Chapter 2 - Shadows
Updated: Feb 17, 2019
The pain in Peirce’s throat lessened by the time the odd little troupe walked through the Shades and into Shadows district. Wilder had encouraged the party to use a bath house on his family’s credit, and Pierce felt refreshed and ready for what the evening might bring. He nearly missed Wilder’s offer to clean up, the city guards seeing a teifling as an obvious suspect in the inferno and held Peirce in questioning for over an hour. He shuddered to think how he would still smell without the noble’s charity.
Everyone but Wilder carried all their worldly possessions with them in leather backpacks or burlap sacks provided by the city to encourage refugee migration from the walls. Peirce considered Aangle in his new bright green tunic, a bandoleer across his chest holding various vials and potions for his craft. The gnome had been one of the few people in Brewer’s district with insurance, and he had spent the day in the market replenishing his alchemical gear. Everyone else was much the same as the previous day, only cleaner and smelling mildly of florid soaps. Pierce had dressed in clean clothes from his bag and donned his grey leather armour for the evening’s adventure, but Denterra, Rogar, and Jinju all wore the same dirt stained outfits that they had been wearing since the fire. Wilder appeared to have had his outfit cared for by the local washer women. Pierce took note of the frays around the noble’s pant legs and the small patches expertly sewn over tears on Wilder’s knees. He said nothing of it as they left the busy market streets for the lanes of Shades.
“You said we’re after some kind of gang?” Wilder asked, breaking Peirce from his wardrobe review.
“Yes,” Pierce nodded, “the Flaming Salamanders. They’re a tough bunch so we’ll need to be careful. It sounds like they’ve found the funds to start poisoning their weapons so be on guard and call to Denterra or Aangle if anyone begins to look or feel strange. Oh, and don’t accept any food or drink from anyone while we’re there, if someone’s willing to part with a meal there’s something wrong with it.”
Walking from the Market district and through Shades, the lanterns that lit the streets every few dozen feet became scarcer. Only one was lit per street in Shades, while the others stood or leaned in silent gloom. The colourfully painted shop fronts, with their small flower gardens and bright banners gave way to dingy buildings of plain stone. Empty windows and doorways looked into the littered streets.
The people stopped returning any greeting and instead shuffled by quickly with dark rags pulled tightly about them, shielding their faces. Children watched them pass from window frames, gutters, and piles of debris with hollow eyes. The brave among the children extended searching hands for charity, mouths hanging partially open. Jinju reached under his robes at the first of these children, searching for some way to help, and Pierce touched his hand, shaking his head.
“If you give them anything it will just be taken from them in trade for a beating,” he explained gently. Jinju was about to protest but stopped when the child didn’t disagree with Pierce but simply lowered his hand. A few blocks farther south Pierce stopped the group a second time.
“Put on your shawls.” He said, pulling his own iron grey cloak from his backpack. The others pulled out short mantles of dusty brown that had been included in the city’s care package. Despite the colour and poor cuts the capes were wool and quite warm. Pulling up their hoods everyone but Wilder was ready to depart. The noble stood with his own refugee cloak held in front of him and his lips sat high and tight in a show of displeasure.
“Do we really have to wear these things? Mine looks like it might have lice,” the half-elf complained.
“Yes. If we don’t we’ll stick out like sore thumbs and blow the whole plan,” Pierce explained, not for the first time.
“You haven’t told us this plan, why should I risk lice when I don’t know why?”
“Ignorance is bliss right? Just put on the damn cloak or go back to your prissy little tower.” Pierce spat.
He knew he was pushing some definite boundaries. He’d seen people beaten in the streets for smaller acts of disrespect. Peirce waited to see if his gamble would pay off, the expression of shock and outrage growing on Wilder's face. Wilder took several deep breathes before leaning over Pierce and speaking in a growl.
“Pierce, remember who hired you. Remember who will be paying you. When you speak to me, it is as your superior. I’ll put on the stupid rag but you will show me respect in future. Talk to me like that again, especially in front of my peerage, and I’ll speak with the mayor about having you publicly whipped.” The group was silent when Wilder finished and they looked back and forth between the teifling and the half-elf. Pierce stepped back from under Wilder’s shadow, and bent at the waist, sweeping his arms in a mocking bow, going so low as to nearly touch his horns to the ground.
“But of course m’lord. Now put on the lice blanket and let’s go.” Peirce stood straight again and turned on his heel, continuing down the alley without pausing to see Wilder’s glowering stare.
When this campaign began Wilder's player made the rookie mistake of thinking he would be in charge because he'd made a noble character. It was a group effort, but we quickly persuaded them otherwise. The person in charge is always the one with the most fun or dangerous plan.
He heard the group follow him and slowed his steps until they were all together again, Wilder sulking a few feet behind. As they crossed the invisible border between Shades and Shadows, the street lamps stopped entirely, forcing them to navigate the narrow streets by the light of the stars. Signs of people stopped entirely, and the group moved alone with only rats as company. Where the streets were abandoned the alleys between soon became alive with glimpses of the locals. A hushed domestic spat in one, a scuffling trash collector making his nightly rounds in another, and yet more would reveal muggings, couplings, drunken sleepers, or just piles of refuse covered in a living layer of insects.
Pierce hurried their little party along so each debauchery flew by briefly, often unlit so only the teifling, dwarf, and half-orc could see the goings on with their ancestral dark vision lighting the scenes. Pierce abruptly stopped at an intersection and turned to the others.
“Okay, this is where you get to know the plan. You walk down this street,” he pointed to the leftward turn, “and hopefully someone tries to mug you. I’ll be following out of sight and together we’ll ambush the would-be attackers and get the information we need. Got it?” The group stared at the teifling blankly before Wilder spoke.
“That’s the plan. We get mugged? What happens if there are lots of them, or if they’re bigger or faster than us? How do we know that they’ll be from the right gang or have the right information? Have you thought this through at all?” The noble fumed, his face going bright red under his hood. Pierce sighed and stepped into the center of the group, keeping his voice low he explained.
“I grew up here remember? I know what I’m doing. This is Flaming Salamander turf, so we’ll definitely get someone from the right guild. You all look like lost refugees in those cloaks so you’re not going to be taken for much of a threat, and they won’t send for reinforcements. If we’re lucky we’ll get a training group, some fresh recruits and a lifer, the rookies will run at the first sign of a real fight and the lifer should have some idea of what happened to our knight. I’ll stay out of sight in case someone would recognize me, and Denterra, you’ll need to hunch low so you look just like part of Rogar’s bag.” Peirce spoke quickly and looked pointedly at Wilder as he finished. “Satisfied?”
“Well, it sounds as if you’ve put some thought into this… but still, was live bait the best you could come up with?” Denterra said. Pierce shrugged and a flicker of movement caught at the corner of his eye, when he turned to look it danced away, a dark shape in the bright starlight staying just on the edges of his vision.
“We need to get moving, the shadows don’t like newcomers and if we stay still long they might take it on themselves to remove us. Down this street, I’ll be right behind you. Go.” Pierce nudged at Jinju until he started tentatively down the quiet alley, but Aangle didn’t follow immediately.
“What do you mean ‘the shadows’ don’t like strangers? A district can’t have feelings. That’s nonsense.” he said, crossing his arms, every part the skeptic. Pierce stepped into the dark mouth of the alley, becoming nearly invisible in his grey cloak, blending seamlessly into the gloom.
“I thought you knew your history Aangle, the Shadows district wasn’t named for the shady goings on, but for its guardians. Now step up, the others are getting ahead.” The gnome looked briefly around himself before coming to a light jog to catch up to the others. Peirce followed behind, moving from one piece of cover to the next and making his way silently after the group.
They crossed the street and walked slowly, but deliberately, through the second alley. Pierce crossed after them, following thirty feet behind, and keeping his distance for another five blocks. As they neared the edge of what he remembered as the Salamander’s territory, Pierce saw movement around the little troupe. Two figures crouched against the starlight on a roof lining the left side of the alley, unseen by his friends ahead. A third salamander stepped in front of the ‘refugees’ with a torch that he paused to light, scrapping a tindertwig along the grimy street until it caught. Pierce moved towards a barrel closer to the action, but on his approach a waifish figure stood from his would-be hiding place and moved into the center of the alley. The tiny woman blocked escape for Peirce’s allies and apparently did not see the shrouded teifling crouched only a few feet away, holding his breath.
“Why evenin’ folks, what’s nice people like you doin’ wonderin’ ‘round ‘ere then?” The man with the torch called in a loud, confident voice. He looked in his early thirties with combed back red hair, thick with oil, and a face so flat Peirce could have eaten off it. The man’s square jaw and red hair struck a deeply unpleasant cord in Peirce.
“Might want to be careful mates, meet all kinds of unsavoury stock in this part o’ town. Why don’t you let me ‘old them heavy bags for ya so nobody nicks ‘em eh?” Rogar moved his hand to the hilt of the mace hanging at his belt but stopped short when the man raised his arm and pointed to the pair of crossbowmen aiming at them from the roof. “Wouldn’t want ta do nothin’ rash now, would we mate?” The redhead that Pierce recognized as Doug O’Connor, also known as Dirk, said. Rogar slowly looked back from the archers and shook his head, holding his hands in the air.
“Alright, we understand. I’m going to take off my backpack now and give it to you, no one needs to get hurt. Be careful though, my armour’s strapped on and it’s heavy.” Rogar said, slowly sliding one strap off of his shoulder and moved the bag into his hands with a grunt. “Here.” Rogar held the bag towards the thief who drew one of his namesake daggers and gestured to the ground.
“Put it down gentle like and step back.” He ordered. Again Rogar shook his head.
“When this armour is yours you can do what you like with it,” Rogar said “but as long as it’s mine it won’t touch the ground, bad luck.” Dirk regarded Rogar before stepping closer.
“Alright, I can respect superstition, but any funny business and your friends there will have crossbow bolts through their chests faster’n you can say ‘oops’. Got it?”
Rogar nodded and continued to hold the pack towards Doug. Pierce could see the half-orc’s muscled arms shaking under the strain of the contents. Dirk stepped closer, dagger still at the ready, and placed his torch on the ground, closing the fingers of his free hand around one strap of the bag. The group held their breath as the thief took hold but nothing happened. His arms beginning to buckle under the strain of his burden Rogar let go of his side of the pack and it fell to the ground with a metallic thud. Dirk grunted in surprise at the sudden increase in weight, but did not release his prize. Watching Rogar and not letting go of the strap Dirk slowly sheathed his dagger and put both hands on the bag, straining to get it off of the ground. “Wow, you really got a thing against packin’ light huh?” he said to a smirking Rogar.
“Actually,” a female voice said from the bag “he really doesn’t keep much in here.” Without missing a beat Denterra unfolded herself from her place in the bag and lashed out with a hand shrouded in pulsating purple mist. She scored a direct hit, latching onto the man’s face, only a foot from her own, and making him scream in shock.
This was a really stand-out moment of the game. Rogar was Denterra's cohort, and we all held our breaths when the bag was offered. When Denterra popped out with a fully charged Hold Person spell, and Doug royally flubbed the save, we all howled with victory, shaking our dice for initiative.
“Shoot ‘em! Shoot!” He called to his archers as he struggled against Denterra’s iron grip. Crossbow bolts flew towards Aangle and Wilder, and the man before Peirce drew a rusted rapier. The shot meant for Wilder flew wide, burying itself beside his shoe close enough to fray the leather. Aangle grunted as the second bolt made a hole in his cloak and skimmed off his chain shirt, hidden under his green tunic. Pierce had been waiting for his cue and stepped behind the rapier wielder, bringing down a half-brick on the unsuspecting figure. As the thug cried out and fell to the ground Pierce weighed the make-shift weapon in his hand and nodded approvingly. Although he usually carried a dagger, he had far more practice and confidence with weapons of convenience, a habit leftover from the days when real weaponry had been a luxury.
Dirk was stiffening in Denterra’s grasp, and she let go, leaving him frozen, bent over and reaching for his face with an unmoving grimace. Jinju stepped behind him, ready in case the spell ended prematurely. Rogar cocked his head at the marksmen on the roof, far from his mace’s reach. Shrugging, he retrieved the fallen torch, keeping it alive and standing aside to watch the fun. Aangle stepped back and poured one vial from his bandolier into another, corking the resulting mixture quickly and throwing it in a high arc onto the rooftop. There was the sound of shattering glass and an explosion as a small ball of fire poked over the edge of the roof, throwing an unfortunate archer into the two story fall. The man landed with a dull thud beside Rogar and did not move.
Pierce could hear cursing coming from the rooftops and guessed that the other crossbowman had also been caught on the edge of the blast. The cursing grew louder as the final marksman leaned over the edge and loosed a shot at Denterra, it struck her shoulder and glanced off with the sound of a bell, whizzing by her ear. She didn’t bother to flinch. Peirce searched for a gutter or scaffolding that could get him onto the roof, but stopped as the archer began to scream.
Wilder was standing with his arms spread and his mouth open. At first Pierce thought it was the half-elf screaming, but as he watched, the man on the roof stood with his hands clutched to his head, mouth wide. Thrashing from side to side the archer screamed, struggling until he lost his balance on the edge and fell beside his partner. Wilder panted, his face red and glistening with sweat. The man he had spelled was still twitching, blood spurting rhythmically from his ears for several heartbeats until he went still. Rogar, Aangle, and Jinju stared at Wilder as Pierce approached out of the shadows, mirroring the discomfort on their faces.
“Pierce, how long do we have to work before the guards show up?” Denterra said, bringing them back to the situation at hand. Peirce almost laughed before answering.
“Guards in Shadows - good one. We don’t have to worry about law enforcement here, but people will have heard that so we probably only have a few minutes before other Salamander’s show. Maybe less before the Shadows get uppity.” The tone turned serious again as they looked to the stone-still Dirk, crouched in the middle of the alley, face frozen in the flickering light of Rogar’s new torch. Without speaking, Rogar moved behind the thief, handing the torch to Jinju and grabbing Dirk by the arms. Denterra nodded to Pierce and muttered a few words under her breath, freeing Dirk of paralysis only to be caught in Rogar’s grip. He twisted and bucked trying to get free until Pierce appeared before him with a dagger at his throat.
“Hello Doug, remember me?” Peirce said, slipping his hood down and catching the flickering light on the contours of his face and horns. The thief went pale, smiling with his mouth while his eyes shifted nervously.
“Pierce, mate!” Dirk said, his voice high with false camaraderie, his eyes fluttering over the bodies of his companions. “Good to see ya again. I guess you’re not ‘ere ‘cause ya changed your mind ‘bout becoming a Salamander are ya?” He chuckled nervously.
“No Mr O’Connor, as much as I appreciated all our little chats on that particular subject I’m here for some information. One of your crews kidnapped someone a few nights back and left his little friend to die, blinded and injured. Would you know anything about that Doug?” Pierce asked, not removing the dagger.
Doug O'Conner was partially named after an old boss I was particularly mad with at the time. Writing a torture scene for him was perhaps a little twisted, but very therapeutic.
“Heh, now Pierce, you know I don’t. Even if I did I couldn’t tell ya, the bosses would kill me.” He swallowed hard.
“Well, your bosses aren’t here and we’re in a hurry. Tell me where the knight is or I’ll make you wish you had sung the information right in front of the kingpins.” Pierce dug the knife in until a drop of blood appeared on its tip, but Doug shook his head swallowing hard. Peirce turned towards the alley, letting the knife fall.
Images of older boys flashed before his eyes and he closed them, hearing the jeering and the laughter, feeling the kicks and heavy blows raining on him despite the intervening years. His throat tightened as he remembered the oldest boy of the Salamander’s runners, Doug O’Connor, pinning him while the other runners gave the smaller boys their own punishment. Peirce’s cheeks flushed hot and he spun on his heels, throwing a harsh uppercut into Doug’s stomach. The older man gasped and coughed while Peirce’s group exchanged glances. Jinju stepped forward and placed a hand on Pierce’s arm.
“Pierce, don’t. You’re better than them.” Was all the dwarf could say before the teifling spun on him, speaking through gritted teeth.
“Jinju, you don’t know what they did. What he did. We need this information and he doesn’t deserve mercy while we get it.” Pierce knew he’d regret his outburst later, but for now the memories were too fresh for remorse. Jinju shot Peirce a stern look, his mouth a hard line.
“You know I love you lad, but I won’t be part of attacking a helpless man,” the dwarf said. Peirce simply pointed to the far end of the alley. Jinju hesitated, eyes wide, but moved away nonetheless, planting the torch upright in the dirt before waiting around the corner for the interrogation to finish. Pierce watched him go but turned at a tug on his sleeve. Aangle stood before him looking excited.
“Pierce, I wouldn’t usually suggest such a thing, but seeing as we’re in a rush, and I can’t do this kind of thing on my volunteer test subjects because the alchemist guild has rules about these things-“ Aangle rambled, the words tumbling over one another.
“We are in a rush Aangle,” Pierce interrupted.
“Yes, of course,” the gnome took a breath before continuing more slowly. “I have some formulae that I’ve wanted to test, but I haven’t had the opportunity as they are quite painful…” He trailed off, eyebrows raised questioningly. Peirce could feel Wilder and Denterra watching him as he considered the alchemist’s proposition. Glancing up, Peirce saw Rogar holding Doug stoically while Denterra frowned and Wilder paled at the alchemist’s suggestion.
“Do it,” Pierce said, nodding at Aangle. Doug resumed struggling as the little gnome approached him, mixing together several vials and components from his person. Peirce joined Rogar in trying to hold the thrashing man still and quiet, pushing him onto his knees so that Aangle could reach more easily. Unnervingly calm, the gnome stepped in front of Doug and looked into his face.
“This will hurt, but if you could manage to describe the sensation it would be very helpful,” he said before unceremoniously pouring a trickle of opaque green slime onto Doug’s neck and pooling it in his collar bone. As soon as the substance touched his flesh Doug went rigid in Pierce and Rogar’s arms, his eyes bulging white and a strange gargling sound issued from deep in his throat. Aangle casually pulled on a thick leather glove from his pack, humming as he worked.
Doug began to convulse, his skin crawling under Peirce’s fingers as fits of shivers overtook him. An eternity squeezed itself into the moments it took Aangle to remove the poison, pinching the puddle of goo and lifting it in one drooping piece from Doug’s skin. The alchemist carefully replaced the mixture into a vial and held it ready to re-administer if needed.
The skin in Doug’s collar bone shone sickly yellow and bubbled sluggishly like oatmeal. The thug panted in ragged gasps, sweating bullets. The slime had touched the hapless thief for a matter of seconds but already his face was nearing purple. Peirce could see droplets of sweat running down his face. Doug heaved, about to throw up, but no bile came, only choked sobs.
“S-so Doug,” Pierce said, trying to sound confident as his stomach rebelled against the unanticipated violence of Doug’s reaction. “Ready to talk?” The thief heaved hard a few more times and nodded his head.
“Yes,” he gasped, “fine, no more.” They settled him on his knees and let go of his arms, restraint suddenly unnecessary.
“Where’s Sir Greenfeather?” Pierce asked his voice softening unconsciously.
“I don’t know.” Came the strangled reply. Pierce sighed in frustration and looked back at Wilder, still standing to the side and turning green. The alley had gotten dimmer, and the shapes dancing in the torchlight had gotten more numerous than the shadows of those in the alley. Knowing that time was running out, he pressed on.
“Why was he taken?”
“We were paid to take ‘im. Good money.” Came the slurred response.
“Who paid you?”
“Some lord. Somethin’ Dray. Needed Greenfeather gone before the summer’s end games.” Doug replied without lifting his head. Pierce looked to Wilder, noticing the peculiar shadows and instinctively moving closer to the torch.
“Do you know a lord Something Dray?” Peirce asked him.
“Yes he-“ Wilder began, but Pierce cut him short.
“Good, then it’s time to go.”
As soon as Rogar had slung Denterra onto his back the five of them began a swift jog out of the alley, collecting a brooding Jinju on their way. The Shadows would not hurt Dirk, his kingpins would reserve that privilege, but the guardians of the dark district would have no such reservations for outsiders. They ignored their cloaks as they ran, letting their hoods fall and completely abandoning stealth. They had stayed too long, every time Peirce’s feet touched the cobblestones he could feel something pulling softly at them, an invisible force adding a gentle drag to every step. By the way the others kept looking around and checking their boots he knew they could feel their shadows dragging at them as well.
When at last they passed into Shades, Pierce stopped under a lonely streetlight to catch his breath, the others coming to rest around him. The dragging had stopped at the boundary to Shadows but studying the abnormally long arms and legs of his shadow, and the odd little twitches here and there that didn’t quite match his movements, he knew that escape had been a close run thing.
I still get shivers when I think about the shadows in this district. They were the stuff of nightmares the way the DM told them, but then again, so was anything to come out of this district.
A small frown touched Peirce’s lips. With his adrenaline beginning to wane he could not help but imagine the horrible things that the Salamanders might do if they discovered that Doug had given information on a client to strangers. Or worse, that he had given it to Peirce. A bitter taste rose in the teifling’s throat as he thought of how they had left the thug, doubled over amidst the bodies of his guild mates. With a considerable force of will Peirce pushed the building guilt away, turning his attention
instead to the job at hand.
“So.” He said to no one in particular “Who’s up for the summer’s end games?”