The following story was written for a player in my homebrew Dungeons & Dragons game. Stabby McStab Stabberton the Super Badass and Totally Terrifying and All That the Twelfth, is a Forest Gnome Rogue running from a god.
The game takes place in a homebrew version of Faerün. I’ve included a map to help visualize the locations mentioned in Stabby’s story.
A heavy blanket of quiet lay over the city of Orsarbour. Only the occasional sound of distant gulls and footfalls of some weary traveler broke the reverent silence. Stabby loomed over her guest. He shifted on the ground, waging war against the ropes which fought back earnestly around his wrists.
“Why did I tie you up?” Stabby’s lips were curled in a smug smile.
“Well, I can’t really give you a straight answer. Let’s say the quickest one is, you weren’t supposed to know who I was. But don’t feel too bad. You must have a hell of an eye to recognize me when I’m not in,” Stabby gestured broadly to her leather jerkin bearing stains and deep cracks, “costume.”
“Do you want to know the long answer?” Stabby took hold of the man’s chin.
The man shook his head, wide eyed. “No, no that’s okay. My memory is terrible! I’ll forget I ever saw you. Just please let me go.”
Stabby patted his head and plopped down in front of him. “Nonsense! I’ll give you the long answer.”
The man groaned as his head fell back in resignation.
See, my father was a great thief and made his way to the tippy top of our little city, Inkldir. Pardon the pun. It was definitely intended. Rumple Stealthskin, my aforementioned dad, raised me and my many brothers and sisters well. He taught us the way the world works, how to make it work for us, and all the nitty gritty of being “successful”.
So as I got older I took to performing in nearby towns. Elves are dour folk, even in the Dalelands, so it wasn’t very hard to capture their attention. I would perform flips, card tricks, and swindle some cheap, forgettable things I found around town. Just a bit of fun. Eventually, a few of my friends and brothers joined in and we had quite the system. My tricks would get more extravagant and our loot would get more valuable.
One day, we were swindling a pretty big crowd. Just before we finished, an especially tall elf – now I’m not just saying that cause you know (Stabby waves her hands vertically, emphasizing her short Gnomish stature). He waved at me to come down from my slackline. It was between two buildings. Twenty feet in the air. Just saying.
I did a really cool triple front flip and landed in front of him on one leg. This guy was dressed to the nines! It didn’t take an expert to know this guy was wealthy. So I eyed my oldest brother, letting him know to pay attention.
Usually tall folk bend down or kneel to talk to gnomes, the bastards. But this guy, nope, his back was as straight as a gold bar. I had a good feeling about him.
“Very well done. I’d like you to join our Spectacular Menagerie. Come see us if you’re interested.” He winked and turned away. I had no idea what he was talking about so we continued our little show and went home with pockets full of gold and jewellery.
Wouldn’t you know it, the guy somehow snuck a pamphlet into my pocket. He was good. Like real good. I showed my brother, my partner in crime, Stabert. The pamphlet unfolded pristine. No creases. A portrait of the elf stood proudly in front of a cast of all sorts. One guy has a sword halfway down his throat. Another looked like she was breathing fire. In the back, looked like a person with scales? Anyway, we were sold.
We snuck out that night and headed to the show. Just outside of our city was a massive tent, so deep purple it almost blended into the night if it weren’t for lights shining out from where the canvas met the ground. Just outside the tent we heard loud voices: cheers and hollers followed by a loud roar and then even louder cheers. No one stood outside to let us in so we lifted a flap and stepped in. It was the weirdest thing, it felt like time slowed walking through that opening, but everything around us was happening in real time.
I could see the pamphlet in my hand slip free and tumble gracefully through the air and into the hands of the tall elf standing in the middle of the tent. A jet black panther with long spindly tentacles stalked around him. In a moment, the beast vanished in a puff of blackness – not quite smoke, just black – before reappearing in front of the crowd. They all cheered like crazy. The tall elf motioned for us to take a seat.
We watched the entire show, seeing nothing like it before. Seriously. Have you ever seen a dwarf burst into flame and walk away? Insanity.
After the show, Stabert and I hung around to talk to the elf guy. By the time everyone cleared out and the performers started cleaning up the show floor, the elf came to our seats.
“I am so glad you came,” he said, bowing deeply. His voice scratched an itch in my brain I didn’t even know was there. His eyes shone black in the torchlight. Yeah it’s weird but I’ll get to that later.
“My name is Neremyn, leader of this unruly family of performers and freaks, and acquirer of all manner of curious things.”
He gave us a tour of around the tent, which seemed much larger inside than it could ever be outside. He introduced us to the beast tamer, who stroked the scruff of the panther-like beast. It’s tendrils wrapped around her arms and stroked the back of her neck as if imitating the action. He then introduced us to the women on the cover of the pamphlet. She took my hand and breathed a tiny wisp of fire. It danced in my palm, but felt cold.
We all chatted for what felt like hours until Stabert tugged my sleeve, eager to leave. It was really late. I thanked Neremyn for everything and mentioned I’d think about hisoffer. Just as I turned to leave, my body stiffened. I could see Stabert out of the corner of my eye who was also rigid.
“You misunderstand. I said come see us if you’re interested. Entering this tent sealed the deal.” My feet ground into the earth as I spun around purposefully. By the time I could see Neremyn, he was twirling his fingers in a circle in the air which stopped as I did.
“I like you. You show promise, not only with what you do out there, but what you can do in here,” he said pointing at his temple. “All you need is to be nudged here and there and people will come to truly love you.”
He flicked his finger and my muscles relaxed immediately. It felt like I had climbed the tallest building and my muscles ached. I fell to the floor when all I wanted to do was grab Stabert and run.
“You – you can’t keep us here!” my words came out ragged and quiet. I looked up at my brother who still stood perfectly still. His chest wasn’t even moving and I could see his lips going blue. “Please, let him go. He can’t breathe!”
“I can keep you here. Him? We don’t have need for him, but he isn’t leaving either.” I expected Neremyn to kill him right there. Instead he got up, lifted Stabert’s head and dropped a small pebble into his mouth. The whites of Stabert’s eyes were bloodshot. His lips cyan. And any recognition of me gone, when he turned his head. It was terrifying. It was like watching someone die but they’re not quite dead.
So he kept us there. In his spectacular show. I tried to escape, kill Neremyn or his lackies. Every time they beat the shit out of me. They got so bad, he forced me to dress up with a ruby red wig and a face painted like a doll’s to cover the bruises and burns. Stabert just wandered around following simple orders, still unbreathing, veins bulging, eyes red. They’d make him dig latrines, get food, and even wash Neremyn.
I heard whispers in the crowds some nights that my family was looking for Stabert and me. Finally after about two months, I saw my dad storm into the tent yelling bloody murder. I guess he found out where we had gone those many nights ago.
Neremyn stared at me with fury in his eyes. That didn’t stop me. I screamed for my dad from behind the scrim separating the crowd and backstage. His head snapped in my direction and I locked eyes with him through the narrow gap between the scrim and tent.
“You dare!”Neremyn shouted and snapped his fingers. My body became rigid once more and slid behind the scrim, out of side. “Your precious daughter is mine old man. No gnome can stop a god!”
I heard a clap. Then screams. Loud horrified screams and footfalls scrambling out of the tent. Through it all I could make out my dad’s voice cursing at the man who tore me away from him. Another clap, another guttural scream, and the sound of the worst wind storm.
Gusts tore at the canvas violently, threatening to collapse the entire tent. Sounds of cracking earth, and ear piercing unnatural sounds deafened me. The other performers held their hands over their ears and couldn’t hide fearful looks.
All at once, the wind and noise stopped. My feet gave way and I fell through the floor. First down then up as if being shot from a cannon. I stood in front of Neremyn on the other side of the scrim.
“My child. You will soon learn of the blessing I have given you here. I wish you would just accept the simple lessons, but you forced me to be a stern teacher.” Neremyn stood tall over me, taller than ever before. He spun his finger, turning me in place.
You don’t know horror. You don’t know agony, my friend.
It took me a long while to figure out what I was looking at. A ten foot pillar, wet, red, covered in patches of brown, pink, and white. Mattes of hair stood out in odd places. Near the top, twisted in agony was my father’s face. My lungs ached with the scream I couldn’t make.
“Stabert. Go embrace your dear old dad.” Stabert mechanically moved to the pillar and wrapped his arms around it. “Thus is your punishment Stabby. I am sorry.” Neremyn walked over, embracing the pillar and Stabert from behind. With a slow start, golden embers grew around their feet. Neremyn stepped back and gestured for the flames to grow.
Suddenly gasping, Stabert sucked in his first breath in months and began to scream. Do you know how long it takes for a body to burn? Hours. Eventually, the fire starved itself and died. My legs collapsed and my vision went black.
I woke up the next day feeling hungover. The tent still stunk of burnt flesh. Neremyn sat at the foot of my bed, stroking my leg. Seeing me wake up, he turned to face me.
“Please behave. To show no hard feelings, here is a gift.” He leaned over and kissed my forehead. I tried to run, to scream, to cry. But I had nothing left in me. His kiss went hot. A wave of intense heat then cold crashed over me. From what I could see, my veins down my arms went black for a moment. Then I blacked out again.
Days went by and it turned out we were in a town far from my home. I guess that’s why there aren’t ever any horses or carriages when the Spectacular Menagerie comes to visit. You noticed that haven’t you?
In a stupor, I put on my show, painted face and all.
Years went by with the menagerie and I guess you can say I fell in line. The other performers did help me hone my craft into what even Kings would pay to see. But one day, I found an opening. Neremyn let his guard down enough to leave me alone. All alone. No him. No lackies. Just me.
Why would he do this? I couldn’t have just run out of a magic teleporting tent right? Yeah. I figured he had some enchantment on the perimeter of the tent. I tried to run before and couldn’t get past the canvas. It was like when the flap was closed, the outside world didn’t exist.
This one day though, I gripped the flap and something went through me, like a wave of will, down my arm and into the flap. The canvas rippled and jerked unnaturally. Whatever resistance was there gave way and the flap lifted as a canvas flap should. You bet your ass I fucking bolted. No number of beatings would make me forget what he did to me. To my brother and dad.
Stabby took a deep breath. Her voice steadfast despite glistening tears rolling down her face.
“So it’s been a few years. He’s looking for me. Whenever someone like you gets a bit too cheeky and recognizes me as the Ruby Blade, I can feel it in my blood that he’s got a whiff of my scent.” She wiped her tears and stood up.
The bound man was motionless with cheeks wet with tears as well.
“I had no idea,” he stuttered, “please let me help. I know very powerful people.”
“Thank you. Really. But you can’t help me fight a god.” Stabby lightly stroked his hair before lashing out with her blade. A thin ruby line smiled across the man’s neck before releasing a curtain of blood.
Stabby wiped the blade with her shirt and stalked out of the alley, gravel crunching under foot, gulls calling in the harbour.