Out of Character
Beauregard, the Rat-King of Castelan, stretched languorously across the musty couch and poured himself a third glass of wine.
There were papers on a nearby table waiting for his attention, but he hadn't looked at them. He understood the business he was in very well, although it did seem to grow persistently more complicated the longer he held his present position. All he did was sleep and drink, collect tribute, and keep six separate sets of books in order. The monotony made him want to travel to another city where he could start working the streets again. He wouldn't make nearly as much money, but at least picking pockets kept him sharp.
It was too easy to be lazy.
Beauregard lit a cigar. About the only perk of his job was the sumptuous residence he'd inherited with it, the famed Whitcastle Manor.
Beauregard had decided that Countess Sabila Whitcastle Van Reu's former boudoir would be his new base of operations. Moth-chewed red velvet curtains of indeterminate age and a cracked diamond dust mirror hung at a jaunty angle gave the space a sense of both elegance and decay. Beauregard might have had any room in the great sprawling house, but only under the hawk-nosed portrait of the notoriously arrogant Whitcastle matriarch did he really feel like the Prince of Thieves.
"You know, I do believe this is the most comfortable couch man has ever made," Beauregard said aloud to Countess Sabila, not that she was present to hear him. The infamous witch was at least forty years dead, according to most. "It may be worth the expense to have it recovered. Perhaps in blue silk?" he suggested. "That is, if you have no special plans for it yourself, milady." Beauregard always took special care when addressing the dead. One never knew if they were listening.
So far as Beauregard knew, the few Whitcastles who weren't murdered were gone from Castelan, along with everyone else vaguely respectable. When it became clear that the King of Torres couldn't protect his southernmost city from the Mistfolk, the remote island fortress had fallen to the men and women without enough money to leave. Castelan had been managed with varying degrees of efficiency by criminals ever since. Some called it "the worst" of the Satrapies, which Beauregard thought was a bit unfair.
What right did a well-born fop really have to lord over hardworking people? Rich or poor, well-born or humble, in Beauregard's mind, all men had the right to be their own masters.
Six years ago, Beauregard's former mentor, the legendary Guildmaster Sharky, had been the first rogue in Castelan to move into a lord's abandoned house. When the rich folk had run for their lives, they'd spared no expense securing the possessions they'd left behind with enchantments to keep them out of the hands of "the rabble". Sharky had accidentally destroyed the arcane ward around Whitcastle Manor, but he'd told everyone he'd done so on purpose, flinging the grand front doors open and declaring himself to be King of the Rats. As Sharky explained it, there was no sense in being a thief when it was more profitable to pick clean the bones of the dead.
To be more respectful to the former ladies of the House, who certainly hadn't deserved their ugly fates, Beauregard and most of his minions were still in the habit of entering Whitcastle Manor through the kitchen.
The sound of the kitchen door immediately caught his ear. He could also hear footsteps, the distinctive, shuffling gait of a person he knew very well.
Skin was back, he noted. But Skin wasn't alone. Following close behind him was someone who walked more softly than a trained thief. Either the person was wearing soft-soled shoes, or they were so small and slight that they could make it up the stairs without causing a single board to creak.
Beauregard, even when drunk and lazing about, was still sharper than most men could ever hope to be. His favorite lieutenant, Skin, sometimes said that the Beauregard could hear the heartbeat of a rat at fifty paces. Beauregard liked to add that he could also impale the little bastard with a throwing knife without ever setting down his wine. That was a bit of an exaggeration, but at fifteen paces, there wasn't a rat in the world that could escape him. Or a man for that matter.
Beauregard glanced up at the grand old clock, realizing how quiet it really was. The clock was notably not doing its job, which meant it could be either much earlier, or much later than he believed it to be. He yawned and tried to sit up, splashing warm, somewhat sour wine everywhere in the process. Where his shirt had gone was a mystery, but he wasn't in the habit of wearing one most of the time. Though some considered it indecent, Beauregard liked showing people the crisscrossing scars all over his body. It sent a very particular kind of warning to his would-be enemies.
The King of the Rats was difficult to kill.
Composing himself a little, Beauregard dried his hands on his pants, kicked his empty wine glass under the wardrobe, and picked up the papers waiting on the table in front of him so that he could pretend he'd been working. What he really wanted to do was take a nap. The couch he'd been lying on was so comfortable that he sensed it would be preferable to any bed in the house, even the downy soft one on the third floor that he'd been sleeping in for years. In the six long years he'd ruled, Sharky had never once disturbed the ladies rooms, but Beauregard's curiosity was such that it had to be satisfied. As soon as he had the Manor's enchanted keys in his possession, he'd gone exploring.
That was how he'd discovered the boudoir and the glorious couch.
Skin opened the door to the Countess's boudoir, a petite female figure in black following close behind him. She was a very pretty girl, with honey-colored skin, silky black hair, and a dancer's build. Her bright blue eyes were the only thing about her that Beauregard considered unattractive.
Generally speaking, witches were more trouble than they were worth.
"Who's this?" Beauregard asked Skin. He took a step back when his lieutenant started scratching his neck. As his nickname suggested, "Skin" had some sort of nasty condition that made his face and nose peel constantly like an onion. His wardrobe of basic black always appeared to be covered in snowflakes. Beauregard found the whole business repulsive and unhygenic, but he did appreciate Skin's loyalty.
"She asked to see you," Skin shrugged.
"And you just let her in?" Beauregard frowned.
The witch didn't say a word. Beauregard noticed that she was staring at his couch.
"Well?" He prompted. "What can I do for you?"
"On behalf of my master, I am prepared to offer you a considerable sum of money," the woman said.
"And what does your master want from me?" Beauregard eyed her suspiciously.
"Your couch," the witch replied.
She passed him a folded piece of paper. He opened it, and studied the outrageous number written on the inside. The amount immediately made him suspicious. "I think I should probably sleep on this," Beauregard said.
"No!" The witch gasped, looking alarmed. "You can't! You absolutely can't!"
"Sweetheart," Beauregard sighed heavily. "This is Castelan, and I'm the Rat King!"
"You don't understand," the witch argued. "It's dangerous. It's very, very dangerous!"
"Oh, yes," Beauregard rolled his eyes, reclining back on the couch. "I just might sleep myself to death!"
The witch held up a threatening finger, obviously intending to either curse him or cast a spell. She bit her lip, probably realizing that neither rash action would be wise.
"Show the lady out," Beauregard told Skin.
As his lieutenant left with the witch, he settled down for a much-needed nap.
Max woke up on the couch. It was dark outside, and the traffic was so slow that he felt certain it was later than midnight. He felt as though he'd been asleep for hours, though he'd only sat down for a moment. His coffee, virtually untouched, was still sitting on the table across from him.
Max put his hand to his heart. It was pounding furiously. The dream he'd just experienced felt terribly real. Even after waking, it seemed as if he was slowly getting pulled back into it. The couch had sapped all of the strength out of his limbs, making them heavy and clumsy. He was so drowsy he couldn't hold his eyes open. His body was telling him to go back to sleep, and he didn't want to resist.
The ratty old couch smelled like wine and mildew. It looked like it was at least a hundred years old, but it was in such sorry condition that it wasn't likely to be valuable. Still, Max had gotten it for free and didn't see the use of complaining. Really, for a college apartment, any couch was a good couch. And from his perspective, a small amount of mildew was vastly superior to the smells of cigarettes, cat piss, or frat boy vomit.
More importantly, he wanted to return to his dream.
Beauregard the Rat-King.
It was an outrageous name, perfect for that drunk, cigar-smoking little scrap of a man. He could picture him perfectly, shirtless and barefoot, back covered in scars, fingertips covered in ink, and eyes perpetually narrowed, as if everything in the world needed a certain degree of analysis.
Max considered the island of Castelan. A fortress city, ruled by thieves. That was a good setting.
Skin, the ugly, dim-witted companion of Beauregard. Also perfect.
The beautiful, secretive witch was interesting too. He didn't have a name for her yet, or a good idea about who or what her master might be.
Of course, the thing about his dream that Max found most difficult to shake off was the notion of the magical couch.
Beauregard's couch looked exactly like his couch. It was most logical to assume that something from reality had influenced his dream.
So why did it feel as if things were... the other way around?
Why did the dream feel more real?
Max stared for a long while at the couch. It seemed preposterous that such thoughts were even emerging in his mind. There was no such thing as magic, but even if there was, what was the sense of enchanting a couch? What could it possibly do, make him sleep to death?
He chuckled at Beauregard's line. When his friends came over for tabletop role-playing, they'd love the adventure that he was already writing in his head. Beauregard was too much fun as a character to turn him into an antagonist. The adventurers could take a job from him, possibly. He had dozens of ideas for plots. It wasn't a session or two, this little story. It was an entire new campaign.
What if the Whitcastle ladies were haunting their wing of the Manor? It was a bit of a perverted thing for Beauregard to do, poking around a dead woman's dressing room. Practically speaking, Max understood why Beauregard wanted to know what was in there, but that didn't really excuse his behavior. Living in such a spectacular old house, Max would have felt compelled to search every corner of it himself. But had Beauregard really searched the whole house?
What if there were secret passages he didn't know about?
What if Guildmaster Sharky wasn't actually dead? What if he wanted revenge on Beauregard for something?
What if Beauregard had killed the former Rat-King?
Max smiled slightly. He made certain his alarm was set, poured his cold coffee down the sink, and brushed his teeth. With resolve, and a tiny bit of fear, he laid back down on the couch.
Beauregard fell off the couch, gasping for breath.
He stared at the thing, and the long shadow it cast in the fading sunlight. He'd seen that same damned couch in a place he couldn't rightly describe, with stark white walls and empty floors. Out the window, so much sound and motion. Things moving that he couldn't describe.
Had the witch infected his brains?
He rubbed his temples. She'd done something to him, probably to encourage him to sell her the couch. Now that he was certain the witch was going to play dirty, he had no intention of accepting her generous offer. He didn't need the money, and he would be a dead man if word go out that the Rat-King was afraid of a couch.
But he was afraid of it, he realized. There was something about it that made him feel cold to the bone. That alien world he'd witnessed could not be real. Who was Max, and how did that strange wizard possibly know of his existence?
Most importantly, how could he know what had happened to Sharky?
Beauregard had caught a glimpse inside the young man's mind, and he was terrified by the way it whirled with plans, every last plot centered around him. It was as if this "Max" was somehow capable of tearing apart the entire world and re-shaping it however he saw fit. And for whatever mad reason, he was particularly fixated on sending a group of monumentally destructive, somewhat amoral "adventurers" crashing into Beauregard's relatively peaceful life.
"Take the couch," Beauregard said.
"About the payment..." the witch began.
"I said take the couch. Get it gone," Beauregard repeated.
The witch smiled slightly. "You slept on it, didn't you?"
"What is it?" Beauregard asked, not entirely certain that he wanted the answer to that question.
"It's a couch," the witch replied, saying nothing.
"Elaborate," Beauregard told her, not amused. "Or I'll change my mind about the money."
"This couch was constructed for meditation by a very powerful wizard. As I understand it, it was intended to help him perceive realities beyond our own. Drove him completely mad, sleeping on it," the witch confessed. "In fact, I'm surprised you fared as well as you did. You seem remarkably lucid."
Beauregard snorted. He certainly felt worse than he was letting on, but no experienced thief showed too much emotion during a delicate negotiation. "And your master wants something like this… why, exactly?"
"For giggles. He's already mad. It's not likely to make him worse," the witch shrugged.
"I wouldn't be so sure of that," Beauregard paused. "In your own words, girl. It's dangerous. It's very, very dangerous."
"My master is the God of Mischief," the witch smirked.
"Oh. Well, in that case, good riddance," Beauregard snorted. He knew as much about the God of Mischief as any rogue did, namely, that he existed, and that "mad" wasn't nearly a strong enough word to describe him.
The witch produced chalk from a pouch on her hip and quickly drew an arcane circle around the couch. When she was finished, she sat down, and clapped her hands together once. In a cloud of chalk dust, and a burst of brilliant white light, the young woman and the couch vanished. The empty air smelled strongly of lightning.
"Did all of that happen just now?" Beauregard asked.
"The witch disappeared with your couch?" Skin paused.
"I was hoping I was still dreaming. Something's been troubling me, Skin," Beauregard admitted, staring at the faintly smoking spot on the floor.
"Oh?" Skin also stared at the spot where the couch no longer stood.
"Have you ever heard of a kind of wizard called a Storyteller?" Beauregard asked.
"Sounds unpleasant," Skin grimaced.
"I think one may be trying to kill us," Beauregard said. "Well, me."
"We'd best be ready for em' then," Skin replied.
Beauregard nodded. Producing Guildmaster Sharky's keys, he stepped out of the boudoir and locked the door. "Nobody goes in the ladies rooms anymore," he ordered. "On account of the ghosts."
"Ghosts?" Skin echoed, sounding worried.
"Next, we've got to board up all the secret passages," Beauregard continued.
"What secret passages?" Skin wondered.
"I don't know yet. I think we'll find some," Beauregard paused. "And then..." He fell silent.
"And then?" Skin eyed Beauregard suspiciously.
"And then we've got to dig up Guildmaster Sharky. To make sure he's really dead," Beauregard finished.
"You've lost your mind, Beau," Skin said.
"We'll see about that. If those adventurers want a piece of me, they're going to have to work for it!" Beauregard proclaimed.
Skin rolled his eyes and followed the Rat-King down the hall.