Authors: Stephen W. Gee
“Uh oh,” said Raedren.
Mazik leaned forward conspiratorially. “There is one such quest available at the moment, a quest that anyone can attempt. And it’s a
“The kidnappings,” said Raedren.
Mazik waved an imaginary bell. “Ding ding ding ding ding! Exactly. The kidnappers. Imagine if we find them. Imagine if we stop them and rescue all those people.” Mazik’s voice dropped lower, until he was almost whispering. “We’d be the toast of the town!
would be talking about us, especially anyone else who was trying to do that quest. It would probably only last a few days, but that’s all we need. A few days of being the most famous, brand-new, up-and-coming adventurers around should be more than enough to get us into a guild. And once we do that, we’re set!”
“But wouldn’t it be better to start with something smaller?” asked Raedren.
“No!” said Mazik, quickly and viciously. “Like I said, those jobs won’t get us into a guild. Any adventurer can do them, right? So there’s no point. They would only prove we’re average, and I’m sure the guilds are already full of people like that. What we need is to do something extraordinary. Small quests would just give us pocket change—this one could give us a
Mazik leaned forward, drawing the other two in like the conspirators they were rapidly becoming.
“Besides, think of it like this—the kidnapper job is hard. No one knows who they are or where they’ve been hiding. Hell, no one even knows how powerful they are, so they don’t know if they can even beat them if they
find them! That means most people will think like Rae here and settle for smaller jobs. They won’t even try!” And here Mazik grinned mischievously, nearly overcome with himself. “And that means less competition for us.”
Gavi and Raedren looked at Mazik in amazement. The animation, the enthusiasm, the drive … compared to how he had been these past few months, the change in Mazik was stunning, in a rock-thrown-at-your-head kind of way. It reminded Raedren of their college days, of the two of them barely studying at all while they dipped in and out of bars, racking up stories and misadventures by the boatload; Gavi thought back to when Mazik first started dating his girlfriend, Kalenia, and of the palpable excitement she saw in him each and every day. Compared to how he had been lately…
“This is just so out there…” said Gavi, quietly, almost regretfully. “I can’t imagine fighting all the time, maybe killing, maybe dying. I mean, I deal with bar fights a lot, and sometimes you guys help, but—”
Gavi’s words fell away when Mazik turned to face her. She nearly jumped from the look in his eyes.
“That’s exactly why we should do it,” said Mazik, cold steel in his voice. “It’s crazy. I know that, but I also think it’s worth doing. Think about it! We could have freedom, control over our own lives, and we might even do something that
“Or maybe we’ll get ourselves killed trying,” said Mazik with a wry smile. “I don’t know what will happen. What I do know is that I don’t want to spend my entire godsdamned life trudging around this city, peddling weapons to scared housewives and dumb shop owners, and trying to sell just a little bit more so someday I might earn the right to yell at
people for not selling enough. The thought of that…” Mazik trailed off, and Gavi could almost see the anger and disgust he was fighting against. “The thought of that depresses the fuck out of me, to be honest.
“Instead, I want to do something that
,” said Mazik. “I don’t want to toil doing useless bullshit. I want the world to actually change for my having been here, even if it’s only just a little. I mean, isn’t that what everyone wants?”
“Uhm, maybe. I mean yeah, I guess,” said Gavi meekly. Meek was not her thing, but in the face of Mazik’s sudden determination, she didn’t know what to say. Gavi could feel eyes on their table: Derana’s, Tielyr’s, those of the regulars still eavesdropping from nearby, and others she didn’t even know. Even so, she didn’t know what else to say.
“Right!” said Mazik, smacking his fist on the table. Slamming fists were not uncommon in The Joker, so this attracted no new attention; they had plenty of that already. But their eavesdroppers were forced to strain their ears as Mazik settled down, his voice dropping low.
“Look, I don’t want to be like everyone else and waste my life away at a job I hate in the vague hope that my future kids will do something important someday when I’m old or dead. Anyone can do that. Anyone can become a salesman, or a waiter, and while not everyone can become a healer, there are still a damn lot who can. I want to do something that few others can do, that most people wouldn’t even dare try, and I don’t want to wait. I want to start
“There will always be more quests,” whispered Gavi.
“Yes, there will always be more quests, just like there will always be more sales,” said Mazik. “The problem is that while each individual sale doesn’t matter, each quest does. If we did this one and rescued the people who have been kidnapped, or even just stopped more from being taken in the future, then to those people, this quest really mattered. We could do that one quest and never do another one, and it would have been worth it. We’d be giving them the rest of their lives. That’s the kind of thing I want to do.”
Raedren swirled the beer around in his mug. “And we’d get paid to do it, and there’d be no one to boss us around, and if we want to take a day off for any reason then we can, right?”
“Damn right!” said Mazik, laughing. “So come on, what do you think?” He turned from one friend to the other. “Gavs? Rae?”
Raedren tapped his ring on the side of his mug, thinking.
Clink clink clink
Clink clink clink
. “Do you have a plan to find these kidnappers?”
“Nope!” said Mazik, immediately and shamelessly.
Raedren cracked a half-smile. “That’s the Mazik I know.” The smile faded away. “And you know the chances of us succeeding are small, right? Even if most adventurers don’t bother with this one, there are still a lot of them in this city, and they’ve all have been doing quests longer than us and will know a lot more about how to find these kidnappers than we do.”
“With a great deal of success so far, I’ve noticed,” said Mazik. “Besides, that’s what makes this worth doing. If it were easy, then anyone could do it, so what would be the point?” Mazik smiled, his grin wide and excited. “Besides, if this one doesn’t work, we just wait for the next big one. No big loss.”
Raedren, his face impassive, looked off into a corner of the room for a time, examining the intersection of wall and wall and ceiling like it held the answer to his dilemma. Then he shrugged. “Sure, why not? Someone has to make sure you don’t get yourself killed.”
“That’s my best friend!” said Mazik, hugging him and clapping him on the back. All around them, there was a palpable sense of relief among their secret eavesdroppers.
Then Mazik turned to Gavi. “Gavs?”
Gavi’s heart tightened, but she forced herself to think it through. After that display of … that, she owed Mazik as much. Her hand went to the necklace around her neck, her fingers rubbing the blunt edges of the arrowhead, taking comfort from its familiar feel.
Now … what did she want? She already knew it wasn’t to be a waiter. She didn’t want to be fighting off amorous drunks until she was too old for them to be interested. She knew she wanted something else, but could this be it?
Gavi glanced at Mazik’s face, so confident and serious, and her heart skipped a beat.
“You’re a fantastic salesman,” breathed Gavi.
“Only when I actually care about what I’m selling,” said Mazik, cracking a grin. “Well? You don’t have to give me an answer right now. Just telling me what you’re thinking would be fine.”
What did she want, what did she want, what did she
? She didn’t know! All she knew was that she couldn’t tell him no, not right now, not after everything she just saw. She didn’t think it would crush him; no, Mazik wasn’t as delicate as that, not even at his worst. She just didn’t want to be the one to tell him that things might not work out like he wanted them to. Not right now, not yet.
“How about this,” said Gavi. “For now I’ll do what I can to help you find these kidnappers, and if we actually manage to find them, I’ll decide whether I’m going to help you take them down then.”
“I’ll take it!” said Mazik, pulling her into a hug. “And in exchange, I’ll use that time to convince you to join us so you can share in our eventual spoils, all right?” he said with a laugh.
Gavi chuckled, shaking her head. “Fine with me. Deal.”
“Great, glorious, amazing!” said Mazik, grinning from ear to ear. “I think this calls for another round in celebration. I wonder if there’s anyone—erh, hello?”
There was a surge of embarrassment from their eavesdroppers, who looked away and pretended like they were never listening at all.
Derana looked down at her tray, which held three mugs. “Erh. It looked like you needed another round, so I brought you one!” she said, her cheeks flushed. She glanced back at the bar. “Er—on the house!”
Tielyr nodded toward them from behind the bar, as unreadable as ever. Almost as unreadable as ever. A slight smile may have been tugging at the corner of his lips, had anyone taken the time to notice.
“Ah, great! Really appreciate that,” said Mazik as he accepted a mug. He seemed surprised that everyone was staring at them, even though he had been talking so loudly for a while now. Gavi smiled to herself. Oblivious because of all the excitement. That was kind of cute.
“I do believe this calls for a toast!” said Mazik, who would toast to anything after his third drink, though for once the situation legitimately deserved it. He held his mug up high. “To the birth of a new adventuring party. May we do amazing things!”
“And successful ones,” added Raedren, raising his mug.
“And not die while we’re doing them,” said Gavi, lifting her mug to join theirs. All around them, everyone who knew them —and quite a few who didn’t—quietly raised their mugs as well.
“Cheers!” they all said together, and after their mugs touched they lowered them to the table, raised them to their lips, and drank deeply. Gavi had to admit, it was pretty sweet.
“Oh. This is wine,” she muttered, looking into her mug. “That explains that.”
The Hard Work of Luck
“Okay, but how are we going to go about this?” asked Gavi as she set her mug down. Around them the hustle and bustle of The Joker went on as normal, while their eavesdroppers quietly tuned back in. “Because all of this is a non-starter if we don’t have a better plan than prowling around at night and hoping we get lucky.”
“That’s what she … he said?” said Raedren.
“I have no idea!” said Mazik cheerfully, “but I did take the initiative of gathering all generally obtainable information and confirming what I could.” Mazik pulled a much-folded piece of paper out of his pocket and restored it to full size. He cleared his throat. “Here’s what I’ve got:
“Number one: They kidnap people at night.
“Number two: All sightings have described them as wearing black robes.
“Number three: The number of kidnappers varies from one to four.
“Number four: They target non-casters, usually in groups of two or less.
“Number five: Everyone assumes they’re casters.
“Number six: Only one group has fought them, to the best of anyone’s knowledge. A couple of coppers, who did not come out looking so hot. All injuries suffered were from blunt trauma, and the coppers in question weren’t casters.
“That’s it,” said Mazik. He folded the piece of paper and clasped his hands together. “That’s all I’ve got. Questions? Comments? Concerns? Dirty jokes?”
“That’s not a whole lot of information to go on,” said Gavi. “Did you find anything about how powerful they are?”
“Not a thing,” said Mazik. “The only other person to see them and get away was a young boy, and he was smart enough to run as soon as he came across them.”
“How about any spells they used?” asked Gavi.
“Nope. Apparently they didn’t cast in front of ’em,” said Mazik.
“If they’re div or arcs?”
“I could guess for you,” offered Mazik.
“Why they’re doing this?”
“They haven’t been real talkative on the matter.”
“Whether the victims are still alive?”
“I’d like to know that myself.”
“Ideas on where they’re keeping them?” said Gavi, her voice pained.
“Now you’re just reaching,” said Mazik.
Gavi looked exasperated. “Do you even know where all the kidnappings have taken place, so we can try to narrow down where they’re operating?”
“Well, I know where a few of them were, but not all of them. The city guard have been kind of tight-lipped on the whole situation,” said Mazik.
Gavi hung her head. Mazik chuckled and ruffled her hair.
“Don’t worry, Gavs. I may not have much information right now, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have a plan to get it,” said Mazik, his voice all smiles.