Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Quiet

The Heroes of Fannen-Dar, Chapter 7

Nighttime in Fannen-Dar is quiet. It's not silent, because there are certainly noises that the town makes. Rats squeak and scurry across the empty streets. The Crook hums from the result of whatever magical experiments the wizards who reside there were up to that day. The town is not slumberous either, for there are very few who actually sleep at night in Fannen-Dar. Many are up to what is often referred to as “no good,” but what the perpetrators themselves would rather call “entrepreneurial endeavors.” Many others are awake because they are wary of the first group.

Yet, Fannen-Dar is quiet at night. Movements are made slowly, carefully, stealthily, but there is always someone who hears you when you sneak. Voices are kept to whispers, until a trade goes bad. A sudden shout cut off short does so much more to make the night quiet than silence ever could.

A whispered curse does its part as well.

“Tratten lock picks!” A short figure was flattened up against a door on an empty street. The guards were conveniently absent from their patrols as he fiddled with the handle and, more importantly, the lock underneath. He did not need to crouch, for he only stood three and a half feet tall. The keyhole was at eye level.

The thief put the thin bits of broken metal back into one of his many pockets and pulled out a dagger. “Should'a done this in the first place,” he muttered, jamming the dagger into the keyhole. The blade began to glow red, outlining the faint runes etched onto its side with dim light. The metal keyhole melted as the blade slid through, until the door swung upon with only a soft creak.

The thief looked around before slipping his dagger back in its sheath and stepping inside, where he figured it would be safe to talk to himself.

“Fine place they got here,” he said. His voice was rough for someone with the body of a ten-year-old human child. He chewed on pipe-gum in between his out-loud thoughts. “Too bad for them.”

The building was mostly one large room, with rafters above that were eerily devoid of avian or insect life. Stacks of barrels and crates formed the only landmarks around the room. The halfling opened the lid of one marked with a thin green leaf. “They sure keep this place tidier than back in the Hill.” Chew, chew. “Then again, we only got one type of supply.”

“Ah,” he said after walking down a side isle. Pressed into the groove between the floorboards, in such a way as to be invisible unless one was looking for it, was a black string. The halfling followed it, noting that it ran through each stack until he reached the center of the warehouse. There was a pile of boxes, stacked together a bit more unevenly than the others, that were each labeled a purple squiggle.

He opened one of the crates, and what was inside did not, in any way, resemble a purple squiggle.

“Looks good. Looking good,” he murmured, around the gob of gunk against his gum. “Seems a shame to waste it all,” he added with a laugh.

The halfling bent down and found where the wire entered the pile. He brought his dagger back out to cut the line, then took the pipe-gum out of his mouth. The sticky glob had turned black from seeping in his saliva for so long. He molded it until it was as thin as the wire, then connected the severed wire to either end of his slimy sculpture. He stood back up when he was finished, and from his new vantage point, the wire looked untouched.

“Nothing to it,” he said. He chuckled to himself as he walked back towards the front door, making sure to snag a few chunks of yellowish chalky material from an ajar barrel before leaving. He closed the door behind him and popped out the now useless lock, then swapped it with a fresh one from one of his pockets and jammed it into place. The halfling looked over both shoulders before slipping back into the shadows, not quite silently, but at least quietly. The building looked no different from before he had entered.

Except for the broken lock pick lying on the floor next to the stack of crates marked with purple squiggles.

<< Prologue, Heroes

<< Chapter 6, Powder
Chapter 8, Sewage >>

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Powder

The Heroes of Fannen-Dar, Chapter 6

Chester pulled his head back behind the crate. “Promises do not speak quite as loudly as gold...if you see my meaning?” the captain said.

Darrik silently caught Chester's attention. Is that Ignatius? he mouthed. Chester nodded. Darrik mouthed a vulgarity and crouched lower.

“I have your gold right here,” the voice identified as Kelvin said. “And, if this pans out, you'll get paid the same amount again after we're done. Twice as much as last time.”

“Excellent,” Ignatius replied. “And what do you have planned?...You do have a plan, yes?”

“You can see the map can't you?” Chester tried to tilt his head to take a look, but quickly darted back into hiding. A man with shaggy orange hair and a red and yellow vest, not part of the conversation, had walked around the table and had been looking towards the crates he was hiding behind. He held his breath, but nobody approached, and Kelvin continued talking. “We've got enough fire powder to send the whole block sky high. That'll get people talking about us.”

“Hm...Interesting choice.” Someone tapped their fingers on the table. “I'm assuming...this...was not an accident...correct?”

A wicked snicker. “It just adds to the fun.”

We have to get out of here, Darrik mouthed. Chester agreed, but the door they came in was in clear view of the table, and he could see no other way out. Crates blocked his view in every direction. Darrik pointed towards an opening between two stacks of crates, and began to sneak towards it.

Ignatius's boots were clicking around the table. “Yes, well, while you're having fun, I'm going to have the entire Council stamping on my head for allowing such a thing to happen. Of course, I will devise a way to work things out, but not without undue stress upon my own mind...understand?”

Kelvin grumbled. “You're already getting more than you deserve.”

“Then,” Ignatius said with a sigh, “I suppose I won't have the incentive to make sure, say, one of the guards doesn't wander by on his route just as some thugs are sneaking around with crates of explosives...”

“A'right, a'right, you get triple, but only after this goes down.”

Darrik stuck his head around the crate. Chester's heart was a panicked mouse inside the cage of his ribs, trying to find a way to escape. Darrik waved him forward. Chester rounded the corner to find a narrow passage between rows of crates. There were no more arrows indicating which way was out.

Behind the crates, the voices grew muffled. If he had focused, Chester would be able to make out what was being said, but his attention was on making sure each footfall made no more noise than necessary. He felt sorry for Darrik, who was still wearing his metal guard's boots and armor. He would probably get an earful for dragging him into this when they got out. He hoped.

The two guards paused as they looked around for any sign of an exit. They had turned a corner and arrived at the back of the room, compared to the door through which they had entered. However, there did not seem to be an opening in the crates to the back wall, if there was even a way out there. For all they knew, the way in was the only way in, and as such, the only way out.

“Just look!” Kelvin said suddenly. The boxes Chester was leaning against suddenly shifted, and a lid from above came shuddering down to the stone floor. Darrik quickly slid his hand away so that the wood didn't clatter against his metal gauntlet, but he scratched it along the floor. The guards exchanged a horrified glance, and then looked up at the crate which had been opened above them. It was only three feet off the ground.

“That's...actually a lot of fire powder,” Captain Ignatius said.

“And this is just one crate. Go on, open any other one.” Silence, until there was more wooden splintering close by. “This entire room is brimming with it. This is our main storage.” He chuckled, presumably at Ignatius's face. “I'm not kidding around.”

“I can...see that.”

Kelvin laughed again. “You're not my only contact in the Guard. You watch yourself and stick to the plan, or some of this stuff might find its way into your barracks along with a lit torch.”

Chester's breath was struggling to come out of his ears, so he let it out slowly and silently. A hand waved in front of his face, and he looked back over to see Darrik pointing at the ceiling. Chester looked up. One corner of the room, visible over the piles of highly explosive fire powder, was glowing with yellow light.

The footsteps moved back towards the center of the room, and the guards continued crawling, now to find a way through the maze of crates towards that corner.

The light was coming from a hallway without a door. The arch was unadorned, and there were no signs indicating what direction to do in. Chester and Darrik stood up when they left the room, but continued moving slowly. When he was sure they were out of earshot from the Firemen and the captain, Chester put his hand on Darrik's shoulder.

“Hold on,” he said. “What are we going to do?”

“We?” Darrik hissed. “I am going to keep doing my job, and keep my nose out of this. The Captain of the Guard is cavorting with criminals and I'm sneaking around under his nose. That's not justice, that's a death wish! You can risk your neck if you want, but leave me out of it!”

“These Firemen are going to blow something up,” Chester said. “We can't just let that happen.”

“Just stop thinking like that, or you'll end up tied to a chair with that powder all around you, and a fuse fizzling down towards it.”

He kept walking, and Chester followed. He began biting his lip while he thought.

Darrik tried to find a tunnel that led back to the main network, but the farther they walked, the more the architecture changed. The hallways were no longer wide, geometric passages, but looked more like straightened cave tunnels. The cold-torches were scarcer, making their walk lead from light to dark and back, over and over.

“I didn't know these tunnels were here,” Darrik said.

“I don't think much of anyone else does either,” Chester said.

Darrik scouted ahead down a tunnel, then retraced a few of his steps to check another hallway that he had skipped. “I've been trying to lead us in a general southeast direction,” he said, “but I think I've hit a corner. That room might be a bottleneck into this section of the tunnels.”

“It doesn't really look like an infirmary anymore,” Chester said.

“Maybe if we-” Darrik began, but suddenly flinched. Chester stiffened purely as a reaction, but then heard what Darrik had noticed. Soft footsteps were approaching them yet again, coming around the closest corner. Chester's eyes darted down to Darrik's waist, where his sword still hung at his side.

A voice greeted them before the body was in sight. “You mates coming back from a job?” he said. “I've got a...” A half-dwarf wearing tattered clothing put a face to the footsteps. He was carrying a cold-torch. He stopped when he saw the glisten it made off of Darrik's chest plate. “Hey, you're a...!”

Chester grabbed the hilt of Darrik's sword, lunged towards the half-dwarf, and stuck the blade through his chest. The cold-torch clattered to the ground, and the two guards broke into a run. Nobody was chasing them, but that wasn't a good enough reason to slow down.

Chester felt a breeze and followed it until the tunnels led outside to a grassy hill. The sun had just set behind the Shadir Forest, casting violet and orange rays against the scattered clouds. A few stars poked out curiously to watch the two panting guardsmen.

“You did...he was...” Darrik gasped.

“If I had just knocked him out, he'd tell the others that he saw a guard in their base.”

“We don't even know if he was working with the Firemen.”

“I didn't want to find out.”

Darrik collapsed into a sitting position on the hill. Chester looked back, realizing that they were outside the town wall. The Firemen must have used that entrance instead of the main doors into North Hill. It was easier to enter and leave the entire town than it was to break into a military base. The guards didn't even know the tunnels went back that far. Well, Chester realized, the captain knew, but he was keeping it to himself while he took the Firemen's donations under the table.

Darrik took a deep heave, gazing at the few stars. “I'm going back,” he concluded, standing up. “I need to convince Gulstein to not tell anyone that I left duty. Ignatius will notice.”

“You'll be fine. Just...wash your sword first.”

Chester held out the sword, red with the half-dwarf's blood, to Darrik, who grimaced and took it. He wiped it along the grass.

“We'd better go before any of the Firemen come through this way,” Chester pointed out. “We'll talk more about it tomorrow.”

Darrik furrowed his brow. “I don't know why I put up with you.”

“You're a pal, Darrik.”

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Plinth

The Heroes of Fannen-Dar, Chapter 5

The population of Fannen-Dar was booming. Despite the wide diversity the town could boast (if anyone were to listen), more and more children were being born each month. Of course, this was mostly happening to the commoners, as the nobility could hardly be bothered to listen to the town crier, much less reproduce. And since the nobility took up a whole quarter of the town, with another half being used for places of business or worship, the living quarters for this exponentially expanding population were somewhat cramped.

It showed the most in the South-East quarter, commonly known as the Columns. Due to the need for more living space, but because of the limits of the town wall, the peasants built upwards. Houses were stacked on other houses, held up by support beams interconnecting the stacks like string cheese. The tips of chimneys protruded from the tops of the Columns, one for each house in the stack, creating a tableau that, if viewed from above, was reminiscent of a bed of needles. Most of the old Columns had access to the upper buildings by stairways inside, and these were often inhabited by extended families who liked to stay in touch. As people became more mistrustful of one another, it showed in the architecture; the newer additions had to be reached from the outside by rickety spiraling staircases or, for the really poor, ladders.

As Robin followed Gwynt through the streets of the Columns, she felt the gaze of a hundred unseen urchins giving them the once over to see if they were friend or foe, or possibly rich. Since nobody jumped out to mug them, Robin figured they struck an appropriately misfortunate impression. Gwynt seemed oblivious to the watching eyes and chatted with Robin over his shoulder.

“I can't wait to introduce to you everyone!” he said. “You're going to love it, Anzo is the best leader we could ask for...” A window several stories above on one of the Columns opened, and a harsh voice called down.

“What's all this ruckus?” The wrinkled man looked down at Robin and Gwynt and snarled. “Robin, I thought we told you not to come back here!”

“Hello, Old Man Scruthers,” Robin muttered.

“Speak up!” he yelled back. “Don't be gossiping about me when I'm right up here!” He spat, and the glob of saliva took a few seconds before it finally splashed on the ground several feet away from Robin.

Robin looked up at Scruthers. The man was so poor he could only afford a room high in one of the Columns. He couldn't handle the ladder, and the rumor was that he hadn't been out of his house in thirty years. His neighbors delivered food and other bare necessities to him in exchange for his predictions of the weather, based on the feelings he got in his old bones.

“We don't want none of your bad luck rubbing off on us!” Old Man Scruthers continued. Robin looked down at her feet. She knew it was a sentiment shared by most who knew her in the Columns. She had tried to move in after being rejected by every gang she volunteered for, but she couldn't pay with money, and no one wanted to hire her due to her suspicious background. Even the most misfortunate in the town thought she would bring them down further.

Robin moved towards Gwynt, who had stopped and was watching the conversation with a look of mild fascination. “Come on,” she said while Scruthers snapped another retort and slammed his window shut. “What were you saying about your boss?”

Gwynt smiled and continued. “He's got the whole gang running like cogwork. Almost every task we could ever need is assigned to at least one member, but we're missing just one. We still need a thief.” They took a few more corners through the narrow streets of the Columns. “I'm the assassin, of course, since I know the most about poisons and potions.” Gwynt suddenly stopped walking, and since his stride was more like a spasmodic sneak, Robin stumbled into him. He caught her in his arms, and Robin felt the tips of pins press against her. She quickly put five feet between them. Gwynt smiled to see that she was standing on her own, as if it were a great accomplishment.

He then raised his arms towards the heavens. Robin realized that he wasn't praying, but indicating the building they had come to. It was the tallest in the Columns, stretching into the sky for almost a dozen stories. Sunlight bathed the top floor, where the wood was just a bit less splintered, the windows a bit less dusty, and the chimney smoke a bit less smoggy.

“We have arrived,” Gwynt said formally.

“You live all the way up there?” Robin asked in awe.

Gwynt laughed. “There?” he said. “No! This way.” He stepped around the side of the building, away from the foot of the staircase that wound around the stack. He bent over and opened a trapdoor jutting out from the wall of the Column. He began climbing down a ladder.

Robin realized that she was about to enter a dark cellar with a stranger whom she had only just met less than an hour ago, and who had already attempted to kill her. She was very well aware of the advice often given to young women about young men, and especially young alfar (the alfar live for more than three times the length of humans, so alfar in their thirties are mentally only just reaching that special age when their bodies start to change).

However, Robin also knew a lot of gangs in Fannen-Dar. She had tried to join most of them, after all. She couldn't name every leader or remember exactly where their territorial boundaries were, but she had come to recognize all their names. Never in all her life living in this town had she heard of a gang called Bedlam. The idea of a new, or better yet secret gang made her incredibly curious.

Also, never in all her life had she been invited to join any sort of organization. She wasn't about to pass up this opportunity just because it might get her killed. She followed Gwynt through the cellar door, down the ladder shaft.

The room she found herself in was no more than ten feet on a single side. Wooden beams held back the soil that formed the walls, which were stained with rainwater and pockmarked with rabbit holes. One corner of the room was taken up by a small cauldron and alchemical supplies, including brass vials and a dusty alembic. Something green was dripping out of the alembic's spout, leaving a sizzling puddle on the ground. Gwynt took off his cloak and hung it up on a splinter of wood next to a looking glass in that corner.

The back of the room was dominated by a long table, strewn with tattered scrolls and parchments. A single quill sat in an iron ink well with streaks of dried ink crusted down its sides. A chair draped in a large fur pelt sat behind the table, facing away from the entrance. Gwynt stepped up to the table and waved Robin to join him.

“Anzo,” he said, “I've really done it this time. I've found us a new member.”

The chair slid back slowly, and a hulking figure stood up from it. The first thing Robin saw was his hair. It was matted and brown, almost like fur, coming out of his head like knots came off the sails of a ship. There was no mistaking that the man had ogre blood. He turned around, and the second thing Robin saw was his smile.

It was somehow larger than his face, and lopsided. It let out an enormous laugh. Not one of mockery like Robin was used to, though, but one that came from somewhere deep in the half-ogre's belly.

“Welcome to the Plinth!” he boomed. “Top-secret headquarters of Bedlam!”

“Bottom-secret, really,” Gwynt added. Anzo nodded solemnly.

“A new member, at last! This is just what we needed,” Anzo said to Robin. He tried to sit back down, but the chair was still facing the wall. After bumping into its back, he muscled it to face front. Robin noticed a small footstool behind it before Anzo finished adjusting and sat back down. “I see you've already met Gwyntmarwolaeth. My name is Anzo, and I am the founder and leader of Bedlam.”

Robin cleared her throat. “I'm Robin, and it's very great to meet you. I didn't expect such a warm welcome from a group who're named after the legendary city where people were supposedly slaughtered by the thousands in a single night.”

Anzo laughed again. “Very true,” he said. “We're nothing if not good to our members. Even prospective members.”

“Prospective?” Gwynt said. “I thought you said I could recruit anyone I could get my hands on?”

“I did say that, Gwyntmarwolaeth, and now you will shut up!” Anzo turned back to Robin and smiled. “However, everyone must go through a test before becoming a fully fledged member.”

Gwynt gasped. “Not the Sewers Course?”

“The very same.”

“But Anzo! Not even Hudtan could make it through without...you know...”

“Yes, yes, but the test is necessary.” Anzo looked back at Robin. “If you are willing to take the risk?”

Robin gulped, but wasn't about to back out. She wasn't about to be able to hide her nervousness either. “Yugh.”

“Good! Now, you should probably meet the rest of the gang...”

“Hold on,” Robin said after shaking off her shivers. “You want me to meet the whole gang? You don't just have some secret pass phrase to help identify each other?”

Anzo stared back at her blankly. “That...” he said, “...would be so cool!” He clapped and stood up laughing. “What a brilliant idea! Secret pass phrases! We'd be even more mysterious than we already are. What do you think of that, Hudtan?”

A person suddenly emerged from a shadowy corner, causing Robin to let out a short shout and take a step backwards. She was a dark elf, sporting the same pointed ears and thin frame as elves generally had, but with dark gray, almost black skin, solid white eyes, and streaked violet and azure hair. She had a scowl where her mouth should be.

“I think many things, boss man,” she said out of the corner of her mouth. The room seemed to grow quiet save her voice, even though no one but her spoke. “More goes on in my head than you could possibly comprehend. And each thought is as distinct as a full moon on a haunting night. My mind is as sharp as the blades with which I cut down my foes.”

“Yes, but what do you specifically think about Robin's idea?”

Hudtan's jaw slid sideways. “What idea?”

Anzo waved his hand. “We'll do an official briefing later, when I've had time to come up with some ideas.” He then smiled back and forth between Robin and Hudtan. “Robin, meet Hudtan, the brains behind our best schemes. Hudtan,” he said as she was licking her lips in Robin's direction, “if you hadn't been listening, I'm thinking of allowing Robin here to join up.”

“Hm,” Hudtan said. “That leaves many more things to think about.” She raised a finger, which after wandering around the room, found its way onto her cheek as she slunk back into her corner. The room was quiet for another few moments as Hudtan continued to stare at Robin.

“Yes!” Anzo said, breaking Robin out of a daydream that involved her running like hell. “That's that! I'm sure you'd like to know more about the history of our great order...”

“Uh,” Robin said, “sorry to interrupt before you get, um, all into that, but, didn't you want me to meet the rest of the gang?”

Anzo nodded. “I did! That is what I wanted, and I always get what I want. I wanted that for you, and you got it. So, moving on...”

“Bedlam is three people?”

“Three and a half,” Gwynt chirped. “Anzo always counts for extra in case of ties in voting.”

“But there's three of you. There would never be any ties.”

“Well. Just in case we ever had an even number.”

“And he said he always gets his way.”

“Yes, he does. Voting is pretty much just a formality.”

“We're very keen on formalities here,” Anzo said. “It helps keep things running efficiently, smoothly, and with much butter. Ah, Gwynt, remind me to go to the market for that tomorrow.”

“Absolutely, Anzo.”

Anzo took the quill from its place in the ink well and reached for a piece of parchment. He started talking to Robin while he wrote. “Make yourself comfortable, young lady. You've got a big day tomorrow with the Sewer Course and all.”

“It's okay if I sleep here?” Robin asked. “Before I become a member?”

“Yes,” Anzo said, and Robin noticed that he was only scribbling random lines across the page in front of him. “We like to keep things informal around here.”

Robin chose not to remind him of his previous comment on formality. “You're not even worried that I might steal something and just leave in the middle of the night?”

“I would just promote you right then and there, Robin!” Anzo said, with his big, sideways grin.

Robin nodded. She was surrounded by insanity. But craziness was better than pneumonia.

“Where should I sleep?” she asked.

Anzo pointed up. Robin looked and saw three cloth hammocks hanging from the ceiling. She looked back down at Anzo. “There's only three,” she said.

Anzo's smile wavered slightly. “I don't think Hudtan would mind sharing. Isn't that right, Hudtan?”

Robin turned around towards Hudtan's corner to see her licking the flat of a dagger and staring back. Robin blinked. Hudtan didn't. Nor did she stop licking the dagger. Robin turned back to Anzo.

“I'll just take the floor.”

After the others had climbed into their hammocks, which involved Anzo gently lifting them there and then jumping into his, Robin laid out Gwynt's cloak that he had offered her and made herself as comfortable as she could on the lumpy wooden floorboards. She tried to ignore the large gaps between each board and the worms which were surely wriggling beneath them. She kept her thoughts away also from the poisons, knives, and heavy bodies all posed to easily fall over and end her. She couldn't think about her old home, which was now a pile of rubble, or the complete insanity that her day had included, or the debt she owed to the most powerful man within fifty miles.


All she could think about was that she had her first chance at belonging to a criminal organization. She would finally be able to call herself a thief. She went to sleep with a smile plastered to her face. If Bedlam was insane, it was right where she belonged.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Clues

The Heroes of Fannen-Dar, Chapter 4

Chester sat with his back against the massive stone wall, looking away from the town.  The view outside the walls of Fannen-Dar has inspired some mediocre poetry in the past.  A verse floated to the front of Chester's mind.

Though light doth break through cloudy sky,
The shadows are set free.

The forest dark, the mountains high,
Make it really hard to see.

He was looking towards the Shadir Forest as he sat on the spot where they found the dead boy.  While artistic talent may not be one of Fannen-Dar's primary exports, the stanza certainly spoke true about the lighting.  Murky clouds drifted in from the Thundertop Hills to the northwest, where the peculiar terrain caused miniature storms to form almost constantly atop the jutting cliffs.  Even when the clouds cleared for one brief moment, the sun was usually either behind one of the mountains to the east or the Shadir Forest to the west seemingly absorbed all the light.  And yet it somehow managed to always be stiflingly hot during the summer.

Chester had ignored the captain's advice to rest.  He visited the barracks to put away his armor, but then returned to the scene of the latest crime.  He scoured the area, but found nothing except dirt, rocks, and a rough patch of grass where the body had been dumped.  There was no single footprint pointing the way toward a villain's hideout, nor a torn piece of fabric from a fleeing killer.  If there were a less obvious clue, Chester didn't have the expertise to find it.  Investigation was not something guards were taught, it was something they learned after decades of experience.  They weren't hired for their skills; they were signed on for the fact that they have bodies that can swing swords and block arrows.

Maybe there really wasn't a connection, Chester began to think.  After all, the similarities between the cases are already barely existent.  It could just be in his head.  There are too many differences, too.  The victims each coming from different parts of the town, being different ages, dying in different places.  This boy was even brutally bludgeoned, while the others only had stab wounds.  Why would a killer need to beat up one victim, but not the others?

The hairs on Chester's neck stood up, brushing against the stones of the wall.  He turned and looked up.  The top of the thick wall looked back down at him, and winked.

Chester scrambled to his feet.  Maybe the bruises weren't the result of a beating.  Maybe the kid obtained them after his death.

There was a tower nearby that connected two segments of the wall, and where a staircase could be found that led to the top.  The wall was six feet thick, with a traditional battlement lining the outside through which arrows could be fired at attackers.  Fannen-Dar hadn't seen a battle since the Savage War decades ago, so security along the top of the wall was thin.  The small number of sentries ordered to walk the perimeter of the wall meant that any particular area would be unguarded for fifteen minutes at a time.  Plenty of time for someone to sneak up and commit murder.

In the bards' stories, whenever the hero was faced with a mystery, all would seem hopeless until he stumbled across the one piece of evidence needed to solve the entire thing.  A lesson that Chester had learned the hard way was that life wasn't like those stories.  There weren't magic arrows that could point you the way, there wasn't always someone strong seeking justice, and you could never really be sure about, well, anything.  Most of all, he learned that you would never be able to solve all the world's problems.  But Chester wouldn't be able to forgive himself if he didn't try.


Maybe life just wasn't like that in Fannen-Dar.  In the other parts of the world, they had heroes whose adventures actually resulted in major changes.  In Fannen-Dar, you had people and their problems, but not a hero in sight.

Chester reached the top of the wall.  The stones stretched out in front of him like a snakeskin turning to dust.  He walked over to the edge and peered out through a crenel.  He looked down and could see the spot where the boy's body had been found.  The dirt around that spot perhaps looked a little darker, but it could also just have been a trick of the light.


He looked around, but this section of the wall looked the same as the rest.  He knew he was on the right path, but there was just not enough information, too few clues.

The gray clouds parted momentarily, and the sun shone through.


Chester looked down to avert his eyes from the glare.  There, scorched into the stone as if with fire, was the shape of a dagger.

Chester resisted the urge to shout in triumph.  Instead, he rushed down the stairs and sprinted back into the town.

He recalled that the merchant's wife had been killed not too far from there, only a few minutes' walk into an alley right on the edge of the marketplace.  It was all too true that most murders happen close to the victim's home.  This was because either the killer had been waiting for them to come out, or had been following them and then struck before they could get inside to safety.  Several more happened inside the victim's house, if they lived alone.

Chester found the spot, which had been given a quick sweeping up since the body was taken away.  There was no blood to be found, but if Chester was right, there wouldn't have been any in the first place.  All he could see were puddles of mud, wooden crates, and a bucket placed strategically under a second-story window.  He heaved a pile of crates aside.

A mark identical to the one on top of the wall graced the side of the building.

Maybe there was more to the bards' stories after all.  Chester took off again, his mind set on only one thing.  He didn't need to find the place where the elderly noble was killed; there was no doubt in his mind of what he'd find there.  He needed to find Darrik.

***

"You can take your findings and shove them in the sewers," Darrik said.  Chester had found him on duty outside the Coopers Guild hall.  Every official guild in Fannen-Dar received protection from the town, except for the Fighters Guild, who claimed that it would be insulting to insinuate that they could not protect themselves.  In actuality, it was because they gambled on illegal fights during the day, and because nobody wanted to mess with the Fighters Guild.

"But this is proof!" Chester hissed.  The other guard, a stocky dwarf woman, was trying her best to tune out their conversation.  It wasn't her concern whether or not there was crime going on in the town until her superiors made it her concern.  Chester was trying to keep his voice to a whisper, but the excitement was proving too much for him to handle.


Chester continued, "I knew the deaths were connected.  The same weapon was used for each of them, a heated blade."  He had one hand on Darrik's shoulder, using his other to emphasize every other word with a jabbing finger towards Darrik's chest.  The loyal guard stood tall and only allowed his face to show his disdain.  "The thing is," Chester said, "there was no source of heat near the murder scenes, but they were clearly killed there without being moved."

Darrik bit his lower lip.  "And you can't figure out why?"

Chester shook his head.  "I know you've been doing this for longer than I have," he said, "and that your father was a guard before you.  You probably know tons about the way these things work, way more than I do!  I need your help."  He smiled, and added, "Buddy?"

Darrik sighed.  "Okay, I'll bite.  I've heard of something like that before.  A fire-branded weapon.  They could be using magic to make the dagger hot."

"Why didn't I think of that!"

"Because it's really hard to come by illegally," Darrik said.  "The Enchanters Guild has never had more than four members at a time, and those kinds of runes are pretty complicated."  Chester blinked at Darrik, who sighed again.  "My mother had some arcanist friends that she invited over for tea a lot.  I picked up a bunch of random, useless knowledge."

"Not useless," Chester pointed out.  He put his hand to his head.  "We need to figure out who would be able to get their hands on that sort of thing.  I'd say Dominaurus, everyone knows they own over half the town, but they'd never flub up like this..."

The other guard coughed.  "I, uh," she said.  "I might have an idea."

Chester and Darrik looked at her expectantly.

"Sorry," she said.  "I couldn't help overhearing..."

"No, it's fine," Chester said.

"I didn't mean to intrude..."

"Please.  Do go on."

She spun her warhammer around in her hand.  "Well, I just thought, it sounds like something the Firemen would do."  Chester and Darrik looked at each other, realized that neither knew what she was talking about, and looked back at her.  "They're a gang that got noticed for their tendency to, well, set things on fire."  She started scratching at a notch on the head of her weapon.  "They've been known to use magical fire, so they must have access to that kind of enchantment.  There's a rumor that their base is in North Hill, but there's apparently not enough proof for the captain to give the order for a raid."

Chester put his hands on Darrik's shoulders.  "We've got to check it out," he said.  His eyes had the sparkle that Darrik had only seen on children the night before gift-giving on the Winter Solstice.

"But...I'm on duty!" Darrik said.  "You've already distracted me enough."  The dwarf looked around at the empty street and shrugged.

"This is your duty!" Chester said.  "Your town is being threatened from within.  Yes, we have murders here all the time.  Yes, the gangs are far too powerful for two fellows like us to stop.  Yes, your orders are to stay here and be useless."  Darrik tried to interrupt, but Chester plowed forward.  It was something he was starting to like.  "But I say there's more to it!  The status quo is simply not okay.  Gangs, murders, uselessness...We signed up as guards because we wanted to make a difference."  Again, Darrik began to argue, and Chester cut him off.  "We vowed to protect the town.  Even if that vow was just a formality, that's what being a guard means.  And when people are dying, it's our duty to try to put a stop to it.  Now, the only way we can do that is by investigating these Firemen.  Are you going to fulfill your promise to Fannen-Dar?  Or are you going to just play it safe?"

Darrik shifted his weight onto a barrel outside the guild house door.  "Safe sounds really nice," he said.

"Then I'll go myself!"

"That's dumb," Darrik said, "and you know it."

"It's my job," Chester replied.

Darrik blinked.  "You're being honest."

"Honest to gods."  Chester puffed up his chest.  "Honest to Just, even."

"Glory to her," the dwarf added.

Darrik groaned.  "You'll die if you go alone."  Chester shrugged but nodded.  "We'll both probably die if I go with you."  Chester tossed his head back and forth, but nodded in the end.  Darrik sighed, sounding as though his lungs were getting worn out from constant overuse.  He put his head in his hand.  "All right.  I'll go."

Chester smiled.  "I know.  Come on, we're wasting time!"

The two humans scurried off.  The other guard stood wringing her hands on her warhammer before shifting to the other side of the Coopers Guild door.  She looked up and down the street, seeing burglars and thugs where before there had been commoners.

"They could have at least invited me along," she whimpered.

***

A part of the northern district of Fannen-Dar was built onto one of the low hills of the Thundertops.  It was short enough that it wasn't always stormy, but a dampness usually clung to the air.  Dwarves had dug tunnels throughout the hill before the town had been founded, to use as a fortress in a time when war raged across all of Calemor.  Now, the tunnels were mostly used for food and material storage for the town, but there were a few forges and armories scattered throughout as well.  It had been uncreatively renamed North Hill.

Gaining access to the tunnels was no problem for two guards.  Chester was off-duty, but he kept his copper badge in his pouch should he ever need to, say, heroically step into a fight and threaten the villains with his authority.  It wasn't as impressive as the silver badges of higher-ranking officers, but it made its point clear.

The tunnels certainly looked dwarf-made, with great blocky pillars holding up the roof, and plenty of extra space.  Dwarves weren't much shorter on average than humans, but for some reason they adored building massive rooms underground.  Being only a hill, North Hill's tunnels couldn't compare to the great halls of Bjergstning, but they were still fifteen feet from wall to wall, and at least as high.

They were also as confusing to navigate as a maze.

"We don't need to check everywhere," Chester said as they turned another square corner.  "We've passed the light armory, the dining hall, and the soldier's quarters.  A whole gang couldn't make their hideout in those places."

"Could we stop walking in circles, then?" Darrik grumbled.

"What do you mean?  We haven't been this way."

Darrik pointed to words carved into the wall.  The top sign had an arrow pointing in the direction they were walking.  It read Dining Hall.

Chester licked his lips.  "Maybe they have two," he suggested.  Darrik slowly shook his head, which was starting to glisten with sweat.  The torches that lit the tunnels also kept the temperature nice and comfortable, if you were a dwarf who was used to being next to a furnace the entire day.  For humans, even those used to the humid heat of Fannen-Dar, the dry air of the tunnels was like an armored knight to a stumpy mule.

"We can't search the whole place ourselves," Darrik said.

"Well we can't ask for help either, can we?" Chester snapped back.  He wiped his face and took a deep breath.  "Maybe we can just peek in a few more rooms."  He glanced down the long list of arrows.  Training Hall, Buttery, Dungeon Cells...

"And what about the rooms behind those rooms?" Darrik said.  "This place is organized like a cobweb.  It made sense long ago, but it's a tangled mess now!"

...Washroom, Undercroft, Temple, Infirmary...

"Not to mention how ridiculous the idea that a gang would set up here is in the first place.  We had to show our badges to enter, for Hope's sake!"

...Infirmary?

"Why would they need an infirmary?" Chester muttered.

"For treating the injured," Darrik said.  "As they are usually intended."

"Exactly."  Chester knelt down next to the wall.  The sign pointing towards the Infirmary was low to the ground, faded from age.  "Back when this was a dwarven fortress, sure, but now anyone sick or injured goes to Holy Row.  And look."  He pointed up to a sign at eye level.  It had been carved into a separate stone and slotted into the wall, whereas the low signs were etched directly into the tunnel.  This one read Hospice.

"In case there's an emergency, they go there," Chester said.  "The old infirmary would be up for grabs to anyone who finds another way in."

Darrik wrinkled his nose.  "It's a long shot."

"I'm a terrible archer, but I think that means we should check, just in case."


The two followed the signs towards the Infirmary for a half an hour, winding their way through the passages. They passed fewer and fewer of the other soldiers, until all they could hear were their own footsteps and the flickering of the torchlight. Dust was collecting in the cracks of the stone. The heat was becoming less oppressive as fewer bodies were around to radiate it.

“I feel like a fly in a Spiders Guild,” Darrik whispered. His voice barely rose above his footsteps.

Chester raised a hand to Darrik's chest to stop him. “Wait,” he said. He tilted his head back and forth. They were at a turn in the tunnel, their vision cut to no more than ten feet in any direction before all they could see was a stone wall. “Do you hear that?”

Darrik held his breath for a few seconds, then let it out slowly through his nose. “It's completely silent, goblin breath.”

Chester nodded. “Right. What's missing?”

“Our footsteps. Anybody else's footsteps. And...”

They looked at the walls. In the sconces were cold-torches, lighting the hallway with their signature heat-less, yellow energy.

“If nobody uses these tunnels,” Chester whispered. “Why use expensive cold-torches?”

Darrik thought for a moment. He was sweating despite the cooler air. “They're used by arcanists all the time,” he said. “To light their libraries. So that nothing flammable gets set on...fire.”

Chester broke out in a joyless grin just as a door slammed and heavy footsteps started moving towards them.

Chester scrambled forwards, hopping down the hallway on his toes. The footsteps were clattering quickly towards them from the direction they arrived, meaning the only escape was deeper into the Infirmary. Darrik fell behind him, moving slower, for he still wore his armor. Any quick movement would be heard throughout the whole area. Like the tremblings of a trapped insect in a silky web.

Chester pressed his ear against the first door he found. Hearing nothing on the other side, he opened it. A long room stretched out before him. Where once dwarf-sized beds for the injured warriors after whatever battle they had waged that week would have been, now wooden crates were piled high and haphazardly. A table and chairs were set up in the center of the room, lit by more cold-torches. Chester waved back at Darrik to hurry up. Darrik waved back, with his fingers in a slightly more rude gesture.

Chester grabbed the front of Darrik's armor as soon as he got close and pulled him in. Just as he saw a boot coming around the corner, he shut the door without letting it bang against the frame.

Darrik was breathing heavily, but managed to maintain a whisper. “This is not how I imagined my day.”

“They must not guard that entrance, since nobody ever uses it,” Chester said. “We just wandered into their turf without noticing.”

“As long as they also went without noticing,” Darrik gasped, “I'm happy.”

Voices sounded through the door, coming closer. Chester nodded his head and the two guards moved behind a pile of boxes, where they were out of view from the door and the center of the room. The door opened.

“You see, we can work something out, as we always do,” a man said. The footsteps moved to the table, there was the sound of chairs scraping against the stone floor, and a sheet of parchment being laid out flat.

“This is our plan, see?” the same voice said. He spoke through his nose, but with such vim and verve that Chester could only imagine his nostrils were the size of cats. “The Firemen have had a hard time lately with our work, and we need this to get our name recognized again. I'm telling you out of trust that you'll hold together with our agreement.”

Someone else laughed a humorless laugh, one bristling with sharp edges that were sheathed but clearly displayed. The laugh turned into a voice. “Trust is not something typically associated with success in your line of work...is it, Kelvin?”

Chester felt the blood drain from his face and rush back to his brain, where it had some serious work to do. He leaned ever so slightly out from behind the box, so that just one eye could see the center of the long room. He saw the back of the head of the man who had just spoken, but there was no mistaking who he saw.

Captain Ignatius of the town watch was making a deal with the Firemen.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Poison

The Heroes of Fannen-Dar, Chapter 3

Robin got home and closed the door behind her.  Or rather, she arrived back at the unused wooden dumpster behind the abandoned alchemical warehouse and shut the lid after she climbed in.  It wasn't a gorgeous place, but it was a place she could call home.  At least to herself.

She lit the lamp that had been given to her by a pitying merchant.  The light fell upon her one other shirt, a box with no lock, and a pot next to a sack of whatever edibles she had managed to scrounge up.  Crouching, since there was not enough room to stand, she moved over to the box.  She had once heard a story of a box with no lock yet could not be opened.  There was no key, no password, and no hinges, yet something rattled within it, so the story went.  Robin didn't keep a lock on her box because she hadn't found one that worked.  She opened it up and took out a dull knife.

Robin opened the sack and put the pot on top of the lamp.  It still had a bit of rainwater in it.  She dumped some of the contents of the sack into the pot; turnip stems, potato skins, and the rare slice of carrot floated in the murky water.  She took a brown apple core and began cutting it up with the knife.

She sighed as she prepared her supper.  She wondered how her life had reached this point, and how she was doomed to live like this for the rest of it.  It had seemed so simple; you take what you want and enjoy yourself.  It got more complicated, however, when you factored in the degrees to which people go to hold on to their things.  Thievery was her loftiest goal, but it wasn't her only option.  Street performing had gotten her nowhere.  Of course, no gang would let her join, even just as a messenger or lookout.  She had even tried begging, but that got her more kicks to the shins than iron coins.  It was a matter of her dreams and her talents not matching up.  She had dreams, but no talents.  She finished dicing the apple core and watched the perfect cubes bobbing in the stew.

Robin had just turned to her collection of discarded pamphlets when a dull, scraping sound caught her attention.  Robin looked back at the pot.  It was where she left it, the occasional bubble rising to the stagnant surface.  Another scrape thrummed down her spine.  It was the kind of sound only something terribly heavy could make.  Robin pressed her ear up against the side of the dumpster that was touching the warehouse wall.  When another scrape came, it pounded her ear, dragging it down into the depths of pitch where you could feel sounds.  Long, painful, dragged-out sounds, coming from the vague direction of upwards.  Then it was suddenly cut short.

Robin grabbed the pot and threw herself against the side of the dumpster just as an anvil came crashing down through the lid.

The cloud of dirt that the anvil had shuddered from its rest made Robin cough as she checked herself over to make sure she was still alive.  Her stomach was in her feet.  Her heart was in her throat.  Her brain was running around in circles, screaming.  Everything was where it should be.  Somehow, the stew had not spilled, and Robin only realized now that the pot was burning her arms where she was hugging it as if it were her newborn child.

The remnants of the dumpster's lid moved, and Robin blinked in the sunlight.  A hand reached down and picked her up by the collar of her leather shirt.  Someone did this about every other day, so Robin had patched up her collar so that it was baggy and easy to grab, but didn't tug on her neck when it was pulled.  The hot water sloshed as she shook and looked into the eyes of the three-quarters-orc from the Bloodroot gang.

"Hallo, there," he said.  "Member me?"

"Yugh."

"Fought so."  He grabbed the edge of the wrecked dumpster and effortlessly tore down what was left of the wall.  "Nice place you got," he said with a toothy grin.  Of course, it was hard for a half-orc not to have a toothy grin, what with the tusks and all.

Robin shivered.  "It...it was, I guess.  Can I...help you?"

"Oh, why, yeah, you kin help me, all right."  He now grabbed her with two hands.  Her neck remained unrestrained, but it still had the intended effect of making her even more terrified than she thought she could be.  "The Bloodroots are great.  You made us look like dingbats."  He leaned in, and Robin could smell his breath.  It was like a bouquet of flowers and a mug of apple cider were mixed together with a slab of three-week-old venison.  Robin tried not to look down at the chunky water she held.  "We don't like looking like dingbats," the half-orc snarled.

Robin swallowed, which she quickly regretted, as the smell was then turned into taste that slid down her throat.  Her brain, at least, had stopped running into the walls of her head, but it was now shrunk down against her temple.  It wasn't focused enough to prevent her from saying, "It wasn't me, it was King Dom!  He made you look like dingbats!"

"Did you just call us dingbats?" the half-orc grumbled.

Robin whimpered.

"Listen," he said, shaking her once.  The water sloshed again, and a bit landed on Robin's arm.  It was still hot enough to sting.  The half-orc continued, "You may think you're great, you may think you kin keep getting away with whatever you want because King Dom took some sore of shine to you, but I'm not letting it slide.  Broos may think it's good for us to listen to him, but I'm gonna give you the biggest pounding you ever had."

Robin sighed.  "All right.  But I just want to say one thing before we get started."

"Wuss that?"

"Hope you like garbage stew."

Robin thrust her arms forward and dumped the hot water over the half-orc's head.  He shouted and loosened his grip just enough for Robin to swing the pot, knocking it over his head, then slip to the ground and run like a devil that just found out it committed a virtue.

Robin instantly remembered that she had gotten no sleep and her legs were still sore from being chased halfway across town the day before.

She turned a corner and began to climb up the wall of the warehouse.  There were enough windows and loose bricks to act as footholds.  Robin grabbed onto the ledge above, tried pulling herself up, and found that she lacked the upper arm strength.  Her foot found a hold, and then her other foot found a higher one.  Her right hand shot up without a thought and reached for the slot of a missing brick above the window.  She heard heavy footsteps from the back of the warehouse.  When she looked down to see how far she had gotten, she froze in fear.

The half-orc came charging around the corner and picked her up from her spot three feet up the wall.

"Wait!" she shouted, squirming against his pincer-like grip.  "We can work this out, I can make it up to the Bloodroots!"

"Yeah, you can," the brute replied, "by sitting still and mergede-burg."

Robin took a few shallow breaths.  "Uh...can you repeat that?"

"Mordaga-ferv..."  A look of confusion spread across the half-orc's face, but it was quickly replaced with unconsciousness as his eyes rolled into the back of his head, his tongue lolled out of his mouth along with white froth, and he and Robin both collapsed onto the ground.

She twisted her body until she was free from his arms.  He didn't seem to mind.  Robin heard someone else click their tongue.

"Well, that didn't happen in quite the manner I expected," a voice said.  Robin looked up to the top of a shorter building next to the warehouse.  A man was lying on the roof, looking over the edge with his head in his hands.  When Robin looked up, he waved.  Not knowing what else to do, Robin waved back.  "Busy day, then?" the man asked.

"I...I suppose you could say that," Robin replied.  The figure above got to his feet and jumped, stuck to the opposite wall for a brief moment, launched off again, did a front flip through the air, and landed on his back on the alley floor.

He got up and brushed himself off, as if he had planned the whole thing.  Robin got the impression that it wasn't an attempt to cover his mistake, but rather a routine that happened so often he had forgotten he was striving for something more elegant.  The man himself, however, was incredibly elegant.  He was an alfar, a high elf, the ones you read about in stories who built towers that touched the moon, traveled the world through magic portals, and made faeries weep when they laughed.  He had straight, golden hair that framed his face and brushed down his back, with a single strand resting against his chest.  His ears were tapered, rising all the way up to the top of his head.  He wore sleek black leather, covered in buckles and studs, that displayed his thin but muscular torso.  He was the kind of thin you would call lithe, as opposed to Robin, whom you would merely call skinny, if you were trying to be polite.  She couldn't help crossing her arms in an attempt to use her pointed elbows to increase her visual width.

"Greetings," the alfar said, holding out a gloved hand.  "My name is Gwyntmarwolaeth."  Robin noticed a dagger sticking out of the sleeve on the arm he had held out to her.  She stared at it until he lowered his hand.  "Everyone just refers to me as Gwynt, though," he added, without losing a hint of cheerfulness.

"Did you have something to do with him?" Robin said, pointing towards the pile of half-orc.

Gwynt nodded.  "I was testing out a new sedative of mine.  I found a lovely little pot of water and thought, no better test subject than homeless dumpster-dweller whom nobody would miss, ha ha!"

"Ha ha!  Ha," Robin said, an octave higher than usual.

"So, it didn't work out exactly as I had planned, but the potion was tested in the end!"  He grinned at the unmoving body next to him.  His smile filled his whole face, causing his solid green eyes to squint.  Alfar didn't have crow's feet, for their skin never wrinkled, but no human could have put on a happier expression.

Robin coughed.  "So, he's just asleep, then?"

"Oh, no, he's clearly quite dead.  The potion was a complete failure as a sedative.  Of course, I should have known when I added another dose of deathvine."  Gwynt laughed, and while Robin didn't hear any faeries weeping, perhaps a crow did make a garbled attempt at singing.  "That's just the ups and downs of being an assassin, though.  Sometimes a sedative turns out to be a poison!"

"Of course."

"But you're not a helpless, homeless cretin after all!" Gwynt said, looking her up and down from head to toe.  "What is it you do for a living?"

Robin shuffled her feet.  "I've been told it's not true, but I consider myself a thief."  She wasn't too worried about confessing her illegal profession to an admitted assassin.

"Say!" Gwynt clapped and pointed at Robin as if he had just noticed her.  He then looked back and forth between her and the dead half-orc.  "Does this mean you can't work with him anymore?"

"Well, I wasn't working with him, but I do find myself without employment at the moment."

Gwynt raised his hand to his chest and his jaw fell open in shock.  "Employment?  You are too good to be merely working for another group.  You should be the one calling the shots!"

Robin couldn't remember ever being praised before, so at first she thought that Gwynt was demeaning her.  "Well, we can't all be fan-tratten-tastic assassins, as you so clearly are," she snapped.

"I'm honored, my lady," Gwynt said, a shade of pink creeping up his cheeks.

Robin closed her mouth, then opened it again.  "Wait, were you serious?"

"Absolutely."  Gwynt motioned for Robin to follow him, and they walked back to the rear of the warehouse.  Gwynt waved his hands over the scene, replaying Robin's daring and short-lived escape in his head.  "The way you ingeniously escaped that brute's clutches, adroitly evaded him for quite some time, and then cleverly stalled until my poison took effect...It was like watching a work of art spread across the canvas by itself."

It was Robin's turn to blush.  "Gee," she mumbled.

"I think you would fit right in with myself and my cohorts."

Robin's eyes turned into double moons.  Yesterday she (technically) stole something for the first time, and now she was being asked to join a gang!  It was almost too much excitement at once.  It was too much when you considered she hadn't gotten any sleep.  Robin staggered, then fell into a sitting position on a crate propped against the warehouse wall.

"You want...me?  To be a professional thief?" she said.

Gwynt shrugged.  "Well, it's not up to me, but I can introduce you and offer up my recommendation.  And you won't start with a leadership position, of course, since Anzo is...well, you'll meet him, and the rest."  He smiled.  "But, yes!  We're sorely lacking a good thief at the moment."

Robin looked over at the dumpster she had privately called home for the past three years.  It was now just a pile of wood surrounding an overturned anvil.  A ragged strand of blue cloth that she had used as decoration flapped uselessly in the breeze.  It was beyond repair, especially because no one else even remembered it existed.

"I'm in," she said.  Gwynt laughed again and cheered.  "What do you call yourselves?" Robin added.

Gwynt bowed formally, with an odd flourish of his hand.  "I am but a humble servant of the group, destined for greatness, known as...Bedlam."

<< Prologue, Heroes

<< Chapter 2, Schemes
Chapter 4, Clues >>