He stood concealed in the alleyway between two buildings, watching the bakery across the dusty street. People streamed by, going to and from the large open air marketplace nearby. Nearly all wore brightly colored, loosely fitting clothes that left little skin exposed, as was the fashion here in the Bulanti Nation, where the sun shone nearly every day. Most were native Bulanti, with varying shades of brown skin, though he spotted a few pale skinned northerners in the crowd. None noticed him as they passed his alleyway. He wore dark grey clothes, almost black but not quite, which blended with the shade of the alleyway. As he continued to watch the bakery, a small cart came rumbling down the street. The sound of snapping wood reached his ears as the cart passed the bakery. The cart driver, a tall Bulanti, swore and climbed down from his seat to have a look.
He walked down the street, scanning the signs of the shops for the symbol he sought. He had checked the day’s drop point this morning, as he did every morning. He hadn’t expected anything new, for his orders had been the same for several months. Explore, observe, and prepare. He had familiarized himself with much of the city of Pelbuhan, learning how the Bulanti lived. He liked the Bulanti clothing style. Loose and airy, allowing for good freedom of movement, and it covered his skin, which was very pale, even by the standards of his homeland, the north. This morning’s scrap of paper at the drop point had been different. Report to the bakery on Coin Street, receive orders there. The bakery’s symbol had been scrawled onto the paper, along with the usual small black dot enclosed by a black circle, the symbol of the organization he belonged to, the Core. He spotted the bakery sign ahead and headed in, glancing briefly at a Bulanti who was fiddling with the wheel of a cart nearby.
He strode down Coin Street, heading for the bakery. He had lived in Pelbuhan for all of his life. He kept a brown-skinned hand on the hilt of his sword, scanning the street for any signs of trouble. He knew how to spot the signs from his time in the Siathar City Guard, common men trained and led by the Knights of Siathar, tasked with defending the people and upholding justice. The reality of it, as he had learned, was much different. The Siathar City Guard was rank with corruption. Many of them were paid by the Falling Suns, a notorious criminal organization, to look the other way while the people of Pelbuhan were extorted for all that they were worth. That is why he had left the Guard and joined an organization which he hoped might actually do some good. So far, he had merely been running errands for them, but now the Core had called him here, to the bakery on Coin Street, for what he hoped would be his first real mission. He nodded good morning to a tall Bulanti, who was kneeling and fiddling with a broken wheel on his cart outside of the bakery’s entrance. The man returned his nod and continued to swear at the wheel as he headed into the bakery.
The MaskHe walked into the bakery. The one that swaggered like a guard turned to look, “Sorry sir, we’re closed.”
“Oh. Well please… sir… it’s just that my cart wheel… it has gone and broke on me,” he said. Young. Arrogant. Sticks out like… well, like a guard. Won’t last.
The other one, a northerner dressed in Bulanti style, spoke up, “I’m afraid that even if we were open… we wouldn’t know much about fixing carts… since we are, you know, a bakery.”
“How silly of me… Very sorry to bother you,” he said. Sarcastic. Looks unarmed… no… there’s a spring to his step. Look at his stance. He is his own weapon. Might last.
Out of the corner of his eye, he caught some movement in the shadows. He moved his eyes without turning his head and saw the one dressed in dark grey, blending into the shadows. Did he let me see him? No. Knows how to keep his mouth shut… that’s good. Knows how to disappear into shadows… but there might not always be shadows. Probably will last a while.
“Have a good day, sir,” the guard one said, blustering up and taking a few steps forward. Is that supposed to intimidate me?
He sat down at the closest table. The other three looked annoyed that he hadn’t left. He spoke, this time with a thick northern accent and a deeper voice, “Good to know you all can spot a disguise. So pleased to meet my… partners… Any of you know what this next mission is about?”
He entered the bakery through the back, passing by the ovens and emerging from behind the counter in the front room. The four operatives were here. “Good afternoon. I see that you received our message. Let us get started. I am Seoltir.” He used it like a name, but it was more of a title. Seoltir… messenger… an old northern word. He had memorized all the information about the operatives. The Core had assembled this task force for their plans in the Bulanti Nation.
“Saitou,” he said to the northerner with the dark grey clothes standing in the shadows…
“Mort,” he said to the very pale northerner dressed in Bulanti clothes…
“Siath,” he said to the young Bulanti that stood like a guard…
“Moon,” he said to the tall Bulanti that sat at the table… He knew that beneath the disguise, though, was a tall, lean northerner…
“We have called you here today to entrust you with the task of finding and recovering another operative, John Hannock, a man skilled in rooting out secrets. We last heard from him when he boarded a ship in Brightharbor. The ship was sailing here, to Pelbuhan. The ship he was on is called the Swift Runner. We believe that John Hannock has valuable information for us. Find him.”
He followed the group down the street silently, scanning his eyes over the crowds ahead for any signs of trouble. Siath and Mort walked in front, having a halting conversation. Saitou guessed that neither had been on a real mission like this one before. Probably they had been running errands and observing locations. Moon on the other hand, he guessed had been on several missions. He kept losing sight of Moon, who walked a ways behind the other two, disguised as a Bulanti and often blending into the crowd. They were nearing the docks, planning on tracking down the ship Swift Runner and trying to pick up John Hannock’s trail from there.
They made their way down the docks, which were crowded with people. People unloading cargo, people unloading their day’s catch, people buying the day’s catch. He read the names of the ships as they walked by. He spotted a sleek looking ship with the name Swift Runner scrawled on the side. Mort pointed it out to the others and they all approached. Moon sauntered over to some fisherman stalls nearby, pretending to peruse the selection. Saitou leaned up against one of the pier posts. Siath followed Mort as he approached the ship. The sailors eyed Mort and eventually produced the captain.
The captain, a southerner, walked down the gangplank and onto the pier, “What can I help you fellows with?”
Mort stepped a bit closer to the captain and spoke in a low voice, “We’re here to ask about one of your passengers… John Hannock?”
The captain’s eyes briefly flicked over to Siath, who stood straight and kept his hand on the hilt of his sword. “Look,” the captain replied, “I don’t want any trouble. Swear I’ve had nothing to do with all the stories the sailors been telling down at the bar.”
“What stories might those be?”
The captain shifted nervously, “They say people like yourself and John Hannock… northerners… have been going missing recently. Taken from the docks in the night.”
“Taken how? By whom?”
“I don’t know. That’s just what I’ve heard. Look, I’ve got to get back to checking my inventory. Only thing else I’ve heard is that a Knight of Siathar is looking into the matter. Sir Lokman. Just bar talk, mind you… Could be just drunken stories.”
Mort thanked the captain and headed back up the pier. Siath followed behind. They soon regrouped with Saitou and Moon. Moon had a small fish, which he cleaned with a knife that had appeared in his hand, then began to eat it raw as they talked.
Mort asked, “Have you heard of this Sir Lokman?”
Northerners… “Yes,” Siath said, “He is one of the most renowned Siathar Knights stationed in this city. He’d be at the garrison, but I doubt we’ll be able to talk to him.”
“Well it’s our only lead. Let’s go see what we can dig up,” said Mort. They started to make their way through the city. They were at the corner where the North Docks and the West Docks met, near the marketplace. The garrison was to the southeast, past the temple district and the residential district. They traveled along the North Docks, though, a less direct but more unobstructed route. They would have to pass through some of the poorer parts of town, but that mattered little to them.
Mort attempted to fill the silence that had once again descended. “Siathar… that’s one of the Celestials, right? Were you named after him?”
Siath replied, “Yes. It’s a fairly common practice to name our children after the gods.”
“Cute,” said Moon, sucking the last bit of fish meat off the bones and tossing them aside onto the dusty ground.
Siath clenched his jaw and continued his conversation with Mort, “What about up north… do you often name your children after your ah… gods?” Ignorant heathens… Worshipping glorified versions of mortals…
“No, not really,” Mort replied, “It’s kind of hard to name someone after gods whose names are more like titles… Voidwatcher, Mystic Lord…”
They left the docks, heading into the northern residential district, a collection of run down shacks that leaned every which way. Nearby was a slightly larger building with a cracked and faded symbol of the Celestial religion painted on it. Siath tipped his head in the direction of the shrine, then looked briefly to the heavens.
Mort nodded towards the shrine as well, “Do you hear that?”
Siath did hear it now. Several men angrily shouting. A man stepped out onto the entryway of the shrine. He had on a bracelet that seemed to be made out of the teeth of several predatory animals. He smugly surveyed the street and the few passers by slunk away. The man went back into the shrine and closed the door.
Siath strode forward, “Drake’s Teeth! Come on, they’re extorting the priest there.”
Yeah. Great plan. Let’s go piss off the local criminal gang. “It’s none of our business,” Moon muttered as Siath strode towards the shrine. Saitou and Mort looked between Siath and Moon. They shrugged and hurried to catch up with Siath. Moon sighed and followed as well.
He saw Siath bust in the door up ahead and heard him yell, “Hey! Leave that man alone!” Saitou and Mort paused at the entryway. Moon headed in, immediately dropping into a hobbling shuffle that matched his disguise of a tall, middle-aged Bulanti.
Siath was standing face to face with one of the Drake’s Teeth. Two more were holding an elderly priest dressed in the robes of the Order of Ruthaen. The Drake’s Teeth thug smiled smugly, “Wait your turn, young’un… Once we’re done with the priest here, you and I can… talk.”
Siath puffed out his chest, “Unhand him now! I’m going to get the authorities!”
The Drake’s Teeth man chuckled, “The authorities? Oh no… I’m so scared.” The man stepped towards Siath menacingly.
Moon hobbled up and put an arm around Siath’s shoulder, putting on his best Bulanti accent as he spoke, “I… I’m terribly sorry for this t-trouble, sir. P-please… my son here is a b-bit of a fool. Let me m-make it up to you… I’ve got a b-bit of money here.”
The Drake’s Teeth thug smiled greedily and opened his mouth to respond. A knife suddenly appeared in Moon’s hand, which he promptly drove into the man’s throat without hesitation. The other two Drake’s Teeth swore, pushed the elderly priest to the ground, and drew daggers.
Damn! He just killed that man! This one will be dangerous to work with… He had ducked into the shrine just after Moon, keeping to the edges of the dimly lit building, creeping forward until he was nearly at the back. Saitou saw the two remaining Drake’s Teeth draw daggers. Guess we’ll have to take these out too.
Saitou drew one of his weapons, a small, bladed star ideally weighted for throwing. The Drake’s Teeth men surged forward towards Siath and Moon, leaping over the shrine’s low benches. Saitou threw his star. It connected with a leg. The thug fell to the ground. A bench toppled over.
He burst into action, surveying the scene as he ran inside. Two thugs were on the ground, one clearly dead, the other grabbing his leg. Another thug was charging at Siath and Moon. Mort moved to intercept. He swatted aside the thug’s dagger and brought a knee up into his chest. A couple of loud cracks sounded through the shrine. The thug collapsed to the floor, gasping for breath like a fish out of water.
Before Mort could even say anything, Moon had opened the gasping thug’s throat and was already moving towards the one that Saitou’s throwing star had put on the ground.
“Wait,” he blurted out, “Shouldn’t we… take him to the guards?”
The thug slashed wildly from the ground. Moon kicked his hand and the dagger skittered off under a bench. The Drake’s Teeth thug scrambled forwards on all fours, trying to recover his weapon, but it was too late. Moon jumped on the thug’s back and stabbed twice. The thug went slack.
Moon calmly wiped his knife clean on the thug’s shirt and stood up, “You look like you were in the guards at some point, Siath… Tell me… why did you leave? What exactly do you think would have happened if we had turned these men into the authorities?”
Siath struggled to find words, still astonished from the sudden carnage that had unfolded before him, “They would have been… been held… for trial…” and before the trial, money would have been exchanged… the Drake’s Teeth would have gone free and the guards would have gone home rich…
Moon stared blankly at Siath as he stammered out a few words. When Siath trailed off into silence, Moon said simply with a shrug, guessing at Siath’s thoughts, “Anyone can be bought.”
“Still,” Siath said, “We didn’t have to kill them… The Core is supposed to be a humanitarian organization…”
Moon strode forward until he was face to face with Siath, “Never say our name in public. Anyone could be listening… Humanitarian organization? Yes… an organization with ideals… ideals that must be realized with blood. You are right, though… We didn’t have to kill them. If we had minded our own business and stuck to our mission, we could have avoided this mess.”
Siath grasped for a response, “But… the priest… he…”
“He what? He needed you to come in and rile up the Drake’s Teeth, threatening to take them to the authorities? At least there is a lesson you can learn here,” Moon gestured at the bodies, “This is how you get results.”
Mort chimed in, “Through murder?”
Moon shrugged, “Come on. Let’s get back to work.”
“Not until we check on the priest,” Mort replied.
Moon sighed and laid down on one of the benches. Siath glared at Moon, then went with Mort to check on the elderly priest. The old man had cracked his head when the Drake’s Teeth men had pushed him to the ground and was now out cold. Mort and Siath moved the old man onto one of the benches while Saitou watched from the shadows and Moon stared at the ceiling.
Why did the higher ups saddle me with these idiots. The boy is green as a sea-sick sailor’s face. You’d think he’d never seen blood before… Surely he’s seen blood before. The others are at least semi-useful. Pale one knows how to kick. Quiet one has probably killed for the Core before.
Are they still fidgeting with that old man? I wonder if he heard Siath say ‘Core’… Operatives aren’t supposed to reveal their association with the Core… Got to save face and all that… Wonder if I should slit the old man’s throat just to make sure… The look on their faces would be priceless. Nah… just need to get back to the damn mission. Oh damnit… the old man’s waking up… Now they’ll have to freaking talk to him…
He retrieved his throwing star, then watched silently from the shadows as Mort and Siath got the elderly priest onto a bench. Saitou quietly analyzed the old man, drawing on the knowledge that he had obtained by observing the city of Pelbuhan for the past six months. Robes indicate that he is in the Order of Ruthaen. Ruthaen is the Celestial known as the sky lantern, the guide. The Ruthaen Order is charged with bringing the teachings of Celestialism to the common people.
The priest groaned and blearily opened his eyes. He struggled for a moment, then realized that Mort and Siath were not the Drake’s Teeth men. “What hap-,” he began, looking around and noticing the dead bodies, “Ah… I suppose I should be abhorred that you have spilled blood in this sacred place… but honestly, I can’t say I’m sad to see them go. Uskira forgive me.” The priest made a placating gesture towards the sky.
Uskira, the life giver… said to hold all life sacred… Or at least all life that practices Celestialism…
The priest sat up and held his head, “Drake’s Teeth might send more men… Or they may not care. Time will tell… Who do I have to thank for my bloody floor?” The priest looked up.
“Siath,” said Siath.
“Mort,” said Mort, “Are you alright?”
“Well enough, I suppose,” the priest said, “Not the first time I’ve had Drake’s Teeth visit me. Probably won’t be the last… Thank you, though. My name is Aiden.”
Siath looked at the bodies, “Do you… want us to clean them up?”
Aiden replied, “No, no… You’ve… done enough already. I’ll call the guards and tell them it was a gang fight… Blame it on the Falling Suns… maybe them and the Drake’s Teeth will fight each other out, heheh.”
Doubtful. Drake’s Teeth operate in the poor districts… prone to violence… the other gangs hire them when excessive force is needed. Falling Suns own the rest of the town… except for the docks… They get their coin from businesses… protection tax, they call it. Then there’s the Tide Runners… the smugglers… they stick to the docks and prefer deals over fighting.
The priest stood, “You’d best get out of here before any Drake’s Teeth see what you’ve done…”
Mort and Siath soon took the priest’s advice. Saitou silently followed them back onto the street.
He looked around at the dusty street, which was empty for the moment, “Where’d Moon go?”
A dirt covered Bulanti emerged from an alleyway next to the shrine, wearing ragged clothes. The beggar spoke in a thick northern accent, “Right here, Mort. Old disguise got all bloody… Are you and Siath done playing nanny? Can we get back to our mission now?”
“Fine,” replied Mort, “Let’s go find this Sir Lokman and see if he knows anything about the missing northerners.”
They made their way through the rest of the residential district uneventfully and arrived at the garrison.
He looked around at the group. Two northerners, a Bulanti beggar, and myself… Yea, that won’t stick out at all… “So,” Siath said, “I am thinking maybe I should try to get in to see Sir Lokman on my own.”
Mort also examined the group, “There would probably be less questions without us… fine gentlemen… hanging around. If you think you can handle it on your own, go ahead.”
Siath headed for the garrison office doors, which were flanked by two guards. He knew his way around the garrison from his time in the city guard.
One of the guards spoke up as he approached, “May we help you?”
“I’m here to see Sir Lokman,” Siath replied.
The second guard squinted at him, “Hey… You look familiar. Were you in the guard?”
Siath tried to look hurried and annoyed, “Yes, for a time. Is Sir Lokman available? I really do need to speak with him.”
“Hmm,” the second guard examined him, ignoring his urgent tones, “You’re Siath, right? You turned in Tuhari for bribery…”
“Yes, yes,” Siath said, actually starting to get annoyed now, “He was taking bribes from the Falling Suns, allowing them to terrorize citizens.”
The second guard frowned, “Tuhari was my friend. Did you know that he’s got seven kids? Awfully hard to feed so many on a pitiful guard’s wage… Even harder now that he’s in jail.” He stepped closer to Siath, “You should leave.”
At that moment, Moon came out of an alleyway across the street and shuffled over, limping and holding out a bowl. “Noble sirs,” he said in a convincing Bulanti accent, “Spare a coin for a poor man down on his luck?”
“Piss off,” the second guard spat at Moon’s feet.
The first guard looked apologetic, “I’ve not got any coin.”
Moon looked heartbroken, beginning to limp away. Then, he stumbled and fell sideways into the second guard. Suddenly quick and limber, he snatched the second guard’s coin pouch off his belt and dashed off towards the alleyway.
The second guard’s face went red with fury, “Damnit!” He shoved Siath aside and chased Moon down the alleyway. The first guard followed, yelling, “Thief! Stop, thief!”
Siath took the opportunity to slip through the garrison office doors. He walked down the hallway, uncertain of where to go next. A door was cracked open up ahead and he could hear voices having a conversation. Siath cracked the door open and saw five men standing around a table, on which was spread a map of Pelbuhan. Four of the men wore pins that identified them as guard captains. The fifth was a sturdily built man with dark brown hair, wearing finely crafted armor that was engraved with the stylized shield and eye… the symbol of the Knights of Siathar.
The Knight was pointing to the area south of town on the map, where the farms were. A variety of fruit trees grew there. “We’ve had problems with the harvest this year. This may increase unrest among the citizens, especially the – Ah, hello?” The Knight had noticed Siath.
Siath cleared his throat, “Sir Lokman?” He had never met any of the Knights when he had served.
“Yes,” the Knight said, “And you are?”
“Well met, Siath. How can I help you?”
“Well,” Siath began, “I’ve been concerned about some activities near the docks… Seems that many northerners have been going missing of late. I heard that you were looking into the matter…?”
Sir Lokman regarded Siath carefully, “Why does this concern you so much?”
“I served in the guard for a time… and… well, I have a… friend, a northerner… who was supposed to meet me a few days ago… but he hasn’t turned up.”
Sir Lokman turned to the four guard captains, “You’re dismissed. See to your duties while I talk to our concerned citizen here.” The captains filed out.
Sir Lokman produced a piece of paper and quill He wrote down some notes as he spoke, “I have been investigating the disappearing northerners, yes. I’m afraid I don’t have any leads, though.” Lokman slid the piece of paper over. Siath picked it up and read it… ‘Ears everywhere. Have lead. Falling Suns. I remember report on you. Turned in fellow guard for bribery. Quit guards shortly after.’
“That’s… uh… unfortunate, sir,” Siath replied, taking the quill and writing as he spoke, “Hopefully my friend’s ship is just running slow…” He wrote down, ‘Falling Suns have spies here? Quit because realized many guards corrupt,’ and passed the paper back to Lokman.
“Yes, hopefully… The late summer storms may have blown him off course,” Lokman replied, then wrote, ‘Yes. Can’t move without alerting. You could maybe. Falling Suns hideout at Long and Wheel. Friend might be there. Will you help – observe, report?’
Siath read the paper, looked up at Lokman, and nodded. “Well thank you for your time, Sir Lokman,” he said, “I’ll let you get back to your duties.”
That was too easy. The guards had followed him into the alleyway, blustering about and yelling, “Stop, thief!” Moon had been tempted to slip behind them and cut their throats, but he merely tossed the coin pouch over his shoulder and slipped away while they were scrabbling to reclaim the money.
He had regrouped with Saitou and Mort, but not before switching his disguise again, as the beggar guise might now attract too much attention. He now looked like a young Bulanti man, just another face in the crowd. Moon, Saitou, and Mort had waited quietly near the garrison. After several minutes, Siath emerged and rejoined them.
“You’re welcome… smooth talker,” Moon said to Siath.
“I um… yes. Thank you for that distraction,” Siath replied.
“So,” Mort said, “Did Sir Lokman know anything useful?”
“Yes,” Siath replied, “He suspects that the Falling Suns are the ones behind the missing northerners. He told me that there is a Falling Suns hideout at the intersection of Long Street and Wheel Street. John Hannock might be there.”
Long and Wheel… sounds familiar… hmmm. Moon pulled out a small book and flipped through it. Ah yes, of course. “There is a cafe at that intersection. They make excellent pastries.” The others stared at him. He stared back, “What?”
Mort replied, “You… keep a book about food?”
“I enjoy fine foods.”
“You ate a raw fish this morning…”
“It was rather delicious. You should try it some time… Anyways, this cafe has outdoor seating. We can observe the streets while we eat.”
Mort shrugged, “As good a plan as any, I suppose. Lead on.”
They made their way to the intersection of Long Street, which ran all the way from the North Docks to the farms south of the city, and Wheel Street, which was often used by carts coming in from the rest of the island to the east and heading to the West Docks. They headed to the cafe, got a table, and ordered some sandwiches and pastries.
As they ate, they watched the streets and the surrounding buildings. One of them, an apartment building, stuck out. They watched it for a couple of hours and saw no one enter or leave it. “Maybe we should check that one out,” Moon said.
“Let’s not draw attention,” said Mort, looking to Saitou “Can you check it out? Maybe see if there are any back entrances?”
Saitou nodded and slipped off towards the apartment building.
He walked with the afternoon crowds that streamed by. As he passed the alley next to the apartment building, he strode down it, then pressed himself into the shadows and waited. He counted to thirty, watching the street to see if anyone had taken much interest in his actions. No one had.
Saitou crept down the alley, staying close to the wall of the apartment building. He glanced up and noted that the clay wall had no windows. He edged his head around the corner and looked into the alley behind the buildings. He spotted nothing but the usual garbage that gathered in such places.
Saitou moved behind the apartment building and found a worn wooden door. He grasped the rusted handle of it and pulled it gently. It remained shut. He slowly put his weight on it and pushed forward. It still didn’t move. Saitou leaned in close and tried to look through the cracks in the doorway. The light was dim in the alley, but he could barely see that the door was probably thoroughly boarded up from the inside. He pressed his ear to the door, but heard nothing over the sounds of the city.
He continued around the apartment building. The other sidewall was also devoid of windows. Saitou slipped back into the crowd on the street and looked sideways at the front of the building as he passed by. There was a shallow alcove with a double door at the back. Saitou kept moving and made his way back to the cafe.
While they waited for Saitou to return, the cafe waitress came by and asked if they needed anything else. “No thanks,” Mort replied.
“Done with your plate?” The waitress gestured to the table.
“Yes. Thank you. Here,” Mort said, handing the plate to her. The waitress’ hand brushed against his as she took it.
The waitress frowned, “Are you alright, sir? You feel rather cold…”
Crap… If the Bulanti find out… “I’m fine. Just uh… a bit chilled. From the weather.”
The waitress glanced at the sky, which was cloudless as was usual this time of year. Edromyn shone down, bathing the dusty streets in light, making them dry and warm. “You northerners usually complain about it being too hot down here…”
“Yes… well I… uh…”
“Ma’am,” said Moon, “Could you bring me another one of those lemon pastries?”
“Of course,” the waitress said, scurrying off to fill the order.
Siath raised an eyebrow at Mort, “What in Oghaen’s name was that all about?”
Mort shrugged, “I uh… have no idea…”
Moon stared at Mort suspiciously, but said nothing.
Phew. The recruiters didn’t seem to care… but they did warn me that others in the Core might not understand… And the Bulanti most certainly fear… His thoughts were interrupted, as he had just spotted Saitou returning.
Once Saitou had sat back down, Mort asked, “Find anything?”
Saitou shook his head.
Mort continued, “No other entrances? Nothing suspicious?”
Saitou shook his head again.
“Do you think it’s abandoned?”
“Well,” said Mort, “I don’t see anything out of place in any other building. If I were a criminal looking to hide out somewhere, I’d go into that abandoned apartment building. Should we check it out?”
The others agreed that it seemed the most likely place for a criminal hideout to be. They waited a while longer, Moon ate the lemon pastry that the waitress brought, then they headed towards the building.
They stepped into the recessed entryway of the apartment building. A few people in the passing crowd gave them odd looks, but everyone was hurrying home to dinner at this hour and so they walked on. Siath pulled on the door handle and was surprised to find that it opened easily. They stepped inside.
As they closed the door behind them, the noise of the city faded away to a dull mumbling. They found themselves in a lobby area. Across the way was another set of double doors. There were single doors on the right and left. The lobby was dimly lit by light shining through the cracks of the double doors. A once ornate rug, now faded and worn, was spread across the floor of the lobby.
Laughter leaked out of the room beyond the double doors. A voice was raised against the laughter, the words unclear, the tone sounding both amused and annoyed. Siath felt a hand on his shoulder and turned to see that Mort had stepped very close. Mort whispered in his ear, “Looks like we might have found it… Let’s check the building for John Hannock and try to avoid the fellows in that room. You and Moon check that door on the right. Saitou and I will go left.” Siath nodded.
He and Moon headed to the single door on the right side of the lobby. The conversation behind the double doors continued, words still unclear. Siath identified three, maybe four, different voices. He reached the door and paused to let Moon get in position on the other side. Moon had a dagger out. The dim light from the double doors reflected off the blade and off of Moon’s eyes. Siath slowly and quietly drew his own weapon, a longsword.
Moon grabbed the door handle and pulled it open. Siath slid into the next room, weapon ready. It was even darker in here. Damn… Can’t see a thing. He heard a quick scraping noise behind him and saw a spark of light. The scraping noise repeated and this time a flame appeared. Siath saw that Moon held a flint and steel and had lit an oil lamp that rested in a holder next to the door. Moon put the flint and steel onto the lamp holder, which had a space for them. I missed that lamp in the dark… he must have good eyes…
A voice issued forth from the dark back half of the room, “Aw come on. Trying to sleep here…” A man walked into the light of the lamp, rubbing his eyes. Siath quickly scanned him and the surroundings. Behind the man was another worn rug and a circle of pillows. The near side of the room was populated with tables that had various game boards carved and painted on to them. Lounge… The man was dressed well, his clothes finely cut and colored, boots well made and well kept. On the man’s right ear was a small orange gem. Siath had heard the stories at the garrison… Falling Suns!
The man stared blearily at Siath and Moon. After a moment, his eyes widened and he drew in a deep breath. Siath dashed forward and slid his longsword through the man’s stomach and up into a lung. The man let out a sigh, unable to muster enough breath to call out. He slumped to the floor.
Moon stepped up next to Siath and said softly, “Shouldn’t we take him to the guards?” Moon then chuckled and bent over the corpse. When he stood up, Siath saw that he had donned the man’s earring.
Of course he has pierced ears… must cover the holes with make up… Siath pointed at the earring, “What’s that for?”
Moon shrugged, “Could come in handy. Let’s regroup with Mort and Saitou. Nothing else here.” The room was empty except for the furniture and the door that they had entered through. Siath and Moon headed back into the lobby and started to cross to the door on the other side.
A voice, clearly heard and sounding much closer, came through the double doors, “Be right back. I’ll go get us some more drinks.” The double doors opened, shining light onto Moon and Siath. Crap! “Uhh… guys,” the man in the doorway called back into the room, “We’ve got some company.” In the span of a few moments, three other men had joined the man at the door.
Damn. Think, think, think! He, Siath, and the four men stared at each other. One of them spoke, “What do we have here?” They drew their weapons, but stayed still for the moment. Quick… wait, that could work…
Moon held his knife out towards Siath, beginning to tremble slightly and being sure to present the side of his head on which the earring was. “Help me,” he said, glancing at the four men and backing away from Siath, “This bastard c-caught me over on Coin Street… Forced me t-to lead him here. H-he’s alone! Kill him!”
The four men looked between Moon and Siath for a moment, then charged at Siath, who looked utterly confused. The men hacked and stabbed at Siath. Siath frantically tried to block their blows. Moon continued to shake and quiver as he slid around behind the fight. The boy can handle a sword at least… Siath was blocking many of the blows, but couldn’t defend against all of them. He was soon bleeding from several wounds. Moon dropped the scared act and strode forward. He stepped up between two of the men, put an arm around the shoulder of the one on his left, and sliced his dagger hard across the man’s throat. He stabbed the dagger into the chest of the man on his right. The man looked stunned and slashed wildly at Moon, who dodged. Siath finished off the stabbed man as the one with the cut throat slumped to the floor. Moon and Siath turned to face the remaining two men.
He and Mort went through the door on the left and were confronted with darkness. “Hold on,” said Mort quietly, “There’s a lamp here.”
Saitou frowned inwardly as he looked in the direction of Mort’s voice. Are his… eyes glowing? No… must have been a spark from the flint and steel…
Mort mumbled as he got the oil lamp lit, “No wonder this place went out of business… Burning oil around the clock… need some windows in here…”
Once the lamp was lit, it revealed a long hallway with several doors on the left, stairs leading up at the end, and a door on the right through which light was shining. That must lead to the same room as the double doors in the lobby… Saitou pointed at the doors on the left. He and Mort moved forward and opened two of them. Saitou looked in and saw a desk, wardrobe, and bed. He looked to Mort, who was checking the next door down the hallway.
“Bedroom here,” Mort said, “Same there?” Saitou nodded. Mort continued, “Guess we should probably check the-” Saitou held up a hand and Mort stopped talking. They could hear the clang of weapons out in the lobby. Saitou drew his blade and Mort dropped into a fighting stance. They quickly and quietly made their way back to the lobby.
Saitou saw that Moon and Siath were facing off against two men. Another two men were already dead on the ground. Siath was bleeding heavily and looked about ready to pass out. The two men hustled forward and delivered a few more blows to Siath, who let go of his longsword and dropped to the ground. Moon gave one of them a cut as they backed off. The wounded man yelled out, “Merimer! We’ve got-” The rest of the man’s sentence was cut off as Saitou stepped up behind the man slid his blade between the man’s ribs. Mort chopped down with his hand onto the remaining man’s shoulder, causing him to drop his weapon. Moon and Saitou delivered a few stabs to finish the fight.
He moved to check on Siath. “Still breathing,” Mort reported to the others.
“So glad to hear it,” Moon said as he cleaned his knife on one of the shirts of the dead men.
Saitou cut up another shirt and handed the rags to Mort, who tied them to Siath’s wounds. “There,” said Mort, “I don’t think he’ll bleed out. He won’t be going anywhere for a while, though. Let’s check out the rest of the place… Be careful, that one was trying to yell out for another I think… Merimer, he said.”
They headed through the double doors. The room beyond was well lit by a lamp that sat on one of many tables. Cards, coins, and empty glasses were littered across the table with the lamp. Beyond the tables was a bar with empty shelves behind it. There was a door on the left wall of the room. “That leads to a hallway and bedrooms,” said Mort. On the right wall near the bar was another door. They approached that door.
As Mort reached for the handle, the door burst open, knocking into his head. Mort reeled from the blow. A man leapt out of the doorway, stabbed a knife into Moon’s leg, and shoved him backwards into Saitou. As all three of them tried to recover from the sudden attack, the man dashed off into the lobby.
The warm darkness wrapped itself around him. Moon… that bastard… used me as a distraction… Such worries seemed far away, though. The darkness was so comforting… except for the sharp pain in his side…
Siath’s eyes fluttered open and he saw a strange man standing over him… A man with a orange gem earring. The pain in his side felt cold.
He’s stabbed me…
The man sneered, “Let this be a warning to you…” The man pulled the dagger out of him and wiped the blood on Siath’s shirt. Through the haze of pain, Siath thought that the man might be tracing a pattern with his dagger. The man tapped Siath on the forehead with the flat of his blade, “Hey. Hey! Listen… I’ve got a message for your masters: We own this nation! Get out or die.” The man stood up and left. Siath faded back into the darkness.
“Ack! Son of a bitch stabbed me,” he said, cutting a rag off his clothes and binding the wound. Moon looked through the double doors and into the lobby. Daylight was streaming in from the front doors, which were now open. “Got away, too. Damnit!”
“Hey, look here,” Mort said, holding his head where the door had banged into it. He pointed into the next room, which appeared to be a kitchen. A northerner was slumped against a stack of barrels.
Moon limped through the door and knelt by the northerner to check his pulse. “He’s alive.” The man looked fairly thoroughly beaten. Moon poked him a couple of times. The northerner groaned and opened his eyes. Moon poked him once more, “You John Hannock?”
The northerner’s eyes flicked between Moon, Saitou, and Mort. He coughed weakly, “Yes… I’m Hannock… Core.” The man trailed off and lapsed back into unconsciousness.
“Works for me,” said Moon. He scanned the room, “Help me get him into one of those potato sacks… He’ll attract less attention in there. Better grab one for Siath, too.”
“Yea… shoving them into sacks will be great for their wounds,” said Mort. He saw the sense in keeping a low profile on the street, though, so moved to help. They soon had John Hannock in a potato sack and made their way to the lobby with another sack for Siath.
Moon’s heart skipped a beat when he saw Siath. A symbol had been painted in blood across his chest. The symbol looked like three overlapping ovals, which overall formed a rough triangle shape. Mort checked on Siath and eyed the symbol, “He’s still breathing. What is this thing?”
Moon, for once without a hint of sarcasm or disdain, said, “It is the symbol of the Bounded… The Core’s most dangerous enemy.”
As they were all contemplating that, they suddenly heard the rattling of armor from the street. Moon readied his knife. A moment later, Sir Lokman jogged in through the recessed entryway, sword in hand. Someone must have seen that bastard fleeing… Merimer… Or seen all these corpses through the open door. Lokman stopped short as he spotted Moon, “Stop right there, Falling Suns scum!”
Damn… the earring… Moon lowered his knife and spoke in his normal voice with a thick northern accent, “This isn’t what you think.” Odds of killing him before more guards arrive are slim… Negotiation best way to mitigate mission exposure.
Sir Lokman looked around the scene, taking in the dead Falling Suns men, Mort, and Saitou. He spotted Siath. “Damnit,” Lokman said, “I told him to just observe and report… I…” Lokman’s eyes widened and he grew silent as his gaze settled on the symbol on Siath’s chest.
“He’s alive,” Moon said, “and he’s with us. You know what that symbol means, don’t you?”
“Yes,” Lokman whispered, “And I have my guesses about you all as well… Go! Get out of here! I sent the rest of my guards to chase the man who ran out of here, but more will be showing up soon. Find me later, we will speak more!” Lokman stood aside.
Mort and Saitou hastily stuffed Siath into the second potato sack and headed onto the street. Moon nodded to Sir Lokman. Yes… we will find you again. Whether we will speak with the tongue or the knife is not up to me… The Core will decide if you know too much. Moon followed the others onto the street.