((Found some time to write. Got caught up with RL. If you are interested in reading it, hope you enjoy it! I've been working on my writing structure, so you might see a -lot- of differences from previous posts.))
~The Many Shadows of a Gray City~
The snow was falling gently upon the city from the morning skies. The streets and roofs of all buildings were coated in that soft, cold, white mantle. I could see the harbour and the river from the window at my seat and the very tiny people starting to go about their daily life. The inn was nested closely upon the southern end of the Ridge, which allowed to look upon the entire southern part of Iriaebor, the river and beyond.
The Wandering Wyvern was somewhat of a unique place. The rag-tag, mismatched furniture filling the inn, the numerous paintings hanging upon the walls, painted in vastly different styles, and an assortment of all kinds of small baubles; figurines, cups, feathery and wooden charms, pieces of cloth with sewn patterns and other kinds of items that many would consider being simple rubbish. The air itself was filled with various smells of fried onion, mead, cooked meat stews and lovage. The inn itself was quite a spacious place, for a shabby-looking place. I was told that at first, it was but a single building, but few neighbouring ones joined into it were connected- being able to host many, and often rowdy, people by the time the night falls.
I sat at a window table, dressed in my grey travelling fur coat. The owner, a kind man named Shalangul Adept, was rather surprised to see me up and about the inn before dawn- likely because he doesn’t meet many elves around here, but he served me a goblet of heated wine to “have a warm and cheerful start on the day”. Even though this place was far from being resistant to cold winds, I felt quite warm and cosy in this “home away from home”, as people like to call the Wandering Wyvern.
Eventually, the inn started to very slowly pick up on life. Wanderers, pilgrims and adventurers, both old and young, began sparsely filling the place. Vessana and Gorthur joined me a few moments after. We all shared a meal and began discussing what happened previous night in hushed tones. Our mage-thief friend told us that she managed to obtain from one of the bodies a brooch which looked like a crest of some sort. She showed it to us, a small metal thing made of brass, but none of us recognised to whom it might belong. Erring on the side of caution, Vessana decided to hide it in her leather vambrace back again and don’t mention it to any locals. She told us that she has heard quite a few rumours and tales about Iriaebor’s law, the guards and how locals treat adventurers- that being very poorly.
We finished our meals and decided to visit Raelin at the Silent Hall. We rented rooms at the Wandering Wyvern for a few more nights, so we didn’t need to carry all of our travelling equipment with ourselves. Dressed in leathers and draped with furs, our group set out for a nice stroll to the north-eastern part of the Ridge.
The view in daylight was quite something else than it was during the night. I could make out more details of the decaying parts of the towers as well as wholly take in the lost glory of this city. Following the alleys that meandered around the spires left us walking constantly in thick shadow. The streets themselves were full of people from all sorts of walks of life. Rich merchants wearing noble-like thick clothing lined with golden threads on its brims, their workers which kept to more simple and cheaper attire, travelling pilgrims wishing to reach sacred sites in the area if Western Heartlands, peddlers and, if only a few, wandering adventurers.
As we moved on past groups of people that were settling small shops, our path was suddenly blocked by three men armoured in dark scale mails with brown fur sticking from underneath. From our rear two more of those men appeared and closed us in a small circle. As if unassumingly, we were “invited” to meet with “Lord Tyrenfrost”, as one of the men spoke- his voice being quite calm while at it. I tried to oppose and say that we’re not looking for any trouble, but Vessana cut me off by telling me that what they told us wasn’t a proposition. She told them to lead us to their lord and we’ll follow nice and easy. My mage-thief friend believed that bringing any more attention to ourselves will be only serving us disfavour, as adventurers are already very much disliked in this city.
Should anything happen, it won’t be hard to put the blame on us for something we might’ve not even been related to. “There’s always a need for a scapegoat in places like this” – by her words.
* * *
We sat in a wooden room that looked rather shabby, despite being warmly illuminated by candles that hanged in few lanterns at the ceiling. The need for light, despite daytime, was because these chambers were situated beneath the ground level - a cellar – with only one, frost-covered window situated behind us, which offered a view at feet of people hustling on the streets.
A bearded man sitting in front of us, behind an elegant, dark wooden desk was busying himself stuffing his pipe with some hideous mixture of dried herbs and gods know what. With a swift, practised motion, he lit the pipe and took a long pull from it. His wrinkle-cracked face was becoming much more relaxed with every moment passing during what looked to me as some sort of ritual.
Dallard Tyrenfrost, a middle-aged human with short, well kept, greying hair and a slim beard reaching down to his neck. His face can be easily described as if a hobgoblin had a child with a particularly grouchy human and the child was disowned for looking too much like a crow. Somehow. Long, hooked nose, cheeks marred with gentle wrinkles- a sign of his age. His lowly set cheekbones only further magnified his hollow-like face. One could wonder if he even eats anything if one was to only focus on his face and not the rest of his frame.
We were practically surrounded by his men, all encircling us rather tightly. I was trying to make myself small and unnoticeable by slumping my form in the chair. Gorthur and Vessana, thankfully, were of the opposite thought- sitting tall, relaxed and sharing a challenging gaze towards the bearded man with a pipe in his mouth. A single puff of smoke was released at us, a smell best described as noxious enough to make a bush of fine roses instantly wilt. I tried not to breathe in any of it in fear that it might kill me.
- I know what you’ve done. – the man began after taking another puff of his foul pipe. - You have killed some people of mine, local men and women. Born and raised. You have left their bodies out in an open field of snow. And you haven’t even bothered to see if you have managed to kill every last one of them. – he continued with a nonchalant tone in his voice. – And all to help one fool save his hide from what he had done to me and my business.
It almost sounded as scolding, as if we were working for him and he was giving our tongues a lashing for failing at performing to the highest standard. Vessana continued to listen with an intense look on her face. I, on the other hand, tried not to panic and keep my head on my shoulders. Dallard sat back in his chair, his right arm placed on its armrest while he held the pipe in his left, gnarly hand. He seemed calm if... coldly annoyed with the situation that we’ve caused.
- I’m rather certain that you do realise how Iriaebor looks at such... troublemakers such as yourself. It will take me only one word and my men witnessing that you’ve murdered them while they were on their way back home in order to have you hanged within the same day. The law of Lord Bron is an unforgiving mistress. – The man stated it slowly, with tension in his voice. It seemed like that fact alone was a source of great irritation to him.
The atmosphere continued to increase on tension, waiting to hear the words that everyone, perhaps, expected to hear by now. Gorthur kept silent, stroking his beard with a visible frown on his face. Vessana’s face was mostly unreadable, however. The lack of a single sign of fear on her face brought me some more confidence as to our situation. Even though it still didn’t paint in bright colours.
- I will not mention this to any officials. So long as you, adventurers
, work for me to make up for the loss of my workers. – Dallard put quite a considerable emphasis on the last word, both with his tone of voice as with him gesturing towards the humans towering around us. It was rather clear that he would not admit to anyone that those were, in fact, simple blades for hire. Ready to direct and order to kill.
Vessana chose to speak for us three gathered here. Her voice was much more business-like than I thought it would be. It was as if that was a simple trade at any common market for her. – So you want us to do the dirty work for you in exchange for us not being hanged for murder.
- And I don’t even need to frame any of you since it is what you’ve done. Craigwatch won’t lift a finger to defend any of you, either, since that will only prompt more questions as to what he had done in order to prompt such a violent response.
- Because then, he himself would lose his business and his head if some of his shadier dealings came to light. It would also put you on the noose, though, isn’t it so?
- As you have aptly summarised, there’s no winner in truth coming to light. – Dallard spoke, evenly, towards us. – The only way to truly end this matter, and for you to walk off freely with your lives, is for you to work for me. To be more on point, you will help me get rid of Cragwatch.
A moment of silence filled the room as Dallard let that sink into the atmosphere that was already far too much befouled by the stench coming from his pipe. I managed to notice that as the conversation was going on, some of the guards were always on alert- looking out at the doors, the single window. Perhaps even any cracks they could find an eavesdropper. Such intrigues coming to wrong ears, after all, may cause a lot of trouble in Iriaebor.
- How are we supposed to help you? – Vessana spoke up again.
- The idea is simple. You’ve helped him, so there’s a seed of trust planted between you and him. Cultivate it for a couple of days, help him with some tasks he might have. Make yourselves seem... reliable. When the time comes, I’ll give you a spot in the city to lead him into. There, his life will be ended and a story will be fabricated that you were his guards that failed to protect his life from an unknown killer.
- That’s not a very much detailed plan – Gorthur commented with a quiet voice.
- That is all you need to know in order for this to work and to keep your lives. – It was quite obvious that Dallard wouldn’t say much more regarding how exactly he’s planning to kill Cragwatch. If by spell, traps, an assassin with a crossbow or a band of thugs. I did, however, notice a rather sly look in his eyes when he was telling us what we will be doing.
We didn’t quite have much of any choice with it.
* * *
- You agreed to what?! – Raelin’s voice echoed through the stone hallways of the temple of Eldath. I could see, quite clearly, that he was not only angry but also shocked, disbelieving and annoyed. Quite an uncommon expression of emotion for a human, especially one of his knightly type. Vessana hushed him harshly, her voice turning nearly into a snake-like hiss while at it. We all knew that Dallard was more right than he was wrong, unfortunately. Lord Bron’s law was adamant and there was no “wiggle-room”, as Halflings like to say. Raelin stood up from a wooden bench he was sitting on and began pacing around, while Gorthur made sure to calm down the priests living here and assure them that nothing important is going on- just a friendly argument and that is it.
- We can’t do this. We can’t work to kill a man that we’ve defended while we were using self-defence at the same time. Surely they’d understand. – Raelin spoke, more quietly this time.
- You forget that Iriaeborians have a particularly harsh distaste for our type, vagabond adventurers, that are more trouble than they are of any use. It’s easy to lump us as accomplices with whatever shady matters that are going on in this city. I’m rather certain that neither of these men would like to go down alone, either.
- So we’re supposed to just... agree to that?
- We already did. There’s no discussing it. – Vessana spoke with an even tone of voice. It seemed to me like she considered it just a business, albeit a poorly bargained one. Raelin was about to say something, his face becoming redder from anger, but then he released an irritated sigh through his nose and returned to pacing about.
- ...How about we tell Cragwatch about all of that? – I butted in, quietly. To me, that entire situation was a completely new experience. I didn’t know what to do in such matters, therefore I thought I’d do what would be a sensible choice.
- So that Tyrenfrost’s lackeys see us do it, rat us out and get us hanged? – Vessana muttered dryly.
- Laeria’s got a point. We are supposed to get closer to Tyrenfrost. He didn’t say how exactly we are supposed to do it. And what is a better way to do it than being honest that someone wants to kill you? – Gorthur stroke his beard as he spoke. The broad dwarf carried a nearly perpetual frown on his face since the beginning of this day. You could say that the situation was bothering him, quite greatly at that. – If the man had any truth in his words, Cragwatch won’t be able to go to the guards with it either. So he’ll need to find a different way to handle the matter.
- And then, he’s likely going to ask us to help him, since we’re in the middle of this. - I peered at Vessana as she said that. It was, of course, an obvious course of action, but I was still uneasy about this entire situation. It sounded like a rabbit hole that we’re only crawling deeper and deeper into.
We’ve decided that we’ll find Cragwatch and tell him about everything that had happened. Raelin was ready to move and walk with ease, thanks to the magical healing that was given to him for a small fee.
* * *
We have found the man at his local shop. Seeing us, he first greeted us with open arms, but when Vessana leaned in closer to Cragwatch and shared words in a whisper with him, he ushered us into the rooms at the back of his building.
The shop itself wasn’t too obscure, but it was neither opulent in any way. Floor made of dark wood, simple wooden furniture, shelves on the walls, showcases, filled with all sorts of trinkets, served as the shopkeeper’s counter. All in all, there was everything and nothing sold in it.
We stood around in a room that contained a large number of crates, both big and small, and sacks. It was clearly the storage room for all sorts of things that he was dealing in. I remember that there was a very distinct smell of wethered, rotten wood in the air.
Derin Cragwatch was listening attentively to our story, about how Tyrenfrost snatched us and presented with a matter we could not weasel out of in any good way. I could see his bushy eyebrows lowering more with each passing sentence. He was, certainly, not a young person, though Cragwatch always presented himself as a more of a middle-aged man that was successful and healthy enough to stave off the passage of time, if at least for a short while. His appearance was almost fully opposite to Tyrenfrost. More round cheeks, cleanly shaved, nose curving slightly up. He took better care of his teeth as well, compared to Dallard Tyrenfrost. Both of them, however, shared the same spark in their gaze. The same level of slyness, maybe something more. It appeared when he was quietly contemplating upon the best course of action to be taken. He knew that this is a serious matter that can very well cost his life.
- We could pretend we’re staking out, working for you to gain your trust. We can tell Tyrenfrost’s people that we’re planning to end your life in a moment when you’ll least expect it. He even said that we should do something along those lines. – Vessana proposed. She had a lot of different ideas on how to handle such situations. You could see it by the look she had on her face. It was a person that lived with it for many years. I could only ever wonder about her the past that she had never shared with any of us.
- It’s not good enough. It’ll take too much time, it can grow too suspicious. He expects you’ll double-cross him with that approach and that you might be trying to make him think you’re still on his side. Dallard isn’t a simple mind, he thinks three steps ahead. He surely has something planned for this happening. It is why he is who he is and where he is; a rich and dangerous person. – Cragwatch mused quietly, but with a somewhat tense voice. The situation was getting into him. – There’s only one thing that we can do and which he will not expect at all. We need to counterattack him in the place he least expects. His hidden estate. Where he feels safe the most.
Raelin’s right brow rose as his face gained a questioning expression. Without any words spoken, it was clear he was doubting Cragwatch’s words. The merchant parted with a sigh, one similar to when a teacher loses patience with his students. Gorthur then spoke up. – This city is old. It is most famous for its towers, but in a place where you can’t go up and can’t sprawl across the land, people look towards the ground. Especially paranoid people. Iriaebor has hidden passages that merchants use to move through between places safely, that’s what you’re saying? And we need to find the right ones.
- Yes, that is exactly what I am saying. This is something he will expect the least.
- But what will we do? Demolish his home? Rob him? – I asked, holding onto a small hope that it would not be what I expected for him to say.
- We will kill him. Him. His guards. Whoever will try to stop us. We’ll cut the hydra’s head, burn it out and leave through the secret passages. No evidence. No witnesses. We all are free.
The room fell silent. The weight of that plan could be felt on our hearts. It was, possibly, the first time we were entangled in such a not-so-clear-cut matter. As I watched my companions, I’ve realised that they are considering this option very seriously. Vessana was sucking on the corner of her lower lip, before saying - Shouldn’t the city know where his estate is? There has to be some records of property ownership.
- Ever since the civil war, many of such records were lost by either fire, water or were simply displaced. There have been many issues regarding legal ownership of certain parts of the city, especially when their previous owners disappeared during the fights. In the end, certain persons have gained rights to quite a number of buildings, land property and the like. Those earned a lot of gold on selling those to wealthy merchants who still lived with their rival’s breath upon their necks. Dallard Tyrenfrost is one such person. I know, for the fact, that he never sleeps at his known home and he never takes the same route more than twice back to his small estate.
- You’ve been spying on him already. Since how long have you been planning on dealing with Tyrenfrost? – Vessana inquired in. Her voice more like a sting of a wasp rather than her usual lazy demeanour.
- In this city, knowledge about your potential enemies is sometimes more valuable than what you own. It is in situations like this when it becomes something that will save your life from a dagger in your throat.
- ...Fair enough. How do we find those corridors, then? Do we stalk him? Do we search the sewer?
- There’s an easier way to do it. We need to ask a person that either was selling land or has good contacts with those who did.
- And... Why would they tell us anything? They can, just as well, sell us out to the guards and we all will end up hanged.
- That is because gold has the ability to both silence and make people talk. If we pay enough to know, we will learn.
- So who do we talk to? – Asked Raelin. It was his first and only words that he spoke during this entire meeting. Normally, Raelin takes the position of a leader of our group. This time, he seemed much more reserved, quiet and with hints of frustration. I didn’t dare to ask him, though. The knight always made me feel intimidated with his presence, despite knowing that he has a good heart.
- I’ll tell you after a few days – Cragwatch retorted, his carefully formed words coming out slowly from his lips. – You’ll know then. First, we need to pretend that you’re going to earn my trust in order to kill me.
- We’ll be doing more work for you? – Vessana looked almost disappointed at hearing this. Almost. One thing that you can say about her and be right, is that she does like earning gold.
I looked around the room again, the crates, the sacks, the little “odds and ends” that the man is selling. I thought to myself “Well, at least that part won’t be so awful.” Aside from my entire group being coerced into having to kill a rival merchant that has threatened us into killing another rival merchant and the everpresent doom of execution hanging above our heads. Even so, we have agreed to do it. We’ve left the building with our first assignment. Delivery jobs, for the most part. Nothing incredibly profitable, although something incredibly boring.
After three days we’ve received the name of a person we’re supposed to meet. Runs a shop at an alley in the lower parts of the city, away from the Ridge. A half-elf with a, supposedly, wide and incredible array of contacts- ones that nobody even is capable of assuming the extent of. Her name was Syntel.