Abridged History of the 10th Age
The glint of morning sunlight shined through the window, straight to the sleeping man’s eyes. It did so every darn morning, and every darn morning he promised himself that today he would move his bed, but he never remembered to do that.
Cursing and grumbling, the man got up from the so-called bed of his. He had himself some breakfast, which consisted of salted pork and cheese, before dressing up and heading outside, still muttering. It was an early morning in the big city, some had woken up and were dealing with their things on the streets, a dog barked somewhere. The man casually sidestepped a puddle of water and piss someone had tossed there from the window only moments ago. As he walked, the all-too-familiar smell reached his nostrils: the smell of trash and junk and refuse, of things people didn’t need anymore, things they wouldn’t stand anymore, or things that smelled too much for them to keep around.
He had a job to do. It was not a pleasant job, one he had wasted much of his life for, but someone had to do it. Watching over the endless dumps of the city required men of vigilance, those that knew their duty and could not stray from it for a second, lest the heaps of trash would grow two massive feet under them and walk away. Or, at least that’s how he had rationalized it for himself as a young boy: he was paid for doing it, anyway, so who really cared about the details?
The stench greeted him, hugging him like an old friend. He did not pay any attention to it anymore, nor did he care about the screeches of the gulls and vultures looking for a snack, having long since gotten used to them both. He simply relieved the guard before of his duty, taking his place as the ever-watchful hawk of the dump… Oh gods why didn’t he become an adventurer like his uncle? Oh that’s right, his uncle had died before he was born. But at least he didn’t need to go through with this, did h-
There was a loud clatter somewhere up high. He groaned, and picked up his pitchfork, prepared to drive away the intruder that so insidiously dared to try and steal from the junk… He really hated this job. But at least his legs would no longer sink knee-deep in shit, as they had when he was young, as he had long since learned to avoid such pitfalls.
He reached the top, finding a familiar face there. “Oi, Six-Fings!”
Six-Fings was no man at all. He was a mess of fur and scale, barely two feet in height, with the face of a dog, big black eyes, and two horns in his head. A young kobold he was, just a pup at this point, with that certain sense of cuteness all puppies had in them, albeit somewhat diminished by the horns and scales and other stuff. He had the distinctive mark of six fingers in his left hand: hence “Six-Fings”, the nickname trash workers around here had given him. “I have a name, you know,” he responded, although the human had never really bothered to learn it.
“I don’t care of yer names! Out! Out!” He swung his pitchfork at the yapping little bugger, who simply dodged it and bolted. “I’ll be back!” And that was true: he always did. Although, if the man had known that this time he would not, he really wouldn’t have cared.
A piece of string, an eyepatch, and a halfway burned candle.
Six-Fing- I mean Ubik sat on an empty crate and examined his loot. It was not the worst the pup had ever gained. The candle had probably been tossed away by some noble who could afford fresh ones, and might still find some use. The string was two feet long and in a decent shape if he, or anyone else for that matter, might need some tying down or keeping two things together, at least temporarily. The eyepatch he immediately donned, because he was still a child and had not yet lost that childish sense of fun.
And if that was not enough, he was sitting on a perfectly passable wooden crate. Or, from another point of view, a pile of boards and nails that could be used in anything else. Sky was the limit, provided one had the imagination to back it up, and Ubik thought he just might have.
He was a clever boy, capable of seeing some value in things others considered nothing but refuse and trash. With an eye for details, a (relatively) charming smile, and a bit of luck, he could perhaps find some people who would not only be willing to trade his stuff for anything, but desperately needed them, for those were willing to pay more than his goods were technically worth. A honest trader with a shop full of merchandise would let the customer come to him, but a kobold with a few pieces of junk would need to actively go looking for them, find someone who sought what he had, and sell it to them.
“Oh, no, what an accident!”, he spoke to thin air, pretending to be a local altar boy. “The sermon begins in three minutes, we are missing exactly one candle, and our fickle and evil god will be angry and punish us if everything is not…” An exaggerated gasp. “Why, is that little kobold carrying a candle with him? What an arbitrary coincidence! I must have it for myself, no matter the cost…!” He snickered. It was this kind of an opportunity that he was looking for.
Fortune favoureth the (ko)bold! He tied up the piece of string around his sixth finger, dropped the candle in his pocket, and picked up the crate. He might require to find some pliers to get those nails out…
Years in the future, but not many…
As the morning sun rises up from the sea, litting up the city of Blackport, an ox-cart is seen fleeing the city, or possibly the sun, or maybe both. It bounces as it hits some rocks on the road, its gargo clattering – and some of it cursing. The kobold that it was carrying was holding his injured side, trying his best to stop it from bleeding. Things had not gone well at all in there, Ubik thought.
Why had he taken that accursed deal? He had long since decided he would not steal from people: that only brings trouble for him! Only trash, he had decided, only stuff other people didn’t need, but nooo, he just had to go and get himself in some deep pile of… Was he fooled by how this man apparently knew him? Maybe he thought that the guy would know his talents, and consider it an easy job for him, and as such find him and ask him to try? How did he know him, anyway? That was weird…
He had many questions, but to be honest, he wasn’t all that interested in hearing answers. All he wanted right now was to get out as fast as he could.
How powerful was this man? Clearly he was rich and probably had some connections in his home town, but that’s all Ubik knew. He had even forgotten what his name was. But what he did know was that he had maimed the man’s fingers, and get him stabbed by his own bodyguard: were he still alive, he would be very angry. He would want to catch the kobold and bring him back to him – and this time he would not settle for his hands, either.
He had learned some important lessons, reinforced his opinion about leaving burglaring to burglars, and made a powerful enemy. For these, he had paid with his blood, his pride, and a mousetrap that had cost him three copper pieces. He considered this affair one of the very rare times someone had gotten the better of him in a deal, so to say.
He did not stop until nightfall, and even then he would only allow himself a few hours of rest. During those few hours, he saw dreams about flying: soaring above the clouds, the whole world below him – both figuratively and literally – laughing in a deep, booming voice that sounded so different from his normal pathetic whining. When he grew tired, he would glide on his massive wings, slowly circling around and losing altitude, until he found a massive cave in the mountainside, flew inside beautifully and gracefully… and finally, deep beneath the mountain, he landed on a massive, glittering pile of gold.
And when intruders came in to seek that treasure – small, insignificant bugs that could never hope to even annoy such a magnificent being – he burned them. The very flames of hell would be second to the magnificent inferno unleashed from between his lips, the death-cries of those that hoped to slay him cut in the middle as they fried… their burning bodies smelled sweet in his nostrils…
Ubik woke up with a start. He was not spewing fire, he was lying on a pile of trash instead of treasure, and he probably couldn’t fly either. But the scent remained: wind was bringing the delicious smell of cooked meat to him, bringing his tongue to his lips and inciting a grumble from his stomach. He was hungry: he had his rations, certainly, but they were bland and flavourless and could never hope to match the hot, juicy, tasty pork!
He bugged his ox on the move, followed the smell, quickly located the small stone hut it was coming from, and considered the options he had. Certainly he could try and steal it… he dismissed this thought almost as quickly as it had entered his mind. Stealing, or the attempt of such anyway, is what had gotten him to this mess in the first place. A family of peasants would not have the resources to drive him down, perhaps, but it was the principle of things: if he was to stay out of trouble, he could not restrict this vow to nobles and kings alone, those that could bring him back for consenquences. He would have to stick into it at all times.
Besides, he was decent enough of a person to feel bad about the thought. These were just peasants, after all, and they didn’t have much to enjoy in life. He wouldn’t like it if his wagon was stolen, either, now would he?
No, he would be fair about it, go and ask them for a bite. He didn’t consider his chances of success very high: if he were denied breakfast, then he would eat his stupid rations, or perhaps try and hunt down something by himself. He left his wagon there and approached the hut…
(Charisma check! If success…) [ Lucky for him, the people living in this house were pleasant enough of a bunch. He was a hungry, tired, and injured, a poor soul down on his luck. Maybe it was because they were worshipers of Heimir, or perhaps Eleia? They never much mentioned about their deity… or maybe it was just because their children thought he was cute, for some weird reason. Kids can be weird. However why, he was allowed a place to stay for breakfast, provided he would be nice and polite and help washing the dishes.
He spent a couple hours in the house, enjoying their hospitality, and the good food. In retrospect, he thought, it was far too long, but what can you do? It was comfy. Nonetheless, soon the time came to continue, and so he bid them farewell, returned to his wagon, and went on his way. ]
(If failure…) [ Unfortunately for him, and his stomach, there was not enough food to spare for a hungry kobold, not even with his best puppy dog eyes. The owner of the house was rather hostile to him to begin with, and when he did not cease and leave immediately, he received a painful kick right on his injured side. He gave a pathetic squeal and thought it would be the best to leave, before they started throwing rocks at him. They were not the slightest bit afraid that he was armed, and did not consider that he could take them all in a fight, nor that he didn’t really want to do that.
“Saatanan juntit… perkele…” He was holding his side and muttering curses in Elvish (it was a good language for curses, he had found years ago), as he returned to his cart. Soon enough it was back on the main road and moving at a decent pace. In the meantime, he dug up one of his rations, opened it, and bit into it hungrily, its taste quite bitter in his mouth after the smell of meat and the kick on his flank. ]
On the way, his thoughts turned once more to the man he had offended, how powerful he was and how likely it was that this would come back and bite him in the tail one day. At first he considered that there would be a hunt of all his kind around the city, but then, in a mix of both relief and a newfound worry, he realized that he had one way to distinguish himself from the others of his kind. His sixth finger had been doubtlessly seen by the noble, and although it probably ensured there would be no innocent kobold lives lost (unless some of them happened to have a sixth finger too), it also meant that he was immediately recognizable to anyone looking for him for this crime.
The nickname Six-Fings, he decided, would be the first to go.
His knife caught his eye for a moment, and just for a little while he actually considered cutting it off entirely. He had heard a story of a man with six fingers, who had killed another man, only to have the victim’s son track down and kill him because of his extra finger: he would not like that to happen to him. Certainly it would provide him perfect cover: his opponent was looking for a kobold with six fingers in one hand, most likely completely ignoring any that had just the normal five. Furthermore, it would make him all the more indistinguishable, which would help him all the more in his later adventures.
On the other hand, it would bleed a lot and quite possibly catch some horrible disease, which might very well result in his death entirely. And he had heard rumours of powerful magics worked with the body parts of the victims, from far far away: what if a wizard got hold of it? If a tooth or a fingernail could disintegrate him from the other side of the world, what could an entire finger do?
And besides, it’d hurt like shit.
He did not think about it for long. Sure, it might have had its benefits, but he didn’t really have the guts to go through with it anyway. He did not like pain: pain hurt. Perhaps, if the man he had angered turned out to be really, really powerful, and spiteful, he might consider cutting the buggery thing off. It would not be worth his life to spare. But he would not wish to be too hasty with potentially killing himself, and as such, he finally put the dagger back on his belt, and continued on his way.
It took him five more days to fully heal from his injuries. And he was still aching a lot in his side and his legs. By that time, he was about to reach the border of Claucan, hoping against hope that he would be left at least relatively alone here, allowed to build his hoard – hoard? – in more or less peace. One day, he might wish to settle down and open a business, hire some people to help him, leave his pile of gold into the basement and sleep on it – wait what? He knocked his head a little: he was acting weird.
He had an ox, a straw hat, and a wagon full of junk. Hopefully it was at least enough to keep him alive. He might need to buy some gloves and try to hide his extra finger, though.
‘Twas dead of night, but not particularly dark. The moon shined full, the countless stars shimmered beautifully, on the perfect, cloudless night sky. ‘Twas not the night of thieves or assassins, perhaps, but true professionals would not be hampered by weather and the moon. Ubik, who was no professional and didn’t much toy with the idea of ever being one either, set off from his hiding place in the bushes, towards the bigger lights on the ground.
Mercenary campfires littered the earth as far as the eye could see, and it could see quite far from top of the hill where the kobold now stood. His task was to avoid them, and the countless eyes and ears of all the people huddled around them, but it did not stop him from admiring the beauty of such night. Silently, and swiftly, he crept behind the nearest tent, to the embracing shadows, and carefully peeked the camp from behind it, searching for shadows he could use and waiting until the road was clear.
He heard snoring. That was a good sign: people didn’t really pay attention to their surroundings when they slept. A gnoll in the nearest campfire was clearly the source of it, having pulled his legs close and holding his head against his knees, his distinctive doggish snoring giving him away all the clearer. There were three others, of various races, two of them talking silently in Haktish while eating, while the third simply sat, lazily chewing on his meat. Most importantly, the fire cast many shadows, and none of the men were looking to his direction.
Ubik thought of himself rather good with stealth. At the very least, when compared to most other mercenaries, who were positively loud even when they tried to remain silent. At least he could go outside to find a midnight snack without waking up half the camp while he did so. Or creep around the place without people seeing when he tried a bit… there was this one guy who he thought had seen him, for a moment, glimpsed straight to him, but it passed: the man simply returned to his porridge, talking with his friend.
On a few occasions he had to hide from the actual guards, mobile, checking around the places others couldn’t see from their campfires. There were other times when someone had suddenly looked, and he had to remain perfectly still in the shadows so that he would not be detected. Mostly, though, things went just fine.
He could see his target now. It was, at first glance, just another tent, not unlike any others around here, but there was some more room around it and a couple guards right outside. He was only a few tents away from it now. On the other hand, he had only moved a few tents from his starting point, but he had always thought that positive thinking was the key. He had his dagger: still on his belt, he made sure about it, fiddling with it a little. He was rather excited. Now he just-
“Gah!” He jumped and turned around, to look back at the guard that had seen him. Three of them were looking straight at him. But he did not have the time to really comprehend what had happened, before yet another voice came, straight from where he had watched only a second ago: “Ubik!”
“AUGH!” Once again Ubik jumped, and turned straight back, where a new person had just appeared. He had not been there a moment ago. Tall, thin man, in dark clothing, pointy ears, looking at him sternly. Could not be mistaken of him. “He näkivät sinut,” he spoke at his own language. The kobold rubbed the back of his head.
“Sorry, mas-” Saiph raised an eyebrow. Ubik swallowed what he was going to say and tried again: ”...Pahoitteluni, mestari.” The elf would always make him speak in Ävedik, assumedly for practice: always a good thing to know some extra languages, he said.
“Et keskittynyt tehtävään,” the other scolded.
“En, mestari.” The pup wasn’t particularly good with the language, having a heavy accent and limited knowledge of words, but practice made perfect, as they said.
“Älä anna ajatustesi harhailla!”
“Tositilanteessa olisit nyt kuollut.”
”...Ehkä, mestari,” Ubik dared.
“Ehkä?” An eyebrow.
He hesitated, then nodded. “Ehkä.”
Saiph looked behind him for a moment, looking thoughtful… then nodded, and walked away, towards from which way the kobold had sneaked in here. Ubik followed.
Even as they walked, even as he observed, listened, the kobold could not hear a single step elf made. The taller man was completely silent. He didn’t do that on purpose, the pup knew, all that sneaking: it had just become a habit for him. He had done it a long time, and he was very, very good at it. It almost felt like the other was working hard to keep himself visible at all, lest he would vanish from everybody’s sight into some realms of shadows. He gave Ubik some standards to reach upon, even if the kobold didn’t particularly care about the career of an assassin.
He stopped in front of one of the camp: “You there!” Ubik could sympathise as the guards gasped and jumped and looked at him. “Man, don’t scare us like that!”
“I do aporogise,” the elf responded. His Varan was heavily accented, but perfectly understandable. “It is a habit. Now…” He nodded towards the kobold. “You saw him!”
Ubik realized that the guard was the same that he had thought, just thought, to have glimpsed him once. The man shook his head, hesitating a little. “No, I didn’t. I don’t know what you’re tal-”
A hand was lifted, stopping the mercenary in the middle of his sentence. “Do not rie to me. You saw him.”
“But…” He stopped for a second, then relented, sighing. “Aren’t you being a bit harsh on the poor kid? He was really doing just fine!”
“Do not patronize him! Real guards do not. Real guards wourd have had him kirred!” Ubik would have to agree with the elf on this one. It never did feel particularly nice that the opponent was going easy on him. He was trying to learn here, after all. He was supposed to kill someone… well, pretend killing someone. He would have liked it if people took him seriously.
Saiph had essentially taught him how to kill. He had killed before that, once or twice, mostly on self-defense. The first he had killed was a drunk, trying to pick a fight: he hadn’t particularly tried to kill the man, it had just happened. Often it did just happen. But it was Saiph who had taught him to make the difference: if he tried to kill, it would not “just happen”, and if he didn’t try to kill, nobody would die. And since he had a pretty good start with the kobold there, the elf had gone ahead and taught him how to kill without the other one ever seeing it coming.
And then, just to finish off, he had taught him how to not kill. There were a couple moments during this task when Ubik could have sneaked behind someone and kill him. Or at least say: “Stab, you’re dead,” and then the other guy would have to lie down on the ground and play dead, and let him go on his way. Saiph, however, penalized heavily on this kind of behavior. The pup had liked this lesson, because he did not particularly enjoy killing.
The elf’s reason to do so was simply, as he told him, Ylpeys. That was an Ävedik word and meant essentially “pride”. True professionals would only kill those that they were paid to kill: only thugs would slaughter everything in the path between them and their target, but no collateral damage looked much better on the resume. When the kobold had said he would not like to kill at all, Saiph had smiled at him and told that sometimes it was necessary, even if he did not do it for living.
He berated the poor guard for some more, before turning back to Ubik. “Ensi kerralla menee paremmin,” he said.
“Mennään.” He turned again and began to walk outside. Ubik followed: even if he tried to be silent, he felt incredibly loud, every snap of a twig exaggerating itself to a falling tree in his ears. Compared to the total silence of the elf in front of him, it might as well have been.
Years in the future, but not many…
As the sun peeked up from the east, it saw a lone wagon going on the country road. Its owner and driver looked absent-mindedly at the dagger he was holding in his right hand, that had just been about to cut down one of his extra fingers, for reasons he would rather not reminisce upon. Seeing the dagger, however, combined with his recent wounds and mild delirium, had evoked other memories.
Thanks to the influence of the ogre-king, or whatever, available work for mercenaries had reduced drastically, and the kobold had decided to go on his separate way and strike on his own. The dagger was a memento of those times – of course, his spear and crossbow had also been acquired at the same time, but only the dagger had been a gift. It was a well-made one, well-balanced: he had protested, more out of habit and the feeling that he should, rather than that he didn’t want it. Saiph had said that he had countless others like it, and that missing one would not hurt. So Ubik had kept it, taken it along with him.
He had not seen the elf since. Or the other mercenaries, for that matter. Sometimes he thought how they were doing, but most of the time, he had other things to worry about. Such as running away from nobles he had accidentally injured…
Morning, again. The sun was rising up to the sky, but it was long late compared to Fluffles the Bunny, who had been up for hours now, searching for breakfast to satiate his hungry stomach with. Usually he would find bugs or other small things, but this time he spied something else, and thought it would be his lucky day: a whole friggin’ carrot, right there in the open! What were the odds? He would eat well this morni-
So went the rope and the branch, respectively, as the trap was sprung. Fluffles went straight up from his feet, from where he was discovered by a hungry kobold: it would be someone else than Fluffles who got a wonderful breakfast – on the rabbit’s own expense, to boot.
Ubik swiftly slaughtered and skinned the rabbit, and added it to his steaming iron pot, to make company with the vegetables, the water, and the old rations he had so plenty of. He loved his pot. It was one of the best bargains he had ever made, for a single silver piece, a pair of pants, and a dirty magazine (humans, yuck).
He was a passable cook. He had had a lot of practice over the years. Thanks to this pot right here. They would not let him in any fancy restaurants, and anything with the word “ration” in it was shit tier, so the only option was often to make his own stuff. Perhaps it had never saved his life, in a sense, but it had let him eat something decent instead of just surviving with crap.
He lifted the spoon from the pot, with some stew and pieces of meat in it, and tasted. He found it good.
He figured most “civilized people” would not eat anything made by him, but ehh, that only left him more.
And suddenly Ubik had a lot to think about.
It had been just a city gate. Just routine. Nothing was supposed to happen. And yet it was on that gate where his life all of sudden, without warning, found a great deal more of excitement. There had been a riot: people were getting impatient for not being let in by some young knightly type, and more oil was added to the flames by this one weird priest standing up on his wagon and making a speech to people, along with some old geezer suddenly going all weird and striking the poor knight.
Long story short, everything went bedlam, everyone – Ubik himself included – rushed inside the city, and the aforementioned old man got himself stabbed to death when he punched the wrong person. The little kobold found himself, somehow, working for a local lord, and looking for some lost books, for a total of three thousand gold pieces! That was a great deal of money, even if there was danger involved and even if he had to share it with some more weirdos who were now hanging out with him.
There was the priest that had played his part in the riot: a dirty, ragged, not particularly priestlike fellow, who nonetheless carried the holy symbol of some luck deity or whatnot. Ubik had offered him one of his “gems” for a bit of money earlier, but even though he thought he had duped the man, he instantly crushed it against some rocks! Either he was far more perceptive than the kobold thought, or otherwise paranoid enough to beat every single jewel he got his hands to, no matter how real they looked to him.
That knight that was guarding the city gate had also joined them. With some armor, a sword (and looking like it wasn’t just for show, either), and somewhat clean and presentable clothing, he was by far the least ragtag scoundrel of them all. He seemed like a pleasant enough a guy, dutiful type, but lacked resolve and self-esteem to some extent. Far as Ubik knew, he was pretty easy to throw around, and didn’t seem to have all that much opinions or feelings himself, only a sense of duty and relative desire to carry it out.
There was an elf, assumedly searching for nothing but knowledge and opportunities to learn. A holy man of some extent, it seemed, quite possibly blessed by elven gods: Ubik had seen him standing straight in the middle of a hail of orc arrows and not take a single hit, or even getting aimed at! A decent guy, and seeming to appreciate the kobold a little, if only because he also knew the elven tongue, he also seemed to have some healing abilities, even if his first patient (or the first Ubik saw) had met his end nonetheless.
That dirty young boy, whom Ubik had at first regarded a simple slave, was one of the best examples he had ever seen of deceiving looks. Despite being quite possibly the most disheveled and harmless looking of them all, possibly an eunuch as well, and not having much of a wit, he had not only survived an arrow to the chest, but also taken two orcs out of commission immediately afterwards with a single spell! He was clearly a powerful man, one who was not to be trifled with: probably just pretending harmless and stupid.
And lastly, there was the… thing. Ubik did not know what it was, had never actually seen it, but he had heard the voice, boisterous and somewhat pretentious. The creature was apparently a decent shot, having killed one of the orcs outright and hunted down two more, piled up the bones into Ubik’s cart for some reason that scared him a bit, and might have had a connection with the old man that went crazy: there’s a mischievous spirit around, and some calm, pacifistic guy nearby starts to froth in mouth and cause trouble all of sudden, that could not be a coincidence.
Despite the appearances, though, all of them were pretty good at whatever they did, having come in handy during the adventure so far. They had investigated an ambush site, from which the books were stolen, and thoroughly destroyed the small band of orcs that had tried to ambush them. One of them was still alive, and they had squeezed it of some information: assumedly his chief was hired by someone to get the books and leave no survivors. He didn’t know much details yet, but 3000 gold pieces (even when divided to those of the party that wanted them) was enough of a money to try.
If he didn’t die first.
The sun had not begun to rise up yet when he was ready to go. He didn’t have all that much to pack, and he had risen up early to do it, so that he could be out before anyone noticed that he was gone. The wagon didn’t have all that much stuff in it. It would have, but it didn’t, not yet: only the bare minimum Ubik owned, his weaponry, his precious iron pot, some shiny rocks someone would mistake for gems. He would see it filled, of course, full of genuinely valuable stuff, instead of just junk.
Since the job openings for mercenaries had gone, they had split up from the rest of the group, to try and seek fortune elsewhere. After some weeks of travelling, they had found their way to the city of Zemm, where they had put up their business. Ubik, however, felt that he had no place there, and had opted on splitting up once more. Without them noticing, preferably. He climbed up on his ox, and took one last look to the city, basking in the very first rays of sunlight.
That’s when he saw him. He had appeared there within the last minute or so, from the time Ubik last looked into that direction, without much noise. Ix was almost as good at appearing suddenly as Saiph was. “You are going, then?”, he asked rhetorically, sounding almost sad. But only almost.
Ubik sighed. “Yes,” he responded. “I’ve got no place here.”
“Hmm,” the older kobold mused. “I suppose you would feel like that… I know I did.”
Ubik could not say he had particularly bad relations with his father. Mostly, though, their relationship was fairly professional, with Ix treating his son as a soldier more than anything. They had talked with each other in a casual manner, even gone fishing once, but such times were few and far between.
“Don’t worry about me: I’ll be fine.”
“I know you will. Good luck.”
Nonetheless, they knew each other close enough that when Ix chose to separate from the rest of the band, taking some other mercenaries along with him, Ubik had followed. Of course, the fact remained that the soldiers coming along were some of the best friends he had learned to know over the years. But once they had ended up at Zemm, and his father had decided to remain here, the younger kobold had found it rather unsatisfying. Ix was a good, shrewd businessman, as well as a mercenary and a rogue, and had taught Ubik much of all that: now he felt like it was the time he would seek his fortune on his own.
Of course, the fact that the other kobold was here as Ubik was taking his leave, meant that he knew him quite well.
“Thanks.” He ushered his ox on the move, and was away. Ix watched him go in silence.
Ix, Saiph, Vega, Amdir, Korkus, El-Nath, and all the others… they had been his friends, even his family, for much of his life. All that considered, he didn’t miss them as much as he thought he would – although perhaps that was because very quickly after leaving, he was cast into the kind of trouble he hadn’t even imagined before. And even after that, there came the Blackport Incident, which had the potential of becoming very unfortunate for him indeed.
Perhaps he would see his friends again. Until then, he had other things in his mind.
Of his travel so far, it was the crossing of Lake Anar that Ubik had liked most.
Until then, his journey had been full of danger and near-death situations, of misery and running away and not profiting of it at all, the very definitely wrong kind of excitement. He had been tense, skitty, and almost paranoid for much of the trip, as well as spending a good portion of it wounded and half-delirious. But the lake was beautiful, too large for him to see the other shore at all, and let him relax and get his mind off things.
He managed to buy his way on a raft – with the last few silver coins he had – which was well because although he could swim just fine, his ox most certainly couldn’t and his wagon didn’t float. Technically, he could have saved his money, along with a couple days of travel, by not taking the side-route this far south, but the kobold really did want to see the lake. After all, what was the point of travelling if he didn’t use it to enjoy himself and have a good time?
It was a pretty lake, after all. Just a morning when he left, certainly, but once the evening came he could watch the sun sink into the endless waters, creating quite a sight for his eyes to see. They were still on the lake when he woke up the next morning, and he decided to waste some time by jumping straight off the raft and taking a swim. Ubik didn’t much enjoy swimming, usually, but there were times like this, when he wished to indulge himself a little, and the lake was pleasantly cool in the summer warmth. As a matter of fact, the raft itself was positively hot, prompting himself to dive into the lake and spend much of his time in.
Wish he could get rid of the sea sickness as easily… (CON check to not throw up!)
The battle was quite over. It had resulted in five dead orcs, one captured, and one wizard getting shot. The orcs were being stripped out of their equipment by one opportunistic kobold.
Ubik painstakingly removed the sweaty, dirty, smelly armor that the body of an orc was wearing. He was quite clever, certainly, and had inherited some business sense from his father, but even then, sometimes he had to admit that some things just might be beyond even him: who would want to buy such a thing as these? The bows and arrows were fine, though, if a little crude, but he had a lot of work to do in cleaning and polishing the sets of armor.
He had tried some armor, himself. Back in the day, when the mercenary company he was tagging along with was still active, Ix had let him try an old set of his. The older kobold did not like to wear armor too much, either, being more comfortable at sneaking around, but he used to wear a set in the battlefield – until he had found the magical bracers from a deceased general, that covered him with a field of… un-hittiness… letting him benefit from the protection without penalizing his agility.
Ubik had come to the same conclusion than his father: even the lighter armor obstructed his movements and made him quite loud, while the heavy stuff wouldn’t let him even try to utilize any of his more furtive abilities. They were hot and uncomfortable, as well as difficult and time-consuming to get in and out of. He had not taken any along, but he had made a mental note on trying to find one of those bracer pairs. Or, if he at least had the luck of acquiring a set of chain shirt that fit for him and was easy to put on, he could utilize it during the more hectic fights, such as this one.
There was a sickening crunch, as flesh was ripped, and an invisible force separated an orc bone from the rest of its body with a spray of blood. Ubik looked at it and shruddered: certainly he had seen his share of blood, but that was just… weird. As he moved his share of loot to his cart, the unseen being took the bones and cleared some room for them in his wagon as well, dropping them on its floor. The kobold had no idea where the spirit needed them for.
Well, at least he had found some orc wine as well. Perhaps he could still use it for cooking, if all else failed… if it wasn’t rotten, too.
Besides his son, ten others had decided to follow Ix when he separated himself from the rest of the mercenary band. Together they founded the shop in Zemm, where Ubik also remained for some time, before the call for adventure had gotten hold of him, and he had left.
Ix never spoke where he was from, besides claiming it was far away, nor did he ever tell of the reasons why he left. He had wandered around, offering his skills as a weaponsmith, eventually becoming a mercenary. A man of many talents, he preferred sneaking behind the enemy lines to slit throats, but could take them from the front as well. Although he could wield polearms (slightly smaller than the standard to fit his frame) and daggers well enough, his most devastating weapon was a weird crossbow, extremely fast, that could be loaded with a case of bolts at once and could shoot down six men before they reached close enough to do anything about it.
His father had taught Ubik much of what he knows now: the basics of looting, how to recognize what was valuable and what was junk, and how to sell it all to people for a high price. Despite his attempts, however, he could never teach his son how to wield one of the repeating crossbows properly: despite looking the same as the regular kind, they were in fact quite different, and more difficult to use than they looked. Still, it wasn’t like he was the only one: out of all the people following Ix, only Vega had learned how to use them.
Vega was the older kobold’s second in command, a human female in her thirties, and quite beautiful – or at least so Ubik assumed, judging from the other humans and similar, and how they would act around her: he himself didn’t know what kind of a human was considered beautiful, and as such had no idea whether she truly was. She was an old friend of Ix, from the time even before they became mercenaries, and an accomplished information broker. Within a week of their setting in, she knew mostly everything that was going on in Zemm – and through her, so did the rest of them. From her, Ubik had learned how to listen, I mean really listen, and hear things of great value that one could use later.
Saiph was there as well, the elven assassin that moved perpetually so silently that none could hear him, and often spoke to people from their behind, apologising afterwards when they would invariably feel offended about this: it was a habit and he could never help any of it. He vanished often like the wind, nobody (except maybe Ix) knowing where he went, only to reappear some days later like nothing had happened. He had taught Ubik some of how to move silently and hide in the shadows: Ubik had not been a very good student, he felt, perhaps because of the extremely high standards he set for himself because of the assassin’s own skill. Besides that, Saiph was also a passable cook, and taught some elven recipes for the kobold as well.
Korkus was a hobgoblin, from the Goblin Kingdoms, that had allegedly held some high position in their cities back in the day. He had been usurped since, driven to exile, and had ended up a mercenary, eventually going with Ix. Despite his crude looks, he was a very learned man, having spent much of his time teaching himself to read and write several languages – which was good, because neither Ix nor Ubik, clever as they otherwise might have been, couldn’t read shit. Although Ubik, as his father, had thought that learning to read and write was waste of time, he could learn many different languages from the hobgoblin, along with the ability to forge documents (despite not knowing what they said) and make shiny rocks look like diamonds.
El-Nath, an older half-elven gentleman, served as Ix’s bodyguard. He was the only one in the gang who would rather concentrate upon direct combat than stealth and cutting throats or purses, and besides maybe Ix himself, was also the only one with suitable skills to do so. He had served his time as a soldier when he was young, and besides spending some time retired with a family, joined the mercenaries after they were taken by the plague. He was the one who had really taught to Ubik how to fight, and how to wear armor properly if he ever desired to do so, although he hadn’t so far. He also found El-Nath’s preferred weapon, the scimitar, far too big and clunky for his use.
Amdir was a human merchant, joining the mercenaries after failed business in his faraway homeland: he never told them anything about it, but his way to flee thousands of miles away after that implied, at the very least, vast unpaid debts. He was a careful man, even paranoid, who never spent much time without looking behind him and suspecting people. Nonetheless, he really was a good salesman, and taught both Ix and Ubik much of that, along with further bolstering the younger kobold’s cooking skills and repertoire of recipes. He was the one serving the food, unless Saiph fancied something elvish, and accepted Ubik as his helper in the kitchen.
The twins, Rune and Ivar, were a pair of human thugs, young and ferocious. They had pledged their services to Saiph, years back, after the elf had saved one of them from a ruffian band. Despite following Saiph first and Ix second, they were incredibly loyal for him as well, and often served as the runners and spies of their little establishment, being swift and agile. Ivar was a trapper, and had taught Ubik his craft, about not only finding and removing them, but also setting them, how to make big ones, or improvise the smaller ones under duress. Rune was a climber, a mountaineer even (while Ivar couldn’t stand heights), and despite the kobold’s smaller size hampering him, he picked it up well enough himself, although perhaps never well enough to scale mountains.
Geri, an old dwarven locksmith, had lived in and practiced his trade in White Harbor, until a noble had torn him down and destroyed his economy after one of his locks had failed to keep out a pair of very tenacious thieves. The poor dwarf had wandered for a while, begging for his food, before finally meeting and going with the mercenaries. Besides knowing how to craft locks, he was equally good with dismantling and bypassing them, and had taught Ubik the basics of the latter before Ix found out and forbid him of it: the older kobold’s firm opinion, that had eventually stuck to his son (after some misadventures in Blackport you already know of), was that picking locks and sneaking in other people’s houses, only brought in trouble.
Kin was an old human slave, having spent his days with Korkus and his family, cleaning, doing dishes, cooking, and handling the other menial tasks. When Korkus was driven to exile, many of his warriors and slaves had been murdered as well, and Kin had fled into the night. He had lost his master, but survived until finding the others and joining them: after some weeks with the mercenaries he was finally reunited with Korkus, and the old master-slave relationship was re-established out of habit. Even today he was the one that did the dishes and everybody’s laundry, and nobody complained, although he was a good enough of a warrior and a rogue as well to be used in a pinch. He was also the only one in the gang who could ever swim, and passed that skill to Ubik.
Last, but not least, there was Mirak, the young half-elven pickpocket, who had jumped on Ix one night in a city, promptly getting her ass handed to her. The kobold had spared her life, and she had gone with him as a result, out of many reasons neither Ix nor Ubik couldn’t quite understand. An orphanage runaway, cheerful and annoying, she made herself useful with her skills of ropes and disguise: although Ix was incapable of learning the latter, in part due to him being a kobold (that all looked the same to humans anyway) but mostly thanks to his very distinctive sixth finger, he had learned the former well enough. If he asked her where SHE learned them, she always just smiled and changed subject.
He lay in the bottom of his wagon, eyes closed. All of these people had taught him something or other, most of which had proven themselves useful already, and he did miss them. He wondered if they were okay.
In the eons past, when the world was brand new, unspoiled, the dragons had come – or had they always been there? Ubik wasn’t sure, but he knew they were the first of them all… it would only fit to their might and grace to be the very first as well. They were grand, magnificent, perfect things… and when the other, lower races came, the dragons looked at them with contempt and disgust. They were the first, the mightiest, and these other… things… were nothing to them.
They had ruled the earths, the skies, the waters, as they saw fit, and none could oppose or contradict them, for they were mighty and just and right. And because they could not trust such lowly beings to carry out their will, nor were they themselves lowly enough to reduce themselves doing such deed personally, they created a new race out of their blood: the kobolds, such as Ubik was, came to, and served the dragons, obeyed them, carried out their orders.
And the dragons would rule the world, as its rightful master race, and all was well.
So… why had they left? Where had they gone? What had forced them to leave this world, their own kingdom, and never return? What had forced them to abandon it, and their loyal servants, to fend off without them? Why had they not come back?
Ubik had found himself thinking about dragons a lot lately. About what they really were, where they had come from, where and why they had gone… He wasn’t sure why he did this, subconsciously or not. He had liked dragons a lot ever since he was a kid, of course, read stories about them, worship their ancient deities – but that was all common for more or less all kobolds, and nothing particularly noteworthy.
They came to his dreams as well, though. Often, he would find himself looking down to his own kind, working around in his cave, carrying out his orders, and occasionally bothering him with boring things in his gigantic lair, where he lay down upon a pile of gold and treasure that he himself had gathered. He was their ruler and their master – and not just their, but all the humans hundred miles across, who would come down to visit him from faraway lands, to pay tribute to him and pledge for his advice and aid. He was magnificent.
He never remembered these dreams for long after waking up, commonly forgetting about them within minutes. During those few minutes, though, they puzzled him greatly. He did not know what they meant, or implied.
He had greedily taken the purse full of gold from that old man, that had been tragically stabbed to death by a peasant. Twenty-five pieces he had count, yellow and shiny and round, and he had looked at them with a glimmer in his eye. He had his own treasure now: something real, instead of just junk in his wagon that would only serve as bargaining material for something real, real such as these coins.
He had shrugged off the idea to pile them on the bottom of his cart, then sit on them. It rather confused him.
The ground here was rocky and unstable, as it had been when they first arrived, but Ubik was just fine with that. He was looking for red patches absent-mindedly, thinking about the day and how interesting it had been for him.
They had been forced to sleep outside the night, due to being night and them having an orc. They interrogated it some more in the morning, killed it, then went to the castle for reinforcements, and charged straight up into their camp. Fun times were had, he had shot an orc through the neck and skewered a hobgoblin, and found a vast treasury full of food and drinks, and silver, which was weighing him down a bit now, but no matter. Those mysterious books were discovered as well, or at least two of them, along with the names of the culprits involved in their disappearance.
Flainn had grown some backbone, he had noticed. Ubik had been surprised to see him charge a hobgoblin and his cronies all by himself, and survive even. He did turn out to be a skilled enough of a swordsman, successfully drawing blood of the brown thing and holding his own even against two scimitars. The man was taking his human laws and customs quite seriously, and seemed a decent enough of a sort who was just trying to do his job, and the kobold was forced to admit that he, or anyone else here for that matter, did not make it very easy for him. He did especially have quite a bit of a quarrel with the mage, Mirnos, and Ubik was inclined to take the squire’s side for this one, if only because the wizard was just plain weird and illogical.
He had not seen any new displays of power from Mirnos today, if not for the fact that he cut up some hair, but the knowledge that body parts could be used for dark magic was fairly common anyway. It had squeezed the true information out of the orc in the end, possibly saving all of their lives, and Ubik did not count out the possibility that the mage could use such powers, as well. He had executed the orc immediately, through a loophole in his word, but in reality did not seem to care about the word at all and considered it a lucky coincidence. After what had happened in the orc chieftain’s tent – Ubik had not been there to see it but had heard the details – the kobold had come to the conclusion that the man was quite clearly insane, at the very least in the way of mood swings and sudden changes of mind. Or maybe he just liked to piss on Flainn’s oatmeal for giggles.
If not for Khell, Ubik would have thought the squire and the mage to come to blows in the end, but thankfully the elf was there to break them off with his booming voice and wise words. He did so more than once during the day, and otherwise often seemed like the only one who knew what should be done, the thread holding the whole group together: if he ever died, the kobold thought, there would be infighting that might tear them all apart, or at least hurt somebody. Besides that, he had shown some more impressive magic, mending Mirnos’s wounds in front of everybody’s eyes – and had even charged alongside Flainn, taken a blow of a mace (if a clumsy and weak one) like it did not hurt at all, and pulped the head of one orc almost immediately afterwards, all feats that may or may not have involved more magic.
As for Mirnos’s… friend… Ubik had seen it at the darkest hours of the night, working in his wagon with some femurs. It looked like a small man, even smaller than him, with wings and a red mohawk. The mage had said it was a creature of the barrows, from the far north, and the kobold had no reason to not believe this. Certainly it had proved useful, flying straight through the battle into the chieftain’s camp unseen, taking him out while the others still fought outside. He did seem like a petty little creature, though, taking Ubik’s offhand comment of him being somebody’s servant (as the kobold had thought at the time) as damnable offense, not even accepting his two apologies afterwards, not until the guards started to show up anyhow. He seemed powerful, though, and Ubik had not forgotten what happened with the old man, so he made a mental note of being wary of offending the little fellow.
Felix was a drunk. Ubik did not remember him doing much besides guzzling down the orc wine they had found, playing some dice and letting fate decide things (or so he had heard: he hadn’t actually witnessed any of this), and scribbling down records of everything any of them ever did or said, like it was evidence of some horrifying crimes they didn’t know of.
Life continued on getting increasingly more exciting for him, certainly, and he hoped he could survive everything the world threw at him. At least it was easier with this bunch, all this considered.
“Stay away from my cart!”
For some reason he had hoped it to be dramatic. That he would jump up on the table, just when the lightning struck, and his booming voice would stop everything in the building and turn all heads towards him. Instead, he managed to slurry drunkenly and nearly trip over his cloak as he stood up, there was no lightning or thunder to emphasize anything, and nobody paid any attention to him except his companions, Mirnos, and the merchants.
He was angry, though. He was extremely positive in the opinion that nobody should ever mess with his cart. He allowed other people carry their stuff in it, perhaps, but no way he’d let anyone touch his stuff, sell any of it, give it away, break it, or claim that it belonged to anyone besides the kobold himself. It had brought him to this embarrassing situation, quite pissed, and, as it turned out, for no real reason at all: Mirnos explained to him what he intended to do, and Ubik sat back down, rather embarrassed with himself.
In retrospect, he thought as he sat there and watched Mirnos do his deals, he may have overreacted a little bit. And he was lucky that nobody saw what kind of a thing he really was under his cloak: people around here didn’t seem to like his kind that much – neither commoner nor kobold. He was drunk, as well: that elven stuff had gone straight to his head. But another side of his head said, that was his cart. And nobody else’s. He did not overreact: he simply asserted his authority over it, and none should cross this line if they knew what was good for themselves.
He knocked himself in the head. What was he thinking? He was just a little thing and nobody cared about his cart. He had nothing of value, yet, nothing that would make people come looking for him. Nobody would bug him – unless he made too much noise, just as he was going to, in which case some might turn up not liking his attitude. No, what he needed to do was to lay his head low and not go looking for trouble, just like his pops had taught him.
And what then, said the other small voice inside his head? One day he would have something valuable in his cart, no? His cart would be full of the stuff. Well of course it would, but he could be thinking about it then. Perhaps he could start disguising his truly valuable belongings as worthless junk, just like he would sometimes do in reverse? This way he could still pass under the wind of most people, pose as a poor worthless merchant, even if his wagon was really full of valuables!
But then what about the power and prestige? What about people being jealous? He would have piles of gold, enough to lie upon, and they would be all his, and none could ever take them from him…
Um, yes. Yes they could. He was just a little tunnel-rat.
It was a hot summer day in Zemm: the fighting pits, with no shadows to speak of, and especially to the fighters exerting themselves under the burning sun instead of taking it easy… doubly so. But at least the stands were well shadowed.
The pits were full, as usual. Er, that is to say, the audience was full, while the pits themselves only held two people at a time, sometimes a bit more, sometimes a monster, but usually just two bloodthirsty warriors, armed or unarmed, going at each other’s throats. This is what went for people as entertainment: if you were beaten up and pound to the dust, or got eaten by a monster, it was tragedy, but if you watched it happen to somebody you didn’t know, it was fun. Such was human mind. Some day, perhaps somebody would find a way to show people the other kind of bad things happening, such as accidents and mugging and horrible diseases and messy divource, but until then, the fighting pits were the best place around for some comedy.
This kind of logic could justify the fullness of such pits as Murderous Magic or Whirling Blades, certainly, but the fact that the audience of the Pit of the Spinning Sword was equally crowded, gave evidence that some people did not need blood and innards and horrible injuries to be entertained. Here, most combatants were simply too skilled to die: well-trained warriors and soldiers did battle inside, capable for incredible feats with their swords and other weapons of choice, more than enough to skewer and dice most warriors of other pits – but here, since mostly everybody knew this stuff, they also knew how to defend themselves, resulting in a nice balance and some fine entertainment without people getting mangled too horribly.
The clinks and clatters emanated from the clashing weapons of the two combatants inside were drowned under the cheering crowd: the two warriors parted briefly as the heavy round shield bashed and pushed the opponent away, followed by a swift swing from an axe, which its target dodged deftly. The orc was skilled for his kind – he would have to be to fight here – swinging his battleaxe with speed and skill not often found among his brutish brethren, keeping distance to his opponent. The half-elf, armed with but a scimitar and with his other hand free, had far less reach with his smaller weapon and shorter hands, and was forced to back away from the reach of the other’s axe.
El-Nath circled around his foe, sword held defensively, patiently searching for an opening in the defenses of the orc. There were none, none he could access without getting struck by that axe anyhow: most orcs were not all that concerned about their defense, not enough to learn how to do so effectively at least, but this one had learned. As he prepared for an attack, moving his axe and shield, the half-elf found the opening he was so searching for, only half a second long. As the other attacked, El-Nath dodged the approaching weapon (if only barely), passed his scimitar through the small gap the shield wasn’t protecting, and sunk it deep into the orc’s side, right below his shoulder.
The axe, meanwhile, passed right on front of his hand, very nearly scraping it: if he had been only a microsecond slower, he might only have three limbs now. He was getting old. Meanwhile, his opponent grunted and held his shield, prompting the half-elf to duck down and trip him to the ground, a scimitar on his neck. The orc knew better than to argue or persist from this situation, and promptly surrendered. Breathing deeply, adrenaline flowing out of his systems, El-Nath wiped his sword and waited for his next opponent. He was bored, and he was on a roll: the orc was the third he had defeated in a row, barely without a scratch. Perhaps old enough to slow him down a fraction (although sometimes that fraction was all it took), he was not yet that old as to get tired any more easily than he used to.
He circled around the ring, his sword sheathed, relaxing himself while waiting. Some minutes passed, then he finally saw the gate open, and his fourth opponent marching down the stairs to the pit. This one was small, barely three feet long, covered in dark red scales. His torso was bare, showing a multitude of scars from fights of the past, and his reptilian tail swished behind him. On his muzzle there was a wry smile. He was armed with a polearm, a bardiche, about twice his size.
And El-Nath shruddered, for he knew this little kobold, and he knew he would not be bored anymore. Two words were uttered from his lips, nary a whisper, as he unsheathed his sword and prepared for the fight: “Bloody hell.”
On one corner of the Spinning Sword’s audience, some heads were turned towards a woman that was now entering. She was quite beautiful, dressed in some expensive, intricate, and most of all light clothing, and ignored her admirers, simply walking down the stairs to her private spot. Her two bodyguards, human twins with dark clothes and sullen faces, took their places on both of her sides.
She had a name, of course, and that name was Vega, the pit-master of the Spinning Sword. She was not seen here often, for she had no great interest in witnessing every single battle shown down here, and she had other businesses to take care of – namely, information. It was rare indeed that something was going on in the city that she did not know of: thanks to her network of spies and information brokers, Vega was well aware of mostly everything in Zemm, and with the right price, often quite high, others could perhaps get a piece of that knowledge. Knowledge was power, and even small bits of it, if they were the right bits used by right people in the right ways, could change the ways this city ran – she wasn’t the one who used this power, but she was the one getting paid for it.
As said, she did not have a great deal of desire, nor time, to come and watch the fights, but on occasion, such as this one, there would be the kind of coincidence that she not only had some free time to be wasted, but there was also a potentially interesting battle going on in her pit. One of the warriors was an associate of hers, a skilled combatant that would enter the ring quite often. The other… was her old friend, and, as a matter of fact that most people did not know, her boss. Being as busy as her, he came down here as rarely as she did, although as a fighter rather than a spectator – but when he did, the results tended to be quite spectacular.
As the warriors began to circle each other, Vega leaned forward and smiled. She had rather a good idea of who would win this particular fight, but that certainly did not mean it wouldn’t be interesting to watch.
The kobold moved to the offensive first, his polearm spinning high towards the half-elf, with much more speed than one might expect from such a small weapon. El-Nath blocked it with his scimitar and dodged low, but the bardiche did not stop, waving, spinning, changing course mid-direction, and doing its best to cut its target in half. It was still not moving particularly fast, polearm as it was, but it was moving just in the particular spots where it was doing the most harm to the half-elf, and it was fast enough to always move once more when he thought he had found a sufficient opening for an attack.
Instead, much to his frustration, he was kept well away with his scimitar, lest his opponent would gut him where he stood. He ducked, jumped, and blocked, but he did not manage to attack himself, much to his frustration. There were some narrow openings, perhaps, but he would not dare to use them, for they were just too narrow for his old age: unlike with the orc, with this foe it just wasn’t worth the attempt, the possible gain being far too unlikely when weighed with the risks involved. Due to the nature of the weapon, he would gain the upper hand if he got close, but it was easier said than done.
He had fifty years more age than the kobold did, perhaps, but in reality, not that great part of it was spent in actual battle. He had fought in a lengthy war when he was younger, certainly, and at an older age, having lost his family, he had joined with a band of mercenaries – but there was still a good four decades in between when he had not lifted his blade at all. His opponent, meanwhile, had fought for most of his life, and was faster to learn in the first place: as a result his age, that was to be a source of experience and an advantage, only ended up being more of a liability, the slower reflexes and deteoriating body overruling the increased life experience.
The blade stopped nary an inch from the half-elf’s neck. He had found his opportunity, and blocked the bardiche from its handle – but not with his scimitar. Rather, his hand had reached behind his back and pulled a dagger from the hiding, something he had not used in any battle today and something his opponent would not know of. A mere fraction of a second of a time as it would have taken for the kobold to get his weapon away, El-Nath was already on the move, bringing his blade to bear and locking the weapon in place. He had found his opportunity at last, and swiftly moved too close for the bardiche to hurt him, bringing his dagger towards the opponent’s neck…
...only to be stopped mid-air by an invisible force, and directed just an inch away to safety so as the sharp thing would not hurt anybody. Its owner looked down, where his target had lifted one of his hands higher and swung it away from himself: he never even touched the scimitar physically, it simply moved the way he desired as if he was wearing an invisible shield. What he was in fact wearing was a pair of leathery arm guards, quite innocuous in appearance, but El-Nath knew of their protective magic. Wearing those things would make armor useless, and the battle much more tricky for him.
It had brought him one important advantage, however, in getting rid of the foe’s weapon. The bardiche left his hands and flew some feet away of the combatants, landing with a clatter, and leaving the kobold unarmed, or so it seemed right now at least. The half-elf pressed on, swinging with his sword and occasionally thrusting with the dagger, but his small opponent dodged and ducked and parried with his arm guards, all with relative easy. The larger warrior could only keep his advantage for some seconds, however, before the other found an opening of his own and thrusted forward, throwing a punch at the other’s stomach.
El-Nath grunted and bowed down: the fist had more power behind it that one might expect from such a small, fragile-looking thing. He managed to keep the balance despite the other trying to push him down: they had ended up near the walls of the pit, and his opponent took advantage of it by balancing between it and the half-elf, who soon found himself with face full of angry tunnel rat full of fangs and claws. “Augh!” He received several painful scratches, but managed to protect himself with his hands and shove the other away before he lost an eye or ear. The kobold landed deftly on four limbs and immediately rushed back to keep up the attack.
Scimitar slashed towards him, but he blocked it and sent it away with his arm guard, feinting on getting upwards again, but instead going down and trying to trip the half-elf, who fell for it and lost his footing. He went down face-first, losing his dagger, but quickly turned back up and swung his blade once more towards the kobold, who dodged it easily, landed on his chest, and put his own dagger on his neck.
“Do I win?”, Ix asked. El-Nath instantly dropped his sword and raised his hands up high, and his boss smiled.
“I was not expecting you here today, ser,” he said, as the two got up from the pit floor. The kobold chivalrously helped the half-elf up, they wiped off some dust from themselves, and flexed their aching muscles. It was true: he had not expected it, nor had he really wanted it much either, and considered himself lucky to be still relatively unharmed.
“Well, I found myself some free time, and thought I would come down for a bit of a spar.” The true master of the Spinning Sword tossed the dagger back down for El-Nath, retrieved his polearm, and began to walk away from the arena. The crowd was still cheering at the unexpected performance of the little man: most spectators had not seen him there, so rarely he would come down and fight, but some of them were familiar with his performance, if not with who he really was and what kind of position he held in the underworld of Zemm.
The half-elf knew, of course, and decided that he had gotten enough excitement for the day, leaving the arena as well.
The sun was setting on Zemm, painting the brown city golden and orange for a change. There was still some commotion on the streets, but most had either gone to sleep already or were just going. A horse carriage was hurrying up on the cobblestone road, towards the palace district, flanked by four guards. It did not require any guards to be bothered: the merchant sigil was visible on its side, and nobody would ever try anything with the merchants. Or anyone who could afford such a carriage, for that matter. Haabor was certain of it.
He was quite pleased with himself. The dealings had gone very well, the guild knew none of it, and, if everything went well, this would all be taken care of within a couple days and cleared under the mat, bringing vast profits not hampered with taxes or unnecessary paperwork. Of course, ban Azar might wish to send an assassin or two at him anyway, just to be sure, should he hear even the slightest rumour of his dealings… but he had some days before the word would reach the man, he thought, and those assassins were never enough to reach past his guards, locks, and traps.
Little did he know, as his carriage stopped in front of his palace, that both of those assumptions were very much false indeed.
“Are you sure about all this, then?”, the merchant lord Akiva ban Azar asked.
It was mostly just for the show: there was more than enough hard evidence, documents and such, to tell that yes, indeed, she was sure about all this. He looked upon the woman again, stroking his beard… she had arrived late in the evening, claiming she knew of things that would interest him plenty. Well, from what he had seen of her, or heard about her in the past, she would know many things – as she arrived, two palace guards had heard from her that their wives were cheating on them (with each other!), while the third’s teenage daughter was expecting a child for the fourth – but the knowledge did, as she said, come with a heavy price.
After some consideration, the merchant had decided to pay the price, and indeed, it was much worth it. He snapped his fingers, and a servant brought the woman two bags full of clay coins, and a single small one with gold in it: one of her three servants, an older half-elven man, accepted them. “Now, of course, I need to find a way to deal with this…”, he said out loud. It had the tone of a challenge in it. He looked to this woman, who raised an eyebrow.
“Well, with respect, my lord,” Vega, the pit-master of Spinning Sword, said, “I know a man…”
Night had fallen on the palace district, where there no more movement on the streets: everybody who lived over here had their businesses dealt with by now, and were in their homes like any decent people would. And the rest would, of course, avoid the streets entirely, instead using the rooftops and shadows to their advantage. For those that could see, the merchant lord Haabor’s palace was surrounded: seven people, all in black, well in hidden from the guards and other decent folk. For those that could see VERY well, they might notice yet another, for a total of eight.
From the rooftops, the kitchen door was watched at, as a rogue approached it, with another one flanking them nearby. The watcher was small, with a scaly tail protruding from under his black cloak, a muzzle from under the hood. Ubik was not a particularly experienced in all this, yet, so his job was to watch for guards or other undesirable folk. He intended on doing that well, at least. Besides, he enjoyed climbing: it was so calm up here, solitary, and the view tended to be good, even if this time he had to concentrate on just one place.
On the other side of the house, there was another man, a young human male, in the highest, more or less unreachable building. It was no great mountain, but Rune had much liked climbing it nonetheless, and took vigilant watch at the palace and the guards inside. On the third side, hidden in a small shadowed alley, an old, bearded human male could be seen – except that in reality, it was a half-elven girl named Mirak, who was simply very good at hiding that fact, chuckling silently behind her beard and keeping watch. Lastly, in another alley on the fourth side of the palace, yet another old man could be seen, although this one really was what he looked like. His name was Kin, and he enjoyed the rare times his duty would lead him outside, get some fresh air: shame he had to spend it in a small alley, looking at a single place the whole time.
The underlord had other workers, footpads and cutthroats and thugs, but this was an important job, and he only trusted his core agents to handle it.
The guard outside the kitchen door was gone, bribed for silence (it took a single gold piece and a promise of not killing him). The door itself was still heavy and sturdy, and protected with a complex lock, which was now approached by a dwarf in black, wielding his tools and picks. He observed the lock from close distance for a while, then carefully chose two of his tools, and slowly, accurately, put them inside. Some minutes passed and there was a small click, the door open for them. Geri put his tools back into his pockets, and passed into the shadows, the road for others free.
The other rogue, this one a human, slipped inside unseen: the kitchen was dark and devoid of life – if a few cockroaches didn’t count – just as a lawless intruder might have wished it to be. A general impression of the room established, Ivar looked once more, this time closer… he investigated the door frames, the floor, the ceilings, for more hidden things, and, sure enough, discovered numerous invisible strings and wires that, if stepped on or cut in a wrong way, would instantly let the guards, some of them anyhow, know of intruders. But this man knew how to disarm them, or if he didn’t, figured it out after some seconds, minutes at most.
With the alarms disarmed, he moved on deeper into the building. Here there were more lights, and guards, but also some very expensive and soft carpet, which helped him to move across unheard. He nearly walked into a soft spot of light in the middle of the pathway, discovering a tiny magical rune from a wall: a magical trap, that let guards and other visitors go without hurting them, but set to maim or kill intruders. It took him a moment to take it out of commission, very nearly being seen by a guard in the process. There were further traps along the hallway, all of which he disarmed, before turning back and sneaking through again to the kitchens: the door was shut, but opened for him with four quick knocks, followed by a fifth after a break.
Ubik watched how Geri opened the door again, and Ivar returned outside, when he heard noise from behind him. It was not trying to hide itself much. He turned to look only briefly, to see Ix join him on the rooftop, before turning back to watch the alleyway, his work clear to him. “Hey.”
His father sat next to him, and looked at the alley as well. “Any trouble?”
“Nah… Ivar just showed up, everything would seem to be fine. All traps dealt with. Saiph’s in. I wonder if the guy knows what he does with the last five minutes of his life.”
“I don’t think he knows they’re his last five minutes. That’s the whole point.”
“Mhm…” The two kobolds, father and son, stayed silent for a moment, watching the street. On an occasion, one would glance at the night sky, the moon and the stars, because there were now two people watching the same alley, meaning there was much less of a chance something important would slip through them. It was rather a long silence: many minutes of the merchant lord’s precious time passed by. Eventually, the older kobold spoke:
“So, how’s it been?” Ubik looked at him briefly. The two usually met each other in the way of business, and work, and spoke of such things as well: it wasn’t often that they had time for personal chat. Here they did, however.
“Oh, it’s fine… just fine…” Of course, even if they did have time, there were not many things that they could speak about anyway. Generational differences and such, many would agree. Ix muttered something about how that was good, then the two fell back to silence. Ubik scratched his nose. He presumed, while they waited, that Haabor was long dead by now.
“Met any girls?”, Ix asked, again prompting the younger kobold to look at him, this time quite confused. He wasn’t sure why such a question, where the other had heard it would be a good thing to ask: probably not a another kobold, at the very least. Kobolds did not date much, they just… reproduced. The only reason Ix knew they were related was that the mercenary group has exactly one another kobold the whole time. Ubik muttered something negative to the question: Ix just acknowledged it and went back watching the street.
Thankfully, barely a minute later, the two men in black left the alley and vanished into the shadows. The awkward silence broke, Ix moved on down, and Ubik followed him.
ban Azar received quite a nasty surprise some time later that night, as his bedroom was invaded by two men in black. One of them was tall, thin, and nearly unseen even when he looked straight at him; the other was much smaller, and although himself quite well hidden, perfectly visible when he was discovered. Or perhaps he merely wanted to be seen, and succeeded rather well, while his taller friend had some difficulties with this.
He was informed that the merchant lord Haabor died seven minutes ago, one hour and eighteen minutes after he gave the message for the visiting pit-master Vega. The merchant lord was surprised, but pleased, of the extremely quick work made on him, apparently. “How do I know he’s really-”, he began, but stopped as the taller person took something from his robes and threw it to the bed. It was a signet ring, one that bore the mark of Haabor’s house, warded with protective charms that had gone off with the death of its master.
“You should start hearing news in the morning,” the smaller man said. “Act surprised.”
Akiva ban Azar was surprised, rather angry, and slightly afraid that these men could invade his home so easily, and that they had decided to do so instead of waiting until morning, apparently simply to show him that they could. He paid the smaller man for the deed, just so that the two could leave faster, and decided to bolster up his own defenses so that they couldn’t at least strut in some other time, too, possibly hired by another rival.
He only looked away for a second: as his eye turned back on the men, both were gone.
It was still night, and a man walked through the slums. He was alone, he did not try to hide anything, and he was wearing rich, ornate robes, made of rare red silks, full of gold and jewelry. The soft steps from his expensive shoes went unheard to a normal man. With such audacity, he should have died seven times over, yet he was safe, for no man would dare to attack a wizard. What else did that large book on his belt mean? What else could those scents imply, that torch that burned in blue light, the red eyes glowing from under the black hood?
The wizard Daedolon walked the narrow alleyways of the slums with confidence, a clear destination in his mind. A dog barked somewhere, the clouds covered the sickled moon, and he continued unhindered, no cutthroat suicidal enough to attack him. There were footsteps ahead, though, quite a few… he scoffed. His, shall we say, associates, never quite understood the same rules of subtlety he went with.
Soon enough, in a small alleyway, an interesting meeting was made. On one side, there was the wizard, shining blue under his torch, all alone, mysterious and menacing. On the other, he faced a band of warriors, with polearms and crossbows, mostly human but with some orcs and bugbears, flanking a very much human and very much non-warrior looking person. He was wearing leather under an equally hooded cloak, and approached the wizard, with both of them looking across their shoulders like any conspirators would.
“Do you have it?”, the wizard asked: he was trying to be silent and inconspicuous, but could not help a certain tone of superiority to enter it. The other ignored it, though, instead immediately producing a small tube from under his cloak, handing it over for him. Daedolon took it, opened it, and examined the ancient, dusty scroll within for some time, then nodded and put it back. “And can I expect to have your support in the upcoming… endeavor?”
The other man, Parias, nodded solemnly. “Of course, I do expect your help later on as well.”
“Of course.” The wizard pocketed his scroll, while the other continued: “Time and place?”
“Tomorrow. Pit of Murderous Magic. Noon.” Parias nodded. “Our business has concluded… until then. Let us meet there.” Another nod. Both men turned and walked away.
The night continued on being quiet and peaceful, at least for these two men. The following noon would be when things became exciting.
Pit of Murderous Magic belonged to Mander the Unbound, the feared, ruthless, violent, and extremely powerful underlord of Zemm. Those that fought here were most often captive, slaves, or otherwise unwilling, many of them magic-users themselves: many a gladiator, wizard or not, had entered the ring resigned to their fate, fully prepared to fight and kill their way out, perhaps even confident that they could succeed… only to have terror painted on their face when, utterly unexpected, the underlord himself would step down and slowly destroy them, laughing.
It was indeed a rare day when somebody dared to actually challenge him.
Today, however, such a challenge was made, by the mage Daedolon, one of Mander’s lieutenants. A duel to the death: winner takes all. It had been presented this morn, and the word had spread, bringing in a great deal of observers: normally, this Pit was rather quiet as far as the onlookers went, for wizards were powerful and collateral damage was high, but this time many were willing to take the chance. The crowd cheered as the challenger stood there in the Pit, wearing his robe even under the burning sun… hands in sleeves, golden jewelry and decoration glittering, stoically waiting for his opponent to arrive.
Minutes passed, before the decorative gates of the pit opened, and the reigning champion, the underlord, the Unbound, was announced and stepped into the ring. He was an older man than his challenger, presumably, although it was hard to tell with the other’s hood down: Mander was in his mid-fourties, with a long greying hair and a goatee, some wrinkles on his face, and blue eyes that burned with fire and thunder. His robes were equally decorated, but much more loose, as it might perhaps suit in such heat, although it might not have been quite as stylish as the opponent – but he could afford not to be.
He was smiling. Quite happily, in fact, concerning the situation at hand. Rather more like he was meeting an old friend, instead of going into a deathmatch in his own ring. “Daedolon!”, he exclaimed in a joyous manner, throwing his hands to the sides. “I suppose I should have guessed it would be you! Out of all the people in the city, of my lackeys, the one who would dare to challenge me… I do not know, really, why I thought it was you. Just a hunch.” Daedolon did not respond. “Hm, so I suppose you would have an edge, then? Or think that you have one? Let us see it.”
Still no response. Nothing vocal, at least: the younger, cowled wizard simply took something from his robes: it was a leather tube, from which he produced an old, ragged scroll. It was no longer as dusty as it was when he had been given it, for he had read and studied it a long time the last night and morning. He unwrapped it now, once more, read it again, beginning to chant… the other wizard folded his hands on his chest and waited, curiously. This was Mander’s folly, Daedolon knew: curiousity. He could have destroyed his old lieutenant now, but he did not, for he wished to see what the other intended.
Not that the wait was long: it was a swift spell to cast, one which the wizard managed to accomplish in but a second of chanting, arm-waving. For a common observer, nothing whatsoever happened, except maybe the writings on the scroll disappearing if a watcher could see it well enough from up in their stands. The wizards, however, knew much better. They could feel, smell, the presence of magical energy – or in this case, the lack of it. Mander raised his own hands and waved, chanted, experimentally: nothing happened.
Daedolon would have laughed – he had expected he would – but the older mage was far too relaxed, casual, and it worried him.
“Hmm…”, the other wizard mused. “Antimagic shell? Hm? Not bad of a plan, indeed, you must have paid quite a coin for the scroll? Money well spent: it certainly did disable me handily, but it did the same for you as well, no? Unless…” He looked up, towards the stands. This was mostly for show, since they were too far away and too full to see anything in particular, but he would not be much of a pitmaster if he did not know what was going on around his place. “Crossbows? Dozen men, including your friend Parias, underling of… Samnoch, am I right?”
“What does it matter?” This was the first time Daedolon spoke, as he raised his hand into the air as a sign. “Your reign is over, old man. I’m taking over.” And he brought the hand down.
What had he expected? Certainly, the bolts would have flown, striking the chest of the wizard many times, bringing him down… the crowd would scream, cheer, perhaps laugh… he would be declared winner, made the new underlord and pitmaster, the one that had outwitted the Unbound… and yet, none of that happened. There were no bolts. The crowd was almost silent, muttering. His opponent was still standing there. “What are you talking about?”, he said. “I am not that old. Still quite in shape.” His impassive attitude to all this made it infinitely worse for the younger mage.
“What are you doing!”, Daedolon yelled up to the stands, exasperatedly. “Shoot him!”
“What did you promise them, hmm?”, Mander asked. “Gold? Power? That you would help him overthrow Samnoch, just like he helped you overthrow me? All of them?” He was walking on towards the other, slowly and relaxedly. “Perhaps somebody made them a better offer? Perhaps they came to the conclusion that I might be a better ally against their own underlord…? Oh, dear, dear… it does not seem like they are all that loyal to you after all, no? But now…” He brought his hand behind him. ”...I believe we have a duel to settle.”
Daedolon had just time to turn back to the older mage, when the other’s fist connected right into his face, under the hood, throwing him backwards. Brilliant lights were flaring behind his eyes, the multiverse was waving under his feet, and somebody grabbed his head. “I am just as capable of dealing with a pissant like you by hand!”, he heard, before the knee hit him in the stomach.
Admittedly, Mander was a wizard, quite feeble when it came to physical strength, and as such has not that much power behind his blows. But on the other hand, Daedolon was also a wizard, equally weak at enduring and defending himself, so they did hurt him nonetheless. Bowed in two, holding his belly, he began to regain his sense and rammed straight into his opponent, throwing him off balance and giving him time to get back up and land a punch of his own.
Quite likely, this was the very most bizarre spectacle ever seen down there in that Pit… the spectators kept on observing, relatively amused, how the two wizards, with powers to warp reality, destroy armies, and bind minds in their will, slugged it out with their bare fists. Mander was cackling madly, enjoying every moment of it, while Daedolon roared in fury, taking the opportunity and adapting his plans to fit the new situation… the older wizard took another punch to the face, drawing blood, but managed to grab the other wizard and pull him forward for a counterpunch, which landed successfully. The younger mage brought in force and pushed them both towards the wall, knocking the breath out of his opponent, trying to throw a couple punches in for good measure while the other attempted to claw his face and ram it to the wall as well.
The furious melee kept on going for some minutes, full of extremely inept punches, jabs, grapples, kicks, and ramming, as the two wizards established their superiority in a field neither was at all learned in. It did look amusing, certainly, but none dared to laugh, lest the winner would find out and destroy them afterwards: certainly Mander had such reputation, and anyone who managed to defeat him should be watched out for as well.
It did not look like the older wizard had the upper hand – the fight seemed quite even, in the incompetent sort of way – but he was certainly enjoying it much more. Even if he got a punch at his face, he would laugh at his opponent, claim how he hit like a girl, and then pay him back what was due by punching him in return. Daedolon’s hood had fallen off his head, revealing him to be young and pale, and bleeding from his nose just as his opponent was. He still had fight, and rage, left in him, throwing punches and kicks just as the wizard was. Slowly, but steadily, he was gaining the upper hand, as the other stopped laughing, wheezed, and took all the more punches…
It was not a punch that ended the battle, though. It was a stab. Perhaps Mander only now remembered its existence, although more likely was that he had simply ceased having fun: his foe gasped, gagged, and held the wound on the chest, as the older mage backed away with the now red dagger, letting the other fall down on the ground, blood painting the sand crimson. The winner was breathing hard, looking at the dying man on his feet, giving it a lazy kick. It took minutes for Daedolon to pass away, and as he did, the Antimagic Shell vanished with him: Mander breathed deep, savouring the tingle of arcane energy that flowed back into his body, making him shiver in excitement.
Parias looked down on to the arena, indifferently, as the younger wizard died and the older began to laugh, and as the crowd cheered at him. He wondered if he should have fired the man, after all… either one, really. Both of them had promised the same, and both of them had expected him to fire the other. But if Daedolon was the more powerful one, the one who could better help him in his coup, then why did he have to use such trickery in his battle? Why couldn’t he just take down his master in a straight-up magical duel?
Certainly, the logic was clear. He was still feeling this way, too, still quite happy with his choice, when the victor aimed his hand towards him and his flesh turned to nothingness from around his bones, which quickly followed, leaving naught but a pile of dust and a few bone chips on the floor. The other spectators around him screamed and backed away from the pile. Mander spread his hands and looked into the crowd. “Well? You can shoot me now.”
No crossbows were fired at the Pit that day. The other would-be conspirators were hunted down and executed by Samnoch of Bex before three days had passed of the event.
Beneath the earth, in a small, dark room, there sat a man. Crossed his legs, bowed down, deep in thought, occasionally muttering words his jailers did not hear nor understand. Not that they made much attempt, anyhow: none would try to understand what moved in the mind of a monster. They were quite anxious about today, though, and its consenquences. One way or another, after today, this man would no longer be their headache. This should have made them relieved: instead, they were scared about the prospect.
Gilh was quite oblivious of the surrounding world. He was alone in a cold, silent, quiet cell, but it may have been the middle of a bazaar, full of yelling merchants, with sun burning down on him, and he would not have seen the difference. When he prayed, his full concentration went to his god… he muttered his words, his promises, that today he would leave this place, and bring plague and fire for his lord. Of course, much blood had been shed these last few years, and there would be some more today… but they were of no consenquence for neither him nor his deity, none but faceless men he was to fight. Nothing personal. Nothing of value.
On the outside there was a clank, followed by loud creaking as his door was opened at last, for the last time. He stood up, picked up his staff, and slipped the miniature horned helmet he was holding back into his pocket – it was the best he had, though he would soon wear a real one. Greeting the two men waiting for him politely – who did not return the sentiment – Gilh walked outside and let them lead him through the corridors and passageways of this place. They had come to him very familiar over the years.
And at last, the great doors in front of him opened: sun shone to his eyes, though he did not care, the loud cheers and jeers of the watchers reached his ears, yet not his mind. They had never really bothered him. A brief blessing was muttered, stopped when the guard shoved him out and shut the door. His sandals blew the sand as they hit the ground, though there was no wind to lead them anywhere. There was only the burning sun, the spectators around him, his staff, and the skull which he was to break with it. That skull belonged to an elven warrior, young, armed with a short sword, grinning widely… it was quite clear he did not know of Gilh. Maybe he was new.
The Pit of Public Penance was as full as ever. There was no shortage of people in the city who desired to see somebody get what he deserved, and such was the purpose of this Pit, and down here, many would be given exactly that. It was commonly used as punishment: those who entered were murderers and rapists, the worst of the worst, and none would ever leave. All they could ever do was to prolong the inevitable, destroy everyone sent at them, until they would themselves fall and it would end.
Well, sometimes they did not. On a rare occasion, a sufficiently strong, ruthless, and wily criminal could last for an exceptionally long time, killing all opposition. A whole year, perhaps even two… in the midst of rabble and filth, individuals with enough willpower and desire to live, as well as skills and knowledge to back it up, would come out on top, pound the rest back down, and survive. Five years? That was what everybody was reaching for, the incentive for fighting… for if you survived that long, then you would be considered no longer their headache, and you would be set free. Very, very rare, but it had happened.
And as chance would have it, it was today five years ago when Gilh was brought here. Five years ago, a merchant and his family had died by Gilh’s hand, for personal reasons, and in order to blow the small sparks of discontent and strife into great flames of battle. To him, war WAS personal. With such consenquences, it was a little price to pay to be sent down here: if he died in the Pit, he would have died for a good cause. He had resigned himself for death, and fought only to see how long it would take.
And yet he had not died. Weeks had passed, then months, during which the warrior priest of Tallial had crushed all that would face him in battle. Certainly he was blessed by his deity, and possessed great skill with his weapon of choice, but the extent to which these abilities reached had come to him as a surprise. And as months had turned into years, he had dared to feel hopeful of his predicament, that one day he would be let out, to serve his god once more.
The elf and his blade crouched low, bestially, and approached. Gilh raised his staff to meet the first attack, experimental, parrying it and sending it away. His foe was quite skilled, backing away slightly only to strike back in, once, twice, in a quick succession, both of which the priest blocked. It did dawn on him, as his own counterattack was blocked and sent off harmlessly, that of course they would not wish him to fight any oridinary schmuck on his last day here. His kind of a man should not be allowed to roam free, so of course they would attempt to stop him fairly. Because they, unlike criminals and the like, enjoyed fighting Fair when it suited to them: it made them feel superior to the criminals, justifiably or not.
It was quite a spectacle for the watchers, however, one they did not often see outside the Pit of the Spinning Sword. The priest dodged the warrior’s blade and struck low, aiming to the legs, but the other jumped past and attempted another attack, which he parried. Taking a step back, Gilh jabbed with his staff, which was immediately dodged and followed by another stab of a blade, which missed him barely. Blows were exchanged, and avoided, effectively for minutes, without either side gaining an upper hand… until the elf began to tire out, his constitution not as great as the priest’s.
And as he became weary, so did his defense begin to show holes. The staff struck at him like lightning, too fast to block properly, sending him backwards, his weapon flying, and his arm broken. He tripped to his own feet and was at the ground, instinctively bringing his remaining good arm up to block the staff: it did not help, the first blow smashing it and the second heading beyond, fracturing his skull and bursting blood. The third was not even required, if to finish the job and reduce the suffering. The crowd burst into cheers: he raised his hand, victoriously, panting… smiling.
Hours in the future, but not many… he was standing outside, for the first time in five years, breathing freedom. A boot to the back, a “Stay out of trouble,” and the door was shut behind him. All the world was his oyster again. The day was at its full, bright as the future, and Gilh was feeling pretty good about this, even if down here it was dirty and grimy, gutters full of bile and pissed. He avoided the gutters as he finally began to walk.
He was feeling a bit empty, at first, to be honest. There were so many things to do, so many opportunities, he did not quite know where to begin. He didn’t really know what was going on, what had happened in the past years: the guards had not been all that enthusiastic to share him with news, for some reason. He wasn’t even certain if all his usual joints, places to hear the word, were still there. So many things could happen in five years.
He was heading towards the slums, because that’s where all the news went and excitement happened, unless something had gone wrong. He went straight off the main street, towards the little alleys of the place, shadowed and dark even during the day, as if daring someone, anyone, to attack him. None did, although he had an otherwise interesting encounter with someone that apparently knew his name: “Gilh?” That was interesting: he stopped and turned towards the direction of the noise.
“That is your name, is it not?”
“Do I know you?”
The figure stepped from the shadows. It was an inconspicuous man with leather armor and a black cloak. “No, you do not,” he said. “My name is Parias, and I work for Samnoch of Bex. Have you heard the name?”
And soon, Gilh found himself with a satisfying new job. Tallial was pleased.
It may have been a chilly night for most, but for Daigou, it was positively hot. He had been running for minutes without stopping, slowing down even, or looking back. Through the alleys he went, the well-known little streets of the city, into his own hiding place. He was a short man, thin and lean, with a bit of a beard, rags and tatters for clothing, a knife, and issues. And he was frightened.
It had all happened so quickly. It was a small tavern: it always had fights like this, no? People drink a bit too much, get heated up by alleged insults, that sort of stuff, perfectly common? Right? So there he was, drinking and minding his own business, when this halfling, taken more than half his weight in alcohol probably, had started to pick a fight. He had just defended himself, see, perfectly reasonable! Issues were made, knives pulled, blood spilled… deeds performed that could not be taken back. And discoveries made that made it all infinitely worse.
Daigou didn’t even know who he had killed, exactly. All he knew that the man had had relations.
He did have his own hideouts, though. To the deepest alleys, through a seemingly random door, two floors up… they would have hard time finding him. Now on the roofs, the moon shining at him – much to his displeasure, right now – he kept on running to the edge of the city, occasionally taking a small wooden bridge from one rooftop to another, ladders to one floor higher, door inside, and from there four floors down all the way to the basement.
Some would say he was deliberately taking the long route, in order to throw any hunters off track, but really, it was the only route there was for Daigou. He had chosen his hideout well, and trapped all other possible entrances equally good. This was his one own place: though he lived in a modest manner, he had done his best to make it comfortable. There were cushions and a bed, some books, and the scent of spices he should not have been able to afford. He sat down on his bed, and took out the spoils of battle.
Its size and shape were like a normal dagger, but it was made of black obsidian. Not particularly decorative, and rather fragile: it quite looked like it could shatter on any blow struck. The halfling had not wielded it in battle at all, in fact, for its true purpose was elsewhere. The black glass dagger was a symbol of status, one that told of relations with an underlord, and that the particular underlord would be displeased if the person died. A man would have to be insane, or powerful, have some fraction of relations, to mess with one carrying a black glass dagger. Or at the very least they should not be a worthless scum such as Daigou.
He wasn’t even sure why he had taken the thing along with him. Could they seek him out based on it, through magical means? Perhaps, if they were particularly powerful, such as Mander the Unbound. Could they find him nonetheless, even with more mundane tools? ...Perhaps. Was he in trouble, whether he had taken the dagger or not? Most certainly.
The night was an unpleasant one for him, and he did not sleep much. He was unknown about the minor hubbub along the underworld of Zemm stemmed by the death of a lieutenant of Andren the Scarred – perhaps one of the younger additions of the dark side of the city, one of its less influental powers, but an underlord nonetheless, and certainly displeased.
Whether he was actually looking for a murderer or not, though, Daigou woke up alive and unscathed, to his minor surprise. Today he intended to flee the city: it had been far too late the last night, he had been far too tired, and they probably could not have found him out in that time anyhow. He gathered his belongings, left the dagger there, and took the exit. He would only get some food, a fast horse (stealing one if he had to), then pass the gates towards nearest other city… Gadrada, perhaps? He would have to use the side routes, but…
He was back upstairs, about to head out, when he met the woman, leaning to the wall next to the door. She was young, not particularly curvy, brown haired, wearing a cloak… nothing interesting there. “Daigou? That’s yer name, right?”
“What? Um…” He was still quite wary, with the yesterday and all. He nodded reluctantly.
“Well my name’s Jenn,” she stopped leaning and took a step forwards. “Nice ta meetcha. I hear ye did some ruckus last night, huh?”
Daigou did not answer, so she continued. “Thanks fer taking care of Gant,” Jenn went on casually, “he was a horrible jerk and in the way fer promotion, but I couldn’t do him in myself ‘cuz then the boss would’ve been at my throat.”
She was so very close now… smelled rather nice… but the other did not dare to drop his guard. Jenn smiled, and whispered: “Thanks…”, half-closing her eyes momentarily, only to open them again as she continued swiftly, ”’course, ol’ Andren told me ta get rid of ye, so…”
Black glass daggers were, primarily, status symbols, but as Daigou found out approximitely half a second later, they could be used in the traditional manner just fine, too.
Daytime on Zemm… the sun was shining on a cloudless sky, trying its best to boil the streets and its people, all of whom were wearing decent amounts of robes to cover themselves from it as they hurried on at their duties and businesses. Nobody paid any attention to the cloaked creature, the size of a child, huddled down and looking for something. Looking for anything, really. The little thing had to watch himself lest he would get kicked, but otherwise his concentration was fully at the dirt, where none other ever looked.
Something shone brightly in the ground, as the shadows of other people passed by and let the sun light it up. Ubik scurried over, dodging a pedestrian, and picked up a small stone, dark grey but shining. He grinned and dropped it in his sack, already full of other stones such as that one, along with a couple pieces of glass he had managed to find before. It was quite full now, but then again, he had been out since early morning, filling it up at the streets. Humans just let all their shinies lay down here, without even noticing them! Well, all the better for him.
The merchants in this city were all varying folk. Some sold their wares in small stalls at the bazaar, while others, the more successful ones, had their own stores, with fancy names and display windows. All the more were hidden from the public view: those that were kept by the less respectable people, sometimes not even human, selling stolen merchandise to equally disrespectable folk. While other shops were in full view and their owners did their best to attract customers, this other kind could not be found if you did not know they were there.
Korkus’s place was one of such. Hidden in the slums, behind an inconspicuous door, the hobgoblin kept his store. It was quite dark in the alleyway, even at noon, and the inside of the building was equally dimly lit, with windows covered up, letting in precious little daylight. The air was musty, thanks to the lack of proper ventilation combined with somebody enjoying smoking. The merchandise was varying, including weapons, armor, shelves full of ancient books and scrolls, small boxes filled with strange herbs and dried up things, jars full of ointments, empty jars that were valuable by themselves – and jewelry. Rings, pendants, gems, of all shapes and sizes and prices.
The place was devoid of life, if a couple bugs did not count: shops such as this were not commonly bustling with activity, after all. Some more luck, as far as life went, could be found from a back room, full of bookshelves with more ancient tomes, with a table on it. On the table there was a pile of additional books, one of them opened in front of the person, coloured dark orange, with a pair of glasses on his eyes, that sat there and read. Korkus had enjoyed reading ever since he was a little boy, which had made him somewhat special of his kind.
His concentration was broken as he heard the door open at the side of the shop, tingling the small bell above that would signal the shopkeeper that a potential customer had arrived. He sighed, pushed his chair back, and got up, leaving towards the counter, from which he discovered two hands, one of which had six fingers, and, between them, a pair of glowing red eyes and a smile. “Hey, Korkus,” Ubik said. The hobgoblin just nodded, leaning to the counter from his side, and observing as the kobold produced a sack and lay it on the table with a rattle.
“How much for these?”
Korkus put his hand inside the sack and produced a handful of… rocks. They were shiny, certainly, and the kobold had clearly made some effort in polishing them and trying to make them look presentable, but they would not fool him. Or anyone else, for that matter. He put them back and raised an eyebrow at the seller. “Are you trying to sell me rocks?”
Ubik looked sheepish. “Do they at least look like gems?”
”...Could it be possible to fool somebody using these?”
“Perhaps a half-blind hobo.”
“Right…” The kobold frowned for a moment, but then brightened up again, as his hand vanished for a second and came back with one more item. This one was larger than the rest, black, smooth, and equally shiny. As the hobgoblin picked it up and examined it, he concluded that it might be mistaken for a black onyx gem, under some bad lighting, examined by an amateur. “This one’s a bit better,” he concluded, as he returned the rock for its owner.
“Not good enough?”
“Aww.” Ubik took his stone, and his sack, and put them away. “Well, I’m going to keep practicing!”
“You do that.”
Night was falling to the city, respectable people hurrying to their homes, while the more disrespectable kind came out from their holes to do their own kind of work. The back room of the shop was still occupied, albeit by a different person this time, reading a different book. Well, reading was rather a strong word, considering Ubik.
He spoke five different languages fluently, but learning to read had always been rather troublesome, and too much of effort for little gain. All these different types of symbols, and the ways they interacted with each other, had never opened themselves for him, and they confused him. He could always find someone else to read it all for him anyway. Nonetheless, even if he could not read, he was happy, and enjoyed the book: this one was about dragons, and it had many illustrations of different types and individuals, often with names.
Korkus had read it all for him once, all the stories about different dragons, all their names and titles and deeds. History of their great kingdoms and treasure, speculation of what had happened to them, legacy and influence to the modern world… He had learned of Nijion, the Snow Queen, who had ruled vast (if relatively empty) empires in the northern mountains, keeping a firm grip of the barbarian tribes therein. Sndrimnn of Blood, the beast coloured to match his name, had made his lair in the east, beyond Moon Kingdoms, tearing cities apart unchallenged. The Keeper of Secrets, the ancient golden wyrm, that was said to know everything in this world and the next: when she died, the word went, seven kingdoms worth of knowledge, recorded nowhere, went with her. Mustasurma, the Black Plague of the swamp, the lurker in the depths…
These, and countless other names and tales, had inprinted themselves into Ubik’s mind forever. He often asked Korkus, or anybody else that happened to be around (Kin, Korkus’s servant, was a common victim of this), to read the book for him again, and then he would listen, and dream. Although he did not require any help to the latter, of course, often dreaming about flying and gold and breathing fire.
It was past midnight when Korkus closed the store and went to sleep. On his way there, he caught Ubik in his eyes, at the library: the kobold was snoring loudly, holding the book as his cushion. The hobgoblin shook his head, picked up the book, wiped off some drool from the open page, put it into the shelf, and left the boy there as he himself went to bed.
Not a political person, Ubik left the bickering for his companions, as he himself thought he would be the first at the loot. He had been told where it was, and there he was going, past the tents and bodies – he would loot those later – to the one where the treasure would be found. Curiously, as he got closer, he smelled something in the air: Ubik had an acute sense of smell, which had never saved his life, and likely never would, but it was a nice talent if you worked with food.
As he found the place at last, he gravely regretted he was forced to leave his wagon behind.
The so-called “treasure” was mostly food and booze. Delicious meat everywhere, smelling wonderful, making his stomach grumble and his mouth drool… Ubik wasted no time in tucking in, before investigating the large chest that obviously would hold all the truly valuable stuff: money, at least, as well as likely the two of those books they were here for. He took some food as he examined it, wondering if Flainn’s knightly friends could be persuaded to get all the meat out of here as well.
There had been two chefs back home, both of whom had let him tag along in the kitchen and learn the trade. He enjoyed cooking almost as much as he enjoyed eating, and there was something rewarding in making all that food himself: tasted better, too. He also had found that he rather liked it when other people enjoyed his cooking, which had happened back home the couple times he had been trusted the entire kitchen for himself (whenever both Saiph and Amdir happened to be on duty). Unfortunately, such a thing was not likely to happen here, where kobolds were thought as pests or worse: it would be like letting a rat do the food. Shame, that.
As he studied the one particular chest for traps – the chief had said there would be none, but on the other hand, the other orc had tried to lie them too – Ubik found himself thinking about what he could do with all this food. Most elven recipes he knew would be fairly unfitting for this kind of meat, but there were many a human cuisine that he could try. Of course, he figured that most of the food would go straight to the castle, but perhaps he could save a little bit of it for himself, too.
Ix was in the process of enjoying dinner when, all of sudden for some reason, his thoughts turned to his son.
Ubik was rather like he had been when he was young. An adventurous spirit. Clever, if foolish. Liked dragons – like all kobolds always did – enjoyed learning about them, wished to bring them back to this world or whatever… he had never said anything, actually, but Ix knew: he had tried it himself, in his youth. Grown out of it.
His son had been gone for some months now. Quite probably well away from Zemm already, having his own adventures, making friends… the underlord had no real doubts about the boy. He would do well out there, he figured. So, although he did occasionally wonder what he was up to, he never worried for Ubik.
He was falling…
The sky above was black, without stars. Below, the ruins of a great city were well visible, despite the total lack of illumination… it had been a great city in the past, though he did not know why he thought that. He was falling through the clouds like a meteor… Ubik attempted to spread his wings, but they were heavy for some reason, they would not go. It felt cold: probably the passing wind. He heard echoes of something, too: clashing of swords, screams, battles fought in the ancient past… or distant future? He was not sure.
The great dragon descended through the skies, in an ungraceful and inelegant manner, until it could at last correct itself, spread its wings, and land to the ground on all fours. He shook his head, to try and rid himself of the echoes, as he examined his surroundings. There was a taste of iron in his mouth, a certain sense of wetness, and unexplained chest ache from someplace distant, a dream perhaps… even as he watched, a ruined tower crumbled in the distance, falling to the ground with a rumble and a great cloud of dust.
Did he know this place? Yes. This was Zemm. Ruined, without its people… but Zemm nonetheless. He was in the middle of the palace dictrict, great mighty rich buildings all around him, now in ruins. With this realization, the dragon was on the move once more. He went to the slums: the Pit of Spinning Sword, that was closest. He flew past the streets, up high to dodge the buildings, down again to the pit. It was empty, no warriors fighting within, no observers cheering. Eroded walls crumbled all around Ubik as he forced himself inside the nearby buildings, the office of the pit-master… and found naught. Vega was not here, nor was anyone else.
Off he went again, and soon, the kobold underlord Ix’s hideout, deep underground within the slums, usually so well protected, was breached and invaded by a mighty dragon. He peered inside his father’s office, his bedroom… all empty. He inhaled deep, in frustration, and soon they were in flames as well…
(Ghosts! Evil spirits!)
There were the echoes again… what were they on about? What was going on in here? His mind was blank: he was not sure how he had ended up here, what had happened in the recent past, how this place had gone like this. There was the taste of iron again… no, blood… and he found it hard to breathe for some reason. And then he was elsewhere… at a dark street, aiming his crossbow at a man with a scroll… but not fired. Why had he not fired? He paid dearly for that, when the red ball struck him and searing pain shot throughout his body…
Now he saw flashes of his own life. That was a bad sign. There was his birth, some of his youth, his training with Saiph and all the others, how they had arrived to Zemm, how he had left… the kobold was back in the ruined City of Swords again, but he no longer found the strength to stand. He was sitting down against a wall, and bleeding. Dying?
He was with his friends… what friends? He had only known them, and they him, for a few days. But they had been through quite a bit in those few days, so perhaps they did count? But did they care of him…? He was a long way home. His father did not know where he was. He might never know what happened to him. He might even think he was doing just fine, making a living in the world… Ubik would die, and nobody would care, the only ones that cared of one stupid tunnel rat were long way gone, and would perhaps never even hear of it…
He did not want to die. No. Somebody save him. Anyone.
As the squire, Flainn, tried his best and failed to save the elven Loreseeker, Ubik Six-Fings bled out next to them, and passed away. He did not die peacefully, or with dignity. He certainly did not want to. But who knows, perhaps now he would discover dragons?