Wednesday, April 20, 2016
The Heroes of Fannen-Dar, Chapter 18
Whereas a couple days before, no one had paid attention to Chester, now all eyes turned on him wherever he went. It was the morning after the fiasco at the orphanage, and Chester had to report in for morning duty. Word about last night had clearly spread around the other guards in the barracks. When he got up from his cot, a conversation that had been going on nearby suddenly stopped. While he washed his face, he spotted the faces of others watching him from outside the door. When he put on his uniform and walked towards the training ring for the lineup, heads turned to watch as he passed. He heard a conversation pick up after he turned a corner, and stopped to listen.
“But why would he draw so much attention to it like that, if there was nothing there?” one voice said.
Another responded, and Chester recognized it as one of the senior guardsmen, Louis. “Maybe he wasn't just drawing attention to himself, he was drawing attention away from something else. I don't know, he could be up to something shady.”
“Then he'll get what's coming to him.”
Chester had hoped he would be applauded for saving the children, but it seemed like his fellow guards would rather see him lashed.
Chester took his usual place in the lineup, next to Darrik. He tried to catch Darrik's eye, but even his friend seemed to be avoiding him. Darrik looked straight ahead without acknowledging Chester's presence. Chester restrained a sigh and did likewise, his fists clenched at his sides.
As the bells from across town were starting to toll, Captain Ignatius emerged from the barracks and walked to the front of the assembly. Chester felt his neck grow hot just from seeing the captain. This man, from whom Chester was supposed to be taking orders, had endangered the lives of innocents, children no less. All for, presumably, a pocketfull of gold that the Firemen had bribed him with. Chester wondered how such an easily corruptible person had become the captain in the first place. Maybe he had done some bribing of his own in the past.
Ignatius cleared his throat. "I'm sure there are plenty of rumors going around about last night, isn't that so?" he said. He began pacing up and down the lineup, looking into everyone's eyes as he passed them. He arrived at Chester and stopped. "A young watchman aroused a stir when he was supposed to be off duty, and for what? Apparently nothing."
The heat rose to Chester's cheeks as he felt the sideways glances falling on him. Nothing? he thought. What about the pile of explosives and the extinguished fuse? The evidence that an explosion almost tore apart an entire street of Fannen-Dar? Did that count as nothing? Or had Ignatius arranged a cover-up after Chester had been sent back to the barracks?
"So it seems that I will need to remind everyone of the protocol for situations in which you suspect a crime without hard evidence." Ignatius's moustache wiggled above his lips when he talked, twirling like the tip of a rapier. "It is not your duty to act on every suspicion, but to inform your superior officer and present the evidence you have collected." The evidence was what I had seen you discussing with the Firemen! Chester wanted to scream. It was his word against the captain's, and he knew that if he had tried to do things the official way, he would have been shut down, just like Ignatius had arranged to have the murdered bodies buried ahead of schedule so that nobody would find out about his plan. Had those three been a part of the team that had foiled the explosion? Is that why the Firemen had them murdered?
Chester realized that Ignatius was still talking. "...Due to a disturbance this morning in the trading house, the watch in that area will be doubled tonight..." Chester looked at the smug grin on Ignatius's face. He had seemed upset last night that the plan had been foiled. Was he now disguising his disdain, or had he learned new information that put his mind at ease? The captain was keeping so many secrets from the guards that it wouldn't surprise Chester if he only knew a part of what was going on. What else were the Firemen planning?
"Dismissed," Ignatius said, and Chester followed the line to head back into the barracks. "Except for you, Chester." He stopped, and the other guards marched past him to head on to their duties. Darrik gave a brief glimpse over his shoulder as he walked by, and Chester saw that his eyes were filled with worry. Was he just worried about what would happen to Chester, or was he worried about what Chester had already done? He knew Darrik liked to lay low and play by the rules, but he firmly believed that he was doing the right thing by going against them. Ignatius stepped up to Chester, towering over him.
"You are benched today, guardsman," the captain said. "Your behavior last night was far out of line, and I do not want to have you on duty, since you are likely to either continue your dalliances, or collapse from exhaustion, all right?"
"Sir," Chester sputtered, "with all due respect, you already had me take a day off this week. If I don't work, I won't get paid!"
"Then consider this your punishment, see?" Ignatius said, his mouth staying a taught thin line, but amusement creeping into his voice. "You will think twice about acting rashly in the future, won't you, Channing?"
Chester stared down at the ground and didn't reply. Ignatius bent down so that his face was level with Chester's, and Chester couldn't help but look up into his eyes. The cold, blue gaze was sharper than Chester expected. Did the captain merely think that Chester had discovered the Firemen's plot, or did he know that Chester had discovered the captain's corruption? "Won't you?" Ignatius asked again.
Chester held back a shiver. "Yes, sir," he forced himself to say. The captain straightened up.
"Good, then," he said. "Enjoy yourself, and forget about that business with the orphanage, okay? I expect to see you back here bright and early tomorrow."
Chester let his breath go, feeling deflated. The scattered thoughts and worries that had crowded together in his brain flew away, leaving only the dull ache that comes when you tried your best and still failed. Chester had gone out of his way to do the best thing for his hometown, and had fallen down in the process. He needed to pick himself back up again.
Thursday, April 7, 2016
The Heroes of Fannen-Dar, Chapter 17
The light from the sunrise started pouring over the edge of the town wall. Robin, Gwynt, Anzo, and Hudtan sat crouched atop a roof, peering down at an empty alley between the wall and a bulky warehouse. Anzo was releasing his pent up energy by tapping his knee.
"Okay, scratch that," he said, canceling his third set of orders. "Here's the actual plan."
Their instructions had come in the dead of night, written on scraps of parchment sitting on the floor of the Plinth, despite Bedlam having one person always on watch while the others slept. Robin knew she dozed off for a minute during her watch, but could have sworn there were no papers there when she switched her watch with Hudtan. That's also ignoring the fact that the two elves were completely aware of their surroundings while they slept, and still managed to miss the agents of the other gangs sneak into their hideout and leave messages.
There were three sets of instructions. The first one, from the Bloodroots, was daunting enough: conduct a drug trade with a "merchant" who had just arrived from out of town. The message had come with a small pouch of gold, more than Bedlam had ever been able to steal before, but they knew that trying to flee with the coins would be futile. They would give the gold over to the dealer, and get the bloodroot seeds in return.
The second and third set of instructions also concerned the drug dealer. It seems that Night Lotus and the Axe of Justice had spies inside the Bloodroots, because they were also instructed to steal the gold being used in the trade as well as kill the drug dealer for his crimes. Anzo was trying to come up with a way they could do all three without getting killed in the process.
"When he arrives," Anzo continued, "we'll steal the bloodroot before he sees us. Then, when we ask to see the goods, he'll be confused because they've gone missing. Then we kill him for not coming through on his end of the deal, so he's dead, the Axe is happy, we have the drugs, the Bloodroots are happy, and we have the gold, so Lotus is happy. Everybody wins!"
"The Bloodroots won't be happy that one of their dealers is dead," Hudtan said.
"Night Lotus won't be happy if we cause a scene," Gwynt said. "They like things done quietly."
"The Axe of Justice better not find out that we're dealing drugs and funding assassin's, or we'll be dead," Robin said.
Anzo grumbled. "Fine. I need more time to think..."
"We will need to engage in deception to keep all our so-called employers pleased with our performance," Hudtan said. "We can't really kill the dealer, but we can tell the Axe's leader that we did. We can steal the money from someone else to give to Rivka, and tell her that it was from the drug trade. And then the Bloodroots get to keep their drugs and their dealer."
"Good thinking, Hudtan," Anzo said, giving her a pat on the back that nearly sent her stumbling to her knees. "That gives us a plan then!"
Anzo started off towards the staircase down from the roof, but Gwynt grabbed his arm before he got far. "Wait, Anzo," Gwynt said. "You need to actually tell us the plan first."
"Oh, yes," the half-ogre said. He cleared his throat and pointed at the alley. "I will meet our friend at the designated spot, and trade the gold from the Bloodroots for the roots themselves. The dealer will then leave through that passage." He pointed to another alley between two buildings. "Hudtan will wait there for him, then make as if she were springing a trap. She will threaten the dealer and convince him to stay away from the town, so that the Axe of Justice will think he is dead and the Bloodroots will think he stopped trading with them of his own volition. Understand that, Hudtan?"
"Understood, Anzo," Hudtan said.
"Meanwhile, Robin and Gwyntmarwolaeth will head into the trading house." He pointed now to a large building topped with a bell. "The morning trade will not begin for several hours, so the building should only contain guards. Gwyntmarwolaeth, you must make your way through the trading house and clear a path for Robin."
Gwynt saluted. "The guards won't know what didn't hit them."
Robin raised her hand. "What am I going to be doing in there?"
"You," Anzo said, "are going to steal enough gold to replace what we're giving away." Robin's eyes lit up. "And then we will have everything that each of the gangs wants from us."
Gwynt put a hand on Anzo's shoulder. "Don't worry Anzo. Some day we will break free from their hold and be our own gang!"
"You better believe it!" Anzo said. "Now get going! And Robin, wipe that grin off your face, this is serious!"
Bedlam sneaked back down the stairs, through the quiet rooms, and split up outside. Anzo and Hudtan headed towards the alley, while Robin followed Gwynt to the side of the trading house. The put their backs against the wall. Gwynt turned around and slowly rose up to peer in the window. Robin silently waited for him to finish. Gwynt turned back and crouched down again next to Robin.
She waited a moment for him to tell her what to do next, then asked, "Well?"
"There's one guard in there that I can see," Gwynt replied.
"What was he doing?"
"Looking at me."
"HE SAW YOU?" Robin hissed.
Gwynt shrugged helplessly, and they heard the sound of boots walking from around the corner. The guard turned around to see what he probably considered as two young people up to no good. He wasn't ready for battle, only wearing a breastplate over his casual tunic and pants, but he didn't seem to be expecting one. He gave Robin and Gwynt the look that a teacher gives to the kid who just wet his pants. "What's going on here?" he asked. "Move along now, unless you have legitimate business here."
Gwynt and Robin stood up, Gwynt already with a bright smile on his face. "Good morning, officer!" he chirped. "I was so hoping to get to meet you, and here you are!"
The guard squinted. He wasn't used to strangers being happy to see him; usually, the kind of people who squatted outside windows were the kind who he'd either have to fight or chase. "Meet me?" he asked.
"Why, yes!" Gwynt said, putting a hand on the guard's shoulder. "You see, we've come so far, and traveled so long, to come here to Fannen-Dar just on the chance we'd get to speak to you! You are truly a legend that our elders only speak of in hushed voices, knowing the true power you wield! Yes, you see, you are really the chosen one of an ancient prophesy, that says you will save the world from being destroyed by a large cat wearing orange pants who breathes fire. Yes, you are the only one who can stop it!"
"Gwynt," Robin said, "I don't think he's listening."
"Not now!" Gwynt whispered back. "I'm on a roll here!"
Robin grabbed his chin and turned it back to the guard. "No, I mean I don't think he can hear you." The guard was frothing at the mouth and his skin had turned purple.
"Oh," Gwynt said, removing the poisoned needle on his wrist from the guard's shoulder. The guard collapsed at their feet, wriggling a bit more before becoming still. Gwynt nudged the body with his toes, then sighed. "Well now who's gonna stop the orange knickered kitty?"
"Let's go, before someone sees us!" Robin said. They crept around the corner and through the door, which the guard had left unlocked, and into the trading house.
Anzo sauntered into the shadow of the wall, peering through the morning mist, banished only by a couple of torches. He adjusted his armor, made from sturdy hide but roughly sewn together into a wild-looking suit. It wasn't the usual leather that thieves tended to prefer, since leather armor was lighter, easier to move in, and did actually look a bit more intimidating. Anzo believed that hide, however, had its advantages. For one, it was much warmer. Anzo didn't know any other advantages, but he certainly believed they existed.
After waiting impatiently for a few minutes, Anzo saw a figure approach him down the alley. It looked at first like an old, hunched man, with something sharp pointing out from under the hood of his cloak that was draped around his crooked body. Anzo thought that the drugs were coming from a plague doctor, and he wore a mask with an elongated nose containing spices that prevented the diseases he dealt with from infecting him. As the figure grew closer, Anzo saw that in fact the beak was exactly that. The birdfolk peered at him from under his hood with beady red eyes, blinking against a black-feathered body.
"You do have the coin, yes?" the birdfolk squawked.
Anzo held the pouch forward, but kept his fist clenched around it. "I do," he said, trying to keep things formal. He started worrying that maybe he was being too showy, so he started casually tossing the purse between his hands.
The birdfolk narrowed his eyes, looking Anzo up and down. "You aren't a watchman, are you?"
"Of course not!" Anzo scoffed.
"Who do you work for? My contact has never sent you before." The birdfolk's eyes glistened with an eerie malevolence. "I need to make sure this trade isn't being intercepted."
"Well, I...I'm with the..." Anzo stammered. He hesitated, then blurted out, "I'm the leader of Bedlam, and proud of it!"
"Then the deal is off." The birdfolk started to turn away. "I work only with the Bloodroots. I'm not about to get on Broos's bad side by giving his goods to another gang. You probably stole the coin from him too."
Anzo dropped the coin purse and drew his mace. The metal from the spiked head of the mace slid against its sheath as it came out, and the birdfolk stopped with his back to Anzo. Anzo put both hands on the hilt of the mace. "I'm afraid I need to ask you to stop," he said.
"You're totally a cop," the birdfolk said, his feather fluffing up as an instinctual response to appear bigger. "You sound just like them."
"Absolutely not!" Anzo shouted. "I am Bedlam, and we need to deliver your drugs to the Bloodroots!" He stepped forward. "And if you do not cooperate, I will be forced to resort to violence."
The birdfolk shrugged. "Violence it is."
Suddenly, Anzo felt cold metal pressed up against his throat. He glanced to the side without turning his head to see the arm of one person reaching over his shoulder to hold a dagger to his neck, and another person pointing a rapier at his chest. The tip of the rapier tickled his exposed armpit. Anzo stood still, his grip loosening on the mace. The birdfolk let out a cawing chuckle. "Did you think I'd come alone?" he said. He threw back his hood and turned his head sideways to get a better look at Anzo. The tips of his mouth turned up in the closest his beak could get to a smirk. "I can tell this is your first time with something like this. If you really were sent by Broos, then it seems to me that the man has grown weak. King Dom must really be doing a number on him." He stepped forward, and his head jerked as it tried to remain in one position. "I don't make trades with weaklings." He gestured to the ground. "Drop your weapon."
Anzo reluctantly obliged, but a smile crept onto his own face. The birdfolk saw and said, "What's so funny?"
"You've fallen for your own trap," Anzo said. "I haven't come alone either!"
To Anzo's dismay, the birdfolk nodded. "Yes, but where I brought three, you brought one." Anzo glanced again at the two henchmen standing next to him, ready to tear him apart. The birdfolk whistled (somehow, Anzo wasn't sure how a beak could whistle. Maybe it was a chirp), and two more figures emerged from around a corner. One was a bald human with scars and a stern expression on his face. He was holding his sword to the throat of the other figure: Hudtan.
The birdfolk's head snapped back to view Anzo. "You were speaking of a trap?"
Anzo vowed next time to come up with better traps.
Robin waited until she heard the sound of another body hitting the floor before she scurried behind the next trading post. Gwynt was there with another guard, either dead or unconscious from whatever coated Gwynt's dagger. He peered around the corner of the wooden desk, where traders would barter with other merchants in order to acquire a variety of goods at cheap prices before selling them at inflated rates on the general market. Once the trading house opened in two hours, the main room would be flooded with activity. Now, there were only a handful of guards in the room, and two of them were face-down on the ground. Gwynt turned back to Robin. "The next one hasn't noticed," he said.
"Where are we even trying to get to?" Robin asked.
Gwynt pointed to the back wall. There was a large double door there, guarded by two bleary-eyed soldiers on the last stretch of their night watch. "In the back room," Gwynt said, "there is a wide, open area for storing the merchandise up for sale. Most items take several days to find a buyer at the right price, so there should be plenty of stuff back there."
"I thought we were after gold!" Robin said.
"Hopefully there's some of that, too," Gwynt said. "It would probably be locked up, though. We'll need to pick the locks."
"Then why didn't Anzo send Hudtan?"
"Because then you would have to do her job of intimidating the dealer. And..." Gwynt gave Robin a sympathetic look. "You're not very...threatening."
Robin nodded. "Fair enough." She wondered at what point it would be wise to bring up the fact that she had never picked a lock before.
The two thieves crept their way as close as they could to the two double doors. Neither guard seemed to notice that their cohorts had not shown up from their last rounds. Gwynt took out a small blowgun and inserted a dart into the tip. He pointed it at the nearest guard and puffed up his cheeks. The dark shot out, briefly visible as a silver streak in the air, until it embedded itself in the guard's neck. He held his hand to the wound and grunted, but fell to the ground unconscious before he could shout out.
The other soldiers watching the door saw, of course, and rushed over to the body. He looked around and saw the shadow of someone crouching behind the nearest trading desk. He drew his sword and rushed over, making sure to hold his arm up to protect his neck. He turned the corner to find Robin quivering at the sight of a weapon pointed at her. "Halt and surrender!" the guard shouted, preparing to stab forward if Robin tried to run.
And then Gwynt dropped down on him, and a dagger was plunged into his chest above the collarbone. Gwynt pushed off the guard and landed on his feet. The guard landed on his face. Gwynt wiped off the dagger on the guard's cloak.
“I thought you never killed anyone with weapons?” Robin said.
Gwynt shrugged. “It's important to keep as many doors open as possible, for some will shut unexpectedly.” He sheathed his dagger. “I also change my mind a lot.”
After a quick look around, he and Robin approached the doors. They pushed the doors aside to reveal a spacious room filled with chests, crates, and wares of all kinds. There were boxes of imported spices from the dwarven kingdom, statues carved by skilled sculptors, and Robin even saw a crate with air holes that sounded like it contained monsters kidnapped from deep within a far-off jungle. They began searching quietly for wherever the merchants stored their gold.
Robin jumped when she pushed a crate aside and it started shaking. She glanced around to make sure no one heard, but Gwynt laughed. "Don't worry, we took care of all five of the guards."
Robin began to relax, but then tensed up again. "Weren't there six guards?"
"Don't be silly," Gwynt said, fiddling with the padlock on one chest and failing to make any progress with it. "I know how many people I killed."
"HEY!" a voice shouted. Robin and Gwynt swiveled around in unison to see a guard standing in the open doorway. "MURDERERS!" he shouted, running away to get help. Robin shot a panicked look at Gwynt, who started giving chase.
"Find the gold! I'll take care of this one!" he shouted over his shoulder.
Robin frantically began tugging at each treasure chest and strong box, hoping that one of them had been carelessly left unlocked. Unfortunately, the merchants from Fannen-Dar knew their town too well, and anything valuable they owned was either too heavy to move quietly, or practically bolted to the floor. Robin felt around in her pockets and pulled out the broken half of the lockpick she had found in the alchemical warehouse. She experimentally shoved it inside a keyhole and swirled it around, tugging repeatedly on the padlock, but without knowing how locks even worked, she made no progress in opening it.
She heard shouting from outside, but from the other direction where Gwynt ran. It might have been Anzo's voice, but Robin could hardly tell when her mind was so focused on completing her task. She gave up trying to pry anything open, shoved the lockpick back in her pocket, and began searching for anything she could simply carry out. She found a small iron strong box that seemed like the perfect candidate, but when she went to grab it, it glowed red and burnt the palms of her hands. She whimpered and licked her wounds, now using her feet to kick things aside in search of a chest that the merchant had forgotten to enchant.
A glimmer caught her eye. Something underneath a cloth tarp had caught the light, and whatever it was, it was colored gold. She pulled off the tarp to find another stack of boxes. They had writing in a strange foreign language on them, but they too were all nailed shut. Except one.
At the very bottom of the crate, the sides of one corner had peeled away, as if whatever was inside had somehow rusted the wood. Robin could just barely fit her hand through the gap, and felt a small case, no larger than a coin purse. She used the tips of her fingers to edge it closer to the hole in the crate, then when it was in reach, she pulled it out.
Robin held the small case in her hands. It fit perfectly in her two palms held side by side. She unhooked the latch, which was not locked, and flipped open the lid. Inside was a plain white crystal, cradled on silk padding. A power that she couldn't describe emanated from it. Robin had no experience with magical artifacts, or she would have been able to tell that this was no ordinary gem, that simply gazing upon it for more than a moment was starting to affect her, that spells were being cast around her at that very moment without the involvement of any wizard, simply because of the sheer power of the crystal. All Robin saw was something that could be sold for all the gold she would ever need.
A shadow blocked the sunlight from Robin's view. She blinked as a voice said, "Hey, put that down! Thief!" Robin scrambled to avoid capture. The jewel's case snapped shut (on its own, Robin seemed to think) and slipped from her fingers, clattering on the floor and getting kicked by the man's boot. Robin had no time to retrieve it. She turned a corner around a stack of crates and came face to face with another man, carrying boxes.
"Wha-" he said as she dashed past. She looked around and saw that the trading house was bustling with merchants, loaders, buyers, sellers, town guards, bodyguards, when just a moment before the entire place had been empty. The sun shone in through the high windows, showing that it was already high noon, as if Robin had just sat and stared at the gem for hours. She knew it had only been a few seconds, she couldn't have lost track of time that quickly...
"There she is!" the merchant said. "She was stealing from my goods!" Robin burst back into a run and barrelled through the crowd. She exploded out of the trading house through the front door, to the shouting of the merchant trailing off behind her.
"Thief!" he shouted. "Thief!"