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!"
"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."