(no game today, so I wrote a short story. Takes place when Gal is about 18.)
The days were just beginning to turn hot, the sun staying up longer in the sky. Harvest had come, and with it a good mood around the market, but there were still many with empty bellies. No part of the year was kind on the unwanted.
“Thief!” a voice bellowed over the market. A young child fled through the stalls, clutching an apple in her hands. She couldn’t have been more than ten, and she clutched the apple like it was her last resort.
As she turned the corner, she ran headlong into a startled group of guards. One caught her by the hair, holding her still and causing the apple to drop to the ground. “A thief, huh?” one guard snarled, stepping forward. “There’s plenty of you. How well could you steal, missing a hand?” His grip on her wrist was like steel, and the child shrieked in terror.
“Sister!” A loud, clear voice cut through the crowd, parting it as easily as her hand. An older girl, just barely an adult, placed a hand to her chest and rushed forward. “Oh, Clarabelle. My dear, I’ve been looking all over.” She steered the girl to face her, the guards letting go of one arm out of sheer confusion. “Girl, how many times have I said? Don’t go outside without an escort. I swear.”
She turned to the guards with a winning smile. Her blond hair was pulled back into a braid that fell to her slim waist, and a lute was strapped to her back. “My apologies, good sirs. My poor sister Clarabelle is, uh… not right in the head. We usually keep an eye on her, but today the butler left the door open.” A deft flick of her foot and she got the apple into her hand. She shined it off and handed it back to a guard, followed by a few clinks of gold. “I’m sure that will cover the apple and the poor vendor’s bad day. No harm no foul!” Her laugh suggested a noble’s birth, and the guards straightened slightly. The vendor, having waddled up to stand behind them, said nothing.
“Yes, I…” The guards really didn’t have much to add.
“Let me get this child back home, or mother will be very cross,” she said, waving as she ushered the girl away.
Once they got around the corner, the lady sighed, all nobility charm gone. “Fuck, kid, you’re gonna get a stub being that careless,” she scolded.
The girl still looked terrified, tears streaking her cheeks. “Who are you?”
“I’m Gal. Gal La’Vant.” Gal sniffed, wrinkling up her nose. “How long you’ve been on the streets, kid?”
“A few weeks. My real name's Viola.”
Gal led her back to the compound. It was more like an old abandoned warehouse. Nobody had the key to the front door, and guards mostly left it alone, but a simple push at a slat around back granted the two access. Inside there were bedrolls and a facsimile of life. A fire was well-tended near the west wall, and a few people milled around, resting or eating. “It’s not anything permanent for people, except Ron,” she said, pointing out a man by the fire. “He cooks, and we try to keep him stocked. If you hang out here for a bit, we can show you a bit about surviving on the streets.” She pointed back the way they came. “And a hundred feet that way is a small stream on the edge of the forest. You can use it to wash up… please.”
It wasn’t long before Viola was asleep, probably having had to go without a safe place to put her head for a while now. Gal sighed, cocking her hip and going to head back out.
“You can’t save them all,” a bemused voice came from the corner.
Gal paused in her path, letting the other catch up and tilting her head as he did. “Watch me, Lele.”
Lele laughed, his face freshly shaven, holding out a hand and meeting her in their handshake. As usual, Gal took comfort in the familiar slap of their hands. “One day you’re going to meet a kid you can’t help, Mama La’Vant,” Lele said.
“You helped me,” Gal reminded him.
“No regrets.” She snickered, and he joined her in true best friend fashion. “You going back to market?”
“I’m going to have to wait for it to cool down. I’ll stop in later and check up on her. Any jobs?”
“Nah. Keep a look out, will ya?”
“Bitch, you know it.” They exchanged another slap of skin and then they were off. Gal found a good place by the courthouse to begin a performance, and by the end of the day she had several coins clinking in her hat. Nothing quite like an honest living. Not to say stealing never happened, but if they were going to go through the risk, they were going big or going home. Better to be hanged for a hundred gold heist than an bit of bread.
When Gal slipped back around to the compound, the place had quite a few more people but no Lele. She did find the girl, though, tossing her an apple. “To replace the one from earlier,” she explained.
“They call you… Mama La’Vant?” the girl asked, still timid. But clean. Gal hadn’t been the only one waiting for her to bathe.
“Ugh… I hate that nickname. Call me Gal.”
“Gal, I…” The girl rooted around in her pockets, before holding up a pendant. It was gold, and a ruby was set into the middle. “Here.”
Gal’s breath caught at the sight of the ruby, but she shook her head as quickly as she went to make the girl put the jewelry away. “Hold up. I didn’t ask for no treasure. And if you had it, why didn’t you just pawn it, idiot?” Hey, she took care of kids, but sometimes they were dumbasses. She was trying to refrain from cursing, though.
The girl shook her head, lower lip quivering, and insisted on giving her the jewelry. “It’s not for sale. My mom gave it to me. She didn’t say much, but she said it was related to our family’s worth… in the hills.”
Gal felt a shiver go down her spine. “Why the heck would you be going to the hills?” The place was a haunted graveyard a few miles out into the forest, centuries-old tombs reduced to stacks of rock and dimly-lit entrances. And they’d all been ransacked, so it wasn’t even worth the risk. Gal knew they were ransacked, of course, because she’d gone out there to do the same and come back disappointed.
“There’s one, the tomb of Valencia. Our family.” The girl sighed. “I can’t go. Maybe you can?” She walked away before Gal could give back the jewelry, so. Well.
Gal mostly planned on holding onto it for either an emergency pawn or to give back to the girl once she was ready. But the thought of adventure gnawed at her over the course of the night, and the thought of riches was even more tempting. So in the morning she packed up, snagging a piece of parchment to scrawl a messy letter to Lele. Writing was one thing she’d learned before being abandoned, and she’d thrilled in being able to teach something to Lele for a change.
Gone to the hills. Girl told me about some tomb stuff for the house Valencia, I want to go check it out. –Gal
She finished it with the date and time she left, gave it to a mutual friend to get to him, and then walked out.
The trek to the hills was always kind of pretty in the spring, and Gal enjoyed the view of the sun rising in the early morning sky. She got there not long after, picking her way through the rubble. She hadn’t before paid attention to the names on the tombs. Most were destroyed beyond recognition, but she could see letters and names here and there. Mostly old, old families, some still prouncing about in town as the village assholes—the nobility. But just as last time, besides the occasional spirit to avoid, the hills were empty, abandoned, and quite frankly depressing.
Gal spotted a rock in the side of a hill and climbed on top, now able to see further. She finally spotted a tomb, almost towards the very back, and could make out a bit of carving on one broken rock face: ‘Vale.’ Score. She hopped off the rock, rolled to her feet, and ran to the tomb. When she got there, she could see an entrance mostly blocked by rubble, the darkness beyond imposing. She climbed inside, lit a torch, and stared. It was…
It was merely a short hallway leading to a dead end. There were a few coffins set into the walls, and even these had been cracked open for the jewelry of the dead. Gal huffed, wandering around the hallway, the wind taken out of her sails. She’d lost a half-day of work now. Not a huge deal, and it wasn’t the girl’s fault, but ugh.
Thinking of her, Gal drew out the pendant to look over it again. Simple carvings were set into the gold circle, surrounding the ruby, but it was random and didn’t seem to hold any message. On a whim, she held it up to study it better in the small amount of daylight streaming in through the hole.
The ruby caught the sun and began to glow.
Gal yelped and dropped it, and the glow stopped. She scrambled to pick it back up, less startled now, to see the same effect. The ruby seemed to charge up in the sunlight, something she hadn’t been able to see in the daylight, and then a smaller thread of light snaked out from it. It pointed to the far wall. Gal wandered over and saw that it was piercing in the center of a small notch. On a whim, Gal pressed the pendant into the hole and saw it fit perfectly.
The wall slid in, and Gal silently pumped her fist. Not a waste of time… maybe.
Scared to take out the pendant in case the door closed behind her, Gal slipped into the opening and was greeted with a long hallway. Glowing mushrooms lined the walls, and when she extinguished her torch, she saw it lit up the area passably well. She crept down the hall, noting the lack of anything useful but also the large door at the end of the hall. The door stuck at first, but when she pushed it open, she saw a longer hallway, twisting and turning. Gal snuck down, keeping alert, and poked her head around one corner and seeing some unmoving figures resting upright. Statues, or undead guards? Gal decided to not find out. She was tempted now to turn back and get help, but they weren’t doing anything, and her fingers itched with the thought of undiscovered gold.
She kept going, simply sneaking past them.
A few more twists and turns, some more undead monstrosities giving her heart attacks, and she emerged into a hallway carefully carved into the cracks. As she was moving down this last hallway, she noted a hole in the ceiling, allowing light to pour in, which explained the half-inch of tepid water. There was a line on the wall that also indicated some amount of flooding, so she wasn’t getting any scrolls out of the place. The door at the far side was just as ornate as the first one, but this was possibly more intimidating, like a warning.
She creaked that open, pushing inside and ducking down to stay low.
Figures waited on the far side. Squinting in the dim light of the cavern, Gal saw an opening that would be better suited for a cave—did all tombs have this? How the hell did the house of Valencia swing all this? She hadn’t heard of their name as anything special, just a few survivors clinging to the lower rungs of the middle class… though their luck seemed to have changed for the worst recently, if the child was any indication. This was some kind of commentary on the temporary riches of nobility, or the fact that Gal had only been here eight years and wasn't technically from the area. There were doors set into the sides, and she could barely make them out, but the man-shaped things at the end of the room seemed to be statues, and not more gross mostly-decomposed bodies. She cautiously crept from her hiding spot, and when she didn’t trip any attacks, went about exploring.
Most of the rooms led to things the family would need in their next life: rotted clothing, dissolved food, pets… servants. Gal pulled a face at the last one, a few neat coffins set into the walls. Nobles weren’t much better now, but at least they stopped killing servants just to avoid pouring their own ale in the afterlife. Between the doors, she spotted large slabs of rock set into the walls, their carvings showing scenes of battle. Cool, but nothing she could pick up and steal.
Some of the side rooms had jars of gold and jewels, but not a whole lot, and her pockets weren’t filling up like she thought. Still, this was a good haul, and no regrets. She finally emerged from the last door, now only a few feet from the statues, looking down and seeing it.
A chest rested between the two statues, half-set into the wall, a trap string along the side. Looking up, Gal saw where rocks would be dropped, and disarming the old trap took just a matter of moments. The statues, she realized as she looked at them once more, were of old soldiers. They wore full plate armor, centuries out of style, and their swords were real.
Gal paused for a long moment, taking in their forbidding presence.
Then she opened the chest.
There was a chalice resting there, golden and covered in jewels. Gal caught her breath, hands hovering over the gold for a long moment. The creak of the lid opening seemed to echo around the tavern.
She snagged the chalice and shoved it into her bag.
All hell broke loose.
The statues began moving, rock crumbling and dust flying as their arms, unused for a hundred years, broke from their sides and raised their swords. Gal leapt away, feeling the bite of steel in her shoulder but not stopping her flight. There was a large crash from her side, and Gal barely dodged as one of the large stone slabs practically exploded outwards and was flung halfway across the tavern, revealing another corpse soldier inside. She kept moving, now dodging multiple stone slabs in her mad dash to the door, hearing the swords clanging as the army began to move.
“Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck,” Gal chanted, thankful they were so old, sure that was the only thing that was saving her. She managed to get out into the hallway, closing the door and hoping half their fingers had fallen off, before starting her run down the same intricately carved hallway.
She drew up short. Outlined in the door on the far end were the shambling bodies of the other corpses she’d seen along the way, blocking her escape.
Cold sweat dripped down her back as the door behind her began to shudder. The statues had made it, and they weren’t bothering with any mortal ‘opening the damn door.’ They were going to break it down to get to her, and judging from the sound, she had seconds, not more.
A rope smacked the side of her head and she grabbed it immediately. The door behind her shattered as she climbed the rope while it was being pulled up. Her injured shoulder ached as she got to the stone opening above and was pulled as it scraped along the side, but she felt the woosh of air from a sword barely missing her foot and clung tightly.
She was pulled from the rubble, somehow not far from the entrance, the entire thing having snaked around a few times. “Am I glad to see you,” she gasped, and was immediately pulled into Lele’s arms, who held her like she’d fall apart if he didn’t. It would be insulting, but Gal accepted it. For all of Lele’s teasing about her being like a mother hen, he worried ten times more.
“We should get out of here… I don’t know if they’ll be after me,” Gal said once Lele had hugged it out, and he nodded. He reluctantly let her go back to the entrance for the pendant, and the two skedaddled.
That afternoon, they sat in the warehouse, Gal down to her undershirt as Lele took care of her shoulder. The girl had gotten the pendant back and a few handfuls of gold and jewels, which was all she’d accept after hearing the story. For someone who was like twelve, she got the whole ‘payment for those who’d go’ thing, but Gal wondered if the statues would have even attacked had a member of the ancient house been the one inside. As for the rest, once everything was sold, the money would keep the warehouse in comfort for a couple of years.
“Don’t do shit like that again,” Lele admonished, his voice rough with anger.
“For the last time, I didn’t think it would be like that,” Gal sighed, wincing when he pressed into the cut a little too hard. “Ow, chill. Seriously. The hills have a few restless spirits and are mostly just creepy. You know it.”
“You first, jackass. You leave all the damn time.” Gal had lost count of the times she’d had to patch Lele up after some adventure he’d deemed too dangerous for her.
They fell silent. Ron came by with a cup of something hot, and Gal accepted it with her good arm and a nod.
“On the way back…” Lele was the one to break the quiet first. “It was a close call. I’d been looking for the entrance and heard some shouting, before finding the hole. If I hadn’t, or if I hadn’t brought rope…”
“You always bring rope,” Gal reminded him.
“You could have died. You could be dead, right now, with no way for me to get to you.” Lele paused, his fingers pressed to the skin of her shoulder, and she glanced at him. His face wasn’t unreadable, just a mix of so much that Gal had trouble picking it out. The majority was rage, but a few things that were just a blend of relief, and sadness, and something else that Gal knew had crossed her own face a few times in the last year. It felt personal, and Gal looked away.
“You’re the only person I trust around here,” Gal mumbled. “I didn’t leave you behind on purpose. I was just curious, and got in over my head.”
“I did that to you, didn’t I?” Lele lamented. “Where’s the sweet, innocent girl I met eight years ago?”
“She was ten, and hungry. You don’t get curious when you’re hungry,” Gal shot back, but smiled.
Lele snorted and slapped the bandage he applied, which caused her to yelp and hit him back. But his good mood was returned a bit now that they’d gotten the arguing out of the way. Risk-taking was sort of their thing as members of the lowest rung of society, so it was something they had to get over quickly. The two got up, Gal tugging on her shirt proper, and went to grab some food.
“And the house Valencia. You idiot. Any local here would’ve told you that they’re known as some of the biggest noble necromancers in the region,” Lele added as they sat down with their bread and meat.
Necromancers? That would’ve been nice to know. Gal looked up to see if the girl was around so she could chide her for leaving out some fairly important information.
The girl was gone. When Gal looked at her bedroll, she simply saw a new pendant, one of a mask.
Gal never saw her again.