19 Desnus 4709 – Afternoon
During the last few weeks, a woman has regularly visited my street performances. She introduced herself as Janiven Key. She is a beautiful and charismatic woman with short black hair. She is some kind of mercenary as she walks around in the city wearing a breastplate and she carries a longsword at her side. Most often these kind of folk do not notice me unless it is the males who regularly provide undesired and sexually charged comments. Janiven seems genuinely interested in me and that captivates me. Sometimes she hints at things that are against the law, which makes me a little scared. I have witnessed up close what is done to those who oppose the system and I never want to see something like that again or become a victim myself.
A few days ago, I saw Janiven for the last time and she invited me to come to Vizio’s Tavern on 19 Desnus halfway through the afternoon. She will not say exactly why, but she tells me that she and some others are looking for a way to remove the nightly curse of this city. Just over thirty years ago, something entered Westcrown after sunset and people started disappearing. The Dottari could not solve the problem because they were understaffed and not up to the task. The role of the Hell Knights is unclear to me, but whatever they did was not good enough. After a little too many disappearances, a curfew was enforced over the city. Nobody was allowed outside between sunset and sunrise. Most of the people were too afraid to go outside anyway, but this made it official. From time to time some fools ignore the curfew and these people disappear forever. Often some parts of their possessions are found but that is it.
Because of this curse, Westcrown has no night-life. Everything has to close before sunset. The people manage to get by though and have cramped everything into the hours when the sun can seen in the sky.
Strong light sources seem to keep the monsters at bay, so several larger and important streets are lit every evening with lamps as tall as I am. People should be able to travel freely across these streets but it is not allowed. Only the Dottari, Hell Knights and some important people are allowed to come there. All the rest of the city is dark except where some people have put candles or oil lamps outside.
So, halfway through the afternoon of 19 Desnus, I find myself at the entrance of Vizio’s Tavern. There has been no rain for more than two weeks and the last week we have only had sunshine with comfortable high temperatures. The streets have become dusty and everything is dry. There is a soft pleasant wind.
The tavern has a dishevelled look to it. The paint is gone in many places, most of the ironwork is rust-eaten, in some places the wood shows signs of dry rot, the windows need to be cleaned, but the sign seems new. It is too dark inside compared to the sunlit street that it is hard for me to look inside. There is no sign that this establishment is open. I can hear some voices inside so I presume this must be the right place. I hesitate when I grab the rusted doorknob. I am frightened. Janiven insinuated that this meeting would be about breaking the law. About rebellion against the government and I fear the consequences. I still have nightmares from time to time. This is only an informative meeting though. Nothing will bind me to anything. And if I want the city to return to the times of before the curfew, I must put aside my fears. I open the door.
The inside looks as if the place is not yet finished. A lot wood lies against one wall, and most of the furniture is stacked in a corner. The bar seems functional and clean and so is one table with five chairs around it. Everything else covered with dust. There are five people inside, of which only three are human, and one of them is Janiven. So I am in the right place. Everyone looks at me as I walk through the door and close it behind me. Nobody addresses me and not knowing what is expected of me, I decide to wait standing somewhere between the bar and clean table.
I take a better look at the other people here. Janiven I know, but the others are complete strangers. One of them, seated on a stool at the bar, is tall broad shouldered half-orc. I rarely see them in Westcrown. This one has a pale green skin, coarse greying dark hair and his tusks are clearly visible. They point outward, suggesting a perpetual grin. In his face I can see some wrinkles around his deep set blue eyes, revealing that he is aging. Over a chain hauberk he is not wearing a tunic but a worn sun bleached white cassock, neatly buttoned up to his neck. These garments reveal little bare skin, but in his neck and at his wrists, tattoos are visible. Too little can be seen to get any idea of what they might mean. He is also wearing large brown boots. Next to him, leaning against the bar, is a huge spear that reaches almost to the ceiling. It must be eight to nine feet or something like that.
Seated next to the half-orc there is a disgusting looking skinny human. Or at least I think he is human. Even in the little light here in the tavern I can see he has not seen a bath for at least several weeks if not more. His once expensive blue robe is covered in dust and is stained everywhere, and he is wearing brown sandals. His half long black hair is greasy and he has large circles under his eyes. He has not shaven for some time. As I take a closer look at his face, it reminds me of my mother who has been through hell and never recovered. I cannot smell him at this distance, but from the old man next to him I get the impression that is must be bad.
The old man must be around fifty. His short hair, beard and moustache are mostly grey. He is wearing some kind of yellow robes. Where the other people in the tavern seem rather relaxed, this man is nervous and restless. He is constantly looking around him and makes random gestures.
The last man seated at the bar is a male elf. Another non-human that I seldom encounter in this big city. I recognize him by the small posture and his pointy ears. He has short black hair and is clean shaven like all elves. He has come fully armed, with a dagger and rapier at his belt, a quiver on his back and a longbow is leaning against the bar. He is wearing a chain shirt, green trousers, a blue unmarked tunic, blue narrow fitting boots and a green hooded cloak.
None of the patrons are wearing any kind of visible jewellery. Overall it is a very mixed company. I wonder where Janiven found them and if they have the same goal as I have. I can hardly imagine it. The elf is most likely not even a local and the half-orc must be some kind of mercenary priest worshipping a strange god.
When I look at Janiven, I can see that the old man is not the only one who is nervous. So is she. She keeps looking at the door. After a long silence, Janiven says, that she is still waiting for one person to arrive. He should have been here already. Subsequently, she starts explaining a few things about herself. She is a mercenary who has bought this tavern together with a business associate. Then there is a silence again. Most of the sounds I can hear come from the streets outside. The old man starts looking through the windows regularly. He is worried that he cannot back home before sunset. It is not even late afternoon though and during this time of the year the sun only sets late in the evening. Still, I may not leave too late as I have to cross half the city to get back to the mansion.
Janiven prepares some bread and cheese, and places it on the table. Then she closes the doors and shutters and takes a seat. She invites everyone to join her. We will not wait any longer. I take a seat next to Janiven and take some of the bread and cheese. The others join us. Only now that he is standing up can I see how tall the half-orc is. He is very impressive up close especially when compared the dirty skinny man. When the seats are taken, the dirty man is still standing, but Janiven tells him to grab a chair from the furniture in the corner. He grabs one, and places it between the old man and the orc. The old man clearly does not like it but the dirty man does not notice or does not care. I think it is the latter.
Once everyone is comfortable, Janiven starts explaining why she has brought us together. We all want things to change in this city. Not everybody wants the same change, but we want change nevertheless and we dare not speak about it openly. The half-orc is a cleric of Iomedae, but he has to hide it for lack of freedom of religion. The elves from the woods cannot safely cross the Rego Cader, the northern district of Westcrown, because the Dottari and Hell Knights do not have the manpower to keep the peace and order there. The dirty man also needs the system to change in some way to allow him to continue his business, and the same applies to the old man.
Janiven also explains to us why she wants things to change. First of all, she wants the common people of Westcrown to have a better life like the rest of the inhabitants of Cheliax. She also wants to lift the nightly curse that rests on Westcrown, which will help with her first goal. In addition, Janiven is also concerned about the halflings, and she asks me to explain why. I turn red in the face when everyone looks at me. When performing, I do not care how many people look at me, but in situations like this I feel uncomfortable. I tell the others that at the mansion where I live, we have two halflings who work there as slaves. Janiven takes over and says that all halflings in Cheliax are slaves and it is clear she does not like that. Before she can continue, the old man interrupts and says that it is for the good of the halflings themselves. Now they are well fed and have good houses to sleep in. Otherwise they would just be roofless beggars.
We all have our own reasons to be here, but what unites is, is that we all want change. What’s more, everything has the same cause, the current rulers of Cheliax. Some of them are more to blame than others or for different things. The current ruling family of Cheliax, house Thrune, is responsible for most of the misery. That house is currently led by Queen Abrogail II, her Infernal Magestrix. House Thrune lived in Egorian and when they were the victors of the civil war that ended seventy years ago, they moved the title of capital from Westcrown to that city. The fact that they ended the bloody and cruel civil war was good. Somebody had to do it because the normal people were suffering badly during those thirty-five years. The majority of the people in Cheliax still see House Thrune as the saviours of their country.
However, there was a steep price to pay. House Thrune had formed a pact with Asmodeus, the Lord of Hell. As a result Asmodeus has become the state religion. Everywhere temples have been erected, the largest in Egorian off course, but there is also a large one in Westcrown.
House Thrune fears opposition and everything that is not to their liking is forcefully suppressed or destroyed. One example is religion. Officially all faiths are forbidden except for Asmodeus. In reality, a few are tolerated like Abadar (god of trade and nobility) and Shelyn (goddess of beauty and arts). The curfew in Westcrown is a way of suppressing that city. It is to weaken the former capital in favour of Egorian. The monsters might be real and so is the suffering of the inhabitants because of it, but law enforcers have not given this any priority. In fact they do nothing about as they are not allowed to. If I look at it like this, it seems to me that House Thrune is not so mighty as they seem. They are terrified of their subjects even though they have absolute power. Fear rules their lives, otherwise this totalitarian regime would not be so extreme. I would almost pity them if it were not for what they are doing to the lives of the millions of people that live in Cheliax.
Not only the rules House Thrune has come up with are wrong. The local rulers of Westcrown have also made a mess of things. Most of the taxes raised in the city are used so that the nobility in the city can live their lives in abundance while the normal people hardly get anything. I try to object to this, as this generalisation is not conform reality. Janiven will not hear about it, which upsets me, but I will not press the matter. House Rasdovain virtually has no income and we need all the coin we can get to survive. This Janiven seems a little blind because of her ideals. Yes, many things she addresses are correct, but refusing to listen to others who try rectify her is a bad and dangerous trait which is similar to that of how the rulers of Cheliax think and work. Should she ever gain power, than we will replace one tyranny with another.
Janiven continues by stating that one of the worst of these nobles is the mayor, Aberian Arvanxi, who has transformed his estate into a luxurious palace that is called Aberian’s Folley buy the common people. Subsequently she says that house Rasdovain is beholden to house Arvanxi, implying that my family are as bad as them. I frown in anger. We are not. We get nothing from the wealth of the Arvanxi’s. Why did this Janiven drag me over here if she dislikes me so much. Is to degrade me in front of the others? To show them an example of the rubbish that claims to rule the city?
I keep my silence as I think about getting up and leaving this puppet show. Then I inquire why Janiven is doing this? She often references other countries she has visited where things are better, so why settle here and start an uprising? Janiven replies that she is from Andoran, a neighbouring country of Cheliax, where everything is better. Where slavery is forbidden. That is no answer to my question. The old man surprises me by stating that he will leave now. He has heard enough. I just want to follow his example when Janiven convinces the old man to stay a little while longer. To let her finish her story. I keep my silence and continue listening as well. But her flat refusal to answer my question about her motivation why a foreigner wants to change the world in Cheliax makes my distrust even larger.
What follows is some more stories about how the Dottari are only protecting the rich nobility and do nothing for the commoners but I am hardly listening any more. I know from my uncle that the Dottari do what they can with the manpower and budget they have. And the city guard have to obey the mayor who directs too much resources to the people who do not need it. Janiven has lost my trust and respect and I will not take part in her rebellion.
There is a loud banging on the door. Someone wants in. I am frightened. Have stayed to long? Are the Hell Knights coming to stop this uprising before it even began? Janiven takes a peek outside. She says it is Morisino, a boy she trusts. Janiven opens the door to let the boy in and immediately locks the door again. The boy looks about 15 years old and reminds me of an urchin. He has red hair and freckles. Morisino is long and lean, and has very long arms and legs. His clothes are unkempt.
Morisino is out of breath as he says that Arael has been arrested by the Dottari. They allowed him to leave because of his young age. Janiven inquires with the boy if he has been followed, which he denies. In the distance however, we can hear the approaching footsteps of marching soldiers. That can only be the Hell Knights who did follow the boy.
My throat tightens as memories come back from three years ago. I do not want to die. I came here unarmed, just to listen. Now I am in danger of getting arrested. How could I have been so stupid? There is a slight panic with everyone. Several people inquire with Janiven if this tavern has a back door so that we might have a chance of escaping. Before she can answer, there is heavy thumping on the door. Our doom has arrived.
Janiven peeks outside again. There are a dozen Hell Knights clad in black leather armour and another dozen in metal armour. All of them belong to the Order of the Rack. Who else did you expect, I think by myself. Members of this Order reside in citadel Rivad near Westcrown and are responsible for all Hell Knight misery in this city. In addition, they are the ones who rewrite history every few months so I know them well. Regardless of what that Order did, there are twenty four heavily armed and armoured soldiers standing in front of the door. Half of them are still Armigers, Hell Knights in training, but they are well trained and fanatic.
The old man’s courage gives way to stupidity. He says he will surrender and hurries to the door before anyone can stop him. It is one of the most unintelligent things you can do. Hell Knights kill first and ask questions later. The old man pushes back the bolt and opens the door. He has barely left the building when a crossbow bolt hits his leg. Janiven is the first to reach the door and closes it before any Hell Knights can enter.
As we hear screaming from the old man outside before it is suddenly silenced, Janiven says that we can escape through the basement. A passage into the sewers has been created there. Janiven opens a hatch door behind the bar. The elf goes down first and I am right on his heels. I want to get away from these monsters as fast as I can. Once everyone has descended to the basement, Janiven closes the hatch and a pitch black darkness surrounds us.
Janiven quickly lights a sunrod and leads us out of the basement into the sewer. Everyone follows her. The sewer is larger than I had anticipated. It must be about four meters wide and is surely more than two meters high as the half-orc can stand up straight without problems. In the middle of the sewer there is a kind of two meter wide canal through which all the sewage flows. On either side of the canal is a narrow path where you can walk. The smell is not as bad as I expected and the place is not as dirty as well. I presume that the canals frequently overflow during heavy rainstorms and that everything is cleaned then.
In the sewer, Janiven removes a tile from the wall which hides a secret compartment. She takes out several flasks and gives one to each of us. These are healing potions. I carefully put it in my pouch as I have no other place to keep it safe. In addition to that, a few people, including myself, get a sunrod which I tuck underneath my belt. I want to keep my hands free in case of trouble.
When the cache has been depleted, Janiven shows us a white circle with a sword pointing right that has been drawn with chalk low on the sewer wall. These provide directions to the official hide out. Someone remarks that if we can follow them, so can the Hell Knights who have just demolished the door to the tavern by the sound of it. After a short discussion, it is agreed that this sign will be reversed in direction and that Morisino will create a false trail as he knows the sewers well.
The boy is rather uncertain so I volunteer to stay with him. I am skilled at moving silently and wear no armour of any kind. That is overridden by Janiven. She will stay with the boy. As time is running short, I obey, but I do not like it one bit. The two people who are part of the organisation and have knowledge of the sewers head in one direction, and leave a group of total strangers behind who have to find their way to a base they do not know. Janiven’s reasoning is that if we get caught, we can claim total innocence and possibly name Janiven as a rebel. If Morisino and Janiven get caught we will still be safe.
I sigh. I do not know if Janiven has seen my reaction to her or not, but before we part she throws me her longbow and quiver. It is especially made for people who are a little stronger than average and I must return it to her when we meet again. I put the quiver on my back and pull the bow. It feels excellent, as if it was made for me. Janiven must be as strong as I am. I knock one arrow and take a second arrow in my bow hand. I thank Janiven and promise to return it in one piece.
After having changed the sign, Morisino and Janiven leave. While the two of them are busy, the dirty man introduces himself as Korvus. The half-orc is called Siras and the elf Elaith. I introduce myself last as Aeliana Rasdovain. Now that I have said it out loud in a dungeon, Elaith makes the link to the name Rasdovain that has been mentioned several times upstairs. Yes, I think, I am a Rasdovain and I am proud of it.
Janiven leaves with the burning sunrod. I just want to ignite mine when it seems Korvus has more up his sleeve than I expected. He casts a spell to create light in the darkness. Once we have the light, we depart as well. We keep to the side walks and even these are slippery. I have no problem with that as I am used to traversing unsteady terrain but the others are more uncertain. Siras goes first, followed by Elaith and Korvus and I am last. That way I am in the best position to shoot should the Hell Knights follow our trail in stead of the false one.
At the first T-junction we can go left or continue straight on. Elaith quickly finds the sign that tells us we must follow our present course. We erase it before we continue. At the next T-junction where we can turn right or continue, we have seem to have problem. Initially no sign can be found at all until Korvus finds something that has almost been erased. The sword is not visible any more so the others despair at what direction we have to follow. I tell them I know exactly where we have to go. It is not very hard. The sign is on the wall to our left. Drawn swords cannot point out of the wall to our right, so we must still follow the same path.
The distance between the different junctions is larger than I expected and we walk quite some distance. At the next junction we can find the sign easily and again we have to continue straight on. Some time later, we hear voices ahead of us. They are arguing loudly. Korvus puts off the light as we can see light ahead as well at a crossing. I carefully jump to the other side-walk to get in better position to shoot my bow.
We can hear three different voices, one female and two male. One of them is convinced that ‘they’, presumably us, will appear at our next crossing shortly. Logical reasoning has led him to that conclusion and he has drawn a map to prove it. Another one does not agree. It is clear that several large egos are forced to work together. In the end, the female ends the discussion. Because of the way they talk, we all presume that these three people must be Armigers, Hell Knights in training, who still have to prove themselves.
We keep as silent as we can. When Eliath whispers something to the rest of us, the Armigers hear. I have my bow ready when an Armiger appears around the corner. He is wearing chainmail and a helmet and he carries a light crossbow and a sword. Siras reacts immediately. He takes a step forward and strikes true with his longspear but the man still lives. Korvus casts a spell and says it will be easier to hit the man for next few seconds.
I hesitate. I have never shot at a living being before. All my life I have done target practice at which I have become quite good, but this is the real thing. I concentrate, aim and shoot. My first arrow hits the man full in the chest. He staggers but does not fall. I reload fast with the second arrow that I already had in my bow hand and again my aim is true. The man falls backwards into the canal behind him.
To my great surprise, we can hear laughter from around the corner. Somehow these Hell Knights do not care about their comrades. Then the other two appear at the same time. A man steps right in front of Elaith and a few meter behind him is the woman. The woman shoots at me with her crossbow. The shot goes wide and the bolt crashes into the wall in front of me. The man misses Elaith, who counter strikes with his sword and misses but follows up by touching the man with his hand. Bright lightning appears to enwrap the victim who screams out in pain. Before the man can recoer, Siras, who can reach past Elaith with his longspear, stabs the Armiger who drops dead on top of his dead companion. That leaves only the woman.
To get a better aim at the woman, I take a step forward and suddenly I stand up to my ankles in the sewage. It feels awful and I realise that I am standing in other peoples excrements and waste. I still decide to shoot two more arrows but both miss hopelessly as I am too much distracted. The woman has reloaded her crossbow before I can reload. Her aim is really poor again as another shot goes wide. She starts reloading as fast as she can but that does not seem very wise.
Elaith is less two meters away from her and without hesitating he steps in the canal to strike at the woman with his rapier This time he does not miss. Korvus casts another spell and says that it will be easier to hit the woman. Elaith already is a foot smaller than Siras but now that he stands in the canal it is that much easier for Siras to reach over him to strike at the woman. This time, she evades him.
I focus again. I am dirty anyway, so while I manoeuvre to get into a better position in the canal, I take two more arrows with right hand, take one in my bow hand and knock the other one. I aim carefully as I do not want to hit Elaith or Siras and release the first arrow. Another hit but not deadly. I immediately take the arrow from my bow hand and shoot it. Again my aim is true and the last of the Armigers dies. She just collapses.
With the immediate threat seemingly gone, I become aware of how fast my heart is racing from the thrill. This was the first time in my life I had to fight someone for real. I breath in and out slowly to calm myself down, just as Cohel has told me. My body is tingling from the excitement. The others seem to take it more calmly than I do. I step out of the canal and look at my dirty feet. I shake them to remove some of the worst and largest pieces that have attached to them. Then I go over to the others who have started checking the bodies of the dead. What I would like to have most is the map that one of them had drawn. It is found but not very useful. I put another sunrod in my belt. As I need money for a new bow, I check if the crossbows can be sold but it is too obvious that they belong to Hell Knights. Selling them would be dangerous.
When we have finished checking the bodies, I have finally calmed down and come to realise what I have done. I just killed two people, a man and a woman. Someone’s son and daughter who will never be coming back home. They must be my age, maybe even younger. Full of life and ambitions, and now I have ended that. Yes, they were to become Hell Knights, the most brutal law enforcement group of Cheliax, but they were still humans, with family and friends. Memories come back of when my father died. I can feel tears coming. I try to suppress them and turn away from the others.
With a slightly broken voice I tell them this was my first fight, the first time I killed someone. “Sissy,” is what I hear Korvus say, which hurts me. I am not a seasoned warrior who can kill without remorse. Not that I have not seen my share of pain, death and suffering, but I cannot just take lives like that. Regardless if they are Hell Knights or not. “A day without a fight is a day not lived,” Siras remarks, which can be translated to Korvus’s remark.
What company is this, that they can just kill or hurt others without second thought? Does that make me weak? No, I made two of the three kills. I had to. It was them or us. The thrill of the battle made me act the way I did to preserve our lives. The experience of many years of training took over. My body knew what it had to do. But that does not mean I should not feel anything afterwards. I take a few steps away from the others so that I can regain myself.