Stathis woke up, head throbbing, her mouth dry. She really should have stopped after the first however-many beers she’d had. She blinked, ungumming her eyes, rubbing away gunge, before noticing the silence. With the number of rogues Kethys had, even slumbering, there should be some noise. She looked around – the place was deserted, decorations stripped from the wall, personal items gone. Forcing herself to be alert, she reached for her sword and rose, ignoring the pounding in her head.
Parth was leant by the door, a book in hand, the only sound the dry flick of the pages. Stathis approached, slowly checking the room – completely stripped, feeling cold and lifeless. Janaxia was sprawled along a couch, having gotten changed back into her fancy dress, and now managing to make being black-out drunk look stylish, despite the half-empty bottle in hand and being unconscious.
It took more focus than it should to speak, her tongue thick and dry in her mouth. ‘What happened? Where is everyone?’
‘I can see that. Where did they go?’
‘Where’s the money?’ She vaguely remembered a fence coming in at one point, assessing the take, an impressive amount in cold coin getting traded for the assorted stuff they’d looted. ‘Hells, where’s Kamarni?’
Parth pointed into a corner, where, wedged between a wardrobe and the wall was Kamarni, arms wrapped around himself protectively. Stathis kept an eye on him for a moment until she saw his chest move, confirming that he was still alive, if probably with a banging headache. After a few drinks, he’d relaxed a bit and was less of an ass, at least as long as he didn’t speak.
‘And the money!?’
Parth handed over a slip of paper, that she’d even somehow managed to get signed, Kethys’ spidery handwriting sprawling over the receipt. A pretty decent amount for a night’s work – thievery suddenly seemed a more tempting career choice, as Parth patted a bulging belt pouch, metal clinking. Stathis handed it back and staggered into the kitchen, quenching her thirst. They’d even taken all the food!
As she tried to force herself to feel better, memories trickled through her mind. There had been drinking (a lot of drinking), some drunken betting, Parth and Kethys having a friendly rivalry that grew increasingly less friendly until they’d ended up opposite each other, slamming drinks down in quick succession, between some form of strange riddle game no-one else understood, until knives had been drawn, which may or may not have been part of the game. After even more drinks they’d stopped trying to cut each other, instead having their arms around each other’s shoulders for support, swaying back and forth and singing some incomprehensible elven song, tears streaming down their faces. Semari had dragged Hadric upstairs, returning sometime later with a satisfied look on her face and obviously dishevelled clothes.
Gods, Semari. Where was Semari? Had she left with them? She turned around, an arm flopping down from above, making her jump back in shock. She looked up, to see Semari sprawled around the shelf over the door, like an oversized cat, somehow managing to stay atop the lip of rock despite being unconscious. She lazily scratched herself, the small movement enough to send her topping off, tumbling in mid-air to land on all fours, slowly rolling over and opening her eyes, drowsy grin covering her face.
She used Stathis to pull herself up to standing, looking up into her eyes. The azure bracer was now on her wrist – Stathis remembered the severed arm being removed and dumped in the street, and the blood being washed off, as the group agreed that Semari had earnt it. The reek of beer was on Semari’s breath as she spoke.
‘Hiya. Are we leaving? Those guys you ripped off might come calling. And Kethys likes cleaning with firebombs.’ She used a hand to make an explosion gesture. ‘Kaboom! Means no evidence. Think she liked you though, so maybe a long fuse.’ She giggled, before detaching herself and shoving her head under the sink, trying to wake herself fully.
Firebombs? She looked around, checking in case there was some fuse hissing away right now. There was a note on the table, pinned in place with a knife. As Semari washed herself, Stathis read it.
Good job, for a first timer! And thanks for looking after Semari. We’ve left, would advise you to do the same. The bombs will go off in the morning, probably best you’re not around when that happens.
She moved as quickly as she could, grabbing Semari and dragging her away, ignoring her splutters of shock and throwing her into the street. Parth had shown some initiative for once and grabbed Kamarni, the promise of payment likely focusing her thoughts. Stathis looked at Janaxia for a moment, trying to figure out the best way of doing this, before throwing tact away, and just picking Janaxia up in her arms and carrying her outside.
Just in time, as something above them clicked, a blast of heat somewhere in the building, fire catching quickly. From outside, they watched as fire flared out of all of the windows, the stone building safe enough, as the contents were gutted. Before they could draw attention, they kept moving, trying to head back towards the docks. Fortunately, they fit in with the general ragged look of the place, even as the building burnt behind them.
It took a few missed turns, but they managed to find their way to the docks, ignoring the pall of smoke rising behind them. Kamarni had woken up, was either smart enough not to raise any objections, or just too tired and baffled. With the docks in sight, endless black chasm of the underworld sea lapping against the ancient stone, a shout came from behind them. ‘Stop right there, foul kidnappers!’
Stathis turned, still carrying Janaxia, now awake. Emerging from an alleyway was a bland-looking youth, features plain and unremarkable, even their hair a vague blonde-brown colour. As they approached, their form altered, into that of a statuesque young woman, hair shifting into waist-length glossy black braids, even their simple clothing changing into brightly-coloured robes, vermillion silk shot through with golden thread. Janaxia nodded, approving of either her sense of drama or her style, if not both.
‘Release him, or face the consequences!’ She drew a shortsword, the edges emitting a thin haze, some enchantment laid upon the blade. Several of her companions, all looking like the same bland, easy to miss individual, were behind her.
Stathis looked at Kamarni, who had taken a step back, making sure to be behind both Stathis, as Semari began limbering herself up, stretching her arms out.
‘You want to go back?’
He shook his head, then spoke loudly enough to be heard. ‘No, I will return to the surface alone. While our families may continue their negotiations to seal us together, know that this act will incur a harsh penalty!’
She walked forward, robes fluttering in the ocean breeze. ‘Were my terms truly that harsh? A few little enchantment spells to ensure your affections never waver, a simple precaution, my love.’ Her grin was somewhat more fanged than it should be.
‘While being carried through the streets by a knight is very dashing, very chic, could you kindly put me down? Not here, the street is dirty. Over there, on the paving.’
Stathis obediently followed instructions, walking to the edge of the road where there was a raised pavement, with less dirt on. As dainty as any princess, Janaxia suffered herself to be moved, carefully climbing out of Stathis’ arms. ‘Thank you.’
Her arms free, Stathis drew her blade and turned to face their enemies, looking at them in confusion and disbelief. Stathis pointed her sword at their leader. ‘Before we start, one question!’
She looked somewhat put out by this, sense of drama no doubt stung, but she nodded as she regained her poise. ‘A single question, before you met your doom, and your bodies are fed to the dark sea.’
‘That monster freak thing yesterday, was that anything to do with you lot?’
She was probably a good actor, what with being a shape-shifter and all, but she looked offended. ‘Such a monster of unbound flesh and hate, that is not our way. We fight with subtlety, stealth and elegance, and to succumb to such violent emotion brings both the death-of-self and the death-of-flesh. Whatever that cursed being was, it was something you bought with you, not our doing.’
‘Thank you, I’m glad that’s settled.’ It meant that whatever that thing was would still be out there, but that was a problem for later. ‘So, we going to do this?’
A crowd had gathered to watch (albeit from a safe distance, and most were taking cover, in case of stray attacks). Energy snapped and flared around Janaxia’s hands, Stathis and Semari moving closer together, tension building as everyone prepared themselves, no-one wanting to make the first move.
‘Halt this madness!’ There was a loud drumming clatter, as a stick was banged against stone. ‘This is neutral ground, by order of the Guild of the Black Ferry! Any who shed blood here will be barred from passage, forever imprisoned within the dread city of Karakani’Karpultarn, barred from the sunlit lands until they perish!’ A ferryman rattled his long pole against a building, ordering them to halt.
They stared each other down, before Stathis took a deep breath and sheathed her sword, ready to dodge in case of attack. She slowly stepped backwards until she was close to the ferryman, speaking quietly. ‘How much for passage back to Swordrest?’
‘A hurried passage back to the sunlit lands! For five brave souls, such refuge does not come cheaply, you must…’
Stathis was in no mood to deal with dramatic declarations or haggling, and the haul had been pretty decent. ‘Two platinum cover it?’
There was a moment of shocked silence before they answered. ‘That will suffice, yes.’
‘Thanks.’ Stathis raised her voice. ‘Baronet Kamarni has made his stance clear. We will be leaving now, and escorting him back to Swordrest.’ And anything after that was his own damn problem!
They started slowly walking backwards, just in case of sudden attack, the doppelgangers posturing and threatening, but making no actual attack. Once they were on the dock, they scrabbled down to board a raft, its rocking and swaying stopping the instant the ferryman boarded and put their pole into the water, some enchantment taking effect. Parth handed over the money (although not without getting a receipt first), as the ferryman pulled out a stone goblet.
‘One must pay the black toll, and then we shall depart this place, your souls no doubt glad to be leaving the cursed, ancient stone of Karakani’Karpultarn, hidden at the very heart of the world!’ There was a trickling sound, the cup filling with abyssally-black water.
Stathis sighed, took the goblet and passed it to Kamarni. ‘Don’t chug it.’ He looked at it suspiciously, before taking a sip, eyes glazing over for a moment before recovering. ‘OK, can we go now?’
The ferryman inhaled deeply, starting another overwrought monologue as they shot away from the docks, the red glow quickly fading from sight as they travelled over the black ocean. Stathis let herself relax, sitting down on the raft, looking forward to getting back somewhere more civilised, and less dark and closed in.