Part 20 of The Adventures of The Split Falchion
The sun rises over the crown city of Aundair, once again ringing in the new dawn. Its light lit the Aundair River on fire, and the nobles in their towers enjoyed the view. Passengers arriving from the west rail line, as well those taking the roads, briefly paused to admire the orange glow framing the sturdy walls and marble structures.
However, for two atop one of the tallest towers, one of the University of Wynarn, it was troubling. Wind howled at such heights, and they had to yell to hear each other.
“Professor! It’s just like you predicted!” one, a young female woman wearing robes yells. She was kneeling against the wind, and had one hand over her eyes, covering them slightly as the sunlight dazed her darkness-adjusted eyes.
“Precisely!” the other, a much more elderly, male elf also dressed in robes, returns. In his hand, he holds a timepiece, a rarity in these lands. In the other, he firmly grasped in the other is a book, protecting it from the wind. “One hour past what is normally expected!” He snaps the timepiece closed, and returns it to a pocket.
“What does it mean?” the woman asks, standing carefully.
“I’m not sure!” the professor returns, “Winter isn’t for another two weeks! Yet the sun is rising as if it were already the solstice.”
“Why is the sun late, then?” the student questions, worried.
“That’s what we’ll have to find out!” the Professor yells back, as he opens the trapdoor and descends back into the tower.
Fairhaven, The Morning after the Warfallin Job
Marwyn walks down one of the main streets of Fairhaven, having just left an amiable breakfast with Mevalyn at The Mired Harper. He had slept in, and by the time he was out it was almost noon. Still, there was an unnatural chill to the air, not to the point where Marwyn would have to seek out a jacket, but colder than he expected. He ignores the feeling though, sure that it was nothing.
He had been loath to leave Mevalyn, but he had to keep up his practice with the bow. He hadn’t fired one in active combat since the fight with Redmont, and was worried he was getting rusty. He’d also wanted to continue developing the maneuver he had discovered on his hand crossbows.
“Oh hoh, no boy. Not again, you’re barred,” a man says, blocking Marwyn access from the archery range.
“Come on…” Marwyn protests.
“You shot one of the other patrons. You’re lucky we didn’t call the guard” the guard justifies, nodding to the hand crossbow without the gash.
“But it was an accident! And I healed him afterwards.”
“Whatever. You’re banned. Don’t make any more trouble,” he says slowly, hand on the hilt of his truncheon. Marwyn sighs, and gives up. This wasn’t the only range in the city.
One Hour Later
Marwyn grimaces as his arrow goes wide of his target. He had cleared magic shots with the range master beforehand, not wanting to be thrown out of another range, but was sticking with his lowest powered shot. He’d also wisely decided to forgo crossbow training today.
For all that, however, it was clear Marwyn was out of practice. Only half of his shots hit within the ring, though most that missed at least hit the frame. He also had the feeling that his draw was… faster, somehow. Not by much, but it was unexpected improvement. He waited for the rest on the line to finish, then went to retrieve his arrows.
Vargard, Underground Basement
No one was entirely aware when the game of War was devised, only that it was during the Last War. One of the most recent games of cards, it was a game with five players, using the standard deck of 52. The object of the game was somewhat simple, part of the reason why it was so widespread.
Cards valued from 1 to 13 were dealt to each player in groups of four, half face up, one visible to only the owner, and one hidden from all. To win, a player must amass a point total as close to 40 as possible, without going over. Obviously, this is an impossibility. However, a player may choose to join their point total with one other player, without revealing the value of their third card. If they choose to refrain, their cards’ value is instead doubled.
It is a game based on the war between the Five Kingdoms themselves. In the end, those with the strongest force wins. Of course, if one side is too much of a threat, they will be overwhelmed by all others banding against them. Such is that the victors of the game are those with the most points, but only to a point.
The nature of the player’s hand are a metaphor as well. Most of a kingdom’s power is easily observed, but each has its own hidden strengths, such as the Royal Eyes. Then there are forces no man can predict perfectly, luck, weather, the whims of the gods, such that it can be said hidden forces influence the game. Such is it that two cards of a hand are revealed to all, one only to its owner, and the last to none until the final moments.
Most games are only that, games. Gambling is regulated within most cities, to varying degrees. The strictest are the Thranes, banning it outright throughout the entire kingdom. Most are more relaxed, though Fairhaven requires all establishments be registered, player’s winnings be tracked. Though these rules are followed to a point, some illicit card houses do exist.
Vargard was sitting in one such establishment, quietly playing with three others and a dealer. Though it wasn’t common for a dealer to play, it is an option when lacking a fifth. There are additional rules that vary from house to house when this occurs, but they matter little here. All look when a small section of the wall slides back, and an older man dressed in common clothes enters.
“——, it’s the guard!” one of the other players says, reaching for a knife. He finds none, however, no weapons were allowed here.
“Sullivan,” the man spits, earning him a glare from the dealer but not much else. He stays calm, though, in control of the situation, “It’s just me tonight. Or, rather, I was never here. Lest some interesting evidence comes up regarding a certain burglary.”
“I… I’m outta here,” the player says, “This is a setup!” He takes several painted chips off of the table, and bursts out of the room.
“Heh,” the new player laughs, as he slides the door shut, “Didn’t take Sullivan for a regular here.”
“First time I’d seen him, Sir,” the dealer cordially responds. Not as one would to an employer, but to someone deserving of respect all the same.
“And Mr. Garodin, surprised you’ve returned after the thrashing you got last year,” the man address Vargard, who had remained passive thus far.
“Had some spare time,” Vargard returns, nodding, “I was wondering if you’d turn up, Major.”
“That’s just Mr. Wilhelm to you now, Mr. Garodin. I am retired, after all.”
“Old habits die hard, I guess,” Vargard smiles, the conversation amiable, “And I see you still have a lexicon on all the small-time criminals of our fair city.”
“Only most of them,” the ex-Major winks, “But I didn’t come here to talk. Let’s play.”
“With the departure of Mr. Sullivan, I will… Oh,” the dealer says in slight surprise, seeing the wall again slide back, another person entering. The room was well-disguised, on the other side was what appeared to be only a wall. In case of a raid, there was a tunnel leading to a nearby cellar, though it was never used. The card table here was frequented by some of the higher ups in the Fairhaven guard, and was afforded the appropriate protection.
The new player was dressed similarly to the others, simple clothes, nothing that would draw too much attention. Even with the guard’s implicit blessing, appearances must be kept. It was the ambiance, the feeling of illicitness that heightened the experience.
“Well, that makes up five,” the dealer continues, shuffling. The cards would be well-worn, if not for the mending enchantment on them that kept them in near perfect condition. Even that was liable to fail eventually, but not for a long time. “No special rules, minimum bets at 10 sp.” Betting included different rules. All players contributed the minimum amount at the start. After the draw, players could bet and raise as they desire. Finally, after alliances were settled, all still in the game must contribute the minimum again, followed by another round of betting. A player could leave the round at any time, but forfeit their stake. The man who had fled didn’t have much of his chips left (small, painted wooden disks were used to represent money, instead of the real thing. This was developed after much trial, error, and theft). The others, including Vargard, had fairly even stacks, somewhat larger than the two the newcomers had brought.
The initiative was to Vargard, each round a new player would start the betting each round. Not that it mattered before the draw. All the players threw a chip with a silver X painted onto it into the center of the table, and the dealer collected them into a stack. He shuffled the stack one last time, and began dealing the cards, the first to Vargard.
“Let the games begin,” the ex-Major smiles.
It was noon now, in Fairhaven. Though Fairhold is one of the most secure areas in Khorvairre, all fortresses have their weaknesses. Cletus had found Fairhold’s long ago. Not that he had any nefarious intent. The spires of the citadel were merely the tallest in the city.
Vargard often wondered where his friend went off to when he wasn’t drinking in The Crowned Leper. Not even dwarves have the tolerance for alcohol 24/7, and Cletus always despised the cityscape. Not many places of refuge for a dwarf out of his element, but he had found one.
Cletus let his bare feet hang in the air, as he sat on the edge of a low balcony. The room behind him was part of Fairhold, yet over the ages it had become lost as the castle was shifted to meet the needs of its rulers. Walled off and forgotten, until Cletus had found it. The dwarf raises a flask to his lips, he had brought drink here, of course. But his movements were slow, he was focused more of the scenery below.
From that tower, the dwarf saw the city not as the planned, architectural marvel that most Aundairians saw it as. Instead, he viewed it as if from a tall tree, the masses below merely as forest fauna. Ants were people, the rare cart, an odd fox or squirrel. It calms him, and eventually he surveys the farther landscape. Cletus’ breathing slows, and for the first time all day, he smiles.
Archery Range, Marwyn
After an hour or two, Marwyn decides to call it quits. His muscles ache from the practice, but his aim had improved. Not quite to what it was, but better. He pays the rangemaster for the time, returning the training arrows as well. Some use their own, preferring to practice with what they shoot, but to Marwyn, an arrow was an arrow.
As he was walking back, either to The Crowned Leper or The Mired Harper (he hadn’t decided), an old drunk bumped into him. He wouldn’t have thought anything of it, such happenings were common in a large city, if Marwyn didn’t notice a piece of crumpled paper in his hand a few blocks later.
You know who this is from. You know how to find me. We need to talk, it read.
For a second, Marwyn thinks it is from Mevalyn, but realizes she had neither the reason nor means to use such a proxy as that drunk. That could only leave… The Eyes. A mix of anticipation and dread fills Marwyn, the note could bode well… or not. Relations with The Royal Eyes had been amiable, despite a few tense moments, but they also had him arrested earlier.
Not intentionally, Marwyn counters himself. But then he remembers their lackadaisical attitude towards The Split Falchion’s survival in the warehouse. Could go either way, he thinks to himself.
The entrance the Marwyn knew to the Fairhaven tunnels was in the cellar of a tavern, near the edge of town. Whenever he entered, it seemed like the innkeep recognized him, and knew he was supposed to be there. All of those times, however, Marwyn had been with the others. He wondered if it would still be the case.
It was, as it turned out. The innkeep gave him a subtle nod, nothing else, and Marwyn descended into the cellar. There was always someone waiting for them before, but now Marwyn just saw an empty cellar. The bard was surprised, whenever he had entered before there was a large gap leading into a tunnel dug below the street. Now, only a gray wall greeted his view.
Marwyn waits for a second, thinking some section would slide away and an agent would beckon to him. Nothing happens. He gets fidgety, and decides to figure it out himself. There must be a way to open the passage, he thinks. The majority of the cellar was taken up by large barrels, the store of alcohol for the bar above. The bard is briefly tempted to skim something, but instantly cut those thoughts off. He was sure by now this was some form of test.
He starts examining the suspicious section of wall closely. He found no seams, nowhere to suggest that this wasn’t an ordinary wall. Which definitely contradicted what he knew of this tavern.
Wait… Marwyn thinks, and walks out of the cellar, back into the small staircase that led from the cellar to the bar above. I remember a turn… here, he presses against a small section of wall, right around where the staircase briefly leveled out. As much as he pushed, it seemed solid. Until he tried pushing the wall sideways. To his surprise, the wall started sliding, revealing another passageway and closing off the first. He quickly sprints down the new staircase, barely registering the soft click of the sliding wall moving back into place. A table was set up in the room just off the staircase, between Marwyn and the entrance into the tunnelways. On it, was a single candle, providing illumination. Sitting in one of the two seats was a Drow, female by the looks of it.
“I wondered how long it would take you,” she says, fiddling with a splinter of wood she had freed from the table.
“Who are you?” Marwyn asks, confused.
“Come now, you know who I am,” the Drow says, smiling coyly.
“Ah!” Marwyn says, realizing. It was the eyes, he thought. The drow before him was the agent from before, who always appeared in different forms. But now, he realized that the one constant of the agent, was that the eyes never changed. The same look was cast from them, form to form. “But… what did you want with me?”
“You are a curiosity, Marwyn Verdani,” the agent says, leaning back and gesturing Marwyn to take a seat. He does so, and she continues, “Most definitely the strangest thing to ever come from Wrendale. Not many grow up wanting to join The Royal Eyes. None, in fact.”
“None?” Marwyn replies, thoroughly confused.
“Its existence is a closely guarded secret in Aundair. Its presence, far from common knowledge.”
“I… I always thought everyone knew of them. Even when the other children thought the stories were just tales. Fiction.”
“Yes, those stories,” the Drow says, seizing the point, “That is why I have summoned you. It caught my attention earlier, but my priorities were elsewhere. Now, we have time to talk.”
“You… you want me to tell you children’s stories?” Marwyn says, a little embarrassed.
“Some, perhaps. But I am more curious as to their author.”
“He was a hunter. Stopped by our village a few times near when I turned 10,” Marwyn explains, “Never gave his name, or anything else about his life.”
“What do you remember about him?” the agent asked, closing her eyes and listening intently.
“He was… kind, I guess. Old, but everyone higher than me seemed ancient at the time. Older than my own pa at the time. An elf, or half-elf, didn’t really get the difference at the time.”
“Anything about how he spoke?”
“Definitely Aundairian,” Marwyn says firmly, “He sounded… normal. Took a special interest in me, though. Never knew why exactly, but I think it was because I was the most interested by his stories.”
“What do you mean?” the agent asks, eyes still closed, brow furrowing.
“He taught me to play the lute. Well, not exactly. He gave me a kid’s one, showed me a few chords. I figured out the rest myself, away from my father.”
“Yes, yes, what I’m more interested in is why his tales included The Royal Eyes. More specifically, this ‘Special Agent Direwolf’. Such knowledge is limited to certain people, all of whom would certainly know better than to go telling tales to children.”
“So he does exist then, Special Agent Direwolf!?” Marwyn says, excitably.
The agent opens her eyes, annoyed, and replies, “No. We have no acting or retired agent under that moniker. I was merely referring to knowledge of the agency itself.”
“Oh….” Marwyn responds, dejected.
“What was the nature of these stories that were told?” the agent asks after a small pause in the conservation.
“Well, the hero was always Special Agent Direwolf,” Marwyn responds, somewhat despondently, “I can’t remember all of them, but he usually was defeating villains or finding long-lost artifacts.”
“Anything on the war?”
“N… no, actually,” Marwyn says, startled, “I never thought about it like that, but nothing I remember dealt with it. I guess the storyteller didn’t want such a… gory backdrop for a children’s story.”
“Perhaps…” the agent says, thinking, “What is the most distinctive story you remember?”
“That would have to have been Special Agent Direwolf and the Land of the Dragons,” Marwyn says, excitedly.
“What?!” the agent exclaims, eyes locking with Marwyn’s.
“Yeah. I thought it was a bit over the top back, too.”
“Well, that certainly gives me enough. We’ve never been insane enough to send someone over there alone.”
“Alone?” Marwyn asks, confused.
“Y… these stories only featured one man, yes?” the agent returns, sharing in Marwyn’s confusion.
“No. Usually,” Marwyn corrects himself, “But in some he had friends. Like that one. The guy never mentioned them in too much detail, but they were there.”
The agent puts her head in one hand, and says, “This is what I feared. You have no idea who told these stories, clearly they aren’t based in fact, yet they contain sensitive information that is passed on the children. We’re lucky you were the only one gullible enough to believe them.”
“But… if you exist…” Marwyn tries to argue, yet the agent stands, and starts to leave.
She stops, though, midway to the tunnel passage. The Drow then asks, “This is just for my own personal edification, but how did that story end? The one about the dragons?”
“I don’t know,” Marwyn says, mournfully, “That was his last story, three parts. My father had found out about the hunter after the first part, and had him driven from the village. Didn’t like the man filling the children’s heads with flights of fancy or something else. Glad I hid the lute the guy had given me, he probably would have burned it.”
“A calloused man, to be sure,” the agent answers, “Though he’s likely to have his own hardships.”
“What?” Marwyn questions, standing himself, “What would you know about it?”
“Me?” the agent laughs, “Nothing. I could take a few guesses, but I wouldn’t know the tribulations of every tanner in the kingdom. The Eyes are good, but we aren’t that good.” With that she leaves, saying, “We are finished. I thank you for indulging me.”
“N… no problem,” Marwyn returns. He didn’t know what to think about what just occurred. The agent obviously implied that Special Agent Direwolf, and his tales, never existed. But her last question made the rest seem… official. Something the agency wanted to know about, or something they were afraid of.
But what could be so dangerous about children’s stories? Marwyn thinks to himself.
Vargard had left the game a few minutes ago, having his fill. He’d left with less money than he’d began with, but not by much. The ex-Major was a skilled player, and the other three players formed alliances with him more often than anyone else.
He was exchanging chips for coin with a teller outside of the room (which barely accommodated the table and 5 players), when the ex-Major walked up behind him.
“Tough luck, but you gave me a good run,” the man says.
“Surprised you came, Mr. Wilhelm,” Vargard answers.
“Ah, I still play a few rounds here and there. Not as much as I used to, of course. Pension isn’t exactly the same as a salary.”
Vargard sensed the ex-Major was holding something back, and not trying to conceal it too carefully. “That all?” the fighter asks.
“You still run that mercenary outfit, right Vargard?”
“Yes? But surely if you have a problem you’d take it to the guard, rather than drain your thin pension?” Vargard questions.
“It’s not… that is to say, it’s a problem already being handled by the guard. Somewhat…. it’s complicated. Best we not explain here.”
“Alright,” Vargard says, curiosity piqued, “Where then?”
Half an Hour Later
The ex-Major’s home was close to Fairhold. It was by no means lavish, but it certainly topped most homes outside of the citadel. The Major had served the city for some time, and had been rewarded accordingly.
Vargard and ex-Major Wilhelm take seats in a study, a servant bringing a bottle of whiskey on a tray.
“Certainly not as tight a budget as you led me to believe…” Vargard says, fingering one of the shot glasses.
“Well, my pension isn’t my only source of income,” the ex-Major admits, “But that isn’t why we came here. Can I count on your discretion, Mr. Garodin?”
“You know you can,” Vargard answers succinctly, “You know about my prior career.” It was true, ex-Major Wilhelm was one of the few within the Fairhaven guard that coordinated with The Royal Eyes. “I’m somewhat curious if they’re involved, actually,” he adds.
“No, for good reason. Orders from Aurala herself.”
“Excuse me?!” Vargard exclaims, the scope of this meeting widening drastically, “What exactly is going on here?”
“Lycanthropes, Var. It’s about lycanthropes.”
Continued in Part 21, The Bad Moon Job – Silvered Tongues