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  Richmond, Henrico County, Virginia

  Wat Tyler had walked away from his first meeting with Major James Littlehall of the Virginia Regiment with the lingering impression of a frantic moustache given life and moored beneath a pair of eyes which could bulge and squint concurrently in the manner which only the most choleric taskmasters seemed capable of.

  He recalled another man with a similar aspect – John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster – but the last time Wat had seen the Lord High Steward he'd been in full panicked flight as his palatial London home gaily burned. Sarding devil-toad. Maybe Wat'd died like a chump, but those last months of his life had had their moments at least. Happy days.

  At that meeting Wat had been outranked, even if in a different service and a different chain of command. Furthermore, after being introduced the color of the Major's tag had revealed him to be an Iron-ranked expert. Both demanded respect, even if Littlehall did not project a calm aura of command, though he had 'imperious' down to a 'T'. Demanded respect even if Wat had to fight his brazen urge to stare at the man's twitching dagger whiskers.

  And the man had a temper, even if he remained perfectly civil while they talked. Wat judged this not from his manner, but from the manner of his underlings. Like whipped dogs.

  "So this tory mug, William Whose-It, is heading for Charlottesville then?"

  "Will be, Sir. He hath nat yet, but I have myn men over him. He is a slimy beggar though and, like the eel, he'll slip away from the trap if he seen it aforehand. 'William Mark' seems versed well in cities, by oure reports, so better he nat be in Richmond. Twas mostly in caution whan I came to thee... you... so that you'd be apprised. If anything goes awry."

  Major Littlehall had chewed that over, for more than a minute.

  "Have you sent any of your men ahead?"

  Wat had not and had said as much. He would have, but William Marshal was travelling with fellows. That was new. They'd discussed it and and come to the conclusion he'd managed to establish a circle in Virginia.

  This had created a conundrum for Wat and his merry men (and woman). He could send someone to inform the garrison in Charlottesville, hoping in their competence and willingness to cooperate. Alternatively he could split their party and send forth Sergeant Straw to set up an ambush. He had planned to do both, but if Marshal had the confederates and was sharp enough – something Wat would not wager against – he could attack his remaining watchers and slip the hook, resulting in Wat losing half his fellows and with nothing to show for it. Alternatively he could take everyone and set up the ambush himself, but that would mean letting Marshal out of his sight. He would risk neither.

  "There is an active full company of the militia in Charlottesville, Lieutenant." This was a surprise for Wat, "So many o' them?" Counties in most of Virginia – north of the James River that is – seldom kept more than platoon active, and sometimes not even that. Mostly only for the purposed of discouraging slave revolts and hunting down runaways. "By dint of position. Between the Shawnee, fierce magical beasts and the Blue Ridge dungeons that presence is a necessity."

  There was one other exception he knew of though, and he had found himself nodding. The ports of Norfolk and Suffolk were situated on the southern bank of the James River estuary which put them in dangerous proximity to the Great Dismal Swamp. That place was home not only to powerful dungeons but also some of the most frightening magical beasts in the New World outside of Amazonia and bitter hardened remnant tribes like the Nansemond. More infamously it was home to Fawodhodie, whose name was routinely butchered in more ways than the number of reconstituted African tribes which comprised the fractious coalition and on more occasions than the number of escaped slaves who did the comprising. Most infamously of all it was home to the Platinum-ranked beast known as 'the Chesapeake Devil.'

  If the Blue Ridge mountains were anything like as dangerous as the Great Dismal Swamp, Wat understood completely. Within the United States the swamp had a reputation every bit as infamous as exotic locales like the Carpathian Mountains, the Strait of Messina, the Teutoburg Forest, Cameroons, the Forest of Dean and Loch Ness. Not Amazonia or the Sahara though. A child knew they were a category all their own.

  Still, it had Wat concerned that maybe they might be heading into an area that was beyond them. On the other hand, it also meant that there was potentially an even more formidable force positioned to ensnare Wat's high and mighty prey.

  "Well," the Major had intoned, drawing the word out. "I could send a rider of my own with a dispatch for Captain Smith in Charlottesville ordering the assistance of one of his platoons on your behalf. One who knows his way along Three Notched Road. Quid pro quo, that is."

  "Nat a priest, Major Littlehall."

  "As in, you're interested regardless?"

  "As in, that all sounded well and good, Sir, but then I'm nat one to know any Latins."

  Wat remembered Littlehall's smirk. It had been every bit as condescending as one William of Walworth; a mirror which had impressed upon Wat an instant dislike of Littlehall. "Then I shall clarify, Lieutenant Tyler. I will do this thing for you, if you do something for me in return. Nothing onerous, you have my word."

  Wat had fought down his spike of rage, reminding himself that Littlehall was Iron-ranked, and gestured for Littlehall to go on.

  "I don't know if you're aware, Wat," the Major shifted to a first name basis unasked, "that you, and your Sergeant, have a reputation. And a large part of Jack Straw's reputation is that, despite his low station, he is something of a Lothario. A rakehell. A ladies' man. In short, a seducer. Would you support this characterization?"

  "Ay, that is Jack. Whan he isn't in his cup. There's some what called him Rakestraw. I'll point it out that even he seurely hath standards."

  "Standards of conduct?"

  "By heaven stranger things have happened, so it mightest be he hath one or two buried somewhere, but what quod I was standards o' beauty. Nay, Goldistraw would nat lie down with just any trull."

  "Not a problem I suspect. You subtly point him towards the virtue of one specific rose on your passage westward, that's all. I send a rider to Captain Smith with instructions to have one of his platoons block the road at the hamlet of Shadwell with instructions to follow your orders. Is this acceptable?"

  Wat Tyler wasn't the most respectful man, at times he was downright crude. He had no kind regard for these second-life sufflagellants (or whatever they were called) who washed up on this shoal of eternity and insisted on trying to turn society on its head and malign him, after sixty-two years of living (twenty-one of them here), as some kind of stick in the mud. He made no apologies for who he was or the proper order of things ordained by God, but neither did he forget what else God commanded. At his core he was still a Goodman; married with a wife upon whom he had doted. He was, or had been, a father who had loved his daughters dearly. No less so than his sons.

  "An who is sche, this flower?"

  "The eldest daughter of Avery Partridge in Shadwell. He's a landowner with a few scant holdings east of Charlottesville."

  Wat also wasn't a stupid man. Littlehall wasn't telling him anything, but then he was fair judge of men and he flattered himself that he knew Littlehall's motive well-enough; Greed. He sighed inwardly to see that, in this land without king or lords the taint of corruption still stuck. But when necessary Wat Tyler was also more devious and backstabbing then he had been, and so he'd only nodded and said; "I'll do you this thing." All the while praying to God for the oppertunity to plant a dagger in this sinner's back, and keep his head while he was about it.

  That had been about five hours ago, by his reckoning, and it had been only an hour ago that Cuddy and Isack had tracked into their Inn to inform him that they'd lost track of Marshal. Cuddy had been casing the Delver's Arms. They discovered that 'Bill Mark' was a member a of the associated guild and guild members got a discount at the Arms. It had seemed worthwhile keeping an eye on the place.

  "Oh, how could ye lose him now, both o' ye? Thou art the new butterfingers in this gaggle. Ye better be telling me what happened. Now an all o' it. Did he seen ye?"

  "No, Lieutenant. Don't think so. One minute he was there and the next gone." Isack nodded in agreement, "I thought he'd gone into the Arms."


  Playfair property, Three Notched Road, Goochland County

  Three Notched Road wended through Goochland County, twisting and turning, winding in upon itself. Almost as if the crew which had cut the road had been in a perpetual drunken haze of near insensibility. The River James could have taken lessons on how to wend properly from Three Notched Road. Or, so it seemed to Dobson at times.

  The real culprits were the myriad streams and creeks which cut into Goochland County, dueling tributaries to either the James or the South Anna rivers. Apparently crossing the streams was a very bad thing, at least to judge by lengths the original road went to avoid doing so. Three Notched Road resembled many watercourses, however, in that it did not keep to a single route. Later additions split from and rejoined it – shortcuts and other deviations – but all remained part of the same road.

  There were farmsteads adorning the road – areas cleared and plowed and planted – but most of the country was wild with the graceful thin-trunked beech trees pressing right up to the roadside, occasionally notched by the markers which gave the route it's name. Three parallel cuts into the bark. The forests of Virginia were all deciduous, but it was Fall was half-a-year off yet and so the trees were still wreathed in a vibrant shocking green admitting only a dappled light to the forest understory.

  All sorts of magical beasts lived in the depths and every time he passed beyond the shadows of the looming trees into the open cultivated land of a farmstead, hamlet or mill, he breathed a sigh of relief.

  Dobson was riding across muddy streambed of Lickinghole Creek adjacent to the Playfair homestead when his luck ran out. He had some experience fighting magical beasts and while he wasn't Bronze-ranked, he was at least a high Copper. Dobson had seen the elephant, so to speak, but he never looked twice at the cow grazing at the side of the road. The cow which waited carefully until he was passed before it agroed. It's Electrum tag flicked into existence with a dull silvery-golden sheen rimmed in the bloody writhing tendrils of a hostile, proclaiming it to be a Horribly Unsporting Vampiric Cow. Hew Dobson didn't see this at first because he didn't look. And then later he was too dead to look.

 

(LESSER HUMAN) TARGET ENTITY HAS HAD THEIR LEG RIPPED OFF BY SURPRISE, -54 HP x4

 

  It happened so quickly that Dobson didn't have time to read the popup or for the pain to reach his brain. There was only confusion as to the source of that morbid sound; like wallpaper being torn off only more... wet.

 

(LESSER HUMAN) TARGET ENTITY HAS HAD THEIR SPINE SHATTERED, -51 HP

 

  That came with a loud crunch and a sound like a string of firecrackers. At this point, as he fell forward to the ground he had some glimmer that all was not right. Panic flooded his system, but it was too late.

 

(LESSER HUMAN) TARGET ENTITY IS DEAD. 126 EXP. ([level]x10x[species experience quotient).

 

  The bovine predator drained Dobson's body with loud enthusiastic slurping before dragging it off into one of the property's barns where it joined a growing pile of decomposing bodies. His leg joined the rest of him two minutes later. The dispatches he carried for Captain Smith were still in his dispatch bag.

  Six or seven miles down the road from the Playfair place, up on the drystone walls surrounding Byrd's Ordinary and the tiny hilltop hamlet of Shannon, a young woman shuddered and lowered her borrowed telescope. The people standing with her all muttered curses or crossed themselves against evil.

  Janett Playfair prayed for somebody, anybody, to butcher that darned overleveled cow. Prayed for vengeance for everybody she'd ever loved.

  For that she'd pay any price asked. Even her soul.


  Manchester, Chesterfield County, Virginia

  Bill Marshal was fully confident in the effectiveness of his disguise. His own mother wouldn't recognize him. He was glad for it too. Fortunate even. He just wished he wasn't drawing quite so many stares.

  The second-life tailor had – first time for everything – set up a bargain bin. It was filled with items which for some reason or another weren't selling. Which is how he came to be adorned with a comfortingly familiar Army-style pith helmet and a pair of oversized heart-shaped sunglasses studded with rhinestones. While of questionable taste, the second item concealed much of his face and he'd observed far worse crimes against fashion being perpetrated by second lifers.

  His choices as far as actual clothing went were far more circumscribed. Under his now open waistcoat, he wore something called a 't-shirt' in a nice masculine pink, somewhat confusingly embroidered with the words 'Spice Girls.' He fell back on an old axiom - 'never try to understand second-lifers from your own future.' That way led to madness.

  He'd also bought a t-shirt emblazoned 'AC DC' with a lightning bolt in-between, appreciating that the designer's homage to advancements in electrical engineering. That was safely tucked away in his magic inventory though; something he still regarded with no small amount of awe, long years since he'd worked out how to use it. If they'd cottoned on to the fact that he'd been an electrician that might give him away.

  Nobody would confuse him for someone trying to travel incognito now.

  He'd replaced his thrice-cursed knee-length breeches with an expensive set of denim 'jeans' and leather cowboy chaps which weren't on sale in the hope they would help him appear more American and so even less suspect. Not at all because he was indulging in a little boy's Wild West gunfighting fantasies. No, good sir. Not him.

  And then there was his business at the barbers. He hadn't wanted to shave his handlebar off. It was manly and virile. But he'd seen no other choice. Now they were so hot on his trail that it was just too recognizable.

  It didn't matter if they knew what he normally looked like. It didn't matter if some of them had even seen him before. As long as they couldn't recognize him as someone they'd met and so trigger his tag, he was safe. On his side was his penultimate skill, grinded by years of paranoid evasion;

 

-{Wall Flower}-
Rank 9

Progression |

Ranking this skill requires active focus to be applied to the act of hiding one's identity or presence without the use of stealth.

Effects |

Each rank provides the equivalent bonus of an additional +2 Luck, up to a maximum of +50, when reckoning the effectiveness of hiding in plain sight. This does not directly increase the Luck attribute. [Next Effect Unlocks at Rank 25].

 

  A large share of his total experience actually came from ranking up -{Wallflower}-. Probably more so than any other skills, locations or creatures killed.

  He wasn't sure whether that had been good or bad as means of progression, though he suspected the latter given that he was only Level 7. There was also the experience dampening effect of being a second-lifer to consider - he'd sat down with pencil and paper in Williamsburg and worked out that he'd lost more than 800 experience to that. He would be Level 8 already otherwise which was a bit galling. Nonetheless, -{Wallflower}- had proven unspeakably useful so Bill couldn't bring himself to truly lament the time spent on it.

  Deciding that he couldn't risk returning to the Unicorn Shank today lest he betray his new appearance, Bill secured new lodgings across the river in Manchester. Considering it, he decided that his safest course of action was to go to tomorrow's wedding and inform either Hannah or Isaac that he'd meet up with them again on the road. Hopefully the hounds on his backtrail would jump to the conclusion he'd bolted and abandoned them. He considered that too, but decided this would be safer in taking him away from areas he'd previously travelled.

  Bill holed up and spent the evening cultivating, drawing Plasma essence from his sword and purifying it into pure mana fibres in his core while in tandem raising his Plasma affinity.

  From those mana fibres he braided gossamer-thin ethereal 'cord' which he wove into the beginnings of an intricate celtic knot which, upon completion, would encompass a single unit of core mana. He didn't have to be so exacting in his knot size – apparently many experts had knots of varying sizes or even kept all their core mana in a single knotted tangle, but Bill saw no reason not to be orderly and meticulous about something so important when it cost him nothing to do so. It was the electrician in him.

  Where the cultivation technique fitted into the process was the initial purification. While it was within his core that the essence was purified, he had to circulate his free mana through his entire body to drive the process. It was exhausting and by the time his bath was ready, before dinner, he needed it to rid himself of the sweat he'd accumulated.

 

 

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