Friday, 17 June 2016

Blood and Gold - Part 2 of 3

Following immediately on from where the first part left off, part two of Blood and Gold re-joins Daith and his band of motley criminals in the slums of Deadtown. With a deadly poison pumping through his body and the arrival of a mysterious stranger, Daith finds himself being made an offer that is very difficult to refuse...

The final part of Blood and Gold will be released on Wednesday the 22nd of June. Until then, enjoy part two of Blood and Gold!

Every part of him was being stabbed. Thousands of needle-like knives pierced his flesh, opening his veins, and spilling his blood. He could see it before him, his own body welling with gore and dripping in thick, red ichor. Tiny trickles of it came from all the hundreds of wounds that broke his flesh, flowing over his naked figure, and, like streams to a river, joined together into a great raging torrent of crimson, in which he found himself drowning. You fool, Lewis, he thought. You complete fool. This is your fault. This is all your fault.
            He had heard the stories of how some people, if angry enough when they died, were able to reconnect with their bodies after death. Their vengeful spirits would tear free from the Netherverse and claw their ways back to their corpses, and force them to rise again. He tried to make himself that angry. He pictured his fat older brother stark-naked, surrounded by hundreds of plates of exotic food, endless decanters of sweet and multi-coloured wine, and the most beautiful women he could think of. You fat scumbag, he thought. You get all the pleasure whilst I get stabbed by a common thug. I’ll have you for this. I’ll have you all for this.
            Daith choked his way back to consciousness. Something that tasted like death itself was upon his tongue, and for a few moments he thought he was going to vomit. His side burned with renewed pain and as he tried to scream, whatever it was that was in his throat lodged itself there. He descended into a fit of terrible coughs, each of which put more strain on his side. He opened his eyes as he choked, but saw only blurs – a tall, thin figure and a great, bushy, black beard. Then, there was another: lithe, well-built, smiling in satisfaction. Daith blacked out again.
            I can’t blame Lewis for choking to death on my own throat. He recalled the image of Hardhand Lewis’ great, fat gut covered in wine, food, and women, but it did not make him so angry now. You fool, he found a voice chastising himself. You did this. You failed. You’re the one who couldn’t outfight some thug in a cloak. You weren’t good enough.
            ‘He’s waking up! Boss? You’re here?’
            You’re the one who’s done this. You’re no better than that fool companion of yours – Brint. That common little boy with a name everyone else has. There are a hundred thousands Brints, Bhriynts, Brynts and Brehnts. You just ended up lumped with the stupidest – but you’re stupider. Even Brint doesn’t choke to death on his own throat.
            ‘He’s tryin’ ta open ‘is eyes. ‘Ow ‘is ‘is wound lookin’?’
            And that Dwarf. You wanted to be a king and look who you rule – a dirty little maggot with a face as scarred as the Vidorian’s border with Feldurn Forest. Those Elves cut them up pretty bad there, but not as badly as you’ve been cut up by some simpleton with a cheap knife.
            ‘Step away,’ a new voice said. The gnawing doubt that plagued Daith seemed to vanish, like mist before a gale. ‘His stitches are good, but if you agitate him, he may start coughing again.’ The voice was strong and rich, pleasant on the ear, yet stern and authoritative. Who is this?
            Daith forced his eyes open. This time, there was nothing in his mouth. Carefully, he swallowed and blinked away the blur upon his vision. He was in a room of some kind – small, dingy, lit by a few candles and a small window. Light was pouring in from outside, and he could see blue skies beyond the shattered ruins of Deadtown.
He found himself lying on a low, narrow table, stripped to his waist. His side hurt, but not as much as it had done. He touched his wound with his fingers and found his middle wrapped tightly with a thick and heavy bandage. As his vision cleared, Daith suddenly became aware of three figures standing at the end of the table on which he was resting, all eyeing him. The first, small and broad, with a heavy brow and charcoal black beard. The other was tall, thin, slack-jawed, wide eyed and ragged-haired. That stupid hat is back on his idiot head.
            There was a figure Daith did not recognise. He wore a dark hood over his head, though Daith could make out his pointed, hairless chin through his gradually accustoming eyes. He was also well-built: he had the shoulders of an archer and strong legs, as well as a well-toned torso, which was tightly hugged by a dark green leather tunic.
Once his vision had fully returned, Daith struggled into a sitting position. ‘Who are you?’ he managed to croak. His throat burned with thirst, and every syllable made his gullet feel as if it were about to tear. ‘What have you done to me?’
            ‘Boss, he’s-…’
            ‘Shut up, Brint,’ Daith croaked and tried to drag himself up further. His side stung awfully, but he refused to let it stop him. ‘I asked him, not you,’ he wheezed, jerking his head at the hooded figure.
            The anonymous person regarded Daith in silence for a moment. Then, lifting his hands to his hood, he revealed his face. Long, platinum-blonde hair cascaded down over his shoulders, forming a glittering frame for his chiselled and handsome face. His brilliant, emerald-green eyes glittered like gemstones against his pale face. From his golden hair protruded two long, pointed ears that reached to the crown of his head in length and height. He smiled at Daith, and the young Man found himself charmed.
            ‘My name is Aruvel,’ he said in the same liquid-silk voice. ‘You are Daith Drakensang, and you’ve been unconscious for near-on half a day. I saved your life.’
            ‘You’re an Elf,’ Daith whispered in shock. How did he get into Baradun – let alone across the Altmeria-Bel-Segorian border!
            The Elf, Aruvel, chuckled. ‘Well, I’m glad to see the poison that was hammering through your veins hasn’t made you go blind.’
Daith ignored the witticism. ‘How are you here?’ he said, narrowing his eyes. ‘I thought the Imperials had you at your border.’
‘Not as thoroughly as they would like to think,’ the Elf said. ‘I have my ways, and the imperials have their weaknesses. You’re an Altmerian, I’m sure you know as well as I do that they’re far from perfect.’ Aruvel smiled wickedly, flashing perfect white teeth. Daith found himself ashamed to admit it, but he was excited by the Elf. Everyone in Deadtown was so slow and miserable. Human, Dwarf or Gnome, they were dirty, smelly, and witless. This Elf, though, this mysterious blonde-haired creature with his pointed ears and sharp features, was interesting. And attractive, Daith thought, swallowing uneasily.
‘Why are you here?’ Daith asked quietly. As exciting and interesting as the Elf was, he did not trust him in the slightest. A fellow like this isn’t in Deadtown because he wants to be. He’s here because he’s after something.
The Elf paused for a moment. ‘Brint – it was Brint, wasn’t it? Ah, good – be a lad and fetch your boss the wineskin in the next room. Hobb, you might want to find him that nice doublet,’ Aruvel said calmly, smiling at each in turn. Without a moment’s hesitation, the Man and the Dwarf left the room without so much as a grunt of noncompliance. Daith watched, stunned into silence, as they walked past him and out of a low, shattered door that he had not previously seen, positioned behind the table on which he lay.
            He whipped his head around to glare at the Elf. ‘No-one orders my boys around,’ he said in a threatening hiss.
            ‘I wouldn’t argue with me,’ Aruvel said in the same calm, polite voice. ‘You’d be dead if it wasn’t for me – and I’d also be nicer to Brint. He may not be the sharpest quill in the pot, but he is the one who carried you here.’
            ‘Brint?’ Daith said in disbelief, his face creasing into an angry glare of disbelief. ‘That bony weevil? He can barely lift that useless club that he carries around.’
            ‘Yet, I believe he saved your life with it. That’s two of us you owe.’ Aruvel lowered himself onto a stool at the bottom of the table and folded his hands under his chin. ‘You’re Daith Drakensang, brother of Lewis Drakensang – or Hardhand Lewis, as he likes to be called – am I right?’
            Daith’s eyes narrowed. ‘What do you want?’
            ‘A favour,’ the Elf said with a smile.
            ‘For what?’ Daith grunted.
            ‘In return for not letting you die a long, horrible, agonizing death,’ he said with a smile. ‘Say, if you agree to help me, I may have some information for you on where the thug that stabbed you got his poison.’
            Daith glared at Aruvel. ‘And just what am I going to do with that?’ he growled. ‘Write it down somewhere, all pretty and in nice letters?’
            Aruvel let out a small huff of polite laughter. ‘You’ve been doing this criminal cartel thing for nearly a decade, yet you don’t see the value in that piece of information?’
            ‘Lewis deals with information. It makes him fat,’ Daith snarled angrily, his hands tightening about the edges of the table on which he sat.
            Aruvel’s teasing lips quirked into a small smile. ‘Are you going to live in your big brother’s shadow forever, Daith?’ he said. ‘With this little titbit of information, not only could you get some revenge against the Crimson Hand, but you may be able to track down one of their suppliers – maybe even a supply store of some kind. Think of the damage you could do!’ the Elf paused, ‘Think of how rich it might make you,’ he finished, tauntingly.
            Daith’s face twitched. ‘What do you want?’ he snapped.
            ‘Your help,’ Aruvel said with a thin smile. ‘As it stands, I need the freedom to be able to come and go from Baradun as often as I want over the next few months or so,’ he began. ‘There is a slight possibility that, in time, this might become a little more…’ the Elf trailed off and stroked his hairless cheek for a moment, searching for a word, ‘…problematic.’
            ‘Speak plainly,’ Daith said and folded his arms across his chest. ‘I’m in no mood for riddles and songs.’
            Aruvel rolled his emerald green eyes. ‘The Vidorians are at war with my people,’ he said quietly. ‘They are my enemy. A lot of them are here: their generals, commanders, administrators, religious leaders. I’d like to remind them that these men and women who sit in their ivory towers, growing fat on their gold, that they are not untouchable.’
            Daith raised an eyebrow. ‘You want me to smuggle you into and out of Baradun when the Empire seals the city after you’ve murdered various high-ranking Vidorians?.’
            Aruvel chuckled. ‘Yes.’
            ‘And in return for me sticking my neck out for you, you want to, what, give me information?’ Daith laughed. ‘My brother may be the one of us who deals with the coins and the numbers, but even I can see this is folly.’
            Aruvel’s blonde eyebrows raised and he smiled. ‘Is that so?’ he said. He rose from the stool which he had been perched on and took a step towards Daith. ‘These ears hear a lot,’ he said, taping the log, pointed ears that protruded from his hair. ‘I know many things about the Crimson Hand, the Alley Rats, the Gutter Kickers, the Deadtown Dogs, and others. Of course, these things would be beneficial for you to know. I could probably even tell you where the Hands’ leader – that foul woman Lizbet – is right now.’
            Daith’s eyes narrowed. ‘Information is fickle,’ he said, ‘and how would I know you aren’t lying?’
            ‘Would I save your life just to lie to you?’ the Elf said with a shrug. ‘Look, how about this: I tell you were the man who supplied this poison is for nothing. Then, when my words are proved true and you are on the road to profit, come and find me. We can negotiate then.’
            Daith’s eyes narrowed again. He pushed himself off the narrow table on which he sat and gingerly placed his weight onto his feet. ‘Perhaps,’ he said. ‘I don’t trust you, to be honest,’ he said with a shrug. ‘If this is a trap and I wind up dead, I’ll-…’
            The narrow door to the room creaked open and Hobb and Brint appeared. Daith turned, barely acknowledging Brint before snatching the wineskin from his hand and drinking long and deep from the vessel. The wine was cheap and acidic, but it lubricated his throat well enough to take some of the stinging thirst away. Once he was done – and the skin was near half-empty – he tossed the skin back to Brint without a word, who stumbled to catch it.
            Hobb cleared his throat, stepping out from behind Brint. ‘Is this the catch?’ he said, holding up a fine black and grey leather doublet. Daith’s weapon-belt, bastard-sword and daggers were all slung over the Dwarf’s big shoulders. ‘Look as if it’d fit Daith, ‘ere.’
            Aruvel nodded. ‘Indeed it is,’ he said. ‘We can’t have our friend here running around in that slashed-up, bloody old garment he was wearing.’
            Hobb stepped forwards and passed the smart doublet to Daith. Once he was fastened up inside the garment, re-equipped his plethora of weapons, Daith turned to face Aruvel. ‘So, this information,’ he said, pushing his dark hair out of his face, ‘what is it?’
            Aruvel smiled. ‘The poison that almost killed you is rare. It’s called kingsbane, and is very tricky to create. There is only one place in Baradun you could get it: Pestell’s Apothecary,’ he said.
            Daith snorted and shook his head. ‘Pestell’s? What a load of rubbish. Do you really expect me to-…’
 ‘The thug that poisoned you had this in his pocket, if you don’t believe me,’ the Elf said, cutting Daith off and slipping from his own pocket a small and empty vial, no larger than a thumb. Clearly stamped on the front of it was the letters ‘P’ and ‘A’.
            Daith’s eyes widened. ‘You’re lying,’ he snapped. ‘You think I’m so much of a fool to believe you? Pestell’s is an up-market place, right in the city centre! The Hands can’t possibly have connections there, they’re a bunch of dirty good-for-nothings! Besides, if I walk in there, I’ll get battered by the Vidorians!’
            Aruvel shrugged. ‘That’s the information. Do with it what you will.’ He threw the vial to Daith, who caught it in his hand and tucked it into is belt, begrudgingly. He looked up at the Elf one last time to see he had a small robin sitting on his shoulder. The tiny bird looked at Daith and tilted its head to one side, curiously. Stupid Elven magic, he thought.
            Daith’s glare shifted from the robin to the gently smiling Elf for a few moments before he rounded on his heel and marched out. His side ached terribly as he went, but he was too cross to let it show. He’s played me, he thought, That pointed-eared jerk wants me to go marching up to Pestell’s so I’ll get done by the Vidorian guards. He’s working with the Hands, he must be. They want me dead because they know I’m the real threat. Lewis is just a fat lout behind an old stolen desk, rubbing his coins together and drinking cheap wine.
            Daith stormed down a dark, narrow corridor and kicked open the door at the end. Brilliant sunlight flooded the room and the youngest Drakensang brother stepped out into the street. He had been in the lowest, mostly undamaged floor of a once two-story townhouse that had long-since fallen into disrepair. Its furnishing had been pillaged, and its top floor and roof had caved in. Quite desirable, he thought to himself. How else would the Elf have got hold of such a sheltered place if he were not working with the Hands?
            Daith stalked down the filthy street. The cobbles were drowning in mud and filth, and the walkway was crammed with the homeless and the poor, swathed in ragged cloaks and hats almost as stupid-looking as Brint’s. In the light of the day, Deadtown did not cease to be miserable. If anything, the cold light of the bright, early autumn day simply elaborated the horror of the place. The extent of the destruction could be seen clearly: great charred husks of homes, burnt-out stores, and wrecks of warehouses slumped on one another, like ancient, burned bones washed from a cemetery after a rainstorm.
            Daith whirled to face Brint. ‘Will you shut up?’
            Brint’s mouth snapped shut and he looked at the floor. ‘Sorry, boss,’ he whispered. Beside him, Hobb rolled his eyes, though Daith could not tell who the gesture was intended for. ‘I just wondered what it is we’re doing.’
            Daith gritted his teeth. Stupid fool, ‘Is it not obvious?’ he said. ‘We’re trying to find our bearings. I’ve no idea where we are!’
            ‘Eh,’ Hobb cleared his throat, ‘I coulda told ye; we’re just south-west o’ yer brother’s great wooden shanty-tower.’
            Daith blinked. ‘What?’ he snarled.
            The stocky Dwarf shrugged. ‘Did ye think we’d carried ye deeper into Hand territory? Nae, Aruvel found us after ‘earin’ Brint cry out fer ‘elp, an’ he led us ‘ere. Yer safe.’
            ‘What is this?’ Daith said, looking around at the desolation about him, ignoring the fact he owed the two men words of apology and thanks, ‘Baradunian Blighter territory?’
            Hobb nodded. Brint remained silent, his eyes still on the floor.
            ‘Right,’ Daith snapped, glaring at the two men. ‘I’m not taking you two louts with me to Pestell’s Apothecary. You both look like beggars someone’s pushed half-decent boots onto. Go back to my accursed brother and tell him that doing what he told us to almost got the three of us killed. I’ll go to Pestell’s by myself.’
            Hobb’s big, dark brow furrowed in a heavy frown. ‘Are ye sure tha’s a good idea? Ye ain’t lookin’ too chipper yerself, lad,’ he said, folding his brawny arms.
            The dark-haired Man glared at the Dwarf. ‘I’m fine,’ he hissed. ‘Do as I say. Last time I checked I was in charge.’
            Hobb held up his hand in surrender. ‘Very well,’ he said in a resigned, slow voice. ‘Jus’ make sure you’re careful.’
            ‘I’m not a little boy, Hobb,’ Daith snarled, turning on his heel and continuing on the filthy road they had been walking down. ‘I don’t need you to hold my hand. Go and see my brother before I kick you there myself.’
He left the tall, thin Man and the short, brawny Dwarf shaking their heads at him. I don’t need them, Daith thought, coldly. It was probably Brint’s incessant whining that drew the damned Hands out from their lofts in the first place.
            Daith stalked off, trying to ignore the pain in his side. In truth, he simply wanted to be alone. Though he fought it, he had been glad to see Brint and Hobb when he had awoken. He was ashamed and embarrassed by his defeat – something they had both witnessed – and could only think of sending them away as a cure for the shame he felt. He was ashamed that he, one of the two leaders of the Deadtown Kings, had almost been bested by some Hand thug. Some common hoodlum with a dagger – a poison dagger! Not only some lackey, but some coward lackey to boot.
As he thought on what had happened, he felt sick: a nauseating weight sat in his stomach – a great lump of disgrace and regret. It shall not happen again, he told himself as he kicked his way through a ring of beggars sitting about a meagre campfire. One who protested received a swift boot to the face that broke his jaw. It cannot happen again. I am Daith Drakensang; I am the Deadtown Kings.
            Aruvel was the worst part. The Elf, so flawless and perfect, with his shining, smooth skin and charming smile. His green-grey leathers which grime did not seem to touch, and his liquid-smooth voice. Humiliation and envy burned in Daith’s heart. So superior and pretty, he thought and spat into the dirt. So effortlessly graceful, yet so sickeningly sweet. The simple fact that it had been an Elf that had saved his life grated on him. Wood-jumping, twitchy folk, Daith thought to himself as he marched northwards, taking a right at an old, charred signpost that marked the edge of the Baradunian Brawler’s territory. What magic has he woven into me? Like Hobb or Brint’d know, those two idiots. They should’ve just cut his head off and let me die.
            The Baradunian Brawlers controlled a slither of territory between the Deadtown’s King’s stretch in the southeast and the Deadtown Dogs’ southerly streets. For a long time the gang – who only accepted thugs who had previously been incarcerated for affray and assault – had been struggling, as vicious street-skirmishes broke out between the Deadtown Kings on their eastern side and the Deadtown Dogs on the other. Now, they were more or less an empty name, a ghost of a gang that haunted the soot-blackened rafters and shattered house-walls that had been their meagre territories. Turned out that just being able to punch someone hard wasn’t much good against knives and swords, Daith thought with a small grin.
            As he took another road, heading north once again, Daith noticed the architecture quite suddenly change. The siege-shattered houses ceased to exist and small, modest homes appeared instead. The folk became better dressed, and the streets cleaner.  The people, however, were not happy, that much was obvious. Every time an Imperial soldier in his set of black-steel armour marched past, he was glared at by the resentful Altmerians – though most were Men, there were a handful of Dwarfs in the disgruntled number. Daith knew well that, for the citizens of Baradun in particular, they were seen as an occupying force. They had arrived, served their own, and kicked everybody else to the curb. The social stratifications were widening: those of middling income were vanishing, either slipping into the upper-echelons of society or, much more commonly, plunging down the ladder and into the ever-growing populace of Deadtown. This is good, Daith thought with a smile as he walked past a merchant’s stall selling only wizened, wrinkled apples. The more people in Deadtown, the more people for the Kings to rule.
            Daith found his dark mood beginning to disappear. With a smile upon his thin lips, Daith looked at the poverty slowly creeping its way into the rest of Baradun, and felt a small smile touch his cheeks. The future is bright, he thought. Not for these louts, but I can almost hear the coins clinking.


After another hour or so of walking, the low, humble houses that had lined either side of Baradun’s middling streets changed once again. Those cottages with humble, yellow thatch slowly began to transform into huge, looming townhouses with imposing, timber-framed faces. Some were so tall that they leaned forwards, as if glaring down upon the denizens of Baradun below. Soon enough, the great monuments to imperial capitalism had choked out the smaller houses. Everything on either side of the glittering street he found himself on was worth more money than he had ever seen.
            The merchants, once humble fellows peddling apples and pears, were now selling fine, shimmering silks and great rugs imported from other parts of the world. ‘Western carpets!’ one fat merchant dressed in white fur and crimson satin cried, ‘Western carpets, all the way from Westernea and the Free Kingdoms! Rare, exotic craftsmanship, stolen from right under the traitor King Gared’s nose! Here today for your purchase!’
            Daith suddenly felt very exposed. The smart doublet he had been gifted by Aruvel made him look like a nobleman when in the poorer parts of the city. But now as he made his way towards the city centre, it made him look terribly out of place. Then, when he rounded once final corner, he found himself in the city centre. Before him, the huge, recently constructed Cathedral of the Divine Empress stood tall and proud, the epicentre of the city. Before it was a wide, well-cobbled square in which there was a large, burbling fountain. The richest, most upmarket shops and taverns surrounded the square, their fronts painted with oranges, reds, blues and greens, and their signs glittering with painted gold. However, none of these caught Daith’s eyes.
The Great Keep was a massive building. How Lyshir III ever got inside it when he sacked the city near-on half a century ago is beyond me, Daith thought as he eyed the massive structure, sitting atop its tall hill in the northern reaches of the city. It loomed, glittering and oppressive, far beyond the high slate and timber roofs that made up the houses, shops, and taverns that made up the wealthiest, most privileged parts of Baradun. The Great Keep itself was a huge, square building with its own wall around it and a jagged rampart. Even at this distance, Daith could see imperial soldiers crawling over it like flies upon a corpse – small, black, swarming. He spat onto the stone.
He knew where Pestell’s Apothecary was – everyone did. Mister Stevinicus Pestell was the finest supplier of medicines, herbs, balms, potions and salves in Altmeria. Now nearing his eightieth year of life, he had begun as a back-alley substance dealer some sixty years ago, selling hallucinogenic mixtures to down-and-outs. Eventually, he had set up a run-down little shack on the edge of the city. Though his shop had been obliterated in the Vidorian invasion half a century ago, his business had skyrocketed. When word had spread through the Empire’s ranks that there was a man in the city working wonders upon the wounded and dying with mixtures of herbs, swigs of potions, and soothing balms, they had endeavoured to track him down. Once they had found him, the Empire had quickly put him to use for the talents of the then thirty-year-old alchemist, and Mister Pestell had been able to open up a fine, green-fronted shop in the centre of the city.
Daith looked upon the flaking green paint and the old, golden lettering upon the front of the alchemist’s shop and clenched his jaw. The big panes of leaded glass gave little away as to what was going on inside the building, for it was so dark and dusty beyond the motley arrangement of old vials and painted decanters in the window display that he could see nothing. He had never met Mister Pestell, but he knew well the man’s reputation for jibes and wit. Daith was hardly in the mood for jokes, and his side was aching as if someone had just kicked his wound. Maybe I can steal some salve or balm or something when the blind old fool isn’t looking.
            Taking a breath, Daith walked to the heavy door and pushed it open. As he did, there was a tinkling sound above him as a tiny, battered brass bell jingled. Daith stood as tall and menacingly as he could and stalked into the gloom towards the counter, keeping a hand on one of the daggers at his belt as he did so.
            ‘What, by the Divine Empress, are you doing here?’ said a voice that was too authoritative and powerful to be Mister Pestell’s.
            Daith froze. As his eyes accustomed themselves to the gloom, he saw three tall figures in white standing by the counter. Between where he and the white-robed men stood were several shelves full of general potions and tonics, a few bottles of earthy-coloured balms, and many expensive glass instruments that glittered in the faint light that broke into the shop. Two of the figures wore hoods over their heads and robes open at the front, revealing their heavy leather britches and hardy boots. They had swords and their waists and great golden phoenixes emblazoned on the chests of their pristine clothing.
The centremost figure, had his hood down whilst his companions kept their faces hidden. He was the tallest by a few inches, and had iron-grey hair, neatly kept, and an equally tidy moustache and beard. He wore heavy black boots under his white and gold robes, upon which a red-tinted phoenix was sewn. About his neck hung a huge gold necklace, made up of many gleaming disks, all wrought with words and symbols Daith could not read nor understand. Even in the gloom he shone with pride, power and authority.
            ‘Lord-Inquisitor Heatherford,’ Daith said, his lip curling as he spoke. He found his hand tightening around his dagger. ‘What a surprise, seeing you here. After a balm for your aching joints? It must get tiring chasing after shadows.’
            The lord-inquisitor’s eyes narrowed. ‘As for you, I heard you came a cropper in a fight recently,’ the man said in his cold, commanding voice. ‘Here for a tonic of herbs for the pain? Or is it to try and take away the guilt and shame that you, Daith Drakensang, were bested by none other than a common thug? That hovel of a tavern your brother bought would probably provide a better remedy for that sort of pain.’
            Daith glared at Lord-Inquisitor Heatherford. ‘You don’t know anything happened,’ he said coldly. ‘You Vidorians don’t care about us in Deadtown.’
            Lord-Inquisitor Heatherford, tall, strong, and commanding, joined his hands behind his back and seemed to get lost in thought for a moment. ‘You’re right,’ he said, ‘I don’t care much for Deadtown. Why would I when it’s crawling with villainous scum like you? The Vidorian Legion keeps the roads into and out of the city safe, so if we have to sacrifice a few districts to keep the squabbling, dirty thugs like you out of our hair, so be it. You’ll all slaughter each other into nothingness soon enough anyway, and when the last one of you hoodlums hits the ground, you can be damn sure that the Vidorian Empire will be there to pick up the pieces you so callously shattered and threw away.’
            ‘Says the man who keeps sending his white-robed lackeys to poke around the Black Hoof,’ Daith grunted and spat onto the floorboard. ‘You know well that’s Kings territory.’
            ‘There are no kings in the Vidorian Empire,’ Lord-Inquisitor Heatherford said with disdain. ‘There is only Emperor Lyshir IV and the Divine Empress herself. There are also no such things as – what was it that charming woman in the Black Hoof said? – “the Syr” who she claimed would “have their wily ways with the Divine Empress before long.” Care to explain that?’
            Daith was about to respond when, from behind the three inquisitors, a helplessly wizened and frail-looking old man with one blind eye and no hair appeared, hunched and pouting. He held in his hands a sealed crate with no obvious markings other than a crudely drawn phoenix in charcoal. ‘Here’s your order,’ the alchemist said, shooting a nervous, half-blind glance at Daith, who stood by the door.
            Lord-Inquisitor Heatherford waved at one of his men, who stepped forwards and took the crate from the old man. ‘Thank you, Pestell,’ he said with a small bow of his head. ‘I’ll leave you with your next customer,’ he said, turning to leave. ‘Oh, and Daith,’ he said, pausing him as he made his way to the door, his two inquisitors behind him, ‘if Mister Pestell has any reason to make a complaint against you, or if anything should happen to him, you can expect a visit from me. I know exactly where that ridiculous excuse for a structure your brother has bought is. Maybe I could burn it down? Vidoria’s flames should rid Deadtown of your taint.’
            ‘By all means, please do,’ Daith snarled at Heatherford. The man was a good half-head taller than he was, and he had to tilt his head back to glare into his eyes. ‘If you can even summon the nerve to walk into Deadtown.’
            Heatherford’s lips curled into a smile, and for a few moments he stared into Daith’s face before turning and leading his men out of the apothecary’s shop. The brass bell tinkled as the door opened and closed again, a shrill little cry in the dark and dusty space. Then Daith was alone with Mister Pestell.
            The youngest Drakensang son turned. ‘Good day, Sir,’ he said, striding through the shelves of sparkling, bright-coloured potions and glittering, orb-like alchemical instruments. ‘Do you have a moment?’
            The grizzled old man’s wrinkled lips twisted horribly. ‘For you?’ he said. ‘No.’
            ‘That’s a shame,’ Daith said with a shrug. ‘Because I have some questions for you.’
            Pestell’s mouth twisted into a toothless grin. ‘And if I don’t give you the answers you so desperately seek?’ he said in his croak of voice. ‘What’ll you do? Start breaking things? Hit me? Kill me? I know how you thugs work, you’re all the same.’
            Daith looked at the shelf next to him. It was lined with many different pieces of glass equipment involved in the creation of potions and substances. There were expensive-looking mortars and pestles of marble, decanters of thick green and purple glass, and flasks of tough, well-burnished leather. Daith picked up a particularly expensive looking alembic and held it in his hands. The two, bulbous, glittering glass orbs and the shaft that went between them twinkled in the half-light of the dingy room. ‘A beautiful thing, this,’ he said, eyeing the glittering glass and the gold-etched stand on which it stood. ‘How much?’
            ‘More gold than your little band of hooligans can pull out of its arse,’ the old man said. ‘And don’t you even think about breaking that. I’ll have Heatherford and his boys tear you all to-…’
            Daith hurled the alembic at the old man. It whizzed past his head and shattered on the rear wall of the dark room. ‘Who did you give the kingsbane to?’ he said, stepping forwards and standing over the counter.
            ‘You think you can scare me?’ the old man said. ‘I survived the siege of Baradun fifty years ago. You couldn’t possibly-…’
            Daith slipped the empty vial that Aruvel had given him from his belt and held it up. In the ailing light he saw that there were still a few drops of dark grey, swirling liquid at the bottom of the container. ‘So you didn’t make this?’ he said, letting the ‘PA’ emblazoned on the vial catch in the light.
            The old man laughed. ‘I made the vial, yes. What makes you think I put whatever was inside of it in there?’
            ‘Kingsbane,’ Daith growled. ‘I doubt there are any alchemists in this city other than you who can make the stuff.’
            Pestell laughed again. His dry, hoarse voice was beginning to grate on Daith’s already short nerves, and he could feel his temper rising. ‘I probably did,’ Pestell said in a mocking groaning tone. ‘Not that I remember.
            Daith reached across the counter and grabbed Pestell by the front of the old green robe he wore. He dragged the old man onto the wooden counter and grabbed hold of his mouth. Pestell kicked and fought, trying to push Daith’s hands away. ‘I’ll have Heatherford get you!’ he said. ‘I’ll do it!’
            ‘Like he will,’ Daith hissed, pulling the stopper of the poison vial out with his teeth and spat it across the room. ‘As he said – he doesn’t care about Deadtown. He won’t come looking for me. Now, tell me who you gave the kingsbane to before I tip what’s left of this down your throat.’
            The old man’s face suddenly paled. ‘I can’t remember!’ he squalled, his conviction suddenly lost. ‘Please, if you want to kill me, not with that! Cut me apart with your daggers, but not that!’
            Daith’s eyes narrowed. ‘Then tell me whom you gave this to,’ he said. ‘I know already it was the Crimson Hand! For it was they who had it upon their daggers! Did Bloody Lizbet come and threaten you? Did she steal it? Tell me!’
            The old man shook his head slowly, still fighting against Daith’s arm, writhing where he was pinned on the counter. Still, Daith held the open, near-empty vial of kingsbane threateningly over Pestell’s head. ‘No,’ the old man said in a breath. ‘Not the Hands. They could never afford it.’ He stopped, his half-blind vision frantically looking around the room, as if hoping for someone to enter and save him. When no-one came, the old man seemed to give up. ‘The Inquisition,’ he said quietly.
            Daith’s eyes grew wide in shock. ‘What?’ he said. ‘But the Hands-…’
            ‘I don’t know how the Hands got it,’ the old man spluttered. ‘They never came here, they never have done, they know they can’t afford my wares – by the Empress, I doubt they’d even understand what it meant if you told them kingsbane is flammable! It’s Heatherford! Heatherford’s taking it!’
            Shocked, Daith’s arm went limp and the old man struggled free. In a moment, he had shot into the back room behind the counter from which he had originally emerged, shouting and yelling for help. Daith span and looked out of the shop’s front window. Outside, people were stopping and peering in. Curses, Daith thought.
In a flash, he leapt over the counter and ran into the next room – a damp little storage space full of boxes. It was as dingy as the first, but there was a single, small window to one side. Pestell was gone, and Daith was now on borrowed time. Already, he could hear people coming into the shop. There were shouts coming from behind him, and from somewhere before him, he could hear Pestell crying for help. Without a second thought, Daith hurled himself through the window.
            Luckily, he was already on the ground floor. He landed hard on the stone cobbles of the side-street that ran parallel to Pestell’s shop in a shower of shattered glass. He jarred his wrist as he landed and the wound in his side felt as if it had been created anew. He let out a choked cry of agony as terrible, hot pain shot through his side. Daith’s vision blurred and he felt his head begin to swim, but he hauled himself to his feet and set off at a staggering run away from the square. I have to find where Heatherford is taking that poison, he thought. If he’s giving it to the Hands, we have a larger problem than I ever anticipated.
He also knew that he was now working on borrowed time. Pestell would run straight to the Vidorians, and the moment his words got to Heatherford, there would be trouble. In truth, Daith was unsure whether or not Heatherford would march into Deadtown with a party of inquisitors and set his brother’s hideous wooden half-tower on fire. He doubted it, but there had been a cruel glint of promise in Heatehrford’s eye that made him uneasy.
            Daith had no idea where he was. As he staggered through Baradun’s up-market backstreets, past well-dressed men and women walking with small, ornamental dogs and cats with squashed faces and curled tails, it stuck him he had absolutely no idea where Heatherford would be. If he has not returned to that monstrosity of a cathedral, he could be anywhere – even in the Great Keep. As he thought to himself about how he might find Heatherford, the extent of the damage he may have just done to the Deadtown Kings struck him. If Pestell found Heatherford before Daith did, Heatherford may call the guard and march into Deadtown with the purpose of slaughtering the Kings. Would he, though? Daith thought. The nauseating feeling in his gut told him that the lord-inquisitor would, simply to spite Daith.
            Pain and panic began to grip Daith as he staggered forwards. I need to warn Lewis, he thought. As much as he hated the thought of admitting any kind of failure to his brother, they would need the whole gang on alert if they were to ever hope of surviving an attack by the Vidorian Inquisition – or worse, the Legion itself.
            Aware of the cold, suspecting glances he was drawing from the gentry whom he passed as he stamped though Baradun’s cleanest, most expensive streets, Daith quickly found the post-midday sun and used it to point himself eastwards. I need to hurry, he thought. This is a right mess. A real filthy mess.
            As Daith stalked eastwards as fast as his wounded body would carry him, the grandiose properties began to slip away. Replaced by familiar thatch and slate-roofed buildings, the streets became slightly more unkempt. The folk did not glare at him as the nobility did, and he was able to pass on through the poorer districts of the city with ease. The moment he clapped his eyes on the first burned-out and rib-like timbers of Deadtown, he felt a great sense of relief wash over him. They loomed above the roofs of the last few proper houses like strange standing monuments; dark and brooding, a shadowy reminder of a time of pain and strife – and Daith had never been so glad to see them.
            Ducking into a familiar-feeling alley, Daith made his way towards Hardhand Lewis’ shanty-tower. The alley was wide and large enough for five or so people to walk abreast, and it squatted between a narrow, stone-walled cottage with withered thatch on its roof, and a decimated building, so wrecked and ruined that it was completely unidentifiable. One or two homeless men squatted in it, huddling under cloaks and rags to try and preserve what warmth they could on the bright but blustery day. The alley was nearly empty, aside from a large pile of rotting and forgotten boxes and barrels on one side and a cluster of figures at the end. In too much of a rush to think, Daith began to hurry down the alley, but when he saw three white robes and the flash of a many-disked golden medallion, he dived behind the nearest low barrel.
            ‘You brought us the same as last time?’ a high-pitched, feminine voice said from somewhere in the middle of the group. ‘That alchemist has you duped. This junk is just his spit in a vial – it’s useless.’
            ‘The formula needed adjusting slightly,’ a voice that Daith immediately recognised as Lord-Inquisitor Heatherford’s said. ‘Pestell assures me that these will do better. However, I can’t help but think that if your man had struck better, we wouldn’t need to be having this conversation right now.’
            The vicious crack of a hand slapping a cheek rang out down the alley. Daith peeked over the barrel he squatted behind and saw steel and iron flash in the sun as weapons were unsheathed. The two inquisitors and Heatherford now stood a few steps back from the other group, revealing a familiar-looking crate with a charcoal phoenix upon its face on the floor between the two parties. The two men with Heatherford had their weapons unsheathed, but Heatherford did not.
Opposite them, at least four women in hooded cloaks bearing the crude red fist of the Crimson Hand stood with their own array of clubs, swords, and daggers at the ready. ‘Put those weapons down, girl,’ the woman’s voice said from amidst the hooded figures. ‘I could take all three of these Vidorians in a fight and not one of them would scratch me.’ There was an uneasy silence and a complete stillness from the other end of the alley. Daith peered over his barrel and narrowed his eyes. Come on, he thought to himself, kill each other.
            ‘Sheathe your weapons,’ Heatherford’s voice said quietly. ‘I’ll forgive you this insult, but consider it your only second chance. If you fail to uphold your end of the deal, I shall have the Legion march into your precious little spot of territory and gut each and every one of you.’
            ‘And as I said last time, we welcome you to try,’ the woman spoke again and stepped forwards from the group of hooded female figures about her. She was slender and lithe, with a shock of brilliant bloody-red hair tumbling down her shoulders. She was pale-skinned and young, wearing a tight black-leather doublet and trousers of a matching dark shade, and silver-buckled boots on her feet. Underneath, she wore a frilled white shirt, the ruffled sleeves of which blew about her arms. At each hip hung a vicious, double-edged sword.
            Daith had known from the moment he heard her voice that Bloody Lizbet was standing at the far end of the alley. Part of him had simply clung to the hope that she was not in some way embroiled in an elaborate scheme with the Vidorians to see the Deadtown Kings brought to ruin. Heatherford is not the problem, Daith thought as he watched the woman step forwards and place a foot on the familiar-looking crate. Lizbet is his hand, he is simply one particular arm of the Empire dangling her in our affairs.
            ‘I don’t want to have to ever come back here again,’ Heatherford said in a hiss. ‘Do as we told you and the Inquisition will continue to work alongside you and your little group of bandits. If you fail, however, there can be no more chances. We will not be seen in Deadtown again, and you can deal with whatever repercussions you face for your botched actions alone. Understand?’
            Lizbet stooped down and picked up the familiar-looking crate. ‘Then here’s to a long and prosperous friendship, Lord-Inquisitor!’ she said and turned on her heel. She hoisted the crate up and down in her hands as she walked away, and Daith, from where he sheltered behind the barrels and boxes discarded in the alley, saw the three inquisitors recoil.
            ‘Be careful with that!’ Heatherford snapped at Lizbet, who was now walking down the alley towards Daith. ‘Those are highly volatile!’
            Daith sat, his brow furrowed and his mouth hanging slightly open. What is going on? he thought to himself as he watched Heatherford and his inquisitorial accompaniment turn around and leave, walking out of the alleyway and taking a left, out of Daith’s line of vision. As he watched them vanish, Daith’s mind raced. Why is Heatherford working with the Hands? he asked himself, ducking back behind the crates. There was no time to come up with an answer, though – he could hear the Crimson Hand approaching. He could hear female voices and he chanced a glance out from his hiding place.
Daith was close enough to see Lizbet’s pale face crease into a mocking sneer as Heatherford called after her. He shrank back, deeper into the shadows cast by the crates and boxes, suddenly gripped by fear. Bloody Lizbet carried herself with a confidence that Daith knew he could never replicate. She was girlish in her gait and expression, yet there was a twitch of madness upon her face that tugged at her cheeks and twisted her lips. There were faint creases at the edges of her eyes and a smile-line either side of her mouth. Her face was pretty, and she had two magnificent, hazel-coloured eyes. Daith knew, though, that it was all a lie.
She was an artisan sheath of the finest craftsmanship in which a savage, barbed dagger was hidden. The lines on her face which for many would be becoming of her beauty and character – and the small scar on her chin, which Daith noticed as she walked closer and closer to him – were, as Daith well knew, nicks and cracks in the mask she wore to hide her cruelty.  Though Daith would never admit it to anyone, the sight of the woman teriffied him.
            ‘Where now, Lady Lizbet?’ one of the hooded and cloaked women Lizbet kept as her guard asked as they strode towards Daith.
            ‘Storehouse,’ she said in a sing-song voice. ‘Let’s get these somewhere nice and safe, then we can talk about killing the Deadtown Kings and taking their little spot of territory from them.’
            The shadow she cast across him as she passed was particularly cold. Daith felt his whole body shiver, and the wound in his side was gripped with imagined ache. He could feel the dagger there again, and in his mind’s eye he could see Lizbet’s white-toothed leer as she pushed and twisted one of her swords into him. He shut his eyes and waited for Bloody Lizbet and her companions to have passed before he dared glance out of his hiding place. And now I have to follow her, he thought.
His feet trembling and hands shaking, Daith slipped out from behind the boxes and barrels where he had hidden and made after the retreating group.

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