Golarion: (Crimson) Council of Thieves

Bastards of Erebus: Janiven's Invitation
The first meeting, the first pursuit

Westcrown, Cheliax
Fireday, Desnus 21 4709AR
Low cloud, dry, cold, chill wind


Spring breathes its last. Summer lurks upon the threshold, held at bay as the last vestiges of winter drags it’s icy claws through the streets, alleys and cubbyholes of the port city of Westcrown. Nestled upon the southern Chelish coast, it is the Chelish jewel, the city of cities within the proudest of nations. Leastwise it was. Once.

Now a faint echo of the once majestic city that shone with the glory of Aroden, a beacon to all Golarion of the now dead God’s majesty, darker forces now assume lordship of its streets, paranoia and fear lurk in shadows, the absolute application of law looms above the heads of all, rich and poor alike.

House Thrune wrested control of Cheliax more than half a century before; in league with devils they were. Asmodeus’ minions they became, subject to his determinations and decrees. And their application of Asmodeus’ will was brutal and unbending. Absolute law. Absolute obedience.

Visio’s Tavern. Comfortably shouldering a space between a bedsit to its left and a brothel to its right in the heart of Parego Spera, Hope’s Altar, it sheltered between both from the sea breeze sweeping in off the Westchannel. Trudging early evening foot traffic gave the tavern nary a second glance; the door was closed, the shutters were latched, though the late spring sun, falling towards the western horizon, shone brightly upon its weathered facade.

Inside, the soul occupant of the establishment waited nervously for the guests she had invited. Her guests, she hoped, would be the sparks to help return light to Westcrown and Cheliax, and beat back the darkness that shrouded her homeland.

‘Weather,’ Vengrim thought, his face a sneer as he stepped from his room. He was still vexed by the fickle turns of nature, even after years above ground. He considered returning inside for his warmer cloak, but then simply pulled his hood up and strode down the alley. In the earth a vast array of clothing was unnecessary, wasteful even. And rain! It sometimes took him weeks to fully dry out.

He snorted and spit with contempt before turning into the main thoroughfare. The wind snapped at him as he moved in the direction of Visio’s. He grumbled under his breath and trundled on, thinking, ‘Is it any wonder he preferred the underways of the city?’

The dwarf’s mood was foul when he arrived at the tavern. He had reconnoitered earlier in the day and had cultivated a slim hope that the establishment would be open for five bells. Here it was half a bell shy of that and quite clear his thirst would need to be managed elsewhere. He stared only long enough to decide if he wanted to walk into the wind going away or coming back.

Then he wandered off in search of something with which to toast his most recent gamble before he returned here to roll the dice.

Abhas paused just inside the doorway, letting his eyes adjust to the dimmer, shuttered interior in contrast to the sun outside as he took in the room. He turned and shut the door behind him; sure, smoothly, slowing the close just before contact such that it would not slam shut.

Janiven, alone. Thus far. Abhas reached to his sternum and released his cloak, lifting his arm to pull it free from his shoulders and around him to fold and drape across his arm casually. The interior of the Visio was simple; Abhas tossed his folded cloak to rest over the back of a nearby chair; it would do. He turned his attention and posture to Janiven.

“Fair evening, Janiven,” he greeted, not unpleasantly, as if he enjoyed the sound of her name, and added a forward nod of his head without lowering his eyes. The blade of dagger he’d been palming in his right hand along the inside of his arm since entering flashed momentarily as he reversed it and guided it back into a sheath on his belt.

She inclined her head curtly. “Fair tidings, Abhas,” she replied, short and simply.

The red scarf, he noted, was still afixed about her throat, and the dark fitting garment of their meeting earlier that morn was still upon her form.

He looked about again; plenty of places for another to be, in the wings, out of sight. No matter. He was more intrigued by the demonstration of venue — Janiven was of some means, the owner of the Visio was a co-conspirator, or the proprietor was otherwise indisposed. Interesting.

“Fetching scarf,” Abhas commented, a bit of a smile making the observation both light and disarming, in intentional contrast to her apparent anxiety over this assembly’s success.

“Please stand to sate your thirst, if you wish.”

The dark-haired woman was not seated when Abhas had entered. She remained so, walking from the table she sided at his entry to another several steps from the first. Still she stood, fingers drumming upon the scarred wooden top

With no serving staff at hand, Abhas strolled to the serving counter and behind it, nonplussed, retrieved a mug, and surveyed the available inventory. Beers and ales, it would seem; the wines must be cellared. Mug below spigot on beg, he filled his mug, then walked back out to Janiven. Rather than put a table between them; this gathering would likely have little coin or materials to pass, but many close words; Abhas pulled a chair nearer and turned it that, when all were assembled, they’d have an open span of stone floor within a circle of however many Janiven had invited.

Abhas executed a perfunctory bow and short smile for presumed permission and took a seat, crossing one leg over the opposite knee, and taking a brief sip from his mug before holding it low in both hands.

He elected to not initiate further conversation or pleasantries. Whatever would need to be said, would likely need to be said within the group as a whole, and Janiven had already indicated she was not to be the primary speaker tonight. To the contrary, he did not make himself unapproachable or distant, should Janiven have things she wished to say before or as others arrived.

Janiven’s attention was focused upon the door. Five bells had rung, and yet there was just the one who had arrived. She fretted, though strove to disguise it. She had promised him more…

Not altogether far from the establishment, a watcher stood tucked into shadow, her hood drawn over her head. The shadow was but a narrow sliver, as was afforded by the arrangement of alley, a narrow space the fading sunlight did not quite reach. She made a surly-looking figure, slightly hunched, and yet, there emanated an air of movement stilled. She pushed her shoulder against the wall enough that she was stood straighter, relieving the building tension in her muscles. A slightly sharper breath might have been a sigh, although she was much-used to allowing time to march onward, while she simply waited.

In the confines of her mind, errant thoughts scurried to and fro. They were like the rapid formation and dissolution of clouds; she had been told, by compatriots, that she was a collective of contradictions. She swathed herself in shadow and could wait with all the patience of the cat, while her mind raced and wandered, little fireworks of thought exploding every so often. She was an odd one, but she felt that odd was better than boring, especially when one had to wait and observe.

Her name was Venythariel Nuemhyrra, but the elven syllables were hardly easy on the tongue for the unfamiliar, and so she went by the simplistic Vern.

She had observed thusly: A bordered-up tavern. A den of, ah, affections to one side, and an apartment of sorts to the other. An unremarkable place, ignored by the world.

As her fingers idly were raked through the fur trim of her cloak, a repetitive motion as if it had some sentience. She had lingered near Visio’s Tavern long before the five bells had rung, and the one passer-by of interest had been a dwarf. He had worn what she assumed was an expression typical of dwarves everywhere: somewhere between annoyance and quiet fury. He’d paused at the tavern, although it was apparently not as he had expected, whatever expectations he might have had. He had tromped onward, for gods knew what purpose.

In a city such as Westcrown, what was one more figure lingering in an alleyway? As far as she had observed, she had gone unnoticed.

Five bells were rung, and— yes, a singular figure had permitted himself within. She squared her shoulders and detached herself from the wall. She loosened her swords in their sheaths, lest it was the maw of some carefully-laid trap she was wandering into, and crossed the street. Five bells, she had been told, so it was at five bells that she would make herself apparent.

She brought one hand flat against the door, tipping her head as if listening. For all the good it would do, she reflected; there was nothing to be heard. She eased herself against it, and tensed, relaxing once she took the two figures into her regard. The first was her contact, Janiven, who seemed expectant; the other, a man of attractive countenance, although he put her in mind of a scholar by his bearing.

She lightly grasped at her cowl and, with a gentle motion, it slipped from her head. Her head was canted slightly to the side, as though bereft of cowl, she was viewing them anew.

Abhas’ attention had turned to the door at the sword-laden woman’s entry. It then slid to Janiven briefly; enough to assess that this was a guest, not their host; then back to the newcomer.

The look Janiven gave the recently arrived woman was of familiarity though not infused with the tone of a companion. This was not her accomplice; it was another she had extended an invitation to.

“Fair winds,” she said, by way of greeting, her lilting accent much in evidence even in so few syllables. She surveyed her surroundings, and seeing that no pointed weapons were forthcoming, allowed herself a lopsided smile. “I confess that I had expected…otherwise, but this suits me well enough.”

“Fair winds,” the man replied in equal tone and echoing, pleasant smile that was at once welcoming and neutral. Accepting roles of host and officiant even when not offered, he gestured with an upturned palm to any of the many chairs at any of the nearby tables, inviting her to select one and bring it to their assembling circle.

“Not that I didn’t have a dagger in hand at my entry, but…” he eyed her swords, “for what were you expecting and readied?” His manner was conversational, not pointed, and not accusatory; easily dismissed if she did not wish to answer, but readily invitational if she did.

She might have answered him, but there was then an interruption: the entrance of the dwarf, the very same as she had seen not altogether long before. She cast her wintry green gaze over the newcomer, and while having been offered a seat at the table, she instead opted to casually walk over to the counter, angling herself so that she was facing them, leaning against it and crossing her arms over her abdomen.

The jug sloshed with savory promise in Vengrim’s hand as he bounced it lightly against his leg. He eyed the entrance to Visio’s once more. Five bells had chimed, and he was sure he had just missed the door closing. He sucked his teeth for a moment and waited for a sufficient gap in foot traffic before crossing to the defunct tavern.

He unlatched the door and pushed it open with the jug heel. Several figures moved in the contrasting light, and Vengrim almost departed without a word. One face caught his eye though, and he harumphed lightly in good humor. He decided to stay if for no other reason than to see what he was doing here.

Vengrim stepped in and hooked the door with the jug once more, shoving it toward closed as he stepped into the circle that was forming. He found Janiven and nodded curtly. He remained standing next to a table and hefted the jug onto its patinated surface. His eyes found the elven woman, and a minuscule quirk of one eyebrow was the only outward indication of his inclinations toward her presence. He gave her a slight nod of greeting and turned his attention then to Abhas.

“You’re the last person I expected to find here,” Vengrim said to the poised noble. Names were still a private matter as far as he could tell. He then saw the mug Abhas was holding, and the dwarf’s features descended into a scowl as he looked from the mug to his jug and back again. Apparently though closed, the tavern was still spirited at heart.

“Help yourself,” Abhas nodded at catching the inference of Vengrim’s attention. Abhas gestured with his mug towards the unattended bar’s limited stock, then sipped from it again. He encompassed Vern in his invitation with an inclusive nod to her, as well.

“And good evening to you, too,” he added to Vengrim with a cordial grin, his eyes briefly widening to express his own inward-facing surprise at Vengrim’s presence. “It appears some of our endeavors overlap, but I doubt that is surprising to either of us.”

“That said,” Abhas turned to regard Janiven as he continued, all attention for her reaction that Abhas and Vengrim clearly already knew each other, “is it a surprise to you, Janiven?” Did Janiven note, locate, and extend invitation to Abhas because she was aware of his prior dealings with Vengrim, or vice versa, or was she even somewhat surprised that they appeared to already be at least passingly acquainted?

“I confess,” she replied, “your relationship was not known to me till this moment. Though it does not surprise me. Many threads weave the waistcoat of the underworld of Westcrown. That some, many, might intersect is surely no surprise, to any of us.”

Janiven gestured towards the bar; catching sight of Vengrim’s ample vessel, she half smiled. “I see you have come prepared,” she observed. “Good.”

Despite the cordial manner she displayed, it hid her anxiousness. A finger tapped upon her thigh, her lips pursed, betraying her worry. There were to be five, she had said. There were only three. Perhaps the other pair had chosen to decline her offer after all.

“It is good that you have chosen to indulge my request for attendance,” she said, eyeing each in turn, extending the welcome to all three as a group with her words, and to each with a singular personal look. “Thank you. I would hope those I also extended the invitation to will oblige us with their company.”

“Please, fill a mug with ale, or partake of the refreshments.” The latter it could be seen were indeed laid upon a table near the bar, slightly obscured from their vision by the end of the worn bar-top.

She seemed not to note her repeated offer of ale.

“I know not the status of any others you might be waiting for, but I am here,” came a quiet voice in the lull of Janiven’s offer, one with a slightly odd, unplacable accent to its Taldane. For a long moment, the location where the voice came from was equally unplaceable, and then, one of the long shadows created by time of day seemed to shift. Not by much, but enough to know that it wasn’t completely natural. The one in it was wearing a cloak that seemed barely a shadow itself. It stood a few inches short of Abhas, a few inches taller than Vern, and if the detail could be confirmed, so far past ‘lithe’ as to be considered painfully thin.

The dark-haired woman started at the soft voice, her hand habitually falling to the hilt of her blade. Her eyes sought the source of the soft male utterings. Movement in a shadow caught her eye.

“Since you did not greet me as you did the others, I supposed you did not see me,” he continued, a faintly amused tone to his – yes, most definitely a male – voice. The voice was soft, lacking projection, but not a whisper, his previous movement itself silent. And after that single, clearly intentional, movement, still once again. So still as to become part of the shadows he stood in, much as he had before. But now that he’d given himself away, it would be more difficult for him to do so so completely.

“Greetings, and well met,” came the final words, these apparently addressed to the others in the room. “I am called Gee.”

A low dangerous whistle emerged from Vengrim as Gee made himself known. The dwarf did not start, but he certainly wheeled in the direction of the unseen speaker.

“You stretch the bounds of civility creeping into a gathering such as this,” Vengrim said. “You’re lucky not to lose your head.”

Abhas frowned slightly, seated but regarding Gee, who has clearly intended /not/ to be seen, but still chided Janiven for his success in doing so.

“Please; join us,” Abhas invited, requested, and insisted in but three words. He gestured towards one of the chairs within the gathering. If this was going to be a confluence of co-conspirators, Abhas wanted to clearly see whom he was to be interacting with, and there was an important measure of trust to be established, here.

Abhas noted Gee’s introduction of name, and resolved to respond in kind, once Gee joined them.

Upon spying the man, recognising fragments of profile and shape and the timbre of his voice, she relaxed. “Welcome,” she sighed, relieved. “You are amongst friends, of like mind. Please, join us. Though you will have to tell me how you got in, so I may have that hole plugged.” She half-smiled, sponging any perceived ire from her tone.

Janiven expected social mores and requirement would better their suspicions and reticence sooner rather than later. One had already, broaching the line, yet the trustful swapping of names and the softening of their guards would occur as they each deemed it appropriate and worthwhile. She would not push them further on the matter, not yet. She was relieved they had arrived at all; danger stalked their every move and if they were to be caught, the dark Hellknights sprung to mind, then as much fast talking as they could muster may not be enough to save their skins.

If any looked closely, they would note her worry, anxiousness, her posture and pose of ill-at-ease. She fidgeted, could not sit; she stood, though not in one place for longer than a heartbeat or two.

“We wait for but one more…”

“Janiven isn’t to blame,” came Gee’s quiet voice, clearly having caught the chiding intent. “She knows I prefer the shadows since I told her so, but it’s possible she did not understand the extent. I suspect it’s one of the reasons she sought me out, though she’s still not explained her specific reasons to me. I will offer an apology. It has become first nature to me to stay out of the light if at all possible, to not draw attention to myself, to wait and watch in stillness and see what happens before I present myself. This place is not particularly friendly to my kind.” Frankly, Westcrown wasn’t particularly friendly to any race that wasn’t human, in his opinion, but especially not to those who were of the less common humanoid races, like himself and the newly-arrived Caravan guard whose race he hadn’t been able to place just yet.

With that, he stepped out of the shadows.

It really didn’t help much, especially with the lighting so poor at this time of day on the inside of the building. With the long cloak he wore, hood up, the only things that could be guessed about him were that he was as painfully thin as he had seemed, and his skin was dark. His fingers, really the only thing easily visible with the hood shrouding his features, were just as thin as the rest of him would seem to be, but agile and dextrous. But they didn’t look wrong on him, at least not compared to what his normal body type seemed to be.

It did, however, reveal that he was not unarmed. Still, the shortbow and quiver were probably not the only weapons he carried – more were probably under the cloak. But, really, that was just common sense when coming to a place full of strangers in a place as dangerous as Westcrown. None were drawn, however, and that was probably for the best, given the tension in the room.

“And I came in through the back door,” Gee finally added, though the faint tone of amusement was back in his voice. “I thought entering a tavern that has been closed for several months from the street side at a time when that street was fairly busy might draw a bit too much attention – or curiosity – for my tastes.” To himself, in particular. Not to mention it was darker back there, and therefore, more comfortable for him.

The dwarf thumbed the cork out of his jug and lifted it to his lips, taking a long draught. A grimace and half-belch turned into speech.

“You’ve talent, fair enough,” he said. “But that’s only half the recipe now, isn’t it?”

Whatever further exchange might have occurred between Vengrim and Gee dissolved when the door to Visio’s opened once more.

“Actually, it’s rather the opposite way around, Blacktongue,” the soft voice came back, the form of address clearly an indication that he knew who the dwarf was. “You saw no door open to admit me, nor shadows shift as I moved into position because I’ve been here close to an hour now. I was here before anyone but Janiven, and I was outside when she arrived this morning. I did not ‘creep’ into your gathering, you stomped into mine.” That said, his tone was not chiding, or even negative. He was just trying to correct the misunderstanding.

Outside on a nearby rooftop Jade had waited. Very early in her career as a guard with the merchant caravans she and a group of hopefuls had been assembled. “Wait here. Don’t move.”. That was all the gruff overseer had said before departing. One full day later he came back and Jade and two others, still sitting where they had been left were the only ones inducted. She never forgot that first lesson all those decades ago.

Now she surveiled the scene below from her vantage point. First Janiven arrived. Then the scion of house Semafye. Was he conspirator or infiltrator? She knew better than most that of that House none could be sure. Then…what is he doing here? She watched, a tightening in her chest. It was some time before she remembered to breath.

There could be no coincidence. She began to descend by the second set of stairs, it was always important to make sure that one was not trapped with only a single route out, it was at that moment then she perceived another party arriving. This one acted as if she was stalking him. There was no time to waste. As quickly and quietly as she could she descended and headed to past the other buildings. She paused only long enough by the door for a quick determination that no significant evil was present.

5 bells had tolled, and with the dying peels of the bell ringing in her heart she said a silent prayer. “Torag, grant him the time needed should this be a trap. Make him had as the anvil and I will crash down as your hammer. I will break them as a flawed jug bursts in the kiln, and none shall stop your works or will.”. Knowing that as soon as she opened the door she would lose any chance at going undetected she quickly planned her entrance. The door opened in, using it’s bulk to shield her body she knocked an arrow and opened the door enough to look in.

What she saw instantly put her at ease. Allowing the door to close and returning her arrow to her quiver, she allowed the door to close. She took the liberty of arranging herself and strode in weapons slung. She took in the 5 individuals in the room. Looking each in the eyes she looked at the Dwarf last of the group save Janiven. Clearly seeing the drinks she ignored them and took a seat.

Her bow removed as she sat leaned against her chair and her hand in a practiced move adjusted the long hammer that hung at her waist. Her armor was the official design of the Dwarven Merchant Caravan guards, and those that knew their reputation gave them their due.

Wordlessly she waited.

As this new woman sat, Vengrim slammed his jug onto the table with jarring force. He stared at her armored figure for a moment, then shifted his gaze to Janiven. Then he looked at Abhas. Neither of them bore a look of complicity, but that didn’t make matters any easier. Vengrim’s mouth flopped open and closed a couple of times before he built up enough steam to move. He stalked half the distance to this newest arrival, and a harsh earthen dialect spilled from him.

“<<how>>” he said in his native tongue. “<<you>>”

He didn’t wait for an answer though, redirecting his anger at Janiven. He took a few steps toward their intrepid host but leveled a finger at the newcomer. “What is that doing here?” The venom of his common speech grossly evident. “If you sought to anger Vengrim Blacktongue, then you’ve succeeded!”

Gee went quiet at Vengrim’s apparent anger at the new entry, though he did not understand the first address, it came as no surprise when he continued in Taldane.

As Vengrim berated Jade she continued to sit motionless. The only indication that she heard or understood was a single eyebrow raising. When he turned to Janiven the brow returned to its former residence.

“Let’s not fray the waistcoat just yet,” Abhas suggested, aside of the confrontation but choosing to mitigate it, while being prepared to hold up a palm to ward the fire from Vengrim such an effort would surely provoke.

‘That,’ Abhas mused. Interesting and imprecise choice of word, more so than just that Vengrim’s vocabulary had failed him in his ire. Abhas regarded Jade with a closer scrutiny.

Vengrim barely spared a glance over one shoulder for the human from House Semafye. In that moment though, Abhas saw a great many facets on the rough gem of Blacktongue that had remained heretofore unseen by the noble. Among them a familiarity with audience, the Dwarf stood at the center of the circle, unfazed by the attention of so many of substance. An ease of command, not only did Vengrim bark orders, there was expectation that he would be obeyed. But most intriguing was the outright dismissal, the conveyance that Abhas did not even warrant consideration in this matter.

“Profession, nature, or history?” Abhas asked Jade pleasantly, for any clarification she may wish to volunteer regarding Vengrim’s passionate objection to her presence. That she hadn’t yet spoken a single word suggested she would be succinct, if she chose to answer at all… but then, trust in such circumstances was constructed in small increments. He wasn’t quite certain if she was prepared to silently take and accept whatever Vengrim dished out at her, or if she was electing to try to be dismissively immune to it.

Abhas, in cognizance and connection, weighed Vengrim’s ready presence; leadership, even; and Jade’s dress, consistent with a particular guard company of some similar relation. He looked back and forth, twice, between Vengrim and Jade, but kept his own counsel.

Janiven sucked a breath in. She should have seen this coming. The disparate natures and personalities of the group she had endeavoured to assemble birthed mistrust. Wary suspicion was altogether expected, and these handful of minutes as the souls arrived, most unknown to each other, was always going to be a delicate and fraught time.

She had to admit ignorance on the matter of a Dhampir’s relationship with non-human folks. Sure, their presence was brooked by her own racial kin, yet judging Vengrim’s reaction, tolerance for vampire spawn was too hot a spice for his kind to swallow.

She thought to intervene, perhaps utter a soothing word or two, when the Dhampir spoke, stealing the breath from her sentence.

Vengrim granted Janiven only a moment as well. Her ignorance of what she had orchestrated was stark upon her features. He lowered his hand with a frustrated grunt and slightly dismissive wave, turning back to the armored woman sitting with cool precision.

To answer as if Vengrim was not there or was not of consequence would be inexcusably rude, and his outburst was not entirely surprising given the circumstances. Turning to the Dwarf she refrained from replying in Dwarven which would also seem dismissive of the others. How to phrase this without coming off patronizing or arrogant…“Should you wish to offer an explanation I will not object.”. There, allow him some measure of control and dignity. Take the gift little one she thought, impressions matter.

The room reeked of control and dignity, sourly reminiscent of past shadows, ones he had left behind for good cause. Now this. He stared at her, marveling at the unchanged features, at the ghosts that swam just beneath the surface of her skin. She embodied all that was, and it stirred a familiar anger in him, renewing his sense of purpose.

To think of her here now though, walking a path parallel to his own, standing at the vanguard against the coming storm—for a storm was coming, only the daft or departed were lucky enough to feel otherwise—to see her thus, well, it broke his heart a little further.

Janiven fidgeted. She was beginning to feel anxious, worried even. It was so unlike him to be late. She would give him a minute-glass to arrive else she would start without him. All who had accepted her invitation and who sat in attendance had done so in good faith, her faith, her trust.

It was he who had desired their attendance. It was he who had requested their audience. Yet it was she who had convinced them to risk much to step through their door. And it was she who now stood alone before them. She frowned, mild irritation creasing her brow.

Seconds and minutes might prove the difference between success and failure in their venture. A small exasperated, worried breath escaped her lips.

A minute-glass only.

In silence, the elf watched matters unfold. It seemed as though the rest of the party, in some fashion or another, were connected. Vern had noted the Grey One with some measure of interest, if only by the flash of her pale gaze levelled in his direction. Another with a foot in shadow, although he set her at a little unease, without quite entirely knowing why. The warmth of the cloak was growing discomforting, but occupied by the tensions already apparent, she ignored it, if momentarily. She moved only a little, whether it was shifting weight, or brushing her inky locks away from her vision. It was about the time that Vengrim had verbally delivered a verbal lashing to the armoured woman that she had coaxed a waterskin from her belt, easing open the corded stopper with her thumb, taking a draught without taking her eyes from them.

She lowered the waterskin, rewetting her lips by curling them inward just briefly, but held it there against her hip. Their hostess certainly appeared uneasy by the show of differences; perhaps matters had not proceeded as she had hoped. Still, no weapons had been drawn — at least, none that were physically harmful, as such. The ranger pushed the stopper back into the opening of the waterskin, setting it upon the bar counter so that she could unsling her bow and shrug out of her cloak, there only being a quiet rustle to accomplish both. Taking care that nothing had been spilled on the well-worn wooden surface, she draped her cloak there, setting the bow atop the fabric. She rolled each shoulder back in alternate succession, then pushed both back simultaneously, banishing the tension that had grown there from the cloak’s heft.

She might have appeared bored, but such was her face at rest — one of idle thoughtfulness, but it belied much. So: dwarf, unhappy at newcomer, carrying about him not only his fury, but an inclination to drink. Human in rich trappings clad, merchant, or perhaps nobility? A man of words, diplomatic. Scholar. Grey man, Gee, silent, altogether too lean, shadow in flesh. A guardswoman who did not say altogether much, unflinching, fearless in the face of the ranting dwarf. And, at long last, their hostess, restless, unsure.

Human and dwarf knew one another. The dwarf knew the guardswoman. They were but a casual portrait of the connections that were a reflection of Westcrown’s greater web, and in the confines of her head, a quill scratched against parchment. As interesting as it was, however, it was perhaps time for the merry few to train their focus upon the purpose for which they had been gathered. She had, more or less, become part of the background as the exchanges unfurled, but it had come time for her to speak once more.

“While I am loathe to interrupt this exchange of pleasantries,” she said lazily, taking advantage of the pause in intense conversation, “It might behoove us to pay mind to our hostess, and learn more of our purpose." She had retrieved the waterskin as she spoke, her gaze briefly diverted as her fingers sought it. She flicked her thumbnail against its stoppered top repetitively, a habit of the subconscious. She gently adjusted her weight forward, away from the counter, but settled back against it shortly thereafter, crossing one long leg over the other, while her gaze drank in the odd party in its entirety.

The mantle that had inflated Vengrim and fueled his anger dissolved as quickly as it had been summoned. The smelly vagrant that remained behind cast a sour glance toward the Elf but brought his gaze back to the armored woman.

“<<tell>>” he said, his tone shallow and listless. “<<but>>”

He turned his back on her and shambled over to the table that held his jug of spirits. He hesitated for a moment, but then lifted the jug to his lips and took a healthy draught.

The matter left to her Jade spoke, “It is clear all of us here are so at your behest.” She said addressing Janiven. “Now to address your factors.” Jade waited for a reply, assuming nobody would further discuss the topic of the Dwarf out of a sense of propriety.

Chad Hiatt


Vengrim barely spared a glance over one shoulder for the human from House Semafye. In that moment though, Abhas saw a great many facets on the rough gem of Blacktongue that had remained heretofore unseen by the noble. Among them a familiarity with audience, the Dwarf stood at the center of the circle, unfazed by the attention of so many of substance. An ease of command, not only did Vengrim bark orders, there was expectation that he would be obeyed. But most intriguing was the outright dismissal, the conveyance that Abhas did not even warrant consideration in this matter.

She might have appeared bored, but such was her face at rest — one of idle thoughtfulness, but it belied much. So: dwarf, unhappy at newcomer, carrying about him not only his fury, but an inclination to drink. Human in rich trappings clad, merchant, or perhaps nobility? A man of words, diplomatic. Scholar. Grey man, Gee, silent, altogether too lean, shadow in flesh. A guardswoman who did not say altogether much, unflinching, fearless in the face of the ranting dwarf. And, at long last, their hostess, restless, unsure.

Human and dwarf knew one another. The dwarf knew the guardswoman. They were but a casual portrait of the connections that were a reflection of Westcrown’s greater web, and in the confines of her head, a quill scratched against parchment. As interesting as it was, however, it was perhaps time for the merry few to train their focus upon the purpose for which they had been gathered. She had, more or less, become part of the background as the exchanges unfurled, but it had come time for her to speak once more.

“While I am loathe to interrupt this exchange of pleasantries,” she said lazily, taking advantage of the pause in intense conversation, “It might behoove us to pay mind to our hostess, and learn more of our purpose." She had retrieved the waterskin as she spoke, her gaze briefly diverted as her fingers sought it. She flicked her thumbnail against its stoppered top repetitively, a habit of the subconscious. She gently adjusted her weight forward, away from the counter, but settled back against it shortly thereafter, crossing one long leg over the other, while her gaze drank in the odd party in its entirety.

The mantle that had inflated Vengrim and fueled his anger dissolved as quickly as it had been summoned. The smelly vagrant that remained behind cast a sour glance toward the Elf but brought his gaze back to the armored woman.

“<<tell>>” he said, his tone shallow and listless. “<<but>>”

He turned his back on her and shambled over to the table that held his jug of spirits. He hesitated for a moment, but then lifted the jug to his lips and took a healthy draught.

The matter left to her Jade spoke “It is clear all of us here are so at your behest.” She said addressing Janiven. “Now to address your factors.” Jade waited for a reply, assuming nobody would further discuss the topic of the Dwarf out of a sense of propriety.

“Her behest, but not to be her audience,” Abhas amended to Vern’s and Jade’s pleasantries.

Abhas stood and set his acquired mug aside.

“Gee, it appears, is ironically the most forward. My name is Abhas,” he nodded in Gee’s direction, as of a somewhat casual greeting and a belated exchange. To the broader room, Abhas volunteered, “Janiven offered a bold proposition; I am here to gain its details.”

“As no one draws steel nor blood, I gather we are all here for a similar purpose. Hold your own counsel, or speak, as you will.”

The fetchling returned the nod, probably only noticeable by the sound of shifting cloth against hair and sight of movement of shadow against shadow. He did appreciate the noted irony, however. “Likewise, I am here to hear Janiven and those with whom she colludes, to use her phraseology, and to have my questions answered. And then to decide whether to remain or to go. Either way, I will not reveal those who are here to others.” Unless it would benefit him, of course.


Stolen glances in Jade’s direction had served to deliver that particular identifying information to Vern. She had only heard of such…individuals. She was passable enough as human, but her statuesque features possessed an otherworldly quality, alongside other little tells that spoke of her inhuman blood. Gee — who exhibited traits that Vern found favourable in her compatriots — was a greater mystery. What was it that stirred ancient, bone-deep instincts to feel so apprehensive in his presence? But then, how different was she from them, truly? A keen-eyed observer might have noted the little differences in her own appearance to most elves, although her own lineage was not so plain by her visage alone. Her bloodline had always had one foot crossing shadow, binding her ancestors to Ketephys perhaps more closely than her brethren. Those of Nuemhyrra had always proven themselves to become adept night-hunters. Darkness, however, was different to evil itself. If these strangers were such, surely they would not have attended the meeting?

It was difficult to tell, in such early stages. The shades of their character would reveal themselves eventually.

Vengrim’s sour look had not passed unnoticed, but it hadn’t bothered her. Elves and dwarves were not known for their mutual amicability, although it was not troubling to her. She had spent time enough in Westcrown that age-old rivalries were but trifles to her. After all, there were greater foes to bicker with.

Janiven held her own silence as she let Abhas’ words soak into each of them and for them to take the opportunity to act or otherwise upon them.

“Friends,” Janiven spoke, allowing the anxious and awkward tensions to ease with the words or silence they each offered. “I understand, well, that much is at stake and much is risked by your presence here. The day grows tired, the shadows long, and night’s darkness licks its lips at the prospect of consuming yet another sun’s cycle.”

How could she maintain their presence for a bit longer. The promise had been made for five bells. That had passed, and yet they waited. She could feel their impatience, their mistrust, their windows of opportunity accepted squealing shut on rusted hinges. If their curiosity was not fed, it would whither and die. And with it the hopes she and he had harboured for the future of Westcrown.

“I shall not keep you upon the streets after dark.” Well she knew the fate, as did her guests, of those who were not locked behind closed door when the horizon’s maw consumed the sun. “Infernal shadow beasts in the thrall of House Thrune prowl the alleys and streets of Westcrown. A theory only perhaps; my own, I admit, yet no less reasonable than most, I propose. And whether true or not, a soul out after dark has their life in their hands whatever the nature of the shadowy creatures.”

Already the clock’s ticking hands had crept to a quarter after the hour. She could not wait for him any longer.

Stepping to the centre of the group, drawing their their attention to her, she spoke, quietly, softly, firmly.

“Again, I thank you for agreeing to meet me here. I have chosen each, or accepted your offer of inquiry, for a singular reason – everyone here, myself included, has suffered, whether we realise it or not.”

She paused and let her eyes cast about the group, ensuring they were attentive to her words.

“I have lived in Westcrown the whole of my life, and though I love this city, I must admit, as must you, that despite our peace and our prosperity, we continue to suffer. Fear should not be an accepted part of life, and yet each night brings fear to our doorsteps.”

He voice was beginning to grow with her passion, her arms took strength and life from her words; a fist clenched with the fervor that infused her words; an arm cut sharply through the air to make a point.

“Yes, Westcrown has been safe from war and famine for nearly seventy years, and yes, business has prospered, if you know the right people and grease the correct palm. But this safety and prosperity has a price; bought in the coinage of fear and prayers to Hell. Other lands do not fear tyranny. Other cities do not fear the night. Other governments do not cede the streets to monsters of the infernal shadows. Westcrown was once such a place and she wants to be again.”

She paused, trying not to let her passion carry her away. She breathed, once, twice then continued.

“Westcown is not only her buildings and canals and docks and history. She is also her people. Westcrown is our friends. Our neighbours, our mothers and fathers, our siblings and our cousins, our sons and daughters, our mentors and our fondlings.”

“We are but a small group of supporters and dedicated brothers and sisters. Yet we can earn the trust and admiration of those people. A Westcrown free of these shadowy beasts that roam the streets is one step closer to a Westcrown free of the devil that is the Thrice-Damned House of Thrune!”

She could not help herself and she finished the last of her words with a fist to her palm, an accent and a punctuation mark, passion and fire in her eyes. He would have said it better, she concluded, knew. He would have made the point clearer and with more force and persuasive tone. Yet he did not, he could not. He was not here. And that worried her.

Jade knew the pitch, but nothing had changed. Nothing other than the involvement of the Dwarf. Should he agree she was bound, should he leave…there had to be more. No matter who the six of them were this was throwing their lives away. Janiven had indicated that there were others. If this was it…

Jade maintained her composure and features. She would wait for the others to reply. Perhaps there was more to be revealed.

As Janiven went on and on about the problems with Westcrown after dark, Gee grew more and more puzzled, not that it was easy at all to see on his face. Was he really so disconnected that he hadn’t noticed the undercurrent of fear? If he was honest with himself, it was less than that he hadn’t noticed it, since he had heard all of these rumors before, but perhaps had not understood the extent of how the ‘common man’ felt about it. He was a childe of the Shadows — it was where he was the most comfortable. The darkness itself held no fear for him. What roamed within it produced no additional terror than that which roamed in the light.

But giving it some thought, he could see how others might not feel the same. Most could not see in the dark as well as one could in the light. Well, that was true even for him, but most could not see in the dark even as well as he could. He took a long moment to look at the human and the elf in particular, the latter causing a faint frisson of distaste to shiver down his spine, though he did not understand why since he didn’t know the female at all. He knew Blacktongue could see in the dark as easily as he could. It was a trait both their races shared. He did not know if that was the case with the woman who had inspired the dwarf’s rage, but suspected it might be the case.

In the end, though, while Janiven’s passion for the topic was interesting if unsurprising considering how they had met, it didn’t answer the simplest question. So, his soft voice presented it, simply, directly. “That’s all well and good, Janiven, but it doesn’t answer why you searched myself, and I presume these others, out. What is it you are expecting us to do?”

Abhas’ brief smile was smug, but then swallowed, and it so dissipated. There would be no gain, no merit, in echoing Gee’s correct observation. At some point, one must know to stop selling, and transition to closing with the details of execution.

While he truly did want Janiven to speak to Gee’s question, Gee’s choice of phrasing prompted one of higher urgency. Despite his patience in such matters, Abhas interrupted.

“You did not expect to be in this position; the one to enumerate the details of the proposal,” he observed, quietly, to Janiven, though his voice was audible to all within the room.

“May I amend Gee’s question,” Abhas nodded to both Gee and Janiven, acknowledging, but not truly asking for permission, “to firstly, what do you know of the proposal’s details, and secondly, what do you know of the individual who was to give them. I would ask a third; your supposition on why he is not present; but I suspect that answer, beyond guessing, lies in the first two.”

The fetchling shrugged and nodded, once again both gestures mostly evident by the sound of shifting cloth.

The elf’s lips had quirked faintly at the corners at Janiven’s impassioned declaration. It was not out of amusement, but more that she was impressed by her fervour. Revolutions were hardly won by words alone, but she might have inspired an army. Her companions, such as they were, seemed less taken by her speech. They seemed to be more practical than that, but perhaps that was why they had been asked to be there — because they were thoughtful, because they asked difficult questions. That, or they were the most suicidal she had been able to gather. Vern herself avoided Westcrown in the darker hours of the day, in spite of her own keen nightvision and her comfort beneath a midnight sky. She had heard enough whisperings about what lurked in the streets for unwary walkers.

She maintained her stance — leaning back against the counter, her arms folded against her abdomen, expression thoughtful. She held her tongue, opting to allow her companions to have their questions answered before she offered her own. Certainly, she she was in concurrence with Janiven that Westcrown was much in need of being reclaimed, but by what means? Who could truly promise that, were they to succeed, its new god would be an improvement? Desna, perhaps, of dreams and chaos and liberation? Or Milani, who could see an uprising through, succeeded by lawful Iomedae? What gods she kept herself mattered not, and in her experience, mutual agreement was unrealistic. Westcrown had many voices, after all.

Could just a handful decide the fate of a city, if that was their task? They, who were so different from one another? Already, there had been discord among them. At Abhas’s further questioning, she allowed her hands to slip away from her middle, resting them palm-downward against the bar counter’s edge, her fingers curling idly over the lip. Her shoulders lifted with the movement, perhaps indicating her restlessness or impatience, before her arms were returned to their previously overlapping position against her stomach, elbows cupped by her slender fingers. She was attentive, but the building uncertainty caused her to relieve tension through movement, what little she expressed.

Vengrim waited largely nonplussed, by Janiven’s impassioned plea or the questions that followed. He did offer a grunt of approval when Abhas dismantled the events. Such was the nobleman’s way, especially in matters of business.

His eyes kept returning to the armored female sitting with her statuesque poise. One could easily surmise that both Vengrim’s mind and judgments hinged on what she had to say. Otherwise he was clearly keeping his own counsel for the time being, although he did appear to be muttering into the jug each time he brought it to his lips.

The idealistic passion that flowed through Janiven’s blood, reflected in her fiery dark brown eyes, flared with her palm thumping flourish. She had seen him do it, had seen how it had fired the imagination and the desire of those he sought to recruit to their cause, had observed how the combination of powerful and impassioned words and lofty attainable ideals could turn a hesitant opportunity into a powerful force for good within their ranks.

So The Five’s unconvinced looks in return, doused her fervour in an instant. And when they commenced to ask awkward questions around why, who and what she understood the depth of gift he had to persuade, prompt, influence and assure. She envied him such a blessing.

She sighed. There was nothing to gain from keeping secrets now. She had laid upon the plate what she, what he, what their movement stood to push, to achieve.

“I sought you all for our cause for the gifts and expertise you all possess. You are not the first I have reached out to. I know you have surmised this last matter, though not necessarily spoken it aloud.”

Once again, Gee shrugged and nodded. It wasn’t really a calculated thing, really. Stealth was innate to his race, and that affected how he acted in ways that he wasn’t really conscious of.

“We have recruited to our cause like-minded and similarly idealled folk within Westcrown.” She shrugged. “No small number, though you will forgive and understand I am sure if I refrain from naming names.”

The fervour and vigour that had burned in her eyes has faded with the cool chill of reality. She was not the wielder of words the movement’s leader was. Oh, she wished, dearly, that she was… But, where was he?!

“What is it that we expect you to do?” Janiven cast an understanding eye at Gee, knowing that what she asked was not really what she desired. “We expect nothing. We wish you to help us. We wish you to stand by our side. We wish you to join our fight against the diabolists and those who hold Westcrown, and Cheliax, in their thrall. We work to cripple the assets of House Thrune. We work to bolster the hearts and minds of the peoples of this city. We strive to destroy the perceived impossibility of downing the Damned House of Thrune. Thieves to steal documents and supplies of import. Priests to convince the followers of Asmodeus’ foes to demonstrate their faith in material ways against the government. Fighters to wield the blade against the Hellknights throats. Wizards, sorcerers and mages to work their ways of magic in favour of the people, and obversely upon the materiel and bodies of those who brandish their naked sword of despair over their people.”

She smiled at Abhas, knowing, perhaps a bit sly. “You are perceptive, Sir,” she stated. “Yes,” she admitted. “You were not to be my audience. I was to assemble, he was to enunciate, and persuade, better than I.” Her brow furrowed slightly at her admission of it; it felt a sign of weakness. Ill-conceived and ill-timed afore the folks they wished to impress. She slapped a thigh with a frustrated palm. “Yet he is not here. I do not know why!” Worried eyes found the shuttered front door to Visio’s. “He is never late.”

The quiet voice of one of those afore-mentioned ‘thieves’ replied almost immediately. “Do you have an escape plan? A fallback location in case this one is compromised? I’ve always been of the opinion to expect the worst, and you can be pleasantly surprised when it doesn’t happen. Or, rather, if it doesn’t happen. The things you are talking about here would be considered actively treasonous to the Throne, and if someone who knows we are supposed to be here is uncharacteristically late, it may be wise to make use of such a plan.” When talking treason, paranoia might be considered a Good Thing.

Fire flared in Janiven’s eyes and her chin rose slightly in piqued pride. This shadowed man spoke ill of her companion. He cast shadow upon his integrity, loyalty and intention.

“Yes,” she replied, keeping her voice flat, neutral. Though the man had alluded to dark intentions on the part of her colleague, she understood, however hard it might be, that yes, it could well look suspicious to someone who knew not his character. Nevertheless, it had pricked a nerve and she could not help herself but feel the instinctive heat such a nick had set free. “We have means of escape, should things turn foul.” She felt compelled to defend the slight upon character Gee had made, however unintentional in provocation and intent it might be. She added, “It would not be, however, intentional betrayal, should such a need arise. Upon that I stake my life.”

Abhas brought a hand to his eyes and drew his fingers to the bridge of his nose as if to settle his patience and draw his thoughts together through one movement.

“Here, now, everything is against some law; all actions are against some rule. You could be arrested and executed for anything, at any time, the moment any petty official believes they could get away with it; the moment the repercussions to them were of sufficiently low risk.” He stated it not as rebuke, but as observation, and did not appear particular agitated or anxious about the venue… or the absence of their host. He carried no guilt upon his shoulders, and cast no furtive glances, and knew he would stand fast against any who accused him otherwise. Success in so standing might be another matter, but such was every moment in Cheliax.

“That’s hitting the piton on the head,” Vengrim concurred.

“You have a valid point, Gee, in that if the negotiation is sundered before its terms are even upon the table, this meeting is at an end. A shame, too, as I am certain there was no small effort in orchestrating even this initial assembly,” Abhas nodded to Janiven, acknowledging her efforts and the risk she perceived she had undertaken, “and I have interest in overtaking Thrune and their dealings. That is no secret.”

Gee could read most people. It was part of how he survived. So he could be forgiven for more than a hint of confusion when Janiven’s body language showed irritation, even anger, when his caution should not have required either. It wasn’t until her last sentence that he understood.

“Ah,” he replied in his quiet voice. “I’m afraid you’ve misunderstood, Janiven. I was casting no aspersions on anyone’s character. As Abhas has said, everything here is against some law, but this much moreso. We are talking treason here. Even in the greatest haven of good, such a thing would gain heinous retribution from legal authority.” And this was about as far from a haven of good as one could be. “I was advising that we might wish to adjourn to another location so that we might not be caught unawares. I do not believe the Hellknights have any compunction against torture, and no man, good or evil, is unbreakable. However, it is entirely possible that they might be satisfied finding out the first location, hoping to trap us there. Which means we should be at the second.”

The hooded man was right. And Janiven acknowledged it. Though Gee had touched upon a nerve with his observation, it would be churlish to not recognise and accept that what he said was true. The bonds amongst the group that stood before her were fragile enough as it was without she unnecessarily fraying their edges.

“Agreed,” she said simply, the tone implying concession to the truth of his point alongside assent of his observation.

The matter of understanding settled to her mind, she made space for another to speak.

Vengrim raised his head proudly and chewed his cud for a moment. While Abhas’s comments were not directed, they struck home just the same. Vengrim had no intention of serving as the tool that sundered this fledgling encounter. There was potential here, a delicate concoction that needed to be fired at the right temperature for some time to come. He could do as much, now that the initial shock of seeing a ghost from his past had tempered a bit.

“Who is ‘we’?” Abhas asked Janiven directly, for she was very unclear on if that ‘we’ was her and the missing man, or a larger organization. Abhas would be certain who he was transacting with, if an accord was to be reached. “High idealism and passion aside, success cannot be measured in destruction. Something must enter the vacuum. Thrune is displaced; very well; what do ‘we’ machinate to replace it with?”

“It matters not,” Vengrim said, walking forward once more. “Westcrown has become a poison filled pustule that needs to be lanced before any healing can begin. Regardless of what comes after.”

Vengrim shrugged and said as an aside to Abhas, “A fundamental difference in our approaches.”

Abhas counterpointed, “And thus, at last lancing, Cheliax now has the diabolists. Demons; chaos and destruction; even if they could displace the devils, would not be an improvement.”

“I am Vengrim Blacktongue,” he said, turning his attention back to the group. “And I would see the devils dethroned. Each of you will choose your own course, but all should know that Abhas and I have had dealings in Westcrown to common ends.” Vengrim then waved a hand at the armored woman. “And that…this woman and I have history enough that I would stand beside either of them when matters turn foul.”

“And I expect events will turn quite foul indeed,” he said, turning to their hostess, “but you can count on Vengrim Blacktongue being there, Janiven.”

Having said his piece and signed on for whatever may come, Vengrim returned to his jug and hung an arm around it affectionately.

The dark-haired woman inclined her head, a brisk, sharp affair, in gratitude, and no small amount of relief, at Vengrim’s determination.

“The devils are less my direct enemies than indirect ones,” the fetchling replied. “I believe that the fear of the night is something that is, well, wrong. True, the night bothers me less than many, but it seems that a city cloaked for half the time is not the way things should be. There will always be those who work during the night, shying away from the light of day, but not to this extent.” For that matter, he was one who did his best at night.

Preferring still to keep her own counsel Jade continued to listen. The only thing that had changed for her was the dwarf’s committal. She was bound to this plan surely as of the had agreed first. Perhaps, and only perhaps, there might be a way that they could at least not all throw their lives away. Secretly she almost wished that the mysterious benefactor was spying on them. Mayhaps he would only reveal himself when everyone had committed to the cause.

Beginning to see that all here now had no choice but to join the cabal, Jade chose to allay any concerns about her intentions. Standing and allowing a slight but unmistakable amount of Dwarven tinged accent to escape she addressed Janiven “Where do we go from here?”

Let the others make of her what they would, but at least they should know she and they were now in this together.

Good questions all and statements alike were posed by the various members of the strange group. Gee, asking after an escape plan; Abhas, with his reason and his observations; Vengrim, his forthright declaration of attack upon that which plagued Cheliax; and the soft-spoken woman, her voice burred and dwarf-like, asking importantly indeed: where now? Indeed for Vern, Westcrown’s troubles were those of the lands beyond, as well. The very pestilence which nested at Westcrown’s core had spilled elsewhere, sending outward one ripple after another. She was unable to stand droning conversations on balance and strategy if nothing came from it, and so she taken matters into her own hands. Indeed, she had sought out Janiven and her like, although knew nothing of a greater movement. Janiven had offered a means to an end, a possible ally where few could be found. The ranger might have said as much, had their conversation not been abruptly interrupted.

Janiven relaxed, allowed some of the anxiousness and worry and tension she had felt upon the arrival of her guests begin to dissipate. Acknowledgment that the matter was settled was naive; there was hesitancy and necessary caution amongst them all still. They were agreeable, if not agreeing. But they none had walked out the door and for that she was grateful.

Janiven made to reply, to explain more. They had indicated a need to know the next step upon the path. She was happy to illuminate it for them.

Yet before she could utter the words, to open the book and cast the light of a torch upon their plans, there was a skittering of feet upon cobbles and a loud banging upon Visio’s front door.

Janiven’s heart leaped in surprise. Though she kept a calm demeanor to those who stood before her, no doubt nervous, surprised eyes flicking between each other and her. It wouldn’t do to react and act like a startled cat at any and every sudden or unexpected occurrence. Thus she stepped calmly to a window and peered out. More banging, insistent, accompanied by a low call.

“Miss Janiven. Miss Janiven!” A boy’s. Young.

A handful of measured steps and Janiven was at the door, opening it for the entry of their urgent guest. Someone she knew, she recognised.

In stumbled a young teenage boy, thin and wiry. Out of breath and with fear etching his mien he all but fell into Janiven’s arms. “Morosino?”

“Arael. They’ve got Arael!”

No sooner had the words spurt from his mouth than he bent over in a fit of dyspneic coughing.

The elf was moving forth, waterskin in hand, the other moving to support the lad as he stumbled forth. She lofted her gaze to meet Janiven’s own, a brow causing a crease in her otherwise smooth forehead.

“Arael? Is this for whom we had waited?” To the boy, she added: “Breathe, child — be seated. And drink. ’Tis water, nothing more.”

Janiven did not reply. Not because she did not wish to. Not because she had anything to hide. And certainly not because she wished to ignore and insult the elf woman. Simply, it was because a wave of fear washed through her.

She focused upon the thin, dark-haired youth.

“Where is he?” she demanded, not unkindly. “Hellknights? Where have they taken him?”

While Vern and Janiven cared for the child, Morosino, Gee moved to the point where he might see outside whilst maintaining his stealth as best he could. It was always harder when you were actually moving. He had a suspicion welling up inside him, one that he did not like at all.

Calmly, but with urgency Jade rises to her feet. “Too many know of this place and the boy may have been followed. Even if not magics or other means may be currently being employed. Let us adjourn this meeting and deal with the task at hand. Boy, regain your composure and tell us, who has Arael, how long ago was he taken, and where are they taking him? Be quick about it, there is no time to waste.”

Jade had echoed Janiven’s questions, added more of her own.

Morosino drank of the water, regained his breath, sought to bring the convulsive bark within his control. “Miss Janiven!… Prison!… Dottari!” he gasped between coughs and pants. “They nabbed Arael… and the Hellknights of the Rack… trying to get custody of ‘im… bunch of them on their way… here, now! Surrounded they said.”

His face fell, broken, forlorn.

“I’m sorry, Miss. I tried to get here…fast I could…!”

Gee’s move to the window was smooth and absolutely silent, and in the late afternoon’s light, he was only visible because you knew where he was when he started.

“I don’t know if he was just followed, or if they let him go so that he could lead them,” Gee’s soft voice returned. “But there’s what looks to be a good number of Hellknights swarming their way in this direction, bashing their way through whatever is in their path. No guarantee they’re coming here, but I would also guess that there are an equal number at the back door. I hope your escape plan doesn’t require either of those.”

Morosino’s eyes filled with despair and guilt and fear.

“I didn’t mean to Miss. I just ran and ran and ran. If I led ‘em here, then…” Grubby hands scrubbed his tear-filled eyes. “I’m sorry Miss…”

Janiven laid a hand upon his shoulder as he wet his lips once more from Jade’s waterskin.

“It is not your fault, Morosino,” Janiven gently assured him. “You did the right thing in coming here to warn us, me. It is what Arael would have wanted you to do.”

“Will he be all right, do y’ think?” He couldn’t bring himself to colour his tone with hope.

Though the fetchling had a thought to how a child might react to this kind of thing, they really didn’t have the time to coddle the child. But perhaps he could find a way to help…

Vengrim laughed heartily at the pronouncement. “Ah, ha ha, the best laid plans!” He said, thumping his fist on the table. He then swept up his jug and guzzled whatever remained within. The slurping and sloshing liquid fell mostly into his gullet, but ample ale ran down his beard for the beverage to be identified by odor alone. He slammed the empty jug onto the table and belched his feelings on this turn of events.

A long length of serrated blade emerged in one hand from beneath his folds of clothing. “I’ll not be taken alive by the devil’s minions. Not this day, not ever.”

Vengrim looked around the room, assessing the spirits of those at hand. His gaze finally came to rest on Janiven. “Time to decide, girl. We cannot stay here, holed up like rats. We flee into the depths or punch through their line. What’ll it be?”

“There are at least a dozen that I can see, all in full armor,” Gee replied, though the latter was probably easy to understand – it’d be much harder to identify them as Hellknights if they WEREN’T wearing armor. “That doesn’t include how many might be at the back or how many might be out of sight, either down alleys or side-streets. I vote we vacate the premises before they get here. Even if they aren’t coming here, it’s probably a good idea.”

Banging on the front door punctuated the dwarf’s question. Urgent, demanding, uncompromising. And underscored Gee’s collusion of thought upon the matter.

The armoured folks, Hellknights armoured indeed, thudded to a stop outside the tavern. One, the hidden Gee noted, clearly their destination had indeed been the tavern, stepped forward to the stoop without hesitation. Heavy weaponry, swords, maces and morningstars, hang from their hips.

“Open up in there!” A man’s voice, gruff and firm. “Open up!”

More banging, heavy metal-clad fists upon the door, that shook with the force of the blows. The rattle of the door handle, the door did not open. Fortunately Janiven had thought to turn the latch to secure the lock.

“We know you’re in there. Open this door!”

Morosino’s eyes went wide, terror flushing his face and freezing his fatigued limbs.

“Take them to the kitchen,” Janiven instructed the stricken boy, dragging him firmly to his feet, a calm hand upon his shoulder guiding and pushing him in the direction of the bar and beyond. “You know how to unlock the latch. Open the cover.”

Gee and Vengrim had indicated they would follow. “Go,” she said. “Follow Morosino. He knows the way.”

Janiven looked to the others, Vern, Abhas and Jade, pausing for them to determine their path before choosing her own.

More banging; a sound of splintering as the door’s lock began to suffer beneath the brutal pounding.

The look in Janiven’s eye was clear; time is short; choose if you have not already.

The decision was none at all; the Hellknights would draw blood or penance, regardless of one’s own guilt or lack of it. They were to be avoided when feasible, restrained by blind order when possible, and cowed by superiority when such tools were at hand. Only the first of the three options was viable in the present circumstance.

Abhas shrugged and moved to follow Morosino by way of retrieving his cloak, uncharacteristically silent; there was little to say but election by action that he held greater faith in the dispositions of this group than those of the Hellknights at the door.

Gee moved away from the window and towards the kitchen. His quiet voice sounded, “No time for recrimination, self or otherwise, young master Morosino. Miss Janiven has placed all our fates in your hands. We are relying on you now. So, lead the way, and we will find our way out of this predicament.” Yes, so maybe he was laying it on a little thick. But they needed to get the child up and moving, and throwing pride and duty into the picture should get him started.

When they got to the kitchens, he’d be studying this latched cover, though. Perhaps he could do something to slow the Hellknights down once they were all through it. Though ‘cover’ did imply they would be going down. Into the sewers, perhaps?

As the others were speaking Jade launched into action taking a table she flipped it over and against the door. Perhaps it would buy them an extra moment or two if the Hellknights were too focused to think of using the window. Often the stronger you were the less likely you were to think laterally. Following the others she began overturning chairs, too behind them.

Fie and folly, they had been found. As she fell in step behind the lad, like Abhas, she peeled away long enough to retrieve cloak and bow, sweeping the garment onto her shoulders and shouldering the weapon shortly thereafter. This was no place to use a longbow, nor would standing their ground be intelligent. Nor even heroic; they were surely out-classed and out-armed. Dying in a final stand was all well and good, but they had hardly begun, and they were not very useful if they were lifeless. When with the others, she placed what she hoped was a reassuring hand against the flat of the lad’s back, casting one glance across the back of her shoulder lest Hellknights exploded into the room. The dhampir had made efforts so that the invaders would perhaps be hampered a little at the door, but seconds would be precious enough if it meant their escape.

Vengrim had second thoughts about leaving his empty jug behind. Good jugs were hard to find. So he went back to retrieve it, sidestepping those folks making their way toward the kitchen.

“See them out,” he said to the armored woman with unquestionable familiarity as they passed.

He scooped the jug up with a crooked smile and one finger through the neck loop, then pausing to look at Janiven. This was also part of the reason he had returned. She was thinking of making a foolish choice. He’d been there once himself. He could smell it on her.

“Come along, lass,” he said to her, waving his open hand for her to follow. “Now is not the time. You’ll not save him by staying here.”

He waved her on again as the pounding continued. “Come on,” he said. “We’ll find him together. You’ll serve no one by throwing yourself to these butchers.”

Then he stood fast, an immovable hunk of dwarven stone. His stance was clear, if she stayed, he stayed. Or they could go together. He waited with calm resolve as the splintering grew.

The dark-haired woman nodded, shortly, to the mass of dwarf that stood before her. “Find him we will,” she agreed.

A shattering of wood behind her, and gauntleted fingers squeezed their way through the rapidly shredding door.

“Let us go,” she said unnecessarily, acquiescing to Vengrim’s urging.

Jade had all but expected what played out next. She almost asked the Dwarf to assist, but then thought better of it. As the others were making their way out she ran to the bar and doused the floor with anything she could find. She made sure to thrown the containers up near the door. A fire would potentially rage out of control and consume innocent lives. She would never set one, but the Hellknights did not know that. Not only would they have to deal with the blockade and slippery pottery littered floor, but also there would be the fear that they would be engulfed in a conflagration from the volatile liquids. This might buy them precious seconds more as the Hellknights deliberated sensing a trap. If any additional reluctance from her companions still remained at this point she was going to have to do something… regrettable.

Jade’s quick-thinking had gained them precious seconds; the table that nestled against the door would hinder their progress, though hardly balk them. And she nodded in appreciation to the dhampir’s additional thought to sow hesitation and uncertainty in the minds of their pursuers. Smart.

As Janiven chivvied after Jade through the door to the kitchen, the sound of shattering glass accompanied grunts of exertion and wood scratching upon wood. The table was being shoved back and the Hellknights had thought, finally, to attempt ingress via a window. Hellknights, she absently thought; strong as an ox, and just as smart.

To her satisfaction, and scant surprise, Morosino had successfully located the secret door in the kitchen, tucked away inside a small floor-height cupboard.

Perhaps the group stood warily at its entrance; the small door opened into a low tunnel that disappeared down into darkness. Certainly Morosino hesitated at the threshold.

“Go,” she urged.

Barely hesitating she turned, and with or without help, she pulled a couple of shelves across the door to create an obstacle, perhaps using Jade’s notion as inspiration for her construction.

Muffled shouts, instruction and crashing could be heard from beyond the barricaded door.

Needing no further prompting from Janiven, Morosino ducked into the tunnel. The young lad crouched; hands and knees required for the rest though, save perhaps for Vengrim.

As Janiven (and any others helping her) moved the shelves into place behind the door that led into the kitchen, Gee studied the door that led into the tunnel that, in turn, led into darkness. That didn’t bother him. He’d said as much already. How was the door into the tunnel hidden? Could any cover that was on it be pulled closed after them to make it look innocuous again? If it could, that would delay the Hellknights finding it. He studied the door itself. Was there a locking mechanism on the outside that could be accessed from the inside? If so, he could probably relock it, much the same way he’d come in through the back door and then relocked it when he came in. If not, maybe there was a way to spike the door closed, to make it ‘stuck’. That wouldn’t delay Hellknights long – they’d just smash it – but if they thought it was stuck they might search elsewhere first. He looked around the room. This was a kitchen, after all — there could be a walk-in pantry or something like that. Something that he could artfully leave the door ever so slightly open, which would make the Hellknights think they left that way, which would mean they’d have to tear it apart to search it. They were probably going to destroy the place anyway. Better that it should serve to delay them and give them more time to escape.

Despite the apparent peril of the situation, Abhas had to reflect for a moment upon Janiven’s acumen in gathering them together. All assembled were of like-minded purpose to a necessary extent, and proving both determined and resourceful under pressure. There were problems at hand; they were met and dealt with with what was available at hand.

The tunnel beckoned, Morosino leading. Again, no viable alternative presented that would bode any better.

Abhas dropped to follow into the tunnel.

Also inspired by Jade’s actions to delay the Hellknights, Vern was stood by the hatch, tensed, seeking out something that might further delay their assailants. And, yes, there it was — for all the good it would do them. A bucket three-quarters full of kitchen slop — reserved fat, dripping, and other appetising grease — was sat near the fireplace. It was but the work of a moment for her to stride over to it, grasp it by greasy handle and underside, and slosh the wretched stuff near the door. Well-armoured blackguards that they were, they would surely be hard-pressed to stay upright.

“A plague upon thee, wretches,” she muttered, discarding the bucket. She returned to the hatch, opting to wait until the others had passed through — unless they insisted she enter first. There was no particular desire for heroism to her actions, simply that she would be more comfortable bringing up the rear, than stuck between those who still were strangers to her.

Pleased with the alacrity and cohesion the group was showing Jade headed into the tunnel. Confident that no one would throw their lives away in what would be now at best a meaningless gesture and at worst compromise all their identities. Her eyes adjusting to the lighting she moved forward with her bow in hand. She needed to make sure that it, nor anything on the individual directly in front of her snagged.

She allowed herself to drift for a moment. She was back home, three days out and two days down. The attack had been a costly one and they could not afford to allow any of those snakes to get away. Contorting herself through the concave hole known as a “keyhole” in the spelunking world she knew she way in trouble when she came face to face with him. There was no way to reach her hammer let alone wield it, and the boot knife she lost long ago might as well have not existed either. Biting his face she brought up the only thing she could access. With a twisting motion of her left arm she jabbed the point of the arrow deep into his brain killing him instantly. 200 feet she had to push his body with her head and one arm until she cleared the tunnel and was able to return.

Looking down Jade realized she had an arrow grasped tightly in her hand, she could almost still feel his blood on her face. Back to the task at hand.


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