The Siren: Part 1
I waited. I hadn’t always had patience, in fact, I could clearly recall a rash youth whose impetuousness had landed him in trouble more often than not. Patience is a learned thing, and I’d learned it over the years, even more so in the last few weeks. I’d been betrayed, stabbed, and beaten. I’d lost a dear friend and companion and I was here to see if I’d lost another. So, I waited, and practiced patience. I could hear the rain drumming against the window shutter, heavy and cold. It was supposed to be summer, but I’d seen more rain in the last few weeks than was normal for this time of year. I heard a fumbling at the door to the room and I stilled myself. I was silence, wrapped in shadow, or at least that’s what I told myself. The door creaked open and Elma, muttering to herself, pushed into the room, carrying a small oil lamp. No candle for the aging mistress of The Island Gate Tavern. I stayed in the shadows, behind the door as she strode to her bed, still muttering. She placed the lamp on her nightstand and reached for a clean washcloth. I slipped a knife from my sleeve and threw it across the room. The blade pinned the long, loose sleeve of her dress to the nightstand. A single bound saw me across the room and by the time she turned around I was sitting on the end of her bed, another blade ready.
“Marek.” Elma said flatly. “You better have a good reason for this.”
I hadn’t expected to rattle her. Elma was a retired mercenary, although I had never discovered what company she’d fought with. The knife had been a warning. You didn’t draw steel on Elma unless you intended to follow through.
“Did you get my message?” I asked her calmly.
The tall, grey haired woman wrenched my knife free, and tossed it onto the nightstand.
“I did.” She replied, examining the hole in her sleeve.
“This was a good dress Marek. You’ll be paying me for a new one.”
“Elma.” I said quietly. “What did you find?”
Elma leaned back against the nightstand and folded her arms. She looked me up and down and relaxed a little.
“Marek, you look like shit. Did you roll in a midden before you strolled in here?”
“Stop fucking stalling.” I grated. “What did you find?”
“Nothing.” She spat.
“What do you mean nothing?” I demanded hotly.
“I mean nothing. I sent three good men to check out that tailor and not one of them came back. By Saraphi’s tits Marek, what have you gotten me into?”
“I don’t know.” I hesitated. “Someone tried to have me killed and I traced it back to that tailor.”
“And you thought you’d come in here and threaten me?”
I shrugged. “I didn’t know if I could trust you or not.”
Elma laughed loudly. “Oh Marek. You know better than that. Of course you can’t trust me. I’ll sell any information on you to whoever asks.”
“I meant trust you less than usual. Someone did try to kill me after all.”
I pulled a small purse of coins from a pocket and tossed it to her.
“There should be enough in there to cover your expenses. Sorry about your men.”
Elma grabbed the purse and tucked it away. “Nature of the job.”
“Any chance I can have that knife back?” I asked her as I stood up and tucked my other knife away.
Elma picked up the knife from the nightstand and examined it closely in the dim light.
“What will you do now?” She asked, a twinkle in her eye.
“I suppose I’ll go see what happened to your men.”
The retired mercenary threw my knife to me and I plucked it from the air.
“I know what happened to them Marek. The same thing that happens anyone of mine who goes missing. They’re dead.”
I shrugged and turned towards the shuttered window. “Call it satisfying my curiosity.”
“Call it whatever you want.” Elma replied. “And Marek?”
I turned to look at the woman.
“Don’t come here again. If I see you darken my door, I’ll kill you.”
I opened the shutters and stepped out on to the roof.
“Good bye Elma.”
I dropped down to the ground in the alley beside the Elma’s Tavern and made my way out onto the street. The wet mud squished between my toes as I crossed the street to the village square. From there it was just a short, if wet, walk to Ballin’s docks.
I regretted approaching Elma like I had, but I’d had no choice. She’d said it herself, she couldn’t be trusted, but we’d had a measure of respect for each other, and up to now, had treated each other accordingly. There had been no other way to be sure that she hadn’t arranged a trap for me though. I’d sent a bird with a message to investigate a certain tailor and note anything strange. Suitably vague, I thought, with no clue as to when I’d ask for the information. I had to protect myself from any chance of betrayal. Maybe she’d get over it. I thought about everything I knew about Elma Tanni and snorted. She’d as soon give information for free. No, she was a hard woman, and when she said something she followed through on it. Odds were good that if I visited her inn again I’d find myself stabbed, repeatedly.
Her report worried me though. I’d never had cause to doubt her information. She was expensive, but worth it. The men she’d sent were undoubtedly accomplished picklocks, well accustomed to her requests. I imagined that she may have at first sent a second or third-rate man for the job and when he didn’t return, she may have sent her second best, before finally sending her best man. When I thought of it like that, her short temper with me was easy to understand. If I figured out what happened to her men I’d let her know. Not in person mind, a note would do it. I liked my skin whole. I had to wonder, what had killed her very experienced men. Certainly not Kai. He was nothing more than normal. He found work for me, certainly, and was paid well for it, but he was nonetheless, normal. Something very strange was going on. But first things first, I had to get onto Beagan Island.
The Island gate closed at sunset, every evening, and opened at sunrise. No on or off the islands, unless you happen to be a noble of course, during the hours of darkness. There were other ways, if you happened to know who to talk to. I crossed the muddy river road and stepped on to the rough board walk, elevated slightly above the marshy ground that formed the riverbank. The river flooded periodically, and the area could be impassable for days, but as the bargemen still needed to get to their docks, they’d found a solution. Arriving at the docks, I found my man, sitting in his boat, sheltering beneath one of the piers. I whistled softly, startling him.
“Damn it all, but you fair made me jump!” The weathered old man muttered, as I climbed down into his small rowboat.
“Serves you right Hade. You were supposed to be keeping watch for me.” I replied, settling myself into his boat.
The old smuggler glared at me over his oars. “And how am I supposed to see you in weather like this, when you look like some sort of shade out of the stories?!”
I shrugged, and Hade went back to muttering, as he skilfully spun the small boat around and rowed out into the river.
The city of Proteshi was old, far older than many realised. I’d once spoken to a man who told me of a time when the islands had no walls, when there had been no castle. The Royal Island had been a thing of stony pastures while a small fort had occupied part of the other. In those days, he claimed, Cheute had been a much smaller country, smaller even than its own province now. I had as little interest in that now as I did then. The man himself had been an inveterate thief, and had, at times, had cause to flee from the local guardsmen. I smiled at the memory of him trying to teach my much younger self the intricacies of numbers. I had been a wild thing, more instinct than thought, wild with ideas of adventure and riches. He had been my first teacher, when everyone else would have given up on me, he had persevered. I never learned why he did what he did, but he tamed me, to a degree and eventually introduced me to my next teacher, ready to be moulded. But before that, he showed me the old sewers, and the deep tunnels.
The little boat bumped and scraped over a hidden rock and jarred me from my memories. Hade cursed softly, as he corrected his course, bringing the boat in tight to the rocks beneath the city wall.
“You wouldn’t be trying to sink us, would you?” I whispered to the old man.
“You mind your business, and I’ll mind mine.” Hade muttered back. “The damn current is running fast tonight, what with all the rain and such up river.”
Hade worked his oars harder and brought the boat gently against a tiny shelf of rock that barely poked above the water.
“Close enough.” I announced and flipped the old man a coin. “Get yourself indoors Hade, you’re getting too old for this lark.”
Hade snorted. “Think I do this for everyone? I only come out for old friends.”
I clasped Hade’s extended hand and stepped out of the boat on to the rocky shelf. I tucked myself into a shadow and watched as the man backed his boat away from the rocks and watched as he slowly made his way back towards the mainland.
The rocky shelf that I stood on was naturally flat, eroded over time by the river when it was running high, and was tucked in beneath the wall, well out of sight from anyone standing around up there. At the back of the shelf was a cleft in the cliff, maybe four feet wide, but hidden behind a rocky outcrop. Even in daylight, looking straight at it, the cleft couldn’t be seen, even if you knew where to look, and there were few who did.
I slipped into the cleft and entered a long cave, little wider than its entrance. The tunnel was one of several entrances to the deep tunnels, an ancient cave system deep beneath even the deepest sewers of Proteshi. Few knew of their existence and it had, generations past, become home to a smuggler clan. To a normal person, the cave would have been pitch dark, but there was enough light for my eyes to see. Not perfectly, but enough to make out the path. Water dripped from the ceiling onto my head and shoulders as I made my way through the cave, moving slightly down hill, deeper into the island. Finally, the cave made an abrupt right-hand turn and ended in a squared-out area with no apparent exit. I heard a noise above me, as a trap door was unlatched and opened, and waited.
“Who’s ‘at?” A voice rumbled above me in the darkness.
“Marek.” I replied. “Is that you Luther?”
“Aye, ‘tis. Stand back, I’ll drop the ladder.”
I stepped back from beneath the trap door as a heavy ladder was slid down, and as soon as it settled I climbed up, into a chamber, darker than the cave had been. I heard the ladder being pulled back up and then the sound of the trap door being secured. Moments later an oil lamp was uncovered, lighting up a small chamber, hewn from the living rock, and meant only as a guard station. Three large men, carrying heavy steel banded cudgels stood in the room, relaxed and smiling. The biggest of them, Luther, stood behind me by the trapdoor. The other two men nodded to me and sat down at a rough table, picking up cards and resuming their game. I turned as Luther clapped a hand down on my shoulder and squeezed in a friendly fashion.
“Here for work?” He asked in his deep gravelly voice.
“Something like that.” I replied darkly.
Luther raised an eyebrow in question.
“Nothing to do with here.” I added. “Just passing through.”
“Good enough for me.” The huge man replied.
I gestured to the other two men. “Why the extra men?”
“Nervous times my friend.” Luther replied, shaking his head in warning. “Nervous times.”
I nodded in answer. Message received. Something was going on internally, and it was none of my business. I pulled a small purse from my belt and handed it to Luther.
“I’m heading up to the city. I’d appreciate it if you could keep an eye out for me coming back.”
“Seems a little heavy.” Luther commented, eyeing the purse.
“I might not be alone coming back. It might be nice to have some muscle waiting. Just in case.”
The big smuggler grunted. “Just in case. Go on with you. You know the way.”
I nodded in thanks and made my way over to the only other way out of the chamber, a closed door, and let myself out.
I found myself in a short, lighted corridor, with a sharp turn at the end. Once a natural cave, it had been shaped over the years to become a, more or less regular, passageway. I walked around the sharp turn and the corridor stretched out in front of me. Several doorways, with storerooms behind them, had been hacked into the rock, as places to hide goods and the like, from the authorities, until they could be shipped out. I kept walking, passing a few smugglers and nodding to one or two that I recognised, until I found a short passageway branching off the corridor. I turned down it and walked a short distance to a solid wooden door. I pushed the door open and stepped into a small chamber, lit by a single lantern, similar to the one where I had spoken to Luther. Another three large men were present, but I didn’t know them.
“Going up.” I announced. “I’ll probably be back again sometime tonight.”
One of the three men nodded and grabbed a ladder and stood it against the wall, beneath a trap door, while another rotated a shutter over the lamp. The room plunged into darkness and I heard the ladder creak as one of the men climbed up and opened the trapdoor.
“Clear.” The smuggler announced in the darkness.
I carefully made my way over to the ladder and climbed up into another dark tunnel. The stench in the tunnel was familiar and if I hadn’t known exactly where I was, the smell would have informed me. I heard the trapdoor close gently and the smuggler who’d climbed the ladder before me opened a tiny shutter on a small lamp. The tunnel we were in was filled with old broken barrels and crates, as though abandoned years ago. He led me along the tunnel to a small room with no other, obvious, way out. Like the tunnel, it too was stacked with old, broken barrels and crates. The smuggler moved to the far wall and motioned me to stand beside him. He handed me the lamp and slid the little shutter closed.
“You remember where to leave this?” He asked in a low voice.
“I do.” I affirmed.
There was a scraping sound, not very loud, and the smuggler grunted in the darkness. I could feel something move in the darkness and a breeze tickled my nose. The stench suddenly grew far worse and I almost gagged.
“Off with you.” The smuggler ordered. “Don’t open that shutter until this door is closed again, and mind that first step.”
I walked forward and stepped through where the wall had been. This wasn’t my first time coming through here and so I knew to step to the left when through rather than continue forward. To continue forward would have had me stepping off a ledge and into a barely moving stream of sewage. Smuggler humour was a little rough.
I heard the wall shut again behind me and once everything had quietened down I opened the shutter on the lamp. I was in an ancient part of the sewer, beneath Poor Town. It wasn’t really that poor, just relative to the Royal Island. This part of the sewer had suffered a cave in years ago, slowing the flow of sewage. It was hardly needed, truth be told, the only time this sewer would see use was in winter, with its heavy rains, and even then, the blockage didn’t cause much of a backup.
Some time later, I found myself emerging onto the streets of Poor Town. The rain had stopped while I’d been underground, which was nice. I glanced around and seeing no one about I made my way towards the Merchants’ Quarter. The tailor in question had his shop on Market Street, the main street of the Merchants’ Quarter. Set between a well to do inn, and a baker, Kai Athirat was a tailor frequented by minor nobility and royal functionaries. In other words, he was good enough, to attract better customers, but he had no friends in the upper nobility to ease his way to even better clientele. I’d known the man for years and had shared food with his family more than once. As far as I knew, he was as honest as the day was long, and loyal to a fault. Until recently. Several weeks earlier, Kai had found me a job, to kill a prominent merchant in Febros. That had turned out to be a trap, one that had almost snared me and cost me my companion. I felt Mairin’s absence keenly. I missed waking up with her curled on my chest, I missed her savage little heart, but most of all I missed her companionship. My life tended to be a solitary one, I had acquaintances, contacts, and people I knew, but she was the only one who had been with me day in and day out. I sighed quietly and hoped that where ever she was, she was okay.
I climbed the gable of a house, right at the edge of Market Street, on the opposite side of the street to Kai’s shop and slipped onto the roof. Call me paranoid, but I wasn’t about to walk into that place without having a look around first. I crept along the roofs, working my way along the row of shops, watching for anything out of place. I stopped, suddenly cautious. I hadn’t heard or seen anything, but something seemed amiss. I slid slowly over the top of the roof and slid down a little on the far side, keeping the crest of the roof between me and Market Street. I looked around again and spotted a deep shadow on a nearby chimney, just two buildings along the row, right across from Kai’s shop. Something about it seemed, off. I watched and waited. For ten minutes I waited, maybe more, and then I saw it, the shadow moved. Not much, but enough to show that it wasn’t a shadow at all. Someone was watching the tailor’s shop.
I debated several approaches and decided that putting the watcher to sleep for a while would be best. A dead sentry would be missed, but no one would admit to falling asleep at their post, and I didn’t want anyone seeing me come and go. I slid down the roof a little more and made my way silently towards the hidden watcher. I made it undetected to the opposite side of the roof to the watcher and slid a knife into my right hand and one of my needles into the other. I crawled carefully up the slope to the crest of the roof and found everything as I expected it. The watcher was wearing a dark grey cloak that helped him hide in the shadows, and a cowl of the same colour, over his head. It didn’t seem as though he’d moved since I spotted him. I slid over the top of the roof and several silent steps later I slid my hand over his shoulder and slid the needle into his neck. The toxin I used on it contained venom from a snake found in the Marogwa, a huge swamp forest in northern Kurlac. The venom caused almost immediate paralysis and caused the victim to fall into a deep sleep. Over the years I’d refined how much I’d use on each needle and how it would affect those I used it on. Judging by the size of the man, he’d sleep for an hour or so before waking up. I stepped back, holding the cloak so the watcher wouldn’t slide off the roof, and waited for him to collapse.
The watcher spun around, ripping his cloak from my hand, his cowl falling back from his face. I don’t know what had been done to him, but the man’s eyes were dead, like a reptile’s eyes. His skin was dark, almost black, and his teeth were filed to points. I stumbled back cursing, throwing my knife at him, to give me room to recover. The man growled something and ducked the flying knife. I pulled two more knives and let them fly at him. Both struck him, one sinking into his thigh and the other into his left shoulder. He ignored the blades and charged at me. I ducked under a punch and, with another of my knives, opened a gash along his chest as he swept past me. The man growled and spun around, hardly slowed.
“What in the Void are you?” I gasped.
The creature, because it certainly wasn’t a man, charged me again. Once more I ducked his arms and slid past him, this time though I slammed my long-bladed knife into his chest. The creature groaned this time and sagged a little.
“Felt that did you?” I bated him. “I have plenty more to give you.”
The creature hesitated, then pulled the knife out of its chest and dropped the blade. I didn’t give it any more time to recover. I charged, pulling my other long bladed knife from my thigh sheath and made to ram the blade into its chest, right beside the other wound. The creature swept out an arm though and it felt like I’d run into a wall. It grabbed me by the neck and threw me against the chimney behind me. I saw stars for a moment as my head slammed against the brick work, but my reflexes took care of me and I rolled aside, feeling the breeze of the creature’s fist as it smashed into the chimney, cracking several of the bricks. I rolled to my feet, still a little groggy, but game for a fight. My blood was up now. I felt sure I had the measure of the creature and I knew I could take it.