Aurum-Orier

Session 4: Ships and Salt

Vuirah had enough of paperwork for a lifetime.

It had been less than a fortnight since they officially became a co-founder of the guild, and they foolishly made the offer to handle the contractual side of hiring whatever ragtag mercenaries and other unscrupulous individuals came their way. More than that, assorted posters and loud, stand-offish drinking competitions at local pubs garnered more attention than they expected, and guild numbers had doubled in mere days.

Which was still only ten members. But for a group organized in response to one man’s tax-dodging exploits, it was a pretty good effort, all things considered.

Unfortunately for the usually hands-on Vuirah, this delegated them to the position of a glorified clerk for the time being. All this reading and writing made their moonlight stint as a bouncer a welcome change of pace, which said a lot, as Vuirah despised drunks with a passion; they were unable to understand why other races would willingly intoxicate themselves and start bar fights.

They decided to go to their prefered locale for a much-needed spa session.

Vuirah opened the door of Sensual Sensations. The familiar fragrances of assorted incense, oils and bath salts wafted across their nose. Their protean mind scanned the smells, and while they didn’t show any overt sign of it, they registered them as pleasant and soothing.

Quag sat at the receptionist’s desk scribbling hurriedly on some papers, his wide morellan eyes staring concernedly at his work.

Vuirah cleared their throat, drawing attention from the morello.

‘Quag,’ said Vuirah, using Quag’s given name; a rare sign of respect from the usually patronizing wavuun, ‘I would like to book an appointment for the swaanen sauna.’

Quag put his hand behind his head – an obvious nervous tic – and chuckled awkwardly.

‘Ah, sorry Vu,’ said Quag, ‘We’re…out of swaanen at the moment.’

Vuirah showed no overt sign of flaring up, but their mental synapses registered a slightly-more-than-irritated sensation.

‘You are…out?’ said Vuirah.

‘Yeah, supply issues,’ said Quag, ‘There’s been a worker’s strike at the docks and a bunch of shipments are being stalled from it, swaanen included…Vu, where are you going?’

Vuirah’s expression was unflinching as he turned away from Quag mid-sentence and walked out the door, betraying only the slightest hint of their feet stamping angrily.

-

Solomon had a bunch of the new recruits gathered in the hall’s study. He was handing out contracts and codes of behaviour for them to peruse before properly committing to the guild. They were an unusual collection, though no more motley than the rest of the guild – Gar Ach, a gaean of some kind of magical flair, with prickly cactus-like skin but of reasonable temperament; Clovis, a burly, formidable-looking verbhort barbarian with an ill-fitting voice considering his size; Hima, a short, teenaged ajasura with frost-covered horns that extended his height above even Solomon’s impressive stature; and Hiroshi, a human monk from a far-off order of divinity-seeking ascetics.

They might do, thought Solomon, but he might have to test their teeth on some small assignment first. He was worried especially about Gar Ach and the ajasura – he was not much more than a kid.

Solomon was re-pouring out tea while the inductees were reading over the contracts Vuirah had written out. The wavuun was difficult and clearly disliked the task but with his extensive background bartering for his mercenary services his contracts were iron-clad.

Solomon scowled as Hima raised his cup to one of his horns and concentrated a moment. The rim of the cup frosted over and when Hima replaced it on the side table there were little chunks of frozen tea clinking against the sides of the ceramic wall.

“It’s meant to be drunk hot, you know,” said Solomon.

“This is what I like,” replied the ajasura, coolly.

Solomon was about to retort when he heard the hall’s front door slam open and then shut. The plaintiff cry of little Felicia, their new secretary, was cut short as she realised it was no intruder – just Vuirah.

“Solomon,” shouted the wavuun, “I have a problem that needs solving.”

Solomon peeked out from behind the door jamb, and beckoned Vuirah inside the study with a jerk of his head.

“We’re just finishing up the general contracts now. Is it something the new recruits could handle, maybe? They seem eager.”

“Hmmph, maybe. It is of dire importance, though.” They threw a glance at the assorted mob and their eyes lingered over Gar Ach. “You there. Cactus. How good are you at dealing with protesting mobs?”

“Uuh,” started Gar Ach, but he was cut short by Solomon, who rounded on Vuirah.

“Protesting mobs? Vuirah, what is going on?”

“I was just heading out for a swaanen bath,” they said. He paused while Solomon silently mouthed the word a few times. He clearly had heard the word before but his mind was coming up short.

“Swaanen,” said Vuirah, “it’s a kind of bath made from rare minerals from the Aegean Isle. Waavun use it to relax – we strip down completely bare and slather our naked bodies in the paste and bask. It’s very important you get it everywhere or else the relaxant effect is greatly diminished.” Vuirah accompanied this with gestures, as though they were unsure words alone could communicate the concept. The others stared on in horror at the pantomime.

“Thusly, you need great quantities of it for even a single wavuun and Quag, proprietor at Sensual Sensations, is all out. His orders aren’t being delivered due to an ongoing strike by the dock workers.”

“So,” said Solomon, “you’re saying you want to send out our newly minted, untrained recruits to resolve a civil, presumably legal, workplace relations dispute between honest workers and their representatives, perhaps embroiling us all in a political affair we have no genuine interest in all in order for you to…take a bath?”

Vuirah pretended to think on this for a second. “Yes.”

-

A new contract was hastily written, signed and filed away. The new recruits – Gar Ach, Clovis, Hima and Hiroshi – were sent on their way to investigate the protest.

Gar Ach, however, required a few minutes to prepare before he left, though. He began chanting in some strange, though oddly beautiful tongue, weaving his hands around each other in a complicated dance of rigid finger poses and loose arm movements. The room darkened, candles flickering almost to the point of snuffing out, and the air began to reek heavily of vanilla and cinnamon. Gar Ach seemed to float a few inches above the ground as this was happening, and rotated slowly around as if some breeze unfelt by others was pushing on him. Then, he opened his eyes, dropped to the floor and the room returned to its previous enlightened state.

Nothing had seemed to change about the room, however. The other three, as well as Solomon and Vuirah, spent a good few seconds trying to figure out what exactly had happened. It was Hima who turned around first, walking headlong into a large feline critter, white-furred with four legs, two arms sprouting from a second, more humanoid torso, and a serious, vigilant expression on its cat-like face.

“Ah,” said Solomon, delicately. “Our new friend is a summoner. Interesting.”

The docks were only a few miles walk away, though a few blocks before the entrance the distant sounds of chanting crowds began to ripple through the air. About a hundred or so protesters were gathered around the harbour entrance, wielding picket signs that read variations on “we wont rites!” and “insuwerants 4 awl”. The gate to the harbour was barred and locked, and 5 attentive city guards stood on duty, just in case of riot.

Hiroshi, probably the most calm and confident member of the group, walked assuredly up to one sign-wielding dockworker.

“Excuse me, sir,” he said, “can you tell me what exactly you are protesting?”

“We’re protestin’ for rights, guv!”

“I can see that, your sign is very clear on that regard.” The man beamed at this. “But which rights, specifically, are you protesting for?”

“Workers’ rights,” he said. “Access to holidays, days off, regular workin’ hours, comp-in-say-shun in times of medical dew-ress, those kinds of things. The guys upstairs,” and here he jerked his thumb at a large building overlooking the harbour, “they dun want to give us none of that.”

“I see. Thank you for your time, sir,” said Hiroshi and walked off, heading directly for the building. “Clearly we must speak to the guild leaders.”

The building was tall, larger than any of the surrounding buildings by at least a storey, and hung over the cliffside a few metres, supported on solid oak beams. A wooden sign creaked in the salty breeze – an anchor, a crate, a spool of rope and the acronym “ PADWG” was painted on in flaking paint. Through the window a young, attractive ajasura secretary was sitting at her desk.

Hiroshi went to knock on the door.

“Wait,” said Hima. He shut his eyes and the ice covering the tips of his horns melted and the water spiralled down the grooves. He polished them to a noticeable sheen and then began doing a few press-ups against the wall. It was clearly not an exercise he was familiar with and he tired after only a small number.

“No no,” said Hiroshi, who took this time to correct Hima’s poor form. “Your hands should be in line with your nipples.”

It was at that final word that Hima became very self-conscious. He tucked his hands under his armpits, attempting to hide his very erect nipples – a side effect of his perpetually chilly body.

“Uh,” said Gar Ach, “we should probably head inside.”

“You’re right,” said Hiroshi, who finally knocked on the door.

“Come in,” called the secretary and the group filed in. Hima was last to enter and found the floor extremely interesting. He kept muttering “be cool, man, be cool” to himself.

“How may I help you, sirs?” said the secretary. “We are quite busy with the strike as you can probably guess, so our assistance might be limited.”

“That is exactly why we are here, in fact,” replied Hiroshi. “We were wondering if we could speak to your boss about it.”

“That might not be possible, sorry. He is very busy and very stressed about the protests, you see. We’ve been fielding complaints from all over the city these past few days and Mr Jameson is desperately trying to find a way to end the strike.”

“We’re not here to complain, or to add to his problems,” said Gar Ach. The secretary had to lean over her desk to see the small cactus. He gave her a winning, if prickly, smile. “We’re here to help with a solution.”

“Oh, I see. Well, at the very least I can see if he has a little time to talk to you. I’ll be right back, you just wait here.”

She trotted off up the stairs and returned a few minutes later.

Mr Jameson says he has a few minutes spare to talk to you. He’s in the room at the far end of the hall upstairs. Just give him a knock.”

“Thank you very much,” said Gar Ach, who bounced first up the stairs. Hima went last again, this time daring to smile at the secretary. She gave a polite smile back.

“Thank you,” he tried to say, though his voice cracked and all that came out was a throttled grunt and cough. Mortified, he ran up the stairs.

Mr Jameson, a morello, was yelling into the tip of an azure fang – something about cargo and delivery dates and incoming ships from the Fens.

“I don’t care how long it takes, just get me those pitchers of the spider glands!” He slammed the fang on the table and little muffled murmurs could be heard still echoing from the root-end of the tooth.

“Over,” muttered the morello, placing his hand on the tooth. The sounds ceased.

“Mr Jameson,” said Gar Ach, “I would shake hands but I imagine you would not find that pleasant.” He laughed, indicating the rows of prickly spines growing out the back of his hand.

“Quite, quite,” said Mr Jameson. He flicked his eyes across the group and licked his upper lip – he had a patch of darkened skin underneath his nostrils like many male morello. His was short and square.

“Veena told me you could help me with these protests? Finally! The first people I’ve seen in days with no bloody complaints, just an offer of help. I’d be bloody damn appreciative if you could, we’re already three days behind schedule. We’ve just been gods-damned lucky the sea traffic’s been slow this week. I’ve got a bloody trade flotilla coming in from the Fens in the next two damn days, and a harbour full of ships that need to be unloaded and the only bloody men allowed to do the job are hoisting placards instead of crates!”

“Could you not just negotiate with one of their representatives to secure the rights they’re asking for?” asked Hiroshi.

“Asking for? What rights? They’ve already got bloody all of them – we do fair holidays, fair rostering, fair wages. This is about that bloody, money-hungry degg, that’s all this is about.”

“Which degg is this?”

Artol,” sneered Mr Jameson. “He took a fall last week and broke his spine apparently. Now he’s harping on about compensation, claiming our inferior scaffolding was the culprit. It’s a bullshit claim, and he knows it, but he’s got the workers in a frenzy about it, claiming we’re corrupt and withholding his payout. It’s bullshit, like I said, we even paid for an investigation by the AAA and they cleared us of any culpability. But,” he leaned in conspiratorially, licking his eyes with his long, flexible tongue “you know what the degg are like.”

“Uh, no?” said Hiroshi.

“Well, he’s a bloody surface degg, and they don’t come out to live up here for fun, you know. Surface degg are shifty – exiles from the Subterrane, usually, blackmailers, traitors, thieves, murderers. I don’t judge, I’m not being racist, but from experience you just can’t bloody trust them, no godsdamn way. They hate the sun, so why’s this Artol asshole, heh, why’s he taking jobs on the drydocks at noon all of a sudden? He was happy working nights before but now he’s asking for work in the day, something about paying for a sick sister as if you can bloody believe that rot. Then he, what, blinds himself looking over the water? Trips, falls, says he breaks his back and now he’s trying to make us pay for it. Shifty bloody dirt-eaters the lot of them.”

“I see. So you think he’s lying, Mr Jameson. About the injury, that is?”

“Yes! It’s a sham, I tell you! And it’s costing me and my workers a hell of a lot of money. If you can sort this out, I’d appreciate it! I’ll get Veena to write you a note so you can see the accident site for yourself. There’s something dodgy about it, I’m sure of it.”

He ushered them downstairs and told Veena to write them a note granting them access to the docks. Hima took the note from her, brushing his thumb over the hand and maintaining eye contact with her for slightly too long. She jerked her hand back quickly and moved hurriedly back to her desk. Pleased with himself, the ice that had reformed on his horns began to melt again.

-

They made their way through the crowd and met with the guards barring the gate down to the harbour. To much jeering and cries of foul play from the crowd, the guards unlocked the gate and allowed them to pass. The harbour was deserted, with only the sounds of the breeze and the gentle lapping of small waves against the rock walls and timber pylons of the jetty.

They found the site of the accident with ease – it had been cordoned off with red-dyed rope. The Moist Siren, a small trading schooner was in the drydock, in need of a few major repairs after a fierce storm. A gantry was set up beside it, four-tiered and of sturdy looking construction. The third tier had a busted platform, however.

“This must have been where he fell from,” said Hiroshi. “Must have been an unlucky fall if he did, this is barely 15 feet.”

“The wood is the same,” said Hima after a little examination. “A little bit of water damage, but no more than the others.”

Hiroshi jumped in a series of graceful tumbles and flips onto each platform, testing its strength and stability with a few bounces. He leapt onto the third platform.

“It still seems quite sturdy, even with the broken beam. And the splintering…”

“I saw that, too,” said Clovis. The muscly verbhort’s sudden shrill voice frightened a nearby flock of gulls. “It’s not a natural break. Someone’s been at this with a blade.”

“You’re right. I’ve broken many boards in my training before and this doesn’t look like much like that. The work is subtle, though, I’ll give them that.”

Hima coughed, aware of a presence watching them from behind a crate. He stared vaguely around the crate, pretending as though he hadn’t seen the black-masked figure. Hiroshi, understanding Hima’s intentions followed his gaze and also saw just the tip of a black hood. With a graceful leap from the third platform he vaulted over the crate and landed behind the masked man. With a sudden strike with his powerful legs he tried to sweep the man’s feet out from under him, though their watcher’s balance stayed true.

“It’s okay,” said the man, loudly, holding up his hands, “I mean you no harm.”

“If you truly mean no harm, you’ll allow me to search you for weapons,” said Hiroshi.

“Of course, go ahead. You will find two daggers on either side of my belt, and a hand crossbow and a glass phial of poison inside my vest. Feel free to discard them if you will, I merely wish to talk to you.”

Hiroshi tossed the weapons aside, palming the poison for later investigation. “Who are you, who do you work for?”

“I can tell you neither of those things, but they’re also not important.”

“You’re unarmed against five seasoned fighters, you better tell us.”

“Okay,” sighed the man, “if you must know, my name is Cloaken Dag’gar. I work for… an interested party in this investigation. My life would be forfeit if I told you who.”

“Your life would be forfeit if we decided it now. Tell us who you work for.”

“I do not need to kill you all to escape, but there would be no escaping my punishment if I told you any more about my employers than I already have. Suffice to say, I am on your side.”

Hiroshi harrumphed at this, but did not say anymore.

“You seek information on the degg, Artol, do you not?” continued the man. “We know for a fact his injuries are not genuine. If you go to his home, you will surely see the truth.”

“Why would the degg lie about his injuries? Any cleric could quickly see it was a false claim,” said Gar Ach.

“Smugglers,” said Hima, simply. All eyes turned to him, beckoning him on to say more.

“Smugglers need the dock to themselves, some large-ish operation that can’t operate in the normal way. The only way to keep people out of the dock is to force a strike, so he makes some jumped up claim about being withheld his rights. It seems simple enough.”

“You catch on quick, kid,” said the man. “Pay a visit to Artol, but for the love of Ylena, be subtle about it. We don’t want to spook him.”

“Hmm,” said Hiroshi, “we will do that. And if we find out more, how do we contact you?”

“You can’t, but we will be in touch with you. I’ll be on my way now. My weapons, please.”

Hiroshi re-equipped the man, thankful for his assistance.

“Thank you.” He walked past the group, nodding to each one in turn before turning a corner and passing behind a large crate. He did not reappear on the other side of the crate.

“Do you think Cloaken Dag’gar was his real name,” said Hima.

Again, all eyes were turned to him.

“No, Hima,” they said in unison.

-

Artol lived in a squat, blocky house slightly sunk into the ground. Its windows peeked just above curb level, letting only a small amount of light into the small space. Even so, the curtains were drawn tight. Gar Ach listened closely at the door, but could hear no sounds except the slow, gentle rumbling of what was probably snoring. He gestured to the others that he suspected the degg was asleep – not an unreasonable assumption if he was, in fact, disabled in bed.

He incanted a minor charm, pushing forward with his palm, and forcing the curtains open slowly with an invisible projection. While the windows let in only a little light, it was still enough to see the degg laying on the bed, fast asleep. A wheelchair sat right beside him. With another quick incantation Gar Ach pushed the wheelchair aside and it rolled halfway across the room.

“I have an idea,” said Hima. “Startle him awake.”

“How do you propose we do that?” asked Gar Ach.

“We wet the bed.”

Hiroshi looked disapproving.

“If he isn’t lying, we could seriously injure him.”

“And if he is, then we’ll know for sure when he sits right up, won’t we?”

Hima concentrated, the ice on his horns melting away as a ball of water began to materialise on the other side of the window, above Artool’s body. With a blink of his eyes, he released the water which splashed onto the bed. Hima jerked outside of view of the window, and Gar Ach released his arcane hold on the curtains, forcing them closed once more.

While they could no longer see inside, they could hear quite the commotion. Artool leapt out of bed, his footsteps creaking on the floorboards. He rummaged in a nearby drawer, pulling out a heavy metallic object which scraped dully against the wood. A mechanical click was soon heard and Artol began yelling, making demands to the empty room.

“You stupid thugs! You can’t intimidate me. Tell Reiche I’ll see him tonight, you tell him that. Tell him Artol’s making an appointment.”

The degg keeps yelling for a short while in his hysteria, but soon realises the room is empty. He sighs loudly, and begins to make his bed with fresh, dry sheets.

-

At the guildhall, the group asks Solomon if he knows much about a man called Reiche. Solomon pulls a slim black book out of a shelf behind a frame. He then pushes a button inside the shelf and a secret panel opens in the back of the recess. He pulls out another, much larger and heavier black book and drops it onto the table. He riffles through his book of contacts until he finds the right entry.

“Not a man, but a verbhort by that name. A bit of a small-time smuggler when I last saw him – minor magical artefacts, nothing big or dangerous. That’s all I have about him, though. I’ve only met with him once or twice in my time and he wasn’t dealing in anything impressive. I would advise caution, though. This was years ago and if he’s still around, he’s likely earned the respect of his superiors. He might even be heading his own crew now, who knows. Criminals don’t last long in this town unless they’re good at what they do, and Reiche has been around longer than average.”

“Duly noted, boss,” said Gar Ach. “We’ll keep on our toes or, er, hooves…”

-

The group decides to stakeout Artol’s house, hoping to follow him to wherever he was meeting Reiche. Hiroshi and Gar Ach’s eidolon keep watch on Artol, using Gar Ach’s telepathic link with the agathion to stay up to date on Artol’s movement.

A few hours before midnight, Artol makes a move, dressed in heavily obscuring black clothing. He sets off down the street, failing to notice Hiroshi and Gar Ach’s eidolon hanging from the awning above his door. Gar Ach receives a telepathic signal informing him Artol is on the move and he, Hima and Clovis set off after the group. The group meets up, still tailing Artol into the warehouse district just above the harbour. He heads into a warehouse, identical to many others around it, and the group crowds around the entrance, out of sight.

From their vantage point, the group could see Artol standing just in front of the entrance. Beyond him was a hulking verbhort, two humans and one morello holding muskets and a strigid in lurid robes standing at the back of the warehouse.

“I’m here, Reiche, and I’m angry!” shouted the tiny degg. “You lied to me, Reiche. I risked everything – my job, my livelihood, my sister – all for you and you lied to me!”

“Buddy, buddy,” said the verbhort, his voice deep and gruff, “we didn’t lie. Our information was just…out of date. That cleric jumped ship to someplace else, not our fault he didn’t tell us he was leaving, is it?”

“And you didn’t bother checking he was still around before you promised he could cure my sister?” Artol plunges his hand inside his coat and pulls out a small pistol and points it straight at Reiche. “You got a lot of nerve, Reiche!”

“Artol, we’re all friends here, but what have we done wrong? You gave us what we wanted and we gave you what we promised. You got your gold, Artol, I counted it myself.”

“I don’t care about the gold, you thick-tusked dunce,” he shouted, jabbing the pistol’s barrel at Reiche.

The gunners reflexively raised their barrels to aim at Artol. The group, watching the emotional scene from outside tensed, ready to jump in if the situation escalated.

“I just wanted to save my sister,” said Artol. “You know how much a cleric charges for a spell like that? It’s obscene. I only took the job because you said your man would do it at a discount.”

“Huh. I didn’t think it was that important to you, bud—“

“My sister’s going to die, Reiche!” he cried, jabbing his pistol at Reiche again.

Reiche did not flinch, but the gunners cocked their muskets, waiting for a pretext to shoot. Hiroshi and the others eyed each other, each seeming to understand the time to intervene was close.

“The disease is eating at her, every day it gets worse.” Artol’s eyes filled with tears and his voice was going hoarse from shouting. “She’s already lost an arm and a leg, Reiche, you knew this, I told you this. How could you think it wasn’t important? How could you think it wasn’t important!?”

Reiche’s face coloured, as if he was building some internal reservoir to burst over and lash out at Artol.

Before he could act, however, the doors swung open and four figures were silhouetted against the moonlight. Hiroshi surged forward, passing by Artol and extending one leg to sweep under Reiche’s leg. He fell like a brick and landed face first on the dusty, sawdust-strewn warehouse floor.

Before he could even stand up, there was a blood-curdling shriek and through groggy eyes he vaguely Reiche saw a huge, tusked figure holding a barrel and lobbing it at his head. The wood hit him square in the face and he was sent reeling back to the ground. In his fugue he heard the sound of distantly shattering glass and the vague, cold sensation of water creeping up down his body.

Hima slid into the warehouse and shouted, “It’s time for everyone to chill.” The ice on his horns grew and the crystals spread further down his body, encasing him in a suit of flexible, sturdy armour. He shot out one arm and the area underneath one gunner’s feet grew slick with water that froze over instantly. The man slid, scrabbling for purchase on the slippery floor before he finally succumbed to gravity and fell face first on the ground.

Gar Ach shuffled into view, incanting a little spell that he directed at the strigid in the back. The wave of force rushed over the strigid and he stood, swaying slightly, slack-beaked and drooling. Gar Ach glanced at his eidolon, who had somehow managed to stealthily find his way to a higher level.

Reiche, regaining a little more awareness, rolled away from Hiroshi directly onto a jagged bottle. Grunting, he stood up and ran to the strigid, clutching his side where the bottle had sunk deep into him.

“Kill the intruders, you slack-jawed idiots, whoever they are. We’ll ask them questions when they’re dead!”

The two standing gunners looked at each other and nodded a little uneasily.

Gar Ach, sensing a long battle, cast a short spell and a translucent skin of force, barely visible even if you were searching for it, covered his prickly body. He spoke a command in his mind and his eidolon flung itself off its perch and charged at the musketeer morello. It sank its teeth deep into the morello’s olive green skin. It tried to claw at his stomach, but the morello jumped back quickly and discharged his musket, hitting the eidolon squarely in the chest. The agathion shrieked in pain, its gaping mouth opening wide, dripping scarlet morello blood. The morello, his back against a corner, began desperately trying to reload his gun.

The second gunner took aim at Hiroshi and fired, but Hiroshi was too quick even for the bullet and with a graceful movement redirected the bullet harmlessly away. Seeing a bullet fired at point-blank range careen harmlessly into the architrave, the gunner backed away slowly from Hiroshi before high-tailing it to join Reiche at the back of the warehouse.

Clovis let forth another high-pitched scream, snorting out hot steam from his nose in great bursts and charged at the gunner on Hima’s ice. As he ran he pulled out a battleaxe and a handaxe and leapt, swinging, at the hapless human. He did not have much time to scream before his head was split in two.

The other human gunner let out a horrified cry of “Barry, no!” before he started to cry.

“Do you want to surrender now, Reiche?” called Hiroshi.

Reiche surveyed the battlefield. Barely 5 seconds had passed and one mad had died, another was being disembowelled, one was crying so hard he could not see and his sorcerorous insurance had been disabled before it had even said the first syllable of a spell. Clearly these guys were highly-trained operatives.

“Fine. This isn’t worth dying over.”

The group promptly stripped their opponents of all arms and spell components and had them sit down in a circle in the centre of the warehouse. Reiche was very forthcoming with information about his operations with the Debaixo, a morellan smuggling cartel that was becoming increasingly more active in Aurum-Orier. It was their plot to shut down the docks with a sham of a protest in order to smuggle a huge shipment of what Reiche called clear salt – one part of a highly dangerous poisonous compound. While inert on its own, with the right additional reagents it forms an undetectable poison, so-called ‘clear water’, that was so potent one teaspoon could almost instantly kill a verbhort.

According to Reiche, the plan was successful and some 300 pounds of clear salt, along with several more ships’ worth of illicit cargo, had been successfully smuggled into the city. Naturally, the Debaixo would go underground until the heat was over and whatever plans they had for such a huge quantity of poison would come to light. As for Reiche, he wondered what the group had in store for him.

“If you let my guys go,” Reiche said, “you can do whatever you want with me. They can go back to the Debaixo, tell my bosses I’ve deserted. That’ll get you that promotion you’ve been angling for Winston, eh?,” he winked at the human sitting next to him. “And no Barry to get in your way this time, haha.”

Winston burst into tears once more.

The group allowed the two remaining gunners and the strigid mage to leave, keeping Reiche as a hostage. Artol came with them, too, unsure of what awaited him. They escorted him back to the guildhall where Solomon, in pyjamas and a nightcap, greeted them at the door. Seeing his new recruits, as well as Reiche, he allowed them to enter. Reiche’s shock was palpable.

“You guys are working for Solomon Konig? I had no idea the old man was running an operation like this. I thought he was just a smuggler. Huh…”

Solomon left to change into more dignified clothing and returned a few minutes later. He put the kettle on.

“We didn’t know what to do with Reiche, boss,” said Gar Ach. “So we brought him here to you. Maybe you had an idea.”

“Hmm, I’ll see what I can do. You must be in a lot of trouble to come here voluntarily, Reiche. Who are you mixed up with now?”

“The Debaixo,” said Reiche.

Solomon looked surprised.

“The Debaixo? Even I knew to stay away from them. I abhor bloodshed, you know. That’s why I never crossed paths with the likes of them. It seems we have now, though, thanks to you, Reiche. You’ve put me and my people in a lot of danger.”

Solomon started sorting through his contacts once more, comparing different files and seeming to come to some kind of decision.

“You will tell me everything you know about the Debaixo, Reiche. Even the most insignificant details you can muster. In return, I will put you in the care of an old friend of mine, someone who get you far from Aurum-Orier and the Debaixo’s sticky fingers.”

“And if I don’t?”

“_I_ abhor bloodshed. I’m sure some of my companions feel less strongly about it,” replied Solomon, coldly. The colour drained from Reiche’s face.

“Alright. You’ll need a pen; I’ve got a lot to unload.”

-

Solomon filed the documents away in a secure vault – one of a few purchases he’d been starting to make since establishing the guild. He’d made a few copies of some minor chunks of information to build favour with the town guard. If the guild was getting involved in illegal operations, even on the good side of them, he’d need to insure them with the police. Now there was the simply the matter of the degg.

Artol had been given a room under the watch of Vuirah, and was beckoned to speak with Solomon and the recruits who rescued him from Reiche. They explained the story as they knew it, prompting Artol to fill in any gaps in their knowledge. Most of what they had gleaned from Artol’s argument with Reiche was correct. Artol had a sick sister, victim of some flesh-eating wasting disease. She and Artol moved to Aurum-Orier to find help for her.

He took up a job as a dockhand at night, and was taking odd jobs with the Debaixo to cover her medical expenses. When the Debaixo let slip they had a powerful cleric in their employ, Artol leapt at the opportunity to cure his sister. He faked an injury to prompt a strike, shutting down the entire docks and allowing the Debaixo to smuggle an unprecedented amount of cargo into Aurum-Orier – and right under the Port Authority’s noses. It was an audacious scheme, one that was pulled off perfectly.

But when it came time for Artol’s sister to be cured, the cleric had fled the city. Artol could never return to work and, if the investigations continued, he would be found a fraud – he would be imprisoned, most likely, and his sister would quickly die of her disease without his financial support. Artol was crushed – the Debaixo’s carelessness had cost him his livelihood and endangered his sister’s life even more.

Solomon took Artol aside and promised he would look after his sister. He was Solomon; he knew a guy. But only on the promise that Artol would turn himself in and admit the injury was a hoax – the strike was hurting the city, and the dockworkers he called friends. And, maybe, the judiciary would look favourably upon him if he went voluntarily. It was the honourable thing to do and, in doing so, he could assure his sister’s survival.

Artol wiped the tears from his wrinkled eyes and the snot from his long, whiskered nose. He accepted Solomon’s proposal. He would go at once to see Mr Jameson and confess it all. Well, except for the Debaixo and the smuggling of huge amounts of a dangerous poison into the city. Solomon wanted to keep that ace up his sleeve.
-
The strike diffused peacefully once the word of Artol’s lie was told. Of course, the dockworkers were angry – they had lost nearly a week’s wages over this, after all – but they soon returned to work. Mr Jameson invited the group – Gar Ach, Clovis, Hima and Hiroshi – to his office to offer his thanks.

“A bloody damn good job you did, my friends. Damn good. I knew that lousy dirt-eater was up to no good. I’ve got my workers working overtime – and they’re thankful for the pay! – trying to catch up to schedule. I’ve got that morellan fleet coming in tomorrow afternoon; I need the docks cleared of everything just to fit them.”

He poured them all a nip of strong degg root liquor. Hiroshi raised an eyebrow but took the glass anyway.

“To our good fortune! And, if your guild ever needs any assistance from me, you need only ask.”

-

The door to Sensual Sensations swung open and Quag nearly fell off his chair in surprise.

“Oh! Vuirah, I’ve got good news.”

“You have swaanen back in stock, I know.”

“I only just received my shipment half an hour ago. How did you – oh Vuirah, you didn’t…”

“I did, Quag. Now, book me an appointment. An extra long one.”

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