The party began to close ranks. Injured, Nell fell back towards the stairs, grasping for a potion. Inori took her position on the staircase just above Dara, ready to defend him from the attackers above. Belor moved to the base of the staircase, and all of them readied themselves for the ensuing fight.
As he emerged from his room above, the fetchling watched as the new pair of guards approaching from the west called back for more reinforcements from the far side of the warehouse. The bard grinned as he raised his sickle, painted along the length of the blade to look like a jagged smile.
“This intrusion of yours, it’s quite rude you know?” The bard raised his voice further, so his words rang throughout the cluttered warehouse. “I’ve no time to prepare. Oh well, on with the show!”
Although far from seasoned adventurers, the group was more than familiar with bardic magic. Of all the kinds of magic available in the world, bards by far spent the most time making themselves known. They practiced a queer kind of sorcery, far from the arcane magic Inori and Belor were accustomed to. Their very words were inlaid with magic, and bardic performances were a spectacle enjoyed by many throughout Taldor. Performances of that kind inspired audiences, augmenting their enjoyment through magical means.
This, however, was something very different. Some bards used their powers of inspiration for a different purpose: warfare. This fetchling was clearly the latter, as his jokes and rhymes were augmenting the rest of the Brotherhood agents in the building to fight harder. As they pushed down the stairs toward Inori, their swings were faster, more precise, more deadly.
More footsteps could be heard coming from the west as all the assassins in the building converged on the fight. Realizing that his fighters were beyond outnumbered, Belor knew he needed to do something to slow down the assault. He had spent a good amount of the day prior in his home writing scrolls for any situation; he was prepared.
The wizard knelt down and slung his pack down from his shoulder. After a brief shuffle, he drew two rolled scrolls of parchment from the bag. He raised the first toward the growing army approaching from the other end of the warehouse. Several piles of crates sprawled across the room between his position near the stairs and the attackers, and Belor intended to use that to his advantage.
Incanting the spell on his scroll, Belor drew forth the magic he’d prepared earlier. Thick vines of sticky webbing sprang out from every dark corner of the stock on the warehouse floor. Belor completely cut off the northeast corner of the room, and the stairs his team currently held, with the blast of webs. Confused shouting rang out as the approaching guards were stymied by the sudden obstruction. Dropping the now-blank sheet of paper, Belor turned back towards the room above and began to incant his second spell. This one would take much more time.
Nell took a moment to overcome his surprise. He was caught just as off guard by the explosion of webs as the Brotherhood. He didn’t come from a magical background, and he was far from used to working with a wizard. After a moment to compose himself, he realized that this direction was no longer a pertinent threat. All the Brotherhood agents at the top of the stairs, including the bard, were still active threats. Nell fell back past Belor, making his way up the stairs as well to Inori and Dara.
The Osirian had reverted to his military instinct. This was no longer some strange stealth operation: this was a straight fight. This was what all his training had been for. In the moment, Dara did not think about the lives he was ending, nor the longer consequences of the situation. These Brotherhood assassins were no longer people. They were simply enemy combatants.
He loosed bolt after bolt into their ranks, thinning out the approaching patrols to the west. His position halfway up the stairs gave him a commanding view of the battlefield, and let him rain down death freely and efficiently from above. As the webs blasted out among the crates, his shots became even easier, as the guards stopped their approach to contemplate their next move.
This was not complex. This was simply what Dara Rostam was made to do.
After another volley of shots from Dignity’s Barb, he came to much the same conclusion as Nell: the group coming from the top of the stairs needed to be addressed. The crossbowman moved almost as if in a trance, quickly turning and firing a bolt up toward the bard above without thought. His shot pierced through the illusions the fetchling had shielding himself, striking into the man’s true form as a matching bolt suddenly appeared in each recoiling image.
The Brotherhood thieves rained metal darts down from above. Inori dodged past most of the barbs, but a few caught in her armor. The wounds were insignificant, and did not slow her as the first of the enemy fighters reached her to duel her in melee. Though they wielded only knives, they were clearly skilled in their use, as the magus faced a more difficult battle than she’d expected. It was difficult to swing her long sword properly in the narrow stairwell, and her opponent had the advantageous position above her on the stairs.
From his position in the doorway at the top, the fetchling surveyed the fight growing below him. He saw the webs spring forth, and watched as Belor dropped his first scroll for another.
“Relies on his scrolls, is it not going well? What worth is a wizard who can’t even spell?” he taunted from on high, before casting a spell of his own down to the frontliners slowly fighting up the stairs.
A dark energy washed forth from the half-shadow man. Nell and Inori felt its presence grow in their minds, crippling them with fear. Nell was able to mostly hold his composure, forcing himself to place one foot in front of another as he continued to battle his way up step by step. Inori pushed past him, fleeing back down to cower among the boxes below.
The bard’s grin only widened as he witnessed the results of his magic. Pain wracked through him from the crossbow bolt lodged in his shoulder, but he was unperturbed. He readied another spell to sling at his adversaries, when suddenly he was interrupted by a blast of heat. Flames licked out from the doorway behind him, as a roaring, man-sized fire sprung to life.
Belor had finished with his own magic.
The magic from his second scroll pulled forth an echo from the Plane of Fire. The essence was a copy of a Fire Elemental, though not truly a fire elemental itself. Pure magic had coalesced into this manifestation of another being. As far as his opponents were concerned, however, an angry elemental had rose into existence in the office behind them. As far as Belor was concerned, it could fight and kill as well as any real Fire Elemental could.
The elemental rose in the far southern edge of the room, across the space from the bard and his comrades. Belor couldn’t simply manifest the creature blindly; he needed to be able to see his destination. Fortunately, the single window facing out above the warehouse floor gave him the sightline he needed to drop the angry ball of fire behind his foes.
As part of the magic, the wizard had the ability to puppet his echo around as if it were his own body (though he could not use any of its senses, for the clone had none). Such a practice was extremely difficult, and one of magic’s more complicated challenges. Controlling your own body, as well as a separate unfamiliar one, took many wizards years of practice. Though Belor was not particularly well trained in the art, it was one he had studied in his schooling as a wizard. He was far from an expert, but it would have to do.
The bard and one of the knife-wielding agents turned around to face this new threat, as Nell continued to fight his way up the stairs. Under Dara’s hail of fire, the western Brotherhood reinforcements had all sought cover behind the pile of crates to the north. The large ridge of boxes that had hidden the party initially now divided them from their enemies, shielding the assassins from attacks. For now, though, this was fine. This gave them time to deal with the threats up the stairs.
“Your puns are getting better, but it’s a shame your spells aren’t” Nell taunted the distracted bard as he cut down the Brotherhood agent before him, continuing up the stairs.
Nell had nearly advanced all the way to the upper room itself now, with only one more guard and the bard himself standing before him. The pair above managed to cut down the elemental Belor had summoned, but were distracted long enough to allow the nobleman to make his way to the threshold. The Brotherhood fighter turned around just in time to stall him in the doorway, engaging Nell with the last bit of high ground they had left.
The bard cast another spell at Nell, trying again to stop his march.
“He has resisted my spell, will these people be my bane? Ah, nevermind, let’s just try again!” he called back as he finished his cast.
Stubborn, bull-headed, and focused, Nell barely felt the effects of the second spell as he battled the last assassin in his path. Nothing was going to stop him from getting into that room and cutting the bard down. With every rhyme, he was still bolstering his allies, and once their leader fell, the rest would crumble in kind.
As Belor felt himself lose control of the elemental echo, he turned his gaze over toward where Inori had disappeared. Last he saw, she darted into the crates at the bottom of the stairs, vanishing into darkness. He was familiar enough with magic to recognize the effects of eldritch fear, of course, but had no way to help her. Scratching and scrabbling sounds whispered out from her hiding place as she tried to nestle herself further away into the shadows.
Suddenly, she was revealed, as light cast down from the top of the stacked goods. The reinforcements from the west had circumvented Belor’s webs by climbing the stacks against the northern wall, and now he could see three of them illuminated 40 feet above by the light from their single lamp. Inori didn’t react to them at all, still overwhelmed by the bard’s spell she only continued to try to hide away as far as she could from him specifically.
Dara, of course, noticed the new arrivals as well, and turned to address them as they were silhouetted against the rooftop on the top of the ridge. Belor quickly changed his plan, and hustled up the stairs to join the archer. He incanted a spell quickly as he climbed, passing the magic into Dara with a touch. As his magic flowed into the Osirian, Dara felt his vision focus, his movements quicken, and his reflexes sharpen. It was a fairly basic transmutation spell in the grand scheme of things, but imbuing the sniper with the agility of a cat would greatly improve the speed and accuracy of his shots. With his newfound power, he immediately placed a bolt into the lamp bearing agent, sending him reeling backward down the boxes he’d just climbed.
Further up the stairs, Nell had slain the last dagger-wielding fighter before him and stepped into the room with the bard. The fetchling held his sickle in front of him, readying himself for combat as Nell entered and swung. His blade connected with one of the images surrounding the bard, shattering the illusion into rapidly fading fragments. Instantly, the Brotherhood leader stuck back, slicing around Nell’s shield with his sickle.
“Which one to hit? Which one is me?” He taunted as his blow landed. “Is it number one? Maybe clone three?” One voice issued forth from the four mouths, moving in unison as they swirled around Nell.
“Finally, someone worth a damn,” Nell fired back as he stepped to place himself between the bard and the exit.
He had never truly tasted a life or death fight before the night after the Gala, but Nell was addicted. Growing up with all the money and advantages his privileged upbringing could offer, he only knew about adventures such as these from stories. Often he’d idolized journeys he’d read about in books such as Zekken’s Thousand Tales of Boldness and Bravery, but he’d never imagined his simple life would give him the opportunity to live them. Regardless of the wounds he’d taken, the near deaths he’d experienced, the thrill of battle invigorated him.
Here, now, his grin matched the bard’s as they fought.
Down below, the remaining two assailants clambered down from their perch. The first heard Inori cowering below him, and moved toward the sound. The lamp had fallen back down behind the pile with its holder, and now the agents were stuck clumsily scampering down in the darkness. As he reached the ground, he swung his dagger towards Inori’s whimpering, hoping to impale the mage and put her out of the fight for good. With no sight, though, his knife thudded into the side of a crate right above her head.
The near miss snapped her back to reality. Immediately, her composure returned, and she tightened her grip on her sword. She was in darkness as well, but could see from the light at the top of the stairs that most of her party had fought their way up above. Protected by the shadow, she fell back onto the staircase with her team.
Dara made his way to the top of the stairs, now unable to see the remaining two agents. He moved to the doorframe just in time to see Nell slash away another of the bard’s illusory protections. The fetchling turned his song towards Dara as he approached.
“You look quite cross, sh-” his rhyme was cut short by another bolt landing in his chest. Dara’s aim was true.
“There’s no escape, you have three clones,” Nell threatened. “Unless you think that window will save you, this will be over shortly.”
For the first time, the smile on the bard’s face faltered.
He looked at Nell, then turned toward the window, clutching the new bolt wound with his free hand as he clumsily tried to parry with his sickle.
“The window, that’s not bad,” he muttered through gritted teeth. “My goons have been useless, they’ve made me so sad.”
He stepped quickly, throwing himself and his last few images towards the window facing out across the Dignified Repository. With a resounding shatter, he crashed through the glass, diving out onto the packed goods and the hard dirt floor below.
Nell and Dara both rushed over to the window after him, looking down below, but from their vantage point so high above the ground their light barely illuminated the floor. The bard had made his daring exit. Through the lamplight spilling out from the room, and another lantern dropped by one of the Brotherhood members, they watched as the final rogue tried to escape back up the boxes he’d climbed down moments before, only to be caught and cut down by Inori.
The warehouse fell silent. Finally, the sounds of clashing steel and hurried steps fell away as the last assassin’s body hit the floor. Everyone took a moment to recuperate.
They were surprisingly uninjured, all things considered. Inori had taken a few flesh wounds from their knives, and Nell had been caught by a good strike from the bard’s sickle, but neither were grievously injured. What concerned them, however, was the lack of any sign of Martella.
They came here for one reason, and they still needed that solved. Their benefactor was hidden here, somewhere. Inori brought one of the guard’s lanterns up into the room above, just so they had one at their disposal, while Nell headed back down to the warehouse floor to check through the bodies.
The group finally had an opportunity to look around the area and search for any clues as to Lady Lotheed’s location. The office upstairs was simply furnished, with a large oak desk and an intimidating red velvet chair sat behind it. Two massive pipes, easily three feet across, ran from floor to ceiling in the western corners of the room. They’d seen the tops of these pipes outside, exhaust vents poking through the roof of the whole warehouse. What was interesting, though, is that they continued out the floor of this office and into the ground down below. The packed dirt floor didn’t make it seem likely that the warehouse had a basement, so where did these vents go?
“Uh, guys?” Nell called back up toward the office, sounding concerned.
The rest of the party moved to the window and looked down to see him holding the bard’s smiling sickle aloft. He had been picking through the bodies of the guards they’d slain, removing their darts and knives and placing them out of reach in case they weren’t truly dead. Nell couldn’t quite bring himself to deliver the coup de grace to his fallen enemies to be sure, so he had done the next best thing. As he pulled the knife from one body, though, it had mystically transformed into the fetchling’s sickle in his grasp.
Belor and Inori, familiar with magic as they were, came back down to investigate. As they did, Nell continued to search the body. On its left arm, he felt an invisible presence blocking his hands. It was round, and hard, and something solid he could grasp. He pulled it away from the arm and a small buckler materialized in his grip- the buckler the bard had defended himself with.
Nell simply looked at the casters helplessly as they approached, holding the buckler in one hand and the sickle in another. He was truly growing to dislike magic. Inori reached him first, casting out her own magic to detect any magic in the area in front of her. She registered two auras. The first wasn’t terribly surprising, the bard had an enchanted blade warded with abjuration. The second, however, was interesting. The body itself radiated an aura of illusion magic.
Right as she cast the spell, and registered the aura, the body moved. It raised one arm, placing its palm flat on the ground as it pushed to roll itself over. The face of the dead human morphed back into that of the fetchling as it turned over to face the party.
“Well… this has gone sour,” he coughed, clearly in great pain. The magic continued to leave his body, as the disguise he’d donned to blend in among the corpses gave way to the attire he’d worn during the battle. “Perhaps you’ll reconsider? Showing some mercy to the room’s highest bidder.”
The bard moved his other hand as he spoke, reaching toward a pouch on his belt.
In an instant of panic, Nell bashed him over the head with the fetchling’s own small buckler. He fell back to the floor unconscious with a grunt. Inori laughed. This was the first sound the bard had made she found comical.
“Check that pouch he was going for,” Belor called as he caught up to the group.
Nell nodded before bending down to get the bag.
“You know we need to find out where Martella is, right?” Inori asked, recovering from her amusement.
“Well we’re not gonna let these guys chase us,” Nell replied.
“He’s unconscious, we can tie him up and interrogate him if we need to,” Belor added.
Still in the office above, Dara pulled the mask down off the lower half of his face and sighed. His thoughts cleared, and his mind seemed to return to him as he left his focused state. He looked slowly around across the carnage before him. Nine corpses laid strewn across this corner of the warehouse.
He tried to think back. How many had he killed? It felt hard to remember the details. He reran the events of the fight in his head, accounting for each bolt fired. He counted through his quiver as he went, making sure he missed no shots. Five. In minutes, he’d ended the lives of five men with barely a thought.
Slinging Dignity’s Barb back across his back, he reached into a pouch and drew a notebook. He scribbled down his tally- not only the number, but the reason. He noted why they were here, and why the men had to be killed. The events down below with Imistos had shaken him. Soldiers were trained in the art of the kill. The art of coping afterward was left far behind.
The soldier had underestimated the effect his first real kill would have on him. Sure, he’d slain some of the rats and undead down below- but Imistos was the first man he’d taken down. He barely gave it a thought at the time. The halfling had betrayed them, tried to kill them, almost succeeded. His death was surely justified!
In the ensuing day though, he was no longer so sure. Imistos had an entire life leading up to meeting their party, a life that Dara had abruptly ended with barely a thought. The halfling had surrendered. Though he spoke nothing of this to the party, and kept a stern face, he was shaken.
The contents of the bag were surprising, but unremarkable: a small pile of gold coins and what appeared to be a small handful of pieces of deep amber salt water taffy. As Nell looked at them, once again confused, Inori snatched them out of his hands.
“Yeah, those are drugs,” she said bluntly. In her work, she’d seen these “harlot sweets” plenty.
Holding them in her hands, the magus had an idea. They could use these for leverage. After such a battle, and injured as he was, surely the bard would be more helpful if offered some of his addiction? They discussed ideas as Nell bound the man with rope from his pack, and picked up his body to carry him back up into the above office. They eventually agreed with Inori: use the sweets to pry information about Martella from the jester.
The only problem was he had been knocked soundly unconscious by Nell’s strike over the head. As the four members of the party reconvened around the office, and Nell made sure the bard was secured firmly to the red office chair, Belor pulled yet another scroll from his bag. This one contained divine magic, a different class entirely from what he practiced himself, but his studies allowed him to use the latent magic locked within the paper to emulate having divine power of his own. The energy swept out of the scroll and into the fetchling, partially healing his wounds. As his flesh pulled together around the two bolts still embedded in his torso, and the numerous jagged slashes he’d received from his dive through the window, his eyes slowly opened.
“So, Smiles,” Nell began as he noticed the bard awakening.
“Smiles” groggily turned towards Nell, trying to take in his surroundings. His head slowly drifted around to the rest of the room, seeing the other three members of the party standing around the table. Inori, closest, leaned forward on the desk with both hands firmly planted. His smile slowly began to return, and he clicked his tongue.
“These fools, they think they’ve won. Little do they know they’re still under the gun.”
“If you try to cast a spell I’m gonna hit you,” Nell warned.
“You comfortable there, Smiles?” Inori asked. This wasn’t her first time interrogating a thug.
“Such a fiesty vixen. Thwack, hack and crack!” he raised his voice with his onomatopoeias, moving his eyes to her sheathed blade. “Although it’s so cliché, wielding a sword painted black.”
“Right,” she said flatly, unimpressed. “So, I have a couple questions I’m gonna ask you, and my big friend standing directly next to you is gonna respond in kind based on whether or not I like your answers.
So, my first one, and most important question is: Where is Martella Lotheed?”
“You really think I’ll tell? You think that I’d just open up and share?” Smiles hissed through his grin. “Fools! The lot of you! Must be so unaware.”
Nell quickly reached out and smacked the fetchling in the back of the head. The metal gauntlet connecting with his skull made a satisfying crack.
“This doesn’t have to be so bad, Smiles. I see you’ve got a taste for these harlot candies, whatever they are.” Inori gestured down toward the table, where they’d left the drugs in clear view of their owner. The bards eyes darted down from Inori’s gaze to the pieces on the table, then back.
“Perhaps, one of these would help take the edge off the situation, right?” she continued. “My friend is getting more and more upset. I’m trying to be the good guy here. I need to find Martella Lotheed. My day depends on it, ok? And whether or not you stop me from that, I’m still gonna find her.
“You could be dead at the end of this, or you could be enjoying your candies, or… whatever it is, having a merry old day. So, I’ll ask again: Martella Lotheed.”
“Good guard, bad guard,” the captive sighed. “Such an untrained interrogation prude. Leave these quizzes to your elders, girl, you’ve not the aptitude.”
Nell began to tighten his grip on his handaxe. Inori raised her hand, palm flat and facing him.
“No, no, no,” she instructed softly. Instead, she balled up her fist and pounded on the table, crushing one of the fragile sweets. Despite their appearance, they were quite brittle, and crushed to dust and shards. “That’s a lot of money right there. And that’s just one of them. These things are kind of expensive, right?”
The Brotherhood leader grit his teeth as he watched a small fortune in drugs being crushed before him.
“I don’t reckon he can afford them anymore after I emptied his pockets,” Nell remarked.
“You’ve got this backwards, you’re the wrong way round,” Smiles seethed at the white haired woman. “Why don’t you answer my questions, how does that sound? Tell us of Eutropia, why make everyone wait? Then we can all be on our way-, you perhaps, to the Heavens’ pearly gate.”
Without breaking eye contact, Inori raised her fist and smashed another of his precious sweets. He must be truly addicted, as she’d suspected. Cutting off the supply always made addicts talk.
“I said Martella Lotheed,” she yelled, now inches from his face.
“Downstairs!” he inhaled sharply, pressing his eyes shut for a moment before continuing. “Through that pipe, over there.”
The bard gestured with his head as best he could, bound as he was, towards the northern of the two exhaust vents piercing the room.
“This four versus one interrogation, this is hardly fair!”
“Nell, if you’ll take the rest of his candies and we’ll be on our way. Enjoy your day,” Inori said dismissively as she stood up from the table.
Nell scooped up the candies, but before he pocketed them he turned towards the fetchling again.
“How would you like to go down that pipe first, make sure its safe?”
“Surely you jest, I answered your questions,” he replied, growing desperate and furious. “I… I…. just untie me, gods dammit!”
Nell considered stopping his rhymes a personal victory.
Inori slowly turned back around to face her prisoner. Now the smile was on her face.
“Smiles, are you trying to lead me into a trap? I really, really would not like that.”
“I know you’ve met Wyssilka, she gave us the orders. You know what waits down there.” The fetchling heaved a deep sigh. “This wastes both our time. Come, I’m injured, I’m dying! I’m… just, surely I’ve been helpful enough? What do you want?”
“To throw you down the pipe, honestly,” Nell quipped.
“What do you want realistically? Skip these games.”
“All games aside?” Inori asked. “You get to walk out of here and live, ok? I need Martella Lotheed in eyeshot. I need to see her, I need to get to her.”
“There’s several stages between here and there, friends,” Smiles voice dripped with vitriol. “Her safehouse waits below.”
He stopped abruptly, frozen as if in shock. Slowly, the grin grew back on his face.
“She sent you in here blind,” he breathed. “Not one bit in the know.
“I thought you’d had us, thought we might be in a corner. No, you’re moving without sight, your deaths are in order.”
“I thought this was gonna be simple. Nell, can you help this situation,” Inori demanded, frustrated at losing ground.
Equally growing angry and impatient, Nell reeled back and punched the man across the face with all the force he could muster. His armored fist smashed into the bard’s jaw, sending him and the chair crashing to the ground.
Smiles coughed, spitting up some blood. The cough quickly turned to a wheezing chuckle.
“Descending into this darkness, you need your eyes to see,” he laughed from the floor. “I fear not, for Gixx’s divine hands guide me!”
Belor alone recognized the invocation of the “halfling god of assholes” once again. So, the whole Brotherhood must serve Thamar Gixx, he mused.
“Alright, here’s what’s gonna happen,” Inori stated clearly. “We’re gonna go find Martella downstairs, or wherever she is. And I’m telling ya, if she’s not there, we’re gonna come back up here, and we’re gonna kill ya. Do you understand that?”
“Oh she’s downstairs girl, of that you need not worry. But she’s with Wyssilka, so I’d recommend you hurry. What you do here to me, this is mere child’s play, but down below with her tools… Martella faces a very different day.”
For the moment, Dara’s internal conflict abated. He strode across the room, drawing his crossbow and planting the tip of its loaded bolt against the fetchling’s head. The point of the dart dug into his skin, drawing a bead of blood on his forehead.
“How many are there?” Dara asked emotionless.
“One, ten a dozen? More?” Smiles taunted from the floor, pressing his forehead harder against the bolt. “Kill me, Osirian, I fear not death’s door.”
For a moment, he considered it.
Defeated for now, the soldier made his way back across to the northern pipe that they’d been indicated. Knowing something was there, he was able to find a small latch tucked against the wall that opened up a panel just big enough for a human to crouch through. A ladder waited inside the empty pipe, leading down into the darkness below.
It seemed the party had only one option: descend into the depths, and face whatever awaits. They knew now beyond any doubt their spymaster was trapped down below, being tortured in the grasp of the Brotherhood of Silence. For what reason, they neither knew nor cared.
Lotheed would surely be lost to them forever if they did not make their move.
Check out the Discord server for a text write-up of #TheStorySoFar (that’s the channel) to get a real quick catch-up to the current episode! Or, look into #WarForTheCrown for fully detailed text versions of the adventures! Also, just come hang out!
Podcast: Play in new window | Download