By Deverian Valandil
[ 12:00 ]
In the distance, the bells atop the city's looming clock tower began to ring their solemn tune. Twelve hours had passed since the first murder of the day. In another twelve hours, the fate of the entire city would be decided. Through either flame or fortune, it would be decided. [ 12:01 ]
* * *
Korrien and Ponn were surprised to find that their path to the warehouse door was completely clear. The reason being that the Shield Knights were in the stables, overseeing Melik's spell-casting ritual. The two kidnap victims pushed through the door, conspicuously unlocked, and out into the cold night's embrace.
The ambassador had been wearing little more than an evening robe and a pair of slippers when he was kidnapped. That attire, in addition to his preference for travelling by carriage, would certainly impede their progress back to the Ducal Palace . Ponn, his head still pounding, moved ahead and began to guide the foreign ambassador to their destination. [ 12:05 ]
* * *
Dace leaned against the wall, carefully dripping a few drops of an alchemical mixture into the lock on the Wizard's Box. The fluid was called ‘Iron Blight'; an unnatural substance distilled from the city's poisoned iron crisis a few years back. It had the ability to accelerate the decay process of any ordinary metal, creating years worth of rust in mere minutes.
Across the stables, Melik was kneeling on the ground with a cloudy crystal ball lying on a cloth before him. The Shield Knights were watching the gnome intently. Had the situation been different, Dace would have already killed the employers and be on a boat to Brynnlaw. But the schemer inside him wanted to follow the gold trail; he first had to find out what power was behind this little conspiracy. Then he would exploit the hells out of whatever opportunity he uncovered.
When Dace threatened the Shield Knights with the crystal earlier, he established who was in control of the immediate situation. They were undoubtedly jabbering on behind their masks, even now trying to figure out a way to be rid of the assassin. No matter, Dace thought to himself. After all, he hadn't reached forty-five years of age through sheer luck.
The Iron Blight finished its work in corroding the clasp, and Dace popped the Wizard Box ajar. He smiled and raised the box's lid to discover… nothing at all. The box was completely empty and he could only see the container's black, polished inner casing.
“Melik!” he shouted, disrupting the gnome's concentration, “What is the meaning of this?” The assassin moved over and shoved it front of the wizard's face.
Melik's spell wasn't lost, but his temper certainly was, “Can't you busy yourself elsewhere?!” The gnome suddenly stopped and examined the box more closely, running his finger around the casing, eyebrow raised, “That's odd. The inside of the this container is lined with a thin layer of onyx.”
“How is that relevant?”
“Normally it wouldn't be, except it is giving off a strong aura of dead magic…”
Gold-mask evidently overheard them, “Stop playing with your necromantic toy and continue with the spell.” Dace had the impression that Gold was trying to avoid eye contact.
“No, I said dead magic, not un dead magic.” Melik handed the box back to Dace, “It's a by-product of the Time of Troubles. Seal any enchanted artifact inside, and its magical charge will be absorbed and negated until the box is reopened.”
Dace nodded to himself and regarded the box with intrigue. Something like this would certainly be valuable. “I will take my leave for now,” he stated, making his way to the exit.
“Hold there, blackcloak,” barked Silver-mask, “you agreed to protect us if the paladins show up.”
“We never established that on contract. I will return when my other business it complete,” he cast a warning eye at them, daring any to oppose.
None of the Shield Knights stirred to challenge, unaware that he no longer held the infernus crystal. After he left, Silver muttered to Melik, “How can you possibly stand to work with that ruffian?”
The gnome had his eyes closed, focusing on some unseen spell pattern, “I've only known him for a few months. Even I don't trust him… but he always sees a task through to the end.”
The trio of masked men considered those words in silence. [ 12:16 ]
* * *
When the light had cleared, Derrick found that he had been teleported a distance south, and was now in his own pawnshop. Ayva had regained consciousness and either she or the green-veiled woman had untied the ropes. It was a turnabout now that Derrick was tied to a chair in the middle of his own living quarters at the back. At least the paralysis spell had worn off.
The green-veiled mage took the bag of holding from his side and passed it to Ayva, “Empty its contents and look for the Sigil. I must hunt down his elf friend.”
Ayva had obtained a healing potion from the shelves out front and was splashing the restorative fluid over her head wounds, “What is your current progress, Maiden?”
“Rombis and Orwin are dead, and our infiltrator is in place.”
“What of Verskul?” asked Ayva.
Derrick's ears perked up, hoping to learn how the dead wizard in Rombis' tavern was tied to all this. Surely this Maiden didn't kill him at random. After all the layers of conspiracy and deception Derrick had seen, it didn't look like something she would do arbitrarily.
“At the moment he is also dead,” the Maiden replied, “Focus on finding Derrick's Sigil. Use whatever force is required, but try to keep him alive for now.” She stared at Derrick from behind her opaque veil, “We may need him if the elf proves elusive.”
Ayva acknowledged and the green-robed mage left. Derrick's former assistant set the bag of holding aside for a moment and stepped up to the ex-thief. She landed a hard blow to his stomach, which sent a few drops of spittle shooting from his mouth. The gash in his side started bleeding again.
It was going to be a long night…[ 12:20 ]
* * *
Bryn followed Linde into one of the worst run-down neighbourhoods of the city. Even the filthy slums were safer than this place; Southside Row. Bryn was beginning to wonder just what sort of street-kid Linde could be, that she would be so familiar with this area.
They went up to the doorstep of one particularly dilapidated house. The roof looked terribly warped, but the grey-brick foundation looked sturdier than most of the other homes.
Linde gave a rapid, staggering sequence of raps on the front door, followed by two sharp taps on the window. A few seconds later, the door creaked open, and Bryn found himself staring up at an elven man wearing a surprisingly elegant fog-grey suit of leather armour. What's more, Bryn actually recognized the elf.
“Linde?” the elf said aloud while signing, “it's past midnight , we won't be collecting your dues until the morning. I have other matters to attend to, go get some sleep.” The girl made a series of complicated hand signs that seemed to catch the elf's attention. He crouched in front of her and they both conversed in sign language.
Bryn, meanwhile, had his mind full with the elf's identity. Not too long ago, the boy had secretly gone against his father's wishes and hooked up with the local branch of the Shadow Thieves. Bryn didn't the have heart to become some feeble pawn-merchant; he craved excitement and adventure. The boy believed he had the strength of will for it; after all, he'd survived an encounter with the Night Parade without shedding a single tear or sob.
But despite his inherited thieving talent, Bryn was denied entry to the guild. After completing the training jobs, Bryn was shown to Cerdan, one of the branch's Shadow Thief lieutenants. The elf had taken a single look at Bryn, then ordered that the boy be barred from the guild. That very same elf was now speaking with Linde.
Linde and Cerdan finished their conversation and turned to Bryn. The elf stood, “Hello, Bryn. You already know who I am, so-”
“Linde! You're a guild thief?!” Bryn exclaimed.
“She's one of my street pickpockets. I-”
“But we met a Shadow Thief in the sewers! Why didn't you say something?” Bryn foolishly asked.
“Hey! Be quiet!” shouted Cerdan, waving his arms, “She works for the guild, but she's never been to our guildhouse. Linde only knows a few other street thieves and myself.”
Bryn suddenly noticed that Cerdan was wearing a rucksack, as if he was already planning to go somewhere. The elf continued, “I thank you for bringing her. I'll take you to your father's shop, then we'll part ways.”
“Wait, I can't go back there!” cried Bryn, remembering Ayva, “There's some crazy person trying to kill me! And my father might already have been killed!”
This bit of news certainly put Cerdan on edge. Earlier, he'd assumed Derrick's claim of a threat to the guild was an exaggeration. That was until twenty minutes ago, when one of Cerdan's informants reported the destruction of the guildhouse.
“Fine,” said Cerdan, “you can stay here in my house. Linde and I must investigate a… problem at the guild.”
Bryn didn't like the idea of staying in this sub-slum region, but he was feeling very fatigues from the events of the day. He nodded and Cerdan let him inside.
“There's an extra bed in the side room,” said Cerdan, “mind the cat.” Bryn peeked in the doorway and saw a black cat curled up atop the sheets.
Cerdan went on, “We'll be back in the morning.” Bryn nodded and they left.
‘Linde,' the elf signed as they walked, ‘Go find Seffron, Hand, Nibbis and all the others. Spread the word that I'm assuming control over Orwin's duties and that they're to stay in hiding until we straighten out this ordeal.' He passed her a dagger and sent her away.
Bryn meanwhile went over to the bed and nudged Jinx, the cat. Jinx hissed and made a lazy scratching motion, but jumped off and instead went to sleep on the floor just inside the doorway.
The boy looked about the room, frowning at the open window. It was only wide enough for a small person to wiggle through, but it was letting in a cold and terribly stinky draft. Too bad it didn't have any shutters.
Letting out a worried sigh, he climbed onto the cot and closed his eyes.[ 12:29 ]
* * *
Ayva had completely emptied the bag, leaving several dozen items, many of them damaged in her careless search, strewn across the floor. Gems, trinkets, and tools everywhere, yet all were useless to the backstabbing woman.
“It's not here,” she spat, “all that time and effort, and it's not even here!”
Derrick had dozed off during her search; he hadn't slept for almost eighteen hours, and adrenaline could only take you so for before you burned out. In his younger days he might have been able to push on for two, maybe even three days straight. But now his age was becoming holding him back; time was marching on without him.
Ayva walked over and smacked him a few times, “Wake up. You will tell me where – hey! Stay awake!” Derrick's head lulled to the side, “You're lucky the Maiden wants you kept alive a lucid.” Ayva poured some of her healing potion into a cupped hand and ungraciously splashed some into Derrick's face. The rejuvenating effect healed his bruises and, unfortunately, gave him an energetic boost to keep him alert.
Derrick blinked the blue liquid out of his eyes and glared at Ayva, “You'll be lucky if you outlive this day without dying by my hand. What have you done with Bryn?!”
She suddenly remembered that Derrick didn't know of Bryn's escape. Now she had a bargaining chip, “He is unharmed for now. Your sister Jena proved quite fierce in protecting him. I would have commended her spirit if she wasn't lying in a pool of blood right now.”
Derrick's eyes flared with anger and he loosed a colourful litany of threats and curses at Ayva.
“Is that really going to help your son?” Ayva asked, prompting him to grudgingly quiet down, “Now, I have been searching your entire store for weeks, and I never found any record of the Sigil or anything similar to it. I certainly hope you didn't sell it… no, of course not. You wouldn't be able to.”
He had no idea what Ayva was talking about. If he was going to get out of this mess, he needed to get a fix on his enemies' motives, “What's your stake in this, Ayva? Why are you working for that mage?”
“Oh, I'm not working for her . You haven't a clue who your true enemy is, through I do believe you've met him today,” she tossed the potion bottle on a table, “As for my stake, let's just say I answer a higher calling. One that promises great rewards to the chosen few.”
Ayva stared him in the eye and leaned close to his face, “Now it's your turn to answer some of my questions.”
“You murdered my sister! Why in the hells should I help you?!” he raged.
“Because if you don't I'll forgo the Maiden's orders and kill you here and now. Then no one will be able to save your son. If you do help me, you get to live a little longer, and you just might find an opportunity to overpower me in the future and escape.”
Derrick continued glaring.
“We both know what you must do.”
He muttered to himself, then nodded slightly. With Jena dead, his son was his only living family. Derrick sure as hell wasn't going to stand back and lose Bryn; gods knew that's how he lost Syra.
“Let's begin with the Siron job,” Ayva said, “both you and my true employer have mentioned it, but I've never been told how you were involved.”
Derrick experimentally twisted his hands to find if he could wiggle them loose. If he was going to escape, he needed to stall. He recited the same story he told to Myrk, all the while sawing at the individual rope fibres with his fingernails. This time, however, he went on to the end of the tale.
“… I managed to limp my way back to our airship after Orwin stabbed me in the leg when we met the golem. Cerdan and Rombis had already found most of the stolen treasure, and were securing it on board when we heard this pitched, screeching noise approaching from the other side of the mountain. A hooded figure atop a wyvern was soaring down at us. Apparently the bandits we'd slain were just the grunts guarding the cave.
“In any case, Rombis was scrambling to take off and Cerdan went above deck with his bow to shoot at the wyvern rider. That was when Orwin came rushing out of the mountain cave, roughly pulling someone along behind him.”
Derrick paused a moment, “Lord Siron, the man who hired us for the mission, believed his daughter was killed in the bandit raid on his caravan. It turns out he was wrong.” The thief shook his head to hide his wincing expression; his wrists were starting to bleed from rubbing against the ropes.
“Orwin found Siron's daughter, Lorelei, imprisoned below and led her out to the airship just as we were lifting off.”
“I had no idea thieves could be so altruistic,” Ayva remarked sarcastically.
“Not really. I found out later that he was planning to only return her if Siron agreed to let us keep all the treasure, instead of paying us our usual finders' fee. Orwin pulled the shaken woman aboard as we flew away, and went to check on the treasure.
“Unfortunately, the wyvern breathed a fireball at us and set one of the ballasts aflame. The airship rocked to one side and all the unsecured treasure chests tumbled out of the hold and down to the mountain below before I could even reach the cargo door.
“The ship must have been hit with another attack after that. The entire room quaked and Lorelei nearly fell out the open cargo hatch. I dived toward her and managed to snag her by the wrist, but that left her dangling over the edge.”
“And then something went wrong,” Ayva mused.
“Orwin surprised me from behind and tried to knock both Lorelei and myself overboard. I managed to keep my grip on the side of the hull, but Rombis shouted from the above deck that we had too much weight for the airship to outfly the wyvern. Orwin said to me, ‘Let go, she's dead already!' Then he kicked me in the leg, in the very same spot where he'd stabbed me when we faced the golem. That was when I dropped Lorelei, and she fell to her death.
“After that, Rombis somehow managed to keep the ship steady long enough to escape from the wyvern rider, but I couldn't stop repeating in my mind what had happened. I watched her plummet and crash into some rocks alongside a river running down from the mountain. The rivers ran red with her innocent blood that day, and that was the moment when it all changed for me.”
Ayva was less than sympathetic, “Well, thank you for sharing your long-winded melodrama. Shall I cry now?”
“You're the one who wanted to know the story.”
“Yes, and it did satisfy my curiosity on a number of things about you… for now. So after all that business, you up and left the guild because you didn't want to work for Orwin again. But,” she stood up and leaned closer, “now we must discuss matters at hand. Where is the Sigil of the Fallen?”
“I told you, I don't even know what it-” Behind the chair, Derrick had loosened the ropes enough to pull them off. He threw down the bonds and lurched forward, bashing his own forehead against Ayva's. They both saw stars for a few moments, then squared off to fight.
Both combatants were still exhausted from what they'd endured so far, but this time Ayva had fully healed her wounds with a few stock potions. Derrick was trying not to aggravate the gash in his side or his bleeding wrists. What's more, Ayva was wielding a long steel dagger.
Ayva pressed in with her attacks, but Derrick swept up the chair and held it high to block her thrusts. She managed to snatch it by the leg, and they started to turn about in a tug-of-war, with Derrick desperately trying to stay out of her attack range.
Ayva shuffled her footing and before Derrick could react, she released the chair, making him stumble and fall backward against the wall. She stood over him and kicked him in the side, tearing the flesh around the gash even more.
“Face it, Derrick,” she gloated, “Your time has past. The world doesn't belong to tired, aging fools like you. It belongs to us, the timeless.”
Derrick weakly clutched the wound, trying to stem the rapid blood flow. If he lost too much blood, even magical healing wouldn't be able to save him. [ 12:40 ]
* * *
In a different shop in another part of the city, Dace was once again dealing with the black market storekeeper. The mercenary laid a few thin throwing daggers on the counter, “These blades you sold me are unbalanced. It ended up killing one of my associates this past evening.”
Dace was referring to how he'd accidentally slain Terrence. The assassin didn't mention the blades earlier when he was here buying the teleportation amulets. Flink was with him at the time, and the halfling likely wouldn't have gone along quietly if he knew how Terrence had really died.
“Not my problem,” scoffed the shopkeeper, “perhaps your throwing skill is simply not as deadly as you claim.”
Dace picked up one of the knives, took a few strides across the room, and hurled it overhand at the man. The blade bit into the wall, scant centimetres from the sweaty scalp.
“If that blade was balanced, it would have gone into your neck. If you do not believe me, I could try aiming at your groin instead.”
The man swallowed, “What do you want, exactly? Replacements? A new set of throwing blades?”
“No, we have already established that your weapon craftsmanship is sub-par. I require something practical in the form of magic.”
“Oh, perhaps you'd like this?” The storekeeper placed a long-necked blood-red flask on the counter, “It's a bottle of Imp Dust. Toss some of the contents on a foe, and they'll be dazed by the ashes of a scamp from the lower planes!”
“I would prefer something that doesn't rely chiefly on a charlatan's claims.”
“Er, I keep all defensive artifacts in the room at the back,” he pointed to a door in the rear wall. When you catered to criminals, there were certain appearances that had to be kept. You had to keep the implements of death up front and in plain view.
“I will tell you when I have chosen something appropriate. Try not to cheat me while I look.” Dace spoke the words with such finality that the shopkeep was hesitant to follow him into the stockroom. [ 12:44 ]
* * *
Less than a dozen metres away, Selena was gazing up at the stars as she made her way toward the very same curio store. The sky was like a mirror of the world; a plane of near-complete darkness, sprinkled with tiny droplets of light here and there. It reminded her too much of the realm she lived in; it was a world full of evil and misery, where good people were minute, twinkling rarities between vast reaches of the dark.
Baldur's Gate was a city crowded with over a million people, yet it was only a small fraction of that number whose hearts were good. Truly good.
The elf shook her head. The guard who stole the glowing crystal claimed to have sold it at a rarely known black market shop in this area. Apparently the guard never reported its location, since it was such a great place to sell valuables swiped from the evidence locker at the barracks.
The cleric of Tyr stepped inside and approached the counter, where the shopkeeper was just placing several throwing knives in the sales display case.
“You looking for something, missy?” he gave a sleazy glance at Selena's chest.
She pulled her cloak closed around her and snapped her fingers at him, prompting the man to stop looking at her upper tunic, “A few hours ago, you purchased a radiant green shard from a guard. Show it to me.”
The shopkeeper's demeanor suddenly changed, “Absolutely not. I'm saving that piece for one of my special clients. But I'm sure I carry something equally entertaining for a youthful lass like you, missy.” Actually, his demeanor hadn't changed that much.
The elven cleric was actually older than he was, but she didn't bother bringing it up, “Perhaps you require some additional persuasion.” She reached into her white cloak and the shopkeeper leaned forward eagerly.
The elf brought out her holy symbol, “I represent the Church of Tyr . If you do not help, I shall have you placed under arrest for trading around illegal merchandise and have you sent to Lancam's Isle, where the stronger inmates would probably trade you around like merchandise.”
“Uh, okay, okay,” said the shopkeep in appeasement as he slowly retrieved it from a panel in the wall behind him, “I'm just a businessman trying to survive, missy.” He placed the glowing crystal on the countertop.
Selena took it and turned it over in her delicate hands. It looked exactly the same as the one that had exploded in the Temple of Tyr . “Shopkeep, you are fortunate that I am confiscating this item. If my suspicions are correct, it has been laced with infernus fluid. Even the slightest agitation could-”
A noise from the back of the shop caught their attention. Dace stepped through the door looking down at a brand new pair of midnight-blue leather boots on his feet.
“These will be acceptable, shopkeeper. I-” the mercenary looked up and ceased when he saw Selena. Her holy symbol was plainly visible, and Dace's hand instinctively fell to his side. Even more alarming was that she was holding one of the infernus crystals.
The cleric didn't even need a Detect Evil spell. The mercenary in black was practically soaked with an aura of frigid evil. No one said or did anything for several agonizing seconds.
Surprisingly enough, the first person to move was the shop owner. Before Dace could act, the shopkeep grabbed the bottle of Imp Dust by the neck and threw it at Selena. His aim was off, however, and the top of the bottle merely clipped the side of her head and smashed on the floor at her feet. Unfortunately, the shock was enough to make her fumble the crystal, which slipped from her fingers and cracked loudly on the wooden floor.
The elf staggered a pace, then whirled to face the now cowering shop owner. She didn't notice that the crystal's glow was rapidly increasing. Nor did she notice the cloud of red mist that puffed up from the shards of the broken bottle. As she inhaled some of the red vapours, her eyes glazed over and she stared forward in a blank stupor.
Dace, meanwhile, was focused on something far more important. The infernus crystal was rapidly glowing brighter and brighter, until it became akin to looking into the sun. Then, in an instant, the glowing ceased, and the crystal abruptly went dark to such a degree that it seemed to suck in all light around it, leaving the area surrounding it a muted shadow.
The mercenary closed his eyes for a moment and in his memory, he could see the spot where the crystal had landed. He covered his nose and mouth with his cloak to avoid breathing the Imp Dust, then reached into his leather vest and strode forward to where the crystal lay and brought out the Wizard's Box.
Box in hand, he plunged his arm into the shadow cloud, scooped up the crystal, and clapped the lid shut. The large shadow instantly winked out and the stench of brimstone began to fade. The mercenary let out a quiet sigh with the knowledge that the magical threat had been – temporarily – neutralized by the inhibiting properties of the Wizard's Box.
Lacking a key to lock it, he quickly tied a leather strap around the container and tucked the danger away into his vest pocket over his heart. With that done, he walked past the stunned elf toward the door.
“Wait, where are you going? You can't just leave me to deal with this!” said the shopkeeper, gesturing toward the elf.
“Step aside and let me pass. Now.”
“But my business will be in serious jeopardy if I just let- glllk!” The shopkeeper didn't have time to react when Dace came forward and stabbed him in the gut. The assassin removed his blade and let the man fall to floor, then stepped over him and strode outside into the open street.
When she heard the door slam, Selena snapped to attention and whirled about, wondering how she could have possibly forgotten about the man in black. She glanced down at the wounded shopkeeper, and was shocked at the damage that had occurred without her realizing.
The cleric quickly cast a healing spell over the fallen man, then dashed outside in pursuit of Dace, but he was nowhere to be seen. She glanced down and noticed a few glittery specks of red dust on the ground, leading off to the west. When the assassin grabbed the crystal, much of the Imp Dust had settled on his boots. The elf set off, following the trail left by the man carrying a particularly volatile weapon. [ 12:56 ]
* * *
“I have one question…” Derrick rasped. Ayva was intent on letting his wound bleed, and after the fight, she wasn't going to take a risk by healing him.
“Well, this ought to be good.”
At this point, Derrick still had one glaring loose end that had been nagging him since the beginning of this fateful day. He met her gaze, “How was that Athkatlan wizard Verskul related to all this?”
Ayva smirked, “For our plans to succeed, it was necessary for him to perish. You might say that his death was the crux of everything that has happened today. And though he was the first die today, you can be sure that he won't be the last,” she picked up the healing potion from the table and shook it mockingly at Derrick. “Once the Maiden finds that elf friend of yours, all that you've accomplished will be for naught but your own destruction.”
“Mighty words. But you'll find that Cerdan is a cunning serpent. If you can't see him, he's already slithered out of your grasp. You'll never find him.” [ 12:59 ]
* * *
Just outside Derrick's pawnshop, Cerdan was peering in past the display window. Something was going on in there. ‘Oh good,' he thought to himself, ‘there's a light on inside. I'll go see if Derrick's there.'
The elf passed inside the shop, humming a light tune.
[ 1:00 ]
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