The morning’s overcast skies remained, the wetness of the city less pronounced, and the air had a subtle pleasant coolness to it. The estate was in the center of the city, or just about, it was hard to tell for Gafgarn, what with all the twisting streets and alleys among the leaning buildings. Not that he or his cohort could see much of where they were or where they were going, the way Captain Tedev and his horde of guards crowded and ushered them every step of the way. Wither, the blood on his face quickly drying, would yowl and yammer at times, but his rebellious raging was met with swift retribution.
“You puss-nosed, ankle-biting philistine, he’s getting awa…” A gauntleted fist to the gut.
“Let go of me you bow-legged, swine-loving churl…” A sword hilt to the head.
“Pardon me, old boy, were you aware that the digested remains of a rat are resting on your upper lip...” A blow to the throat quieted his outbursts, causing him to walk with a body that hung limply between two guards. His protests were resigned to muttered sputterings for the remainder of the march.
Promptly they came to a wall bending around both ends of a street. Beyond it one could see the high roof of the estate, black and maroon flag waving lightly in the wet breeze. The captain led the procession to a heavy double-sided reinforced gate around the bend, large enough Wither’s cart could fit through. He knocked hard with his plated fist, to which the other side responded with the heavy lifting of a lock. The doors swung open to reveal a small group of leather and mail clad men and women bearing looks of dismay.
“‘Bout time,” a woman in the front pronounced. “Captain and prisoners in, the rest of you back to the streets.”
Captain Tedev rustled his mustache with a frustrated sigh, then turned to his guards and pointed, “You two, wait out here for me. The rest of you are dismissed to your regular duties. Don’t let me catch you at the library unless you’ve been assigned there, there’s still a whole city of people here. Well, now, get moving.” The guards disbursed in all directions, the sound of metal boots and clinking armor following their reluctant footsteps. Wither roused, dusting off his suit and betraying no injury.
“Fine,” the woman continued, “In to see the Baron, don’t dawdle now.”
“I never dawdle, Eyer,” Captain Tedev responded gruffly, leading Gafgarn’s group forward.
The guards here were even less kempt than those in the city. They were swarthy, with close to unshaven faces or scraggly hair, some with hoods pulled so far over their heads most of their faces were hidden in shadow. Men and women of such differing appearance, from skin to scars to clothes to armor—their ragged demeanor their only common trait—it was easy to conclude that they hailed from many different places in and outside of the kingdoms. Gafgarn was reminded of Smidgen’s bandits, and figured these were closer to a gang than an organized, uniformed soldierly force. Not that they appeared any less dangerous; eyes—lazy or drunk or otherwise—watched the interlopers with wariness and greedy hunger, and each man and woman had a weapon close to hand.
“Why do I feel like I’m being sized up?” Illaeda said.
“Because you are,” Gafgarn grumbled.
“Ladies, gentlemen,” Wither greeted and bowed his head as they walked.
Sully waved and nodded to a few, like old friends. Dorin shook some hands as he walked, even embraced one with a hearty “Oi mate, noice tah see yah!” Both stopped cold and continued on with lowered heads when they saw the look Gafgarn shot them.
They walked across a large yard, inhabited by a dingy stable to their left and several slumping buildings of wood to their right, possibly barracks or storerooms. Small patches of garden bestowed surprising splashes of color and fragrance amid the dreary surroundings. In the center was a modest two-story estate of the city’s common stone, a pair of iron-reinforced doors stretching high beneath a pointed gable. Two guards were at the short steps leading up to it, one sitting, cleaning her nails with a rather large knife, and the other half-asleep against against the wall, arms crossed. Captain Tedev lead the group through, pushing the doors open as he walked into a grand, dusty foyer. He continued up a single staircase to their left to the second floor and down a hall to an unassuming door. Old framed paintings hung askew on the walls alongside torn or faded tapestries, cobwebs ruffling as the group walked by them. Gafgarn could feel the dust of unclean, long-lived in quarters filtering into his voluminous nostrils, his face contorting into an annoyed grimace. He thought of his halls in the great fortress of Direrock Deep, with the heads of woodland beasts on plaques decorating the walls. No hints of dust ever dared grace those hallowed grounds, and all, handmaid to warrior, made sure of it. This Baron, with his disheveled crew and abhorrent housing, impressed him little.
Captain Tedev stopped at the door, two shady-looking guards on either side, and faced the group. “Baron Mardoo is known for many things, but first and foremost is his...size. None of you will comment or joke on it. And please, whatever you do, if you’ve heard his nickname, do not repeat it here.” Illaeda smirked while Sully and Dorin sniggered. Gafgarn looked at each face for a hint, but only got a sly shrug from Wither. Captain Tedev placed two raps on the door, and at the hughty command of “Enter” in a muffled tenor from the other, he opened and gestured for the others to follow.
They filed into a large room centered by a grand desk of dark wood, the surrounding walls lined with banners of the same design as the flag above the estate. An ornate rug of colorful reds, oranges, gold, and black floral and arboreal designs depicting blooming flowers, twisting vines, and antler-like trees covered much of the floor. Two heavy chairs of red velvet with hanging tassles lay before the desk, accompanied by several more plain oak variations presumably brought in from another room. A wide plate lay on the desk’s surface, delicately balancing its mountainous cargo of turkey legs, potatoes, gravy, grapes, and large chunks of mutton. Beyond that heaping mound, staring interestedly at them all, was one of the fattest men Gafgarn had ever beheld.
Baron Mardoo was middle-aged—wrinkles only beginning to assert themselves—and fair skinned with deep-set dark brown eyes above a pointed nose that defied his round cheeks and sloping jowls. A jet-black beard descended henceforth, dearly in need of cleaning, flecks of food clinging in its oily brambles. A paw of sausage-like fingers, each adorned with a silver or gold ring of jewels, stroked and combed that foody beard as Mardoo leaned back and regarded his new guests with interest. That hand’s equally bejeweled sibling hung over the side of the chair, loosely clutching a half-eaten apple. He barely fit into his gargantuan velvet seat, rolls of fat from his sides and back falling over the arms and back of the chair like frothing yeast over the rim of a bowl. He wore a massive black shirt with gold embroidered lions on both of the breasts and a grey coat with shiny silver buttons and black trim. Various necklaces of silver, gold, and beads hung low past the plummeting collar of his shirt that exposed curling black bushes on his upper chest. Several hooded guards stood about the room.
“Park yer rumps,” he said as he motioned to the chairs across from him. Het took a meaty bite from his apple as everyone except for Gafgarn moved to sit. “Find a perch, big man,” Mardoo ordered through a full, chewing mouth, gesturing to an empty chair.
Gafgarn looked at the seat like he was going to eat it but wasn’t looking forward to the taste.
“What, yer people don’t have chairs?” Mardoo pressed, flecks of apple showering the desk and his beard.
Gafgarn shrugged, his arms still crossed, “It’s not big enough for me. I’ll stand.”
Mardoo looked down at himself, his seat creaking with the effort, then back up with a grin, “They seem pretty sturdy to me, big fella! And you’ll refer to me as ‘sire’ while you’re in my presence. You don’t want to sit, I don’t care, I don’t want you bastards to waste more of my time than needed.” He paused to lean forward on a heaving arm, his face turning to regard the entire group. “Now, I can place some of ya,” he nodded at each as he listed them, “You’re with the guild, clear enough. Guild’s always welcomed, lass.” Illaeda registered an undertone of sarcasm and disdain, but maintained her cold disposition. “You’re that inventor, weapon-dealer, whatever. Anyone who’s anyone knows your carriage and suit. Mayhaps we can do some business later.” Wither nodded and grinned. Mardoo continued, pointing at Suly and Dorin, “I don’t know you two there, but it’s obvious enough you answer to this big one afeared of chairs over here. Odd bunch. You come into my town and raise chaos, destroy property. Murderer or no, that’s a heavy affront as outsiders, don’t you think?”
“All under guild business, sire,” Illaeda responded.
“That so, lass? Then you all be with the guild, I presume?”
“Just myself. But they aid in my hunt, and are so protected under the rights of Guildship, sire.” She spoke levelly, her tone professional and full of authority.
Mardoo pounded his fist on his desk and sternly pronounced, “Don’t you lecture me of your infernal Guild law, I know what it be. But you bring vagabonds and a Wilder. It’s enough you’ve these two criminals with you,” he pointed at Sully and Dorin, noting their wide-eyed expressions, “aye, I know you be highwaymen...but this beast-man? Peace or no, big-man, you be on the wrong side of the border, and Hausto situated as it is, it be my charge to protect the Kingdoms’ edge here.”
“Great job of doing that, I’ve been in your country for weeks.”
Mardoo shoved himself out of his seat to stand, his body rippling and jiggling with the effort. “Watch yer tone, barbarian!” he yelled, “I don’t know if yer people respect their leaders, but here in the Kingdoms, titles mean something. I won’t broach another offense from you, and I’m not talking about sending you back to your forests.”
My people earn their respect, Gafgarn thought, every muscle in his body calling out to teach that lesson to this bulbous sack of meat first-hand. If it were just him and the Baron, perhaps he would, but killing him would do no good for their pursuit of AJ. He met the Baron’s glare and nodded, noticing then a peculiar sight in the corner of the room over the Baron’s shoulder.
What he noticed utterly demanded his attention. It wasn’t the weapon rack with a sad collection of poorly kept swords hanging on leather-wrapped wooden pegs. It also wasn’t the shelves above littered with valuable-looking trophies like a golden, jeweled goblet, necklaces and rings, a jade dragon, and a shining curved dagger. It was, at the top of the shelf, a pair of shining gauntlets. Gafgarn’s eyes gravitated to those gauntlets with intense fervor for two reasons: one, they were the finest-crafted, cleanest, shiniest things in the room aside from his boots, and two, they were silver-white with red, flowing designs that Gafgarn knew to be an ancient language.
“Those,” he said, pointing with his chin, “where did you get them...sire?”
Mardoo huffed and jiggled as he struggled to look over a shoulder at the shelves, “Those? Right impressive, eh? No class, but at least you’ve a good eye. You know, I’ve never cleaned them, but they always look like that. Strange. Anyway, none-a-yer business where I got ‘em. They’re mine, that’s all should matter to you.”
“Ever put them on, old boy...er, sire?” Wither asked through teeth clenched on a pipe carved like an upwardly belching frog.
Mardoo paused, at first surprised by the presence of the pipe that had not been there a moment before, then regained his composure and raised a fist grasping a meaty turkey leg, “On these paws, professor? I’d sooner fit a brassier. Enough with all the questions, I brought you here, now shut up and pay attention. Since you bring this filth into my city, this clown, I’m going to respectfully decline your wish to hunt. Captain Tedev’s men and my private guard will see to it that this murderer is found, without destroying anything else. Murdering a First Tentacle...whoever did this’s going to bring down the wrath of the church on himself, nevermind my own. A fool.”
“So you don’t know who you’re after then, sire?” Illaeda asked.
“Don’t get smart with me. A man of white skin, red eyes, wearing a jester hat. Pretty hard to miss, lass, and I’m surprised to find with all your Guild craft and reputation that you’ve yet to catch him. Let him slip away, I hear, and by the looks of that hurt on your face, I’d say it be true.”
Illaeda thought to comment that Mardoo looked like he could catch nothing, but thought better of it, “You speak of his appearance, but not of who he is. This isn’t a common criminal. The guild was made to catch criminals like this. You need me, sire.”
“What I need is you and your group out of my city. Be on your way before I keep you here...in chains.”
“You’re welcome to stop us. I’m sure the guild’ll just overlook your tampering in our business. ‘Cause that’s not a big deal at all.”
“The guild can shag a maggot.”
A questioning brow soared above Illaeda’s good eye that regarded Mardoo with a fiery mixture of disbelief and wrath. She leaned forward, her fingers threaded neatly together and her elbows on her knees, “I don’t need to remind you, I’m sure, of the accords, older than the Kingdoms themselves. Guild work is as official as any monarch’s or their lesser vassals’, and can only be refused or punished by landsmeet trial. My actions, as well as those of my companions, are sanctioned by law, so should you imprison us and call for a trial, your head is on the block. I do my job, sire, and that is it. Make your choice.”
At that moment, a plated city guard entered, saluting the baron with a fist across his chest. Mardoo took a mighty bite of turkey, chewing with rage and exasperation. Captain Tedev gestured for the guard to come closer.
“Sir,” he said, his breath short and sweat beading on his brow from the supposed run to the estate, “the jester is gone.”
Mardoo choked and sputtered in response. Illaeda shook her head while Wither shot upright, puffing smoke wildly. Gafgarn placed a heavy hand on Wither’s spindly shoulder, locking him in place as surely as a steel brace.
“How?” Captain Tedev asked, a hand massaging his temples as he leaned in his chair, “it was one building, we had it surrounded.”
“At first, we didn’t know, ‘til a librarian told us about catacombs underneath the library. Goes out to both wings, then out under the city. Maybe even beyond the walls, he says”
Captain Tedev sighed, “No one knew this?”
The guard looked around the room sheepishly, “Well, maybe we forgot. Most of us grew up here haven’t thought about ‘em since we were kids. Even then, we thought they was just stories. Not really interesting anymore.”
“Captain,” Illaeda interjected in a curious tone, “why didn’t you know of them?”
“I’m not from here, Hunter. A handful of years, and none have ever spoken of tunnels to me.” He turned a questioning gaze to Mardoo, who replied by jamming a chunk of mutton into his mouth.
“See!” The guard said, his face beaming, “Not something we really talk about.”
Captain Tedev stood and gave the man a hard look, “Hold the entrances that we know of. Hold the librarian as well, we need to talk. I’m coming right away.” He gave a salute to Mardoo.
(Mardoo) “Captain, speak to my First on the way out, you know her. Ask about the catacombs, she will have information for you. Find the murderer. Alive if you can. Now get out of my office, the lot of ya. Professor...I may call on you later.”
As they walked through the hall and down the stairs, Wither asked Gafgarn, “Those gauntlets, old boy...unmistakably related to your ill-fated footwear.”
“Unmistakably,” Gafgarn admitted.
“I’ll bargain for them, should that gluttonous windbag be serious about seeing me later. Which he very well should be.”
“Doc, you should really clean your face. What was Mardoo’s nickname, anyway?”
Captain Tedev stopped at the large doors and leaned in to Gafgarn, using the back of his hand to stifle his answer, “He’s known as the Bulging Baron.”
A light drizzle accompanied the group’s return to the two buildings that comprised the library, the afternoon maintaining the day’s interminable gloom. Guards milled about outside, reporting to Captain Tedev that none had been permitted to leave either building. They entered the building where Illaeda had given chase to find several more guards standing around an old man in simple robes. Illaeda recognized him as the one who had yelled after AJ as he fled, saying something about a stolen book. The group moved to greet the aged librarian.
A guard spoke, “Sir, this is the one said he may know where the jester hides.”
Captain Tedev looked at the old man, who sat and fidgeted nervously, and declared, “Name?”
“Eberd,” he squeaked.
“Explain yourself. And plainly, please, we’ve work to do.”
“In the wing across the street, what was joined by that bridge, in a small cellar for storage is an entrance to ancient catacombs, older than the city itself. You move one of the shelves, it takes some strength, and there’s a doorway in the rock, leads to underground passages”
“What’s the nature of these passages?”
“None know about them but I and most of the Baron’s private guard at the estate. Mostly abandoned, many passages collapsed and unusable. One leads out of Hausto, beyond the walls somewhere. I had an interest in them in my younger years, but there’s not but rubble and darkness down there. Whatever their original purpose, it’s just a path for smuggling and secrecy now.”
“So one way in, one way out? You’re sure of this?”
“Yes. This city’s been leveled in the past. Such is war. Must have caused all the cave-ins. It would take a serious excavation to open any of the other ways, and Mardoo uses it rarely as it is.”
“Take us there, then.”
The man rose and tottered out of the building with the captain in tow. The others followed, Illaeda taking a moment to retrieve her bola still wrapped around the twisting handrail. Outside, the group followed the bent figure around the building. Soon they came to the heap formerly known as the bridge that linked the two library wings. Workmen that had been brought to the site now lugged wood and hefted beams into organized piles. Eberd, still shaking from nervousness and age, lead them further around the second building and into a doorway. Inside, this wing looked similar to the last, the biggest difference an open trapdoor in the floor in a corner. Guards milled about here as well, saluting Captain Tedev as the group passed to the trap door. A ladder lead down into a cramped space crowded with crates, chairs, a spare table, and shelves of candles, ink, and parchment. Eberd motioned towards a shelf loaded with candles and Captain Tedev called for two guards to move it. With effort they slid it aside to reveal a ragged archway in the rock leading into pitch blackness. Captain Tedev ordered the two guards to remain while the group continued on. He demanded Eberd keep to his side and that several candelabras be taken to light the way.
The crew delved carefully through the cramped hall, Gafgarn hunched slightly to keep from hitting his head on the rough-hewn, low ceiling. Even with the dancing lights the darkness was oppressive, revealing only a few feet in any direction. The librarian tottered behind Captain Tedev, craning his neck to see beyond the group, pointing to the proper direction whenever they came to a split or an intersection. No one spoke and they stepped lightly, moving slowly to keep from making any noise. For some time they traveled, finding no sign that anyone had come before them.
“How much farther, old man?” Captain Tedev whispered.
Eberd’s squeaked through panting, nervous tiredness, “Not much. There should be a chamber, then a straight path…”
A deep throated chuckle echoed through the hall, snaking around the group, raising hairs on each neck. Captain Tedev motioned the group to halt, and all craned to see into the darkness ahead. Gafgarn awkwardly turned to look back the way they came to Sully and Dorin covering the rear. Sully held a candelabra out in a feeble attempt to pierce the blackness, then turned to lock eyes with Gafgarn and shrug. He turned back to see Captain Tedev looking his way and gave as much a nod as he could, indicating that they should continue.
Minutes passed, and another chuckle rumbled through the halls. It was easier this time to tell it came from ahead of them. Captain Tedev carefully and silently unsheathed his sword and lead the group into the dark. The laughing continued more frequently now, goading them. Heavy with impish imperiousness, it caused Gafgarn’s brow to furl and nostrils to flare in irritation. Illaeda hefted her sword and shield, and Wither’s fingers danced in anticipation. Passed another crumbled pathway, turning into another path at an intersection, the laughing continued to creep through the halls like a stalker. Finally they stopped at a three-way intersection, Eberd pointing around a corner to a wider hall at a startling sight.
Two rows of simple wooden chairs stood face-to-face, their backrests against the stone walls, extending into the black and blocking the entire path. Captain Tedev shoved his light out into the hall above the chairs to look as deep as he could, but the chairs continued beyond their sight.
“Eberd, you or anyone you know put these here for any reason?” Illaeda asked in a hushed tone, her eye positioned just so to see through the bodies in front of her.
“N-no, this hall is usually clear. We’ve no use for chairs down here, no one sits around in the dark. Our pastime is reading, after all. ”
“No meeting place for Mardoo’s cronies, old boy?” Wither murmured.
Eberd scratched his hairy chin, “None of my business if there were, but they use the catacombs for smuggling and sneaking out of the city. I don’t think the Baron let anyone he worked with outside of the city into the catacombs anyway. Better to keep the entrance hidden in case some crook got wise.”
Gafgarn gazed back at Sully and Dorin with a questioning glance that appeared all the more threatening as shadows danced across his face. Then he asked in a whisper that nonetheless carried the stony presence of his voice, “Smidgin ever come in here? Your band? Anyone?”
“No, sir,” Sully responded without hesitation.
Dorin added, “Gaf, don’t think so. Times we met Mardoo’s folk were in the forest or the camp.”
Sully continued, “Deal was the Baron would work with us, but only on his terms. Smidgin never really cared for the city here--already had his own turf--and with the extra information and gear, we could waylay some nice caravans.”
“And then he’d pay you, supplies or gold?” Gafgarn asked
“Aye,” Dorin answered.
They all looked down the tunnel, the chairs seeming to dance in the flickering light of their candles. Another throaty cackle, full of self-assured excitement, rumbled through the halls. There was no mistaking where the laugh came from, though; it radiated from beyond those chairs.
“Any way around, Eberd, down that way?” Gafgarn asked, pointing down the continuing hallway.
“No, just a cave in. This here is the way to the exit.”
“What’s wrong, Gaffy,” AJ’s voice, full of glee, echoed around them, “You seem stressed out. You should have a seat, take a load off.” Then he peeled into a brief, mocking fit of laughter.
Gafgarn rumbled with the rage boiling up inside him. He reached for his hammer with one hand, but stopped as he realized AJ would be long gone before he could smash his way down that hall. Smashing would make him feel better, but he’d have to save it for AJ. The rest of the group could continue, but what would he do? Could he keep searching in the hopes that the crooked librarian was wrong? No, he needed to get down the hall as soon as possible, as crowded as it was with the dreaded chairs. He cracked his neck in anticipation.
He lifted a gilded foot above the first two chairs, felt that strange force that pushed him away. As he dropped his boot, he could hear the chairs vibrating against the wall and each other. Then he pushed hard against them, their shaking becoming a cacophony of wooden rumblings, and he could see them wobble. His foot slipped off and away from the chairs, and he stamped it on the floor in frustration. He turned and attempted to sit, but was pushed back towards the group. “Blasted chairs!” he cursed.
“There’s one thing you can try, and you know it,” Illaeda said.
“It won’t work,” Gafgarn responded.
“Come now, old boy. Let’s see just what this curse of yours will do,” Wither said.
Gafgarn huffed as he turned back around, and without hesitation, took a few quick steps and launched himself over the row of chairs. He quickly fell, feeling a force push upwards against his entire body enough to slow but not stop his descent. The moment his chest hit a seat, he was catapulted upwards into the hard rock ceiling, hitting it like a sack of meat. He fell back down and was repulsed once more, this time catching himself before hitting the ceiling. As he fell again, he could feel the force slowing him, and he bobbed back upward before touching wood. He bounced in midair for a few moments, each bounce smaller than the next, until he floated gently in the air a hand’s length above the chairs. He looked back at his companions, faces struck with surprise, Wither, Sully, and Dorin scarcely stifling a giggle. Illaeda nodded her head, betraying herself with a tiny smirk.
“Let’s get going,” Gafgarn commanded, as if nothing strange had happened at all. He thought of claiming a candelabra, but dismissed the idea. He’ll see me coming, he thought. I’ll fly through the air, in the dark, and surprise him. Or he’ll be waiting for me.
Sully reached him first, having pushed through the group. She moved her hands in the air over and under Gafgarn, looking for something to do with them, but stopped, absolutely dumbfounded. “Are we supposed to...push you, or...something?” she asked.
“Just follow me. Keep up. And ready yourselves.”
Gafgarn reached out with both arms, his movement causing the chairs below him to rumble again. He grabbed at the sides of the walls, and with one herculean push, launched himself down the hallway. That strange force persisted as he went, pushing up against his body, harder if he bobbed closer to the chairs, each emitting a creak or clatter under him. A frown crept onto his face as he heard, knowing that if AJ lay in wait, the sounds might reach him. He thought of readying his hammer, but the movement of reaching back caused him to wobble awkwardly, pitching forward to almost clip his nose on wood. No, better to gain speed and surprise his foe.
Again he pushed himself down the hall, this time with greater force, sending him into a barrel roll like a slow, awkward bird. It was a strange sensation, like he was a boat and the air beneath him water. Until now he was pushed, or shoved, or launched, or a bed or chair would slide or fall as sought to rest upon it. Now he found himself in an odd equilibrium, a weightless stone floating into that clammy abyss. To murder or be murdered. As strange as it was, he was ecstatic.
Finally the the creaks subsided behind him and that familiar pull to the ground returned. In absolute darkness he fell into a hard roll, coming to slide on his boots into a stony wall. As he collected the wind knocked from his lungs, he hefted his hammer and listened intently. For a few chilling moments, only the occasional clacking of a chair from the approach of his companions far behind reached his ears. Until, finally, something greeted him.
“‘Bout time,” AJ’s voice called from the darkness with the friendly timbre of one calmly entertained, “we’ve been waiting for you for a while now. Silly you didn’t bring a light with you, you were loud enough floating in here. I wish I could’ve seen it, but I guess I’ve seen your kind of flight before. I’m a huge fan, really, it’d be great to give that monster-hand a shake. Unfortunately, I’ve a problem, as we’ve not brought a light either.”
We? Thought Gafgarn. Who else is with him? AJ seemed like one who worked alone. Then Gafgarn’s thoughts moved to Wither’s sister. If she was in that room as a hostage, that would complicate things. Gafgarn stepped forward into nothing, making no sound as he went.
“You really are a hoot, buddy” AJ continued, “You don’t think you can find me in this, can you? As much as I’d like to formally meet, I do have something else I need to attend to. I was worried about leaving my friend here alone, but now that you’re here, I know he’s in good hands. You should take a seat with him, he’s sure got a lot to tell you.”
Gafgarn stepped further into the darkness, towards some unseen point where he knew the jester would be.
“Now, now, I told you I wouldn’t leave you alone, no need to get upset. I’ll be around, you can believe that; you’re just too much fun. Let the professor know I’m taking good care of his little girl, would you? Toodles!”
The sound of light footsteps resounded off the wall, each a reverberating decrescendo of the previous. Gafgarn sprinted forward into dark nothingness, chasing the receding sound. It seemed his run brought him no closer, the pitter-patter of AJ’s retreat becoming ever quieter, until finally a much louder, much more present sound halted Gafgarn’s pursuit. It was like the earth cracking in half, roaring from the space ahead and shaking the floor beneath Gafgarn’s boots. Worse, a billowing wall of dust and air slammed into Gafgarn like a storm. He staggered and covered his face, cursing the dust as it stung the skin and choked the lungs. Dust was almost worse than AJ...it could never be squished.
Weak light permeated the dark behind Gafgarn, the sound of skidding chairs and fast, heavy steps following it. He turned to see Sully hopping from the hall of chairs into the chamber, candelabra held high and knife poised low. Illaeda and Wither followed, a sword bared and wrist-bows raised, Dorin, Captain Tedev, and Eberd close behind, their curious faces peering from around the corner.
“Earthquake?” Sully asked, her eyes darting in all directions
Wither answered, “No, dear, that would not be the rumblings of anything produced by nature. That would be the product of an ingenious concoction from a place very foreign and unreachable for most in the Kingdoms.”
“That murderous swine is a madman,” Illaeda growled between clenched teeth.
“Oi, what was it then?” Dorin asked.
“An explosive,” Wither announced flatly, “Something I would greatly like to get my hands on. How AJ got one is beyond me, but it seems he’s used it ahead, which undoubtedly means…”
“The tunnel’s collapsed,” Gafgarn finished as he stepped from the dark into the light like a great, stony shadow.
“You know of explosives, old boy?”
“Only rumours,” Gafgarn grumbled, “something that can move and break stone and light the sky.”
“Simple tricks, old boy. If only they’d trade their secrets, I could teach them a thing or two about ingenuity.” Wither’s voice rasped with the thirst of a parched man glancing life-giving waters across an impossible chasm.
“That’s nice,” Sully remarked, “but I think you guys should take a look at this.”
She held the flickering light before her and marched, motioning Captain Tedev to follow. Together their flames revealed the chamber, the center of it occupied by a single man clad in half-plate armor, his hands bound behind him as he sat in the same type of chair as was crowding that long hallway. His head hung low, and the remnants of perspiration dripped from the ridge of his nose and black hair that hung over his face. Firelight revealed bruises, a cut lip, and a dark deluge of fresh blood glistening on his tarnished breastplate and dripping onto the floor. A sword lay nearby next to an extinguished torch, and crumpled by a distant wall were two more armored, bloodied bodies. Captain Tedev rushed to those against the wall, then to the man settled in the chair.
“Good men, these. Rare in these parts,” he uttered with a tone of sad respect, “I thought this AJ to be just a knife in the dark, an assassin that kills and runs. These would have put up a fight.”
“Not enough,” Illaeda replied flatly as she knelt to examine the sitting corpse, “not for AJ.”
“Liver-spotted fecal-warming hedge-pig,” Wither hissed
“Why’s ‘ee in a chair?” Dorin asked, gesturing at the macabre scene. “So was that tentacle-head, roight? The jester got a thing fer reclinin?”
Illaeda and Wither looked at Gafgarn knowingly, but none responded. Gafgarn took the candelabra from Sully and walked around the room, finding only one exit other than the collapsed path and the chair-ridden hallway, and this one already blocked by rubble. He kicked the stone and grunted, returning to the group to announce, “There’s no chasing him from here. Librarian, where does that path go?” Gafgarn nodded his head the way AJ had fled.
“Out, I’m sure,” the old man replied. “If he went that way, he’s out of the city, most likely.”
“Eberd,” Illaeda said, “what was the book that AJ took?”
“When I was chasing him through the library, you yelled after him, saying he needed to return a book.”
“Oh, right. The night before, he stayed late. Had never seen him before, but the library’s public. He picked out several tomes, history books and memoirs from the ancient war, the rebellion that broke the empire and gave birth to the Kingdoms. I didn’t notice him leave, but one of the books I saw him with was missing”
“What was it, old boy?” Wither asked
“Arming Chaos, it was. A journal of a famous blacksmith of those times, it’s considered a chronicle of old techniques and styles, tracks some events, but otherwise reveals little about anyone or anything particularly important.”
“Important is relative, old boy,” Wither said, his eyes communicating a hidden understanding to Gafgarn and Illaeda. All three of them looked down at Gafgarn’s boots, glinting in the candlelight as if just polished. “In any case, not much we can do here, is there?”
“No,” Captain Tedev stated with a hint of resigned sadness, “We should report back to the Baron. I’ll have my men take care of the dead.”
“Oh boy,” Sully said sarcastically, “I’m reeeeeally excited to see that thing again.”
What would the Baron think of their failure? What might he do? As they trudged through Hausto’s streets underneath a sky just beginning to hint at the approaching evening, they knew they would find out.
But when they returned to the manse in the middle of the city, they were met with a different scene than expected. The courtyard bristled with the leather-clad and cloaked, all forms of weapon drawn, each at their highest guard. There had been a death in the yard it seemed, two guards at the rear of the estate slain quietly, their bodies only just discovered. And something worse. Inside, the shady folk ran about, investigating every corner and nook, with a particularly grumpy retinue in the upper halls crowding the Bulging Baron’s doorway. Beyond, Gafgarn and his companions found a most peculiar, but eerily familiar, scene. The Baron and four of his henchman were slumped into chairs, dead from knife wounds, arranged around the impressive desk as if in a meeting. The strangest detail, however, was a small note written in ink in the most eloquent, flowing handwriting anyone alive or dead in that room had ever seen. The note was pinned to Baron Mardoo by his own knife, and it read:
"Even in death, they know more comfort than you."
And, Gafgarn noted, those pristine gauntlets with a shocking likeness to his cursed boots were nowhere to be found.