A Tale of Swords and Hearts - The Durorian Prize


Well-Known Member
Nov 21, 2006
A Tale of Swords and Hearts
The Durorian Prize


He watched with his one eye as the bolt slipped into the space between the helmet and plated armor, plunging into the neck. Even from this distance, he could hear the knight's blood soaked gasp for life. He fell off of his horse, his heavy corpse hitting the ground hard.

The knight must of have spent at least a third of his life learning some noble code, his thee's and thou's, mastering each title of nobility and how he must specifically address his lords and ladies After all that, being killed by a lucky shot from a mere brigand had some irony to it.

The bandit was surrounded by fire. Most of the village was dead. Most of the men had already drained their blood kegs, the women taken by his fellows to enjoy, and the children to be exploited as cheap labor or a quick dragon crown from some slaver. Just a few more heads to bash in, and the Black Tetters gang will run off into the woods. Whoever did come – militia, mercs being paid by the lord, or even some knights themselves, they wouldn't find them. They would be so far into the woods that the would-be saviors wouldn't know where to begin.

He looked around, hoping to see the next one unlucky enough to be caught by him, but he saw nothing but the fire. He hooked the crossbow over his back, and made his way to where the rest where. They would be going into the forest soon, and he didn't plan on having his head chopped off just because he was savoring the view.

When he heard the screams and wailing and pleases of the captives, he knew he had found the others. The captives were all tied up now, around the neck and hands. They were in messy line, kept in check by the other bandits. From what he could see, none of the women had been penetrated, and surely they thought they were safe from that. The bandit chuckled. When they were safe, the women would be in for a rude awakening.

A bandit approached him, a poor sod who had lost just as many teeth as he had scars on his feature, and what teeth he did have left were rotten or soon would be. "Boss, this town's burnt all but dry."

The bandit grinned. It was time to leave. "All right you sons of whatever, time to move! To the woods!"

He turned his back, and gave his backpack holding all sorts of deadly instruments a tug. The brigand stepped his way for the trees, and the gang followed likewise. An hour would pass by, and he could just imagine the faces of the imaginative rescuers. Surely, their part of the plan did not include the bandits slipping off into the woods. He knew these woods. He played in them, lost his manhood in them, and killed his old man in them. These woods, they were like a second parent to him. Those knights, they knew nothing of the land here. They knew their castles, but he knew the land.

He told everyone to stop, and to take a break. Some of his co-criminals grinned at their female captives. They knew his way of doing things by now – during the raid, you don't touch any woman unless it involves roping them to bash their skulls in. But after that, it's your own bloody business what you did with the prizes.

The brigand saw one of his own slip his hand under some girl's gown, grinning an excited smile. He almost wished he could join him, but he had to get his men out of here alive. Most of them just planned on watching after their own hide, but he was raised with a little bit more decency than that. He had every intent on getting them out of this alive. Sure, they were practically done. They had never encountered anyone minus some poor woodsmen once they got into the woods, but it never paid to be cautious.

He went to a small pool of water and cupped his hands. The water was warm, probably days old. Then he heard the horses. It was distant, like the leftovers from some spirits messed dream. He looked at the water, as if they were to blame. The sounds were getting louder.

They were getting closer. "We're out of here! Now!" Some of them gave him looks as if he was insane. He could see that one of them had already stripped a woman bare. "Someone found us! We are going!" Some took a glance at their partners, looking for confirmation. The rest were already up and ready to get out of here.

The sound of horses were much louder now. They were here. He turned around, and beyond the trees, he could see them. A dozen horses at the smallest, their riders fully armed. Blades, hammers and spears, plated armor and leather jerkins.

He had been caught. He knew it, he wasn't no fool, like the rest of his boys who were running and screaming like a **** with its head cut off.

It was over quick. The last thing he saw before an arrow going through his neck was a long haired man running side by side with a troll. The man had a hammer, raised high, with the insignia of a howling wolf etched into its stony surface.




Andrew stood in front of the Commander Gamir's desk, the soot haired dwarf counting his to be dragon crowns. The dwarf was covered in scars, but that was to be expected. He was the commander of a segment of a mercenary army. It was a running joke amongst mercenaries that if you didn't have a scar running all the way across some body part, you didn't drink enough. And there wasn't a mercenary in any part of the world that didn't have a love for alcohol, rum, wine, beer, or otherwise.

"Two hundred and ten crowns each for you and your troll's last six months of contracted service, and an extra twenty for staying with us so we could get those Black Tetters." He dropped the coins into two small leather bag and pulled on the strings, closing the bags. He threw them at Andrew, who caught it easily. "Now unless you want to work another four years under the Black Splots, get the hell out of here. Your troll friend too."

After being so happy to know the dwarf thought so fondly of him and Zabazin, he left the tent. Zabazin was waiting outside, sitting cross legged. As a child, Andrew was always told by Narn that trolls were big and ugly, with boils everywhere and razorsharp teeth. Well, Narn could at least say she was right about the teeth. Trolls were in all actuality just a more brutal variant of elves. They were very tall, a good helmet taller than humans and just as tall as elves. They had pointed ears just like the elves, albeit wider ones. Their muscles were also more cases than not around the same width as elves, unless you count the trolls who were so infused with their tribes' voodoo magic that they grew so fearsome that even an orc would think twice before drawing their weapon.

And of course, there were the tusks. Each troll had tusks, even the women, and they were all different. Some were short and went upwards, while others were like the mammoths of his homeland and swooped downward. Zabazin's shot up, ending just below his orange eyes.

Andrew tossed him his bag full of dragon crowns. He caught it and shook his hair, releasing his lightly braided dark blue hair. His skin, like all island trolls, was also a light blue. "So brother, are we done here?"

"All too gladly, I assure you."

Zabazin jumped up. Trolls were amongst the most agile and energetic creatures he had ever come across. They did everything quickly, with a great sense of energy. Even something as simple as cutting up a meal had to be done with every other hand with each cut. Of course, they know when to lie still – mostly when ready to perform an ambush, or hunting game. How they managed to be so athletic when they only had three toes and fingers on each foot and hand was beyond him.

His blood brother tapped his glaive, strapped to his back. The troll glaives were not spears, but rather a shaft of wood or metal the size of an arm with blades strapped to each side. Of course, they varied in creation, length, and design. Some were easily the size of a standard spear, but most were just the length of a standard long sword, including Zabazin's.

The early morning fog was making its way through, and few soldiers gave them any glances. Most were off eating a poor breakfast, or perhaps giving a child to one of the women they had liberated from the Gang. And those women would accept the gift with great generosity. After all, if letting a mercenary release his manly urges is all that was needed in payment for saving lives, it wasn't too poor of a trade off.

Andrew had already paid for one of the company's horses beforehand, and the horse master had it ready for a long ride when he found him. He was told the brown mount's name was Betsy. He climbed onto the saddle, and they were off.

Zabazin walked beside him. He had left the Red Horn Tribe three years ago, and although he had long since dealt away with most of his superstitions that plagued most trolls, there were a few things he would not do. Riding a horse was one of them. Learning how to ride a horse was one of the first things he taught his blood brother, and he was certain that Zabazin was a better rider than he, but Zabazin would not ride a horse under even the worst circumstances. The only time had ridden a horse was when he was caught under red oak venom, and even then that was only because he was unconscious from the salves a shaman had given him.

"Where we be going now?"

Andrew pulled a small map out from his sack. "There's a town only a day west from here. It's pretty close to Marce's capitol."

"Maybe we'll be lucky and they'll be under ransom by bandits."

"Maybe," he grinned. He rubbed his warhammer, Winter. It was the ancestral weapon of his family, and the hammer itself was made of solid stone. The pummel was made of iron oak, the toughest wood in the Snow, but it had been changed countless times over the tears. But that solid stone with the engraving of that howling wolf had always remained, with not a crack on it. The Ice Giants had forged it for his ancestor, Lord Thumaverk, three hundred years past, and the power and balance of the hammer showed what little mastery they were willing to share with his ancestor.

Winter was his, now, and until his third son inherited it. Just as Lord Thumaverk was the third son, all of the third sons of the Lord of the Snow took Winter as their own.

They arrived at the town at noon the next day, and were unfortunate to discover that the town had no need for mercenaries. What they did have a need for was Andrew's dragon crowns. They, like nearly every other town this deep into the Sea, would tolerate the 'barbarians'.

For fifteen crowns, what the innkeeper offered him was not surprising. A single bed, an average sized cabinet, and a dresser. Zabazin had no ills with sleeping outside, despite what Andrew felt on the matter. Trolls were born into the wild; they thrived out there in the jungles and islands and wastelands. They ate raw meat as if it good; they conceived their children on the grassy plains and howling dessert hills alike. To them, buildings and castles were alien, to some even appalling.

Night dawned, and the villagers moved away from their lumber mills and farm fields and migrated en mass towards the inn's tavern. Inns were the center piece of any average sized town. They were a place of talk, of families to gather together, and a center of information. The beer would make anyone more friendly than they normally would, and friendly people were quick to give out information to those who were friends in turn. Andrew learned this all too quickly when he first set off into the world.

Andrew's friend for the night was a hearty fellow by the name of Viggo, a large keg of a man with a great dark beard. Quick to the drink and meat, he was not a hard man to please, and in short moments he had became a fountain of tales and fables from the vine. These qualities almost excused him from how terribly he smelled. Andrew had to force himself to avoid wrinkling his nose.

"My friend, my good friend, let me say this! We simple folk, everyone uses us. They take no heed to us, to our demands, our promises, and our complaints. They don't even think of how important we are. But where would those lords, in their high castles if they didn't have our food, eh?

"You know this too! Knights didn't come to save that village. You did! Mercenaries; hired swords. What's the good in the world when Altervista can't even protect its own peoples without spending their crowns! What are we to do when Duroro knocks on our door? Hire more?"

"Viggo, my friend, what do you mean of Duroro? I want to know what you know." He only half lied then.

"They are coming, from what my ears have managed to hear. They have raised the dead, created the Risen."

"Risen? Eyes glowing blue, pale skin as winter?"

"The same. That is powerful magic, many a leagues better than the skinny skeletons you've seen in your journeys, I'm sure. And don't ask me where they got the magic for that. I don't think anyone knows."

"What of their queen..."

He rocked his big head. "She's long gone, Andrew. Her Hand, her second in command, he usurped her. Now he rules Duroro, and with a hard fist too. I hear King Artemis is raising an army to push back the Risen. Gods piss on that rotted Hand when they do."

This was exactly what Andrew had wanted to hear. Surely, they could have use for a pair of hired swords. He rose from his seat, dropping a few coins onto the table. "My thanks Viggo. It is late, and I'm tired. Buy a drink, on me."

"Already? Are you sure you're not a woman under that cloak?"

"I assure you, I am not. Peace to you." When he returned to his room, he had found Zalbazin right where he had left him. The troll was lying flat on the wood floor, making sure no would be thief made off with their coins. "Good news. Some country has decided to raise the dead, and Altervista is raising an army."

"And they'd be needing some swords?" Zalbazin sported a grin full of knives.

"If not them, then someone else who is too scared of the road. We leave in the marrow."

"I'll be sleeping then. You know where."

"Yes I do." Zalbazin left the room, and Andrew undressed. He pinched out the candlelight, and he fell onto the bed. Sleep came quickly to him.

They left the town long before anyone would have awakened. They wanted to leave before most of the other travelers were on the road. If worst came to worst, they would get a head start on the traveling crowd. The sight of a troll was disturbing to most, and to some, even worthy of a brawl.

The road itself was little more than two ruts dug into the dirt by travelers' wheels. For being so close to the capitol, Andrew would of had expected Altervista to create a more stable road, for nothing else than to give a good impression at least. He half expected for bandits to be lying in wait amongst the tall grass. A troll was enough to scare off most would be robbers, but some had a harder dick than most. He kept Winter at the ready – perhaps that would be sufficient to scare the rest off.

Then again, there were always the rare few scared of neither a troll and the possibility of having their head crushed by a warhammer. On some days, when the journeys were especially dull, Andrew welcomed the challenge. He could use a little excitement to keep the journey suspenseful.

It was a two day ride to the capitol, Lion Spire, and half a dozen towns dotted the roads to the capitol. The close distance to the capitol made them daring – half of the inns asked for sums extravagant by even city standards. Andrew did not want to spend sixty crowns a night just because they were so close to the capitol, and Zalbazin did not want to spend money on a room he would not use. If fools wanted to waste that much coin on a single day for mere convenience's sake, that was their ill. They made camp under a grove of trees, making a tent out of a large blanket and a low lying branch.

Zabazin was one to get some game, while Andrew stayed behind to ensure the campfire stayed lit under the assault of the cold night breeze. Snow is falling. Those were his family's words. The words of other houses dealt with honor, dignity, and serving the man to your sides. Warm words. The Garriots' words were hard and unforgiving, all too much like the frosted plains that they made their home.

The hunter came back with a pair of rabbits, and they had a satisfying, if not a bit sparse, meal, and they went to bed with a warm belly. They broke camp just as the orange broke the gray sky.

"Snow is falling", Zabazin repeated the words, long since understanding the meaning.

"All too much." He dumped a bucket of water on what remained of the campfire, and they were off.

When they reached the point where they could see the massive towers that gave Lion Spire its name, Andrew realized just what Duroro's war was doing to Altervista's lightly guarded peace. 'A little war, and the bandits have a field day, and the populace runs to their king for mercy.' The final ten mile stretch was all wagons, horses, oxen, wailing babes, grumbling men and mothers keeping their children in line. The dirt road became a **** road, and all of the manure was starting to grow grass.

Night came, and they were still a good four miles off from the capitol's gates, and Andrew wondered if they would be able to reach the capitol's center by week's end. The wagons joined up into circles, both large and small, and dozens of micro inns dotted the road. More than a few families even had the knack to bring a keg of beer.

Of course, few were willing to share their drink with a pair of outsiders, especially so when one of them was a troll. The Ubhers were an exception to the rule. A pair of wedded for no more than three winters, Selma was pregnant with child, and Harold was quick to bring his family behind the castle walls of Lion Spire.

"I'm young, I know. The older folk back home, they warned me against my haste. I don't have much money, never did. So it was either stay home and risk having my wife getting stabbed by a band of raiders, or risk going to the Walls. Let me fill up your cup, Andrew. You too, Zab. It's apparent what choice we took. It's a risk, but I'll do anything for my family."

Selma stayed quiet the whole time, silently drinking cups full of river-stream water and eating bread with cheese. Her husband may be the type of man who becomes friends with every person he comes across, but Selma would be more likely to take things slow and examine strangers before deciding if being their friend was a good idea or not.

"You wouldn't know much of what the Risen are, then?" Zabazin asked while draining his cup.

"Afraid not. Probably no more than you, and even then most of them are just rumors, I'm sure. We farmers, we're simple people. We don't take much interest in the dead beyond how to bury them proper."

"I can only wonder how long until we can actually get to the city gates." Andrew took another spoonful of porridge.

"With all the bandits running around, there's not much we can do." Harold finished the last of his meal, dropping the wooden bowl onto the floor. "You're both welcomed to rest here. Some of the more desperate folks may catch the sight of your hammer."

Andrew glanced at Winter, which lied against a small pile of traveling bags. "We appreciate your offer."

"Sleep sounds good, I think." Zabazin showed his empty cup. "More beer?" Harold was more than happy to oblige.

Anthony slept easy that night. He didn't know why he slept easier on the ground than in the inns a few days past. Maybe it was the warm food that were given to him rather than bought, or perhaps the presence of friendly people helped ease him into dreams.

When they reached the gate, the sun had been up in the sky for half a day. Andrew and Zabazin separated from the Ubhers, not wanting to give their hosts unnecessary attention due to associating with a troll. The two had headed onto the road before most of the other travelers had woken up, but that still didn't keep them from facing traffic for the majority of the walk.

Guards were set at the gates, with a multitude of booths set up for 'gate taxes'. This wasn't the first time Anthony had seen a major city profit from large crowds. It was obvious this Lion Spire was not used to this – it was far too easy to slip by the booths.

Lion Spire, it was a big enough city. It had more than enough people to count it as the home of Altervista's rulers, and enough buildings to house them in. Soldiers on horse back constantly patrolled the stone streets, and watchmen atop the walls and towers kept an eye out. Catapults, ballistae, and even a cannon or two, were fully loaded and armed on the walls.

The temples were always crowded. Even from the streets, one could see people were constantly going in and out of their gods' sanctums. Some people needed faith more so than reality. The priests must of have been having a donating with all of the tithing people were giving them. It was an unwritten rule that your gods only listened when golden crowns were dropped into their bowl.

Maybe they saw the illusion. All of this heightened security was all just a well crafted illusion, to keep the people's faith, and to ensure that Altervista's rivals didn't think of it as any weaker than it already was. But anyone who had seen a city truly preparing for a siege could tell that Lion Spire was doing it all wrong.

It was all just a mask. Duroro's Risen were pressing on their borders, they have their people scramble behind Lion Spire's walls, and they just put on a false illusion of security. Why? The nobles and the King knew something that the others didn't. But what could it be?

Andrew looked at Zabazin, and his blood brother looked back. He knew too. But it made little difference to them. They were just mercenaries, hired swords. Their job description did not ask for them to know why they were killing, just whom and how much. His morals came into play, of course, and his need for coin too, but he wouldn't involve politics in his work.

There was a bar down by the corner; as good a place as any to find out who needed a pair of swords.



Kale hated working with the dead. There were certainly things worse that he despised – demons, for example. Those were just dreadful, egomaniacs the lot of them, even their tiefling brood. Just because you get a touch of mortality in your bloodstream never made you any less higher, even when you were the child of a monster from the hells.

Granted, the Risen were a better brand of undead than the regular stable in an army of the dead – they had all of the flesh on their bones for one, and they didn't smell a grade worse than manure. No parts of their body were falling off. Hell, for all intents and purposes, they were human. They could think, form strategies and tactics. They could speak beyond unearthly moans, and their thoughts went beyond wanting to eat someone's flesh.

If there was one thing that ruined it all, it was their loyalty. Now granted, he Kale didn't mind loyalty one but. He loved it when he had soldiers under his command who would follow his orders because they wanted to, because they actually believed in what they were fighting for. But these Risen...they were different. They were loyal, die under the blade for him, but the level that loyalty went to was just inhuman. Whenever Kale asked for something, their next question was how much of it or how quickly he wanted it done.

It made it all too easy. When he earned his soldiers' trust, it was an actual challenge. But with the Risen, it was practically cheating. He just had to tell them what to do, and they would do it. No questions asked. No signs of deceit or hatred hidden under those glowing blue eyes. They just did it, without question.

Of course, easy was good when you were taking down one of the mage guild's stations, and did it in four days less than a normal army could, and just a quarter casualties at that! And even then, most of those were recovered with a bit of spell casting from some of the other Risen who possessed the knowledge in life. The Risen made warfare seem all too easy, and Kale had to question why some lump wasn't developing in his throat.

"Kalemitcus K'Harn Kahulandeur!" Kale turned to the source of the voice. The lady was dressed in leather armor and boots, with a short sword at her side, and dozens of throwing knives strapped to her armor. Her auburn hair was let loose, an unusual change from her usual wardrobe. Perhaps the easy conquest was making her daring, but Mianya wasn't like that. Few Phase Blades were. Teleporting with just a thought had the tendency to make you look before you leaped.

She knew how much he hated being called that by anyone but of one of the Circles.

"Glad to see everything went as planned."

Kale sighed. "At least Utor made you so calm about the whole thing. I have the tendency to not trust products of this type of magic."

"You're a mage," Mianya pointed out. "Seeing an army of magically raised dead on the war path should be a field day."

"Storms and the dead are two totally different things. I can handle lightning storms, sudden hurricanes and floods. But disrupting the dead from their grave... that was a different matter entirely."

"Glad to see Utor's babies won you over then."

"If those are his children, I can't wait to see the mother."

She took a step, and whizzed into blue particles. The particles reformed a few feet in front of Kale, nearing the edge of the cliff. Mianya looked down towards the world below. "This is it. As long as we secure this passage, Duroro is safe."

"Not to mention our purses. Grimmieas should be very pleased."

"Not exactly. There was...an incident. There was a slip of power?"

"In what ways?"

"We believe an agent of the Queen has slipped through."

"The Risen would of have known. They know their brothers. They all have the same magical blueprint in each of their...well, where their souls used to be. Even with the Queen's help, there's no way anyone could slip through without them knowing."

"This is the Queen we are talking about. Theoretically, anything is possible for her."

"And here I thought Mazradeus was more powerful than that. I suppose having a willing host can only get you so far."

At that moment, he felt his insides went cold. The earth shot upwards, emulating the skeletal frame of a normal man. Green energy crackled, outlining the appearance of the fallen god of death. A cold face crafted of iron, with a body forged from iron. "Even I have my limits, mage." Despite him being confined to a mortal human's body, his presence took the life of the grass his feet stood on. And at the same time, some of the grass grew even larger.

"Ah, the fallen lord of the dead. I did not expect to see you. I would have had someone fetch some hot tea."

"Spare me your remarks, mage. You all know what the Queen is, and who birthed her. I am not fallen just in title."

"Look, its simple. I will just track down the agent. Bone breath can help me lock onto her...well, whatever strands of magic she has left, and we'll take her down. Simple."

Kale shook his head. "You always say it's simple, and then things escalate out of control, and who has to bail you out?"

"If you have someone better in mind, do tell. Kutomori wants you back now, and me in a month. The Risen can handle themselves, but if we have them look, it will look like a full out war."

"I thought it already did. We had only wiped out a guild's outpost."

"I will go, you head back."

"Yes yes, fine, do what you want."

She curtsied. "Glad to see you agree." She wisped away, and the image of Mazradeus broke apart.

That was another thing he hated to work with - girls who knew more about things than he did. He sighed before heading back to camp. He would head back to Duroro tomorrow, but in the meantime, he would enjoy what little liquor had survived the siege.

The Risen had constructed quite a base out of the ruins of the outpost. One of the towers was already nearly repaired, and the inner holdings of the main structure was cleaned, repaired, and stocked. Of course, it was still far too vulnerable – if a general knew what he was doing, he could split the base into two. The Risen had to move fast to repair the base, so that they could hold this valley. The protection of his client's new government relied on this.

There were no Risen in the wine cellar. Most of them were busy getting the base ready. The rest were patrolling the area, to make sure anyone that shouldn't be here didn't leave alive. He took a hold of one of the wine bottle, and blew off the dust. The entire cellar was covered in the stuff. Some people just didn't know good wine when they saw one, he supposed.

Vineyard Raubrimstone, the bottle read. Dwarves can be hard folk, but they could make fine wine when they put their souls into it. And this was good wine. Kale would know – he got his captors drunk off of it back when he served with the Red Wave mercenary company half a dozen years back.

He got himself a glass and a seat at a table. One of its legs was cut short and a block of concrete kept it steady. He took a sip of the wine. Even with just a sip, the wine had more than a kick. He toyed with the idea of what would happen if he poured a full glass.

He thought of Mianya. He had known her a good four years now. They met far to the east, in the Sand. They were hired to work together as a sultan's personal guard. She was Mazradeus' willing host even then, but he didn't know it until after they took out the sultan, who had been manipulating them all along.

A partnership was born: the runaway mage, the master of the storms and the winds, and her, a fine fighter who just happened to be the willing host of a dethroned god of death. He had trusted her completely after that job, but not the god that used her as house. Gods were always tricky beings, and those who were robbed of their thrones even more so.

He didn't trust Mazradeus even now. He didn't know why Mianya would agree to such a pact, but he would bet everything that Mazradeus had some control over the circumstances. None but the mad would willingly agree to such a pact. Most times, a god or demon would force the patron as their host. It was a one-way deal. You let me, or you die.

But Mianya had allowed it. She could live on without agreeing, she told him. Kale took another sip of wine. Kale had long since come to the conclusion that there was something she wanted from him.

He poured some more wine into his cup. The color was a dark red. Odd how it was very reminiscent to blood...much like the same blood that had to be spilled in order to get this wine. Mages rarely feel a sense of duty to each other. The mage guild could never wage war on any nation for the simple fact that there wouldn't be a large enough army that would assemble. Mages shared understanding of each other, true, but unity out of commitment? No, far from it.

He felt no sorrow that he had killed some of his fellows in the name of dragon crowns. Coin had a much grander taste than that of loyalty to a bunch of old men. Those who were the head of the circles, few were the wise men that elderly mages were presented as in fairy tales. Most were self righteous hypocrites, who cared more about their magical experiments than the world that transpired beyond their self-made prisons. Few mages were willing to serve these mages, forget about dying for them.

Money and friends had a much grander allure than those fools. You could buy almost everything with coins, and good friends will give you the rest.

Kael took another sip of wine. Those fools can keep their councils. He will have money, wine, and a good friend to share it with.


Three days in and Andrew had seen no lack of people flooding into the city. The guard's inexperience with such a large count of citizens walking the streets was evident. It was a rare circumstance when Lion Spire housed more than ten thousand souls. With Lion Spire being the official safe haven from the raiders and Risen, its numbers had surely doubled, if not tripled. Crime was a common occurrence – fear had its way of slithering into the worst of circumstances.

Andrew went out to meet up with a client, a merchant named Alderrezo. He had run into some trouble with a crime boss, and he was willing to pay for some swords to watch his back. It proved all for naught – by the time he got there, a thug had given him a dagger in the head as a gift for using his employer's business.

He made sure he wasn't being followed on his way back to the inn he and Zabazin were staying at. It would have proved difficult to keep track of anyone in the waves of people that filled the streets, but it never helped to be too careful when it came to crime bosses. They tended to think they held actual power, and were more inclined to do something stupid...like killing anyone related to one of their hits.

Zabazin had a feeling things wouldn't work out with Alderrezo, so he had gone forth to do some investigating on another possible employer. Andrew wasn't surprised when he found the room devoid of his friend's presence. Zabazin was most likely taking his time, making sure no one tried to stab him in the back for being born a troll.

Andrew went through his bag and brought forth a deck of cards. Before he left the halls of Fultharar, he had no love for cards. They were a curiosity, but never anything he was interested in. But when Zabazin became enthralled by them, he demanded that Andrew teach him, unaware that he knew little card game rules. He quickly had to resort to asking bar patrons about them so he could teach Zabazin in turn.

He shuffled the cards and placed a few in front of him. The Lady and the Warrior, both susceptible to the King in a game of War. War was one of the first games that Andrew taught Zabazin, if only because it was the simplest. Essentially, whatever was higher in the world would beat the other in the game. Whenever you lost a card, you have it to the other. You won the game when you had all of the cards.

Andrew couldn't recall if either he or Zabazin had ever won a game of War.

He was aimlessly shuffling cards when Zabazin returned, a frown on his face. "No beans," he said as laid on the floor. "Ready for a game?"

Andrew shrugged. He threw him a card. "Sure."

They went out into the marketplace the next day, hoping to catch some information on somebody in need of mercenaries' skills. Most of the merchants' stalls were nearly empty. The rest had just a little bit over medium quantity. They were having a field day.

All of the commotion didn't change the state of things. The marketplace, much like the rest of Lion's Spire, was in a state of disrepair. A great deal of the stone tiles was cracked, worn down by hundreds of years of boots and horses pressing down on them. Dirt and mold had sealed in the crevices where cement had once occupied. Vines were commonly found on walls, to the point where they occupied half of the structures. A fair amount had even stretched there way down to the ground. It wasn't unfair to estimate that nature had conquered Lion Spire's marketplace.

"I've hadn't had this much crown under my name in my life," a fruit merchant told Andrew as he gave him a crown for a ripe apple. "I half wish that Duroro would do more raids on us more, but I remind myself many have died because of it."

"What about when you run out?"

"Well, the money will be enough to last me and my family until this whole business is done with, and then some. Now, are you sure you don't want another apple? The bananas are imported from Mossvale Islands!"

Andrew just ignored him. He made his way through the crowds, trying to find a place to sit. The average sane mind gets suspicious when a person is looking over their shoulder. But when a person is sitting somewhere, eavesdropping, most had the tendency to not even realize it. He found a seat around a nearly dried fountain, what little water that emerged not enough to brighten the dismal state the rest of the marketplace was in. Andrew was careful to sit where the stone had not nearly crumbled away.

People were always saying something. Most of the time, it wasn't important – gossips, conversations related to just one's self. But not everyone took the precautions to meet up in a private establishment when conversing on matters of importance.

When taverns failed to provide he and Zabazin with information, eavesdropping proved to be a valuable unsuspected source of jobs. They were rarely the best paying jobs – it was an unwritten rule in the underworld that the more coin you possessed, the more careful you were with information. But they paid for food, beer and bed, so he and Zabazin didn't complain.

He lay idle in the marketplace, for how long he couldn't tell, thanks to the clock tower rusting away years ago. He moved his seat multiple times, from the fountain to a wooden bench to a wall that wasn't covered in as much mold and vegetation as the rest. Each time he hoped to catch someone speaking a little bit too loudly of some importance.

His ears didn't catch anything. He wasn't as adept at separating the poor news from the avid one as Zab, but he always thought he had a better knack at it than others. Andrew had no doubt that his troll friend will remind him otherwise upon his return.

He left soon after he believed was noon. He lounged around the inn and tavern, waiting until Zabazin returned. Andrew didn't think that Zabazin would return with any more information than him – after all, few in the Sea would be friendly with a troll unless said troll was loose with his coin, and Andrew knew his blood brother enough to know that was not an option.

"I have ssomeding" he said as he opened the door. Andrew was just finishing a card game with the air when he came in. He grabbed all of the cards and organized them into a messy pile. He wasn't going to win anyways. "I ssnooped around in da tavernss, around da middle disstrict. There'ss an informant, by the name of Vujo Dunn."

"It's not his real name, is it?"

Zabazin formed a smile that children's nightmares were made out of. "Ssmart as always, brudda. Vujo Dunn iss who he iss now, but that don't mean he won't be Vujo Dunn tommarow. A new friend got uss a meeting wid him in the noon."

"All right. Where?"

"Bruddah, I could almosst say yah don't trust me. Relax. Good ol' Zab gotss everything undah control. We trolls can take care of our blood bruddahs too, ya know. I've got ta be good fer someding 'round here."

"I suppose so. I'm going to sleep now." He began to undress, loosing the strings that kept his shirt close to his chest. "Are you going to risk the streets again?"

Zabazin didn't take long to decide. "I'll sleep on da floor tonight, but just once. You'll complain to me like a sow for seven suns if I don't."

Andrew grinned as he headed for the bed. "Good. Maybe you'll learn to give me a peace of mind."

"What? My good looks don't asssure ya?" His lips stretched to show all of his dagger teeth.

"Always Zab. But looks aren't everything." He loosened his belt, and his pants fell to the floor, and he pushed them away. He crawled into bed and pinched the candle's flame, bringing the room a soothing darkness.

Andrew awoke to the roar of water hitting against the closed window. The wave of water creped down the glass, disorienting his sole view to the outside world. "Some would say dat it's an omen."

Andrew grunted in disapproval. "To the Devil with you and your omens." He made his way to the cabinet, his left hand scratching his bottom while his right opened the door. "So, is this..."

"Vujo Dunn."

"Yes, Vujo Dunn. Is he one who cares for the appearance of those he consorts with?"

"From what I wass told, ya."

"This silk shirt should do the trick." Andrew frowned. "It has a hole here and there. How much does he care for our appearances?"

"I'm not dinking dat much."

"Well, that fixes things." He threw the shirt on and grabbed the pants he had carelessly dropped onto the floor the night before. It was a little bit dusty from the day in the marketplace, but not anything a few pats wouldn't take care of. "What time of the day is it?" he queried as he strapped his belt tight.

"Just barely breakfast. I smell cheap porridge."

"Damn your nose and damn the innkeeper for his bad taste of food. How many days did we have porridge on the trek to the Tree?"

"I lost count aftah ten."

Andrew raised his brow. "How do you lose count after just twenty?"

"You never taught me any of your numbers after ten."

Andrew laughed. "That is true. Let's see if Lion Spire's taverns have something better than gods-forsaken porridge."

"Are gods-blessed porridge ssupposed ta be any better?"

They ordered two wings of chicken. Andrew found it cold, overcooked, and was akin to ripping at leather. He rather enjoyed it. More than once on his career of fortune, he was exposed to the discomfort of going several days without food. He had never once had to rummage through horse dung for a thing of corn, but he had felt the daggers in his stomach more than he would have preferred.

A few hours later, Zabazin was leading him through the streets, and cutting through more than fair a share of alleyways. A few glanced at Zabazin, but the rest paid no heed. Vujo had already gave them heed, it would seem.

"Just how did you get a meeting with this Vujo?"

"We trollss can have a sslithering tounge too, ya know."

Zabazin stopped in front of a building that was made into the alleyway. These buildings weren't uncommon, and most cities were keen to use them as warehouses, low-key vaults, meeting places, and sometimes even brothels if the kingdom permitted them. They would stretch down as far as the wall went, making the alleyways nothing more than a hallow passageway of muck, dirt and leftovers.

A man in a black cloak opened the door, standing in the alleyway. He was wet – he was just out, if but a few moments' time before. He was well built, but not like a bear. From what little Andrew could see on his face, he possessed more than a share of scars. He was very unlike the usual image of a guard, but looks could be very deceiving. This man could very well be as quick as any hunting hound, and would be on an attacker before he could fully draw his steel.

"Good to see you have come, troll." For a man of the underworld, this guard was surprisingly well spoken. It was quickly becoming apparent that this Vujo surrounded himself with interesting company. He moved out of the way, allowing Andrew and Zabazin to enter the structure.

The building was essentially one massive room, with a collection of walls off in a corner creating a smaller, separate chamber. Various torches, windows, and candles kept the room well lit. Most of the wooden supports had been either torn down or rotten with age. In their place were stacks of concrete blocks, kept together with slabs of cement. Many individuals of moderate standings had taken their seat around the dozen tables, with several well built men standing over them or standing beside them.

He knew at once that they were crime lords, and chances are each had a rivalry with at least another in the room. It was amusing how these crime lords were holding off their heated competition just for the chance to get some information from Vujo Dunn.

"We should find a seat," Zabazin said. Andrew nodded, and they choose a small pile of pillows that were piled up against a wall.

Two hours dragged by, and Andrew watched as the hooded man would go to table to table, and the leading the crime lords to the secluded room. The guards were always left at the table. For a man to hold this much power over the underworld, Vujo Dunn could very well "forget" that he had a few appointments. A few crime bosses were so enraged by the long delays that they just up and left. One had even gone up the door of the room and demanded that he speak with Vujo. The hooded man was on him almost immediately, sending the keg of a man flying into the concrete wall. After that, the crime bosses either stayed silent or left just as quietly.

When the hooded man took him out of a light slumber with a light kick, Andrew knew he was being summoned. He shook his head, and grunted, looking straight into the man's face. "So, Vujo is interested in me now, eh?"

"Come on." Andrew rose up and followed the man, with Zabazin treading behind. The man opened the door to the small room, and they accepted the invitation. The room was bare with just a few chests scattered around, a single table with a half melted wax candle staining the surface. Vujo Dunn was sitting behind the desk, leaning on his hand in a very bored manner.

He looked at Andrew as if he was not expecting him. "You must be Andrew."

"One of many. What do you want?"

Vujo gave an almost shocked expression. "What do I want? It was you, good and honored sir, whose friend set up a meeting between the three of us. The question is, what do you want, with my many connections?"

"You are a man of some power. You know enough of what goes on anywhere to have the crime bosses of Lion Spire to crawl before you. They won't bend down to anyone, but to you, they will do whatever you say. They would gladly eat horse **** just so that they can get just a moment of your 'invaluable' time. You have connections everywhere. Somehow, you knew that Andrew Garriot, one of few descendants of the immortal Lord Thumaverk, had a dear friend of a troll. You somehow knew that Andrew Garriot was a mercenary of the Black Spots. Somehow, you knew that his contract with them was ending. You knew he would head west, to Lion Spire. Somehow, you 'knew' that he would find no kinds of any jobs in the whole of Lion Spire, except through you. So, my question to you, is, with all of your power, why did you choose me? What do you want with me?"

Vujo allowed a laugh to escape from his chest. "Oh, Andrew, you have yet to fail to amuse me. A man of such high standings a friend with a troll? Blood brother even? Oh, that is an interesting tale in itself. But perhaps for another time. Your faces do look quite sour." He got out of his chair and made his way to a chest, four eyes watching him. He opened the chest, revealing a bottle of wine and a half a dozen glasses, all wrapped in cheap paper to keep them safe during transport. "Care for a drink? No? What of you, troll? No as well? What a boorish pair.

"You asked me what I wanted. What I want could be written on a list that went for a mile long. What I want is a woman with nice **** for me to suckle on, like a babe. I want money. I want a nice little pony for me to rest my boney bottom on, and for me lash at it to make it go faster, as much as I please. But right now, what I want is to tell you that there is an agent of the queen of Duroro, who is making her way to Lion Spire as we speak, and if my agents are correct – and the usually are – she wants to raise an army."

"But she can't."

Vujo smiled. "You know your politics, Andrew Garriot, Son of the Snow. She can't raise an army, because no one wants to die for Duroro. After all, what has Duroro done to earn our lives? Having their Queen lifted off of her throne? That is our sympathy at best."

"Why are you telling us this?"

"Why am I telling you this? Well, it's quite simple. You see, I am a creation of chaos. My father killed my mother in a drunken stupor, and the buffoon got himself killed by a runaway chariot. I lived off of the streets, full of wanderers and has-beens. I know how this city works. It doesn't. It's run by chaos. One minute there's a king, the next a republic, the next nobody at all. Lion Spire is like a dog after a running chariot. We wouldn't know what to do with it if we ever caught it! But this agent, the Queen of Duroro, she too is an agent of chaos, albeit she doesn't know it.

"I am telling everyone of this agent. That way, when she comes, everyone will want her. The mercenaries will want her money, the crime lords to possibly capture her and use her as ransom. I don't care what they do. What I will do is sit back, and watch as the underworld goes willy nilly over Miss Agent of the Queen. And since I had nothing to do with her, and with half of the underworld going nutso, I will be fit for some fun. And for a few profits here and there, but hey, that's all an afterthought.

"Now now, I know what you two are thinking. If I told everyone, then won't somebody just kill her, and what would the fun be in that? Well, I didn't tell everyone. Only the important ones, and I know the important ones, and you two, you fine, young soldiers of fortune, I can tell you are going to be very important. And it's not because you are a Garriot, Andrew, and neither is it because you have quite a legacy. Truth be told I have no idea how important you are.

That is just how you play the card game, and I just put down my card."

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