- Atiin Brigantia, a brilliant but lazy lunatic
- Edward "the Wild" Bleestocles, a leper disowned by his wealthy family
- Jacobin "Jackass" Valentin, a soulless bastard
- Tadzio Checker, an estranged son of a powerful mage
- Victory Alder, a young vampire
|A map of the way to the Frog Demon Temple.|
The Medacious Mercator district, later that morning
Atiin and Jackass are walking down the streets towards the South Market, looking to get some preparations done for an expedition to the Frog Demon Temple.
The group is not so sure that Jarek will be fooled by a disappeared valet - or for that matter, that the lost valet won't be blamed on them, even though they are say 50% culpable at the very most - and thus has decided to let the things in Marlinko cool down and settle for a while. And what better way to run away from problems than to go earn a nice reward for a treasure-hunting job.
But they need supplies to make the venture happen, and that is a job for Atiin and Jack. All the way from the Golden Swine district, the two have noticed the numerous preparations for the Great Race slowly getting finished. The rails, flag poles, bleachers and death traps are practically all in place.
They have also noticed four urchins, though, following them for at least the last five minutes or so. The urchins are no older than fourteen, two girls and two boys.
Atiin and Jack speed up.
What follows is a walking chase through the crowded streets, neither party willing to break into a run and cause a ruckus. Eventually, the urchins end up splintering in three different directions, disappearing into the narrow alleys along the way.
Be that as it may, Jackass and Atiin successfully reach the South Market without further incidents. Hundreds of customers are clogging the hallways and shops here today. The Chicken Scratch, a map and miscellanea store, is one of the few exceptions. They are greeted by a bespectacled woman in her thirties - dark hair and skin, a mole near her nose, thick lenses.
"This the place for maps?" Jackass asks.
The shopkeeper looks at the shop sign featuring not one but two maps, then back at Jack, but eventually just nods: "Sure, and all things adventuring, too. What d'ya need?"
"Yeah, we were thinking 'bout catching some fresh air away from the city, so... You have anything on the swampy area west of here?"
"Ah, looking for trouble in the Frog Marsh, I see," the shopkeeper grins. "I mean, you can always take the western road, that's just a dozen miles. Or you could take the southern road if you're going for the cautious approach. It would add barely six miles and it doesn't cross the hills. But if you really want a detailed map, I think I have something in here," she says as she opens a drawer.
"A detailed map would be nice," Atiin chimes in, "I would even pay extra for some annotations about specific dangers, good camping locations, that stuff, you know?"
"Yeah, the more detail the better!" Jackass agrees.
Then he turns to Atiin: "Speaking of paying extra... I think I can get a nice fifty gold piece bonus to help us prep for this trip. Let me go find Kytel and take care of business, then hopefully we can go on a shopping spree." And he leaves Atiin to finish up with the map seller.
The shopkeeper examines a piece of paper that she has produced from the drawer.
"Hmm, yeah. Hmm, that's what I thought," she mutters to herself as she scratches her chin. "Here's the deal: I have a map that will probably come in handy. It has a bunch of valuable notes on the area. Usually I'd sell it for no less than a hundred, but these notes are more than five years old, which means some of them could be outdated, especially if it is the Weird in the hills we're talking about. So... seventy gold. What do you say?"
"Fifty and we will return with an updated map for you," Atiin offers.
She deliberates for a moment, but then reluctantly puts the map over the counter and takes the coins. "Make sure to return, then."
"You also got supplies and stuff?"
"Sure, but supplies depend on your route and travel time. So many surprises can lurk on the roads, you know? If you want a really fast and safe journey, you should be taking a boat down the river. I know a man who would sell you as many boats as you need, if you're interested.
Oh, and don't forget to carry a handful of antitoxin with you at all times when you get to the swamp. Never know what sort of venomous creatures will try and sting you once you're there. I can get you a flask for just fifty gold, and if you buy at least three, maybe we could discuss a discount? Speaking of which, I also have this special ointment, very effective against insects..."
And they sit down to haggle over a growing list of necessities.
The Sullen Apiarian district, late morning
"That's preposterous!" a very neatly groomed man wearing a bonnet and tunic says as he jerks his arms about, indignant; "I will not hear any of it! You cannot possibly be maintaining that the Cat Lady is actually related to the figure of the Other Mother. The belief systems built around each of them are rooted in completely different premises!"
"You misconstrue my meaning," says an old tiger as he puffs on a hookah. "It is functional equivalence rather than genealogical identity what I'm referring to. In that respect I very much doubt that we will find any room for disagreement, don't you think?"
They are sitting on the side of a street, right under the district's banner displaying a great yellow-and-black beehive and a mopey deodand. Similar banners started to pop out all over Marlinko since ten or fifteen days ago, when the street-level preparations for the Great Race began. The street is as usual for the Sullen Apiarian - lofty and decadently elegant and peppered with dandies hopping from tavern to salon to secret meeting to tavern. There are so many glorified servants running errands and even more proud aristocrats without a penny left swaggering like they own the world.
It's cloudy today, so being outdoors does not bother Victory, even if she still carries her parasol, just in case.
The scholar turns his head to look at her as she is about to walk past them: "Well, what do you think, ma'am? Would you say that the Cat Lady and the Other Mother are functionally equivalent?"
There is a hint of mockery in his tone.
"Would you say, sir, that a mountain and a hill are the very same, of the same substance, or related yet different?" Vic smiles in return.
The old tiger laughs: "Looks like you found yourself a subtle one, Kirill."
The scholar barely stutters a response. Something to do with how everything depends on whether you're looking for an eidetic or a hyletic difference, but interspersed with ehhhs and hmmms and stammering.
"Ignore him, I beg you," says the tiger, more than a little amused. "Otherwise he will never leave you alone. My name is Slinky, it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, sharp young lady."
"I'm Victory Alder and the pleasure is all mine, master Slinky. Forgive me my curiosity, but aren't you an associate of master Jarek? I have heard whispers that he has high hopes for today's Great Race and the chances of victory for Sullen Apiarian. I myself must confess to be quite intrigued. Say, will you be attending the race, too?"
"Oh, indeed, I used to work for Mister Jarek. If you're from around town, chances are you've seen me perform in the Pit. I'm freshly retired, to be honest - almost a year now, but it feels... longer," Slinky sighs. "Heh, people in this neighbourhood surely put a lot of energy on the Great Race, don't they. I mean, look at what happened to the Golden Swine Undercouncil Hall. I would bet my one good fang that that was done under the Grandmaster of Hives' orders."
Kirill bursts out: "Now that is quite the bold statement! You must have some solid piece of evidence to support it, I'm assuming."
"Oh yes," Vic says, ignoring the scholar, "I wouldn't be surprised if it was the Grandmaster who ordered the burglary. But I haven't heard if they caught any of the culprits? They couldn't have slipped away unnoticed, could they?"
"Yes, yes," Kirill jumps at the question, "they are believed to be still at large and, as far as the criers know, unidentified. That comes as no surprise. Most of the Undercouncil's guardsmen were under the influence of that nasty hruz paste! Some of them claimed to have witnessed a rain of beautiful women!" He laughs out loud. "Frankly, the types they manage to recruit these days. Well, I guess it is on brand for the Golden Swine, isn't it?"
"Well, Miss Alder," the tiger interrupts, "to answer your previous question, no, I will not be attending the Race, as I'm sure to find it boring and... exploitative, as one would expect. But I will be attending this special wrestling event Mister Jarek has put together at the last minute." He gently lands a paw on one of the many flyers littering the street. "I would like to say hi to some friends there."
"To be frank, I have never really frequented the arena. But if you say there is a special event planned for today, I might try to come."
"Not today, no. According to this pamphlet," the tiger pushes the flyer in Victory's direction, "he will not be throwing this 'special event' until the race itself has come to a conclusion. That would be tomorrow by twilight. Am I correct, Kirill? The Great Race should be wrapped up before evening, shouldn't it?"
"Correct, my dear friend. And it will begin by dawn, when the first sunlight will touch the start line. In fact, that is a tradition that dates back to th-"
"I... have mixed feelings about the Pit myself, but you will not hear me say such things in the presence of this district's big shots. You see, I have spent all my life in the Pit, so it is hard for me not to look back fondly on those days. So many fellow felines have lost their health, their lives to that barbaric sport. Yet here I am, watching the sons and daughters, and grandsons and granddaughters of my fallen brothers and sisters tread the same path..."
He snaps out of it, clearly embarrassed. "Oh, but forgive this old cat's rambling. You must have your own important affairs to see to, and I would not dare hold you hostage of my idle reminiscing."
"Well, it was a pleasure to make acquaintance with you both. Maybe we will meet at the arena?" Victory smiles and takes the flyer. "Which reminds me, you wouldn't know of a fellow named Glamdalf, would you? I was told I might be able to find him around here?"
The two of them exchange awkward looks. Kirill lets Slinky have another go at the hookah.
The tiger puffs, then says: "Oh, my dear, I'm afraid you are not going to find that man unless... well... unless you're willing to... uhm... risk your reputation, so to speak, by... uhm... peeking inside one of the Bathhouses. He has been causing his fair share of trouble there, you see."
Kirill nods: "Yes, a most inappropriate gentleman, if you ask me. I'd give him a wide berth if I were you."
"Ah, I haven't been told that. Never mind, then, and thank you," she leaves the two behind and goes to find a Bathhouse.
The Medacious Mercator district, brunch time
Apparently, the urchins from before were still lurking around. The second that Jack leaves the South Market behind, they are on his tails, and this time there's no way of shaking them off.
He tries to cut through an especially thick crowd and then jump into a back alley before they can find him again, but suddenly there are three urchins right in front of him and the others are already coming from behind. Even worse, this particular alley is, well, not populated at all. It is only Jackass and the kids.
The biggest boy among them draws a knife.
Jackass draws his rapier.
"Hello children," he grins.
They keep staring each other down for a little while. Jack slowly moves his back to a wall, where he can see all of the brats.
The big kid eventually chuckles: "Whoa, geezer! No need for that! We wus jes kiddin'!"
"Yeh. Jes' go on yer way," another urchin says and they shuffle to the sides, letting Jack slip through.
He nods, but keeps the rapier out until he leaves them well behind and gets back to the busy streets. Thankfully, nobody follows this time.
Strange vibes come off the people in the Tomb Plaza as Jack arrives there, and it's not just that they're looking forward to the Great Race. A small group huddles before the door that the pantsless barbarian went through just the other night. He hasn't emerged from the Tomb of the Town Gods since, and people are speculating like crazy about what might have happened in there. No one else has dared to take a peek inside, even though the door is not locked any more.
Moving on, Jack finds Kytel reading at the Drunken Troll. He marches up to Kytel and reveals his rapier with a big smile: "How's this for a duelling weapon?"
Kytel immediately drops his book, wide-eyed, and discreetly wipes the corner of his mouth. He takes a second to compose himself before responding: "It would be my honour, sir, to face you in a proper duel. Just tell me when and where and I will be there." He pauses. "But first, tell me, where did you find this beauty? Can I... Can I touch it?"
"This sword's a rare find, and you can touch it after," Jack grins excitedly. "Let's do it now! Find a nice clear duelling space, maybe by the Tomb?"
"Oh, I'm so excited!" Kytel nods, but then stops himself. "Although maybe we should put some more thought into it. I'll grab me a trusted and honourable fellow to act as my second. You should do the same. They'll handle the place, time and terms, as well as everything else wager-wise. How does that sound?"
Jackass calms down a bit: "Fine, that sounds good I guess. I'll be going out of town shortly, but I'll see what we can do... Find you back at your place later?"
"Brilliant, brilliant," Kytel shakes Jack's hand and grabs his book. Jack gets a short glimpse of the title: 'The Art of Properly Duelling'
When Kytel's about to step out of the tavern, he shouts back to Jack all across the room: "This is going to be so great!"
The Sullen Apiarian district, before noon
There are three bathhouses in the Sullen Apiarian. In fact, they're the only ones worth mentioning in Marlinko. They are massive and expensive, sprawling buildings that each takes up a whole block. The Punctilious Polevik, a nice and clean palatial structure, where the aristocrats from the Overkingdom usually stay for long periods; for leisure and to undergo assorted therapies. The seedy-chic Black Pomegranate, complete with black banyak out-houses for those who wish to have a full retro experience. And finally the dimly-lit Mongotarium, the shadiest of them all and all the fun and games.
This last one is said to be the guildmasters' favourite and is also the one where Victory starts looking.
Mongotarium ranks the second in size; the main entrance is the tallest archway Vic has ever seen. She is greeted by an impeccably well-dressed half-ogre. His raspy, guttural voice is oddly well-adjusted to the Němec accent one would expect from the aristocratic clientele in most Sullen Apiarian establishments.
On Victory's request, he consults his little book for Glamdalf. No luck, but he knows the man: "Master Glamdalf favours the Black Pomegranate above any other bathhouse, ma'am, I've had the opportunity to hear him say that myself. Also according to his own words, he spends most of his time in the library that they keep there."
Black Pomegranate, then, is a sumptuous old building where everyone is trying too hard to look casual. There is a young woman at the much less impressive entrance, sitting on a stool. Next to her is a shabby old table and on top of that a jar full of silver and copper pieces.
It is labelled 'Tip me 10 gold'.
Victory takes out a gold coin. "Hello there. Can you tell me if I would find one Mister Glamdalf in your establishment?"
The young woman replies with a thick accent: "Aw. Myy. Gawd! This is Saw. Crass. I'll tell yaw this? If yaw want taw be privy to what gawes on in here, yaw have taw at least be able taw, like, act like yaw belong? Besides, if yaw don't have the mawney, maybe yaw shouldn't be here? Yaw being poor makes us, like, look bad and all? But I totally get if yaw can't afford yawr way in. I feel bad for yaw? I'm, like... sorry?"
Victory just barely keeps a smile on her face and continues right past that woman and inside the bathhouse.
She fake-gasps: "Fine? Be a bitch? See if I care!"
But she takes no action to stop Vic, who proceeds through a long corridor to a massive rotunda. There is a wooden, multi-levelled staircase leading up and a dozen doors along the walls. Random clients are leisurely walking in or out of the rooms, chatting. Some are wearing robes, most others are wearing towels wrapped around their waists. Vic continues up the stairs and there is the library, right at the end of the top floor hallway.
As Victory gets closer to its large double door, she can hear a muffled argument going on inside. The door are not fully closed and she can see a middle-aged man wearing tight trousers, a plaid shirt, a beanie and sporting a twirled, greying moustache. He is standing on a table, stomping and yelling at someone who's just out of sight.
Vic stays by the door.
The twirly-moustached man curses: "You know damn well that this is my fucking work! I put in the hours! Makes sense that I can do with it as I please, don't you think?"
A very calm female replies, her every sentence ending with a vocal fry: "We've been through this before. The vellum. The sewing. The binding. All ours. The book stays. Now please, step down and lower your voice."
A charged silence ensues.
"What if I don't?" the middle-aged man growls, eventually.
"Ludevic," says the woman, "deal with it, will you. My head hurts, I think I'm going to rest for a few minutes back there. Let me know when it's over."
Some door inside opens and closes. At that, Victory steps in and address the beanie-wearing man: "Excuse me, would you be master Glamdalf?"
The plaid-shirted man is currently in the middle of performing some abstruse gestures. A harsh wind is picking up inside this room, creating a small tornado around this other, big and burly man. Books fly open, shelves lose their footing. It all comes to a sudden halt when Vic speaks, though. Flying scrolls and books fall flat on the floor everywhere and the tight-trousered man on the table looks her way, startled: "Huh? Who's asking?"
The second man takes advantage of it and charges, screaming like a madman. The table topples and they both end up entangled on the floor, pulling at each other's moustaches.
"Excuse me?" Victory says. "Is this how you behave in the presence of a lady?"
The magic man manages to kick the big guy off of himself and scrambles back. He mumbles something in an Old Pahr dialect and immediately an invisible force knocks his adversary back against a wall.
He dusts himself off and turns to Vic: "Don't like what you see, look the other way!"
Then he grabs the disputed book from where it fell and heads out. He keeps walking quickly, Victory following close behind.
"You wouldn't believe how many people stop dead in their tracks when you mention something about being a lady," she remarks.
He gives her a sidelong glance, then says: "Yeah, yeah, I'm Glamdalf. What d'you want?"
"I've been told you might be selling some alchemical products? Explosive ones?"
"Who told you that?" He's keeping the pace fast.
"Little bird," she smiles.
"Well, I guess I should stop bragging and drinking," he says. Then a couple seconds later: "Which one do you think I should forgo?"
"Neither. If you hadn't been doing that, I wouldn't have found you. Plus it depends, are you bragging or are you telling the truth when drunk?"
"Little bit from column A, a little bit from column B."
They get out of the building and with Glamdalf leading the way, continue to the Mendacious Mercator. There they begin zig-zagging their way inside a few blocks, meandering between old houses and abandoned buildings located at the edge of the district. Whenever climbing up fences or walls is required, Glamdalf just does his thing and whoosh - a particularly strong and pointed gust of wind carries both of them beyond the obstacle at hand, landing them gently on the other side.
Eventually, they get to what Victory recognizes as the House of the Nine's backyard. This abandoned mansion was once the base of operations for the infamous adventuring party known as The Nefarious Nine. Even though all of its members have been gone for a while now, no one has ever claimed the building.
As far as Vic know, that is.
Glamdalf's lab is down in the basement; disorganized, furnished with multitudinous flasks, test tubes, pipettes and other arcane implements. A half dozen bookshelves line the walls. The ceiling is rather low; Victory has no trouble with it, but he has to duck here and there in order to avoid hitting a beam with his head.
"What are you planning on doing? Gonna blow up Fraža's safes, strip them off of their mountain of gold? That'd be something I could get behind."
"Nah, we're going to the Frog Demon Temple. Wanna make sure we're not stopped by any ancient locked doors."
"Explosives are not cheap to produce, you know?" he says as he puts his book down on a counter. No title on the leather cover or binding.
He gives her an appraising look. "Fifteen gold a shell. That if you're looking for a sheer, uncontrolled explosion. Other kinds of bomb can cost you more."
"Wonderful! Now, you mentioned Fraža's treasury before. If you have info, I have a willing and capable crew. We blow up a safe, you get an equal share."
"Godling's shit, you're really up to no good, aren't you?" He laughs. "I mean, good to know, but I'm not an insider or anything. I just hate me the guts of those fucking sharks, that's all. And it sounded like something worthy one would be able to accomplish with bombs, busting those safes open, wiping them clean."
He studies Vic, a little taken aback, but mostly amused.
"Now, what's it gonna be? Simple explosives only? Maybe some sort of flaming ammunition, holy water bombs, timed explosions? I got shit with acid. If you got the money, I can make you a spell bomb. Depends on the spell, but we can try and work it out. Or maybe I just sell you a scroll, if you can read Old Pahr."
"A spell bomb sounds nice, but probably not now. What about two breaching charges, a canister of sleeping gas, a vial of sleeping poison and a vial of something more deadly? I will give you thirty gold pieces up front, the rest when you deliver."
"Wow, that's... a lot. Fortunately I've got everything I need to get started, otherwise I'd have to ask for half upfront. But yeah, I like your face, crazy one. And you're going to the Frog Demon Temple, we might still work on a steep discount if you agree to bring me something from there. I'll update you later. Still getting acquainted with my primary sources and all. You know how it is," he gestures toward the bookshelves.
"Sure, you can find me at Gorz's tenements. We will probably be leaving in a day or two, so until then, we can talk. It was a real pleasure meeting you," she smiles.
League of the Free Handed HQ, around noon
With all their travelling supplies ordered and to be delivered tomorrow, Atiin decides to drop by the League headquarters and say hi. Tiny Tomáš welcomes him once again in the over-cramped office.
"I hoped you would stop by. So, the boss has not changed his mind about having a team break into Lady Szara's manse and steal that axe that he claims belongs to his family. That offer stands, if you're up to it.
However, there is a more pressing matter that requires the League's attention right now. You must have gotten a word that the fancypants' district has orchestrated an attack against our Undercouncil Hall. Not many people know about the details, but they have stolen a total of eight quite valuable trophies from previous years of the Great Race.
Now, even though the majority of our agents were assigned to various public security jobs for the duration of the upcoming Race, we have put together a team that is looking into the theft as we speak. What we don't have is a team in charge of striking back. 'Cause you'll agree that we gotta hit 'em hard, hit 'em now, hit 'em where it hurts."
And it sounds like Tomáš has spent some time rehearsing this little discourse in his mind. The delivery is hammy at best; still, he's quite passionate about it.
"I'm interested," Atiin says, keeping his voice as professional as possible.
"Very well. Good. Yeah. Good. That may work. I figured you and your crew would be a good fit for a such a job, considering the way you've dealt with that Steelpike guy the other day."
He lowers his voice, leans over the desk. His sheer ape-like body makes the wood creak and moan under his weight.
"One of the most well-kept secrets in Marlinko," he begins, cupping his mouth with one giant hairy hand, "is where that hruz crap comes from." His eyes dart from left to right a few times. "You would think we are the ones on top of that operation. Makes sense, right? Big bad One-armed Jiří and his goons keep the town in the gutter, sedated, impoverished and coming back for more.
But no. It's all Kladivo, you see. It's always been Kladivo.
That's not to say that his work as the head of the Accipitaries' Guild is a mere front. It certainly isn't. But there's this whole other thing going on in the shadows. And it secretly funds the whole Sullen Apiarian district."
"Whoa!" Atiin's jaw nigh-literally hits the floor. "Uhh... X'cuse muh," he mumbles as he fights to close his all too flexible mouth again.
"That was gross, lad. Good Sun Lord."
"Sorry sorry, no offense meant."
"Anyway, the boss wants to take control of Kladivo's operation. The plan is simple: the old goat will do anything for his kids, the eldest in particular - Eliška, the pretty daughter. So we're gonna kidnap her."
"We can pay you four hundred for the job alone. But if you pull this one off, my-my, big things will be waiting for you. The League takes care of their own. You'll be looking at some well-deserved promotions, that much you can be sure of. Overseeing your own crews. A salary. A break in all that non-stop hustling life of yours. I'm talking a modicum of stability here. You get it, right?
So, how's that sound?"
"Sounds amazing! That gal, though, I have heard things... Sounds like a smart cookie. What about stealing that brother - what's his nuts - the poet. He seems like an easy score, and if this guy is as much into family as you say..."
Tomáš mulls over Atiin's counter-offer for a long while: "Hmmm. Yeah, I see what you mean.
Problem is, we would have to run that by the boss. And I see why he thought of the girl as a target instead of that dumb kid. Eliška is the most likely to inherit the crown, so to speak. Or at least that's what the dad is counting on. So I guess that would make more of an impact. But I'll take your idea to Jiří.
I'll send you a message later today or first thing tomorrow. You will know by then whether or not to proceed with the job, and who's the target."
"Good. And let me know if you have any news about the Undercouncil thievery and need a care taken of that," Atiin says.
"Will do. Thanks for stopping by, kid. I have a good feeling about your future in the League."