled Collin. “We're trying to have a conversation.” “I would like one very special meat stew from your famous kitchen. Everyone says it's the best, but it takes a long time to prepare, and the servers will all have to help for at least five minutes in the kitchen. Understand?” She waved toward the kitchen (stable stalls). “One very special meat stew, coming up!” grinned the girl, running off. Alicia continued, “Tryan said you had found a strange scroll among the possessions of the Riktus King, whom you so valiantly vanquished some weeks ago. That scroll –” “Miss, do you want your stew spicy or mild?” came a yell from the kitchen. “Girl, if you don't stop interrupting us, I'm going to throw you in the street!” shouted Collin. “Gentle,” scowled Alicia. “It's in character,” shrugged Joe. She returned to the conversation at hand. “That scroll tells of a peculiar creature haunting the outskirts ...” She trailed off, turning, hearing a perturbing noise, a chuffing, barking voice coming from behind the plywood wall of the stables, speaking no recognizable words. Intellectually, Alicia knew it was Clara, acting the fool, but she could not connect it with the girl. The hair rose on her arms. Suddenly a small figure shot out from the stable toward their table, running on all fours. Without thinking, clearly startled, Collin leapt up from his bench, knocking it backwards, and the others had nearly as violent a reaction. The creature paused before them. Though small, its visage was a nightmare of fur and teeth, and its eyes were wild. It made a rasping cry and darted outside through the open door. “Clara!” Alicia said, shocked. “What the hell?” “Stay in character,” murmured Luke. “We can use this.” He reached into his white cleric's coat. “Your quest is timely, Gemmes. I have the scroll you speak of here. It is the account of a serpent monk of Sessu Goss, written in their hissing tongue, and it speaks of a creature he captured, a kobold. He sought to use the creature as a sacrifice to a dark god, but the sacrifice was rejected, and the subject escaped. Since then it has wandered the countryside, a creeping terror to the farmers and villagers. They say it cannot be killed.” 7

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