Qaera settled into her evening post, leaning on the crenelations of the tower atop the Guardians’ Guild. She had a wonderful view from up here, with the entire Inner City spread out around her. The soft glow of magic lanterns illuminated the many faces of the guild houses while patches of gloom marked the gardens of various estates, combining into a haunting picture of palaces sleeping in the dark.
During the day it was possible to admire the topiaries, ponds, and pathways in all their extravagance, but at night was when the true beauty emerged. At night when it was all so different; the quiet of near-empty streets instead of the constant buzz of the crowds, the soft clucking of the lake’s waters against the shores of the district’s eastern edge replacing the ringing of ships’ bells.
Even the air was fresher; the gentle breeze caressing her face with its cool touch instead of the hot sun or freezing rain, and carrying with it the scents of the vineyards from across the valley to wash away the stench of the city. But it was the ruins of Raven’s Nest backlit by reflected moonlight off Lake Seren’s calm waters that she cherished the most.
This was the reason why she had worked so hard to earn this assignment.
Her gaze swept across the cityscape, looking for any signs of trouble. She could see a figure slowly moving along the narrow streets between hedges and walls, the pathways servants used to stay out of sight from their wealthy masters. It was small, a child perhaps, and dressed in deep golden yellow hues, making it stand out against the greens and blues of the nighttime city.
They appeared headed for the Gilded Gate, though Qaera found it hard to be certain because of the erratic path. The figure seemed unfamiliar with the city’s layout, suggesting her earlier theory of a local child an unlikely one; only an outsider gawking at the splendour would be that meandering, wandering around to look at the sights instead of going where they were headed.
Her gaze darted to a rooftop not far from the figure, her trained eye noticing movement even with her attention focused on the visitor. She scanned the building, looking for some sign of trouble, but found only dark windows and motionless stone. A lone statue had been added to the structure’s skyline since her last watch, its black silhouette standing a silent vigil over the streets below. She had not noticed it when she first surveyed her ward, so perhaps that was what caught her attention now.
Qaera could have sworn there had been something moving, though, but no matter how closely she looked, she found nothing unusual. Turning back to the figure, she noted the person had made their way onto one of the main avenues and was moving quite swiftly, straight for the Gilded Gate. In doing so it passed directly in front of the compound beneath her, providing her with a clear view in the magical light of the many orbs lining the street.
It was a halfling, though what kind she could not tell. He had white hair and wore an amber shirt, but otherwise wore nondescript leathers. He paused often during his walk, stopping to examine the buildings around him and occasionally scribbling something into a book. He might have been taking notes for a future heist but seemed far more interested in specific bits of the unusual architecture than he did the buildings as a whole.
She watched as the halfling continued down the road, less interested in the guilds than he had been the “back alleys” of the estates. His belt was laden with enough pouches to carry the tools of a burglar, but he had nowhere to keep any loot. Still, she would do well to make sure he was questioned and his notebook examined before he left the Inner City.
Qaera turned and looked down at the beacon emplaced at the center of the rooftop guardpost. With it she would be able to inform the gatekeepers to take great care with who they let in, or in this case out, through the Gilded Gate. She pushed the control crystal into place and the glass sphere silently lifted up into the air even as it began to glow softly with a pale white light.
She moved to alter its color when suddenly screeches filled the air, the world around her turning into a flutter of leathery wings and raking claws. Bats!
A shudder ran up her spine, but no sooner had she lifted her arm to protect her face than they were gone. Why did it always have to be bats? Had it been so long since last anyone used the beacon that bats had begun nesting in the chute beneath it?
She set the colour and threw a glance toward the Gate, but the halfling was already through. Cursing to herself, she scanned the skyline for the statue; it would serve to mark of the halfling’s path through the district.
There was something off about this whole scenario. The statue was Gate-side of her, but she had spotted it when the halfling was still Palace-side. Something strange was going on, but her job would end once she reported it at the end of her shift. Just the way she liked it.
Gethak ducked into the back door of the tavern, waving a friendly hello to the cook on his way past (lunch smells delicious!), then made his way through the mid-morning crowd and up to the balcony. None of his friends were present, so he hurried down the corridor to check Ky’s room only to find it empty (most distressing).
He did a quick search of his own room, finding it to have been emptied of his gear, then moved down to the bar. A polite inquiry revealed only that the barmaid had not seen Ky today. Gethak pondered heading to the thieves’ guild, thinking that the most likely location for his friends to be holed up, but realized he would never find his way through the stinky sewers without a guide.
The construction site seemed the next best bet, but Gethak did not wish to go there until he had shaken the sensation that he was being watched. He had made very sure that no one was following him when he made his way out of the Inner City last night, yet he kept feeling like someone was right there behind him (paranoia).
He wandered the noisy market streets aimlessly for a few hours, trying anything he could think of to outmaneuver his unseen pursuers, yet it did nothing to alleviate the feeling of being under surveillance. Eventually he decided that it was his mind playing tricks on him (still alarmed) and hurried toward Ky’s “manor”, the agreed upon deadline for his report looming near.
Shadow cursed under his breath.
His skin felt like it was on fire, his muscles ached from exhaustion, and his eyes stung from the bright light. The shadows danced on his taut muscled arms as they moved, sweat flying with every deafening blow. He would not be able to keep this up much longer.
He used to hate working at the forge. It was repetitive, menial, hot, and loud. It had proven a necessary skill, and over the decades he had learned to appreciate the meditative state it could bring. The repetitive nature serving to focus his attention, the menial tasks allowing his mind to wander, while the heat and noise drowned out the distractions of the world around him.
He lifted the blade off the anvil, scrutinizing it carefully. It was not the most well-made katar he had ever forged, but under the circumstances it would have to suffice. He would not be caught unarmed again.
As he moved to dunk it in the vat of oil he saw Gethak walking through the yard, a confused look on his face. The world seemed more contrasted than normal with the forge’s flames still dancing in Shadow’s eyes; the gnome’s shadow was darker and the ground paler.
The compound consisted of a handful of old wooden buildings around a decently sized yard (at least for such a tightly packed city). The lake occupied most of one side and makeshift walls had been put up in the alleys connecting the yard to the main streets (amateurish work at best), effectively turning the buildings into the only entrance. The small blacksmith that had once stood next to the former tavern had been flipped around, so that the forge faced the yard instead of the street.
It was a sloppy job, clearly done in a hurry and without a competent architect to oversee the design. The wooden fences were likewise recent and rushed, hardly able to stop anyone determined to smash through but functional in their purpose of blocking passersby from viewing the yard (imperfect, but not ineffective) and had the added benefit of holding off the worst of the stench of dung from the streets outside (if not the smell of burnt wood from the place itself).
“Gethak!” Ky called out to him; waving him over to a small patio attached to the building between the forge and the lake, where he was reclining in a chair and enjoying a glass of wine. “I was beginning to worry you had been caught. Did everything go according to plan?”
Gethak hopped onto a seat and pulled out his notebook, throwing a few quick glances around in a final effort to spot the source of his paranoia. Ky seemed to take it as interest in the compound, motioning around him with a grin.
“While I was inspecting the progress a while back I decided that we would need more than just a small house for our endeavor. You need a forge to craft your gadgets, Shadow needs space to train, Safira needs somewhere to work on her magic, and I… let’s just say that I needed some rooms for myself, as well.”
“I thought all the money we reclaimed went into the renovation. How could you afford these buildings?”
“Almost all of it, yes. Why do you think this latest addition is all so run down and basic?” He threw Gethak a mischievous smirk.
“My guess would be that it is because they were rushed, and you did not have the benefit of my assistance in planning them. Furthermore, I would hazard to assume you could not afford enough laborers to even finish the job.”
Ky chuckled and nodded. “Fair enough. Anyway, the land was part of the same deed as the tavern and most of the buildings were ruined in Adrie’s fire. So it was mostly a question of convincing local residents to accept leaving.” He motioned at some rotten stumps sticking out of the lake. “Guild used to have a private dock back in the day, so we still have a lot to do. Anyway, what did you find out?”
“I am going to need some ashes.” Gethak hopped down and, after Ky gave a nod to indicate where he might find some, collected a fistful. Climbing back into his seat, he proceeded to gently strew them over the blank pages at the end of his notebook. After shaking off the excess dust, he placed the book on the table and began to go through the minutes.
“Alright, the meeting started with the usual pleasantries as the attendees were accounted for and representatives acknowledged. Following this came a discussion-”
“Did they mention Wyrm’s Edge?” Ky leaned forward, an impatient look on his face.
“No. Baron Fairgrove was not present, but was represented by his daughter. Lady Fairgrove made no mention of the village, but did discuss logging operations in the northern reaches of Wyrm’s Wood at length. Aside from a recent string of troll attacks disrupting work, she was concerned with the conscription writ and its effect upon the efficacy of her father’s-”
“Conscription writ? The warriors’ guild responding to the rumours, I take it?”
“Yes.” Gethak began flipping around among his notes, searching for the discussion. “Duke Brighthill was most upset with it. They had-” (Another interruption!)
“Hello, Kyrion.” The voice was soft, a velvet whisper creeping from somewhere to Gethak’s left. Yet all that he could see there was his own shadow. (Growing?)
“Lady Katrina, always an unexpected pleasure to see you drop by.” Ky seemed surprised but remained collected as a woman manifested out of Gethak’s shadow. She wore a snug dress of black velvet and midnight blue silk. Gethak recognized her even before her face had emerged from the dark, ivory skin contrasting with the raven locks framing her emerald eyes and sapphire smile.
The two stood in silence, each appraising the other. Lady Katrina with a reserved calm and quiet control, Ky with his usual grin and laid back posture (night and day).
“You know each other?” Gethak asked at length, finding the silence increasingly uncomfortable.
“In another life,” Lady Katrina responded, gliding over to sit herself down at the table, across from Ky.
“Several,” Ky quipped with a grin.