Deck the Halls with boughs of hemlock, Fa la-la la la, La la la Gaaaaaaakkkk

Othan, Friend
by Kurt Magnus ©2009

“Look at that little bastard,” Jolly said softly into Othan’s ear. “Don’t you want to hold him down and crunch that snobby nose of his?” Othan looked over at Tret, the newest member of the House Idemi, and his nose was indeed upturned. The young man was at the far end of the dimly lit chamber, talking to two other thieves of the House. Othan could see his lips smacking, but he was too far to hear.

“Ooooh. You can tell they aren’t even listening to him. They’re just faking it so they can smoke his shaan.” As if on cue, Tret reloaded the pipe. Soon the three were enveloped in a cloud of acrid, blue-tinged smoke.

“You do it too,” Othan said with a sideways grin.

“So what? He can afford it.” Jolly uncorked his gourd and tilted it back. Finding it empty, he frowned beneath his scraggly beard. Like an old sot, Jolly scrounged around his meager provisions for a bottle he knew he didn’t have. He was old for a thief of Dix, with gray streaks in his hair and beard. “Any more of that brandy?” Jolly asked, licking his lips.

“Sure.” He tossed him a gourd. “But take it slow, we’re all stuck here for awhile.” Othan stretched and reclined on his bedroll. He was tall and lean, with sandy brown hair and matching eyes. With just twenty or so summers, he was much among the youngest of his fellow thieves.

House Idemi had just pulled off their greatest heist to date: a wagon full of samite robes, encrusted with gold and jewels. The ceremonial garb was on the way to the Temple of the Blue God, one of the most powerful religions in Dix.

Unfortunately for House Idemi, the Burgomaster took crimes against the Cults Major very seriously. The streets of Dix writhed with Constables, lusting for someone to bring to justice, guilty or not.

Now the House was hiding out in their underground refuge, a patchwork of interconnected basements in the Brickworks area. It was damp and cramped, but well out of sight. The Brickworks was a maze-like swath of abandoned quarries, factories and warehouses once used to make the city’s mammoth walls. The collapsing buildings were thrown up in a seemingly random manner, and not a single street or alley was navigable.

Though the Brickworks didn’t have a single proper house, it was by no means empty. Squatters abounded. There were the privy sweeps and rag collectors that work the city of Dix under the light of the Sun, as well as the streetwalkers and duulk-addicts that plied the avenues under the glow of the moons. House Idemi was confident the Constables would have no help from the local denizens.

Othan had joined the thievery ring just two moons ago. His fortunes had fallen low, and he had built up a considerable debt in the gaming halls of the Palisades district. House Idemi kept him busy and out of the casinos. It offered a relatively steady source of income that Othan found uninspiring, but adequate. To his surprise, he quickly made a few friends among the House. But being locked indefinitely in a windowless compound was making him wonder just who they were.

“You see that look on his face?” Jolly said with a frown. “Oh, I can’t stand that look. Makes my teeth grind.”

“There you go again about Tret.” Othan muttered.

“Are you defending him?”

“No, I hate the rich brat too.”

“I don’t know why the Brothers let him oath in.” Jolly shook his head.

“Tret probably paid them to let him come play with the big boys.” Othan replied.

“Yeah, or maybe they were worried he’d tell his daddy that the big kids wouldn’t let him play.”

“What did you say his family was into?” Othan asked.

“They’re merchants. They own an entire wharf at the Newdocks.”

“And they live on the East Bank, right?

“Can’t you tell?” Jolly’s bushy eyebrows arched high. “He’s got that nasally accent. And he looks at people like you look at a dog.”

Othan spit. Like most denizens of Dix, Othan resented the wealthy families that lived behind the high walls on the east side of the River. Only the Founder’s Bridge connected their exclusive enclave with the masses of Dix, and it bristled with weaponry. To keep out the low-born, the Burgomaster stationed more soldiers in the East Bank than at the border with the Goblin Kingdoms.

“I’m not sure how long he’s gonna last.” Jolly said as opened the gourd of brandy. “I seriously think he’s a tourist. Any day now, he’ll miss all the pampering and go crying back home.”

“Or he’ll get bored with us, “Othan added “and try a stint with a guild or one of the more obscure Cults Minor.”

“Look at him. You can almost read the whining on his lips. It’s all over his face. See how he squirms?”

“You’re right,” said Othan. “I can hear his childish voice in my head right now. I hate it when he mumbles curses to himself even though he’s standing right next to you.”

Both took long pulls off the brandy and watched Tret. Othan wondered if Jolly was also putting words to Tret’s jaw flapping and arm flailing.

“Hey Othan, how long we gotta stay here?”

“Until the Brothers say so. We still got some eyes on the streets. When the Constables are done shaking down all the local crooks, we’ll get out of here.”

“Good. I don’t think I could stand being here sober.”

***

On the second day of their refuge, Othan was summoned by the leaders of House Idemi: three nameless men known collectively as the Brothers. Although they seemed to act and think in concert, Othan sincerely doubted they had any familial ties, as there wasn’t a common feature among them. One was tall and powerfully built, with thick black hair and small ears. Another was of a middling height with a round paunch and flabby features. The final Brother was short and thin, with wild brownish hair and darting eyes. That one addressed him first.

“The new footpad needs to be proven. We want you to do it.”

“You mean Tret?” Othan’s voice cracked.

“Is that going to be a problem?”

He hesitated. “No, ummm. Of course not.” The tall, broad brother said, “We have an informant at the Fox Hunt Inn, near the Newdocks. Show her this.” He tossed Othan a metal coin. It was slightly larger than a gold fedz*, the local currency of Dix, and was punctured in the middle with a square hole. “Memorize her message.”

Without pause the chubby brother took over, his thick cheeks flapping with each word, “On the way. administer the tests. We think he might have what it takes physically, but we want you to verify his convictions.”

Othan nodded with an outward calm, though his guts were swimming. He wondered how he could possibly fulfill his duty to the House, given his intense bias. With a headache and a sour taste in his mouth, Othan left the Brothers to find Tret. But before he found him he got a whistle from Jolly.

“You look like you saw a banshee.” Jolly said. “What did they say to you?”

“They’re sending me up and out.”

“So why the frown?”

“With Tret.”

“Ho ho!” Jolly danced in place. “Please tell me they asked you to take him outside and brain him.”

“You wish. They want me to prove him for the House.”

“Ooohoooo. You know what you have to do, right?” Jolly face was just a smile with slits for eyes. “You got to set him up.”

Othan just frowned. “I don’t know.”

“By the Great Beetle, you could even see to it that the Constables get to him!”

“Don’t be an idiot, Jolly. He could sell us all to the Blue God! That’s why he has to be proven.”

“You really want that rich brat in the House? He’ll ditch us out of boredom and hide out in the East Bank!”

“Keep your voice down! This is a serious job. Came straight from the Brothers.”

“Come on, Othan. You can sneak one by them.”

“That’s a dumb idea and you know it. They’ll expect that.”

“Just admit it. He’s cocky. He’s has no clue what real life is. He’s defensive and aggressive - at the same time, if that’s even possible.”

“Despicable, accusative, yeah, yeah,” Othan added. “But I don’t know . . ..”

“Don’t do it for me, Othan. Do it for the House.”

***

On the third day of their refuge, Othan found Tret sitting against the wall, face contorted with a pout. It was this exact expression Othan hoped to avoid throughout this onerous encounter.

“Get up, Tret. We’re heading into the city.”

“Why? So the blood from my back doesn’t soil your comfy little hideaway?” Othan rolled his eyes. “Now don’t start with me. The Brothers picked you to come with me. You should be happy that they trust you.” Tret mumbled quietly to his chest, “About time somebody recognizes me.”

Othan pursed his lips and swallowed down a heated retort. Instead he took a deep breath. “This is going to be easy. We just have to see one of our informants. Just in and out.”

With a bored expression Tret geared up. Listlessly he followed Othan to one of the refuge’s many hidden exits, a rope ladder that flopped down from a narrow hatch. They emerged into a roofless chamber with uneven earthen walls. It was night, and surprisingly cool. The smell of burnt meat and the hush of muted whisperings floated in from nearby squatter colony. They clambered out of the chamber through what was once a window and descended a steep pile of rubble.

In the silver light of night, the Brickworks looked like the desolate and pitted face of the old moon. Every useful bit of building had long been scavenged, leaving only gaping holes and piles of worthless debris. But to House Idemi it was home; they knew all the hidden paths and secret places to hide.

After a silent jog, they reached one such place, between a pair of massive collapsed kilns. It reminded Othan of the mossy barrow tombs of the Aekrun Highlands. Just a stone’s throw away the brickworks ended at a low, crumbling wall. Beyond it were the true streets of Dix, and the unblinking eyes of the Burgomaster’s Constables.

“I was always curious, Tret. Why did you come to House Idemi?”

“My reasons are mine alone.”

“Did you argue with your family? Is this some kind of vacation for you? Did you lose a wager?

“Nobody put me up to this!”

“Not so loud,” Othan said as he peeked at the wall. With a hand signal he indicated the presence of a Constable patrol. Othan continued at a whisper. “So why risk everything coming to you?”

“Who said I have things coming to me?”

“Well…” That was an answer Othan didn’t expect. “Being from where you are, I just figured you didn’t have to steal to eat.”

“Shows what you know.” Tret said, completely devoid of mirth.

“So were you disgraced? Disowned?”

“Are you trying to provoke me? If you are, it’s working.”

“Shhh. I’m just trying to figure you out. The House can’t tolerate part-time members. Once you’re in, that’s it.”

“I do what I want, not what my family wants, not what you want. I make my own decisions.”

Othan saw another patrol and signaled to Tret. He in turn surveyed behind them and found nothing.

“So you’re just doing this to rebel against your family?” Othan said as he climbed onto the roof.

“I hate them. But I think they hate me more. But it’s not really about them. Not any more. After half a moon with you serpents, I’m more interested in proving all you wrong. And Jolly most of all. I hear what he says about me.” Othan cringed at his childish tone.

“And what about me.” Othan asked.

“You too.”

“If you prove yourself capable, I won’t have anything to say against you.”

“I am, and I’ll prove it, if you don’t stab me in the back this very night.”

“I won’t if you won’t.” Othan replied. “Oh. Wait, hold it.” He motioned for Tret to crouch down. Othan pointed with his nose to a trio of bulky men in dull overcoats climbing the rubble hill they’d just alighted. Once they were out of sight Othan said, “I doubt those were squatters.”

Tret nodded. “Way too clean.”

“Looks like they’re working tonight. This could be trouble.”

At their fastest pace possible they scampered over piles of trailings, to another pathway out of the brickworks. It too was congested with Constables.

Tret whispered, “Seems like they’d rather keep us in.”

“I got a bad feeling about this. Let’s get a better look.”

“The tower?” Tret asked. Othan nodded.

Through the dry aqueduct and past the trash filled quarry was a flat wooden platform that looked as if it once held a water basin. Othan climbed up, and lying flat on its summit peeked down at the brickworks below. Without invitation, Tret joined him. From their vantage point they could see knots of shuffling mock-hobos, converging on the Idemi compound. From beneath their overcoats he saw flashes of lapis lazuli, the color of the Blue God. Othan got lightheaded and heavy hearted at the same time.

“We have to help them.” Othan said, his voice trembling.

“But they’re completely surrounded.”

“Notice there are no Constables around? They’re not taking any prisoners.”

“What could we possibly do but get ourselves killed?”

“Leave if you want, but if you do, you’d better not step foot on my side of the River again. Ever.”

Tret made a pained expression that Othan failed to grasp. But when it passed, he gravely agreed.

“I know another way in.” Carefully and quietly they climbed down to ground level. “See the third largest flagstone?” Othan whispered. Tret nodded. “That leads to the mess hall.”

“Wait, look.” Tret pointed to another group of intruders in an adjacent sub-basement. They were maybe eight or nine strong. One in particular, a tall, thin one, stood out in the robes of the Blue God Cult.

As they watched the robed one, sparks illuminated the cloud-bottoms, and suddenly a crackling stream of orange lights shot forth from his gesticulating hands. A wave of hot, dusty air sent both careening onto their backs.

Othan was slow to rise. A pronounced ringing filled his ears. Beside him Tret was feeling his head and elbows, looking for wet spots. When the dust settled, they saw the Blue God warriors rush a gaping hole in the brick wall of the Idemi compound.

Othan pulled Tret toward the secret entrance by the fabric about his neck. “You ready to prove us all wrong, footpad?”

Othan let the flagstone close tight, leaving them in total darkness.

“Keep your fingers along the left wall and walk straight. This leads to the mess hall.” Othan took twelve or so blind steps until his outstretched fingers felt the lacquered wooden door. Othan put his ear to it, but before he heard a sound, Tret crashed blindly into him from behind and burst the door wide open. In a knot of arms and legs they spilled into the mess hall.

Jolly, two House Idemi thieves, and four warriors in blue uniforms took a quick break from their stabbing to look over at the newcomers. Then just as quickly they attacked.

Othan regained his footing in time to parry a cruel downward slash. Still in a crouch, he ducked a high blow and at the same time slashed his enemy’s thigh with the tip of his blade.

Beside him fought Tret, who struck with confidence and dodged with sinuous contortions of the body. Within moments he pierced the belly of one foe and put a dripping slice into another. Fearing his blade, the Blue God warriors retreated with their wounded back into the narrow passageway from which they sprang. Othan and Tret pressed on, but Jolly tugged at their jackets. “Get back!” he beseeched. They let the warriors flee down the corridor while they regrouped in the adjacent kitchen.

“Don’t go after them.” Jolly croaked. His arm was in bad shape and he could barely catch his breath. “They got a dahr-cat. And a wizard. He’s burning us all up.” Othan saw then that his beard was melted across his face.

“Where are the Brothers?” Othan asked, but they were interrupted by the sound of boots in the mess hall. Othan and Tret took positions on either side of the doorway, while the others hid behind rice barrels.

Othan dared a glance that made his legs quiver. No more than a few paces away were two warriors in elaborate blue lacquered armor. Each bristled with weapons and banners. They wore masks with one face in the front and two in the back, all three with grotesque, grimacing expressions. Beside them was the six-legged dahr-cat. It stood waist high at the shoulder, with a shadowy navy blue coat. From its leopard-like head protruded twisted horns. From its maw dangled strings of dripping gore.

Othan couldn’t breathe for fear of the sound. His comrades looked to him with eyes wide for a cue. With his chin he pointed to the thick oaken door at the far end of the kitchen. The others nodded. He gave the signal. All at once they bolted toward the door without looking back. The dahr-cat howled. Once through, Othan slammed the door and dropped the latch. Immediately it shuddered with a heavy impact and squealed under powerful claws.

At a full sprint they ran to nearest way out of the refuge, the ladder that led out to the squatter colony. The other two Idemi climbed up and out. But Othan didn’t follow. Instead he pulled Tret and Jolly out of the hallway and into an empty bunk.

“I’m going after the Brothers,” Othan said between gasps.

“Me too.” Jolly added.

“If you help us, you’ll never be doubted among the thieves of Dix, for life.”

Tret replied, “I don’t care about the Brothers, but I’ll help you find them.”

“What are you saying?” Jolly asked in an accusative tone.

“Don’t you think the Blue God reacted too strongly for a chest of stolen robes?”

Othan agreed that it was a risky and unwarranted show of force.

“There was something more in that carriage. Something worth bringing this much muscle to get it back.The Brothers are holding out on us. And I want it. At least my share.”

Othan recognized the crazed look in his eye and realized, then, that Tret enjoyed danger--something he could never find on the East Bank.

“I see,” Othan said. He tingled from head to toe. He looked to Jolly for approval, and got it. “The Brothers locked themselves in their quarters,” the old thief said.

They all knew the way. Silently they crossed their darkened underground lair. On the way they hid from roving bands of Blue God warriors. Twice they encountered fallen Idemi thieves, but they were too late to help.

At the demolished doorway, just before the Brothers’ antechamber, Othan signaled for quiet. From within issued the sounds of boots, metal clanks and the occasional sigh. Even fainter came the mumblings of a wizard plying at his craft. One by one they took stealthy looks through the threshold, then retreated to a safe distance.

Othan whispered, “I saw at least five warriors. And I think that wizard is working on the Brothers’ door.” From the look on Jolly’s burnt face, Othan could tell they were already acquainted.

“Do you think it’s worth it?” Jolly asked with a frown, his head shaking. Tret’s eyes shimmered. “The Blue God Cult came at us hard. Whatever they’re after is in that room.”

“But can we take them?” Othan asked. Jolly shook his head emphatically, as Tret smiled and rubbed his hands together. “Those bastards are daydreaming in there. They must think the rest of the House is dead.”

Othan agreed. As they readied themselves for the assault, Jolly made silent gestures to the Gods of each Cult Major, except of course, the Blue God. Then they sprang. Tret and Jolly took down two warriors before they had a chance raise their weapons. Othan caught another on the side of the head with his cudgel.

While Tret and Jolly occupied the two remaining foes, Othan tried to get at the wizard. His dark eyes were rimmed with azure paste, and his outstretched hands glowed with unnatural amber light. Othan feigned left then swung an overhand blow. It landed true, but his cudgel bounced off the wizard’s forearm as if he struck an anvil. Othan cried out and crumbled to the ground, clutching his throbbing arm.

He could only watch from his knees as the wizard, eyes burning like embers, pointed his glowing hands toward Jolly. The old thief lashed out with his sword, but mid-strike, his entire body locked up. Rigid as cedar beam, Jolly toppled onto the floor. As he laid prone, the last two Blue God warriors pounced as one. But Tret stood over his fallen comrade, and with a flurry of blows, staved off the attack. Two deft strokes and he left his foes crumpled in a heap upon the dusty floor.

The wizard murmured and waved his arms, drawing orange beads of light around his head. Before he could cast, Tret hurled a spinning dagger. It hit and scattered the gathering power, but like Othan’s blade, it bounced off with a high-pitched din. Tret dropped his sword and dove at the wizard barehanded. He took him down swiftly, but the wizard’s glowing hands burnt his flesh like orange-hot coals.

As Tret howled in pain, Othan nervously scrounged about for a non-metallic weapon. He settled on the wooden leg of a broken chair, and reentered the fray to find the wizard strangling Tret with fiery hands. Othan leapt, and dealt a savage blow to the back of the wizard’s head. Limply, the wizard rolled off. Othan gave him another just to be sure.

With smoke curling off of his tortured flesh, Tret arose, cursing and rubbing his charred neck. He found his sword and drove it into the wizard’s chest, splattering himself with blood. He gave the same treatment to the fallen warriors, then collapsed against the wall.

Othan listened carefully for the sound of Blue God reinforcements. When he was sure there was none, he too collapsed beside Tret. Jolly sat up slowly and looked about, with a puzzled look on his face.

From behind the metal door came the muffled shouts of the Brothers. Othan gave a whistle, the Idemi signal for safety. With a gong-like clang, the door grudgingly ground open.

“Get us out of here!” The tall, burly one said and they limped out. Blood ran down his face and his left eye was a black and purple slit. With his arm he held up the smaller brother, who was badly burnt about the face and chest. The chubby one followed, dragging a useless leg.

“What are you waiting for?” The flabby Brother bellowed. Othan realized he was holding his breath. He looked over to Tret. He was ready. “We know you’re holding something back, something big. We want it.” The big one opened his one good eye wide. “You dare to defy us?”

“I do. You brought us death while you kept the real prize for yourselves!”

“You gave your oath to this House!”

Tret snickered, then coughed. “Your House is finished.” Just then the roar of dahr-cat echoed through the refuge. “You can die here with it.” The flabby brother gave the others a look of frightened resignation. “All right,” he said. From his belt unclasped a plain cloth sack. Tret put in his dirty hand, and withdrew it full of sapphires the size of pigeon eggs. He smiled like a child.

***

Othan limped into The Empty Gourd, arguably one of the least famous taverns in all of Dix. Onto the bar he unloaded an armful of balms, salves, leeches and gauze. But before he joined the remains of House Idemi in tending to their wounds, he poured six bowls of the hardest spirits he could find.

After a few hard swallows, Othan said to his new friend, “I didn’t know you were so talented with a blade, Tret.”

The young man’s expression grew tense and his eyes darted about. “I told you!” He blurted. “Nobody believes me…”

“Stop that.” Othan shouted. “Stop that whining. You wonder why nobody respects you. Then you act like this! You really are a brat. For someone of high birth, you have no class. Even the lowest bone grinder’s got more class than you.

Tret said nothing. For a moment he just looked at his feet and shivered. Then he looked up at Othan.

“You know, you’re the only one who’s said that to my face in my entire life.”

“Good. You deserve worse.” Othan tensed up, anticipating an attack. None came

“Do you see, at least a little bit, what I’m up against?” Tret asked.

“I do. You’re not welcome on either side of the River. But it doesn’t help that you’re a miserable cur.” Everyone laughed, even the burnt brother, who moaned afterward.

Tret gave sideways smile.

“Can I get a word in?” Jolly said. “You’re a decent crook, Tret, but you stick your neck out. When this blows over, get yourself a new name and a new past. Don’t give anyone anything to put on you, and Dix will be your playground.”

x x x

Adventure tales with a curious twist sometimes find their way to anotherealm. Rough hewn, this one had some interesting characters. What did you think of it? And remember, it's Christmas. Be generous. -GM

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