The carriage rolled lazily along a lonely road below an overcast, dull sky. A rolling plain of green and brown grasses littered with round stones and boulders extended in all directions. A forest lay on the horizon behind the carriage, a little less than a day’s travel from its border. Low crumbling walls of stone lined the road before them, sloping and dissembling into nothing but a stroll behind them. Percy’s hooves occasionally splashed in a shallow puddle or squished among thick, viscous mud. Gafgarn sat upright on the roof of the carriage, his legs hanging over its edge, his weight causing it to lean delicately. The hood of his cloak, a wolf-head, hung over his face as if devouring him, its fur still damp from the recent rain. He almost grinned at the landscape, the air earthy and wet without a hint of dust. It reminded him of home.
A shaggy, chestnut horse strolled alongside the carriage by Gafgarn, Illaeda relaxedly riding, the shield on her back rocking with the horse’s movements. A thin trail of smoke accompanied thick puffs ascending from a large curving pipe, through Wither’s elegant mustache into the grey sky. Dorin sat next to him, arm in a splint and sling, and Sully on Wither’s opposite side with her bow in her lap. The three were listening to Illaeda question Gafgarn once more on his otherworldly handicap.
“So, you’re trying to tell me you can’t use furniture at all? Lean on a counter, sit on a chair or stool or bench, lay on a bed?”
“No. They move, or I move.” Gafgarn’s tone reverberated with boredom.
“Then how can you can lie on top of the carriage?”
“This carriage was constructed to transport people in utmost comfort, true,” Wither interjected, “But a roof is a roof. Its purpose is to keep the effects of nature out, not our burly layabout above it.”
“Then that which classifies as furniture are things built for comfort?”
“It would seem so, dear,” Wither responded.
“But the roof supports him now, shouldn’t it be considered furniture by its use? You still benefit from its comfort. Doesn’t make any sense to me, how would the boots know the difference?”
“No idea,” Gafgarn said, “Don’t care. All that matters is what it does, not if what it does makes sense to you.”
“And this means you’re ready to believe, girl?” Wither asked.
Illaeda chuckled, “No, but if I lift a feather and it’s as heavy as a rock, I know it isn’t just a feather. Evidence points to truth, and we’ll all know it in time. I’ll figure it out. For now, I’m happy to get some irons around AJ’s wrists.”
“Is that really what we’re calling him?” Gafgarn asked.
“You can call him Red Eyes the Comedian for all I care, old boy,” Wither hissed, “He’s a dead man.”
Beyond the the road leading them north, a stony wall atop a flat rise floated into view. As they neared it, small towers--little more than wooden platforms with simple thatched roofs and wooden, barred balconies--lined the perimeter of the wall. A tall, arched entranceway faced the road, its iron reinforced doors of oak open to the sporadic, lonely traffic of carts from farms arriving with loads of hay or foodstuffs. A tall estate of the same rounded stone rose above the walls deep in the center of the city, a flag of red and black chevrons drooping in the windless sky. A hawk hunted a pair of crows above, circling and diving together in a beautiful dance of death.
Before the arched entranceway, the descending road split to the east and west, stretching out with the same low walls along its sides into rocky plains dotted with unkempt thickets. The group rode past the crossroads, looking disinterestedly at a weathered signpost with dirty, cracked boards pointing in each direction. The names of places painted on them, once bold and helpful, now sat faded and illegible. Archers in chainmail and tabbards of the lonely flag’s colors gave the group little heed from the wall above as they neared the entrance. Guards with pikes watched lazily as the travelers passed into the city proper. On the inside of the walls, precarious wooden scaffolds bore tilted stairs, moldy ladders, and rickety walkways along its inner perimeter. The whole thing looked like a swift kick could bring it all tumbling down.
“Shoddy work,” Gafgarn muttered.
“So derelict, the effort to construct it could hardly be called work, old boy,” Wither chimed, “the way the walls sag, I can hardly fathom why they even bothered.”
“That’s Hausto for you,” Illaeda added, “an outlier city, the most southern in the Kingdoms of its size. The Barons change out here often, sometimes revolt, sometimes sickness, sometimes they just get bored, renounce their fealty and hoof it to some dark, shady place.”
“Baron Mardoo’s in charge these days,” Sully announced. “He works..well, worked, closely with Smidgin.”
At a hard look from Gafgarn, Dorin added, “Aye, Smidgin’d steal from the baron’s rivals, and ee’d be left alone in return.”
“Mardoo’s in charge of some serious, low-hanging, rotten fruit,” Illaeda said, taking in her surroundings with a look of disgust.
Wither repacked and lit his curving, large pipe, saying, “Dark political machinations aside, if he’s got an engineer worth a frog’s snot, I do believe this visit could prove lucrative. By the look of our surroundings, however, I’d say the frog found it a bad trade.”
It was almost frightening lurching into Hausto’s streets. Like the encircling walls, buildings sagged and bulged, stone walls billowing outward and sinking inward, so much so that some structures had thick wooden props against their walls. Taller buildings of two or three stories seemed to wiggle into the air like stalks of a wiry plant, tilting and twisting as they rose. Many doorways held ill-fitting doors, too large so they scraped or skidded as they opened or closed, or so little that they swung haphazardly. Even the aforementioned streets seemed to twist and bulge comically. The city looked as if it were underwater, undulating with undercurrents and waves.
Barely fitting between buildings, they followed the main street into the city, quickly finding themselves in a crowded square. The people looked less unusual than their surroundings, many still wearing jackets and cloaks in various colors but all in the most basic of styles. Without his wolf-cloak and extreme size, Gafgarn might have fit in well, but Wither and Illaeda stood out as well as royalty. Guards, many in tarnished half-plate armor, stood near a large building with a peaked roof at the other end of the square.
Unlike its haphazardly constructed brethren, this building stood tall and rigid, built from cut and shaped granite and limestone of sullen grey and black hues. Along its peaked roof and minarets, spears of dark metal twisted into the sky. They progressively increased in height from the edges to the peak of the roof like a frightening spine. Stained glass windows depicting orbs of color in swirling masses of mixed hues and stark black darkness lined the walls. To Gafgarn, the building exuded the type of aura that made one want to stray as far away as possible, and he felt his muscles tighten in its presence. Wither, on the other hand, might say it was the type of building that might give some particularly daft people the willies.
“That, old boy, is the kind of establishment that might give one an intense sensation of discomfort. Something you are ardently familiar with, I’m sure,” then he looked at Sully and Dorin. “You, I suspect, might call that sensation the ‘willies.’”
“What is that place?” Gafgarn asked.
“It’s a church, Gaf,” Dorin responded.
“Tentacle of the Void,” Illada answered matter-of-factly. “As chilling as it may look, every city has a church devoted to it. They believe in other worlds and realities out in some void that surrounds us. It’s the most prominent religion in the Kingdoms, with plenty of off shoots or reinterpretations.”
“Dopplegangers in their own right. All with their slew of cosmic boogeymen,responsible for all manner of miraculous phenomena and divine terror,” Wither commented with an airy sense of sarcasm. Then he mused, “Really, not much different than back east, right, old boy? Spirits in your trees, demons in your blades?”
“The working end of my hammer wouldn’t mind answering that question for you, doc,” Gafgarn said. Wither chuckled in return, snapping Percy’s reigns with glee to bring the carriage into the square.
Townsfolk crowding the square concentrated their attention towards a broad balcony above the entrance to the church, where several guards spoke and gestured at a specifically interesting chair. It was ornate, true, a carved mahogany beast of a seat cushioned by velvet, but it was particularly fascinating because it was hanging over the edge of the balcony by its rear legs, and there was a motionless man seated within it, a wound rope around both tied tightly to the balustrade. Blood stained a cascade of opulent necklaces and his black robe with silver trim; even from this distance, it was easy to see his throat had been slit.
Percy cut through the edge of the crowd to a dingy-looking inn, respectable only for its well-kept stable. Wither and Illaeda paid its keeper for the care of their horses and carriage. The hunter retrieved three pairs of bolas, heavy looking balls joined by a strong rope, from her pack and fixed them to her belt. The group made their way through the crowd towards the precariously suspended corpse.
As they neared, they could hear a man yelling over the din, demanding the crowd stay back and ordering the men above to cut the dead one down. Three figures, similarly robed like the corpse but lacking its silver trim, looked up at the body and consoled one another with red faces and moist eyes. Gafgarn and the others met the circle of guards keeping the crowd at bay as the robed mourners turned to the man belting commands.
It took only one glance to tell he was in charge. His half-plate armor, worn and tarnished like the others, still shone with a herculean, miraculous effort. His surcoat bore not one blemish, its colors vibrant and clear. His face, wrinkled with middle age and fair but for the dark circles around his amber, almost golden eyes, was chiseled from stone, with a broad chin and high, pronounced cheekbones. A gigantic, expertly trimmed, thick mustache descended from his upper lip like a bristly, regal cape. If one could puff a pipe with respect and admiration, Wither was doing so at the sight of that wondrous lip-warmer. Said magnificent whiskers currently faced the mourning trio.
“Please, Captain, you must take him down,” one of the robed women begged, “We can’t bear to see the First Tentacle like that.”
“It’s a disgrace,” the robed man sobbed, “who would do such a thing?”
“Absoutely, yes, we’ll bring him down at once,” the captain consoled. He pointed up at the balcony, “You up there! What’s taking so long? Get the man down immediately!”
“I wouldn’t do that, captain,” Illaeda barked. She attempted to move into the circle, but found herself stopped short by the butt of a halberd pressed neatly, if curtly, against her. The man holding the weapon looked down at her with a stolid face. She drilled a hole into it with her own stare.
The captain approached her, a sense of incredulity in his steady gait, “And why should I care what you would do, miss?” She raised her eyebrow in response and made to look at the eyepatch on the other side of her face. The captain’s eyes followed and then returned to her singular functioning orb, now glittering with assuredness. The captain sighed, “A public murder and a hunter in my city, within the same morning. I thought the rain felt particularly icy today.” He pointed a metal thumb over his shoulder, “you have a quarry who might be responsible for this?”
“Quite the introduction,” Wither remarked, then refitted his pipe between a wide, toothy grin when the captain shot him a stern look.
“The guy I’m after might be involved, captain. I’ll tell you more after I’ve gotten a better look.”
“This is my city, Hunter. I can give you the details after I’ve investigated myself.”
“As much as I’d love to preserve your masculinity, I’m more interested in finding a killer than arguing with you. I’m here on guild business, so, I suggest we get to work.” Illaeda retrieved a metal tag from within her coat and flashed it at the captain. On it were emblazoned the letters “AJ” and the number “1000 G.” Her arrowhead pendant swung from the movement mockingly.
The captain glowered, but acquiesced, “You and your companions come with me, stay in sight of me at all times. Do your business, but keep me informed of your findings while you’re here, and make sure I get to see the bastard that did this, dead or alive, before you leave. And if you’re as good as hunters’re supposed to be, I expect you’ll be leaving soon. I’m Captain Bronson Tedev. Welcome to Hausto.”
Captain Tedev’s eyes scanned the group as they came forward, until they came to rest on Gafgarn. The captain took in the outlander’s massive size, poured over his wolf-cloak, and glittered at the notice of those inlaid, shining boots. “Where’s the rest of your suit?” He asked. Gafgarn grunted, cracking his knuckles with flexing fingers. Captian Tedev continued, unshaken, “Not too useful without the rest, hmm?”
He led them through the church’s broad, angular doors into an antechamber. An alter between two archways greeted them. Twisting, dark tentacles rose from the floor to embrace and rim a pool of the darkest water Gafgarn had ever seen. As Captain Tedev led the group to a stairwell at the side of the entrance, Gafgarn looked in the water and saw no reflection, but instead a pure crystalline blackness that threatened to drag him in. Instead of suckers, the tentacles had rows of bulbous, lidless eyes. As he walked by an archway, he saw the main hall lined with long wooden pews that, even with the sky overcast, lay awash in swimming colors from tall stained glass windows. A pulpit of stone, all tentacles, stood at the head of the hall in front of a massive, grotesque statue. It was a creature of tentacles and mouths, a mass without order or reason, with colorful tapestries displaying ornate symbols hung over outstretched appendages. Gafgarn snorted at the unearthly display, but a sense of unease persisted to cling to him like a bad smell. At least the place wasn’t dusty.
The balcony was wide and deep, large enough for Gafgarn’s troupe and a handful of guards, who currently stood perplexed by the scene before them. Illaeda was already pouring over the body, taking in every detail, while Wither puffed busily as he watched. A thick rope wrapped around the man, chair, and balustrade in a chaotic fashion, crossing, overlapping, and knotting like wild vines. Gafgarn leaned over the edge of the balcony to watch Ilaeda examine the deep, clean gash in the corpse’s throat, the robe beneath it stained, though the rope was rather clean in comparison. The man’s fingers, poking out from between the wound rope like struggling weeds, were decorated with heavy rings of gold and silver and jewels depicting tentacles, eyeballs, and globes. His jeweled and gilded necklaces swung with a playful, brief breeze, the blood on them almost dry. Illaeda looked down, and Gafgarn followed her eye to the ground directly below the man, and he saw nothing of note. Finally, she touched the dark robes and looked at her fingers as she rubbed them together. She nodded her head in satisfaction.
Illaeda stepped back and spoke, almost as if to herself, “He was killed last night, but not here, and most likely in his sleep.”
“Why would you say that?” Captain Tedev asked.
She looked at him sharply, “The ropes aren’t as bloody as his clothes, so he wasn’t in bonds when he was killed. There’s no blood below on the ground, so it stopped dripping by the time he was brought here.”
“Rain,” Captian Tedev commented.
Gafgarn shook his head and looked at Illaeda, “Clothes are dry, right?”
“But for the blood, yes. So are the ropes. It rained early, before dawn, so he was brought out here after that.”
“Still under the cover of darkness, I presume,” Wither added, “Unless your guards are so blind as to miss a man being tied up in a chair on a balcony in the middle of a square.”
Captain Tedev looked at his guards, who scratched their heads and shrugged, and answered sternly, “No, it had to be early, after the rain then, though I’m not sure how it wasn’t seen until sunrise. Any reason as to why?”
“Something personal, maybe” Illaeda continued, “It wasn’t a robbery, he still has all his jewelry. The way the ropes are tied, it’s overkill, like it was done by a child…”
“Or a madman, old boy” Wither added.
“Guys?” Sully called from the edge of the balcony, but the discussion continued unheeded.
“The cut is clean, so no struggle,” Illaeda moved on, “Though I don’t understand the chair. A message?” She and Wither shot quick glances at Gafgarn, who shrugged his massive shoulders in return.
“Sir?” Sully called. “Gafgarn, sir?” He ignored her, his attention set on the chair, a sudden confusing maelstrom of disgust and longing storming within him.
“Oi, Gaffy!” Dorin called over the group, who all turned to face him. Sully stood pointing over the edge of the balcony, and Dorin continued, “I think ee’s out there, sir. Peepin’ right at us.”
“Well don’t point at him, idiots,” Gafgarn commanded as he and the group marched to Sully’s side.
“He’s already lookin’ right at us, it hardly makes a difference, Gaf! Uh, I mean, sir.”
In a huddle they peered into the mass of onlookers, and in the midst of them, dead center, AJ stood wearing his jester hat, bells shining, above a wide, toothy grin. He stared at them, unmoving. He was, in fact, looking directly at Gafgarn, making the kind of eye contact easily confused between intensely intimate or disturbingly maleficent. It made Gafgarn’s blood boil and teeth grit. It also caused him to miss Illaeda and Wither launch themselves over the balcony.
Captain Tedev’s voice rippled through the square like a horn, “Seize the jester! Alive if possible! Everyone move, now!”
The rabble scattered as guards moved in to catch AJ. Illaeda and Wither were already darting between scurrying cityfolk, Illaeda reaching for the bolas on her belt and Wither testing the tension in his wrist-crossbows. They pushed people aside like leaves. AJ winked at Gafgarn as he spun and darted out of the square into an alley. Gafgarn’s rage incensed, he lept over the balcony in one bound, landing at a sprint and bellowing orders.
“Sully, ready your bow and follow me! Dorin, don’t break anything else, stay with the carriage!”
Sully took advantage of the convenient stairs, leaving Doring shrugging his shoulders and flapping his broken arm like a helpless hatchling.
The city launched into mass hysteria, the sound of an alarm bell ringing out over the city. It was one thing to indulge in the morbid curiosity of murder, but it was another to see the murderer running free. Folk barred themselves in the twisted buildings, onlookers shouted from windows, and guards sprinted about in their armor, halberds and swords at the ready.
Illaeda and Wither were arrows through a swarm of bees, quick to reach the alley. They caught the tail-end of AJ turning a corner into another street and gave chase. Gafgarn was on their heels, knocking over any in his way, a stone from a catapult in the swarm. Nothing slowed him, though he swerved to avoid a chair or two in the narrow alley. Around the corner, the three pursuers saw AJ running directly into the path of three guards.
“Fool shouldn’t have shown himself,” Wither huffed, “street’s too narrow for him evade them. I daresay he’s trapped!”
“Don’t underestimate him,” Illaeda cautioned, adjusting the bolas in her hand.
AJ never faltered or slowed. He ran right at the guards, sliding on the wet stones underneath the blade of a halberd. As a sword sliced down to decapitate him, he launched himself over it in a forward flip. The last guard, surprised by AJ’s sudden engagement of flight, found his face rudely introduced to the soles of AJ’s shoes. From the flat of his back he watched AJ flee, then dazedly gawked at his pursuers, chasing their prey’s joyous cackle.
Around a corner into a larger street, Illaeda threw her bola without hesitation. It churned through the air between onlookers and fleeing innocents, directly toward the legs under that bouncing jester hat. Until AJ grabbed a passing man and placed him between the bola and himself. It whipped around the unwitting citizen’s knees, causing him to totter into an awkward fall. AJ shot back at his hunters a self-assured grin just as arresting as the bola. It slammed into its targets with the force of all the rudest of gestures.
“Bastard,” Illaeda hissed through gritted teeth.
“Degenerative scum-sucking flesh-balloon!” Wither shouted as he launched a bolt at AJ.
The missile whistled through the air until it met the blade of a simple dagger. With a sharp ping!, it harmlessly ricocheted into a wall, while AJ tucked the blade back into his jacket as he ran into a tall building.
“Wither, around the other side! Illaeda, down this way, I’ll follow him in!” Gafgarn yelled.
“He’s mine, Wolf!” Illaeda returned, continuing her sprint into the building.
“Not one of your soldiers, old boy!” Wither called as he rounded the structure’s far corner.
Sully caught up to Gafgarn, bow in hand and quiver on her back. “Sir…” she muttered.
“’Bout time,” Gafgarn grunted as he waved for her to follow. They ran down the opposite side of the building as Wither, their eyes scanning its wall. “Look for any doors or windows, and if you see him, shoot him. Try not to kill him.” Sully knocked an arrow as she trotted behind.
Inside, Illaeda found herself in a two-story library, the upper floor a surrounding balcony with iron handrails, twisting iron staircases in the corners leading upward. Books, their spines a kaleidoscope of colors, lined tall shelves, and long tables spanned the length of the single room. The building seemed to lean slightly to the right. Windowless, the chamber was lit by candelabras on the walls, tables, and in the hands of readers and perusers. AJ was running down a central path between the long tables as a crook-backed old man pointed a shaking finger at him. “Hey! Ornery prankster, you have to return that book you stole! Get back here, thief!” AJ laughed, vaulting onto a table and launching himself onto the rail of a staircase. Illaeda chucked her second set of bolas at the jester. He heaved, jumping sidelong and upwards onto the balcony railing and swiveling over it, never losing momentum. The bolas missed by a hair, wrapping harmlessly around the stairway railing once blessed with AJ’s presence.
AJ grinned and waved as he made his way to a rickety door on the back wall. Illaeda gave chase, taking a more traditional route up the staircase. Reaching the second floor in time to see the back door swing shut, she cursed her luck and fingered the last set of bolas on her belt.
Outside, AJ sprinted across a makeshift wooden bridge that creaked and twisted across a dingy street to a sister building. A crossbow bolt flitted by AJ’s head, drawing his attention to a disgruntled Wither on the street below, taking aim for another shot. A single open eye pierced at AJ through roiling puffs of smoke from his pipe, chomped tightly between angrily clenched teeth. AJ practically pranced as he ran, a look of absolute glee on his pale face.
“Villainous arrogant canker-ridden rotworm!” Wither yelled as he let fly with another bolt. AJ smoothly ripped a loose board from the bridge, swinging it up to catch the bolt. Hearing the sound of whirling bolas, he threw the board back where he came, and caught it again as the bolas wrapped around the board and snapped it back to him. Another bolt from Wither whistled into the board as AJ blocked it, and he turned to Illaeda, almost on top of him, unsheathing her sword.
“You look flustered,” he hissed as he dodged her blade, “Relax with a healthy dose of fiber!” He slammed the board into her head, smashing it to splinters and sending her reeling. He looked down at a gash on his belly, blood staining his cut shirt and jacket. He squealed with excitement, “Ooooo, you got me leakin’! Not enough to cause me to spill, though, but nice try.”
Then the bridge rocked violently, the sound of wood snapping and breaking reverberating through the street. Gafgarn stood below, the splintered remains of one of the bridge’s supports on the ground next to him. Hammer in hand, he wound up for a blow to another crooked support. “Illaeda!” he yelled as he swung. She heard and dove off the edge of the bridge, catching herself among its webbed struts. Then Gafgarn’s hammer met wood, and with a thunderous crack the bridge rocked and wobbled. Another bolt flew by AJ’s face as he ran, laughing, the bridge under him teetering towards Gafgarn. “Sully, now!” Gafgarn yelled as he ran. Sully pulled her shaft back and let fly, the arrow flying swiftly and true. AJ leapt from the falling bridge to the doorway in the building, Sully’s arrow just grazing his shoulder. Below, the bridge plummeted into the street in a shattered heap. AJ caught himself on the ledge and climbed up and into the building, leaving only his joyous cackle for his pursuers.
“I’m not letting him get away!” Wither raged.
“We have to get around the building, find the exits,” Illaeda yelled, sheathing her sword. A single trail of blood trickled down the side of her face.
When they turned to make their way around the building, rows of guards blocked their path on either side of the street, with more arriving from corners and alleys. Many others rushed to surround the building. Gafgarn brandished his mallet, staring down the guards with all the severity of a cornered, starving bear.
Captain Tedev walked through the barricade, Dorin in tow between the iron grips of two guards.
“What’s the meaning of this, Captain?” Illaeda barked, shield and sword in hand. “Never wise to bar the Guild from its work.”
“Baron Mardoo has demanded your arrest,” the Captain announced. Gafgarn thought he sensed an edge of distaste in his voice. “Your hunt may resume after you’ve had an audience with him. By his order, his permission is needed, not mine.” This time there was no mistaking it, Captain Tedev practically spat. Gafgarn never understood taking orders from someone that commanded respect rather than earning it. The Kingdoms are indeed a strange place, he thought..
“We take you to see the Baron now,” Captain Tedev announced, extending an arm into the city, waiting for the group to comply. His face was stone, with no hint of doubt or insincerity.
With AJ so close, Gafgarn, Illaeda, and Wither were loathe to quit the chase, but the sharp ring of unsheathing swords quickly quieted their urge to resist. Illaeda complied, sheathing her sword with a frustrated grunt. Gafgarn stood tall, great hammer on his shoulder, a look on his face that begged any to take it from him. Wither, still on the opposite side of the fallen bridge, calmly straightened his suit as he walked over the wooden rubble. Then, with all the abruptness and terror of a pouncing creature, he sprinted at the captain. The force of Wither’s rage was met with a swift plated fist to the face, Captain Tedev’s free arm wrapped around Wither’s, outstretched to plunge a now-visible blade into the captain’s neck. The professer crumpled, and Captain Tedev motioned two guards to fix iron handcuffs to his wrists.
“I won’t let him get away!” Wither raged drunkenly. “So close! So near, that murdering, abducting jackanape, and you overripe, impertinent, putrid pustules are letting him go...No! No! We need to save…”
Captain Tedev knelt and grabbed Wither by his bloody face, and curtly said, “He will not leave this city alive. But until you meet the Baron, his fate is none of your concern.” The captain rose to meet Gafgarn’s heavy gaze, and announced, with all the commanding power of gravity itself, “Baron Mardoo awaits.”