Thursday, April 30, 2009
Tuesday, April 28, 2009
Miir broods, nestled against the northern arm of the Western Ivthian Mountains. It is the very gateway to Ivthia for those from Arden or Garamond, squatting at the end of the only reliable pass through the treacherous range of jagged volcanic peaks between Ivthia and the rest of Demurra.
The city is shaped like a wheel, inside a pair of concentric walls that separate and isolate the citizens. In the center of the city is The Bastion, where monolithic Noble Houses extend like claws into the sky, all surrounding the castle known as The Tower of Miir, which stands a full two hundred feet high and can be seen from any point in the city limits. The great Bastion Wall cuts this area off from the rest of the city, and the gates are well manned, well barred, and (most important of all) well lit after sunset and long into the night.
Once past The Bastion Wall you enter The Pen, the most populous section of the city. Successful merchants, minor nobles, and the halls of the Trade Guilds that control almost all aspects of Miirian life are all found here. Surrounding this section is The Pen Wall, which is neither as well built nor as well kept as The Bastion is. At night, after the curfew settles, the brazers that light the streets are allowed to burn out, leaving this section of the city at the mercy of The Shadows.
Once through the Pen, you enter a labyrinthine spiderweb of hovels and crude huts called The Cobweb, where the poorest of the poor live. This part of the city is often ignored by the watch and the poor citizens left to rot until the next press gang for the mines is needed.
Miir lies on the only navigable route through the Western Ivthian Mountains to Arden and Garamond, and control of this important trade route is the city's life blood. It depends heavily on outside trade for food, since most of the plateau on which it rests is rocky, barren, and choked with gray volcanic ash from nearby Mount Morrine. Miir is blessed with an abundance of mineral wealth, and much of the population makes its living mining iron, gold, and other metals from the rich seams that open up after the earthquakes that rock this land, or else in the foundries that smelt the iron using volcanic heat. Volcanic tunnels snake under much of Miir, and have been converted into a reservoir and sewer system that fills the wells and fountains.
The city of Miir is ruled by an aristocracy of six extended families known collectively as The Six Noble Houses of Miir. Each of the Houses has control of at least one of the major trade guilds that allow the city to function. Each House is comprised not only of the families themselves but various members of Miir's gentry, guild inductees, and private mercenaries, and various rivalries and power struggles between interests are a common aspect of Miirian politics. Armed conflict between the Houses is not uncommon, though most such skirmishes fall far short of full-scale civil war.
This place is known as "The City of Shadows" for a reason: legend has it that the shadows are alive, and they are the true power of the city and surrounding area. When the Shadows descend on a person, they say, he might suddenly become lost in a part of the city he's lived in all his life and wander for hours, even days...if he's lucky. If he's unlucky, there are all manner of monsters said to live in the Shadows, and sometimes the Shadows themselves supposedly drain people of their life, or making folk just vanish into thin air.
What, exactly, the Shadows are remains a mystery, but their effect on the lives of average citizens is keenly felt. Many Mirrians are terrified of the dark, and try to keep a candle or other light source on around them at all times, and purposely eliminating a person's flame is an intolerable insult, usually met with violence. Every resident of Miir knows a tale of a person misled of vanished due to the shadows, and no resident of this city will open its doors to anyone after midnight, and will try to repel anyone who tries to force their way inside.
Monday, April 27, 2009
The First Night: Into The Shadows
Part 1--The Sentence
Part 2--The Man in The Empty Room
Part 3--Miir by Night
Part 5--Jolly Red Caps
Part 7--The Shadows of Miir
Part 8--Over The Pen Wall
Part 9: Dawn
Boil it, I wanted to avoid the wizard! But I have no choice. He's the one who wanted the girl in the first place. No time to waste. "Naros! Naros of Miir! Show yourself!"
I wait. The faint clink of silver, the tread of boots, and a whiff of rose perfume mixed with sawdust announces his presence. He stands in the shadows of the closest watchtower.
“Here you are. Finally. I'm disappointed in you, Gaven. I expected your summons much earlier, and now dawn arrives.”
I look over at him, then at the corpse at my feet. There's a lump in my throat. “Right. Whatever. I have your prize here, just like you asked. I'm ready to make a deal.”
“Deal? A deal, you say? I believe a bargain was already made, and my patience with you is wearing exceedingly thin.” I watch the shadows around him move as if cast by a flame, ebbing and flowing around the darkness he's concealed in.
“Look. Do you want her or not? I'm sick of playing your games. I have her. You want her. What will you offer?
He sighs. "And yet the game has rules. Rules which you have ignored. I warned you to bring her to me before dawn, Gaven. Repeatedly."
“What, you don't want her now that she's dead?” I say, trying to put pieces together in the back of my mind. “You know, if you take her now, it'll be easier to keep the spirit inside her from getting away.” He seems taken aback by that. “Yeah. I know all about the deal you made with the fallen god thought things. I'm betting that whatever kept you alive all these centuries starts to fade if any of them escape your little spirit prison.”
“You are remarkably perceptive, Gaven. Perhaps if you have been so earlier, you wouldn't have been Exiled. You have some generalities correct, though you are gravely, even dangerously, wrong on the particulars. Hand her over to me. I will deal with the guards that are, even now, on their way to arrest you. This is my offer, Gaven. Hand her over to me, and you can escape through the Cobwebs. You can be free.”
Dragon take him. Dragon take and swallow him to His Boiling Belly. I look down at the corpse at my feet. If her eyes weren't open like that, she'd almost look asleep.
“What will happen to her?”
“What? I have no time for-”
“No. Dragon take you, Naros, you will answer me. What will happen to Jessamine when you get your spirit?”
He sighs, then speaks slowly, as if to a small child. “The girl was dead long before the spirit touched her. When I remove the spirit and return her to her rightful place, there will be nothing remaining to stop nature from taking its course.”
“So she'll die, is what you're saying.”
“Have you not been listening? She is already dead! A cadaver that sometimes remembers what it was like when it was alive, and only when the spirit riding it chooses to do so.” He gestures back towards the rest of Miir. "Miir is not just a sanctuary for these dark and fallen spirits. It is a prison, keeping them contained. You cannot comprehend the horrors that would be inflicted on the world if they were allowed to roam as they pleased."
Ha. Like he cares. I look at Jessamine again. Perhaps he's right, and there's nothing left of the girl she was before this spirit overtook her. I look over the wall again. It's a quarter mile through the Cobwebs to the desert. I can make it if I run.
"Make a better offer." I whisper.
He loses his composure. “Listen to me! She has named you her guardian for now, but she is a fiend. A monster in an innocent guise. Surely you realize this! Eventually, she will turn on you. It's her nature. Don't be fooled! Relinquish your protection, hand her over to me!”
"You want her?" I say, hauling the corpse to her feet. "Then go get her." I release her. She slips over the wall, into the shadows. Naros screams in rage as she tumbles. I wince at the sick crunch as she makes as she lands. With any luck, the guards will think she jumped to her death.
There is a sound from down below. I look, forgetting Naros for the moment. The corpse is standing, broken bones grinding. She looks up. I see her glare at me with hollow eyes, then her face softens. She whispers something...I think she said "Thank you." Then she shambles away. The sun must have been what was keeping her from moving.
"During the night, the thoughts are free to wander." I mutter. I turn to Naros. "It's over, wizard. Go back to your tower."
"This is not over, Gaven.” he says. “You will regret this. Even I cannot protect you from all the enemies you have made.”
“Tell them to get in line.”
And with that, he's gone. I sit against the battlements. I won't get out of Miir today. I hear the clank of guard boots already. But, for what its worth, at least Jessamine can, and whatever spirit is animating her will leave with her. I've hurt you, Miir. Badly. You want to play games with these people? Feed on their misery, expose them to demons and monsters? Teach them to fear the dark? Alright.
But remember, Miir. I still face six more nights of Exile. I've hurt you once already. Imagine what I can do with just a little more time.
The guards arrive. "What took you so long?" I ask.
The head guard looks a me. It isn't the one I spoke to last night. "Gaven Morren. You are to be taken back into custody. Your wounds will be tended to, but when midnight rings you will be returned to the mercy of The Shadows." I figured as much, thank you.
Well, one night done. The guards haul me to my feet and relieve me of the dagger. Then I am hauled through the streets, back the way I came.
Part 8: Over The Pen Wall
We reach the wall after ten minutes. With the Shadow spooked off, that magic maze must have gone with it, because we didn't get lost once. “What now?” She says.
"Before you ask, Jessamine, we aren't heading for the nearest gate. We have no time, no way to open it once we're there or deal with guards on duty. So we're going to climb over the wall."
"Over the wall? We can't climb this! We have no rope!" She looks a little panicky.
I'm enjoying this. "Don't need rope. Just hand and foot holds."
The wall here is rough and weathered, and there's a nice crack that goes all the way up. That's not what concerns me. I'm still badly hurt. The stitch in my side is a dull ache, but my foot still hurts and my arm is numb from the redcap's knife slash. And I'd have to carry her. I could do this alone and uninjured, no question. But the additional complications will make this tricky. Still, it's only twenty feet.
We make preparations. She insists on tearing strips of her dress and tying herself to me. If she were not possessed, I'd enjoy being so close. I catch a foothold, and begin hoisting myself up. She clings to me. Distracting. She fidgets--don't do that! Three feet, four, don't wiggle! Seven feet now, eight--slow going. The crack is barely adequate, and my fingers are numb. Nine feet now, halfway--ACK! Don't grab there! No-
I am so sick of being airborne.
We fly gracefully through the sky, land much less gracefully on the cobblestones. Ow. That really hurt. Hopefully her more than me. "Next time I tell you to STOP MOVING, I suggest you listen to me!" I grumble as I find my feet. Ow. Stupid girl. I untie us and turn to help her up.
She's glaring at me. It's the Other--the one with the hollow eyes. "Stop moving? You may get your wish sooner than you'd like. Dawn comes."
"What is it with dawn, anyway?" I grumble as she hastily ties herself to me again. The law, Naros, and Jessamine are all obsessed with dawn.
"When dawn comes, God turns his attention to his work. When night comes, God's thoughts are free to wander." she says. Another fun thought.
Up again, foot by foot. It's slow going--that fall knocked the wind out of me gave me a few more bruises to worry about. She's calmer. Good. Seven feet...eight..huh. There's a band of light near the top. The sun must just be breaking over the horizon. "Faster, Gaven!" she hisses.
"Going as fast as I can, girl." I grunt. "Unless you have magic healing powers, I have to take this slow or injure myself more and fall."
"You do not understand. Dawn is coming fast. We still have a long way to go, and I can't help you when the sun rises." She's insistent.
"Yeah, well, I can help myself. When the night ends, all the weird scat stops, right? So that means all I have to worry about are guards." She doesn't answer. In fact, she goes totally limp. Dead weight. SCAT! I struggle to hold on. "Very funny."
We've passed into the band of light, though. Almost there. Just a few feet more! Thrice-cursed sack of potatoes back there isn't helping--arms tired. I consider cutting her loose and letting her drop. Alone, I can make my way out of town from here, through the Cobwebs to freedom. So tempting. But she did save my life. But she's trouble...and possessed, too. Dragon take it. We can part ways once we get to the top. I can do at least that much. She didn't ask for this. She doesn't deserve it. Do I?
I did chose Exile, but I was tricked. They didn't tell me everything. They didn't mention wizards, monsters, or ghosts. It was all a trap. But perhaps I did deserve this. I stole in a town before I knew all the rules. Didn't prepare well enough. I was sloppy, got caught. Or maybe I deserve this for other reasons. I have not been, shall we say, a paragon of virtue. Is this all my ill deeds coming back to haunt me?
Enough philosophy. Almost there. Arms are so tired...just a few feet more. Finally! The lip of the wall is in my hands. I climb over.
"OK, enough with the helpless act. We've still got a good quarter mile to go." She says nothing. I untie her. She collapses. I turn to look at her. She isn't moving. Her eyes are staring, empty, glassy...she's not breathing...her limbs are stiff. I touch her...she's very, very cold. Oh, no. Oh scat! Is she...
Dead? Oh, no, no, no. Oh, this can't be happening, this is just another trick, this is..she said she'd be useless at dawn! Oh fuck! Oh, what the Boiling Belly am I going to do now? The guards are never going to believe I had nothing to do with this! Oh, fuck...Oh dung...
She said...oh, she said she panicked, and then the "presence" entered her...but this sort of spirit can only enter the bodies of the dead... Did she...did she kill herself, when she woke and found herself set up to be an offering? Has she been dead this whole time? Oh...Oh god...
Got to calm down...oh God...got to think...Oh, what am I going to do? I can't leave her here, but I can't carry a corpse through town! I collapse against the battlement. The guards will be looking for me now that the sun's up. What will they do when they find the corpse? The penalties were excessive for robbery and blowing out a candle. But murder? I don't want to know. I know they'll blame me! I know it!
Naros. Only Naros can help me now.
Sunday, April 26, 2009
Part 7: The Shadows of Miir
I can see the Pen Wall ahead of us. It rises higher than any of the buildings around. But, frustratingly, there's no direct path to it. All the streets, in fact, seem determined to twist away from the Wall. Many of the alleys are blocked, or a dead end. I've seen this before. If we can't go through, we're just going to have to go over. We don't have time to be lost...it's getting lighter out every few minutes.
I lead Jessamine down a dark alley. As I thought, there's a cart blocking it. I begin to climb up the cart. My wounds protest. It hurts. But if I can't hop a simple hay-cart, then there's no way in the Dragon's Belly I'll make it over the Pen Wall, so I grit my teeth and pull myself up. I reach the top. Wonder of wonders, there's an actual shadowy path out of the alley. I've beaten you, Miir. You have no more tricks for me.
"Hey! Don't leave us behind!" Jessamine cries.
"It's just a simply hay-cart. What, are your arms broken? Just climb up and over." I reply.
"I...don't know how." She mutters. Great. Pampered brat. I still don't want her touching me, but it seems I have no choice. I extend a hand. She's fairly hopeless, scrambling up the cart without any grace whatsoever. Amateur. How does she expect to get over the Pen Wall? At least her touch hasn't sapped my soul of anything, though her hands are a bit slippery from the blood on them. I hop down.
My feet sink through the street, as if it were thick mud instead of slate cobblestones. The shadows here are darker than I like--What the?
"Gaven!" Jessamine screams. I'm about to scream too. That shadow is moving. It's sliding across the wall, and there is nothing casting it. I pull the fireglass dagger and try to step back. The cart's in my way, and I'm slowly sinking into the pavement. I stab about wildly. The glow on the dagger dims as it enters the shadow. Oh, no. Not my light. Please, whatever god is listening, don't put out my light!
The girl is screaming something, but I can't make out what she says. There's another voice. It's a cold whisper. It's from inside my heart.
Why bother to struggle any more? What is the point? It's not as if you have much of anything worth the struggle. You are gutter trash. What have you ever done, really? You rob from the rich to pay your creditors. And when you fail at that, you run. But there's no escape.
I'm not listening to this. Just one good job, and I won't ever have to worry about the knee-breakers again. I struggle to get away from the shadow.
And what exactly will you do, even if you could make this fanciful "big score"? Go back to the street? Knife some poor sod for his hovel? You have nowhere to go, Gaven. Nothing left waiting for you at home, not anymore...
"I-I just made a few tiny mistakes. I'll get back on track, I swear it." I murmur. But god, its right. I'm trapped even if I pay them off. The whole reason I came to Miir was to make enough to get Longshankes off my back and let the heat blow over. Look where that got me. Even if I could escape Miir tonight, what good would it do me? I can't return to Calisapas. I'm tired. I let the shadow flow over me.
It's cold...so cold...
And suddenly, The sky becomes the ground, and I am pinwheeling over the cart. I can only stare dumbly as the cobblestone meets my face. Ow. It takes me a few seconds to orient myself. There's a voice yelling something. It's hoarse, dark, and ugly. "By my command, return to night!"
I've somehow been flung back behind the cart. I climb up it and look. Jessamine is standing where I was, holding my dagger at the shadow.
Is she insane?
I can't see her face, but her voice has changed. It's raw, commanding, and not of this world. And the shadow is heeding it. What exactly is going on here? Did she TOSS me over the cart? I've never met a man strong enough to do that, let alone a girl half my weight. She turns to look at me. Her face has gone back to that creepy blank look. Her eyes are hollow and devoid of life again. She looks at me, and speaks in that horrible voice. "You are a supreme fool. I would strike you down myself if we didn't need you."
This must be "us." She moves entirely differently. Smoother. More confidant. Powerful.
"You seem strong enough to handle the night." I say. I'm still shaken by the shadow's words. And being flung like a rag doll. And the change in her demeanor.
"As long as the night lasts, perhaps. We will be useless come dawn." She tosses me the dagger, which begins to glow again, thank god.
"And this is my problem because..." Giving her to Naros is looking better all the time. Her face changes back to normal. She looks scared. "Nice trick. Not falling for it. Answer the question."
She begins to tear up. "Please," she whispers. "Please don't leave me alone with her."
She did save my worthless hide, I suppose. I don't trust this crazy switching thing she has going on. Not that I trust the wizard, either. "Maybe 'she' can tell me just what in the Dragon's name that thing was, and I'll consider it." Boil and damn. It's an hour to dawn, perhaps less.
"Remember what I told you about the dark thoughts of God that Naros made the deal with? That was one of them. That was God's Despair."
This just keeps getting better. "So, how were you able to stop it?" She shrinks away. "Because She is God's Wrath." she says.
Evil spirits, a tower that is their tabernacle, and an apparently ancient wizard named Naros trying to "get her back." Fuck, fuck, fuck! I finally understand what's going on here. The spirit is trying to joyride out of Miir for some reason, and Naros is bent on keeping it here. The wizard is ancient, and apparently his power, perhaps even his life, must depend on that deal he made which keeps the spirits in Miir.
"Jessamine, how many of these fallen spirits are there in the city?" I ask. She shrugs.
"How many evil thoughts can God have over eternity?"
Fun thought to contemplate. Dragon take it. We've wasted too much time here. The Pen wall is tantalizingly close, and we may just make it.
Part 6: Jessamine
I slip away from the battlefield, and try to figure out which way I came. I made...one turn? Two, maybe? Was this the right way?
Then I spot three dead goblins at the head of an alley. Well, that answers that. I bend down and examine them. Those don't look like knife wounds...more like a mauling. Bears? Wolves? What did this? I shiver, and hold the dagger ready, not even bothering to try hiding it this time. If I'm going to meet whatever killed them I'll feel safer armed.
There is a girl standing in the alley, her back to me. Her stringy black hair falls down past her shoulders as she tilts her head to the sky. Her white dress is stained with blood, and her hands are coated in gore. I have a very bad feeling about this.
I back away...too late. She turns. The front of her dress is bloody. Her hollow, sunken eyes look past me into nowhere.
“Um...” I start, then stop and try again. “Hey. Are you...”
That stare is beginning to damage my calm. She hasn't blinked once. She takes a lurching step towards me...eep! Is any of the blood on that dress hers? Her head tilts to the other side.
“You are out late.” she says, in a voice as hollow as her gaze. “And you are big for a powrie.”
“If you mean the cap, I took it as a trophy from the others.” I say. She keeps advancing towards me. I take a step back, trying to look casual while doing it. “Um...so. You, er, don't need to thank me for drawing the Redcaps away...”
“Don't worry.” she says, then, almost as an afterthought, she giggles. “We won't. You ran away. They happened to follow.” She giggles again. It sounds forced. She keeps walking towards me, languidly raising one of her bloody hands.
“Fair enough. You, er, you seem to have handled what was left fairly well on your own...” Get back, get away, stop it, step away...
“Are you frightened by us?” she asks, noticing my movement. “Do we alarm you? Do you find us repulsive?”
“A little bit.” If her stare weren't so dead and her voice so hollow, she might be a really attractive girl. Something about the way her dress slips slightly off her shoulder, or the blood-drenched cloth clings to her chest... I shiver again, this time in disgust with myself. “Look, I'm just being cautious...” Boil it, could she stop reaching for me like that? “It's been a rough night, what with The Shadows and all.”
She stops. Finally. She scowls. "Yes. The Shadows. It seems they don't want to let us go. We've wandered far."
"Tell me about it." I say. "Buildings dance when you aren't looking, walls swallow doors, redcaps stalk, and creepy wizards offer things..."
Uh-oh. Her eyes aren't hollow anymore. Now they seem to be filled with hate and rage. "Wizards?" she growls. "Tell us about the wizards."
"Who is this 'us' you keep talking about? I ask merely out of curiosity." I shoot back. "Share with me your night, and I'll share mine."
"We got off on the wrong foot." She says. Nice, adroit topic shift. "I'm Jessamine." She extends her hand.
"Good to know. The goblins back there look like they were ripped apart by a bear, and there's only you here. I'm not touching you."
And yet, I'm still talking to her instead of running for my life. The girl scares me more than anything I've faced up to now, but here I am.
She sighs. "It has been...difficult." she sits on a nearby crate. I keep a distance between us. "I'm not sure what's happened to us--to me. My father works for the Watch. He ran up a gambling debt, and couldn't pay. The House wanted to take me in payment."
"Why?" I ask. She looks shamed. "House Dythanus always needs more prostitutes. Despite my dad's flaws, he didn't want that for me. So instead, he drugged me, and put me up in the Offering Room. I think he figured that letting the Shadows take me would be less horrible."
"What's an Offering Room?"
She looks at me. "You aren't from Miir, are you? That would explain why you're dumb enough to go out at night."
"Not like I had much choice. I'm beginning to see why Exile is considered a punishment here." I say.
She gasps. "You mean you chose this?"
"It was the best of lots of bad options. But we were educating poor, ignorant Gaven on Offering Rooms."
"It's a room left open to The Shadows. You place a treasure in the room, leave a window with a lit candle open, and hope they like it. If the Shadows accept the offering, you're supposed to gain good luck. If not..." She shakes her head. "So that's where I found myself."
"Such a lovely people. I can't wait for the dawn, so I can leave this place forever. I notice you still haven't explained the 'we' thing."
"Well, by the time I woke, It was already past curfew, and the door had vanished." Vanished? "And...I panicked. And the only way out was--"
"Wait, the door did what?"
"It means the Shadows are on their way, to inspect the offering. The only way out is the open window."
Well, that explains the empty room, sort of. And Naros blaming me for taking something of his. He must have been coming to collect her.
"So I ran into the night. And then I began feeling a...presence, in my head. Whispering to me. Telling me how to do things. Guiding me."
"The presence is the 'us', then. Good to know.” I start moving towards the edge of the ally. “We need to get out of here. The Redcaps have had enough time to get buddies."
"Wait!" She says. "You said you'd tell us about the wizard!"
"I did say that, didn't I?" I don't stop. "If you want to know, follow me. I'm getting out of this place before the guards haul me back to jail. Sounds to me like you aren't wanted here, either. Together, then?"
She nods. "Together. For now. But we're watching you."
I bark a laugh. "Lady, this Dragon-taken city hasn't stopped watching me. Save your threats."
I look up to the sky. It's still dark, but it's growing noticeably lighter. Boil and damn. It's closer to dawn than I thought. We keep moving. I could give her to Naros. But No matter how strange she is, I don't think I want to. If he wants her, he can come fetch her himself. I'm not his hound.
"What did you do to earn Exile?" She asks as we head through an alley.
"Blew out a guy's candle while stealing from the Houses." I reply. I hear a sharp intake of breath. I don't even need to see her face. "Look, I didn't know that was a culture thing here. Now I understand what that meant."
"You really don't." she says. "They only offer Exile to those who have offended The Shadows. There are worse things in them than a few Redcaps. Much, much worse. They're alive, Gaven."
"OK.” I stop. “I'm waiting for an explanation. Why does everyone I meet talk about these Shadows like that? What are the Shadows, really?"
Jessamine sighs, and leans against a wall. "When I was young, I heard a story. It's kind of a long story, though." She's saying 'I'. Not 'We'. Good sign. "Long ago, Naros of Miir wanted to band the local tribes against the armies of the Empire. But they hated each other, and wouldn't listen. Then he was visited in his dreams by dark spirits, formed from the evil thoughts of God, fallen to the mortal world for their impurity. The spirits promised to help him unite the tribes, but he would owe them a service after. Naros agreed." Naros, huh? Coincidence? I don't think so. "Upon awaking, he had the power to twist people's emotions. Soon, the tribes were united, the Empire was defeated, and the spirits..."
"They came to collect their due." I see where this is going. "And they've been here ever since."
She nods. "The Tower is their tabernacle. And you have offended them. You've set yourself up in opposition to them, and they will try their best to break you before your term is up, as a lesson to others who would think to set themselves above their will.”
No wonder the Tower creeps me out. We'll need to keep out of sight of it from now on...I don't want it watching our every move. I check the sky again. It's noticeably lighter. We have perhaps an hour and a half before the sun rises. We need to get over the wall. I can't trust the guards at their word to let me go. I can't trust Naros' dragondung about "becoming a legend". I can't trust the girl. But the girl and I have a common goal right now, more than I can say about the others. So I can work with her at least until we get out of the city. After that? Who can say?
That "presence" she spoke about worries me, though. I've heard horror stories about possessions like this. I heard a story once. A man died, and something crawled into his corpse and made it get up again. The thing then lived his life before deciding to take up killing other people as a hobby. When the guards caught up with it, they filled it full of arrows. The spirit simply jumped from the corpse to one of the guards and escaped.
We travel in silence for a while. It's not comfortable, but she doesn't seem willing to speak and I've nothing to say either.
Saturday, April 25, 2009
Part 5: Jolly Red Caps
Off into the streets once more. I still have questions, and I can't trust that Naros has been at all honest with me. I hate this so very much. I hate the streets here, the darkness, the bastard Naros, the woman I've seen once. All of them. I think she's ahead.
I press against the wall. No sense in walking into something I don't understand. Could be a trap. Probably is. Yet here I am, tripping it. Something is moving. Make that things. She screams again. Something replies. There's giggling, like high-pitched laughter from demented children holding a glass to an anthill.
What in the Dragon's Belly are children doing out here?
I turn the corner, quietly. There's a half-dozen of them clustered around an alleyway. They're all naked, save for loincloths, knives and...Oh. Oh, no. Oh, nonononono. They aren't children. They aren't even human. They're green lizard-skinned goblins with wide ears and needle-toothed smiles. Redcaps!
A thousand childhood terrors well up. Stories told by the other children, by the adults wanting us to keep inside at night. Redcaps murder livestock, attack travelers, steal children from their beds, eat only fresh meat, must dip their caps in blood everyday or die. I don't know how may of the tales are true. I'm not sticking around to find out.
Sorry, lady. You are on your own. I step back. One turns. Oh dung. I try to slip behind a corner, out of sight...it's too late. The goblin giggles, and pokes his buddies. I run.
Oh god. I'm running through a dark city street with a pack of Redcaps howling and laughing behind me. I've had nightmares about this. I try to remember the tales...something there may be helpful. OW! Ran into a barrel...can't do that any more, it slows me down!
One chucks a spear at me. Filthy little goblin. I dodge down an ally. "Come out an' play, Mista Lunch!" one laughs. Then they all start laughing. They chatter. They gibber. They giggle. There's at least six of them. All I have is a glowing dagger. I'm screwed. I'm screwed. I'm screwed.
Another alley. There's three walls there, no opening. FUCK! Can't go back; they run faster than I do. How do they move so fast on such tiny legs?
Nothing for it--I go up. The roofs are flat. I climb like a thief, but they climb like monkeys. I kick one--he goes screaming into space.
Five left. one jabs me with his spear as he clears the rooftop, the spear tip punching through my leg. OUCH! I hop back and wave the dagger. A second makes it over the top. The goblin jabs again, but I knock the spear away from my face just in time. "Peel! Peel! Peel!" he giggles.
Tiny death all around. A third makes it up to the roof. I've been running through this city all night. I'm exhausted, and breathing hurts. I'm going to die! I yank the spear from one of the little demons, then run for the edge of the roof. I leap, hang for an eternity...hit the next roof.
They howl and scream. "Not expecting that, were you?" I chuckle. I stop as reality hits me. I have one spear, one dagger. I'm injured. I'm tired. They, on the other hand, are fresh, hungry, and having fun. This is a game to them...running down prey. They may chase me forever.
All of them are on the opposite roof. They start leaping across. One doesn't quite make it, disappears down to the street. If only... What do I have on me? The dagger, a spear, the clothes on my back, the stuff I stole from...wait. The claws! I pull one out. I wanted to sell these, but dragon claws are as sharp as blade, even if they're brittle once taken from the beast. It's better than nothing.
I hurl a claw at the nearest one who's leaping at me, and it lodges in his eye. He shrieks and loses his balance, and falls. I throw again. The last two wise up. I waste a couple claws as they duck out of the way, and they chuck their spears at me. I have to move or get skewered. I hear scrambling up the sides of the building. Boil and damn. Those must be the ones that fell. I didn't hurt them enough to make them give up.
Time to go. I leap for another roof, misjudge the angle, and slam my shins into the ledge. I pinwheel sickeningly...the sky is the ground...
...and the ground hurts.
I can't breathe, and for a moment I wonder why. And then I remember falling. Then I remember the Redcaps. They grin from the rooftop. "Hey hey, manny-man! Watchoo runnin from!? We's only gonna peel you till you die!" One giggles as he leaps at me.
I roll away, and he misses, but he lands on his feet. I raise the spear as he charges. He impales himself, but another lands. Then another. One slices me with a razorblade. It doesn't hurt, surprisingly, but it's bleeding a lot. I fumble for my dagger. My arm's numb. That's bad. "We's gonna bleed ya, manny-man! We's gonna tear of yer skin and feed it ta ya!" he gibbers. "We's gonna NibbleNibbleNibble you up!" I stumble back.
The others have reached us by now. I have goblins in red caps surrounding me in an alley. Nowhere to run, very little room to fight.
"Make him bleed and bleed and bleed and bleed and…"
"Skin him like a cat! More than one way to skin a manny-man!"
I lunge at one. My blade catches him, tears into his throat. He gurgles as he goes down. Another jabs me with a spear. I turn and tackle. I'm not thinking clearly. I bear him to the ground, then stand and start stomping on him. Bones crack beneath my boots as I stomp his face.
One leaps at me, and I grab his long, pointy ear and yank his head to the side before ripping at his neck with the dagger. Blood gushes. I feel another jab at me, tearing my cloak. I turn to stab, but the dagger slips out of my hand. It goes skittering off down the alley. So I grab him, and stomp on him like I stomped the other one. I kick his face into the wall until he stops trying to move, then whirl about.
Suddenly, I realize I'm alone. No more monsters are coming after me. The adrenaline wears off. The pain hits. I shudder.
I know I killed three, with a fourth wheezing in pain and not long for this world behind me. That leaves one unaccounted for. Did he run? If he did, it was for reinforcements. Still, I've bought myself some time. I take a moment to breathe, and look over my wounds.
I've been stabbed in the leg, and sliced across the arm, and my side is killing me. The leg wound isn't bad, but the arm is bleeding freely. I take what remains of my shirt and wrap my bloody arm as best I can. "You sure got some sharp little knives." I tell the dying one.
"Yeah…" the goblin gurgles back. "Good for…slice and dice."
I jump. I hadn't expected a response. I grab for a weapon, but there's no need.
"Manny-man done killed Robin…yes…he do the Two-Step all over Robin's face, and soon Robin do the dead waltz…" I almost feel sorry for him. Almost.
"Yeah, well, if you hadn't chased me all over creation, you wouldn't be in this predicament, would you?" I grumble. There's a wet chuckle.
"A powrie's gotta eat, and manny-mans is fine eats."
I try not to think about that. Instead, I ask, "What happens when the others come back?"
"Robin be taken to medicine person, and if he live, he fight again. If Robin do the dead waltz, into the stew he goes."
I try not to gag. "You don't sound all that broken up about it." I say.
He gurgles as if he's trying to chuckle, then hisses in pain. "What Manny-man care? Manny-man go stab chop to powrie all the time, powrie fill their bellies on manny-man doin de dead waltz. Back forth, till de end a' time."
"You could, you know, not attack people. That might help." I say.
"A powrie's gotta eat. And manny-man is tasty eats." He says again. Ew.
I wonder why I started this conversation in the first place. Perhaps I need someone to talk to who isn't openly manipulating me. The goblin wheezes, and I pity him. "You know, I could slit your throat, make it end quicker."
"Heh. Robin not want to do de dead-waltz." he gurgles. "But Robin thinkin' he haz not much choice. Only, ya gots ta do it the right way."
"Um...what way is that?" Urk. If he thinks I'm going to cook him up and eat him...
"When it done, take a cap an dip it in the kroovy."
I blink. "The what?"
"The kroovy. The red red kroovy. Juice from de inside." Yuck.
At least I don't have to eat him. "I don't have a cap."
"Use Robin's. He won't be needin' it no more."
I pick up the fireglass blade and make it quick. His eyes glaze over. I pick up his cap. This thing is disgusting--leathery, sticky, and smells like a butcher's smock. I have the urge to wash my hands after soaking up the blood.
I set the cap on my head and pnder what to do next. GAH! Why did I do that!? Now the blood's in my hair. Oh, well. No point removing it. What now? The Redcaps will likely be getting reinforcements, so I can't stay here. They've probably killed...FUCK. I forgot about the girl! Wait. There were only six of them before, and I think they all came after me. The girl may still be alive, if more didn't arrive after I ran.
The only way I'm going to find out what this "legend" offer Naros made is about is if the girl is delivered to him before sunrise. Alive.
Friday, April 24, 2009
Part 2: The Man in the Empty Room
I take a few minutes to let my eyes adjust to the gloom. To pass the time, I try and remember all I can about how this city is laid out. I wish I'd learned more, but most of my week here was spent getting into contact with the underworld and planning the job, so there wasn't much time for sight-seeing.
The city is shaped like a millstone grinding against the Western Ivthian Mountains. In the center is the Tower of Miir, the spoke around which the whole city revolves, a tower so high it scrapes the bottom of the sky itself. The noble houses and guild halls cluster around it, forming the Bastion, the wood that turns the city. The stone of the city is the Pen, where most of the merchants and skilled workers not wealthy enough to live in the center but too well off to join the rest of the chaff at the edge struggle through the days. Then, at the rim just past the Pen Wall, is the Cobwebs, where the slaves, the poor, and the refuse of Miir get crushed to powder, their toil and misery feeding the rich.
When I was in the Bastion, I noticed Fireglass lamps blazing at every corner. And even here there should be brazers, but they're all out. Why aren't there any lights here? If everyone is so afraid of the dark, why not keep the fire lit until dawn?
Uh-oh. Something is moving! I whip around, wishing I had a weapon to defend myself with.
I hate this city. It was just a piece of canvas that got loose from a stall, flopping around at a stray breeze. This place has me jumping at shadows already.
I haven't seen any crossbow-wielding guards yet. Perhaps this Exile truly is what they said: The freedom to run around the city at night. If that's the case, then the nobles are fools. I've got rent to pay, and really only one way of using my talents to make a living.
Most of the windows are shuttered tightly. Probably barred, as well. If I had my tools, that wouldn't be a problem, but I need to improvise. Ah! Luck! there's an open window over there! I can see a lit candle, but no movement. The wall is stone...an easy climb. I look inside.
There isn't much here. A bed, a desk, a footlocker, some tapestries on the wall. No one inside. This is good...easy access to the house. I check the footlocker first. Just some clothes. Feminine. There's a nice leather cloak I slip on to ward off the chill. That's better.
I catch sight of myself in a mirror on the desk as I check it out. Huh. I'm looking more haggard than usual. I haven't had a shave or a bath in days, and I haven't had my chestnut hair sheared since I left Calisapas about a month ago. I'm thin and shaggy enough to scare crows and small children. Well, nothing to be done about it...let's see what we have here.
The desk has a few drawers. The bottom one is locked. There's a letter, an inkwell, and hey! Quills made from dragon claws! These will fetch a tidy sum. I pocket the quills--a dozen in all. But how to open the locked drawer? Hmm...The quills are brittle, but they might serve. I pull one out.
I work the lock with the quill. Boil and damn. It broke...but the drawer is open now. And it was worth it. There's a glow from inside. Excellent. It's a dagger, made from Ivthian Fireglass, an obsidian-like rock that glows with its own inner light. This is a real find here. I smile. This is the first house I've hit tonight, and already I've scored well. Now on to the rest of the house. I turn to the door...wait.
I look to the left. Wall! To the right! Wall! I tear down the tapestry. Wall!
I stumble back to the window, half expecting it to be gone as well. Nope, still there. By God and the Dragon, what is going on? I go to the desk, frantically search it for answers Nothing useful. Then I remember the letter. I pick it up and read.
Dearest Jessamine. I now have no choice. Please forgive me, and may the Shadows have mercy on your soul. Eric. Not helpful. OK. No time to panic. Obviously, the watch set this trap up, and are on their way. It's time to get out of here. I turn to the window.
There is a slight breeze, and suddenly the candle goes out. I hear the clink of a chain, and the smell of rose perfume fills the air.
"Hello there, Gaven Morren." Someone whispers.
My blood freezes. There is a figure at the window. The glow from the fireglass doesn't shed much light, but I see he is thin, tall, and pale. And very angry.
"I'd ask what you are doing here, but it is obvious, is it not?" He continues. “You have stolen from me, Gaven. Taken what is mine, and your Exile is but a few minutes old. Regrettable.” How did he get up the wall without me hearing?
Perhaps it's not too late to escape. If I strike quickly enough, I may be able to silence him before the alarm is raised. I lunge.
The Pale Man is quick. His cloak flutters as I collide painfully with the window sill. Ow! Then the world tilts, and I am spinning through the cold night air. I meet the ground even harder than the wall.
Struggling to breathe. Pain in my side is incredible. Must have fallen out the window. Think I've broken a rib. There is laughter above.
"Entertaining." His voice, right above me. How did he get down so fast? "I did not come to fight you, Gaven. I simply want what's mine."
"How do you know me?" I gasp.
He shrugs. "You chose Exile, Gaven. You gave yourself over to the night. Were you expecting no consequences?"
I feel a boot rest lightly against my throat. "So. You're my keeper, then? I didn't know I was going to be chaperoned."
"We can play these games later, Gaven. Hand over what you have taken, and I shall leave you to your own devices." The boot grinds down. I consider my options. I can't fight like this. The guards may be on their way. the Pale Man has the advantage here. I'll get revenge later.
"Take your dragon-cursed dagger, then." I grunt, and release the blade. I don't see him move, but the boot is off my neck. He looks the blade over.
I think something is wrong. The Pale Man isn't pleased. "You would play me for a fool, Gaven?" he says.
"She isn't here." His voice is calm, but ice cold. There was a seething, venomous rage lurking just beneath it.
The boot jabs into my wounded side. It suddenly occurs to me that I've given up my only means of protection to a madman in the dark. I feel the blade at my throat.
"Listen to me very closely, Gaven" he hisses. "You will find her, and return her, before dawn."
There is a lunatic with a blade at my neck. There is only one reasonable course of action. "Yes, sir. Whatever you say, sir."
The dagger lifts away, and I let out a breath that sounded more relieved than I intended. I stand, the broken rib grinding in my chest. "Here." He tosses the glowing blade at my feet. "You will need a light to see by. When you find her, simply summon me and I shall appear."
Fat chance. He's armed me, and I won't be fool enough to let go of the blade again. When I'm out of sight I'll be gone like cobwebs in a fire. Still, I need to make him think he's getting what he wants. "What name should I summon you by, then?"
He smirks. "Call for Naros Miir. And remember, Gaven. The Shadows are always vigilant. You have until the sun rises over the Pen Wall and no later. Do not fail me."