Copyright 2016 by Joshua Calkins-Treworgy. All rights reserved. No portion of this book may be copied, duplicated or transmitted without express written permission from the publisher.
The following is a work of fiction. Any similarity to any person, places or events is fictional or coincidental.
For Dennis Habulinec. Ever a colleague, always a gentleman.
Digby Narick slipped silently through the shadows abutting the wall of the manor on its north side, grateful for the eight foot stone wall blocking the broad rear lawn from street view. It wouldn’t do, after all, to have one of the city’s well-armed guards spot him at his work: no, no. Generally speaking, they tended to frown upon cutpurses like himself skulking around wealthy estates in the dead of night, looking for all the world like they might be up to something along the lines of breaking and entering, at the very least.
Peering up the outer wall of the manor, taking a moment to admire the polished brick and evenness of the mortar between each layer, Digby narrowed his eyes and watched the window just five feet or so over his head, waiting for any subtle sign of light. After more than a minute, he unslung his bag from his shoulders, reaching inside and pulling out a collapsible tube with an angled head, a lone slash of glass fixed inside a curved bulkhead. He pulled it quietly open, looked up again, and held the bottom, narrower and also hosting a thin membrane of glass, to his eye. Using this tool, he peered with one eye up into the room beyond the window.
The window itself, blissfully, was constructed of the sort of expensive glass that left the casual observer with the impression that there was no glass present at all, so clear it was. Digby had a perfect view into the room beyond, and what he found encouraged him more than he could have hoped for at the start of the evening.
The room was dark, with no candles lit, nor any oil lamps or any of those new sorts of lights that had become so popular in the last thirty years, the electrical overhead fixtures that mimicked the street lights cities like Desanadron and Ja-Wen had been installing everywhere throughout their boroughs. Yet with a cloudless sky overhead, a full moon, and his own naturally enhanced night vision, the veteran thief could see perfectly well into the room.
To anyone not in the know, the chamber would appear to be a music room and nothing more, with sheet music stands lining one wall to the left, several instruments in their cases against the opposite wall to the right, and a gorgeous walnut piano dominating a corner farthest from the window. But a lone item held Digby’s eye fast, a simple green violin case sitting on a small circular table beside the piano.
“Joy of joys,” he muttered to himself. Pulling the tool away from his eye and setting it gently on the ground, he then pulled out another extendable tool, a thin black metal bar like an ‘L’ with a little wheel on one flat surface near a taped handle. Now to test my luck, he thought, carefully wedging the razor-thin edge on the lip of the top end just under the window jam. He shook out his left hand and smoothed the fine red fur on the back and white on the underside and palm, grabbing the nub attached to the wheel between thumb and forefinger.
Slowly he turned the wheel, feeling for resistance through his fingertips but detecting none right away. Being a vulpesin, one of the fox-men native to Tallowmere’s central and southern forests, Digby benefited greatly from an enhanced sensitivity in his hands and feet when it came to delicate operations such as this.
After a full three rotations of the crank wheel with no discernable problems, he sped up the process for another four rotations; the window overhead now opened enough for him to easily fit his arm through once he managed to scale the wall up far enough to reach in. He withdrew the pry tool, slid it shut, and put it back in his bag. Next, he took the scope up once more and extended it, creeping to the stone wall abutting the street. A quick check up and down the road showed him no patrolmen in the vicinity and he swiftly tucked the scope away, strapped the bag on his back once more, and made a short sprint to the manor outer wall, kicking up the wall far enough to shoot his arms through the opening and grab onto the inner window sill.
Adjusting his arms, he pushed the window the rest of the way up, then hauled himself inside, sliding the window most of the way shut behind him. Not a sound did he make, as practiced as ever. Crouched low, he surveyed the room once more, sniffing the air with his sensitive nostrils to try and detect anything out of the ordinary. The only aromas were those he might have normally expected from wood and pine resin and a few containers filled with cork grease somewhere on the shelf unit situated to his left. Absent were the familiar, tell-tale scents of ash or ozone that would indicate typical security spells locked onto objects to alert owners to potential theft or cause severe damage to the would-be thief.
Digby shook himself softly, settling his dark brown tunic and drab green trousers, visually inspecting himself for anything that might trip him up in the event he needed to make sudden movements. Satisfied that he could securely cross to the table and his target, he took several steps forward, knees bent, crossing his legs in a side-step shuffle that offered no audible clue to his passage. His whiskers twitched as a brief breeze played through the crack in the window he’d left behind him, but he kept himself in check with a force of will and continued on, finally arriving at the table. Then, he carefully reached down to a gray pouch on his left hip. From within he took a thin glass dropper, pulling out the plug and hovering it over the green case before squeezing a single clear droplet on the case.
The moment the liquid landed, the case wavered, then shrank with a soft suctioning sound to the size of his palm. He set the dropper back in its vial, the vial back in his pouch, and eased his pack onto the table. Proceeding with every ounce of caution, he set the case in his pack, put it back on, and crept back toward the window.
He was three cross-steps away when he saw the lip of another pry tool slide into the crack. Baffled, he nearly stumbled mid-step, correcting himself with the eerie grace of long practice, and completed his return to balance. He looked down out the window, and found himself locking eyes with a pinch-faced young human all in black. He quietly opened the window as the other burglar removed his tool and backed away from the manor door, then hopped outside, landing in a ready crouch next to the other man.
“Hey Digby,” the other thief whispered. “Um, this is awkward,” he added, scratching the back of his head.
“Just a tad,” Digby replied, slowly rising to his feet and keeping his hands loose at his sides, keeping a close eye on the human. “Care to shut the window, Randall?”
The human reached up with a separate tool from his belt, a thin rod with a suction cup on it, sticking it to the exterior of the window and pulling it shut.
“That’s handy. I usually use my pry tool and have to leave a gap.”
“Nero made it for me,” said Randall with a touch of pride, tucking it away.
Digby had taken the opportunity while the human was closing the window to slide toward the stone perimeter wall and use his scope to check the street. A pair of city guardsmen approached from the west, and he suspected they’d be in visual range in about half a minute. Randall turned toward Digby then, eyes narrowing on the vulpesin. “Come on, man, I really need this. I’ve been hanging around the bottom rung so long. Just let me have the violin, I’ll give you partial credit.”
“We can talk about it when we get out of here,” Digby rasped, crouching on one knee and putting his hands together in a scoop. “Come on, I’ll help you over,” he added, tilting his head toward the wall. Randall’s expression went from suspicious to relieved instantly, and he approached quickly.
“Thanks, man. I always thought people had you figured wrong.” He stepped up onto Digby’s hands and grunted as Digby lifted. Randall pushed off, jumping over the wall.
Immediately the air filled with twin shouts, followed by grumbled curses and the clamour of feet.
The vulpesin ambled around to the west side of the manor property, hopped over the wall himself, and whistled as he traveled along at a light jog toward the guild hall.
Scoundrel though he was, he managed to locate one of his friends in the night watch along the way and asked her to arrange for Randall’s release, slipping the heavily armored human woman four gold coins to guarantee it was done before dawn.
“Well aren’t you a fucking saint,” she groused from behind the nose guard of her gray iron helm.
Digby shrugged, a coy grin on his foxy face.
“It could be worse,” he professed as he walked away. “I could have left him to rot.” He sauntered away then, onward through the benighted streets of the city of Breck. ‘City’ was perhaps a loose term at best for what Breck was; compared to the other metropolitan centers in the Freehold Territories in Tamalaria’s north-central plains, it might be best to call it a collection of three towns. Square mileage defined it as a city, but only barely.
The Manor District, through which Digby skulked, flitting from shadow to shadow with the casual ease of a career sneak, was easily the most tightly packed in layout. The wealthy people living there thought this would ensure greater security, but he rejoiced in proving that theory untrue wherever possible. The job he had taken did just that.
But all was not to be songs and wine, as a fellow says. Nearing the northern border of the Manor District, Digby settled in to be at his best as he moved along. As they had been designed more to keep the common riffraff from being too close to the well-to-do of the city, the roads separating the Manor District from Prima District were a solid twenty feet across to the nearest buildings. Between street torch lamps, the newer electrical lamps, and paranoid business owners setting out magical devices that flooded the area in front of their stores with light when someone got close, that was a large area to cross with nowhere to hide.
For a thief, it was a hellscape of ‘Don’t Get Caught’.
There were only really three ways of approaching this problem in a non-magical way and his options cycled through the vulpesin’s head as he came to a halt near the end of the alley from which he would begin his crossing. Option one, run like all the demons of the Hells are in pursuit. Sure, that might draw notice, but if you’re quick enough, nobody’s going to be able to remember with any accuracy what you look like, he thought to himself, now standing stock still as he stared at the open stretch of street that began only about six feet away now. Option two, walk across nice and casual, as if you belong here, nothing is wrong, nothing to see here people. It may give people a good look, but if you don’t show panic, they might just dismiss you. Digby rolled his head on his neck, several soft ‘pops’ echoing in his ears. And lastly, option three, creep all the way back to that other alley intersection, head east all the way out of town, then approach Prima District from the outside as if I was just coming into town. That way, if anybody does happen to notice, they’ll remember someone coming into town itself in the dead of night.
Despite going through all of his options in his head, the crimson-and-white-furred sneak had known all along what he was going to do. Head down, he leaned forward slightly as he sprinted across the empty stretch. When he drew within a few feet of the alley opposite the one he’d left the Manor District by, a powerful beam of light flooded the area in front of the store ahead and to his right, but by the time he registered how bright it was, he was several yards into the alley, tripping over something solid and tumble-rolling forward, going from his shoulder to his hip as he’d learned many years before. He came up in a daze, leaning against an alley wall, and looked back over his shoulder when he heard a rumbling curse behind him.
“Sorry, friend,” he said to the homeless man who’d been sleeping in the alley before he ran into him.
The shambling, gruff-looking figure, its head and face obscured by a cloak hood, grunted wordlessly at the vulpesin and flapped a filth-covered hand at him in dismissal.
Digby snickered, the nerves of having passed through the open street now straying out.
Ten minutes later, striding through the batting doors into the entry room of the guild hall, he offered the burly jaft at the duty desk to his left a grin. “Evening, Gallit,” he said, walking over.
The blue-skinned, bald humanoid grunted non-committal acknowledgment in reply.
“Steward Heflin was asking about you,” Gallit replied, leaning forward in his chair, the springs protesting loudly. “Seemed a might bit peeved at you. What’d you do to the old man?”
Digby feigned an offended scoff with hand pressed to chest.
“Why my good man, whatever do you mean? I am the walking image of delight and charity!” He pulled at his chin, eyes upward in faux contemplation. “Though, he may have taken offense to me putting peppers in his sandwich.”
Gallit harumphed and shook his head, leaning back with his arms over his chest.
“You’re a right prick, fox. Go on with ya. I’ll tell him I ain’t seen you if he asks.”
“There’s a good lad.” Digby headed through the double doors opposite the entrance. These opened upon a large, circular chamber that stretched about twenty yards in diameter, with broad archways leading off in three different directions, each narrowing down into hallways that led off to various wings within the guildhall. Another doorway, only wide enough for one large person, had a solid green door which would open upon a staircase that led down to a kind of barracks the guild members could use as temporary housing. A few members had set up semi-permanent occupancy, but not many had overall, leaving plenty of available space at most times for new members.
The sound of a couple of muffled conversations barely filled the air, several of the guild’s regulars sharing shop talk in the quieter hours. Digby recognized Tofar Nelson, a snub-faced human brawler who took mostly escort and bodyguard contracts from the mission rolls. Nelson sat with a half-elf the vulpesin didn’t yet know well, a transfer from one of the other branches of the guild. Ja-Wen branch if I remember correctly, he thought as he passed them by on his way to the north wing of the hall.
“Narick,” Nelson said, calling Digby by his surname.
Digby paused, back sliding on the balls of his feet to stand beside the human.
Nelson dipped his head toward the half-elf and said, “Jeremy here needs to drop off some gear to the quartermasters. Any chance you could show him down there?”
“It’s on my way, sure. Come along, rookie,” Digby said amiably, patting the half-elf man on the shoulder, realizing now how young the fellow looked. Jeremy had the doe-eyed look of a man who is not sure he’s made a wise decision, and as he awkwardly grabbed up his travel bag from the floor, Digby assessed that the answer was a solid ‘no’. “So, how long have you been in our fair city,” Digby asked as he led the lamb along through the entry arch to the north wing.
“About ten days,” Jeremy replied. “I’m from Sorepha, one of the villages east of Ja-Wen. I had a few missions for the guild branch in the metro before headmaster Quillian suggested I transfer out here to gain experience.”
Digby cringed inside; such transfer cases usually ended up taking on jobs well beyond their skill level in a misguided effort to prove themselves. Most of these ended up being brought back by veterans in pieces.
At the first junction of hallways, he turned left, pointing at a crimson scrawl of paint on the beige wall that read ‘Quatermastr’. Jeremy raised an eyebrow at the vulpesin rogue.
“We’re all painfully aware that our less literate members should not be in charge of signage, young Jeremy,” Digby responded to the unasked question. Down the hall and around another bend, they came to a solid oak door painted blue with white trim, and Digby knocked on it.
A window panel slid open around his head height, a mesh grill obscuring the guild member behind the door. Digby produced a winning smile and said, “So which of our lovely hoarders of all things gear do we have on duty right now? This young man has gear to hand over,” he added, draping an arm companionably around Jeremy’s shoulders.
The grill window slid shut, several locks snapped open, and a whirl of blue-and-white light simmered on the door. With a creak the door opened, revealing a gnome woman hovering in mid-air, her magic giving off a subtle shimmer as she lowered herself to the floor. She was unlike most gnome women, who kept their sideburns and neck hair, opting instead to be completely clean-shaven. She smiled up at the vulpesin, who beamed down at her.
“Nancy,” Digby exclaimed, swooping forward to snatch the laughing gnome mage up in a twirling embrace. They chuckled together a moment before he set her down and stepped back, hands on his hips. “By the gods, when did you get back?”
“Yesterday,” she replied, flicking a hand idly at the door, shutting it with a minor magical trick. “The boys in charge were all too happy to have me back.” She gave Jeremy a brief up-and-down, nodded, and made a few quick gestures with her hands. From elsewhere in the wide, sprawling chamber, outfitted with dozens of trunks and equipment racks, a low wheeled cart rumbled up, the wheels glowing the same blue and white as the seal spell she’d had on the door.
“Jeremy, this is Nancy Prennit. The greatest quartermaster a guild could ask for,” Digby said.
Jeremy undid the ties on his travel bag and put several items on the cart, starting with a length of rope that had seen better days.
“She’d been on loan to our head office out of Desanadron for a while, and I wasn’t sure we’d get her back!”
“Pleased to meet you, mum,” Jeremy said softly with a nod, setting a pair of empty vials on the cart, then a grappling hook that was bent out of true. Lastly, he added a small pouch that rattled and clanked, and had the word ‘farsight’ scribbled on it. “Erm, had a bit of an accident with the scope, mum,” he said as Nancy pulled open the drawstring and poured out several broken bits of metal and glass.
“Gods, what happened here?” she asked, shaking her head, upper lip pooched out.
“Goblin got the drop on me, tackled me off my cart,” Jeremy said. He shrugged his shoulders and added, “Was the only weapon I had on hand.”
Digby grimaced, noticing the spots of blood on the bent metal.
“Did you kill the little guy,” he asked with a half-chuckle.
Jeremy’s blank look served as an answer, and Nancy whistled appreciatively before sending the cart away with a wave of her hand.
The vulpesin clapped his hands together and hitched a sigh. “Well, Nancy here’s your go-to gal for gear, and she’s also quite square for appraisals, if you should need it. Nancy?”
“We’ll catch up later, Digs,” she replied. “As for you, young man, allow me to run you through the paperwork for damaged equipment.” She guided Jeremy toward a desk, and Digby took his leave, heading for taskmaster Coby Jerrick’s office.
After navigating a few more turns in the north wing main corridor, he came to an open door which led into a darkened chamber. On the right hand wall was a simple military cot, a lumpy form bundled in blankets upon it. In the center of the room sat a table with a thick leatherbound tome, a gaggle of pens and pencils around it, and a single coffee mug. Next to the tome also sat a turned down oil lantern.
Digby crept into the room, as ever looking around the walls. Newspaper clippings covered them, all stories associated with the guild and its most notable members’ reported deeds. In the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t much, really. The Freelance Adventurers Guild of Tamalaria took on and completed an estimated three thousand contracts per year, and they had been in operation across the continent for nearly a century. But they often got confused with and overshadowed by the organization they’d branched off from, The Unified Adventurers Guild. Even in some of the clippings, most of which Digby had read over his years in the guild, reporters confused and misnamed the collective, using their better-known competitors’ name in the stories.
The vulpesin used the wheel on the side of the lantern to increase the light in the room, then gently padded over to the huddled form on the cot, easing his hand down on the figure’s arm. He shook the fellow gently and whispered, “Coby, hey. Come on, old timer, it’s Digby.”
The figure groaned and rolled onto his back on the cot, revealing a thickly bearded, older human man in a dark blue hooded robe. His long, horsey face crumpled in a wrinkle-heavy smacking of lips, followed by a yawn that saw his spindly arms stretch wide up over his head. Rheumy faded blue eyes blinked open and peeked up at the vulpesin, and a soft smile graced his lips.
“Ah, Digby,” said Coby in his raspy tone. “Good to see you, young man. Help me up?” Coby tossed the blanket aside to reveal his long white cotton trousers and bare feet, covered in coarse gray hairs, a simple black tunic shirt on under the robe. The robe itself was covered here and there in strange, arcane sigils, several of which shimmered with a faint golden light as Digby helped him up to his feet from the cot. Something cracked loudly, and Coby winced, one hand reaching around to his back. “Sweet Lenos, that hurts,” he grumbled. “So, what brings you to see an old codger like me?”
“I’ve got a top-end job to report completed,” Digby said, helping Coby over to the chair at the table and easing him down into it with his hands on the old man’s elbow and small of his back. Coby laboriously opened the tome and flipped through to the most recent entries, then took up a pen and set to paper. “Mark down, ‘Wayne Leffert’s violin recovered from Netche Estate by Digby Narick. Nobody alerted, nobody harmed in expertly executed infiltration.’”
“Got it,” Coby said, scribbling with penmanship speed and elegance that might belong to a much younger man. His handwriting was looping and artistic, legible but flowing, and he did it with such careless grace that an uneducated man might find himself quite jealous. Yet when Digby saw written on the page was quite different than what he’d dictated; it read, ‘Thief Digby managed to not bungle a B&E to nab up Wayne Leffert’s violin, which we were contracted to steal back from the Netche family, who stole it first’. “Anything else, youngster?”
“Yeah, you might want to add in a bit about how brave and handsome I was while doing it,” the vulpesin muttered. “No, just what’s there should do fine. I’m going to drop off the violin to the folks over in Outbound. Master Jerrick?”
The old man looked up as he gently closed the tome, setting the pen aside. The look Digby wore made the taskmaster blink in confusion, and he eased back into his chair.
“What is it, my boy,” he asked, the wrinkles on his face smoothing, the sigils and glyphs on his robes continuing to shimmer, now producing a low hum. “You look concerned.”
“I am, sir.” Digby took a step back as Coby Jerrick’s peculiar enchantments carried on, making him appear younger by the moment. The beard had shrunk to hang down now just over his neck, and color crept through his hair, turning it steadily from silver-gray to light brown. The horse-like face was beginning to tighten, taking decades off of his outward appearance. “It’s just, well, how long do you suppose you have, now? I don’t mean to seem insensitive, but you may be forced out soon enough.”
“This curse can be broken, Digby,” the now-middle-aged Coby replied, his voice sounding stronger, firmer, his arms thickened to fill out the sleeves of his robes, legs filling what had been loose trousers. The sigils ceased glowing, and the hum vanished. “Father Regilin has already made progress in his research, and he is hopeful that he won’t even need to find and interrogate the warlock. This magic is something very similar to things he has seen before, out in the wilds.”
Coby stood and sauntered easily on his own over to a narrow bookcase at the rear of the room, passing an index finger over the spines of several books before plucking one out. He brought it over toward Digby, using a ribbon bookmark to open it to a point a quarter way in. He handed the book to Digby, and pointed to the illustration of a strange-looking, roach-like beast with seven legs covered in luxurious golden fur. “You are familiar with these creatures?”
“Chulcas, yeah, I’ve heard of them.” Digby scanned the carefully written text. One of the underlined sections caught his interest in particular. “Wow. I didn’t know that was how they killed their prey.”
“A fascinating process,” Coby remarked, folding his hands behind his back. “Nomo posits that the whole mechanism is something scientific, not magical, though I would counter that magic and science are cousins in the same clan. Of course, as an academic without any ounce of magical talent, one might understandably be skeptical about some of his findings.”
“Well, he did write an entire series of observations in the wilds.” Digby snapped the book shut and handed it back to Coby.
The mage taskmaster set the book on the table behind him and draped an arm over Digby’s shoulders, guiding him toward the hallway, walking slowly with him toward Outbound’s office.
“That he did, and we all owe him a debt for them. But this is one area where he and Father Regilin very much disagree. The priest believes the chulcas carry a curse in their very spirits, where Nomo suspects the secret is something called an ‘enzyme’ in their saliva, a clear venom that looks like drool but is, in fact, a kind of toxin. In either event, the padre has convinced a few of his braver congregants to try tracking down a few of the beasts to subdue and bring in for study. It’s a better chance than trying to find members of the Cult of Sidius.”
The two men finally came to another office, this one well-lit but unmanned. The chamber looked more like a storage room than an office, stretching a good twenty yards forward from the door and with iron shelves securely anchored in the walls. The entryway held no door, but neither man dared try stepping directly into the room. Instead, Digby pressed his left hand to a faded place on the wall to his left, just outside of the entrance, and said aloud, “Vessa antis.”
An audible click echoed up and down the hall, and the two men then proceeded into the room a few paces. Digby then turned around, put his right hand on the wall opposite where he’d put his left out in the hallway, and said, “Vessa costis.”
Another loud click snapped the air, and he sighed. “We really should try to work out a different way of securing this room.”
“Why? That spell has worked just fine the whole time I’ve been here.”
“Right, but what happens if someone figures out where to aim a disenchantment?” the vulpesin asked. “Or worse, when the headmaster passes away? All of his protections are contingent on his being alive.”
“We’ll cross that bridge if and when we come to it,” Coby said. “Come now, let’s get the violin squared away.”
Digby rooted around in his bag and pulled out the shrunken instrument case, setting it on the floor.
“Cheap and effective, though it’d probably wear off soon on its own.” Digby pulled out a dropper with a light red fluid. He released a single drop of the substance on the case, which stretched back out to its original size in moments. He picked up the case, and together, he and Coby walked to the back of the room and started opening drawers until they found the most recent emptied one. From atop the cabinet, Coby took down a blank parchment, filling out the form for the Outbound missions officer to record and set up, sliding the sheet into a holder slot on the front of the drawer. Digby dropped the case into the drawer, slid it shut, and the two men then headed back out, the vulpesin repeating the entry and securing sequence once more.
“You sleeping here tonight, then,” Coby asked as they stopped at his office once more, Digby remaining in the doorway.
“Yeah, it’s been a long night,” Digby replied with a yawn and stretch. “You have the latest contracts up in the Roll Call room for tomorrow?”
“All right, I might check them out in the morning. Otherwise, I think I’ll just grab my payment, then take a few days off. Have a good night, Coby.”
Alone once more, the vulpesin headed down to the guildhall’s lower level, selected an available bed, and crawled into it for a much-deserved rest after putting his gear in the trunk at the foot of the bed. And they say there’s no rest for the wicked, he thought as he drifted off to sleep. Little do they know.
Whenever he entered a new place, Biff Mclargehuge had been taught growing up, the first thing he must do is look around and find somebody who looked like they knew the place pretty well. The thing to do was ask as many questions as he could about said new place to this person, and hope that he could remember as much as possible of what they told him. “You may have to ask several times, lad. You’re none too bright, but that’s a tradition among the men of our blood,” his father had told him many and many-a. “It comes with being a Mclargehuge.”
The massive human held the straps of his pack with hands too big for the average male his age, the knuckles scarred many times over from countless brawls and combats engaged in the wilds with the various brigands and rashum, monsters, of the lands between Naletech and this township. He had been wandering for weeks, trying to find a new place to call ‘home’ per his father’s wishes, and that time had seen him into more battles than most militiamen or adventurers would see in a full five years of service. He never meant any harm, or to get into fights: people and critters just seemed to get angry at him. Even the ones that started out being nice to him got angry and turned on him, though he could not understand why.
Understanding was not Biff Mclargehuge’s forte.
As he entered the outskirts of the town, the first thing Biff observed was the strange way people here walked around. They mostly wore no armor, and only a few folks seemed to carry any kind of weapons. How do they protect themselves? he wondered. They all must be very nice people to not want to have something to cut or bash with on hand. This warmed his simple heart: how wonderful it must be to live in a town where he could not see a single fight taking place in the streets!
The hulking human found himself the subject of some few stares, however, mostly from young human women as he plodded toward the front porch of a creaking wooden establishment that smelled, even from a distance of about thirty yards, of graf and beer. An older man sat with a pipe on the porch, and he looked like the sort of man who, to Biff’s understanding, would probably be a ‘local’, as his father called learned men who never went anywhere. The glances and stares from the young women made him feel funny, and color flushed his cheeks as he smiled at them and waved, and they invariably waved back.
At six and a half feet in height, with the body frame of a gladiatorial champion, blond hair and blue eyes, he fairly exuded ‘alpha male’ to them. He’d been complimented on his physical appearance many times over the course of his short life, despite having the intellectual capacity of a rock.
Biff climbed the steps up onto the pub’s front porch and beamed at the old man, who just stared wonderingly up at him. “Hello, sir,” Biff said. “What’s the name of this town?”
“This is Breck, young man,” the gentleman replied. “Sweet gods, they make ‘em big where you come from, don’t they?”
“Um, yes?” Biff did not quite understand the question. “Papa says I was made from my mom’s crotch. I didn’t know more could be made from there,” he said.
The older man burst into a gale of laughter, which confused Biff even further. He didn’t realize he had made a joke. The older man shook his head, trying to calm down, which was good. That meant Biff could ask more questions. “What can you tell me about Breck?”
“Plenty, youngster, plenty. I’ve lived here my whole life. But I suspect you’re just passing through, aren’t you?”
“Where would I go if not here?” Biff asked. “Papa told me to find a new place to call home, on account of I was always breaking something in the house. So he packed me some things and told me to get walking, so I did, and now I’m here.” There was a pause, and Biff asked, “Are you okay, mister? You look confused and sad, which is bad, I know because sometimes I feel that way too.”
The older man just subtly shook his head and took a drag on his pipe.
“Your father just packed your things and sent you out into the world with no direction? You do realize that’s not normal, right, lad?”
Biff shrugged his shoulders and smiled again.
“Well, doesn’t seem to have dimmed your spirit any, at least. How old are you, son?”
“I’ll be twenty in a couple of months,” Biff replied. “Can I sit down in that chair? Mom says you always have to ask permission, it isn’t polite to just assume.”
“Well, your mum sounds like a wise woman, son. Sure, have a seat.” The older man waved a hand to the chair next to his, his simple brown tunics rustling as he rummaged in his pockets, pulling out a pouch of tobacco to tamp into his pipe.
Biff took off his pack and dropped it next to the chair with a resounding ‘thud’ that shook the porch, then sat.
“What’s your name, son?”
“I’m Biff. What’s your name, sir?”
“I’m Randall. So, you’re not just passing through to the militia training grounds?”
“No sir, Mister Randall. I’m no soldier, though my papa did say I’d make a good one. He says I’m a barbarian, though, and apparently barbarians don’t make very good soldiers. So, where should I stay in Breck?”
“Depends, lad. You have any money?”
“I’ve got a little, though I ain’t got much. Papa said it’s enough to get me a few days at an inn. He said I’ll have to find a job.”
“You ever had a job, lad?”
“Once, kind of. About four years ago, Mr. Burich had me chop wood during the summer. Then he had me do the same thing for some other folks around town. They all said I was really good, that I was made for splitting logs on account of I had a mind like the stump I chopped them on. That was nice of them,” Biff said.
“You think that was nice of them? How, lad?”
“Well, a stump’s part of a tree, and trees are nice. I like trees,” Biff said casually, as if this point should be obvious.
Randall just shook his head and scoffed, then patted Biff on the leg, his hand rattling the chainmaille leggings Biff wore under his loose brown trousers. Sitting there in his boiled leather armor with a broadsword on his back, the young man looked like nothing less than a hero walking out of a tale of yore. Yet he’s got the mind of a simpleton, Randall mused.
“Is there somewhere around here I could get a new job, Mr. Randall?”
“Fellow your size, I should imagine so, yes,” Randall said. “Biff, I had planned to get my first wet of the day soon’s this place opened business, but I think perhaps I’ll delay that for now. Let’s you and I take a walk, lad.” He stood with a grunt and tucking away his pipe after one last draw and tapping out the remains. “I think we can get you situated quickly.”
“That there’s O’Grady’s,” Randall said ten minutes later, pointing to an open-fronted smithy’s forge as he guided Biff through the heart of downtown. Breck wasn’t a bustling metropolis like Desanadron, Ja-Wen or Palen, but its downtown was as busy as any of those cities of an afternoon. “Finest dwarven crafts and weaponry you could ask for, and O’Grady himself can do custom armors with a flair few others can claim.”
Scritch, scratch, scritch, scratch. Randall had already gotten used to this sound; Biff had a small notebook in his huge hands, and a pen, and the big oaf was keeping notes in handwriting that looked no more skilled than that of an elementary schooler. Still, at least he’s trying, Randall thought.
“Is Mr. O’Grady a dwarf himself,” asked Biff, eyes wandering as he turned about in a slow circle to take in their surroundings.
“He is, Biff, though you would do well not to make too big a point of that. He was raised by Jafts in the Drelling mountains range, and thinks of himself as one of their kind. He even once tried to breathe underwater, like the big blue folks, but nearly drowned for his efforts.”
Biff scribbled another note in his book, then folded it shut over one thick finger, the pen in his other hand like a toothpick.
Randall walked on a few dozen paces, then stopped, a ribald smile crossing his features. He pointed to a finely appointed three-story building with red lace curtains drawn over all of the windows and a fierce-looking wererat in half-plate armor standing in front of the door at the top of the steps leading inside.
“What’s that place,” Biff asked, notebook open once more.
“That, my lad, is Madame Prahl’s Pleasure House, the only standing brothel in Breck,” said Randall. He planted his hands on his hips and lowered his head for a moment, rubbing his mouth. “I imagine it’s a place you’ll eventually get round to visiting.”
“Why,” Biff asked, scribbling.
Randall just blinked at him, nonplussed.
“You do know what a brothel is, don’t you, lad?”
Biff just shook his head, and Randall ripped into a fit of laughter that made the massive warrior worry that perhaps the older man had lost his mind for a moment. It came complete with slapping of the thighs, wheezing, and shaking of the head. “Oh, by the gods, the job can bloody well wait, lad! ‘Ave you never had sex, boy?”
Biff once more shook his head, and Randall just sniffed, patting him on the shoulder. “Well, per’aps Jocko will let me teach you something of the world then, oh traveling youth. Follow me.”
Biff tucked his notebook away now in a pouch on his hip, as well as the pen, and followed Randall across the dusty square of public space between them and the brothel. As they approached, the heavily armored wererat’s flat look turned into an outright scowl, and his left hand moved deftly to the handle of a heavy steel truncheon on his hip. When Randall got to the bottom of the steps, the lycanthrope took a heavy step forward and put his right hand out in a halting gesture.
“Hold on there, Turp, you ain’t gettin’ in until you’ve paid off your last visit,” the wererat snarled. “Madame Prahl’s not extending any more credit to people until business picks up in the coming season.”
“Jocko, normally I’d stand here and argue with you until you had to pound me stupid and send me away, but you have got to hear this,” Randall said with barely restrained laughter. “Biff? Wait here, lad,” the older man said, pouncing up the steps and pulling the bewildered rat aside to whisper quietly.
Biff just stood there with the straps of his pack held in his palms, idly running his hands up and down their length. Left strap needs replacement, he thought, his palm sensitive to every groove of fabric that felt out of place or damaged. He may not have understood things like sarcasm, or subtlety, or whispers and gossip, but Biff had always possessed a strange affinity for assessing things like damage to fabrics, how animals were feeling, or how to build something if he were just given the parts and shown what the finished product should look like.
A couple of minutes later, the wererat came down the steps with a broad, shit-eating smile plastered to his face, eyes dancing with impish glee. “Hello there, young Biff,” he exclaimed. “I’m Jocko, the doorman to this fine establishment!” Biff did as he was always taught then, extending one of his huge, scar-riddled hands to shake.
The wererat seemed surprised by this gesture, but he accepted it and shook. “Randall is a many-time customer of ours, and despite his tab, I’ve agreed to take you inside on a little tour of our operation!”
“Oh, nifty,” Biff replied enthusiastically. “So, what do you folks make here?”
Jocko and Randall both snickered, and the lycanthrope slung an arm round Biff’s broad shoulders, guiding the larger lad up the steps companionably.
“We make smiles, lad, we make smiles,” said Jocko.
“Don’t forget babies and diseases here and there,” Randall muttered as he took up Jocko’s spot on the porch and Jocko and Biff headed inside.
The first thing Biff noticed was a combination of how dimly lit the entry room was, and the combination aroma of lilacs and honey. The entrance was a narrow passage with a couple of slatted benches against each wall, and coats hung off of iron hooks on either side. A long shelf also protruded from the left wall at about Biff’s eye level, with various bags and pails settled atop. It reminded Biff of the break room at papa’s workplace, the old saw mill on the edge of Naltech.
When Jocko slipped ahead of him, Biff followed dutifully, notebook and pen in hand. As the pair stepped into a lavish common room furnished with several plush chairs, three broad couches and a long trestle table with bowls of various fruits and cheeses, the lumbering young barbarian heard muffled noises coming from all directions. A curious turning brought his eyes upon several closed doors leading off of the commons room, then up a stairway against the far wall to a balconied second level, the ceiling of the commons room far overhead. Another set of stairs on the second balcony level led up to a third floor, a sight which boggled Biff’s mind.
Not that such was a difficult thing to do.
“It sounds like someone’s in trouble,” Biff remarked as his eyes darted around at various doors around them. A high-pitched shriek split the air, and without a thought in his head, Biff stuffed the notebook and pen away as he darted for one of the nearby doors,
Jocko too stunned by the swiftness with which the giant brute moved to get a hand on him and stop his forward motion.
The enormous broadsword was in his hands as the barbarian kicked in a rickety wooden door, halting in his tracks as his eyes fell upon the room beyond. Laid on a plush four-poster bed was a middle-aged human fellow, his long brown hair matted to his sweaty head, naked as the day he was born. Seated atop him was a half-elven woman, also nude, her arms crossed over her tiny breasts as she stared at the intruding Biff, eyes wide, body clenched in alarm. The smell in the room was a bittersweet blend of salty sweat and jasmine perfume, coming mostly from the couple on the bed. A long, low dresser stood to Biff’s right, covered with what looked like various torture devices and capsules full of makeup, the top dominated by a vanity mirror which stretched across most of its length. “Oh, um, sorry about that,” Biff said awkwardly, letting his sword tip scrape the floor as he pulled the door shut, stepping back out into the commons room.
Jocko was bent over in a fit of gale laughter behind him, and as Biff turned around and sheathed his sword, he found himself grinning a little too. “By the gods, lad, you’re a thick one aren’t you,” Jocko asked, straightening up.
“I guess, yeah,” Biff replied. “You know, I’ve heard of places like this. But back where I’m from, I think they call it a gym.” Jocko raised an eyebrow at him, waiting on the follow-up explanation. “You know, a place where people go to exercise.”
“Exercise? Lad, what makes you think those two were exercising,” Jocko asked.
“Well, once, a couple of years ago, when I was really worried about one of my teeth falling out in the middle of the night, I went to tell my papa and mom, and when I walked in, they were doing that,” Biff replied evenly, pointing back at the door, behind which from no noise was presently coming (and beyond which a highly irritated customer was whisper-haggling with a distressed prostitute over payment, since they’d been so fantastically disrupted). “I asked my papa what they were doing, and he said, ‘Exercising’.”
“So what is it people are doing when they lift weights or go jogging,” Jocko asked.
“Working out, or training,” said Biff matter-of-factly, sending the wererat into another fit of laughter.
“I wouldn’t have expected less, given our conversation a bit ago,” Randall said to Jocko as Biff waited at the bottom of the steps leading from the street to the brothel entrance. “Still, he doesn’t seem to mean any harm.”
“Gods be thankful for that,” Jocko replied, looking down at the huge young barbarian. “Where are you going to take him, by the way? For a job, I mean, because I’ve got a few ideas, lad that size.”
“I was thinking I’d take him to the Freelancers hall over there on Pearl Street,” said Randall. “They could use someone like our young Biff here. Strong, clearly has a working knowledge of that sword of his.”
“And not much else.”
“They’ll be able to get him squared away. Otherwise, he’s apt to wander around and get taken advantage of by some unscrupulous bloke or other, maybe one of Branson’s Boys over on 7th or 8th. He’d be a nightmare for the constabulary to try to deal with if he became a street tough.”
“I don’t think they’d take him in any case,” Jocko replied. “Them boys have to have a measure of wits about them, and he doesn’t quite qualify for that, now does he? Best of luck with him, then, Randall. Oh, and you still owe a tab, friend,” the wererat chided, wagging a finger at the scrawny human.
“I haven’t forgotten.” Randall nodded and headed down the steps, patting Biff on the arm.
“Ready to be off, then?”
“Yup.” Biff followed Randall once more, the older gent occasionally stopping to point out places of importance along the way. He made sure to stay on West Main until they’d passed the rougher patches of 7th and 8th street before turning north and heading past their respective intersections, finally aiming himself and the lad toward a wide, squat building with an old-fashioned sandwich board on a stand to the right of the batwing entrance doors. “‘Freelance Adventurers Guild of Tamalaria’”, Biff read aloud, giving Randall a fresh surprise.
“You can read fairly well, then,” he said, having worried when he’d seen the child-like handwriting in Biff’s notebook. “Good. I’m thinking signing up with this bunch is going to be your best chance to get situated here in Breck, at least, until you get your legs under you proper.” He planted his hands on his hips, elbows angled out, and beamed up at the barbarian. “Well, this is where we part ways, Biff. It’s been a pleasure meeting you, I must say.”
“Thanks, Mr. Randall. You’ve been awfully nice to show me around,” Biff said. What happened next took Randall rather by surprise; the big man reached out and took him in a firm hug, but he didn’t squeeze hard enough to hurt. He patted Randall on the back, then turned and headed into the guildhall, leaving a mystified Randall to watch him disappear.
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