The Dagger of Tiamat, Part Two

Welcome back! I hope you’re all ready for the next installment of “The Dagger of Tiamat.” You can read Part One here. Enjoy!

The Dagger of Tiamat, Part Two

The museum had closed for the day. Other than the skeleton crew of security guards who worked the night shift, only a handful of people from the administration and research departments were still in the building. Brendan and Gwen were alone in one of the offices in the archaeology department.

     “What does this say?” Brendan asked, taking off his glasses and rubbing his eyes. He slid a stack of paper across the desk. “My eyes aren’t working anymore.”

     Gwen glanced at the top page, a hi-res scan of a stone tablet covered in cuneiform. Brendan had circled several of the wedge-shaped impressions, translations scribbled next to them. A single grouping remained untranslated.

     She leaned over the page, brushing unruly red curls out of her face. She squinted and scrunched her nose. It was her thinking face, and it always made Brendan smile.

“Finn, you numpty! It’s barley,” she said, throwing her pen at him. “What’s wrong with you?”

     “We’ve been at this for ten hours,” he said, “I’m tired. We should wrap this up.”

     “Skip the pint?” Gwen asked with a wink.

     Brendan was going to say something clever when the lights went out. The emergency lights came on, casting everything in an eerie yellow light.

     “What the bloody hell?” Gwen got up and moved towards the door to the hallway, stopping when the intercom beeped.

     “Got me,” Brendan said in response to Gwen’s look. He reached for the phone, but punched the speakerphone button instead of lifting the receiver.

     “–Malcolm? I thought you left early. Something about a family emergency.” The voice belonged to Andrew Milton, one of the full-time research assistants. He had been working in one of the labs beneath the museum.

     “Hello, Milton. I’m sorry it had to be you. But I’ve come for my dagger.”

     “The hell?” Brendan recognized the snide, dismissive tone of Malcolm Pierson’s voice. But something sounded off.

     “I don’t know who you’ve called, Milton, but please disconnect that phone.”

     Gwen was at his shoulder. “I don’t like the sound of Malcolm’s voice.”

     “I’ve never liked the sound of his voice,” Brendan mumbled, “but I like it even less now.”

     “I’m going down there.”

     She was out the door and down the hall before Brendan could get out of his chair. “Gwen! Wait!”

     He caught her at the elevator, angrily stabbing the call button with her finger. Her face was bright red, her eyes wide, and her jaw clenched. She was pissed. Full Scottish Mode.

     She spun on him. “Wait for what, Brendan? The security guards? I love those guys, but they’re glorified doormen.”

     The elevator arrived. “They’ll call the cops,” Brendan said as Gwen pulled him into the elevator with her.

     “You heard what I heard, Finn. Whatever is going on down there, Milton is terrified. He called our office for a reason. He knew we were still here.”

     The doors closed and the elevator began to descend.

     “You know something you aren’t telling me.”

     “Gwen put her hands on his shoulders and looked him in the eyes. “Brendan Finn,” she sighed. “I know a lot of things I’m not telling you.” She put her hand over his heart, adding: “Including what you have inside of you.”

#

“We didn’t stop him he last time, Finn. We have a second chance.”

     “And we are?”

     Gwen leaned forward, resting her arms on the table. “You and me, Finn. Like it was back then.”

     Brendan glanced over at Ferguson, who had returned to his book. “And what about you, Professor?”

     “What?” Ferguson looked up, startled. “Oh. Yes. Me. I’m on research, lad.” He tapped the page he had been reading. “Research.”

     “Research?”

     “Yes, yes.” He closed the book and slid it aside. “The dagger, my boy. The dagger is key.”

     “The Dagger of Tiamat.”

     “I’m sorry, Gwen, but I left my twenty-sided dice at home.”

     “My ties to the Otherworld are strong, stronger than most mortals,” Gwen said. “But if Pierson has the Dagger of Tiamat, he may be more than I can handle.”

     She took Brendan’s hands in hers and looked him in the eyes. Like she did back then. “I can’t stop him without you, Finn. I need my Wulver.”

     Brendan sighed, shaking his head. “I’m not gonna say no,” he said. “You know I’d never say no. Not to you.”

     Gwen smiled weakly.

     “But knock off that Wulver stuff.” His blue eyes turned yellow for a heartbeat before returning to their normal color. “The name’s Wolfen.”

#

The Dagger of Tiamat, Part One

It’s been a while, but I’m back! Here’s part one of the first official story set in my superhero universe.

The Dagger of Tiamat, Part One

It had been several years since Brendan Finn had been in London. He had studied abroad at Oxford during his junior year, thanks to New York University’s prestigious Bankoff Grant, and impressed his professors so much that he was given one of the three summer internships at the British Museum. One of the two remaining slots had gone to Guinevere Sinclair–Gwen–but that was another story.

He had asked the driver to let him off on Great Russell Street,in front of the classical facade of the British Museum. After paying the driver, Brendan turned his attention to the corner pub directly across the street. The Museum Tavern hadn’t changed much in the last five years. He and Gwen had spent many long nights at the Museum Tavern, talking and laughing over too many pints to ever count. He smiled, thinking about the night Gwen had leaned over and whispered in his ear that her flat was in walking distance.

    “Keep it together, sport,” Brendan muttered to himself. Today’s reunion was different, but no less welcome.

    Despite the mid-summer sun outside, the interior of the pub was dark and cool. Brendan paused just inside the door to wipe away the fog that appeared on his glasses. The lunch crowd was thinning out and it was still several hours before the after-work drinkers appeared. A few locals sat at the bar, keeping the barman, a thick-set fellow with thinning red hair and a full beard, company. Brendan scanned the room, finding who he was looking for at a table in dark corner.

    James Ferguson sat alone, his tall frame hunched over an old, leather-bound book. A long finger traced the words as he read by the light of the table’s single, small candle. Brendan was amazed to see his old professor dressed in a three-piece tweed suit, despite the summer heat. His hair, which had once been a thick, salt-and-pepper mane, was now a wreath of white encircling his bald head. He looked up as Brendan approached and, even though time had left its mark on the man, his grin was still mischievous and his blue eyes still twinkled with childlike glee.

    “Brendan, my boy!” the old man bellowed. He marked his place with a scrap of paper before closing the book with a thump. He stood and wrapped the younger man in an embrace that belied his age.

    “Good to see you, Professor.”

    “Please, Brendan, call me James.”

    “I don’t think I can do that.”

    Ferguson sat down and motioned to the barman. Brendan joined him, noticing the empty glass on the table. “Been here long?”

    “Just a few minutes, lad.” He followed Brendan’s eyes and smiled. “It’s hot out. A man must keep himself hydrated.”

    The barman appeared with a pint of lager for the professor and a pint of porter for Brendan. Brendan studied the glass of dark beer. “How did you know, Professor?”

    Ferguson tapped his temple. “I may be retired, lad, but I still have all of my faculties.”

    They drank in silence for a few minutes, Ferguson finally saying: “You were a good student, Brendan. One of my best. That was a good crop, all around. You and Ms. Sinclair, Mr. Patel. Even–”

    “Even Pierson?”

    Ferguson sighed. “Poor Malcolm.: He saw the look on Brendan’s face. “I know, I know. You two never really got on, and I’m not excusing what he did. But he was a brilliant young man, which, sadly, often goes hand-in-hand with madness.”

    For every fond memory that Brendan had of Gwen or Professor Ferguson, there was an equal and opposite one of Malcolm Pierson. Pierson was smug, arrogant, and vain. He believed his good looks, money, and intelligence entitled him to get whatever he wanted. He could never figure out how a Scottish girl and an American with an Irish name were consistently his academic betters. Pierson barely tolerated Ravi Patel, but only because the shy, overweight son of Indian immigrants didn’t pose a direct threat to Pierson’s academic success. Brendan was always working to keep his temper in check, but there were numerous occasions where he found himself close to beating Pierson to a bloody pulp.

    Brendan looked down at his hands, not even realizing that he had clenched them into white-knuckled fists. He took a deep breath and relaxed. “Is he still–”

    “In hospital? No. He checked himself out two or three years ago. He claimed that the therapy had helped and he no longer heard the voices that had told him to kill himself with that Assyrian dagger.”

    Brendan still had dreams about that night. He never called them nightmares, because he felt that gave them too much power. They were more like recollections: Pierson locking himself in one of the museum’s labs, the bronze blade of the dagger held to the throat of one of the lab assistants. What was his name? Stilton? Whilton? Milton. No one knows what made Pierson release his hostage and turn the blade on himself.

    Ferguson finished his pint. Bringing up the past seemed to have drained some of the youth from his face. He looked every day of his seventy-six years when he said, “But that was before Hertfordshire.” When Brendan didn’t say anything, he continued: “Pierson had gone to live with his parents after leaving the hospital. There was some kind of accident two weeks ago. The house, and everyone in it, was consumed by fire.”

    “That’s terrible,” Brendan said. He meant it, too. Sure, he still hated Pierson, but he never really wanted the guy to die. He certainly had no ill will towards Pierson’s family. “Wait. Why did you call me, Professor? Why am I here?”

    “You’re here because I don’t think it was an accident,” Ferguson said. “You’re here because you were there that night. You’re here because the accident happened on the summer solstice and Pierson had always been obsessed with pagan religions. You’re here because I don’t think Malcolm Pierson died in the fire. But, most of all, you’re here because–”

    “Because I need you.”

    The woman had seemingly appeared from out of nowhere. Her mass of auburn curls was tied back, with only a few wayward strands free to frame her face. The sun had brought out a scattering of freckles under her brown eyes and across the bridge of her nose. She hadn’t changed a bit in five years.

    “Gwen?”

    “Hiya, Finn.”

#

It Takes a Thief, Part Six

Here it is! The final, exciting installment of “It Takes a Thief.”

Read the first five parts here.

It Takes a Thief, Part Six

If the middle ring was cramped, crowded, and crime-ridden, than the upper ring was a paradise. A wall higher than any wall the twins had seen in the east separated the middle ring from the upper ring. There was a single gate, guarded by a dozen Blue Caps at all times. If there were any doubts that the plutocrats of Solaria were aware of the crime and poverty that thrived on the other side of that wall, those armed soldiers would quickly dismiss them.

    Farris and Fayra had managed to slip through the gate with the throngs of servants who made daily pilgrimages to the markets and shops of the middle ring to acquire food for their masters’ daily meals. The twins had liberated a pair of the long, homespun tunics worn by Solaria’s servant class. As long as they didn’t draw too much attention to themselves, they should be able to move about freely.

    They spent the next two days exploring the upper ring, careful to avoid the daily patrols of the Blue Caps. Open-air plazas, lush parks, and public gardens stretched as far as the eye could see. Everywhere they looked was another marble statue, gleaming colonnade, or ornate fountain. There wasn’t a shop, stall, or tavern anywhere. Walled estates and villas stood in stark contrast to the slums and tenements of the middle ring. Overlooking it all were the white columns and gold-topped domes of the Solarian senate and courts.

    The Lake of Swans was the largest of two man-made lakes, the other being the Lake of Joys. Both lakes were surrounded by palatial homes, but the twins knew their quarry’s villa was beside the Lake of Swans. However, that still left dozens of possible homes to search.

    “I wish we knew more about this Sekk,” Farris said. “It might make it easier to figure out which of these houses is his.”

    Fayra was absently fiddling with the simple cloth belt that kept her tunic in place. “Like what?”

    “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe he has a favorite kind of tree or something.” He thought for a moment. “Like, maybe he really loves red-fan pine, so we just need to find the villa with a lot of red-fan pines.”

    “We already know that Sekk employs a troop of dwarfs as his private security,” Fayra said. “What more do you need?”

    That was a key piece of information, and Farris said as much. “So we just knock on every gate until a dwarf answers?”

    “Must I think of everything, dear brother?” When Farris didn’t answer, she added: “Know any dwarfen drinking songs?”

    Redcastle’s soldiers didn’t allow them to take any weapons ashore. But, they did allow Farris to bring his lute and Fayra her lockpicks.

    Dwarf drinking songs were deceptively complicated. The words didn’t matter, as long as the music that accompanied them perfectly matched the chaotic, life-threatening tumult of the largest battles ever waged. As far as Farris was concerned, other than the spell-singing used at the elf courts, the only thing harder than dwarfen drinking songs was goblin yodeling.

    Farris started playing a few notes of random songs as he walked around the Lake of Swans. Fayra kept several paces behind her twin, enough to be able to see the reactions of those around the,. After warming up, and playing most of a particularly popular Daenarian wedding ballad, Farris launched into the best dwarfen drinking song he could think of.

    Farris could feel the stares and looks of disgust he was getting from the average Solarians he passed. He paused by a marble statue of a particularly well-endowed archer and launched into his third verse, a rousing tale of the slaughter of the troll siege of King Barven’s mountain stronghold.

    Fayra walked by, glancing appreciatively at the statue. She stopped and leaned against one of the the trees that lined the path around the lake. She tilted her head to one side before moving on. As Farris continued to sing–he was now recounting everything he knew about the Seven Thanes and the Orc Invasion–his eyes shifted in the direction Fayra had indicated.

    There were four villas along this stretch of lakefront, each with the same high stone walls surrounding them. Something about the fourth villa, the one furthest away, had caught Fayra’s eye. It took Farris a few second, but then he saw it. The gate was open and several short, stout figures could be seen gathered in the opening and glancing in his direction.

    Dwarfs. They had found Sekk’s villa.

    Once the sun had set, the twins stashed their tunics and returned to Sekk’s villa. There was just the single gate, most likely guarded by at least two of Sekk’s dwarf soldiers. The walls were too high for Fayra to vault over, at least without her quarterstaff or grapnel, both of which were still in the possession of Redcastle’s men. Time was a factor, especially with the regular patrols of Blue Caps.

    “You’re going to have to throw me,” Fayra whispered.

    “What?”

    “Yeah. Throw me and once I’m on top of the wall, I’ll reach back down and pull you up.”

    Farris shook his head. “This better not be Stormreach all over again.”

    He gave his sister a boost, which was all she needed to get enough height to grab the wall’s top edge. Fayra hauled herself up and, hooking her feet over the inner edge of the wall, leaned back over and reached down to her brother. Farris took her hands and scrambled up the wall, using his twin like a living ladder. He clambered to the top of the wall and helped his sister back up.

    They could hear the raucous laughter of the dwarfs at the gate. Fayra was sure there would be at least one guard walking the grounds. Trees provided cover between the wall and the main house. The twins sprinted from tree to tree, thankful that it was a particularly cloudy night. A sky full of stars would have been an additional obstacle they didn’t need.

    An arch in the villa’s outer wall led to a small courtyard. A small fountain babbled in the center of the courtyard. Beyond the fountain, three steps led up into the villa. A faint, flickering light could be seen illuminating the villa’s interior. Sekk was home.

    The villa’s main hall was decorated in silk curtains and draperies of every color: deep purples, bold blues, vibrant reds. The floor was a mosaic of brightly-colored tile. Plush sofas, divans, and cushions filled the room. Fires burned in two large bronze braziers at the far end of the hall.

    The room had a single occupant. Seated behind a low table, upon a mountain of cushions, was Boltus Sekk. Sekk was a disgustingly fat man, with greasy black hair pulled back into a ponytail and a long, scraggly beard. His eyes were small and dark, his lips thick and wet. As the twins entered the hall, Sekk popped an olive into his cavernous mouth and smiled.

    “And here they are,” he croaked. He sucked on his fingertips, one hand and then the other, then clapped his hands. Two servants appeared from behind the curtains and removed the table.

    Sekk lifted his ponderous bulk off of the cushions with a grunt and lurched towards the hauflins. He was dressed, like every other member of Solaria’s moneyed class, in a brightly colored silk robe embroidered with golden thread and matching gold slippers. Something glinted in the flickering light of the braziers as Sekk moved across the room. Something hanging around his neck. A simple gold ring on a chain. It had to be the trinket that contained the fragment of the black mage’s soul.

    “You knew we were coming?”

    Sekk stopped, looking down at Farris. “Of course, my dear boy. It was my idea.”  A familiar form appeared from behind one of the silk curtains. Broad shoulders, neatly-trimmed beard and hair, matching scarlet doublet and robe.

    “Lord Redcastle? What in the nine hells of the Eternal Jailer is going on?” Fayra looked at her twin, hoping he had a clue. Farris just shrugged.

    “Think of this as an audition,” Sekk grinned, his thick lips sliding across a mouth full of crooked, yellow teeth.

    “An audition?” The twins asked in unison.

    “Of course. You may not know this, but I am one of the wealthiest men in Solaria. In all of the City-States, actually.” Sekk was preening. “That often requires creative thinking and alternate avenues of activity.”

    Fayra nodded. “Theft.”

    “I prefer not to label such things. However, I do believe your talents would greatly benefit my business enterprises.”

    “Okay,” Farris said. “I get it. You’re a greedy, amoral asshole. But, what’s in it for Redcastle?”

    Sekk giggled. It was grotesque hearing such a childlike sound coming out of a creature like Sekk. He reached up and stroked the ring that hung around his neck with thick, flabby fingers.

    Redcastle vanished. In his place stood a tall, gaunt figure dressed all in black. The figure wore a long, hooded cloak that, along with a thick, black scarf, concealed all of his face except for a pair of sunken, bloodshot eyes. Those eyes were locked on the hauflins, barely blinking.

    “Are you kidding me!”

    “I get it,” Fayra said. “So, if we say no, you’ll just order the Black Mage to force us to work for you. Right?”

    “Intelligent as you are beautiful,” Sekk croaked, licking his lips.

    “That’s it. I’m done.” Fayra charged Sekk. She was fast. Too fast for most men, and certainly too fast for someone of Sekk’s corpulent bulk. Sekk barely had time to react as Fayra jumped at him. She grabbed the gold ring with one hand. With her other hand, she vaulted over Sekk’s shoulder, snapping the delicate chain that held the ring.

    “What? No! Stop her!” Sekk’s face was purple with rage, spittle flew as he bellowed commands. The Black Mage remained motionless. “I said, stop her!”

    “Sorry, Sekk,” Fayra said, holding up the ring. “No ring. No control.” She tossed the ring towards the mage, who caught it in the pale, skeletal hand without looking. “This means you’re free now, right?”

    Realization dawned on Sekk, but it was too late. He tried to flee, heading for the nearest door as fast as his stubby legs and slippered feet could carry him. The Black Mage turned his unblinking eyes on Sekk, who simply froze in place. Turning back to the twins, the Black Mage said one word in a raspy voice: “Leave.”

#

When they got outside, Farris and Fayra were surprised to see that the dwarfs had abandoned their posts. Maybe they had seen what was going on inside the villa and had no desire to face an enraged Black Mage of Malashir. Maybe they had been under the mage’s control just like Sekk had planned to do to the twins.

    “Can we get the hell out of here?” Farris pleaded.

    “I don’t know, twin of mine. Solaria could have an awful lot of opportunities for two enterprising and ethically flexible souls such as you and me.”

    “Nope. This place is weird and I want to go back east. The eastern kingdoms make sense.”

    Fayra looked at her brother and smiled. “Fine.”

    “No boats,” Farris insisted.

    “No boats.”

It Takes a Thief, Part Five

Huzzah! Here it is, the penultimate installment of “It Takes a Thief.”

Parts One – Four.

It Takes a Thief, Part Five

The middle ring of Solaria was dirty and crowded, despite the gleaming gold-topped towers of the inner ring and the white wall that surrounded the entire city. The narrow streets were home to shops and bazaars, money-lenders, gambling houses, taverns, and inns. Business owners often lived in apartments above their shops. Slums and tenements were the norm for almost everyone else. Sections closer to the outer and inner walls tended to be cleaner and safer, with the Blue Caps, the city-state’s militia rarely penetrating into the poorer sections of the middle ring without cause.

    “It was all a lie,” Fayra was saying as she and Farris made their way through the narrow, crowded streets of the middle ring.

    Groups of men and women collected here and there, engaging in trade that was probably best left outside the open-air markets and bazaars. Shadowy figures watched them from doorways.

    “What was?”

    They passed an older man, his brown, sun-weathered face covered in scars. Sunlight glinted off the blade of a curved dagger that he had stuck in his belt. He was drinking something from a small, green bottle. The smell of that liquid burned Farris’ nose as the twins passed him. He watched the hauflins, but didn’t make a move to follow them.

    “What they say about thieves and pirates in the City-States. Look around, this place is a thieves’ paradise.”

    Farris knew what his sister meant. There was no shortage of thieves, assassins, beggars, and ne’er-do-wells in the streets of Solaria. That whole thing about thieves and pirates being executed without a trial was clearly a story told in other parts of the world to make merchants feel safe about visiting the Edolian Peninsula. Sure, the Blue Caps probably kept the inner ring clear of undesirables, but who cares if the common folk tear themselves apart. He had even seen the Cant–the secret language of the criminal underworld–carved over doorways and scribbled on paving stones.

    Fayra was right. The City-States of Edolia were a thieves’ paradise.

    “You’re not suggesting that we stay here, are you? Just forget all about Redcastle and bugger off to the City-States?”

    “What? No. The Seven Kingdoms are our home, brother dear. I’m not turning my back on them, and I’m certainly not giving a pompous fool like Redcastle the satisfaction of knowing he chased us off.

    “This might be a thieves’ paradise, but it sure as hells isn’t a hauflin’s paradise.”

    They had turned a corner into a narrow alley. Lines crisscrossed overhead, used by the residents to dry laundry. Steps led down to a sunken plaza. There was a single door and, above that door, hung a wooden sign. A crude painting of a bullfrog being impaled by a pair of pitchforks adorned the sign.

    “Here we are, twin of mine. The Frog and Forks.”

    “The Frog and–”

    “Forks. Uncle Carrow used to talk about this place all the time. The owners are a one-eyed dwarf known as Bullfrog and a hauflin named Fawkes. So–”

    “Frog and Forks.”

    Fayra winked at her brother and led the way to the door of the Frog and Forks. Inside, the tavern was very much like any other tavern in any other city. Patrons sat at tables scattered throughout the room, some playing cards or dice. Stools lined the splintered and stained bar. Shelves stacked with bottles of every shape and color lined the wall behind the bar. A pot of something bubbled over a fire in the small hearth at the far end. Most of the light came from a handful of short, fat candles placed about the room.

    “Hauflins! As I live an’ breathe.” The obese human behind the bar put down the grimy rag he had been using to clean glasses and squinted in the dim candlelight. “We don’ get many a’ yer kind ‘round ‘ere. If only Master Forks was about.”

    Hauflins have a reputation among members of the other races. Most consider them nuisances, always underfoot or sticking their noses where they don’t belong. They also have a reputation for sticking their nimble little fingers where they don’t belong. Many consider the entire race to be nothing more than grifters, tramps, and thieves. While not feared or shunned like trolls or the goblin races, it says a lot about a place that openly welcomes a hauflin.

    Fayra hopped up on an empty stool and leaned across the bar. Flashing her biggest, brightest smile, she asked: “You wouldn’t be Toliver, by any chance? Our Uncle Carrow always spoke very highly of a barkeep at the Frog and Forks called Toliver.”

    “Tha’s me,” the barkeep said. He smiled a toothless smile. “I know Carrow. He taught me how ta play Sticks an’ Stones.”

    Their uncle always loved that game. He never went anywhere without a deck of playing card and dice, just in case.

    “I’m Fayra and this is my brother Farris. We need help, Toliver. Can you help us? For Carrow.”

    Farris knew the large barkeep was going to help. He wasn’t sure if it was because he was naturally gregarious, genuinely liked hauflins, or, like so many men before him, was simply swayed by his sister’s smile and well-tied bodice.

    “We’re looking for someone,” Fayra was saying. She had climbed up and was sitting on the edge of the bar, leaning close to the awestruck Toliver. “A powerful man named Sekk. Boltus Sekk. Do you know him?”

    Farris had never seen an army lay siege to a city, but he was sure that siege towers and trebuchets were nowhere near as effective against brick and stone as his sister was against this poor slob’s defenses.

    “Boltus Sekk is one of da city’s most important people,” Toliver said. “He owns most of da middle ring. Very important. Very rich. Very powerful.”

    Toliver told them that Sekk lives in a villa on the edge of the Lake of Swans in the Eastern District of the inner ring. He didn’t know which villa, exactly, but he did have one important piece of information.

    “Dwarfs,” Toliver said. “Sekk’s personal guard are all dwarfs. Says dwarfs are da only fighters worth da name. Lotta dem drink here. I think dey must be related ta Bullfrog or somethin’.”

    And with that, Fayra and Farris now knew how to find Boltus Sekk. All they had to do was get to the inner ring and find the villa guarded by an army of dwarf mercenaries. For his part, Toliver was rewarded with a kiss on the cheek and a silver coin.

    “That was easy,” Farris said as he followed his sister out of the Frog and Forks.

    “Told you it would be. And do you know why?”

    “Wiles?”

    Fayra nodded. “Wiles.”

 

It Takes a Thief, Part Four

In this installment of “It Takes a Thief,” a little bit of a history lesson.

Part One. Part Two. Part Three.

It Takes a Thief, Part Four

No one knows if the Edolian Peninsula got its name from the Edolian Sea, or the other way around. What is known is that this jagged, rocky piece of land has played an important role in the growth of trade across all of Erden.

    Beginning at the foothills of the Midland Mountains, the flat plains of Edolia provide an easy land route between the kingdoms in the west and those in the east. The bays, coves, and inlets that dot the coast provide natural harbors for ships crossing the sea. Market towns and trading posts grew up around these land and sea routes. Small farms worked what little fertile land there was. Shepherds and goatherds tended their flocks on rocky hills, and small fishing villages were settled along the coast.

    Over two hundred years, the trading posts grew in size and wealth, eventually becoming cities. The five largest, wealthiest cities absorbed the smaller villages and farms around them, forming the City-States of Edolia. The city-states have no kings, no queens, no lords. Merchants, bankers, and traders are the city-states’ nobility. It is said that the navies of the Edolian city-states are the most powerful in the known world, but their sole duty is protecting the ports and harbors from pirates and privateers.

    “They say thieves and pirates are executed without trial in the city-states.”

    Farris leaned against the gunwale, the occasional moments of fresh air doing wonders for his seasickness. He watched the cliffs of the rocky coastline in the distance as the holk continued its westward voyage.

    He considered the words that had been spoken by the young soldier standing guard next to him. At least he thought the soldier was young. Hauflins retain a youthful appearance well into adulthood, making it difficult to guess the age of humans. Elfs and dwarfs were easy: assume an elf was older than it looked and a dwarf was younger than it looked. But humans? It was a guess every time.

    “Do you travel much?” he asked the soldier.

    “What? Oh, no. This is my first time away from home.”

    Youth, Farris thought. “You do know that most thieves and pirates rarely benefit from fair and just trials, right?”

    Their debate was interrupted by a sudden commotion on deck. Farris turned around to see the sailors hurrying about, climbing rigging and tying off lines. The ship’s sails flapped in the breeze. The hull creaked and groaned as the holk came about to round the Black Cliffs of Edolia at the southern tip of the peninsula. Solaria was the westernmost of the five city-states, often called “The Gateway to the West” in the Seven Kingdoms.

    As the ship rounded the Black Cliffs, Farris could see the tall masts of galleons and other large trading ships off in the distance. Smaller ships floated here and there and, although he couldn’t make out their markings, he was sure they were part of the Solarian navy.

    Solaria had three harbors: the Upper Harbor, the Lower Harbor, and the Outer Harbor. All three harbors were protected from the open water by massive walls of polished white stone. Watchtowers, manned day and night, protected the walls at regular intervals. Carracks, galleons, and other large ships docked in the Upper Harbor. The shallow waters of the Lower Harbor were safer for smaller ships. The Outer Harbor, where the city-state’s navy was berthed, encircled both.

    Beyond the harbor, Farris could just make out the three walls, made of the same polished white stone as the harbor walls, that encircled Solaria. The outer ring was the largest, surrounding the farms that helped feed the city-state’s population. The middle ring was home to shops and markets and the men and women who ran them. The inner ring was home to the wealthiest citizens of Solaria. Bridges, causeways, and gatehouses separated one ring from another.

    “That is a big city.”

    Farris had long since accepted the fact that his twin could sneak up on him. “Have you ever seen anything like it, Fayra?”

    “Never.”

    “They say the city-states are unlike anything the world has seen since the fall of the Daeneric Empire.”

    “Fah! That’s twaddle, brother dear. Khaladur means ‘Jewel of Heaven’ in Westronne, and I don’t think that’s the kind of thing the gods allow unless there’s some truth to it.”

    Farris questioned his sister’s logic, but said nothing. “How are we going to find this Sekk in a city that size?”

    “Skill, twin of mine,” Fayra smiled. “With just a hint of luck and a heavy dose of wiles.”

    “Oh, good. Wiles.”

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It Takes a Thief, Part Three

Part Three of “It Takes a Thief,” in which our intrepid hauflin heroes find themselves on a slow boat to Solaria.

Part One.

Part Two.

It Takes a Thief, Part Three

“I hate you.”

    The twins were chained in the hold of a ship, the only light coming through cracks in the wooden planks overhead. Farris sat with his arms wrapped around a large bucket, usually used for cleaning the ship, now being used to hold the meager contents of a seasick hauflin’s stomach.

    “I mean it, Fayra. I ha–” he belched, choking back bile before retching into the bucket for the fifth or sixth time since they left the docks at Redcastle. Neither of them expected the bucket was going to be emptied any time soon.

    As soon as they had agreed to help Lord Redcastle, the two hauflins had been chained and escorted by a half-dozen soldiers to the Redcastle docks. The twins watched as one of the soldiers approached a holk moored to a dock along the eastern bank of the West River. The soldier spoke to a thin, hawk-faced man who was overseeing the sailors making the ship ready. He was shabbily dressed, like the other sailors, but his age and bearing told them he was the master of the ship. The soldier handed the captain a folded piece of paper and a small purse.

    Fayra and Farris were brought on board and taken below. They could hear the sailors on the deck above, singing and swearing as they unfurled sails, tied off riggings, and loosed moorings. Fayra made note of a few particularly harsh phrases, never knowing when a venomous taunt would come in handy. They cast off. Everything around them rocked and creaked as the holk sailed south down the West River, heading to the open waters of the Edolian Sea.

    If this was what river travel was like, Farris–and his stomach–was not looking forward to sailing on the open sea.

    “It won’t be that bad,” Fayra said.

    “What?”

    “The Edolian Sea.” How did she always know what he was thinking? Some would have called it a twin-bond, but Farris had seen his sister do it to strangers, too. Some people could just read others, he guessed.

    “A ship this size wasn’t built for the open sea,” she continued. “We’ll likely sail along the coast of the Edolian Peninsula. The water shouldn’t be too rough.”

    Farris retched into his bucket again. “H- how do you know all that?”

    “Sailors can be … friendly. In the right circumstances.”

    Why does she always have to over-share? “Okay, sea dog, how long do you think it will take?”

    “Hard to say. A larger trader could sail from one of the bigger ports in Dal Varris to Solaria in about six days, if the weather cooperates. A ship like this? Maybe twice as long.”

    Farris lost what little color remained in his cheeks. “Twice as– Twelve days? I’ll be dead by then.”

    “Have faith, brother of mine.” She glanced at the platter of bread crumbs and wooden mug on the deck between them. By her best guess, this was their second day on the river. So far, they had been visited three times by either a sailor or a soldier who brought them a chunk of hard bread and a mug of watered-down ale. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to keep them alive until the ship reached Solaria. Unless her brother vomited himself to death before that. If Fayra’s estimates were right, the next meal should be arriving any minute now.

    Someone opened an overhead hatch, letting sunlight into the dark, empty hold. “Listen up, you water rats,” the twins recognized the voice of one of Redcastle’s soldiers, “breakfast time. Now don’t go trying anything funny.”

    The soldier, still wearing a full suit of armor even at sea, made his way down the narrow steps. Partially blinded by the sudden light, Farris was still able to see the outline of a drawn sword in one hand and what looked like a large mug in the other.

    “My brother’s not well. Apparently sea travel does not agree with him.”

    The soldier laughed. “And why the hell should I care?” He had wedged their bread into the top of the mug, which he dropped to the deck, barely in reach. He kicked the empty plate and mug aside with a smirk.

    “Simple. If he dies, we won’t be able to complete Lord Redcastle’s little errand.”

    “Then you die, too.”

    Fayra smiled. “Wrong. When he dies, I no longer have a reason to behave myself. And when I stop behaving, you stop breathing.”

    “I thought you were thieves, not assassins.”

    Farris retched.

    “When I kill you and your men, it won’t be assassination. It’ll be retribution. And it will be divine and just.”

    The lack of emotion in the hauflin’s voice made the soldier take a step back. “N- none of th- that…”

    “Easy, friend, easy.” The old, honey-tongued Fayra was back. “All we want is to get some fresh air. Say, twenty minutes every hour. We’ll even take turns.”

    Farris belched, clinging tightly to his bucket.

    The soldier glanced at the seasick hauflin, a look of complete disgust on his face. “Very well. We were ordered to see you made it safely to Solaria. Beginning tomorrow, you each get time on deck.”

    After the soldier had left, Farris looked at his sister and smiled weakly. “Remind me never to cross you.”

    Fayra ripped off a piece of bread, dipped it in the ale and popped it into her mouth. Chewing, she looked at her twin and smiled.

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It Takes a Thief, Part Two

The next installment of “It Takes a Thief.” Read Part One here.

It Takes a Thief, Part Two

The twins were taken from their tower cell to the main hall on the ground floor of the keep. The hall was large enough to hold several hundred guests during feasts and other festivities. Two large hearths kept the hall warm and vast tapestries, many in the red and gold colors of Lord Redcastle, kept out the draft. At the far end of the hall, upon a raised dais, was the high table and a single, ornately-carved chair. Two simple stools had been placed before the dais.

    The soldiers led Farris and Fayra to the stools. Without a word, two soldiers lifted the hauflins and placed them each atop one of the stools.

    “I expected more … things,” Fayra said, looking around the hall. Her head seemed to dart around, but her eyes moved methodically–counting doors, measuring distances.

    “Quiet,” Farris hissed. He was sure he could feel the point of a sword pressed gently against his spine.

    “You’re no fun.”

    Two servants entered from a side passage carrying covered platters. They placed the platters on the high table, arranged before the single chair. The covers were removed, revealing fresh fruits, cheeses, bread, cold meats, and sausages. Two more servants appeared, younger than the first. One set out a single plate and tankard, both made of silver. The second, a boy of seven or eight, carried a silver pitcher. The boy took his place behind the chair as the other servants withdrew.

    “Look, brother. Lord Redcastle is going to invite us to join him for supper.”

    The door the twins had been brought through opened again and Lord Redcastle marched into the hall. He walked past the twins, sparing them not a glance, and climbed the dais. He sat and motioned for the boy to fill his cup.

    The twins watched as their captor ate. He’d break off a chunk of hard, orange cheese and stuff it in his mouth, barely chewing before washing it down with the frothy ale. When the greasy sausages and slices of cold beef were gone, Redcastle soaked up the congealed fat left on the platter with a piece of hard, dark bread. He drained his tankard for a third time and sucked the grease from his fingers before wiping what remained on the front of his doublet.  

    “Now,” he barked, barely concealing a wet belch. “About my offer.”

    Farris felt his mouth water and his stumble rumble as he watched the servant return and clear away the remains of Redcastle’s meal. He didn’t even throw them a half-eaten apple.

    “Will the servants be bringing our food next?” Fayra asked.

    Redcastle leaned back in his seat. “Are all hauflin as vexing as you?”

    “Does vexing mean useful?” Fayra smiled. “Because last time I checked, you needed us.”

    Redcastle chuckled the way one chuckles when they are too far away to choke someone who annoys them. “You are impertinent. But, as much as I’m loathe to admit, you are also quite correct.”

    “Lot of words to tell me I’m right.”

    Farris jabbed an elbow into his sister’s side, well aware that it wasn’t going to do any good.

    “Now, my brother and I may not be highborn members of the human aristocracy,” Fayra went on, ignoring her brother’s elbow, “but we have skills. Skills that you seem to need, Your Lordiness. So give us the job and let us get to it.”

    Redcastle sat quietly for a moment, then started clapping. “Bravo. For such a small girl, you have very large balls,” he said. “Very well. What do you know about the Black Mages of Malashir?”

    “We know better than to fuck with them.”

    “What my brother means–”

    “What your brother means is that the Black Mages are soulless, daemon-spawn capable of the darkest, vilest magic known to the mortal races. They can kill a man from leagues away and make it last for a full year. To cross a Black Mage is to court a fate worse than death.”

    Farris stared at Redcastle. “My statement stands.”

    “Indeed. But, what most people do not realize is that the Black Mages have something of a weakness. A Black Mage will always have a small possession on their person–a ring or pendant or the like–that holds a fragment of their soul. Keeping a piece of their soul outside of their body makes it impossible to slay a Black Mage.”

    “Arebus must not like that,” Fayra muttered.

    “Perhaps,” Redcastle nodded. “That may be why such items are cursed, allowing anyone who possesses it to control the Black Mage whose soul is contained within.”

    “The Eternal Jailer does not like to be denied his prize.”

    “I wouldn’t begin to guess the thoughts and motivations of our most divine and holy gods. Why it works does not concern me. I care only that it does work.”

    Fayra shook her head. “We are not picking a Black Mage’s pocket.”

    “Nor would I ever ask such a thing.” Redcastle leaned forward, resting his arms on the table. “There’s a merchant in Solaria. Boltus Sekk. A fat, greedy, stupid man, who was somehow lucky enough to gain possession of a fragment of a Black Mage’s soul. That is what you will do for me. You will go to Solaria. Locate Sekk. Identify the trinket that contains the Black Mage’s soul. And steal it for me.”

    “What’s going to stop us from ordering the Black Mage to kill you?”

    Redcastle held up a finger. “First, you’re thieves, not murderers. Second, without the proper incantations, the Black Mage’s soul will devour your souls, small as they might be.”

    Fayra looked at her brother, who simply shrugged. Black Mages. Soul fragments. This was a lot more complicated than picking purses.

    “So, my little friends, are you in or are you out?”

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