States of Light
Professor De Bergerac stared at Gung Ho. Panic was beginning to trace across his wide eyes. The gnome clutched at his neck, where Gung Ho’s awkward, unexpected dagger thrust had cut a wound.
The tremulous question caught Gung-Ho off guard. He had drawn back his dagger to deliver a more accurate, killing blow. Now, however, his hand wavered. His face went ashen.
“Do it!” hissed Caedmon.
The professor’s wide gaze turned to the where the bard stood with Kenichi. Slowly, De Bergerac began to back away from the three as confusion turned to realization. His chubby fingers, at first outstretched protectively, now began to trace odd patterns.
“Trble…” mumbled Kenichi, and his own fingers twitched a rapid sequence.
Fire suddenly erupted, red, green and blue flames leaping forth from the wizard’s hands to engulf Professor De Bergerac. The gnome had no chance. He tumbled to the floor. Within seconds, all that remained of the pastry loving Professor was a dying gasp from a badly burned corpse.
Caedmon strode over towards the smoldering body, pausing as he reached Gung-Ho. He eyed the thief.
Gung-Ho snapped his gaze from the dead gnome. He snorted gruffly.
Caedmon continued to stare for a few moments, his eyes hard. Then, he shrugged.
“Good. Let’s go take a look at this treasure, formerly owned by Ecclesia Fernanda.” The bard rubbed his hands together. “We must be close to the witching hour…”
The Time of Madieria, a towering monument visible from the entire city, emitted a low, deep bong. The echo of its evocation rolled out over the slumbering city, past the merchant’s district—closed, even for the greedy gnomes—over the Patrician’s Quarter, through the magnificent Parque de los Murmullos, daring even to compete with the unheard screams that reverberated deep in the underbelly of the Citadel of the Inquisition—where the questions, and the pain, never stopped. The midnight toll continued its sonorous journey past the many taverns of Madieria, some patrons who noted the call, others, like the patrons of the Rusty Nail, who did not hear it for the revelry within.
Two blocks up the street from the Rusty Nail, in the shadows across from the walled compound of the disgraced Ecclesia Fernanda, four darker shadows reacted to the deep gong as the Time of Madieria marked the halfway point of its vigil.
Jiki Mal glanced over at his companions. He spoke, quietly.
“Mark of deep Midnight
The summons to a just cause
“—the sword’s edge.”
Jiki Mal turned, surprised. The widest of the four shadows had finished the haiku.
“Salim. How unexpected,” the skraeling whispered. “You know of Shibi Mal Tan verse?”
The large man smiled, and nodded. “Oh yes. That’s where we—”
“—hope to visit. One day.”
It was Salim’s turn to be surprised. He turned, mouth still open, to the smallest of the four shadows. The slender half elf had shifted imperceptibly beside the large human. Salim’s went to speak, but stopped at the half elf’s stare.
“Uh, yes,” Salim said after a moment.
Jiki Mal eyed them curiously.
“Even more unexpected, Donjon,” the skraeling said to the half elf. “There are few races besides Hobgoblins would wish to visit my great city. Even fewer, incidentally, who would be welcome. Unless, of course, you are slaves,” the skraeling added with a grin.
Gorun interrupted everyone with a sharp hiss.
“We should go. AkRA will be in motion.”
Jiki Mal nodded, and immediately set forth, the huge goliath right behind him. Donjon and Salim followed a moment later—the half elf pausing to deliver another meaningful stare to his friend, and Salim pausing to wait for Donjon to stop treading on his foot.
Four shadows stretched across the cobblestone road as the group casually stepped into the moonlight, and approached their target. The front gate of the walled fortress was 10’ high, solid oak beams with thick supporting planks; above the gate, the wall continued 20’ to the apex.
The revelry of the Rusty Nail tavern echoed up the street, but otherwise, the road was empty.
Donjon eyed the towers nervously. He could pick out the elven archers atop each tower with his own half elven eyes. From a pouch he pulled a grasshopper, muttered “The three winds cricket bring us luck”, and swallowed it whole, shuddering.
Salim smiled, despite the tension. “You should be used to the taste by now,” he whispered.
The Half elf shook his head. “Not the taste. The twitching legs.”
Jiki Mal silenced them with a glance. They were now a dozen steps from the gates.
The archers had noted them, then began to shift the closer they approached the gates. Which, still, showed no signs of opening.
Any time now, AkRA, thought the half hobgoblin.
Inside the fortress, AkRA was enduring a long night. He’d managed to get on gate duty—largely because he’d had his ass handed to him by the head of the duelists the day before, when AkRA had—perhaps unwisely—challenged him to a fight. AkRA suspected the head duelist pitied him, and that put him in a bad mood.
Even worse, a song was beginning to make the rounds, heralding his defeat at the hands of said head honcho duelist. They’d be having a talk, AkRA thought viciously, before this night was through.
And to top it all off, his gate duty partner was an insufferable bore. He’d spent the last four hours listening to Gerald list, ad nauseam, his favorite species of butterflies, beginning with his top favorite and then continuing towards his most preferred. AkRA’s attempts at polite replies, hardly polished to begin with, had been reduced to strained grunts.
Then, finally, the midnight toll. The dragonborn nearly sighed in relief.
He turned to Gerard, who was in the midst of extolling the virtues of the Northern Scarlet butterfly. AkRA grabbed him by the front of his fancy leather coat. Gerard started.
“You leesten to me, small cock. Eferybody in this courtyard is about to die. You gif me the keys, ACra let you lif, ok?”
“Wha—?” AkRA’s abrupt shift left Gerald thoroughly startled.
“I SAID,” The dragonborn loomed over the guard, “OPEN the door, and I not KEELL you.”
The guard stared for a moment, thoroughly perplexed. He was not, however, so easiely cowed.
“What are you talking about, you idiot?! I’m not doing any such thing.”
“Wrong answer, small cock.” AkRA shouldered his axe and delivered a vicious downward chop.
Gerard, however, responded with unnerving speed. Whipping out a rapier and dagger, the duelist parried the dragonborn’s attack easily. “Alarm!” he shouted. “A traitor! A traitor in our midst!”
AkRA snarled. “Small cock, that kilt you for free!”
“STOP CALLING ME THAT!”
A furious Gerard lunged towards AkRA, jabbing with both weapons, trying to get around the dragonborn’s huge shield. AkRA took a half step backwards, then suddenly shot forward, his shield sweeping the guard’s rapier and dagger aside. AkRA thunked his axe home, deep into the guard’s exposed flank. The duelist staggered, gurgling and clutching at his side. A swift kick to the face dropped him heavily to the cobblestones.
A cry had gone up from the north tower. AkRA holstered his axe and moved to the body swiftly, rummaging through the pockets with his free hand. A jingle in the second pocket brought a triumphant grin to AkRA’s draconic face, and he hauled out his find. His grin abruptly vanished.
Attached to the iron ring in his hand was, at least, a score of keys.
Tension was thick in the air of the vault.
Caedmon stepped over to the chests. He could feel his eyebrow twitching madly, as it always did when he contemplated obscene wealth. But he didn’t care.
“Gung-Ho, let’s get these open.”
“N-n-n-n, d prssr plts, yr fgttin.” Kenichi stood with his arms crossed.
The bard shook his head with exasperation.
“You really do need a familiar. One that can talk. One that can translate.”
Gung-Ho cut in to Caedmon’s grumblings.
“It’s the pressure plates, you fool. We need to get weight on them before we move any of these chests. And as for opening them, I think that should wait until we get out of here. Assuming,” the thief peered with worry around the rest of the room, “we even manage that.”
“Fine, fine, right, ok. Pressure plates, weights.” Caedman glanced around, then pointed. “Right, there’s one counter weight. The pastries.”
Kenichi was already moving towards them. The mage and Gung-Ho gathered up the boxes, brought them over to the first chest, and began placing them around the edge of the first pressure plate.
Gung-Ho had already determined earlier, when he first discovered the cleverly disguised plates under the chests, that only about half a Stone was actually needed to keep the plates from rising and setting off their traps. A perfectly counterweighted pressure plate would be a bigger pain for the owners, he told the others, as the weight of the chests probably changed frequently.
“That should be heavy enough,” Gung-Ho said, once the boxes of pastries had been placed.
Caedmon sniffed, an eyebrow raised with irony. “We carried the damn things this far, at least we found a use for them.”
Gung-Ho nodded slowly. Caedmon, catching the thief’s muted reaction, watched him closely.
“You seem a little…unsure,” the bard announced, after a moment.
“Hm?” Gung Ho looked up. “What are you talking about?”
Caedmon nodded at the smoking corpse.
“Is this…decision going to be a problem? In the future? Because the League needs to know it can trust its members to carry out orders…regardless of what they might be.”
“I’m fine,” came the gruff reply.
“Really? You don’t seem fine.”
“Because your aim back then, it appeared, how shall I say…” Caedmon smirked coldly, “…weak.”
Gung-Ho’s face darkened.
“Maybe I was thrown off by your horrid excuse for a bluff,” he snapped. “’Silver tongue’, you called it? More like leaden.”
“Ha. Very clever. Nonetheless. We have to know you have the necessary ‘equipment’,” Caedmon gestured with a flick towards Gung-Ho’s nether region, “to accomplish our missions…”
A sudden stillness settled over the human thief. He nodded slowly. A blurred moment later, he had Caedmon’s hair gripped in one hand and the bard’s head pulled back. In his other hand, a dagger, poised at the bard’s throat.
“U-o,” muttered Kenichi.
“Mission, eh?” Gung-Ho spat the words. “And what do you truly know about this ‘mission’ bard? Hm? How do you know I wasn’t ordered to leave you here as well? After all, we still don’t have enough ballast for these counter weights. Could use another corpse.” Gung-Ho shoved the half elf bard away. Caedmon recovered his balance. Straightened his fine cuirass.
“I assure you I have more knowledge of the complexities of this mission than you,” he said smoothly. “I am as knowledgeable as you are fast. We will need both qualities to finish our job,” he added, with a sideways glance at Gung-Ho’s dagger.
“Wll also nnn t chpup thnome fr eggsa wt.”
Both the bard and the thief looked at Kenichi.
“What?” they demanded in unison.
Kenichi sighed. He walked over to the chests, tapped the last two pressure plates with a foot, then turned to the corpse and nudged both scorched legs. “Chop,” he said, clearly exaggerating his word.
Caedmon blanched. Gung-Ho smiled, grimly.
“Who’s missing some ‘necessary equipment’ now, bard?”
A sudden muffled commotion from inside the compound reached the four companions. A cry went up, and Donjon saw the bows of the archers snap to attention.
“Heads up!” he hissed as he picked up his pace towards the gate.
“Who are you? State your business or we fire!!” one of the archers yelled.
“We’re here to…” Donjon glanced back to Jiki Mal for help, but the skraeling offered only a blank stare. “…clean the rooms.”
A bow twanged, and an arrow whistled past Donjon ear.
“Go!” yelled Jiki Mal, and the companions all dashed towards the gate. Well, three dashed, and one, Salim, lumbered.
Gorun had drawn his axe as he ran, and as the goliath arrived at the gate, he used his momentum to deliver a mighty blow against the 10 foot high, oaken doors. The doors moved, but barely.
“Still barred!” he yelled.
Jiki Mal cursed. The companions huddled as best as they could in the meager cover the gateway provided. Two more arrows whirred down, skipping of the cobblestones sharply.
“AkRA!” Jiki Mal yelled through the gate. “Are you there?”
“Da!” came the muffled reply.
“Get this thing open! Unbar it!”
AkRA glanced up briefly from the myriad of keys through which he had been sorting unsuccessfully. He grunted, annoyed. “Da, da!” Eyes still on the keys, he reached up a leg and kicked the beam from it’s supports on the gate.
An arrow hammered into his shield. Startled, he dropped the keys. “Small cock with bow!” he snarled towards the north tower, raising his shield protectively. Another arrow pounded into the back side of his shield from the opposite direction, the fletching brushing his scaly cheek as it landed. “Smaller cock!”
On the other side of the wall, Salim was encountering the same difficulty, dodging another pair of crossing arrows neatly, despite his bulk. Nevertheless, their vulnerability was obvious.
Donjon snapped two daggers from his belt, blades reversed. “Salim, boost!” he said. The big man had barely enough time to cup his hands before the half elf leaped onto it with one foot and launched himself as high as he could. Driving his daggers into the wooden gate, he rapidly clambered to the top of the doors, where he reached the overhang of the stone wall. Hanging from one dagger, he felt for a grip, any grip, in the mortar seams. Dropping nimbly back to the ground, he sheathed his daggers. “No luck,” he breathed.
“Gorun!” ordered Jiki Mal.
The goliath wound up for another massive swing.
Meanwhile, AkRA had scooped the keys back up, his shield still raised against more missiles. His frustrated snarl, however, turned to a startled exclamation— the first key in his hand was big, thick, and very gate like.
“Ha! Found it!” He turned, and shoved it in the large keyhole.
Gorun’s axe thundered against the gate, splitting a jagged gap and driving the now unbarred door back. The keys jolted from AkRA’s hand, tumbling to the ground behind him again.
“You heff gott to be kiddink!” AkRA snarled, and scrambled to pick up the keys a second time.
One more blow from Gorun’s axe, this time aimed beside the brass back plate of the locking mechanism which sat on the outside of the door, was all it took. With a splintering crunch the doors sprang ajar. Salim raised a ponderous boot and sent them flying open.
The four companions were greeted by AkRA’s rear end, which had narrowly avoided a nasty hit from the swinging doors.
The dragonborn spun around, keys dangling in his hand. He stared at the now open doors with a glower. When another arrow ricocheted off his shield, AkRA turned with a snarl and hurled the keys at the north tower.
“Now, we come for you!”
Indeed, Donjon came sprinting through the doors, immediately banked left and headed for the north tower. He avoided another arrow with a quick spin, and, his speed unaltered, he grabbed an empty bucket by the wall, hurled it through the narrow window atop the tower door as he approached, and then dove through the opening. He landed inside with a neat somersault, his momentum carrying him forward and up the stairs.
Jiki Mal headed towards the south tower with grim purpose. Just inside the gates lay a squat building, perhaps a barracks of some sort. As he ran past the door to the building, it was flung open, narrowly missing the skraeling, who reflexively dodged to the side. He caught a glimpse of two warriors, one armed and the other scrambling to get his weapons. Jiki Mal carried on sprinting.
“Salim! Take these two!”
AkRA nodded at the rotund monk as he entered. “You! You must be Salami.”
Salim stopped briefly, smiled and bowed low, then continued his lumbering pace towards the open door.
AkRA turned to face the church sitting in the centre of the courtyard. A toothy grin split his face wickedly.
“And now, Ogre, you heff to face AkRA!”
Kenichi, Gung-Ho, and Caedmon stood back, surveying their gruesome work. Professor De Bergerac’s torso sat on the edge of the second pressure plate. His severed legs were arranged around the outside of the third. Removing the legs was not accomplished without difficulty. The first cuts bled profusely, which not only doubled the awkwardness of the task, but also increased both Caedmon and Gung-Ho’s nausea. The vault now looked more like an abattoir than a repository of wealth. Kenichi wove an elemental spell, freezing the body. While it made cutting a little longer, it was a far less gory task.
Three of the pressure plates had now been dealt with; the decision had been made to get those three chests out of there first, and come back with something else for the last pressure plate later.
“Right.” Caedmon slapped his hands together, and nodded at Gung-Ho. “Let’s get this first chest upstairs.”
Donjon sprinted up the tower stairs, bounding off the wall to launch himself around the first corner. Two flights, at least, he guessed. Around the second corner, he was suddenly in an open room, the stairs continuing it’s upward climb across from him on the far wall. An startled elf was an arm’s length away, mid-stride towards him and buckling on a sword belt. Without breaking stride, Donjon snapped around, slamming the flat of his blade across the elf’s face, stunning him. The half elf landed his spin and immediately bounced back into the air, aiming both feet at the elf. The elf had barely enough time to get his arms up protectively before being sent flying away as Donjon launched a back handspring off the elf’s midsection. Without waiting, Donjon continued his upward sprint to the top.
In the other tower, Jiki Mal also ran into an elf in the first room. This one, though, had heard him coming, and Jiki Mal entered the room to a slashing blade. The skilled skraeling’s dropped to his knees, sword raised, catching the elf’s blade on his own, then shifted his blade slightly, letting his opponent’s momentum slide himself forward and off balance. A second later, Jiki Mal’s katana raked across the elf’s ribs. The wounded elf sprang back with a curse. “Haleif!” the elf called out as he circled away from Jiki Mal. “We’ve got company down here!” A second later, Jiki Mal could hear footsteps pounding across the roof overhead. He had a feeling he’d be gaining some company himself in a few moments. He dropped into en garde.
Back down in the courtyard, Salim used a surprising burst of speed to get inside the door of the duelist’s quarters. Just as he entered, he intoned a quick prayer.
The way of the wall
A barrier to all foes
Stout heart, strong spirit.
A low, blue aura began to glow around the burly monk. With no time to spare. As he came through the door, a thrust from the more prepared duelist struck home. The blue aura bent, but did not break. Salim smiled at the startled duelist, then, with startling speed, snapped a foot up into his adversary’s chest, driving him backwards into a second duelist, who had just finished arming himself. They tumbled to the floor, flailing to recover even as they hit the ground.
Gorun strode into the courtyard at last, having watched his three companions disappear in various directions while he retrieved his axe. The blow that had splintered the gates had also buried his axe deeply into the planking, which had subsequently been yanked from his hand when Salim’s kicked the door open. Weapon now retrieved, Gorun quickly scanned the courtyard. Spotting AkRA, he began to stride purposefully towards him.
AkRA, however, had no intention of sharing the ogre with the huge goliath. “Go help Salamander!” he commanded, swiftly pointing to where the monk was standing a the doorway, ducking the darting blades of two duelists. After a moment’s confusion, Gorun made the connection and sprinted hard over to aid Salim.
Caedmon and Gung-Ho lay collapsed on the floor, the chest between them, panting heavily. Kenichi stood beside them. All three mournfully regarded their progress with the first chest. They had managed to get the chest to just inside the door. To the vault, that is. 5 minutes heavy labour, and they’d moved the chest a half dozen steps.
“Thr’sa prolm,” Kenichi drawled.
“That’s an understatement,” Gung-Ho coughed, trying to catch his breath. He waved a hand towards all four chests, the accumulated wealth of Ecclesia Fernanda. “We can’t take any of this with us. We can barely lift this one chest.”
“Chst wn ft d sur ntrns ithr…”
“Uh, right. That too,” Gung-Ho responded. He’d no idea what Kenichi said, and at that moment, he didn’t care.
“What the hell is in this?” Caedmon managed to gasp. “Gold plated golden ingots of solid gold? In a gold lined chest? My god, I think I broke my lungs.”
Kenichi pulled out a flask from within his robes. He held it out to his two companions wordlessly.
Caedmon saw the flask, and began to shake his head, slowly at first, then more vigorously.
“No. No, no, no, and no. No, no.” The bard staggered to his feet. “We can’t use the universal solvent! Just think of how much wealth is in this room!”
A bent over Gung-Ho, hands on his knees, lifted his head. “Well, bard, what do you suggest?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know, I don’t know…” Caedmon stared around the vault, searching for inspiration. A slightly panicked look on his face. Kenichi chortled, and mumbled to himself, “Know, no, no know…”
Caedmon turned suddenly on the mage. “Can’t you use some of your hocus pocus? Magic it out of here?” Kenichi made a face, and shook his head.
“Some thieves we are,” the bard snapped. “We send the three weakest people in the League to haul out what was, by all known accounts, a fabulous accumulation of wealth. Wait, I forgot—we had the fattest gnome in the world with us! Oh, but then we went and killed him. Our mistake; I’m sure he could have carried a chest all by himself.” Caedmon shook his head in disgust. “We’re complete morons. We should have brought with us Akra.”
“AkRA,” Kenichi corrected.
Caedmon stared, flabbergasted.
“Did I just hear that? Did the mumbling mage just criticize MY pronunciation?”
Kenichi grinned. “Spkn of AkRA, we shd sndim a messj.”
Caedmon face blossomed into a gorgeous purplish hue. He stalked up to the mage, and sucked in a long, huge breath.
“WHAAAAAAAAAT?!” Caedmon screamed, two inches from Kenichi.
“SHHHHut up!!!” Gung-Ho hushed the furious bard. “You’ll bring the whole house down here, you idiot!!” Caedmon stopped screaming, but maintained his murderous glare on the mage.
Kenichi shrugged, then held up a medallion engraved with the League symbol on it.
Caedmon stared at it. Finally, he relented.
AkRA planted his feet firmly, focusing on the church, imagining the huge ogre inside. Time to draw out the beast. Churg, he suddenly remembered. That’s what his boring gate partner had called it. That should come in handy, he thought. All the better to taunt him with. AkRA drew in a deep breath, preparing a mighty shout.
Before he could utter a word, his League medallion grew warm, and a voice mumbled incoherently from it.
“Kntake olive lood, ow gus?”
Kenichi, thought AkRA sourly. Annoyed at the interruption, and with no time to decipher the mage’s ramblings, AkRA barked back a quick reply.
“ALARM RAISED, SMALL COCKS EVERYWHERE, GET OUT NOW.”
The three companions stared at the medallion, startled. AkRA’s message had come booming through the magical device, the dragonborn’s distorted voice echoing throughout the vault. They all looked at each other.
‘Well, that changes everything,” Caedmon stated. A pop followed as Kenichi pulled the stopper from the bottle of Universal Solvent, and walked over to the three chests still remaining in the vault.
AkRA let the medallion drop back on his chest, his focus back on the church. He positioning himself, his stance wide and ready for a rushing, 600 lb ogre. The dragonborn grinned in anticipation. He sucked in a deep breath, then let loose with a deep roar.
“CHURG! YOU FLEA BITTEN, EENN-BRED, COWARDLY, PIECE OVwhat the?”
AkRA halted his stream of invectives. His ears had suddenly picked up a peculiar but somewhat familiar sound issuing from the church. A deep, two tone rumbling that repeated itself every few seconds. AkRA listened for a moment, his disbelief morphing into a mounting frustration.
Snoring. The damn ogre was fast asleep, in the middle of a battle.
Fine, AkRA thought to himself. He strode up to the church door. This ogre wanted to catch some shut eye, then AkRA was going to help provide the dreamscape. Remembering the stench from his previous visit, the dragonborn took a deep breath and held it as he yanked the door open, plunging into the depths of the ogre’s lair.
Across the courtyard, Gorun gripped his axe with mounting frustration as Salim was beset by the two duelists in the doorway. He could not get by the large monk, nor could he attack easily around him. Neither could the monk press forward at all, with the slashing duelists on both sides. Gorun watched Salim try to counterattack, but his attempts were proving less than successful against his nimble foes. Fortunately, Salim’s mystical shield was absorbing all of the duelists thrusts, including one direct hit to his midsection. The duelists, seasoned warriors both, were becoming unsettled.
It didn’t last. The first duelist, a swarthy Krandorian, managed to puncture the shield with a particularly vicious jab. Had Salim not rolled with the blow, he would have been sorely wounded. As it was, he was shaken up.
Gorun had to act. He grabbed Salim’s shoulder.
“When I yell, duck!”
Gorun shoved down hard on Salim’s shoulder, quickly regripped his two handed axe and snapped a scything blow, just missing the monk’s topknot.
The duelist’s sword clattered to the ground, accompanied by the duelist’s arm. The unfortunate man stared incomprehensibly at the gushing stump where his arm had been only moments before, then slumped down to the side.
His partner backed up, face blanching. Not only had his friend lost his entire arm, but the odds had shifted distinctly away from him.
There was, however, nowhere to go. Salim, recovered, moved with a surprising grace over to the remaining duelist. A quick feint with his left foot allowed Salim to whip his right foot through the duelist’s defenses, landing a solid, painful blow against his opponent’s knee.
The doorway now free, Gorun pushed his way into the room, flanking the limping duelist. He had staggered backwards. Seeing the approaching goliath, the outnumbered man split his defenses, keeping his dagger trained on Salim, and his rapier on Gorun.
The goliath stared down the length of the thin blade at the duelist, then looked down at his feet. The duelist, following Gorun’s gaze, saw the severed arm of his companion, still clutching his rapier. Gorun looked back up at the duelist, and his rapier. He shrugged.
“Good luck,” he said, and launched his heavy axe.
“Wow, this stuff works quickly.”
Gung-Ho was watching the chest in front of him sizzle and pop as the acidic alchemical ate its way quickly through wood and metal. The lid had already collapsed inwards onto the gold and silver within. That, too, was being consumed rapidly.
Kenichi walked over from where the chest he’d applied the Universal Solvent sat bubbling away into a goo. Caedmon also joined them, wiping his hands nervously.
“Not a good time to get fumble fingers, I’ll say that.”
“What, did you get some on you?!” Gung-ho looked aghast, and Kenichi’s eyes widened.
“No, no. Can’t help thinking of what would happen if one did, though.”
Gung-Ho grunted. “I wouldn’t. Keep focused.”
“Yes, true,” Caedmon straightened himself, and immediately spun a quick few steps over to the remaining chest.
“Come on, thief. I’ll be damned if I leave this vault empty handed.” He reached down, and grabbed the leather side handle once again. “We can do it. We just need to do just as you say. Focus.” Gung-Ho glanced briefly over at Kenichi, then strode over to the other side of the chest, reached down and grabbed the leather handle.
Kenichi scowled and crossed his arms.
“Sa waisa tme.”
“Ah my goodness. I’d wondered how long before we would hear Kenichi’s dulcet tones again,” came Caedmon’s cherry response. “Tell you what, Kenichi, why don’t you make yourself useful, and sing us a nice working song? Something to help Gung-Ho and I with our heavy lifting. Seeing as how you will be adding absolutely nothing to this next task at hand. Literally.” At that, Caedmon nodded to Gung-Ho, and , with a mighty grunt, the two hauled on the chest, half lifting and half dragging it out the doorway.
Kenichi muttered a string of what was presumably curses, but could just have easily been a muffin recipe, and followed.
Jiki Mal whipped his katana back and forth swiftly. The wounded duelist had recovered and was pressing him from both sides with a dagger and rapier. It was all he could do not to let one of the weapons through. By the same token, his defiant parrying was keeping the duelist at bay, who leery of catching the razor sharp blade on a backswing. This duelist was nothing if not patient, however. Help was on the way.
The skraeling was aware of this too. He lunged forward suddenly, a nasty riposte that would skewered his opponent had the duelist not twisted away. Jiki Mal kicked at the duelist’s feet, forcing him back further. As they moved, Jiki Mal worked his way over near the entrance where the stairs led to the roof. He listened carefully to the sound of the footsteps running down the stairs, parrying another attack from the duelist. Not yet. Not yet…
As the archer turned the corner at the base of the stairs and entered the room, Jiki Mal, partially hidden off to the side where he had maneuvered, leaped away from his opponent to slash at the unsuspecting new arrival. Only the archer’s bow saved him, slowing Jiki Mal’s blade enough as it carved through the wood to keep it from biting into his chest too deeply. As it was, the archer staggered back, wounded, trying to free his sword from its scabbard.
The skraeling immediately reversed the momentum of his sudden lunge to snap his katana back at his first assailant. The elf managed to deflect the blade, but awkwardly. He stumbled back, off balance.
Jiki Mal dropped into a ready crouch, sword poised over his head. There was a pause as his two opponents regained their composure. They eyed the skraeling for several heartbeats, settling into ready stances. Three still shadows hovered, waiting.
Four blades flanking Jiki Mal’s one.
Right where he wanted them.
In the opposite tower, Donjon tried to lighten his step as best as he could as he sprinted towards the top of the stairwell. Not light enough, unfortunately. The archer had heard him , was already turning his bow as the half elf sped out onto the tower’s top level. Donjon maintained his sprint, catapulting side to side and over a makeshift table in the centre of the tower platform. The archer desperately tried to get a bead on the spinning half elf. He released his arrow just in time, only to watch the half elf duck under the missile and drive a machete into his gut. The archer crumpled to a heap on the flagstones, Donjon snatched up the bow as it dropped.
Footsteps pounded the stairs behind him. Donjon immediately spun the bow around, hooking the bowstring over an upraised foot. As the pursuing elf from below came charging from the stairwell, Donjon pulled back the bow and snapped it across the space. The elf just managed to duck the spinning bow as it came whipping towards him. The charging elf came in swinging, forcing Donjon back against the parapet. Rolling to his left, he dropped into a defensive stance.
The two combatants circled each other warily.
Donjon examined his opponent. The elf’s left eye had begun to swell shut where Donjon had hit him earlier. An idea formed.
He circled to his right, putting the moon behind him, and watched the shadows play across the elf’s face carefully. Just before the elf would have moved from a shadow out into the moonlight, Donjon stabbed his machete at the elf’s left cheek. The elf jerked his head away, to the right, into the moonlight, suddenly blinded. He sensed, but could not see Donjon’s circle kick coming in the opposite direction. Teeth shattered, and the elf’s body hit the floor with a sickening thud.
Donjon grinned to himself. The whole fight, he had managed to avoid stepping on any of the cracks in the flagstones. Things were looking up.
The half elf’s attention was suddenly drawn by movement down in the courtyard, to his left. From the barracks, six large and determined looking warriors had burst forth, and were rapidly approaching his unsuspecting companions in the courtyard.
With a quick prayer to Infortuna, Goddess of Improbable luck, he turned and sprinted for the stairs.
“You are useless, a mole on a zit oozink on the belly ov the beeggest goiter this vorld has efer seen, you hef no guts, and the very thought ov facing a dragonborn makes you want to feell your stinkink pants with even more stink, you are an earthworm that efen a fish wouldn’t eat, you are so utterly, completely, totally useless…”
AkRA stood over the ogre, whispering directly into its mottled ear. Even with the ogre laying on its side, AkRA hardly had to bend to get to its enormous head, and equally enormous ears.
The dragonborn had entered the church to find the ogre laying sprawled out in the middle of the floor, fast asleep. He could have laid into the ogre’s bare neck right then, but, he decided, that wasn’t really his style. Besides, how often do you get a chance to really fuck with an ogres head? The dragonborn grinned to himself. He had no idea if his idea would work, but he wanted to give it a shot anyways
AkRA felt a satisfying thrill run through his body as the steady snoring of the ogre was now being punctuated by snuffling whimpers. The dragonborn straightened up, leveling his axe with purpose.
All right, you fucker, let’s see what you do. Then, he slammed a boot into the ogre’s ribs.
AkRA was only mildly disconcerted to see his blow had little to no effect. He reared back again, this time a few steps back, and delivered another, stronger kick.
This one got the attention he’d hoped for. With a startled snort, the ogre’s warty eyelids fluttered open.
To see AkRA, looming over him, his face mere inches away.
“Hello, hendsome. Ready to die?”
Churg let loose a terrified, spittle filled scream, and jerked away from the dragonborn, limbs thrashing madly. AkRA stalked after him. The ogre cowered against a pile of shattered pews that once adorned the hall and stared, petrified, at the approaching dragonborn.
“That’s right, turd leecker!” AkRA bellowed. “Your worst nightmare is here, and it AIN’T. GOINK. To be PRETTY!!”
AkRA swung hard and fast, cutting into the ogre’s flank deeply. Churg screamed again, this time in pain. The dragonborn nearly lost his footing as the ogre scrambled away, the ground shaking with the each of the ogre’s desperate thrashings. AkRA lashed out at the retreating ogre; his off balance swing, however, couldn’t penetrate it’s thick hide.
Ducking away from some tumbling pews, kicked aside in the ogre’s wake, AkRA pressed forward, grinning manically.
Gorun turned at the sound of bellowing, coming from the direction of the church. AkRA was nowhere to be seen, but Gorun was fairly certain the dragonborn would be near to, if not the direct cause, of that bellowing. Just as he was about to dash towards the church, some movement from the other side of the church caught his eye, and he halted. A half dozen or so hulking (for humans) warriors were heading towards them.
Gorun turned quickly to Salim.
“Listen. I appreciate your heart. But let me lead, ok? You’re big; I’m bigger.” Gorun shrugged, matter of fact.
Salim bowed, quickly but formally. “As you wish.”
Gorun grinned, then loped swiftly towards the on-coming warriors.
He was mere steps from them, they fanning out to surround him, when an arrow hammered into his right shoulder. He stumbled, nearly dropping his axe as his arm went numb.
“Gorun!” Salim yelled. The monk desperately willed his rotund body to move faster as he lumbered towards the stricken goliath.
Gorun had halted from the shock of the arrow hit. He reached back, grabbed the arrow, and, with a deep breath yanked it free from his shoulder blade.
Rak’shu has seen many campaigns over the years, from small raiding parties pillaging trade routes along the Road of Kings to all out, berserk warfare on the plains of Narfur. Life had made him a hard man. He demanded much of his mercenary company, and, for the most part, he received results.
Guarding a sleepy compound for the Ecclesia Fernanda was a welcome change to the grueling and dangerous jobs Rak’shu and his gang had been obliged to accept over the many years. Well paid, and easy.
Which is why, even with the countless years of experience among the Howlers, they were all caught off guard when the sudden cry went up at midnight.
Except for Rak’shu. Although officially a routine visit, the sudden appearance of the red haired elf mage two nights before had made him jumpy. Habit, perhaps. It was the reason why he’d declined to join the rest of the Howlers down at the Rusty Nail, taking part in the poker tournament. In fact, he held back five others. Just in case. They were not happy; Rak’shu did not give a shit.
He shot to his feet as the first cry went up from the north tower. Snarling, the mercenary captain spun and kicked at the feet of his snoozing companions.
“Up and armed, now!”
The five responded swiftly, their hard training coming to bear. Within 30 seconds they were out the door, yelling the sleep from their bodies.
Rak’shu spotted the large goliath near the compound of those duelist pussies. Memories kicked in, and he shouted an order.
“Surround him, keep him off balance, and do NOT let him wind up!”
The five burly adjutants responded immediately, fanning out wide and coming in hard to surround the half-giant as Rak’shu charged directly at him. Axes, swords, and a flail were launched in a series of alternating attacks, coming at the goliath from opposing sides.
Rak’shu smiled crookedly. The goliath carried a huge greataxe—typical, the Howler captain thought—but, giving the goliath some credit, he saw that their huge opponent clearly knew how to handle his weapon. The goliath batted the first attack away, easily, and managed to get his heavy axe back in line to deflect the second.
The Howlers had the advantage of numbers, though. With no time to readjust his axe, the goliath simply punched another blade away. The fourth strike found its way past the goliath’s defenses, but the goliath, demonstrating surprising agility, rolled with the hit. Rak’shu doubted it even piercing the half giant’s armor.
Rak’shu felt a familiar thrill, though, as opposite him, Uskund thrust his sword into the goliath’s lower flank, forcing him to spin around in pain. Rak’shu whipped his flail across the back of his opponent’s legs, sweeping low where the weighty goliath was unlikely to avoid. A nasty rip opened up on the goliath right thigh.
Rak’shu watched with satisfaction as the goliath staggered, his leg collapsing underneath him.
“Gorun!” a yell went up from behind Uskund. Over his shoulder, Rak’shu nearly laughed as he saw an obese, barely dressed human waddling towards them. Movement to his right caught his eye; someone had tried to leap through the window over the door to the North Tower, but was snared. Too late, and too far, Rak’shu grinned to himself, to help this ‘Gorun’.
“Keep pressing!” Rak’shu crowed, and readied his flail for the final, killing blow. The goliath was down, he was exposed. He was—
The realization hit the captain of the Howlers just as the goliath launched his axe into a spinning, counterclockwise arc.
In the millisecond before the wicked axe wedged into the side of his head and ended his sight forever, Rak’shu was able to witness the death of each of his Howlers, the first three with their chests carved open, one with his face split in half, and Uskund, his head completely severed.
Gorun grunted with annoyance as the body of the last thug—the asshole with the flail who’d nicked his leg—slumped over, pulling the goliath with it. Gorun’s axe was stuck again. He made a mental note to get it sharpened.
Caedmon and Gung-Ho collapsed on top the chest. Partly out of exhaustion, and partly out of surprise. It was only the second word they’d heard from that day from Kenichi that was comprehensible. The panting bard looked up at the mage, who had come around to block their progress.
“What?” he gasped. “What do you want? We’re almost out of here now, can this not wait?” Caedmon waved a frustrated hand towards the bottom of the stairs that faced them only a few paces away. They lead up out of the cellar, in into the mansions above. Escape was only a double score of steps away.
“Great,” Kenichi said. Caedmon stared at him, confused.
“Wonderful,” the bard replied. “I’m glad you are doing so well. Can you do it out of our way?”
“NO,” Kenichi punched the word at Caedmon. He pulled a piece of chalk from his robe, and quickly sketched a grid on the floor, just under two feet square. The mage pointed at it, then at the chest, repeating his earlier declaration. The bard and the thief looked at it
A sudden realization dawned on Gung-Ho.
“Grate, not great. That’s what he said.”
“What the—now you are starting to sound like him.”
“Sewer grate,” Gung-Ho clarified. Kenichi added, exaggerating his words slowly, “Chest. Too. Big.”
Caedmon now understood what the mage meant. Gung-Ho was already one step further though. Shoving the bard out of the way, he dropped down in front of the chest, pulling a set of thieves’ tools from his pouch.
“You want some treasure? We’re going to have to carry it the old fashioned way.”
AkRA ducked as a massive fist whooshed over his head. He laughed. Churg was fighting back, but the ogre’s panicked swings were wild and off target, more to try and keep AkRA away than to actually hurt him. This should be easy, thought the dragonborn.
Still yelling taunts, AkRA worked his way around the fallen pulpit after the frightened ogre. The creature was stumbling away, flinching at every insult and at each shadow. AkRA had truly unsettled the enormous beast. He was about to take advantage of that; as he passed the pulpit he had palmed a large, tattered tome, holding it surreptitiously behind his back.
“Ok, coward!” AkRA yelled. “Time is up!”
With that, the dragonborn launched the tome in the air. The book’s failing spine let go, sending a burst of pages forth into the air over the ogre’s head, a white flock of discarded hymns. As Churg flailed at the harmless papers, AkRA leaped forward, bringing his axe around with all his weight. Churg could not react in time, and the blade hammered square against its chest, sinking deeply.
AkRA bellowed in triumph as the ogre looked dazedly down at its chest. Anything smaller would have been immediately felled by the dragonborn’s mighty blow. As it was, the huge ogre could only stand, stunned.
“That’s right, dung heap! You hef no chance against AkRA!!”
The ogre continued to stare down at AkRA’s axe. Slowly, however, its look of confusion and fear faded. It looked up at AkRA. The dragonborn stopped laughing. AkRA watched, his own triumph fading, as the ogre reached up, took hold of the shaft handle of the axe embedded in its chest, and pulled.
There was an odd sound as the axe sucked free of the ogre’s chest. From the crevasse left behind, AkRA expected there to be a torrent of blood, gushing forth from the ogre’s chest. No such fountain materialized. Instead, AkRA could only gaze in amazement at the ogre’s chest where his mighty blow, while cleaving through countless layers of ogre skin, had only managed to inflict the barest of cuts into its actual flesh. He had no way of knowing that an ogre’s hide did not slough off as it grew, but continued to harden years worth of dead skin into an inches thick bark. Not bathing also helped.
The ogre thrust AkRA’s axe aside. Its initial dream induced panic had subsided, to be replaced by a building rage. It screwed up its mottled face and let go a mighty roar, driving AkRA back with not only its rage but its putrid breath. Churg crouched and leaped forward after the dragonborn. The hunter had suddenly become the hunted.
A two tumbler lock, simple but effective. Gung-Ho’s mind immediately visualized the inside of the mechanism, his hands working his thieves’ tools deftly. The locks were new, and well made, which was to his advantage; rusty locks usually got dealt with by a hammer.
The thief could feel a familiar thrill building as the first set of tumblers clicked into place. What, indeed, were the riches they would find? Coins were always nice, if a little mundane. Gems and jewelry harder to convert, but certainly more portable. Finer, more obscure pieces of wealth, though, were what piqued his interest: intricately carved puzzle boxes, rare spices, objets d’art. Even more compelling was the currency of information, those dark secrets, political or personal that could command whatever price one wished.
The last set of tumblers was just easing into place when a peculiar odor pulled Gung-H from his reverie. He immediately snapped a plain, flat piece of steel against the keyhole.
Caedmon noted Gung-Ho’s sudden move. “Everything ok?”
In response, the thief flipped open the hood of the chest. Coins and gems, and a lot of them.
Caedmon crowed, elbowing the thief aside to begin filling his pockets. Gung-Ho did not resist. Kenichi leaned over the chest, equally curious.
Neither noticed Gung-Ho’s pallid face.
The thief let out the breath he’d been holding and glanced down at the metal plate in his hand. A series of dull scratches marred its surface, as well as one very bright, brand new scratch. If Gung-Ho hadn’t spent time as a youth amongst the Batorian tribesman, he may never have known the distinctive smell of the Oberanx toxin. And, would not have been alerted to its presence. Gung-Ho tapped the metal plate for good luck. He didn’t want to think how much, or little, of it he had left.
“C’mon, thief, load up!” Caedmon’s pants were sagging already. Gung-Ho turned and joined his friends in looting as much of the chest as they could carry, and the three headed off towards the cellar exit, clinking with each step.
Jiki Mal wiped his katana on the leg of the final archer in the south tower, whom he’d just turned into a corpse. After dispatching the two elves in the room below, the skraeling had run to the roof, where he nearly collided with the archer. The elven bowman appeared to be deserting his post, judging from his panicked expression. As he thrust he sword into the startled elf’s chest, Jiki Mal was curious as to the cause of the elf’s consternation.
His blade now clean, Jiki Mal stepped to the parapet and looked down into the courtyard. An improbable scene greeted him. In the north tower, he could see Donjon extricating himself from the window over the entrance way, where he appeared to have become snagged on some glass. The tower top was empty. In the middle of the courtyard, Jiki Mal could pick out Salim’s pumpkin shaped silhouette standing beside another nearly as broad one. Gorun, Jiki Mal thought, kneeling. They were surrounded by six lumps on the ground. He started when he realized they were bodies.
The team had down well, he mused.
“Gorun, Salim! Where is AkRA?” the skraeling yelled.
As if in response, an enormous primal bellow erupted from the dilapidated church to his right.
“Get down here!” Gorun yelled, as he clambered to his feet. Jiki Mal did not wait, and ran for the stairs.
Donjon was still a little dumbfounded as he sped towards the church. Salim had started for the small building in the centre of the courtyard, doing his best impersonation of a sprinting penguin, while Gorun followed even more slowly, still hurting. Donjon was on the opposite side of the building, heading for a window instead, eschewing the long way round to the church door.
Only moments before, though, he was snagged in a different window, overtop of the north tower entranceway, the same one he’d so nimbly leaped through when he had first entered the tower. He had come bounding down the stairs, virtually cartwheeling around the corners, hoping to get to Gorun in time. Reaching the bottom, the half elf gambled, and dove for the window a second time.
His gamble failed. A stern shard of glass caught his tunic, nearly cutting him, and held him fast, stuck in the window. He could only watch in despair as the six mercenaries descended on the goliath, slashing and hacking.
Then, one swing later, the fight was over.
Donjon couldn’t believe it. In his best day, he’d taken on four opponents singlehandedly, but only two were really a threat. The goliath had taken out half a dozen hardened warriors in half a second.
As he hopped up onto the sill of the window of the church—this one was already clear of glass, he saw with some relief—Donjon reminded himself to keep at least an axe’s length away from Gorun in a fight.
AkRA hurled himself aside, watching with detached amazement as the momentum of the ogre’s swing, just barely missing the dragonborn’s head, pulverized the side of a column. The strength of the ogre was daunting, to say the least. He’d avoided the lumbering blows to this point, but all it would take was one slip…
Rolling around the side of the ogre, AkRA slashed down hard at the back of its legs, hoping to hamstring it, get the damn the creature off balance at least.
Again, AkRA axe’s hit home, only to get buried in the ogre’s ridiculously thick, calloused hide, to no effect.
AkRA managed to free his axe just as Churg lashed his foot out backwards. The ogre turned, snarling.
Then, suddenly, it halted.
AkRA paused, wondering what had drawn Churg’s attention. The beast slowly turned around. As it did, AkRA suddenly saw a dagger sticking out of the ogre’s back. It looked like a thumbtack on the side of a mountain, and probably had had the same effect. A moment later, Donjon was revealed, perched in a window behind the ogre. Churg glared at him.
“Take…that?” the half elf said, tentatively.
“CHURG SMASH!” The ogre grabbed a shattered pew and hurled it at Donjon. The pew hit the wall above the dodging half elf, raining splinters and chunks of wood down upon him . AkRA charged the distracted ogre, looking for an opening, yelling the whole way.
“Welcome to the dence!”
Caedmon was the first to reach the top of the stairs from the cellar. He halted suddenly at the sight of a familiar elven figure, standing across from him. Her face was clouded with anger, and her hands glowing with an ominous blue light.
“And just what the hell do you think you are doing?”
A series of quick lies flashed through Caedmon’s mind.
“I can explain,” he began smoothly.
Caedmon was interrupted by a sudden tearing. The strained stitching in his pockets had had enough, and they let go. Coins, gems, and jewels burst forth in a cacophonous cascade, spraying across the floor.
The elf’s eyes blazed with fury.
“Shit,” Caedmon said.
Gung-Ho ducked reflexively as a frighteningly chilly blast passed over his head.
Up ahead, he saw Caedmon lurch at the top of the stairs. A layer of ice covered the bard, and his skin was dead white. He turned very slowly, taking a hesitant step down the first stair. A dire look framed the bard’s face, and he opened his mouth.
Before Caedmon could utter his warning, another blue explosion of frost engulfed him. Frozen solid, the bard pitched face first down the stairs. Gung-Ho dropped prone, narrowly avoided the pinwheeling human popsicle.
The thief had felt the strange pulsing of arcane energy in the two frozen blasts, and he called out to his elocutionary challenged companion.
“Kenichi! Your department!!”
Gung-Ho was only somewhat reassured to feel the unsettling press of arcane energy now from emitting the mage behind him. Looking back up the stairs, he now saw the scarlet trussed elf staring down at him with hate filled eyes. Gung-Ho laughed.
“Two can play that game, lady! Let ‘er rip, Kenichi!”
Kenichi’s chanting ended. The mage vanished; in his place, a tiny bat fluttered its wings. It darting up the stairwell, past a stunned Gung-Ho, around their assailant at the top of the stairs, and out of sight.
“Shit,” Gung-Ho said, and launched himself at the elf woman, daggers drawn, a prayer on his lips.
The church doors boomed open. Salim waded in, as ponderous as the ogre. The monk chanted his mystical haiku, and a blue aura surrounded him once more. His attention turned to the scene within, one that could best be described as ‘chaos’ ugly brother’.
The ogre also launched a tremendous swing back at AkRA, forcing the dragonborn away a few steps. Salim sprang forth with unsuspecting speed for such a large man, catching the ogre off guard. Churg brought his massive fists around reflexively, but Salim maneuvered quickly under them and then delivered a potent kidney shot to the ogre’s side.
Salim’s eyes widened. His punch had no effect.
“Annoying, isn’t it?” AkRA shouted.
The dragonborn ducked for cover as the ogre slammed his blocky fists against the monk, blasted Salim backwards. The blue aura flared, protecting Salim from harm; nevertheless he was driven back a half dozen steps.
Churg glared about at the puny humanoids that were plaguing him, his tiny eyes afire. Fetid spittle drooled from his twisted maw as he snarled in broken common at the three.
“YOU NOT SCARE CHURG. YOU, WHELPLING.” It pointed at Akra. “YOU, POINTY EARED TWIG,” referring to Donjon. “YOU FAT FATTY.” It jabbed a finger at Salim. “BUT ME,” the ogre slammed its fists down, crushing the mortared floor, “ME, OGRE!”
Churg’s tiny eyes widened as Gorun came flying through the door, fully seven feet in the air, great axe reared back. An audible crack echoed throughout the apse.
Churg’s eyes had crossed. It was as though each eyeball was trying to make sense of the peculiar reflection of itself on either side of Gorun’s axe, which lay imbedded in the centre of it’s face.
The ogre slowly tipped over, crashing to the ground. Dead.
Gorun rode the ogre down as it fell, still holding onto his axe. He landed easily, then stood up. His axe sat still buried in the skull of the ogre.
“Definitely needs sharpening,” he said.
A few moments later, Jiki Mal burst into the room, sword upraised, a Ki howl on his lips. He halted at the sight of the huge corpse.
“Ah. All good?”
“No,” AkRA snorted. “That was MY keel.”
The skraeling ignored the dragonborn. “Everyone, to the mansion. Double time.”
“Don’t need to tell me twice,” Donjon said. “This place reeks.” The companions turned and headed off quickly.
Gung-Ho watched, slightly amazed, as the elf woman dropped to the marble floor in front of him, writhing in pain. Two swift dagger strikes, one to the belly, one on the throat, had put the mage out of action. He wasn’t expecting it to be so easy, given stories he had heard. Gung-Ho’s mouth had been dry with fear as he launched himself from the stairway into the small room, diving around the chairs and table in the centre of the room to get at the mage as quickly as he could. He had never come face to face with a bona fide magic user before, and certainly not one that was trying to kill him.
Nevertheless, he was expecting more of a fight. Or at least magical oddities. His apprehension of the arcane waned considerably.
The thief heard shouting from the front hall, which bordered the room he was in. He slid over to the doorway, taking a quick reconnaissance into the hall. He relaxed at a familiar bellow.
“Gung-Ho! Caedmon! Where are you?”
AkRA’s voice echoed loudly throughout the front hall. Gung-Ho could hear more shouts and footsteps on the ceiling as no doubt the servants would be arriving shortly. They would not pose a problem.
Gung-Ho stepped into the hall, hand raised in greeting. Behind AkRA he saw the rest of AkRA’s companions, the gate crashers—the rotund monk, the enormous goliath, the stoic skraeling, and the superstitious half elf. The half elf had just entered, and suddenly bounded off the wall and into the air, snatching something with his free hand.
“A bat!” Donjon yelled. He held his machete at the throat of the squirming creature. “Dark, blood sucking creatures that steal your soul!”
“Wait!” Gung-Ho yelled. The half elf paused, looking over at him.
“What?” AkRA said. “Is just a bet.”
Gung-Ho walked over and yanked at the half elf’s hand, freeing the creature. A moment later the air shimmered, and Kenichi appeared. The mage glared at the half elf, muttering. Donjon stepped back, clutching at a ward around his neck.
“I know how you feel,” Gung-Ho said.
AkRA interrupted them. “What goes? Treasure? Where is bard?”
Gung-Ho patted his bulging pockets, and strode past the dragonborn. “Come.”
At that moment, the clattering of footsteps and came from above. At the top of the sweeping stairs the lead to the second floor, a handful of servants had stopped, seeing the armed warriors.
“YOU!” AkRA yelled. “Stay there, don’t move, or you die!” The servants shrank back fearfully, not inclined to disobey the threat. “Salami, you watch. They move, you seet on them.” Salim frowned at the order, but nodded. The rest followed the thief into the next room and down the stairs. Gung-Ho pointed at Caedmon’s frozen body.
“That elven bitch upstairs did this. Magic.”
“Sheet,” AkRA said.
“We can’t leave him,” Gorun said, and he scooped up the bard like a plank.
A call came from Salim upstairs. “The front gate! I think the Guard is coming!”
“We’ll crush them,” AkRA said, turning to head up, Donjon behind him.
“No,” Gung-Ho said. “There’ll be too many. I think we should just get out.”
When AkRA turned to argue, Jiki Mal cut him off. “I agree. The mission.”
The dragonborn scowled, but didn’t dispute the goliath’s statement. “All right. Let’s go.”
Kenichi pointed to the groaning elven mage as the passed through the room where she lay. “Shd brnger tu.”
AkRA scowled again, then turned and scooped up the dying elf.
As they made their way out into the hall, Jiki Mal pointed up at the servants.
“Witnesses.” His statement, and its implications, hung in the air. The skraeling and the dragonborn looked at each other, considering. Before any moved, though, Kenichi walked halfway up the stairs towards the servants.
“Frahzim merkl dsinex Kaglem Gulm,” he intoned. Strange lights shimmered around the mage and his weaving hands. Then, he pointed at the servants, and slammed his hands together suddenly. A thunderclap echoed across the chamber.
Kenichi turned and strode back down the stairs. He winked at Jiki Mal. The skraeling grinned with sudden understanding.
“You servants!” Jiki Mal called up at the huddled mass. “You have been enscorcled with a Geas. You utter one word of our being here, and your insides with shrivel, along with the rest of you, into oblivion. Your choice.” He turned to the others. “Time to go.”
The group quickly made their way through to the back of the mansion, out the door, and into the sewer (Salim with some difficulty, Donjon having to yank him through the opening from below). As the half elf slid the grate back in place, he heard a clamoring from the front gate. The Guard had arrived.
Later, on board the Sea Weasel as it weighed anchor, a quiet conversation was taking place.
“Ten of them? And a wyvern?! So what did you do?”
“It was easy. I used that old trick where you—”
Hrath paused as Jiki Mal and Caedmon entered the cabin.
“I tell you later. But needless to say, that’s how this happened.” Hrath held up his hand to the amazed Donjon: it was now missing two fingers.
“Gather around,” Jiki Mal announced. Hrath and Donjon stepped over and sat at the large table adorning the centre of the cabin, the half elf bowing to the northwest before taking his seat. Salim and Gorun approached from where they had been playing a game of Drakl in the corner of the cabin, nudging AkRA awake as they passed him. Kenichi looked up from his taxidermy, and Gung-Ho caught the seven daggers he’d been juggling.
“So, we made a count of the coin we pulled from the vault, and estimated the value of the gems and jewelry.”
Jiki Mal paused. Caedmon did not look happy.
“And…?” Gung-Ho prompted.
“Just over a thousand gold pieces worth of treasure.”
Everyone but Jiki Mal and Caedmon looked at each other, stunned.
“We’re…rich?” Donjon said, noting the sour look on Caedmon’s face.
“It seems our friend here, the ‘former bandit’, really has reformed his ways,” the bard jerked his head towards Jiki Mal. The skraeling did not respond, his face impassive. “This thousand we managed to extract from the vault—at great peril to our own lives, I might add—will be returned to the League. To cover the cost of the thousand they gave us. It’s the noble choice, of course,” Caedmon finished, hardly bothering to hide his sarcasm.
A silence fell over the group as they took in the news. Some nodded, like Gorun and Salim, while others were more incredulous. Hrath appeared thoughtful. After a moment, Donjon, disbelief etched upon his face, spoke up.
“What, that’s it? We don’t get a say in this? No debate, no nothing?”
“No,” Jiki replied firmly, and as Donjon began to retort, the skraeling added, “To upset Morlekai, God of Financial Restitution, is to bring poverty and bad luck upon your head.” Donjon immediately clammed up.
Gung-Ho and AkRA were not so easily dissuaded, the dragonborn reacting with a decisive “Bullshit.” Gung-Ho was more diplomatic.
“Look, I know I’m the new guy here, but we risked our lives back there. I think we should get something.”
Jiki Mal shrugged. “The League compensates our lives quite well right now,” to which Gorun added, “And it is the right thing to do.”
Caedmon rolled his eyes with disgust. The goliath caught the bard’s reaction. His face darkened. The goliath stood, stretching his full 8 feet to tower over the slender bard. Inside the small cabin in the fo’castle of the Sea Weasel, Gorun appeared even bigger than normal. He growled at Caedmon.
“Anyone having a problem with that can discuss it with me…outside.”
Nobody was inclined to take the goliath up on his offer (with the exception of AkRA, who appeared mildly intrigued, but let it pass). Another moody silence descended upon the room.
Hrath, who had been watching the exchanges with interest, finally spoke.
“Perhaps this will help.” He lifted a bag from beside his chair and tossed it onto the table. It landed with the audible clink of coins.
Salim was sitting closest to the bag, drinking tea. He put down his cup—which, in his huge hands, looked like a thimble—and opened the bag.
“My goodness,” he said.
The raw glint of platinum shone from the depths of the canvas sack. Salim pulled it further down to reveal a large pile of coins, and, perched on the top, an ornate dagger.
Everyone had leaned forward with curiosity. Jiki Mal looked at Hrath.
“Where?” he asked.
Hrath shrugged nonchalantly.
“Somebody had to make sure that Halfling assassin stayed occupied in the Rusty Nail around midnight.”
Jiki Mal’s eyebrows shot up. He looked at the coins, putting two and two together.
“The poker tournament?”
Hrath shrugged again.
“Yeah. That Halfling has the worst tells. And doesn’t know when to stop betting,” he added, nudging the fancy dagger. “And, is a shitty loser. Anyway, I left shortly after midnight, before the guards arrived at the compound, to get back to the ship in time.”
Donjon stared at the fighter, amazed and perplexed. “But that wyvern…? And those ten…?”
“It’s been a long night.”
“Wl, as d sane gz, ‘Lls wl tha ns wl’”, Kenichi piped up. He raised his wine glass to his nonplussed companions, grinning. “Kampai!”