Tuesday, March 8, 2016

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The Heroes of Fannen-Dar, Chapter 15


Dim voices woke Robin from her sleep. She yawned and turned over in the hammock. The Plinth was lit by a small lantern on Anzo's desk and a green glow from the glass retort on Gwynt's station that was bubbling happily away. Robin peeked over the side at the floor below.

Gwynt and Hudtan were sitting in the center of the room like children playing with new toys. Anzo stood leaning against the wall, holding two burlap sacks. Strewn across the floor were dolls, pieces of clothing, and other knick-knacks. Upon seeing a set of iron silverware, Robin realized that it was the loot they had stolen last night from the orphanage.

Gwynt was holding up items one at a time and displaying them for Hudtan. He held up a child's dress. “One blue clothing item; combination shirt and skirt.”

Hudtan rubbed her chin. “Approximate value: 2 copper pieces. Worth to weight ratio: positive. Add to treasury.” Gwynt tossed the dress to Anzo, who stuck it in the more empty bag.

Gwynt then did the same for a toy sword. It was child-sized, barely even the length of a good dagger, and made of wood. Hudtan tapped her cheek for a moment, but then shook her head. “Approximate value: 4 iron pieces, if that. Worth to weight ratio: negative. Add to trash.” Gwynt threw it towards Anzo, who fumbled with the sacks while trying to catch it and let it clatter to the ground. He picked it up and shoved it inside the other bag. Robin watched the process repeat a few more times, with the trash sack growing more quickly than the treasury, before she cleared her throat.

Gwynt looked up happily, mid-toss. “Hey! You're awake!” The cracked glass bottle he threw hit Anzo in the chest.

“Oof,” Anzo grunted, but he also smiled at Robin. “We thought we'd let you sleep in after a long, successful night.”

Robin felt her gut sink. She hadn't helped one bit, but Bedlam still called the heist a success, even treating her as an equal member. Robin managed a sideways smile. “I suppose it helped,” she said. “I haven't felt this refreshed since...well, not from sleeping in the dumpster, anyway.”

Gwynt fetched a bowl that was sitting on his alchemy facility and handed it to Robin once she climbed down from the hammock (almost falling on her rear end again). “We had breakfast without you, though,” he said. Robin looked down at the bowl, which contained a moist paste that looked like it might have been made from what were once onions, then up at Hudtan. Hudtan nodded.

“It's safe, we tested it already.”

“I double checked the ingredients before adding them!” Gwynt said with a smile. Robin took a bite, which caused her stomach to remember that it was practically starved. She took several more bites in rapid succession, ignoring the bland taste. “Though maybe I should have triple checked...” Gwynt mumbled. Robin decided to ignore it.

She watched as the others returned to their sorting. The repetition turned the process into a ritual, and Robin started to feel a sense of peace, like a devout worshiper might find in the rituals of their temple. She allowed herself to relax a bit for once. Maybe she had finally found a new family.

Three knocks shook the trapdoor above, shattering the moment. Gwynt and Hudtan looked at each other in panic while Anzo quickly through the sacks of loot underneath his desk and covered them with a blanket. “We've been made!” he said.

The knocks came again, louder and heavier, as though someone were kicking the trapdoor with a heavy boot. The four inside looked around at each other, unsure of what to do. This was supposed to be their secret hideout, after all. What good was a hideout if it wasn't actually secret? After a moment of silent panic, Gwynt looked up at the trapdoor.

“Um...come in?” he called. Anzo slapped him on the arm.

The trapdoor splintered, and a huge body dropped down, landing on his feet at the bottom. Other thugs were in the alley at the top, waiting in case they were needed. Broos Bellinger looked around the room with a wide smile.

“Excuse the entrance,” he said.

Robin squeaked and pulled herself away from him until she hit her head on Anzo's desk. Broos bellowed a mocking laugh when he saw her. "Well, if it isn't Dom's little wannabe thief! Should've figured you'd join the clown squad."

"How did you find us?" Anzo said. His teeth were clenched and fists balled.

Broos dismissively waved his hand. "Are you kidding? We've known about this place for months. You make such a ruckus every time you come and go that it would be hard not to know where you hold up. We just haven't needed you for anything until now."

He plucked a stoppered vial from the display of potions Gwynt had prepared for their next excursion, and twirled it around his gloved fingers. Gwynt held a hand out, eyes wide, whispering, "No, no, careful," to himself. Hudtan stared darkly at Broos, but remained silent. She seemed to be trying to wither him with a glance, but without pupils it didn't have the same effect.

"Until last night, your gang was barely a dot on the map, compared to some of the big players we have to deal with around this town." He tossed the vial behind him, where it shattered with a poof against the wall, sending a little cloud of poison gas into the air. Gwynt whimpered. "But now you've gone and shown that you can get up in people's business. They say you were the ones who foiled a Firemen plot." He smirked. "The guards were all over that place like flies on a carcass, and you all made it out without raising their suspicion."

Anzo's chest swelled. "That's right. So if you know what's good for you-"

"Oh, I know what's good for me!" Broos said with a swagger as he stepped up to Anzo. Anzo was tall and muscular, but Broos looked down on him ever so slightly, and his biceps bulged much less slightly. "Having you fools work for me would have ruined us before, since you'd just probably botch any task we gave you. But now that you've proven yourselves mildly competent, well, we're willing to put you to work." He scoffed and shook his head. "No, silly me, we're forcing you to do our work!"

Anzo stomped a foot on the ground. "Bedlam will never work for the likes of you, or any other gang in this town!" Anzo swung his fist at Broos. The Bloodroot leader caught the punch, flexed his upper body slightly, and sent Anzo spinning heels over head and around again. Anzo landed on the floor flat on his back, causing the entire room to shake from the dead weight. He groaned as Broos looked around at the others in the room with a clenched grimace.

"You think you can fight back?" he snarled. "You think you could scare me away? Ha! I've been more afraid of my great aunt Netty, and she's eighty-two." He moved back over to Gwynt's poison-brewing station. "If you won't take me seriously, then I'd better show you how serious I am." Broos tapped on the wall and opened his hand. One of the thugs in the alley above dropped a club down, which Broos caught. The club was made of wood with metal stubs nailed into it, not some crude branch that you would find in the hands of a wild troll. Broos lifted it behind his head, then swung at the delicate glass bottles with all his strength.

"Wait!" The club stopped inches from the contents of the table. Broos looked over to see Robin standing up with her hand outstretched. The look of surprise on his face was nothing compared to Robin's, who looked as though she had entered an owl lookalike contest. She hesitantly closed her fingers and brought her hand back to her cheek.

"What," Broos said, with venom dripping from the one word.

Robin shuffled her feet. "Well, uh, I was going to say that we'd be glad to...er, that is, yes, you can count on us to...I mean. Um. We'll do it."

Broos stood back up, letting the club swing at his side. Gwynt and Hudtan both exhaled. "So when you receive my instructions, you'll follow through on them? And I won't have to burn your hideout to the ground?"

Robin gulped. "Yugh."

Broos grinned and hoisted the club onto his shoulder. "That's what I like to hear. Keep an ear out for our message. We've got some jobs coming up that I want to risk your hides on instead of my boys." He chuckled. "Good to see you know your place. Good day, Bedlam." With two powerful movements, Broos pulled himself up out of the Plinth. Robin listened to the footsteps of the Bloodroots as they walked away.

"It seems we have attracted some undesirable attention," Hudtan observed.

Anzo grumbled as he stood back up. "That's not how I would have handled the situation," he said. Gwynt, after checking to make sure everything on his station was intact, set to fixing the trapdoor.

Robin blushed. "Sorry, Anzo. I don't think he would've stopped at Gwynt's stuff, though. He was ready to destroy everything here if we didn't agree to his demands."

"Then we fight!" Anzo roared. He stomped over to his desk, moved aside the stuff from his chair, and plopped down to stew.

"I'd normally be right there with you!" Gwynt said, "but you have to admit," he added, "they outnumber us quite a bit."

"Bah," Anzo said. "So what? Now we do whatever they say? I think not!" He banged his fist on the deck, as if he were envisioning Broos's head there. "What is the point of starting our own gang if not for freedom?"

"The matching bandanas would be a plus," Gwynt said.

Anzo nodded. "I do have to finish stitching those..."

"I think this could work out, actually," Hudtan said. She stood up and paced in a small circle around where Robin sat. "The Bloodroot gang outnumbers us, as Gwynt pointed out, so we can't really fight back. But what do they gain from having us under their thrall? I will tell you. They will send us to do the dangerous jobs that have high risk and low reward, such as those that involve harassing other gangs."

"How does that work out for us, exactly?" Robin asked.

"Because the jobs they give us will also be the ones that are not vital to the success of their criminal organization." Hudtan held up a finger, her violet eyes swiveling around the room. "Giving us a job of any significance to their operations would surely be too high a risk, as Broos himself said he does not trust us to be very effective. Therefore, we can wait for the opportunity to take what they would gain from such a quest for ourselves, and regain our independence."

Gwynt finished adjusting the trapdoor, restoring it to a somewhat functional state. "So, they have us steal something, and we just keep it for ourselves?" He smiled. "I like where this is going!"

Anzo rubbed his chin. "We treat is as an opportunity to gain information, then turn on them at the first chance we get! I like it too!"

"And when we do betray them," Robin said, "what stops them from finding us and kicking the gelatinous slime out of us?"

The other three simultaneously scratched their heads. There was the sound of creaking wood.

"Did the trapdoor just fall apart again?" Hudtan said.

Gwynt turned back to it. "Nope, still closed, mostly," he said.

Anzo shrugged. "Might as well decide what we're going to do with our spoils. Perhaps we got something that can help us out..."

"I have an idea for that," a fifth voice said. Gwynt and Robin jumped away from the middle of the room where it came from, and suddenly realized that a woman was lying in one of the hammock's above. Her smile was a row of knives, her short hair framed by two horns that curved down the side of her head and pointed back. She wore a sleek leather outfit that bound every weak point on her body, but allowed for every movement she would need to sneak directly up behind someone and slit their throat. She held a curved dagger in one hand, letting it swing as if it were there only as an afterthought. "You could give it to me," she concluded.

Anzo leapt up from his seat. "What's the meaning of this?!" he bellowed.

"Calm down, muscles," the devilborn said, gracefully dropping from the hammock to the middle of the room. "I'm not here to stab anybody. Just to show you that I could if I wanted to."

She sheathed her dagger. "My name is Rivka. You may have heard of my organization, Night Lotus?" Hudtan took in a short gasp, and Rivka smiled. "I thought so. I've come to make an interesting proposition."

Robin raised her hand tentatively. "Um, I actually haven't heard of Night Light."

"That's Night Lotus, sweetie," Rivka said. She sauntered up to Robin, her lips wide with a snakelike smile. "We're Fannen-Dar's first and only assassin's guild. If you've ever wondered why the law always looks the other way from crime, it's because we have the city council tied tight around our finger. They're terrified that we would kill them if they dared oppose us." She laughed, a sound like a tiger purring right before biting the throat of its prey. "And they're absolutely right."

Robin gulped loudly. Anzo walked around the desk and stood next to Rivka, towering over her. "You've made your point."

"Not yet I haven't," she said, interrupting him with a pat on his cheek. While Anzo's jaw lolled open in frustration, she circled around towards Gwynt. "The Night Lotus is a small group, and we want to dip our hands into a few more coffers. We need help from resourceful, newfound gangs like your own to make sure we're not cutting any important corners. I'm sure you four will be up to it," she added, winking at Gwynt.

Gwynt raised an eyebrow and smiled. "I think we need what we steal more for ourselves," he said, "but we certainly wouldn't want to leave a fellow thief in the gutter!"

"We certainly would!" Anzo said. "You aren't getting anything from us."

"That's a shame." Rivka strode back towards the trapdoor, seemingly rejected. Before she reached it, however, she looked back over her shoulder. "It's a shame, you see, because I'd really much rather be your boss...than your enemy." Her dagger was suddenly back out of its sheath and in her hand, and a bottle from Gwynt's station tumbled to the ground and shattered. She moved so fast that none of the others saw the dagger even touch any of the glass. Her other hand then gripped the edge of the table. "But if that's the way you want it..."

Hudtan now stood in front of the others, waving her hands low in front of her. "When he said you're getting nothing, Rivka, well, of course he meant that we would be most honored to provide you with whatever assistance you deign appropriate. Just let us know when an opportunity arises for us to be of service!"

Rivka brought her hand back to her hip, and her dagger back in its sheath. "That's more like it," she said, then winked again before leaping out of the Plinth. "I'll be in touch," she said before vanishing into the street above.

There was a moment of silence before Anzo roared and started kicking the wall.

Hudtan walked over to him. "Anzo. Anzo!" She placed a hand on his shoulder. "It's fine. We can still make a name for ourselves."

"I take orders from no one!" Anzo yelled.

"Would you rather put us all in danger?" Hudtan said, and Robin saw a flare in her eyes. Anzo's rage suddenly seemed to cool off, and his expression turned into one of embarrassment. He ran his hand across his matted hair, and Hudtan nodded. "The Bloodroots and Night Lotus are both simply stronger than us. It would be foolish to cross them, but unfortunately they are not giving us a choice in the matter."

Robin watched the exchange with tense shoulders. She glanced over at Gwynt to see that, while his smile had faded, he still had a wide-eyed, hopeful look. Robin wanted to do something to solve their problem, or say something that would make it better, or come up with a plan to get out of this mess, but nothing came to her. She felt like she was being thrust into a party where she wasn't invited. Even just offering reassuring words to the others seemed like it would be crossing an invisible, unmentioned line. Robin sat back down and folded her hands.

Gwynt walked over to his potion stand. "I'm just glad most of these are okay," he said, apparently talking to the vials themselves. "What a rough day you've had! No more threats of smashing for you, no way!" He bent down to clean up the shattered glass.

"We can get out of this," Anzo said. "The Bloodroots and Night Lotus are involved in activities that do not cross each other. We can follow both of their orders without getting caught, and then, like you said before, Hudtan, we will betray them both when the opportunity presents itself!"

Hudtan nodded again. "A foolproof plan, sir."

Gwynt finished scooping up the shards from the floor. "There. I can handle losing two of these vials, but they'll be hard to replace. Thank goodness the rest are fine!"

A body smashed through the remnants of the trapdoor, landing on his feet. He swung a gleaming mace to his left, missing Gwynt's head by an inch but hitting every remaining glass container on his station. The dwarf before them wore a clean metal breastplate, greaves, and helmet, but Robin could still see the fire in his eyes.

"Listen here, scum!" the dwarf shouted. He was tall for a dwarf, but his voice filled the room just as Robin would expect from one. Two other armored figures climbed down to stand next to him, wielding steel axes. "You've made yourselves known as a villainous gang of vermin, and that means it is our sworn duty to exterminate you!"

Robin thought for a moment that the guards had found them, but the armor these visitors were wearing was piecemeal, and they bore no symbols of the town. Before anyone could react, the dwarf continued. "However, our own reach is limited. You see, we are the Axe of Justice, and our purpose is to sweep the streets clean of criminals and thieves like yourselves. Unfortunately, the town guard has declared us outlaws ourselves, claiming our cleansing as 'murder' and 'unnecessarily cruel.' Bah!" He swung his mace again, and it crushed the table that now only held broken glass. "So our numbers are low, thanks to many of our members being arrested. Therefore, you shall aid us in our endeavors, or else you will be our next target! There is no other option!" He waved his hand, and the other goons started back up the ladder to the alley. "Await our orders, or face the wrath of Justice!"

Bedlam sat in silence after they had been left alone once again. Gwynt let out a soft sigh. Anzo opened his mouth, trying to find another bright side to the situation, but then collapsed into his chair.

"We're doomed."

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