Authors: Stephen W. Gee
“I think I’m going to like you guys,” said the major with a wolf’s grin. “Now come on. Let’s go,” she said, spinning on her heels. She paused on the first step. “But you should probably pull your pants up first. It’s cold out there.”
Mazik looked down, and realized that he’d never buckled his belt. “You’re telling me!”
* * *
The guardhouse Mazik and the others were brought to had seen better days. This wasn’t uncommon. The Houkian City Guard was a favored target of all manner of ne’er-do-wells, and their jails and guardhouses bore the brunt of the punishment. With all the attacks, attempted breakouts, attempted break-ins, and violent riots—not to mention the occasional confused, shirtless university student
—Houkian guardhouses tended to look like they had been beaten with a two-story tall ugly stick slathered in busted bricks, broken glass, and dog feces.
Nortfort had clearly received its latest beating within the last twenty-six hours, though. The cast-iron fence around its perimeter had a gaping section missing, the pieces of which could be found scattered across the inner courtyard. Heavily armored guards stood in the gap, while men and women with glowing eyes constantly patrolled the grounds. The front of the building itself was also marred by fresh burns, pits, and splashes of blood, and a small pile of bodies lay to one side of the front door, covered by a large gray tarp. An arm could be seen sticking out of the tarp. It was wearing black robes.
Mazik whistled. “So I take it they’ve been attacking you too?” he asked as they entered through the main gate. He held onto the cultist knife tightly.
“Not really,” said the major, the gate guards saluting her as they passed. She had identified herself as Major Ceara Rur’Dasim, the army’s special liaison to the city guard. Mazik and Gavi hadn’t yet learned how Raedren came across her, though the calm confidence with which she held herself made them think it was more her doing than his. “Things just got a little heated when they came to give us their demands.”
“I guess so,” said Mazik as he looked around. A cultist’s body was wedged halfway through a window, its legs dangling like the bed sheets of an escaped princess.
Major Rur dismissed the other guards and soldiers in their party and took the three adventurers into the guardhouse by herself. Climbing the stairs, she held the door open for them. “After you.”
Coppers’ eyes skewered them as they entered. Mazik smiled uneasily, uncomfortable with all the attention. He had no problems with attention in general, just the official sort. He had the unsettling feeling that they were committing his face to memory, for easy retrieval next time he did something illegal.
But Mazik needn’t have worried. The eyes weren’t on him, they were on the knife. The coppers’ expressions were many and varied, ranging from indifference to anger and disgust, but one emotion was more evident than the others—relief.
Not that Mazik was paying attention to that. He was distracted by a familiar face, a certain battle-worn captain with a perpetual scowl. The man was leaning against the front desk and staring at a clipboard as if it had killed his parents.
“Welcome back,” said Captain Ankt, not looking up.
“Glad to be back,” said Major Rur, walking over to join him. He handed her the clipboard without a word. “No other contact?” she asked as she flipped back to the first page.
“None,” said Captain Ankt. He scowled. “It’s all in here,” he said, tapping the clipboard.
Mazik waved cheerfully at Captain Ankt. “Yo! Nice to see you again.”
“Ha ha,” said Captain Ankt. “I stridently disagree.”
“Ooo, big words,” said Mazik. “Soooo … how ya been since we saw you earlier?”
Captain Ankt grinned madly, head tilted to the side and his eyes wide. “Just help us get those fuckers out of my city,” he growled.
“Of course,” said Mazik. “For the right price.”
“What was that?” asked Captain Ankt.
“Maz,” said Raedren. Gavi elbowed him in the side.
Mazik looked at them, hurt. “Sorry about that. I said ‘For the right price.’”
Gavi sighed. “Mazik, really…”
Mazik shrugged. “Hey, what do you expect? We can’t go around working for free. Not unless we want to end up right back where we were.”
“Yes, well,” said Gavi, her cheeks flushing from the stares of nearby guards. “Still. There’s a time and a place.”
“I find it’s best to be clear from the get-go,” said Mazik.
“Your feelings have been noted,” said Major Rur. She thumbed through the rest of the clipboard and then tucked it under her arm. “All right. Follow us.”
The three brand-new adventurers followed the major and the captain deeper into Nortfort, to the open area that served as the center of activity in the guardhouse. It was in this open room filled with sturdy desks arranged into loose aisles that coppers prepared for their patrols, did paperwork, discussed investigations, or simply chatted before they got off work.
Right now, the room was filled with coppers and soldiers in the midst of planning. And it wasn’t just them, there were also what looked like—
“Finally,” said a haughty man in floor-length green robes and a leather mantle. He crossed his arms and stopped just short of scoffing. “We’re ready when you are.”
Mazik grimaced. Most people who sounded like that were nobles born with silver spoons in their mouths, but this guy’s tattered robes and calloused hands didn’t fit the profile. There was something that made him feel superior though, at least to Mazik and the others. Mazik had a feeling he knew what it was.
“So I guess you called in the guilds too,” said Mazik. Around the room were fifteen other adventurers, sitting on desks or lounging against the walls like they were too cool to work, though in reality they just didn’t have anything to do.
“That’s right,” said Major Rur.
Mazik glanced at his two friends, and then took a deep breath. “Well, great!” he said, stepping forward to meet the man in green robes. The other adventurers turned to watch.
Mazik bowed. “My name is Mazik Kil’Raeus. I look forward to working with you.”
The other man glanced at Mazik, and then nodded curtly. “Rynthe.”
Mazik glanced at the emblem on the Rynthe’s shoulder.
The Brotherhood of Steel
, thought Mazik. He kept a firm grip on the cultist knife. “Yeah, nice to meet you too.”
“All right, so here’s the situation,” said Major Rur as she moved to the middle of the room, and the large table that sat there. It was full of maps, reports, messy stacks of paper, and enough half-empty coffee mugs to open a sizeable café. Captain Ankt split off to one wall to loom over the proceedings.
Major Rur turned to Mazik and the others. “We’ve already told you about the takeover of The Pit. What I don’t believe we’ve mentioned is why we haven’t already stormed the place. Care to guess?”
“You can’t get inside?” said Mazik immediately.
“True, though not what I was looking for,” said Major Rur. “They have the place defended pretty tightly, so while we could get in if we wanted to, we can’t do it easily, and probably not without them knowing.”
“I want to say it’s because they’re too powerful,” said Gavi, “but with everyone here…”
“Yeah, no way,” said Mazik. “It’s got to be that—”
“Hostages,” said Major Rur, already tired of the guessing game. “Since they took over The Pit, they’ve bolstered their position by going to the slums and—”
“Didn’t they come to the guildhall earlier?”
one of the adventurers along the wall was saying.
“Yeah, they did,”
said the man next to her.
“I heard the quest yesterday was their first. They’re still trying to get into a guild. There’s no way the city will trust them with something like this.”
Mazik quietly smoldered, but kept his attention on the major.
“—with their invisibility,” Major Rur was saying. She began shuffling through the papers on the table, looking for something. “That magick made it difficult for us to contain them. It ended up taking two hours to properly lock The Pit down, during which time they got an estimated… I can’t find it.” She looked up. “Anyone?”
“Thirty to forty-five,” said one guard.
“Thirty to forty-five hostages,” said Major Rur. “That’s in addition to anyone they captured when they were taking over the arena, which we assume was practically everyone other than the gladiators. That means we can’t attack without risking them killing some or all of the hostages, which is something we’d obviously prefer them to not do.”
“Makes sense,” said Mazik as he sat down on a desk, ignoring the copper who was working there. The man didn’t seem to mind, taking it as an excuse to stop working and go get some coffee.
“What are their demands?” asked Gavi. “We know they want the knife back, but is there anything else?”
“Well, they want safe passage out of the city,” said Major Rur. “But we think that’s just for appearances.”
“I … don’t like the sound of that,” said Mazik.
“We figured out who their god is, and a lot of its rituals have to be cast in large population centers,” said Major Rur.
“In large cities? That seems stupid and arbitrary,” said Mazik.
“Divine magick usually is
,” said Major Rur. “We think as soon as they get the knife back, they’re going to perform a ritual. We’re not sure which one, though.”
“Which god is it?” asked Gavi.
“It was…” said Major Rur.
“Amougourest,” said an older copper sitting at a desk nearby. He adjusted his reading glasses and peered at the copy of
in front of him. “Amougourest,” he repeated in a dry monotone. “A dark god from—”
“Actually, do you mind if I see that?” interrupted Mazik.
The older copper shrugged. “Of course. Just please give it back when you’re done,” he said with a librarian’s concern. He handed the book to Mazik. “Page twenty-two.”
Mazik accepted the book. He looked at the cover for a second, and then passed it to Raedren.
“Do we know which ritual they’re going for?” asked Gavi.
“We—” said Major Rur.
“Excuse me major, one moment please,” said Rynthe. One of his fellow guildmates whispered something to him, but he brushed him aside and stepped up to the table.
“I understand that these three brought the knife, and that’s wonderful, but can we get back to planning the attack?” said Rynthe. “I don’t know why we’re wasting time telling them all of this.”
“That’s what we’re doing right now,” said Major Rur calmly. “They need to be brought up to speed before we can get back to planning.”
“Major, with all due respect, we have more than enough people here to take care of these kidnappers, and if we need more, then the Brotherhood would be happy to send more people. Why do you want to work with these untested civilians? They’ve done all right, but they’re still amateurs. Plus they’re already injured. I feel it would be best to—”
“Oh, don’t worry about us. I’ve never felt better in my life,” said Mazik. He patted his bicep. Gavi gently pushed Mazik’s arm back down.
“Injured or not, these three have fought the enemy twice and lived, so they’re the closest thing we have to experts,” said Major Rur. “They also brought us the knife, so I’m giving them the same courtesy I would have given you and offering them a chance to see this through. Are you interested?” she asked Mazik and the others, her eyes not leaving Rynthe’s.
“Er, absolutely,” said Mazik.
Raedren turned the page and kept reading.
“Great,” said Major Rur. “Now I will remind you that who I choose to hire for quests is not up to you. It’s up to me and my colleagues. Captain, this quest is under your jurisdiction. Do you have any problems with my decision?”
“I hate all adventurers, so hire who you want,” said Captain Ankt.
“Thank you,” said Major Rur, still staring at Rynthe. “There you have it. Have I made myself clear?”
“Yes, but I’m sure we can offer you some kind of discount,” said Rynthe, “considering how this is for the good of the—”
“That would be great!” interrupted Major Rur. “But I’m still hiring these three. I need you to deal with that.”
It was Rynthe’s turn to bristle. He shot Mazik and the others a look. Gavi glanced at Mazik, who just shrugged. The three of them said nothing.
“Fine, but if they screw up, I’ll make sure the Tyrant knows why they were on this quest,” said Rynthe.
“Sounds good,” said Major Rur. She didn’t sound worried.
Rynthe retreated to an empty seat at the desk behind him.
Major Rur turned back to Gavi. “As for your question, we—”
“Hold that thought,” said Captain Ankt, pushing off the wall. The copper who had been whispering to him stood back. “Before we get into any serious planning, there’s a few more people I need here.”
“Actually, that’s a good idea,” said Major Rur. “There are a couple of people I should get over here as well. I assume none of you need to leave for the next few minutes?”
“Of course not,” said Rynthe. “We will be here.”
“I’m good,” said Mazik.
“Wait here then. We’ll start again in a few minutes,” said Major Rur as she waved the only other soldier in the room over to her. All around the room coppers turned their attention away.
“Uh, excuse me,” said Gavi.
Major Rur turned to her. “Yes?”
“Uhm. I hate to ask, but…” Gavi looked around, and found several coppers watching her. She fidgeted. “Uhm … could I have some pants?”
As one, everyone listening looked down at Gavi’s legs. Gavi blushed and pulled at her skirt, trying to make it cover more. It did no good.
Major Rur began to laugh. Others joined in, which only attracted more attention to Gavi.
“I guess you’re tired of fighting in a skirt?” said Major Rur, patting her fully covered thighs in amusement.
“Awww, but I was enjoying that!” said Mazik. “It’s so much more fun to cover your ass when—”
Mazik dodged away from the fist hurtling at his face.
“Shut up, you!” said Gavi, her face now bright red.