The evening air of Elinost on the 15th day of Atumnist had taken on a fresh chill. A meager breeze blew between the buildings of the city’s middle class Cawder district, and had washed away any of the day’s lingering warmth from the patches of cobblestones that littered the streets sporadically. It was a quiet night, the starlit darkness interrupted here and there where the light from a hearth fire shone through gaps in a doorway or around tightly-closed shutters.
The quiet of the night was ruined as the bitter smell of smoke began to make its way through the streets of Cawder. Near midway down Archer Street, smoke had started to waft out from under the eaves of a small two story building that locals knew as Telan’s Countings. An abacus carved into the wood sign over the building’s front door indicated that it was a business, and was the office of a bookkeeper or accountant. Telan was an old man, and had been a fixture of Cawder for decades. At this late hour, mere minutes past the first mark of the morning, he had no doubt long since gone to bed.
Along Archer street people started to wake to shouts of “fire!”, and the sound of doors being pounded upon. As they woke and forced their way free from the fog of sleep, they started to recognize the telltale smell in the air. In many, this smell brought about a primal reaction, spurring them to wakefulness and action in a manner that the shouted alarm could not. Shortly, drowsy citizens in their nightclothes began to peek and, in some instances stumble, from their homes into the street.
From within a warm tangle of supple limbs, Vikander Anoleis’ lingering drunkenness allowed him to resist the shouts of alarm. But he woke with a cough as smoke seeped through the shutters of the apartment where he found himself in the early morning. For a panicked moment, he didn’t know where he was and looked about quickly for evidence of this. The half-naked feminine form sharing the bed with Vikander reminded him of the previous evening’s events, and he couldn’t help but smile into the darkness. Another cough reminded him of his reason for waking, and he reached across to shake his companion awake. What was her name? Jess? Jessa? At first she didn’t react to being jostled, so he shook her again with greater urgency. The room had filled enough with smoke that Vikander’s eyes had begun to water.
The young bar wench still failed to waken, spurring Vikander to burst into motion. The lingering fog of drink and sleep washed away immediately. Surging to his feet and standing naked next to the bed, he held one arm over his mouth to protect against the greater concentration of smoke in the air nearer to the ceiling. Vikander shook the girl fiercely enough with his free hand that a small part of him feared that she would be hurt. Still she didn’t wake.
With a quick motion Vikander pulled her up into his arms, snagging the bed sheets in the process. Staggering slightly under her weight, he carried her from the room as fast as he could. He bore her into the small apartment’s only other room. The smoke was slightly thinner here, farther from the street. Setting the girl down on the floor, he quickly fetched a clay basin of water from a table along one of the room’s walls and splashed its contents on her face. With a hacking cough and sputter, the girl woke up and rolled to her side. Jessa, that’s her name. “Are you ok?” Vikander asked, his hand resting on her shoulder.
“Yes. . .” she said, her words punctuated with dry coughing, “I think so.” Jessa’s words came roughly, as her body sought to clear the smoke from her lungs. “What is happening?”
“There is a fire nearby,” Vikander answered, turning to look toward the apartment’s entrance. “I can hear people in the streets.”
Regaining his feet, Vikander gathered the bedding around him and took a couple steps toward the doorway and to Archer Street beyond. He turned back briefly and said, “I have to check it out, are you ok to get outside?”
“Yes,” Jessa’s voice was clearer, and the coughing fits seemed to be subsiding, “I should be fine.” She looked down at her nudeness, “After I dress.”
Vikander responded with a smirk and reached a hand up to tip an imaginary hat, then turned and exited the apartment into the cool, chaos-filled evening.
- * * * *
Rook looked out from his vantage point in the mouth of a shadowed alley. The tenement building that he had been surveying remained quiet, as it had for the last few marks. As the smell of smoke reached the Halfling’s sensitive nose, he began to hear shouts of “fire!” from farther west down Archer Street. He continued to watch, his interest piqued. People began to exit their homes down toward that end of the street. Even farther down, where Archer Street curved around to the south, he could just barely start to make out the primal glow of the fire that was waking this quiet neighborhood in the wee marks of the morning. Looking around, Rook quickly assessed the buildings in this neighborhood. They were all made of wood and built very close together. Often, multiple tenements occupied the same building. A fire could spread quickly in these conditions.
Coming to a quick decision, Rook pulled the hood of his cloak up and stepped into the street from the safety of his hiding spot. Moving rapidly, he crisscrossed the street and, each in turn, pounded on the front doors of homes, shouted, “Fire! Wake up! ‘Ware the fire!”
Four doors into this process, Rook pounded and shouted a warning at the door of the home he had been observing, but he didn’t linger at this door any longer than he had at the others. A few doors later he stole into the mouth of another alley, opposite the side of the observed home from his original vantage point, and again took up a position from which to monitor it. Wisps of smoke had started drift into this end of Archer Street by then, and the number of people in the street was increasing rapidly. Many of them moved past Rook’s hiding spot in the direction of the fire, oblivious to his presence.
Rook didn’t have to maintain his vigil very long, before his efforts were rewarded. The door of the home he had been watching opened, and a head poked out into the smoky darkness. Rook didn’t recognize the male Halfling peering out, but the female Halfling, peeking from behind the stranger’s shoulder, he knew well. With a smile and nod to himself, sure that they’ve been warned, Rook turned to enter the street to investigate this fire himself.
Stepping from the alley, Rook turned and came face-to-face with a half-naked man, barefoot on the cold stones and clutching bedding about his person. He was of average build with sharp, handsome features. Underneath the man’s disheveled, dark hair, Rook knew his eyes to be a vibrant green, though he couldn’t see their color in the darkness. It was Vikander, an acquaintance of some few months. They’d had a reunion in Clasper’s Square just two days ago, and had made plans to share a drink while in Elinost. Vikander’s eyes widened in a look of fond recognition. “Rook,” he took in the Halfling and the alley he was stepping from, “what are you doing here?”
Stepping fully from the alley, Rook answered casually, “You know, just keeping an eye out.” With a sweeping look, he took in Vikander’s state of undress and asked with a suggestive smile, “What business are you about?”
Vikander couldn’t keep a slightly-guilty smile from his face as he replied, “Ah, you know. But never mind that.” He motioned down Archer Street and turned toward the distant, primal glow of fire. “What’s this about?”
“Let us find out,” Rook replied, falling into step next to his friend as they headed down Archer Street toward the fire.
- * * * *
Briston had fallen asleep on the hard mat in the cell provided to him by the monks of the Cathedral of Light. The cell was austere, its walls plain, mortared stone and its only furnishings, other than the sleeping mat, were a simple chair and plain table. As a member of the Order of The Sword of Pelos, Briston was accustomed to such simple accommodations. Here, securely within the Cathedral of Light and surrounded by the trappings of his faith, he slept more peacefully than he was ever able to elsewhere.
Despite the depth of his slumber, Briston woke abruptly with a feeling of tension. He could hear the rapid patter of bare and sandaled passing on the stone floor in the hallway outside the door of his cell. Amid the patter he was able to hear whispered words, but they weren’t clear enough for their meaning to be discerned. The tone of those words though, and the alarm therein, was plainly evident. At this realization Briston came to his feet and pulled his shirt of mail over his head. In the distance, the cathedral bells begin to toll, their notes echoing through the stone halls. At this mark of the morning, the ringing bell could only indicate trouble. Taking up his shield and warhammer, Briston stepped from his cell into the hallway beyond and turned in the direction that the cathedral’s monks were moving.
Marching down the hall, Briston quickly caught up to an aged, hunched monk walking with a cane and a pronounced limp. “What transpires brother?” Briston asked.
The old monk glanced in Briston’s direction, his eyes lingering on the heavy hammer in his hands. “You’ll have little need of that,” he indicated the hammer with an arthritic finger. “It seems there is a fire in the city. We go to assist. Will you join us?”
“Of course, brother. Pelos would accept nothing less,” answered Briston, projecting his unshakeable faith in his deity.
“The Light keep us.” The old monk intoned in reply. The two of them exited the monks’ dormitory into the cool evening air where they were greeted by the smell of smoke.
- * * * *
The guards at Elinost’s North Gate had given Erlandir little trouble. The sergeant on duty had looked briefly at the Elf’s sharp features, but the Ilinothuin were common enough in these parts that his interest quickly shifted to the bow strapped to Erlandir’s back.
“And what do you mean to do with that?” the sergeant asked.
“It provides me with food during my travels, but I should have little use for it in the city,” Erlandir answered calmly. He’d had this same conversation many times with many different guards, and it always turned out the same. In the more rural areas, carrying a bow was nothing strange. But here, in the large city, people acted like they had never seen one. Long ago he had learned that the best way to handle these city guards was to stay calm and not spook them. Accordingly, Erlandir kept his hands to his sides and tried to keep a smile on his face.
As the two guards focused their attention upon him, a low-slung, lupine shape crept through the gate behind them and disappeared into the inner shadows of Elinost’s looming, outer wall.
“Try to make sure you have no use for it during your stay,” the senior guard admonished, waving Erlandir through.
A short way past the gate, after turning a corner and leaving the guards’ sight, the grey, shaggy form materialized from the dark shadows of the city and brushed up against Erlandir’s thigh. The beast was powerfully built, even for a wolf. It was the size of an alpha, reaching well past the elf’s knees, and walking with a careful, deliberate gait that suggested cunning and predatory reflex. The Elf reached down and scratched his companion behind the ears. Together, they began to make their way across Elinost to the home of Skyla, a distant clan member, where they would find rest for the remainder of the evening.
The two of them had only made it a short way into Elinost’s warren of streets before the road they traveled crested a low hill. Erlandir noted the soft hazy glow of smoke and fire in the distance. One of the buildings in the neighborhood to the West was ablaze. Normally Erlandir would trust the humans to take care of themselves, but Skyla’s home, though not in the same neighborhood, was near enough to the fire to be threatened if the blaze managed to get out of control. It seemed he wouldn’t be finding rest as soon as he had hoped.
- * * * *
As Rook and Vikander drew nearer to the burning building, they joined others who had come out of their homes in response to the shouted alarm. For the most part, these people milled around chatting with each other, speculating about the fate of Telan.
The pale colored smoke grew denser as they approached its source. Before they caught sight of Telan’s Countings, they started to perceive a nimbus of luridly glowing smoke that marked the fire’s location. On their way down the street they had been able to avoid the largest clouds of smoke, but now it was unavoidable and their lungs started to burn from breathing it. In turn, Vikander and Rook each tore a swatch of cloth from the sheets that Vikander had wrapped around himself, and held it over their mouths to protect against the choking smoke.
Nearby, through the obscuring pall, a new voice began to be heard through the confusion. This voice was loud and commanding. It cut through the smoke and confusion, extorting people to gather pitchers, basins, or jugs and carry them to the fountain in Cathedral Square, a few blocks away.
“Fetch water from the fountain!” Briston shouted, doing his best to spur the crowd of onlookers into action. He bellowed through the smoke at people and, sometimes, bodily pushed down Cathderal Street, in the direction of the fountain. “Grab a bucket, pass it along.” He grew frustrated at their disorganization, and that frustration sometimes came through as anger in his voice. “You! Climb atop that roof! We need to pour water on the nearby buildings.” As more people caught sight of him, Briston’s bright tabard gave the people of Cawder a central point around which to rally, and Pelos’s golden sun emblazoned upon his breast earned him a measure of authority that he might not have had otherwise. Within a few minutes of his arrival outside Telan’s Countings, a rag tag bucket line had started to form at the intersection of Archer and Cathedral Streets under his direction.
Taking up the call to fight the fire, Rook climbed onto a nearby crate and lent his voice to that of the stranger, urging those near him to fetch containers or assist carrying water. The cloud of smoke around him rendered the Halfling all but invisible and his quieter voice failed to pierce the chaos and confusion. He actually earned a couple of chuckles as people caught glimpses of a child-sized figure shouting at the top of its lungs while perched precariously atop a crate.
The light from the fire in Telan’s Countings shone through the gaps around the building’s front door and between its shutters. Overhead, tongues of flame could be seen licking out from under the eaves and curling up around the roof’s edge. Pale smoke continued to pour into the street from every gap in the structure’s construction.
Erlandir approached Telan’s Countings from the East. He avoided the people gathering in the street. Together, he and his wolf, Fenris, skirted near the buildings through the smoke. Fearing that someone might be trapped within the burning building, they headed into the ally between it and its nearby neighbor. The alley was narrow, and thick with smoke. A powerful heat radiated from the wall of Telan’s Countings, and beads of sweat sprung up immediately on Erlandir’s brow.
Behind Telan’s Countings, Erlandir found a small courtyard that looked to be shared with the three neighboring homes. Pale faces framed by interior fire or candlelight interrupted the darkness as people looked across the courtyard to monitor the fire’s progress. The courtyard itself was pretty sparse, containing a small garden and single tree flanked by two wooden benches at its heart. Erlandir quickly turned his attention to the burning structure’s back door.
Back on Archer Street the bucket brigade had finally reached some semblance of order under Briston’s direction, and a good amount of water was being splashed onto the two buildings that flanked Telan’s Countings. It was generally accepted that there was little they could do to quell the present conflagration, and that their efforts were best spent trying to prevent the fire from spreading.
A wail of anguish rent the night and pulled the attention of everyone at the intersection toward a middle-aged woman in a night gown who had just stumbled into the street in front of Telan’s Countings. A man, similarly dressed in his night clothes, stood to the side of the woman and restrained her as she tried to approach the burning building. “Papa!” the woman wailed, her anguish touching all those around her. “Someone do something!” She struggled vainly against the man, trying to reach the burning building, but soon sagged to her knees on a patch of cobblestone in the street and continued to shriek and wail.
Initially, no one moved to enter the building. The fire had been burning for some time now, and there was little chance that Telan hadn’t succumbed to the flame or smoke. With a sense of dejection, the bucket brigade returned to its work, the sounds of the woman’s grief filling the smoky night around them.
Vikander and Rook turned to one another and shared a look that clearly said they each knew what the other was thinking, but neither wanted to put their thoughts to words. With a shrug of his shoulders and a smirk on his face, Vikander said through the cloth held over his mouth, “No legends are told of the timid.” He then quickly double-checked the knot of sheets over his right shoulder where he had secured them to shield his nakedness. The two friends splashed water from a near empty rain barrel over themselves and wet their mouth cloths. Turning, they jogged across the street, through the smoke, and to the front door of Telan’s Countings.
Expecting to have to contend with a locked door, Vikander and Rook were surprised to find that the latch slid back and the door opened smoothly to reveal what must have been Telan’s office. The room occupied the entire width of the front of the building and was about five paces or so deep. Smoke filled the top third of the open space. Under the smoke, another door could be seen occupying the center the far wall, leading deeper into the structure. An angry, orange-red light glowed from where the inner wall met the roof. That, and the occasional lick of flame emerging from the gaps around the door in that same wall, suggested that, while this room remained relatively clear of fire, the next room was probably fully involved. An overturned desk, a scattering of comfortable, if plain-looking, chairs, and loose papers strewn across the wooden floor were all their cursory examination revealed. There was no sign of Telan.
Vikander did well keeping the wet cloth over his face, but Rook couldn’t avoid taking in a lung-full of smoke as he looked around the room. The roar and crackle of the fire was then punctuated by the sounds of his coughing. From somewhere deeper in the building, the man and Halfling began to hear a slow, rhythmic pounding sound.
Finding the back door locked, and feeling an increasing sense of urgency as the sound of crying and screaming reached him faintly from the front of the building, Erlandir began to throw his shoulder into the door. The few solid blows that it took for him to break the latch free from its wooden mounting, left his shoulder with a sharp ache. As the door crashed open in front of him, Erlandir gave Fenris the hand sign for “stay” and peered through the doorway.
This room, lit harshly by the glow of flames on the far wall, occupied the full width of the building and looked to be a kitchen. A fireplace, with a cookpot sitting on the stones beside it, shared the middle wall with the next room. Not too far to the left of the fireplace stood a door. In patches along that middle wall, the wood burned and smoldered. Flames lashed through around all sides of the door. The ceiling at the wall’s top was similarly aflame. Other than shelves with pots, pans and small sacks of food upon them, and a large counter with crockery scattered across its surface, the room was empty.
The pounding that Vikander and Rook had heard coming from deeper in the building ended with a crash, and the two of them shared a look. “There seems to be more going on here than a fire,” Rook spat out between coughs, earning a nod from Vikander. They turned their attention back to the door leading into the next room. The increase in heat as they neared the door, and the lively flames that fluttered out between it and its frame, gave the two of them pause. The fire was clearly more intense on the other side of this door and, despite the bravado required for them to enter this burning structure, neither of them wanted to tempt Father Fate unnecessarily.
As they pondered how best to proceed, a large form entered the building’s front doorway behind them. Briston, coughing in the smoky haze and holding his shield before him, surveyed the room as he muttered a short prayer, “Pelos guide me.” He quickly came to the same conclusion that Vikander and Rook had: Telan must be elsewhere.
Recognizing the Pelosian priest as the man who had been organizing the bucket brigade in the street, Vikander and Rook relaxed. The motion of Rook’s hand turned from a grasp for one of his knives into an idle scratch.
Stepping past the man and Halfling gawping at his arrival, Briston grabbed the handle of the inner door and pulled it open. With a lurch he stumbled backward, the door come free of the frame and, turning wholly about, smacked into his shoulder. The fire had by now almost burned its way through the wall, and the door’s hinges came free at Briston’s tug. He felt and heard a hiss as the some of the embers on the door’s inner side seared his neck. A wave of furnace-like heat rolled into the priest, singeing his exposed skin. The now-loose door tumbled away to the side. After a moment to gather himself, and patting his neck to make sure that his short beard wasn’t aflame, Briston again raised his shield in front of him, and the three of them: Briston, Vikander, and Rook, in unspoken agreement, crossed into the next room.
This room had numerous, scattered pockets of flame. Parts of the walls had been completely consumed, and upward-leading stairs to the companions’ left were engulfed. The painful heat bit at their skin as they scanned the room. A look revealed that this space had once been a comfortable sitting room. Most of the furnishings were aflame, and the three would-be investigators immediately noticed a sprawled, face-down body in front of the fire place. A circular pool of dark fluid was gathered around the body’s head and shoulders, and some manner of fist-sized stone sculpture lay on the floor nearby.
Briston stepped quickly to the prone figure’s side, kicking up loose papers that had been scattered around the room, and knelt to check for signs of life.
Across the room, the door leading to the rear of the house opened to reveal a hooded elf with obsidian black hair and an arm raised to shield him from the heat. Recognition of this newcomer immediately dawned on Vikander and Rook. Vikander noticed Briston surge to his feet at Erlandir’s appearance and reach for his hammer, but stopped him with a raised hand. He had to yell to be heard over the roar of the fire. “Peace, priest! He is known to us.” With a gesture he indicated the body on the floor, “Does he live?”
“No. He is in the care of the gods now.” Briston made a closed fist and pressed it against the Pelos’s blazing sun on his tabard. He, too, was forced to raise his voice against the din, “May Pelos watch over him.”
Rook knelt near the body and, pointing towards an area of dark matted hair on the back of the man’s head, added with a yell, “He seems to have been struck here.” After glancing around the nearby area, he indicated the stone carving on the floor a pace away, “With that, perhaps.”
“Right then,” Vikander hollered, “let’s get out of here before we join him!” He moved to the body’s feet and grabbed them, wincing at how hot the skin was. “Will you grab his arms, priest?” he shouted. Briston’s answer was to hoist up the dead man by his shoulders. The two of them set to carrying Telan’s body out through the front office.
Swiftly, Erlandir stepped into the room and gathered up a handful of papers from the floor before following Briston and Vikander to the front of the building.
Rook glanced around before leaving, considered taking the stone carving with him. That might come in handy if they had to explain this to the Griffyn Watch later. But as he stepped toward the small sculpture, his eyes alighted upon a small, smoldering ledger resting on a side table. He snatched it up, using the corner of his coat as a glove to smother the flame.
With a step Rook turned to exit the room following his friends, but was interrupted by flaming timbers from the roof crashing across his path. The falling debris threw up a cloud of flinders and forced the Halfling to stagger backward.
Out in the street, Briston and Vikander set the body of Telan down in front of his daughter. The distraught woman renewed her sobbing as she reached out and clung to her dead father.
“So Rook . . . . .” Vikander started, glancing about. When he saw that Rook was nowhere to be seen, Vikander grabbed Briston by the shoulder and turned him around, “Did the Halfling make it out?” he demanded.
“I don’t see him,” Briston replied, looking around the throng of people.
“Blood and ashes!” Vikander cursed as he turned back toward the burning building. His steps hesitated when he heard the clear sound of crashing beams from inside the inferno, but he quickly recovered and plunged back into the blaze.
Rook backed away from the fallen timbers and looked around for another exit. Sighting a window that most likely opened into a side ally, he took a moment to gather his nerves. Running a few steps, he leapt atop the table the small he’d found the book on, and hurtled himself at the window’s shutters. With a painful crash, he smashed into, and through, the window. An instant of weightlessness abruptly ended with a crunch as he smashed into the filth of the alley floor. For long moments he could do nothing more than lay there and try to breath. Moisture made up of night soil and water poured on the neighboring buildings to keep the fire from spreading, soaked into his clothes.
Vikander returned to Telan’s sitting room to find that Rook had disappeared. In a panic he glanced around, afraid his small friend had been caught under a piece of the collapsing roof, but he caught no sight of the Halfling. The sound of snapping and groaning wood above warned Vikander of the increasing danger as he, too, spotted the now-open window.
Rook had barely managed to catch his breath and raise himself to a sitting position when the half-naked form of Vikander crashed onto him, stunning him again, and flattening him back down into the ally filth.
- * * * *
Vikander stood next to Rook in the middle of Archer Street, the chaos of the bucket brigade surrounding them. As Telan’s Countings burned to the ground, the roar of the fire was joined by the mournful cries of Telan’s daughter where she knelt over his body. Above all this clamor, Briston’s voice urged the tiring people of Elinost to bring more and more water from the fountain in Cathedral Square. The building to the left of Telan’s Countings had started to smolder, and a couple spots of flame had flared to life along its eaves. But people were working hard despite their increasing level of exhaustion, and it looked like that building could be saved.
Leaning against a wall across and partway down Archer Street stood Erlandir, with Fenris at his side. Idly, he reached down with one hand and scratched his companion behind the ears. He watched, vigilant for the safety of his friend Vikander and for his Halfling acquaintance, but preferred to keep some distance from the crowd. Relations between his people, the Ilinothuin, were mostly cordial, sometimes bordering on friendly in limited circumstances, but racism was not unheard of. Keeping his distance was prudent, especially in Elinost, in the middle of the night.
With a groaning creak some of the large timbers of the burning building’s roof collapsed inward, throwing sparks and smoke into the crowed street. Shielding his eyes with an upheld forearm, Rook turned his head away from the outrush of hot, burning wind while it subsided. Across Archer Street, looking out from the shadows between two buildings, he caught a glimpse of a pale face watching the fire and activity of the crowd as Telan’s Countings burned down in front of them. In that brief moment Rook and this stranger made eye contact, and those eyes widened at being noticed. He was a younger man, still a teenager maybe, with dark specks, some of them smeared as if they had been wiped at, on his brow. The look between them lingered, stretching out, until the young man turned and disappeared into the cover of the alley.
Tugging on Vikander’s sheet-covering to get his attention, Rook shouted to alert his companion. “Someone in the alley, watching.” Vikander turned in that direction. “He fled when he noticed me looking at him.”
“Do you think it might have something to do with this fire, and Telan’s death?” Vikander asked, bending almost half over to talk normally into Rook’s ear.
“Perhaps,” Rook replied, “but if we don’t ask him, we’ll never know.” After a quick look of despair at his state of dress, Vikander gave a half-hearted wave in the direction of the alley. “Lead on,” he said with light resignation. The two of them dashed across the street and into the mouth of the alley.
Noting Rook and Vikander’s flight, Erlandir moved to follow them. Their departure had also been noticed by Briston who, though they were strangers to him, suspected them of noble motives after they risked their lives in an attempt to save Telan, futile though it was. He met Erlandir at the mouth of the alley, the two of them arriving barely in time to see the shadowy forms of Rook and Vikander disappear around a distant turn in the moonlit darkness. They gave pursuit as fast as they could through the scattered piles of refuse and muck of the alley.
A couple turns through narrow alleys brought Rook and Vikander to an opening where the alley spilled out into a quiet cobblestone square. A few vendor stalls stood at the square’s heart, empty at this late hour. Standing in pale starlight near the stalls were two men, with six more surrounding them at a distance of a few paces. The two central men were engaged in some sort of transaction wherein a taller man handed over a pouch to a shorter man who was bent over catching his breath. Rook and Vikander moved against the walls to remain hidden as they watched. The taller man was, as best they could tell from his silhouette, well dressed. His billowing linen sleeves and wide hat were the height of fashion among some of Elinost’s upper-middle and upper-class citizens. The shorter man, who Rook indicated was their quarry with a nudge into Vikander’s waist, accepted the pouch and tied it to his belt. His taller companion made a quick gesture, clearly dismissive even at this distance, and the young man turned on his heels and began leaving the square via the street to the South.
Vikander reached out to catch Rook as he started forward and prevent him from leaving their cover in the alley, but he was too late. The Halfling was noticed by the taller man who pointed in their direction, “Take care of this, Garl.” The man’s voice was cultured and articulate. “Report back to me when you are finished. Let this be the end of this dark night’s business. I’ll be at the manor.”
The six men fanned out and approached Rook and Vikander. They looked like typical street toughs, their poorly-maintained clothes and rough countenances becoming clearer as they drew nearer. These were desperate men hired for dirty work. Their leader, Garl, smacked a short wooden club against his palm as he came closer and smiled, revealing a mouth devoid of all but a few teeth. “Oh bover, you ain gon like dis a’ aow. No sir, no’ a’ aow.”
The two friends took a couple steps back into the alley to keep from getting surrounded as the men closed in on them. Rook unslung a short bow from his back. Seeing the bow, Garl rushed to close the distance before the Halfling could put arrow to string. But he was too slow. Rook smoothly drew an arrow from the quiver at his hip and loosed it into the Garl’s thigh. The burly man roared in pain, then stumbled and pitched headlong into the filthy floor of the alley. Clutching his wounded thigh, Garl roared at his companions, “Kill dem bastads.”
Two of the street toughs rushed into the alley while menacing them with their fists and stout looking cudgels, forcing Rook and Vikander to step back farther. One of the men feinted with his club as Vikander reached for his rapier, realizing too late that it was not at his side. The man caught Vikander in the side of the face with a savage swing of his fist, causing his vision to flash as he stumbled.
Beside Vikander, Rook also stumbled, barely dodging a swinging club. He tried to line up his short bow for another shot but was too busy dodging his opponent’s fierce club swings. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Vikander take another solid punch. Rook dropped an arrow and, after fumbling at his belt with his free hand, tossed his own rapier in his friend’s direction.
At the end of the alley opposite the square that the assailants had attacked from, Erlandir assessed the situation. Looking to a nearby wall for a few good handholds, he quickly climbed up to the roof of one of the alley’s flanking buildings. With a whistle and gesture he sent Fenris running forward to give assistance.
A large armored form rushed past Rook and a battle cry filled the alley. “For Pelos!” roared Briston as he swung his hammer just inches over the Halfling’s head, smashing it into the brute’s chest. The street man grunted as the hammer blow sent him tumbling, loose-limbed, to skid across the ground.
Vikander caught Rook’s rapier, his hand over-flowing the handle of the smaller blade. Ducking under another would-be crushing punch, he finally got his feet under him and riposted with splendid form, driving his blade through the man’s neck. A wide-eyed look of surprise greeted him as the man’s arms grew slack, and he seemed to take too long to realize that he was dead. A small rivulet of blood ran from the side of his mouth as he sagged to the ground and slid off of Vikander’s blade.
Rook ducked behind Briston, happy to let the armored man confront these thugs.
A few more running steps brought Briston to the next attacker, a large dark-skinned man wielding a belaying pin. Briston didn’t slow his charge at all, and interrupted the swing of his opponent’s club by running into him full tilt with his shield. The man crumpled, his chest crushed under the ferocious smash of the war-priest’s shield.
Moving forward, Rook’s rapier raised in a guard position, Vikander made to engage their last attacker. This man though, seeing the fate of his companions, had turned to flee, leaving Vikander to stare menacingly at his back. It seemed that his retreat was all but secured, until the shaggy grey form of Fenris ran past. The wolf biting into the man’s held him in place by digging his paws in. An arrow whistled overhead and struck the man clean through the chest, ending his life.
Quiet rushed back into the ally as the tumult of battle gave way to labored gasping and gurgling, the last of the street toughs leaking their life’s blood into the grime of the ally.
Erlandir climbed back down to the ground and came to stand near Vikander. He addressed the naked man while removing a spare pair of breeches from his pack, “Bold fashion statement my friend, though it leaves too little to the imagination. Put on some pants,” he said tossing them to him.
A quick look told the companions and Briston that Garl had run off while his friends provided a distraction. After a brief search, Erlandir found a blood spatter trail indicating the direction that he had fled, and Fenris quickly caught Garl’s scent. “He ran this way,” the Elf called over his shoulder as he and the large wolf set off in pursuit.
Holding the small rapier reversed in one hand Vikander stumbled after the Elf and wolf while pulling his legs into the loaned pair of pants. Rook stood up from where he had crouched over one of the bodies after slipping something from the prone figure’s pocket to his own. He and Briston jogged to catch up.
With Erlandir and Fenris in the lead they followed the blood trail. It led them across the square, southwest onto Vespers Street. Part way down Vespers Street they come across a bloody arrow discarded in the street. Nearby, a strip had been cut out of the canvas hanging over an empty vendor stall. Blood smears marred the canvas around the cut.
“He has bandaged his leg,” Erlandir concludes to his companions as they return to the street and take up the trail again.
Fenris then led them to the intersection of Vespers Street and Bridge Street, taking a right onto Bridge Street. Where Bridge Street crossed one of Elinost’s watercourses Fenris hesitated, sniffing around in circles. “He may have lingered here for a moment,” Erlandir commented. Beneath them dark water slowly rolled by, almost perfectly silent. After padding forward and taking up the scent again, Fenris led them to the intersection of Bridge Street and The Low Road, where they followed The Low Road almost directly south in the general direction of the docks. The blood drops became more and more intermittent as they went on, and occasionally their pursuit hesitated as the trail ran across a splash of nightsoil or some other filth that clouded the man’s smell. But Fenris was able to regain the trail each time after circling around for a few moments.
Eventually they pursued the man into the outskirts of Elinost’s Docks district. The streets here were not lit at all, and many of the buildings were more ramshackle, often leaning against one another for support. The companions passed the forms of beggars crouched in the shelter of alleys or huddled under blankets in doorways. Suspicious eyes watched their progress. Erlandir led them forward quickly through the weak moonlight to avoid losing the trail.
But they did lose the trail. Fenris came to a halt in the middle of The Low Road about two blocks away from a late-night tavern from which could be heard faint laughter. The large grey wolf paced back and forth across the lane, sniffing after his quarry, but couldn’t pick up the trail again.
“What now?” rook asked, looking nervously at nearby shadows.
“We’ve lost the trail,” Erlandir replied, “we’ll have to turn back.”
Briston stepped forward and stated, “Pelos will guide us if our cause is righteous.” Taking a knee, he began to pray and beseech Pelos for direction. His voice was deep but the prayer almost a whisper. He remained there long enough in devotion that Vikander began to suspect that this, like most prayers he’d seen, would be hollow and reveal no direct information. He started to look toward Rook with a smirk at Briston’s useless piety when the air above the street in front of them began to shimmer faintly. The glow was at first weak and formless, but then it began to take shape. In a few brief moments it had taken on the shape of a ghostly warrior wearing archaic armor. The presence of this apparition was palpable. Everyone except Briston took an unconscious step backward from the amazing display of divine will, the likes of which were rarely witnessed.
The floating figure favored Briston with a benign smile and then thrust his arm out. With an outstretched finger it pointed down Low Street, directly at the front door of the tavern. Then, like a wisp of smoke caught on a light breeze, it faded and was carried away. Seconds later it was like that manifestation of Pelos’ divine will had never been there at all, except for the awe that the companions couldn’t shake.
Everyone but Briston looked around nervously at each other before looking back to the priest. “Pelos provides,” Briston said, satisfied with their reaction to his god’s glory.
Eager to think about something else, Rook turned his attention to the tavern. Light shined from the cracks around its door and shutters, creating a faint pool of light in the gloom of the street. “He went into The Gully,” the Halfling muttered, almost to himself, but loud enough. He was no stranger to this establishment or to the Docks in general, but that was lifetime ago it seemed.
Vikander too was familiar with The Gully. He had won and lost plenty of games of cards within its grimy walls. It didn’t bode well that Garl had sought sanctuary there. “Do we follow him in?” he asked everyone and no one in particular.
“Of course we do! It is clear that Pelos has blessed us in this manner,” Briston stated officiously and stepped toward the tavern. He was brought up short, though, by the telltale creak and pop of bowstrings drawn taut. Turning their heads toward the sound, everyone now noticed the shadowy forms of men with crossbows atop the nearby roofs on either side of the street. All of them could see that at least one ready bolt was directed at each of them. A low, rumbling growl erupted from Fenris’s throat.
“Maybe not,” Vikander interjected.