Morning brought with it the promise of a new day, an overcast sky, and a breakfast of fish and rice. They hadn’t made a fire – they didn’t need one in these late summer nights, plus wood is expensive in Manxiga and they were travelling light – so they were eating their rations cold. The rice balls were pretty average, but filled a hole. The fish was smoked though, and that was a bit of a treat, since most fish that made it to where they were from was dried. They’d been on the move pretty much non-stop for the last four days, sleeping rough, stopping only briefly for supplies when necessary. Koors was even down to his last bottle of sake. “Savin’ it for th’ victory drink,” the dwarf said soberly as Malone looked at him, nursing the bottle in his hands a while, before slipping it back into a belt pouch.
Malone took a moment to look about at his team. He and Koors had worked together before – the dwarf had a drinking habit, but what dwarf didn’t – and they shared a sort of camaraderie that, while it may not have extended to trust, at least had a kind of mutual respect. The three other humans – Bugsy, Caper and Bushel – were likewise sitting about with Malone and Koors, tucking into their rice and fish, washing it down with water. Malone didn’t know any of them. They were all just faces and names, people assigned to him by the boss. He knew of Bushel, or at least of his reputation with a sling. He had made a pass at Bugsy a couple of nights ago, but that had gone nowhere – so apparently not all the girls that work for the boss are as easy as they say. Caper hadn’t even joined them till Ken Ta Ral, but he seemed to know the drill. Finally, Ho, the bugbear woman, was the muscle of the group, although she brought more sinewy strength and lithe movement to the group than, say, an ogre might bring actual muscle. She was doing her daily dagger routines, having already eaten her portion for the morning.
Six of them, and apparently only five in the group they were stopping. And although they were accompanied by an armed and armoured paladin of Sophia, Malone reckoned they’d be able to take them down – or at least distract them long enough for someone to grab the book and do a runner. After all, their instructions weren’t to kill anyone, just to get the book. It would most likely be with the paladin, since the book belonged to the temple, so try for her first.
Malone and his temporary gang had gotten here the day before, and spent the whole day camped on the road, waiting for their marks to come. They were a good two or three miles away from the town of Mae Lin, so that they couldn’t be seen loitering on the road from the walls. The last thing they wanted was any official harassment. Malone would have preferred to grab the book in the town itself, where there was a much easier escape route – pretty much everyone in the gang was a townie, except Ho, so slipping into the shadows would be hells of a lot easier in crowded streets than in the middle of a road flanked with swamp on one side and rice paddies on the other. But the boss didn’t have many friends in Mae Lin, and the gang couldn’t really afford to stage a snatch’n’grab in the town without the chance of getting the Ra’vens twitchy – and that would probably lead to all of them just getting dead.
Still, the road meant that they could bottleneck their marks, and Malone’s plan was to stick Bugsy and Caper in the swamp with slings, to give sneaky cover fire whilst Koors, Malone and Ho stood across the road and blocked their way. If they didn’t hand over the book, they’d start a little toe to toe, give ‘em a few jabs, and hopefully distract them long enough for Bushel to dart out, grab the book, and then skive off into the paddies where the horse couldn’t follow. Then they could all scarper, and meet up later in the Sacred Grove. Again, Malone would’ve preferred to do the rendezvous in Mae Lin, but that would be stupid. Not only might the Ra’vens catch them, but the party would probably look there first. No, best to trek into the rice, meet up in the Grove, and move together from there. Much harder to follow that way. Then they could get the book back to Saketome, and get their reward.
When the last of the food was done – Malone had made sure they only had enough food for today, purely to save money in case any of his gangers didn’t survive to make it home – they got to the hard work of waiting. It may not seem like much, but keeping a half a dozen rogues from doing something stupid when they’re all bored is harder than it sounds. Finally, just when Bushel and Caper were talking about playing a round of “Can You Take It” involving throwing daggers at each other, Malone saw some movement on the south-east horizon. While he couldn’t make out how many there were, even from that distance he could see a big one and one that was on a horse – that had to be them.
Malone started barking out the orders, “All right, you three get into the swamp and keep your heads down. If they start trouble – or hells, if I do – start ringing that din’s bell with your rocks.” He pointed, but the three humans were already climbing into the swamp, and gingerly plucked their way in amongst the reeds, where they crouched and hid. There were a few whinging complaints at first about the squelchy mud and the smell, but Malone quickly told them to shut their rice holes.
“Piuthar mo shàrachadh breisleach, that’s a big shield,” said Koors, more or less to himself but loud enough for the others to hear, as their marks got closer. And indeed it was – Malone could see it even from a few hundred yards away. It must have been an ogre carrying it, and gleam from the shield’s boss in the centre of its wooden wall, alongside that of the paladin’s smaller but fully metal shield in the noonday sun, made it look like the glowing eyes of some large beast were slowly prowling down the road towards them. Malone grimaced and shook his head – why the hells would he come up with a picture like that when he was trying to pump himself up for the upcoming barney?
As they got closer, the gang could hear the chatter coming from the group approaching. Well, not so much from the group, but mostly from one member – the kender.
“What does the note say? Does it tell you to kill us all? How many of us do you think you could kill with your magic powers? Are you going to wait until we’re asleep? Don’t do that. It would be terrible is you killed us all with your magic and I didn’t get to see it because I was asleep.”
A few moments passed where it seemed the other shorter member of the oncoming party may have said something in reply. Then the kender’s too-loud voice was again heard, “Hey, I found this note, can you read it for me? I bet you can’t even read, and that’s why you aren’t reading the note. But that’s okay, you can just make it up. None of us can read it anyway. If the note could say anything, what do you wish it said?”
There was a bit more toing and froing of words between the group, and as they got closer Malone noticed that there wasn’t five in their party, but only four – so that was a bonus. A few more words were able to be heard as well. Apparently the goblin had got a note from some other goblin in the last village they’d been in, and they were talking about whether they’d give the book over to someone who had offered them an amount of gold. It seemed like they weren’t keen, which wasn’t much of a surprise given the goody-goody paladin who was leading them. Good, thought Malone. It would be terrible for them to get all disappointed when he and his thugs deprived them of the book a few hours early. Being stolen from was much more honourable than being bribed, after all.
It was only when the adventurers had come within about 30 yards or so – quite close, really – that Malone realised that with all his planning, he’d never actually considered what he would say to these adventurers to get them to give over the book. He figured “Give us the book” was probably too direct, and so instead went for the much sneakier and deceptive, “Halt. We’ve set up this road block to search people for illegal books.”
Yeah, that’d work. Unfortunately, the party didn’t go for it, and instead started saying things like, “By whose authority?” and “We don’t carry any illegal books,” and “Where are you from?” Before he could really think about it, Malone had told them, “We’re from Saketome, and the book is illegal there and the mayor requires it, and so we’ve been sent to collect it. So you will have to submit to being searched so that we can confiscate the book.”
Even after he’d said it, Malone knew it sounded dumb. He was bracing himself for their response when rather surprisingly the kender raised her hand and waved it about and said gleefully, “Ooh, ooh, me first!” and strode forth to be searched. That was both unexpected and rather unwelcome, but Malone gave a nod to Ho, and thankfully the bugbear had enough of a head on her shoulders to, whilst fending off the kender’s roving fingers with one hand, deftly relieve Sage of her short sword with the other. “Hey, my sword!” said the kender plaintively, but the bugbear simply needed to hold the sword above her head for it to be out of the little person’s reach.
“Enough games,” the ogre let out in a low rumble, and planted his shield firmly before him in defiance. He said a prayer to Qodesh, asking for his holy blessing, and then stated gravely, “Let us push forward through these insignificant ruffians.” Ashana nodded in agreement, and drawing her sword in salute, clicked a heel into Sense’s flank and drove her forward in a slow walk beside her large companion, with Reich taking up the rear. Malone started to panic. Now there was a mounted, armoured warrior, a huge ogre, and – Qodesh’s holy halibut – a wizard as well. He looked over at Ho and used his eyes to quickly flick between her and the kender, her and the kender, his eyes widening as if to say silently, “Do something!”
So Ho did the only thing she could think of – tried to grab the kender, and put the sword to her throat.
Things went kind of downhill from there. Odate charged towards the bugbear in order to save his little friend, war hammer in hand. Malone stepped forward with Koors to waylay the progress of Ashana’s horse – after all, there was no payday for anyone if the book got away – and he copped a slash at the face from the paladin’s sword. It was only after a moment that he felt blood trickle down his cheek and a sting of pain telling him that the blade had hit home at all – it must have been sharp. She could be trouble – and that’s what the reinforcements were for.
Sling stones started to fly from the muddy roadside, their exact provenance hidden by the reeds. One slammed ineffectually against the monster shield of the ogre, but the other rang off the paladin’s helmet with a loud metallic ‘donk’. At a boy, thought Malone, assuming it had most likely been Bushel – though for all he knew it could just as easily have been the new guy, Caper. At any rate, they’d done the job, and just like clockwork, Bugsy sprang up from the reeds and made a dash for the horse’s saddlebags. Unfortunately, just like Gnomish clockwork, something went wrong, and she couldn’t get the flap of the bag open.
That seemed to be all the time the goblin needed. Striding up to the girl, he extended a hand and spoke a harsh word of magic. There was a crackling sound, a flash accompanied by a smell of ozone, and then a wisp of smoke coming from the thief’s clothing. Her hair stood on end before withering down to her scalp, and her skin blackened sickeningly, before she fell straight back, spasming and twitching briefly.
Now Koors hadn’t grown up in the best of dwarven families, but even they had taught him to distrust magic – it was, after all, the gift of dragons, who constantly threatened their homeland under the mountain. Plus, his life had taught him two things. One: wizards are deadly. He only had to think back to Saketome for that. Two: always attack the wizard. So with courage and anger, the dwarf lunged forward and sank his dagger into the goblin’s belly. Blood quickly soaked the wizard’s blue robe, a growing patch of darkened purple spreading regally across his abdomen before he fell to his knees and curled up into a little ball, whimpering.
By now, Sage had freed her hoopak from her back and was jabbing it threateningly at the bugbear. Ho knew she couldn’t last long in this situation – two against one was bad odds, even for a bugbear – so she took a gamble in hopes of evening the odds, stepping sideways and pulling the short sword up into a guarding ward to fend off the ogre’s blows. She didn’t even need to look past him to Malone – she knew it he saw an opening to stick a knife in someone’s back, he’d take it.
But that opportunity never came. As if warned from above, Odate sent his shield back even as the hammer struck forward, and there was nothing Ho could do to block the blow. There was a wet thump, and the hammer came away with bits of bugbear scalp as she sank to the ground in a heap. It was only a moment later that Ashana’s back swing dug her sword’s blade into the dwarf’s collarbone, and in wrenching the sword to back to herself brought with it a strangled cry of pain.
Malone knew something was wrong. Maybe Sophia and Qodesh really were with this group. And where were the sling stones? He was expecting more cover than this. Maybe one of them was planning another jump at the book….
As if summoning the rock from the air, another stone – but only one – flew from the rushes and hit the paladin’s helmet with another loud ringing noise – no wonder they called them dins – and Malone took his chance. Swinging under the horse’s neck, he slipped an agile hand into the saddlebags and grabbed the oilskin that surely held the book. He had it there, in his fingers, sliding out of the bag – and then it slipped,and it was gone.
That had surely been his last chance. There was nothing to do now but run his arse off and hope to hells that the paladin was too dizzy to ride him down. Malone quickly disengaged and sprinted north-east along the road back to Mae Lin like his life depended on it. Which it probably did. In fact, the kender launched her hoopak at him like a javelin, but since it was aimed at tangling his legs, he was able to give a little hop and skip and it clattered at his feet, and soon Malone had left the eating his dust as he quickly sought to make himself a speck on the horizon.
The party took their time healing the injured – including the enemy combatants – and loaded those who were still unconscious up onto Sense’s back, before continuing their way towards town. Sage did a quick check of the reeds, but could only see a track leading deeper into the mud, and decided that if they would simply let the slinger go.
As they departed, none of them saw the short-lived but highly animated shaking of a small patch of reeds, or heard the faint sound of gurgling that accompanied it.
Malone ran and ran, until his lungs were burning and his stomach was heaving and his legs were aching. He stumbled to the side of the road and threw up into the reeds – so much for that smoked fish – before looking up and grimacing at the face of a goblin who floated past in a small canoe, pausing in her harvesting of papyrus to watch him. Malone scowled at her, before carrying himself in fits and gasps to the gate. What he needed was a drink, another drink, a third drink, and hopefully by then Bushel and Caper would join him here, and they could work out what to do next. Probably catch a boat to Winter Pines – there was no way they could go back to Saketome after having failed the boss.
A few hours passed, and there didn’t seem to be any sign of the other two. Maybe that was that. Maybe they had followed the plan and headed back to the rendezvous in the Grove – in which case he should head out there and stop them from heading back to Saketome and facing the wrath of the angry little gnome. He pulled himself out of his chair and ambled to the door – he wasn’t drunk, but the three sakes had definitely taken the edge off his brush with death – but when he’d pushed his way through the rice paper door, he thought that perhaps he had had too much to drink, because Koors’ bearded dwarven face, pale and drained of life, floated right past him. There was still blood around his neck.
Malone’s eyes widened and his heart raced, and he just stood there motionless – or perhaps paralysed – in the door as the horse passed by him, with the bodies of Koors, Ho and Bugsy slumped over its back.
Then Malone heard a groan, and realise that his fellow thieves weren’t dead at all – they were unconscious, possibly even patched up, and for some weird reason still in the custody of the paladin and her companions. And look, they had captured Caper too! He wasn’t unconscious at least, and was instead walking with them. They must have grabbed him out of the swamp. No sign of Bushel though. Maybe they were going to be sold as slaves – that was not an uncommon punishment for criminal activity in many areas of Manxiga. Malone shook his head and sucked his teeth at the idea as his fellows continued on their bumpy ride down the street through Mae Lin’s warehousing district. He wasn’t quite sure what he could do to help them, but maybe he could do something. Or maybe he could still get the book – after all, then they wouldn’t have been captured in vain, right? He could even maybe talk the boss into buying them back as a reward.
So Malone did what he did best – took to the streets, kept to the alleys, and shadowed the party from a distance, watching what that were doing and where they were going – they were following the goblin’s lead, but looked utterly lost – all while deciding whether to try to free his friends, or take the book.
After some twists and turns and doubling back, the paladin and her party ended up going into the scholar district. As Malone tailed them, he did think it was a little odd that they just had Caper walking along with them, and that he wasn’t bound up or restrained in any way. And they seemed to be talking amiably with him, almost as if they knew him. But perhaps that wasn’t so surprising – after all, Caper did have a mouth on him, and he could be pretty charming. It might just be he surrendered and convinced the paladin that he would play nice. Everyone knows paladins and girls are both soft touches like that.
When they got to the scholar district – about a hundred or so houses in all, most made of hill giant mud brick, the rest from dwarf-cut stone – they started moving from dwelling to dwelling, as though looking for a specific one. But as they wandered the streets looking about, a black clad goblin stalked up to the goblin wizard, and started a hushed conversation that Malone couldn’t quite make out. Even if he could, it was likely be wouldn’t have caught much anyway, as his Goblin was pretty lousy, and they were unlikely to be asking each other “Where is the gaderobe”.
But when the black clad goblin turned and started addressing the rest of the party, he spoke in Common, clearly and persuasively. He introduced himself as Song Young, and was going on about some note he’d sent them, some offer for the book, and when they turned him down, he got a little more insistent, before becoming downright demanding – never threatening though; he spoke with an easy confidence as though his getting the book was a sure thing. Malone recognised a shake down when he saw one, but surely this guy’s balls were bigger than his brains, because there was no way he could take four of them by himself.
If course, Malone hadn’t figured the goblin for having Tu’eva on his side. His lips snarled a dread curse, which he spat the at ogre, and despite his holy faith, his limbs went limp and he just sort of sagged there, a faraway look on his face. Caper took the moment of distraction to rush down a nearby alley between two of the houses, much to the apparent surprise of the wizard and the din – good for him! But they had bigger fish to fry, and focused on the Tu’evan. Reich threw out a jolt of sparks, but it flew wide and splashed across a brick wall, leaving a small black stain. Ashana saluted her foe, but that also telegraphed her movements, and the goblin stepped easily aside. Sage flicked a rock at the cleric, but it impacted harmlessly off his blackened chain shirt. He grinned as he slowly drew a black and red flecked flail from his belt, and cast his hand over the paladin, seemingly taking great pleasure in the fact that she too lost her motive force, slowing and sagging into a wide eyed haze. And then there were two.
Unfortunately for the Tu’evan, one of them was the kender. He had meant to drug her mind too, but wasn’t really concentrating on her – not when there was an ogre, a paladin and a wizard to consider. But apparently looks could be deceiving, because when Sage dropped her hoopak and drew her short sword and dagger, Song might as well have been facing two opponents for all the blades that were whirling around his face.
This was Malone’s chance – to sneak out of the shadow, snatch the book, and make like a stocking and run. He could go to the Grove – Caper would probably be waiting there for him, and maybe Bushel too – and…
Malone’s train of thought was interrupted by a tap on the shoulder, and when he turned to see what it was, was greeted with dark eyes, the word “Malone”, and a dagger pommel to the nose. Suddenly the stars looked really bright, even though it was only late afternoon, and as he turned and started on his long, slow fall to the ground, Malone saw he was in good company – the Tu’evan goblin had taken a sword to the chest, a dagger to the belly, and then a pommel under the chin, and was going to join him in in hell. At least he wouldn’t be alone.
As the lights went out, the last thing Malone thought he heard was the wizard saying, “Oh, look, a flail.” And then everything went black.