“Well, thank you sir. It’s nice to be appreciated by someone of your obvious stature and…” I glanced at the pile of coins he’d haphazardly tossed on the bill tray, swallowed, continued, “...Social bearing. Did you know, I’m not actually a waiter, I’m just working a case. Yes, normally I’m rubbing elbows with Zane, he’s the Grand Marquis of Segav you know, and oh also the other Crowlords, you know I am one. But this particular case required me to investigate this particular bistro, up-scale as it may be. If you ever need something, say, looked in-to, don’t hesitate to call fine sir!”
I presented the bedazzled gentleman with a card in the best flourish I could muster, and slid a piddly amount of sir’s change into my own pocket. Without so much as a grumble, a feat I was surely proud of myself for, I collected the abused dishware onto my similarly over-used tray and wandered in the direction of the kitchen’s door, managing to present each esteemed guest on the way with another one of my fine cards. Francois DelRoe, the owner of DelRoe Bistro, would have my legs broken in a Segavian back alley if he ever found out about my business fraternization, but I wasn’t worried. It wasn’t likely he’d catch me...he never had before.
Back in the lowly worker’s realm, I dumped the pile of dishes into their proper place-ish, a growing pile of un-washed dishes that was threatening hostile take-over of the processing area due to gross negligence. I put the tray back on a rack that obviously hadn’t been built to proper, else my tray wouldn’t have rolled away.
In the backroom, one of the darkest and dingiest I’d ever laid card to table in, there was a small group of waiters and bussers thumbing well-stained and well-thumbed cards around a slightly smaller table. For some reason, they were all seven of them looking grumpily at me.
“Been waiting a long time, Feist. Doesn’t take that long to bus a damn table,” Grumbled a particularly unwashed and grumpy one. Another one, a horned gentleman currently leaning against an improvised mop-pillow hanging off the wall, mumbled a dissatisfied “Mm-hmm.”
“Gentlemen, gentlemen,” I started, retaking my seat and picking my cards back up, “It is only because I hold the utmost faith in your class of persons that I was away for so long, why, if I didn’t trust you fine gentlemen so much I would not have let Zane, the Grand Marquis of Segav, pull me into conversation. But I allowed him to do so, knowing you gentlemen are the classy kind of men who would never look at an absent man’s cards, or,” I looked at my noticeably smaller coin pile, “Take from an absent man’s pile” I finished flatly. Now it was my turn to look grumpy.
I played through another round with my cards, in which I lost hopelessly, as if every other man at the table knew what cards I was holding. Thanks to this in no way unfair defeat, I was feeling rather sour when the new hand was dealt. Not bothering to look at my cards, I tossed the ante into the pot then excused myself to make another bus run. Wisely, however, I first made a show of counting my coins and pocketing my playing cards.
Outside, I had ample opportunity to pass out a few more business cards, though some of the tables I bussed clean of appetizers turned up the ones I’d passed out previously in the tables’ trash. The people at the tables looked for all the world as surprised as they could be at my finding the cards in the rubble. Ah well. I shrugged to myself, straightened them out as best I could, wiped off any grime, and replaced them in my satchel.
As I was trying to use a fingernail to scratch a particularly sticky bit of I-don’t-know-what off of one of my recycled business cards, I saw the most beautiful women I’d ever laid eyes on, and the man whose arm she was led by, who’s obvious wealth outshined even her beauty. She had gorgeous chocolate brown waves of hair, cascading from her head alongside locks of golden honey, he had a custom-tailored silk lounging shirt, shining in the light with silver thread embroidery. She had big, blue eyes that gleamed in the setting sun’s rays that poured in through the window, set under thick curling lashes, while he wore a sapphire brooch to hold up his cloak that cast blue sparkles when those same rays hit it. She was dressed in a flowing satin number, so barely-there that with every step or movement of her arms, you were left guessing if you’d scored a peep at hidden flesh, but he wore boots of the finest leather, so soft and buttery it was as if he’d been melted down and poured into them, and the weapon on his hip had obviously never known battle, because that baby was covered in every gem and precious metal I had ever heard of, in a delicate hand-crafted swirling pattern from pommel to tip.
After a minor stroke, and a great effort to pry my jaw off the floor, my eyes finally decided to focus on the muck on my shoe. Grabbing at my right arm, which had grown a mind of its own and had tried to appropriate a loose gem from the sword at its owner walked by, I kept my eye on the muck and toddled off back to the backroom before more of my limbs decided to fix my debt problems the fast way. In the background, I heard the maitre’d telling the Marquis of Tuin that appetizers had already been served, but sir and ma’am were welcome to be seated for the main course.
Ignoring the apparently contagious grumpiness that had taken hold of the card table since my last exit, I once again resumed my place in the game. Amazingly, it was already my turn. I counted my coins, ensuring no more had been appropriated to the table, and pulled the cards out of my pocket, finally deciding to have a glance at them. Divine Zanil, things were looking up! I saw a 3,4, and a 9 smiling up at me. I glanced at the two cards lying face up on the table, then tried to contain my grin. This hand could - I swallowed - this hand could erase a good chunk of my debt. The table held a surprisingly large pot, and these fellas played with a steel buy-in for each round, minimum. Waiters and bussers the lot of them, but I supposed it was easy to save up money when you spent your every waking hour slaving over an open volcano pit. Some of these poor saps slept here, evidenced by the hastily balled up bed rolls that had occupied the floor before the table was set up. Yes sir, their misery was my gain. With this pot, I might actually be able to keep some of the profit on my next case...provided I had a next case any time soon. I couldn’t remember the last time I was so deep in debt… well, I could, but not the last time I was so deep in debt and so out of work. This little hand could solve my problem.
The boss stuck his head in the crack in the door, and while my fellow players all looked mildly surprised, they put up only a token attempt at hiding the card game from his view.
“All the tables are done with their appetizers, so we’ve pulled the snack and refreshment trays and have started setting up for the main course. Get the Rabbear on plates, pronto!” His head vanished the second he uttered the last syllable, and there was a sudden flourish of movement as the hirelings jumped to comply. I moved a tad more sluggishly, mourning over the pause in the cards hand that would surely provide me a windfall. I was surprised when my compatriots bulldozed past me with serving trays topped with what I assumed was Rabbear. I was impressed with the haste with which everything had been accomplished, surely the speed with which the food was raised from the lava, cut, and served had everything to do with the bistro’s efficiency and nothing to do with the negligibly short amount of time I’d spent sitting in the back room. When I emerged to fulfill my duties, I was astonished to find there was naught for me to do. Chalking it up to good planning, because of course it wasn’t down to the miniscule amount of time I spent brooding over the cards, I proceeded to lean against the far wall of the kitchen and liberate some hard cheese from underneath my thumbnail.
Entranced in this endeavor, I didn’t notice anything amiss until I heard a scream from one of the door tenders. Perhaps the silly woman had accidentally broken a fingernail, or found a split end. Tedious of course, but I decided - so long as it was the redhead and not the ghastly blonde - to provide myself as an owner of a shoulder to cry on. I tossed my gaze in that direction for a quick check and found my legs carrying myself in the opposite direction. Leaping back into the card room, I processed my thoughts for a moment. The giant steel doors, which the door tenders would open in order to lower uncooked food closer to the magma pit, had fist-shaped dents in them punched in from the other side. I had only just recovered my thoughts and peeked out from behind the door when a massive skeleton covered in lava ran by, leaving puddles of magma behind to burn through the floor and fall down back into the bowels of the volcano. It was man-sized, but the bones were thick and long, as if a few choice bones had been stolen from giant animals to make a vaguely human shape, but for the love of Zanil why?
Before I realized it was chasing the rest of the kitchen staff, the whole group burst through the double doors into the dining room. I grabbed a steak knife from a piece of meat, and did my best to hold my lunch when the crust came off with the knife and the piece of meat revealed itself to be the head chef’s face. I mostly succeeded. I shook the knife a little bit and definitely did not scream ‘eew,’ then rushed off into the dining room. While I was scanning the room for Mr. Bone Man, I realized that Zane, the Grand Marquis of Segav, was actually in attendance. In fact, it appeared he was the only one who wasn’t actively running in fear from the flaming, lava-covered skeleton that beat its way in from the volcano. No, he was sitting serenely, munching on a bit of leftover appetizer and looking at what I assumed to be his bodyguard. He tossed a careless hand toward the monster, then immediately seemed to stop caring.
His bodyguard stood, and I realized he’d been hiding in the shadow his - head? - cast. When he stood, the top of his body brushed the cavernously tall ceilings, a mass of branches and leaves. Most of his gigantic body consisted a thick, sturdy tree trunk, and instead of legs he had countless roots moving independently to somehow propel the entire thing forward.
“Do hurry up, Zook.” Zane called lazily over a kebab. The tree(?) looked - pleased? - and seemed to nod(?) then rushed over to the bone creature. Half way, he was intercepted with the massive pillar that held up the center of the bistro’s roof. Made of stone and thicker around than the tree-thing, it seemed to give him pause. I could almost see the rusty, unused gears in its head moving, as if it couldn’t figure out how to move around it. Then, a dim light lit behind Zook’s eyes, and with all the effort of picking up a quill pen, he tore it from its moorings and tossed it haphazardly over one shoulder. On its way over, it tore a deep gash in Zooks neck(?) but by the time it flew out of contact, the wound’s other side was already healing up. When he neared me, I allowed my jaw to swing free and stepped away so he wouldn’t feel the need to eliminate the problem of me being in his way.
I looked back at the bone monster. It seemed to have somehow noticed Zook’s very subtle and quiet approach. As Zook approached melee range, and began to draw a hand back for a blow, the skeleton seemed to sigh, raised a hand, and flicked at some of the lava on its shoulder.
The glob flew towards Zook, and the bark that made up the tree-thing’s midsection immediately caught flame, and with a “FIRE BAD” he fled the bistro.
This seemed to alarm the rest of the terrified guests into action...running like mad at the door in a mass escape attempt. The bone monster lept into the center of the fray, and gazed intently at somone...not the Grand Marquis of Segav, he was sitting at his table still, looking stunned. No, it was - I jumped to see above the mass of heads - it was the owner of the delicious looking sword (and woman)! The Tuin Marquis stood firm and apeared to be readying to fight -I think. Hard to tell with the swarming bodies between us - but the skeleton was on him faster than I’d ever seen anything move. The marquis had barely drawn his cane sword in defense when the skeleton groped at his back, wrenched a bone dagger free, and plunged it into the marquis’s chest. As the marquis stepped back, gaping and stunned, the bonehead shoved a second dagger in his chest, and finally he pulled a boney sword from gods-know-where and plunged it into and through him.
I thought that would be the end of it, that the skeleton would jump from guest to guest happily murdering whoever he may, but he didn’t. He stood there, waiting. He waited until the Marquis of Tuin fell to his knees, then grabbed his shoulders. The marquis screamed, so piercing and awful it was as if the building shook. I clapped my hands over my ears and realized everything was rattling - the building was shaking! I watched in horror as the bone creature shoved its thick boney arm down the marquis’s throat, and saw the marquis tense up even in his stupor as the creature grabbed something. Green light began spilling out of the marquis’s throat as the skeleton retracted its arm. When its hand pulled free, it was clenched hard around the source of the green light, a blinding bright something. This was carelessly tossed aside, and the skeleton finally turned away from the dead marquis who, grotesquely, remained in a kneeling position slumped though he was.
I looked around helplessly and realized even the Grand Marquis had gone now, the only ones left in the bistro were myself, the marquis of tuin’s date, and the lava-covered skeleton who had just crazy-murdered a marquis. It began walking toward me and my hand tightened on the knife. I was already armed, I didn’t have to reach for anything, and I was a Crowlord damnit, I would fare better than the tree-thing or the marquis. I ignored the warm feeling on the inside of my right leg. As the skeleton approached, I tried to shift into a fighting stance, but it backhanded me across the room as easily as Zook had removed the stone pillar. As I flew through the air, I wondered vaguely if I had a colorful glowing something inside me, or if it was just a rich-people thing. I crashed against the wall and crumpled into a heap.
I was surprised to breath a sigh of relief however, when splinter exploded upwards from the very spot I’d been standing upon. Up came a bushy crown of branches and leaves, followed by an angry(?) looking Zook face(?). He appeared to have completely forgotten his previous burns, and handily picked up the skeleton and swung him around by his feet until the globs of now-hardening lava flew off him and began setting small fires here and there on the bistro floor. With all the magma gone, I realized the bone creature, the terrifying thing that had beaten the tar out of a marquis and a crowlord - no easy feat - was just a man in a suit of armor. I gaped at the sight. Zook pulled the man back in and began to crush him in a vise-like grip between his two hands. The man in the bone armor’s face began to turn red, and his mouth fell open, as the doors into the bistro were thrown open and dozens of Blue Robe templars spilled in. At their fore was the famous Kailen Larroc, most recent Blue Robe leader to not die. The late marquis’s mistress took that splendid opportunity to dash out of the bistro -faster than any gal in six-inch heels had any business dashing- and I did not begrudge her the view she provided me on her way out. Very thoughtful of her to tear her already mostly non-existent skirt.
Kailen shouted to Zook.
“When I say go, drop him!” he instructed him. He stared at Kailen with vacant eyes for a moment, then dropped the man, and revealed that the pressure of the squeezing hold had cracked his armor into pieces.. Kailen seemed to look grieved for a moment, but when the man hit the floor, safely away from Zook’s body, he dropped his hand. As one, the Blue Robes began throwing spells, spells I’d never had the pleasure of hearing cast in real life, spells that belonged to the upper cortexes. And every single one of them hit home. Each spell crashed against the armor clad man and broke like a wave against his flesh. Brilliant flashes of color, gouts of flame, streams of acid, and bolts of lightning Mouth still open, it had not found a reason to shut yet, I looked at the bone armored man to see what that many upper cortex spells all hitting at once did to a man. My mouth remained open when my eyes found the answer; Nothing.
The man ran forward at the Blue Templars, who were frantically throwing more and more upper cortex spells at him, and seemed to ignore them entirely as he jumped neatly over them and dashed away. I glanced back to Zook to see what he was going to do about it, but he seemed to be futilely attempting to clean up. As the Blue Robes rushed after our uninvited guest, I decided to see what could be seen from the body of the marquis. Other than his mouth and throat being stretched grotesquely beyond the normal limit, there didn’t appear to be anything wrong with him. His purse held no coin either, he appeared to have simply been out on the town with his mistress. As I debated with myself the value of his sword and sapphires vs the fact they were very recognizable and the theft would almost assuredly land me in jail, I noticed something was...off. The body remained, but it’s shadow began stretching and pulling, doing nothing for the nightmares I was already promised. It grew and grew, until it seemed to take up the whole room, cavernous as it was. As I jumped back to view the thing in its entirety, I realized. Our dearly departed Marquis of Tuin...was a Dragon.
Unfortunately, the poorly treated building, with its exploded floor, missing support pillar, and various inflamed sections, realized this fact at the same moment I did. Zook and I shared a look, then bolted for the exit.
From the safety of a nearby cliff, we watched as the bistro pulled off its moorings and fell away into the volcano.