By Deverian Valandil
The Rivers are Red
[ 5:00 ]
There was a loud clanging noise as Jena smacked the opponent's dagger away with her mace. The burglar's face was a frustrated sneer, as he was expecting to face a victim who couldn't fight. Jena , however, had been coerced into basic weapons training back when her brother first joined the guild.
As the burglar lunged in again, Jena saw an opening and thrust the mace forward, hitting him in the gut. He dropped his dagger and clutched his belly with one hand, but managed to strike out with the other, catching Jena 's wrist before she could pull out of reach.
Shrieking, she dropped the mace and punched him in the jaw with her free fist, but fell backward while trying to pull away and knocked over the glass equipment from her table. Her attacker angrily shoved the woman to the ground and grabbed his dagger again, poised to finish off his victim.
Suddenly, a large flowerpot smashed against the back of his head, literally soiling his tunic. The knife-wielder twisted around and saw a 10-year-old boy behind him, holding a broken shard of pottery.
“Made the same mistake twice,” Bryn said, shaking his head slightly. Again, his eyes looked toward his aunt; or more precisely, the object in his aunt's hand.
The burglar turned back just as he felt the heavy ball of a steel mace slam him in the groin. The world went blurry as he crumpled, whimpering in a voice that was now four octaves higher.
Jena stood up, brushed the glass shards and dirt from her clothes, and looked disdainfully at the pottery fragment in her nephew's hand. “Now what did I tell you about not breaking my things?” [ 5:06 ]
* * *
“We're going to need at least half a dozen more guards to help with the raid on the tavern.” Atamir mused as they rode back toward the guard barracks.
“I think I know what you're going to say, but it probably wouldn't hurt to bring a few paladins in on this, sir.” Ponn suggested, “With their evil-detection abilities they might be able to distinguish the criminals from the bystanders.”
Atamir laughed bitterly, “They couldn't even spot a murderer among their own Order.”
“Is this about that incident in Nashkel again?”
The Captain gave a solemn nod, “Yes, though Nashkel was only the beginning. Remember that paladin who slew the kidnapper? I did some quiet investigating in the weeks following the news of the children's deaths, and I discovered that he was being paid on bounty to murder the criminal. That blasted knight didn't even give a care for those missing children. It's always about money.”
Ponn spoke up, “But surely his Order wouldn't stand for such a mercenary act?”
“Not exactly. I brought his crime to the attention of the priests at the Temple of Tyr , right here in the city. I expected them to punish him severely; imprisonment or even execution for letting the children die.” The scowl returned to Atamir's face. “Instead, what did they do? They cast him out of the Order, and that was it. They let him walk out their gates a free man.” He snorted, “Servants of justice indeed.”
The Captain started waving his hand around in anger, “Oh, I summoned hell at this, but all those stuffy priests did was shake their heads and say ‘the shame of banishment is punishment enough'. Load of horse dung. The fallen paladin wasn't even repentant. As soon as he stepped out of the building, he gave me this cold, mocking smile. He didn't care that he'd been cast out. He was proud that he'd beaten the system.
“I joined the city guard a few months later; I never wanted to let a murdering bastard like him pass through my city without a taste of real justice.” Atamir patted the sword at his side. [ 5:09 ]
“So was that it? Did you ever bring the fallen paladin to justice?”
The Captain cast his eyes down, “No, I didn't, but I later learned that he had been-”
He halted as a woman came rushing out of one of the houses up the road, waving her arms at them and calling for help. The guards brought their horses to a stop.
“Oh, thank goodness you're here!” the woman called, “A burglar broke into my house and attacked me, but we managed to overpower him. He's tied up in my kitchen right now.”
Atamir glanced over at Ponn, then dismounted, “Show us to him.”
From inside Jena 's house, Bryn peered out the window at the approaching guards, then turned back to the mugger (now sporting several more bruises to the head) who groaned and began to stir. Taking his aunt's mace from the table, the boy cracked the criminal over the head once more, returning the thug to his bludgeon-induced slumber. [ 5:10 ]
* * *
Myrk looked on in silence from across the room as Orwin waved his arms around at several young guild members.
“Check the inner vaults, the armoury, the records hall, and anywhere that might contain something of value.” The guild leader had sweaty beads of anxiety running across his shiny brow, “He must be plotting something. This entire matter with Myrk and Rombis is just a launching point for a coup against me, I just know it…”
Assuming that his audience with the guild leader was at an end, Myrk slinked away as Orwin continued his tirade while barking orders at the other thieves. As soon as Myrk stepped into the hallway, a hand dropped out of the shadows and clamped down on his shoulder, prompting a pitched yelp.
“Quiet, Myrk,” whispered Derrick, “I need you to take me in to see this Flink at the tavern you mentioned.”
“The Silver Spike.”
“How elegantly named. Let's go.”
“I don't know if Orwin would be pleased if-”
“Orwin isn't your concern right now; I am,” snapped Derrick, dragging Myrk toward the exit. “This whole murder-and-smuggling situation is somehow connected between me, Rombis, the diplomats coming to the city, and maybe even the guild itself. I don't plan to go slack and let whoever's behind this start dancing me around like a puppet all day.”
“Uh, where did you get that cloak?”
“The owner was tired, so she let me borrow it.” [ 5:14 ]
* * *
Meanwhile, Orwin was still ranting at nobody in particular, “… and I swear that my superiors will hear about this indiscretion! After six years, he has held- what is it?” One of the guild assassins had just rushed over to him, “Aren't you supposed to be with Rassa's team?”
The assassin pointed in the direction of the armoury, “Sir, someone has attacked Rassa! She didn't meet us down in the sewers, and I found her unconscious in the armoury. I don't-”
“Blast it all! You two,” he pointed at a random pair of thieves, “Check the street entrances, don't let anyone leave!” He went back to the assassin, “Find a healer if her wounds are severe, I need to speak to Rassa immediately.” [ 5:16 ]
* * *
Derrick gave Myrk a shove as he heard the fast approach of footsteps, “Hurry outside and round up a pair of unmarked horses; steal them if you have to. I'll meet you two blocks south of here.”
The younger thief nodded with some uncertainty and rushed down the hall just as another thief set upon Derrick from behind.
“Hold it there, Derrick,” he ordered, grabbing the ex-thief by the shoulder, “Orwin has demanded that you remain within the building.”
“I assure you,” Derrick looked the thief in the face, “I had no intention of leaving…” For a brief instant, he let his eyes dart to the side, as if he was looking at something over his captor's shoulder.
“Then you'll have to come with me.”
Again, Derrick let his eyes focus on the empty air behind the thief, and this time widening his eyes and giving a slight nod at nothing in particular.
“Who are you looking at?” the thief demanded, twisting his head slightly to the side.
Immediately, Derrick hooked his foot behind the thief's ankle and abruptly pulled in, tripping the thief down on one leg. Knocking the thief's other hand away from his shoulder, Derrick grabbed his captor by the hair and dashed his head against the wood-paneled wall three times, rendering the poor thief unconscious.
Checking to ensure he was really out, Derrick dragged the thief's body down the hall and stuffed him inside a supply closet.
Derrick sighed wearily, and proceeded toward the street. Orwin's wrath was going to grow tenfold when the guild leader learned of these actions, and Derrick still wasn't any closer to uncovering the reasons behind his frame-up.
When he was still working for the guild, there had been dozens of lowlifes and underworld scum that would have had ample reason to seek his head in a box, but most of those foes were now either dead or in prison. And if he was being targeted by someone he'd crossed in the past, why would they go to the trouble of framing him for a murder, rather than killing him outright? Entrapment like this tended to take patience and strategy, neither of which was the forte of the type of people he'd faced.
It was time to get some answers. The stakes were becoming higher with each passing hour. [ 5:22 ]
* * *
“No worries, miss, we'll take care of this ruffian,” Ponn assured Jena as he and Atamir mounted the shackled criminal atop one of the horses. She nodded and thanked them again before they rode away toward the city barracks.
Jena returned to the house and frowned at all the shattered debris on the floor. Sitting amidst Jena 's cutlery and the glass fragments was the burglar's dagger, which had apparently gone unnoticed by the young guard.
Gingerly picking the weapon out of the mess, Jena turned to Bryn, who was busy sweeping the pottery shards on the other side of the room.
“When you've finished cleaning up, go to your room and finish unpacking your things. I'll go and revive Ayva now, but you can speak with her after dinner. Even with this potion, she'll need more rest; I'd say we've all had enough excitement to last the rest of our lives.” She looked Bryn in the eyes, which so-reminded her of Derrick when he first joined the guild. “Or the rest of my life, at least.”
She moved to Ayva's room and removed the blue healing potion from her pocket. Turning the vial over in her hands, Jena was glad to see that the container had gone undamaged throughout her fight with the mugger.
Taking a cloth from the nightstand, Jena carefully soaked it with the healing fluid, and pressed it against the wound on Ayva's head. It immediately seeped into her skin and began to shrink the bruise. Bryn's aunt then gently opened Ayva's mouth and carefully poured the remainder of the restorative down her throat.
After a few minutes, Ayva's eyes flicked and she gradually came back to the waking world. She started grabbing for something at her chest.
Jena patted Ayva on the shoulder, “Relax, the mugger is gone now. He tried to stab both of us with this,” she held up the thug's dagger, and placed it down on the nightstand. “I'm Bryn's aunt, Jena . I take it Derrick has some kind of problem going on at the shop?”
Ayva blinked and slowly sat up in the bed, rubbing at the healing cloth atop her head. “No, not at the shop. He's fallen in some sort of trouble with a few old friends.” She paused and brushed her auburn hair out of her eyes as she looked about the room, “Wait, where's Bryn?”
“Oh, he's in his room, unpacking. I suppose he'll be staying here for a few days? What did Derrick say, anyway?”
The store assistant rubbed her eyes as she struggled to remember what had happened before, “He gave me a message to deliver to you: ‘The rivers are red.' Does that have any significance to you?”
As soon as Ayva said the words, Jena 's eyes began to fill with worry and dread. “Oh dear. That is not a good sign at all.” She immediately turned her back to Ayva and began searching through a closet at the other side of the room.
“What is it? What does that mean?”
Jena pulled out a large empty rucksack and made her way to the door. Her voice was full of unease, “Don't worry about anything, you just rest for now. I'll need to pack a few things in the kitchen.”
As she closed the door behind her, Ayva patted at her chest again, only to find that something was missing. The woman lay down and stared with worry at the ceiling, wondering what happened to the weapon she had been carrying. [ 5:32 ]
* * *
Terrence held up the short, skinny steel spike and stared at it under the light, “What kind of nut uses metal needles as toothpicks?!”
“A man with metal teeth. No wonder Scrap's smile was so shiny clean. It must go over nicely with the ladies,” Dace deadpanned as he glanced at the clock. “The envoys will be at the city gates in about an hour and a half. It's time to gear up.”
The con artist shrugged, “We could stand to wait a bit longer, so let me finish my drink. Besides, I don't want to arrive at the manor house too early, or the staff might grow suspicious. It would only give them more time to inspect my belongings.”
A grumble emerged from the other side of the room as Melik emerged from the back, “Well I don't share your blissful indifference. I want you equipped and ready to leave within the hour. Dace, head around back and check on the horses you stole earlier; make sure they're clean enough to pass Terrence off as a noble.” The gnome turned to the halfling, “You there, go bring us the council pass. It's time to start pulling the strings of our act together.” [ 5:35 ]
* * *
Myrk pointed down the road, “We're coming close to the tavern, it's just down at the end of this street.”
The ‘street' was little more than an ill-kept muddy margin between the local dives and ‘escort residences' crammed along Southside Row. This section of the city's underbelly was probably the least patrolled area in all of Baldur's Gate; those few guards who did make their rounds here were undoubtedly carried in the pockets of the city's wealthier crime lords.
“If there's anything you haven't told me about the place, you'd best voice your mind now,” said Derrick.
An embarrassed look crossed the lanky thief's face, “Well, uh, remember when I said there were eight guys who attacked me? It was probably more like three or four.” He scratched his head as he tried to recall details about the tavern, “The owner of the Spike, a large fellow called Scrap, will probably be the one to watch. You can't miss him; he has metal teeth. But be careful, he'll give these really subtle hand signals to his goons if he wants you taken down. Speaking of that, how exactly will we fight two-to-one odds if things go downhill?”
“It won't come to that as long as you stick with our bluff. But if it does, then just try to keep your head low and make for the door while I keep them busy. If something happens to me, you'll have to take the matter directly to Cerdan, not Orwin or any other guild agents.”
“That's not very reassuring…” Myrk murmured.
“Good. It wasn't supposed to be. Slow down a moment.”
They brought their horses to a stop just outside a different tavern, about a block away from the Silver Spike. Derrick reined his steed toward a post and dismounted, “We'll tether the horses here and continue on foot. I hope you didn't wear yourself out in prison; we may have to do a lot of running when the meeting is over.” [ 5:40 ]
* * *
Deep below the streets, seven Shadow Thieves mucked through the stench and squalor of the city's sewer system. The tunnel complex had been hewn of stone decades (perhaps even centuries) ago. An historical testament to the modernization of the city, though it was quite unlikely they'd run into any schoolchildren on a field trip down here.
“Are you certain you don't need to see a healer?” asked one of the assassins.
Rassa, her forehead branded with a large maroon-coloured bruise, simply snarled in reply and pointed her torch down the dark corridor. Knocked out with her own weapon… how humiliating. As much as she wanted to hunt down Derrick to repay him for the slight, she had a duty to complete.
The creatures that slaughtered the first group of thieves down here had left a trail of bloody footprints, which fortunately hadn't been completely washed away in the mud. Rassa took some comfort in the fact that the monsters bled, and therefore weren't skilled enough to escape the battle unscathed. Further, the tracks looked as though there were only about four or five of them, all humanoid.
Rassa raised a fist to the trailing assassins, signaling a halt as she heard some faint noises from deeper in the sewers. To her trained ears, it sounded as though there were several creatures, growling and fighting further down the corridor.
Flashing a series of silent hand gestures, she motioned for one of her assassins to scout ahead. To the rest, she signed to stop where they were and form a defensive cover. The team leader held up five fingers and slowly began to count down.
The remaining assassins crouched down and closed their eyes, giving them time to adjust for darkness as she doused her torch in the wet mud, plunging the area into near-total blackness. They opened their eyes as soon as the flame went out, and sat in the shadows of the underground, waiting in stoic silence for their scout to return. [ 5:46 ]
* * *
“You'd better let me do the talking,” Myrk said as he rapped on the door. Derrick stood out of view to the side as a slot in the door slid open and a pair of eyes squinted down at the skinny thief.
Myrk nodded to the bouncer, “Hello, I'm here from-” The slot slammed shut. Myrk glanced over at Derrick, “Uh, I think he might have recognized me.”
The eye-slot opened again, only this time, the pair of eyes was accompanied by a hand-held crossbow, which was pointed out the slot and aimed at Myrk's forehead. The bouncer growled, “What's your business here, Myrk?”
“I-I'm her to speak with Scrap. We need to find Flink.”
“Who's ‘we'?” The eyes twisted to the side, trying to see who Myrk's companion was.
Derrick lashed out and grabbed the underside of the crossbow, angling it up and out of the way as the bolt fired. He yanked the weapon away from the doorman's hand through the slot. Reaching into the slot, Derrick quickly snatched the bouncer roughly by the nostrils and yanked his head forward so his face was squashed against the door.
Holding the slot open with his other hand, Derrick locked eyes with the man, “Open the door and let us speak with Scrap. I think you should avoid further angering a representative of the Shadow Thieves. You'd be surprised how much of your head I can fit through this slot.”
Still pressed against the eye-slot, the bouncer made a muffled reply and fumbled for the door latch. As it creaked open, Derrick released his hold on the bouncer's face and kicked the door open all the way, knocking the doorman off to the side.
The smoke and alcohol fumes in the air couldn't mask the stench of criminal activity in the room. There were probably enough crooks in the bar-hall for every guard in the city. Myrk subtly pointed toward a stocky bald man eating a steak at a table off to the side of the room. As they approached Scrap's table, the door-bouncer, still holding his nose in pain, curried ahead of them and over to the tavern owner's side, whispering something in the man's ear. [ 5:49 ]
“So, Myrk the whisper-man returns,” Scrap announced with exaggerated flair, not bothering to put his fork and knife down, “and with some muscle, no less.” He cast an unconcerned glance at Derrick.
Including the door-man, there were three goons standing around the owner of the tavern; one rubbing his nose in anger, two with their muscular arms folded in front of their chests in a stance of defiance.
Scrap gestured at a vacant chair across from him, “And here I thought you wouldn't have the spine to return, after the beating we gave you.” Myrk sat down, glaring as Scrap continued, “Perhaps you or your muscle would care for a drink? Tethyrian ale?”
One of the goons pushed a bottle of green liquid across the table toward them, which Myrk began to reach for. Derrick moved to stand beside the seated Shadow Thief, lightly tapping Myrk's chair with his foot, shaking his head slightly.
Myrk wisely withdrew from the bottle and focused on Scrap, “That wasn't the smartest thing to do, beating up a member of the local thieves' guild. Right, Derrick?”
Derrick frowned at Myrk's sloppily casual mention of his name.
Scrap smiled, displaying his metal teeth, “Come now, we let you live, didn't we? Besides, your quarrel is with Flink and his associates, not me. If you truly want the money you were promised, I suppose I could spare-”
“We don't care about the money, this is a debt of honour.” Derrick interrupted.
The tavern owner kept his eyes on Myrk, “I'm sorry, but Flink is no longer here. If you want to claim a few halfling scalps, you'll have to look elsewhere. Now, if you don't mind, I'd like to finish my meal without being bothered by a couple of creepy-cloaked sneaks.”
This time, Derrick leaned in, his head hovering just above the bottle, “What if I told you there were a dozen assassins waiting nearby outside the building?”
“I'd say you were lying. There is no way Orwin would send twelve agents as revenge for beating up a single whelp.” At that point, a waiter came over to Scrap, mug of ale in hand, “Ah, thank you, Gend.” Before Gend could return to the bar, Scrap put his fork and knife down and caught the waiter by the arm, “Gend, please go outside and take a look around the neighbourhood. Then come back and tell me if you see any unusual figures lingering about.”
When he turned back to the thieves, Derrick saw the tavern owner make a subtle tapping gesture toward someone behind them. “Now if you are really this eager to find Flink…”
Derrick sensed movement from behind, and in a fluid motion, snatched up the ale bottle from the table and swung it around in a half-circle at the goon approaching them. The bottle broke against the strong-arm's head, sending him keeling to the floor.
Spinning back to the table, Derrick swung the neck of the broken bottle at the other three goons advancing on him, “Go, get out of here!” he shouted, kicking Myrk out of the chair. Myrk scrambled to his feet and raced for the door.
As one of the bouncers turned to seize the whisper-man, Derrick grabbed the chair from the ground and hurled it into the goon's path, sending another strong-arm tripping to the floor. The ex-thief slashed at a third bouncer, cutting the man across the arm as he grabbed Derrick by the wrist. At that point, rather than patiently wait for their struggle to finish, the fourth remaining bouncer tackled Derrick to the floor, mercilessly pummeling him into submission.
Myrk yanked the door open and stepped outside… to crash into a taller, narrow-faced man in leather armour. Dace aimed a dagger at the whisper-man and pointed inside the tavern. Resigned, Myrk turned around and stepped back in. Rather than let him walk all the way, Dace grabbed a plank of wood from outside and slammed it down against the back of Myrk's skull.
Scrap gave a dismissive gesture, and the thugs backed away from the fallen ex-thief. Hovering over Derrick's unconscious form, Scrap nodded to Dace as he dragged Myrk closer. “Bring them downstairs,” Dace ordered as he dropped Myrk down, “Melik will want to deal with this.” [ 5:56 ]
* * *
Ayva sat up as Jena came back in, her knapsack partially filled with foodstuffs and clothing. Setting the bag down beside the closet, Jena leaned over and started shuffling through the boxes within.
“Are you going to tell me what's going on? What does ‘the rivers are red' mean?” demanded Ayva.
“It's a key-phrase Derrick made me memorize about five years ago. If he ever gave me that message, it meant that he was in danger, and that I was to get Bryn out of the city as soon as possible.”
Ayva glanced at the mugger's dagger on the nightstand, “Fine, so when do you think Derrick will meet us?”
Jena shook her head as she leaned further into the closet, “He won't be. I'm going to get Bryn to the Friendly Arms Inn; from there we'll probably hear if anything happened to Derrick.”
“Wait, do you mean Derrick isn't going to come here or join us along the way?” Ayva swung her feet out of the bed and stepped toward Jena .
“That's right. Could you go to the kitchen and-”
Ayva swiped the dagger from the stand and stabbed Jena in the back, cupping a hand over her mouth to keep her quiet. After quickly stabbing her three more times, Ayva finally let go once Jena had stopped struggling.
Letting the dead woman fall to the floor, Ayva tossed the weapon aside and frowned to herself. Derrick was still out there, and now she had no leads to find him… but she still had his son. Dragging the body into the closet, Ayva hoped it wasn't too late to find her target…
[ 6:00 ]
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