Krim told of Ijax, presumably his boss, who had built some sort of wondrous machine in the Below. From what they could gather, in fact, it seemed to be directly beneath the area that collapsed. Then something had happened. What, no one could be certain, but the result had been devastating. The entire cavern had collapsed, filling with deadly rubble and saltwater in the blink of an eye. Krim had apparently been one of the lucky ones. He would not reveal (if he even knew) Ijax’s intent or the purpose of the machine, but the facts seemed quite clear, to Murridoc and Shallieth at least.
The rats had caused the collapse.
Quickly talking Gennaro out of any naïve thoughts he might have about releasing the creature, they arranged transport to a more secure position in the city gaol.
For the time being, there was little left to do here, so while Gennaro assisted with whatever he could in the temple/infirmary, Shallieth took the much-needed chance to allow her bruised and fatigued body a little rest. If only her mind would follow.
Murridoc had much the same idea. Confirming that his work there was indeed done for the moment, he headed back to the masons’ quarters and his comfortable bed. When he opened the door, however, it was clear that he was not alone in his quarters.
In the torchlight, combined with the half-light flickering through the windows from outside, Murridoc could make out a somewhat familiar face. Judge Almus, a prominent member of the council, had broken into his quarters like a common burglar. Another mason might have found this a bit absurd, as well as alarming, but Murridoc took it in stride. Almus clearly had a purpose here, and Murridoc would hear him out.
So Almus explained. He shared Murridoc’s rising concern about the savage inhuman element in Ponte Luka, and he agreed that the time was coming when action must be taken to correct this. Once assured of Murridoc’s support, he urged preparation for the inevitable conflict before taking his leave. Murridoc duly noted the vase on the table. A vase containing a single yellow chrysanthemum, which had not been there before. Even to a mason such as himself the meaning was clear: the Order of Crysanthe was somehow involved in this.
. . . Fascinating.
The acolytes approached a by-now somewhat harried Gennaro with another small request for assistance. It seemed the door that led down into the mortuary was stuck and they could not free it. Nearly verbalizing his mental sigh, Gennaro nonetheless dutifully went to see to the matter personally.
It took a bit of effort. Nothing a trained Guardsman couldn’t handle of course. A few seconds’ sustained effort saw the door push open, knocking bits and pieces of rubble out of the way. Apparently the collapse had taken its toll on the temple infrastructure as well.
This duty done, Gennaro grabbed one of the corpses by the shoulders while an acolyte held his feet and followed another acolyte who carried a torch down into the darkness below.
A short while later, the torch fell abruptly to the floor, its bearer stammering ritual prayers under his breath at the sight set before them. In the center of the room was one of the dead, and crouching over it was a small humanoid who looked like a knobbly old man in a large red hat. His impossibly wide, needle-toothed mouth was relishing chunks of corpulent flesh rent out of the cadaver by his vicious, clawed hands. He quickly noticed the newcomers. And smiled.
Somehow Shallieth had managed to fall into something resembling normal sleep, and she woke with a start in a mixture of relief and apprehension. It was not good to have let her guard down so quickly, even with the City Guard posted at the doors. They had aptly demonstrated the depth of their concern for the denizens of the temple district already. Idiots.
Her train of thought was interrupted when she abruptly noticed something. Or rather the lack of something. Granted the victims by now were for the most part stable and asleep, but the acolytes that had attended them were nowhere to be seen. Waking a sleeping harlot, she inquired about their absence, but the girl was as much at a loss as Shallieth herself.
The guardsmen. Surely they would know. And so she quickly headed toward the doors to ask of them. They had seen nothing.
I’m surrounded by incompetents. Very well, it seems as though I must look into this myself.
A few minutes’ searching revealed the heavy oaken door into the temple offices had been closed (a rare occurrence indeed) and behind it were the sounds of panicked voices. Many of them. Bracing two fingers momentarily over her quickly-forming headache, Shallieth called out to the acolytes. Quickly she was brought up to speed.
A demon. A most foul of the unholy abominations that war with the God Himself. It had invaded the sacred precincts of the Temple Mortuary and was feasting on the dead. It had attacked them and killed Shallieth’s friend.
“Wait, Gennaro?! It killed Gennaro?”
The acolytes continued to mumble out words of terror and warning, and Shallieth excused herself quickly. She wasn’t sure what scared her more: the unknown menace waiting mere meters beneath her feet or the sheer stupidity of these cowardly, over-indoctrinated simpletons.
I wouldn’t mind so much if only once in a while I weren’t the most competent one to deal with these things. Shallieth sighed. Well, if Gennaro is dead, I must see for myself. If he lives, he will probably need my help, and any favor that he owes me is a good thing right about now.
As it turned out, Gennaro was very much alive, and from the looks of things there hadn’t even been a struggle. Shallieth scowled as the cowardice of the acolytes took on a new dimension, but she herself remained in the shadows, not wishing to provoke the small being which was currently embroiled in what appeared to be a legal and philosophical debate with the Gennaro.
Her friend spoke, naturally enough, of the laws of the people, and how it was his duty to enforce them. He urged the creature to come with him and he would see to it that it had plenty of food and to leave the bodies of the fallen in peace.
The creature in turn spoke of “the curse”, of “bodies of war” (but no war had caused these fatalities!), and perhaps of “war to come”. It spoke of a deal with the spiders, who had created its passage into the catacombs. It seemed to be toying with Gennaro, seemed to be enjoying his discomfort.
When Gennaro mentioned the guardsmen upstairs that would take him by force if necessary, Shallieth decided the time was right to make her presence known, confirming the guards’ overwhelming numbers and brutality.
One could almost see the creature’s shoulders shrug as it realized that Gennaro’s resolve was unwavering. Sensing that the thing was about to make a break for it, Shallieth (against her better judgment) moved to block its escape route.
She was not prepared for the superhuman speed with which the thing bowled her over and bolted up the stairs, Gennaro hard on its heels.
“Two pair. Fishers and ravens.” The tower guard lay his cards on the table with a mocking grin.
It was outstripped by the smile to his right as he casually laid down his own hand. “Queen’s Court.” Amidst the groans of the other players, he began casually sweeping the pile of copper coins toward his side of the table.
“Wait, what in the seven hells was that?”
Several of the other guardsmen had seen the commotion and were scrambling for their crossbows. It was fast. Impossibly fast. And it looked for all intents and purposes like an emaciated old dwarf in a red hat.
“Halt! In the name of the Empire!” The creature did not even hesitate. A few seconds later a volley of bolts showered the section of street where the creature ran. None connected. They reloaded for a second volley, but somehow the ungodly thing evaded those as well. By the time the third volley was loaded, the redcap had disappeared down the harbor road.
A few moments later the second runner came, this one entirely recognizable even in the dim light of the torchlit streets. Sergeant Gennaro Infondato. He hailed the tower guard and briefly inquired of his quarry’s whereabouts.
Onetwothreefourfivesix. The door again. Not the guard this time though. Murridoc arose to answer. This was a more normal visit. Finneas Armiteo Sakzul-Inash McBrint VII, head of the Mason’s Guild. Most men called him by name, but to Murridoc that seemed inefficient. He was Guildmaster, first and foremost. Of course, without title, would he be of any significance?
The Guildmaster had a task for him. Understandably, as he was in fact Murridoc’s employer. A section of the wall had collapsed between the districts of the Odonata and the Hsigo, and the flying monkeys, of course, were outraged. Pushing aside thoughts of how he’d really like to address that problem, he pointed out instead the urgency of the situation in the Temple District. Finneas would hear nothing of it; he was assigning Murridoc’s expert hand to the Odonata/Hsigo wall.
Hmm, while I see his point, he’s shortsighted. Missing the big picture, definitely. More to be found in the Temple District. Can’t let the rats get away that easily. Just a little insubordination; not a big deal.
It had taken the better part of an hour, but the acolytes (Shallieth repressed for the moment the string of expletives playing at the back of her mind) had finally calmed down and returned to their duties tending to the wounded. The situation here seemed to be under control, and the time was ripe to get a finger on what really happened here.
So Shallieth headed for the source she knew best: the streets.
It was not long before answers found her, though not precisely the ones she sought. Her source came in the form of Masser, a former apprentice (not that she really cared for passing on her secrets but when the Order insisted Shallieth complied) who approached her with a nearly tangible air of apprehension and fear. He whispered that they needed somewhere safe to talk.
Nodding, Shallieth led him to a corner of an abandoned warehouse. No eyes and ears here, she knew. Nothing worth seeing or hearing.
“Now, Masser, what’s this about?”
Masser went on to explain that Lauren Chantille himself had given the word, and while it was not official until the inner circle decided, everyone knew that Chantille’s word was law, and to get on the wrong side of it was to invite a most unpleasant death.
Slowly the pieces began to fall in place. He’d known. Somehow, some way he’d known of her intentions for him, though she had told no one. Failing to take her out in the “accidental” collapse, he’d conspired to turn the entire Order against her.
What a fool she’d been, blind to the menace that lurked behind her very back. It was only by sheer luck that she survived. The collapse hadn’t been her mother’s doing at all. It was a deliberate work of sabotage orchestrated by none other than Chantille himself. Clever work, she had to admit, using the roden (or was it the spiders?) as scapegoats. Clearly he intended to lead her down the wrong track.
Well, now the playing field was even. Shallieth was onto him as well. And so, taking great care to ensure she was not seen leaving, she sought out the only source of refuge she had left.
No sooner had Murridoc’s men begun the excavation of the collapsed section of the Temple District than Gennaro pulled the master mason aside and explained to him the situation with the redcap and the tunnel beneath the temple. It would seem they had a new suspect, and along with it a new course of investigation.
The men grumbled as they were called back up to assist, but for the time being they were needed elsewhere.
The passage was cramped (unsurprisingly, as it was built for the short, slight creature and the spiders) but easily located once they knew to look for it. Unsurprisingly, it had collapsed a short distance down its length, but the gossamer glint of spiderwebs was apparent in the flickering torchlight. The redcap had been telling the truth about at least one thing then. Also apparent was the familiar drip of saltwater down the walls and to the tunnel floor. Murridoc set to work making a safe passage through the rubble in order to follow the passage to its source.
Shallieth, meanwhile (still unseen) ghosted around the room. She herself would not have been traced here, or at least she hoped not, but Gennaro was another matter. She’d worried about the predictability of her move in seeking out the guard sergeant, but upon consideration she had been out of options. It was either face the Order with the Guard’s assistance, or face the Order alone.
Clearly a bit of caution was in order.
Be that as it may, it was not an assailant that caught Shallieth’s attention, but a series of crude paintings on the wall. Paintings made with a tacky, dark red substance that to her trained eyes was unmistakable.
What caught her attention more than that, however, was the subject matter. Though the art was crude, one of the pictograms depicted a man with long dark hair and an ornate pipe spewing clouds of smoke. The likeness was uncanny; clearly this represented Chantille. The other pictures were of a large sailing vessel of some sort (no flags or insignia; this could represent anything larger than a schooner; no great help there) and another figure. This man’s face she could not place, but the amulet around his neck clearly depicted the Empire’s symbol, the mythical lady who had killed her own son in order to keep the valley united. Heroic self-sacrifice, Shallieth supposed, or some tripe like that. Still, if it calmed the masses who was she to argue?
Her eyes returned quickly to the likeness of Chantille. What could this mean? Was he a target as well, the redcap’s intended next meal? Could the cannibalistic demon prove to be a useful ally, for the time being at least? Or did the picture represent the creature’s allegiance? Surely she had never heard of the Order of Crysanthe working with such things, but given recent revelations she was certain there were quite a few things she had been kept in the dark about. But if it worked for Chantille why had it not taken the chance to kill her where she stood?
Questions, too many questions, and not an answer in sight.
For the time being she reported her findings to Gennaro and they headed out to meet with the roden criminologist.
He went by Offo, and his demeanor was scholarly and professional. Clearly a man who thought highly of himself, perhaps too highly, but at least he seemed competent in his area of expertise.
At length Offo expounded on what he knew of the mysterious Ijax. He had apparently been a general in the last skirmish between the field roden and their cousins of the Below. He had lost his eye to a sling stone in that battle, which had turned against the Below roden. Humiliated and shamed by his defeat, Ijax had vowed revenge on the field roden. That was the last Offo had heard of him. Of a great machine, he knew nothing. In fact there was a certain skepticism when the topic was broached. Roden were great miners, to be sure, but their knowledge of engineering was rudimentary at best.
At length it was agreed that after a short break for supper Offo would assist in interrogating Krim. Hopefully more answers would come this time.