Underbelly Brigands

Orfur plunged his hands into the basin and watched the water turn red. A man’s heart burned in a brazier. The smell of roasting meat filled Orfur’s chamber. He rubbed a pinch of powder between his fingers, sprinkling it over the fire. The flames shimmered green and the heart turned black. He fixed his gaze on a jade eye. Orfur inhaled the smoke. It weighed heavy on his lungs. His heart beat faster, stronger. It resounded in his ears. The deep pounding of war drums. Then it subsided. Only a taste of exultation.

A whimper from across the chamber. A man bound and gagged to a stone slab. He glared to a similar slab where a body lay still. Its ribs splayed. Orfur loomed over the man, raised his dagger, and plunged it deep into the man’s chest.

Ghorad-Gha was his city, and it was rotting from the bottom up.

In a time long before Orfur, Ghorad-Gha had housed a million souls. Less than half that number now worried the streets. Clay and stone cracked, wood splintered and moldered. The River Rund lapped at the ancient foundation pillars. The city had lost its heart.           

In the belly of Ghorad-Gha were the lawless. They held it on their shoulders and kept it from falling into the Rund. The industry in Ghorad-Gha—bronzesmiths and smelters, tanners and tailors, carpenters and craftsmen—fed the Tarr. The lawless fed Ghorad-Gha.

The governor, masters, and ministries all knew it, even as they left it unspoken. Orfur planned on showing them who truly owned the city.

 

****

 

Arn leaned on his whalebone staff and stared at the River Rund curving between the peaks and forests of the Tarrlands before it disappeared over the horizon. It shimmered in the noonday’s sun, taking on a fiery glow. The river reminded him of his childhood home on the Northern coasts and how he’d once watched the sea in much the same way as he watched the river now.

He gripped the seastone beads around his wrist. A prayer teased the back of his throat, but he forced it to subside.

A heavy hand touched his shoulder. “We should not keep him waiting,” Rohqim said. The Akui removed his stone hand and hefted a two-handed bronze mace onto his shoulder. Rohqim had a hawkish nose, a barrel chest, and the white marble skin characteristic of all Akui. Standing still, he seemed a statue.

Arn turned from the docks and faced the Rundian temple, a thick pillar of stone that rose six stories into the sky and pierced the foundations of Ghorad-Gha through the depths of the Rund.

Arn knocked on the wooden door with his staff.

The door opened to reveal a short, round man in red robes tied with a hemp rope belt, his skin the same dark brown as Arn’s. But where Arn’s tightly coiled hair and beard was short and black, this man’s salt-and-pepper hair grew in a cloud around the balding crown of his head.

“Hello, Kancey.”

Kancey quickly glanced over Arn’s shoulder to the docks beyond and then back into the temple.

“Come,” he said.

Kancey led Arn and Rohqim through the Rundian temple. They passed a hall where river water cascaded from the roof, and another with a large pool in its center. Monks in red robes knelt before the pool with their foreheads touching the water. Their narrow corridor ended at a descending set of stairs, and after two more flights Kancey finally showed them into a small room.

A resounding booming and slurping filled the unadorned room as the River Rund lapped against the stone walls. No one would be able to hear them speaking down here. Arn guessed that they were below Ghorad-Gha. Rohqim fought to conceal a shiver.

“Were you followed?”

“I don’t think so. What’s happened Kancey?”

Kancey ran a hand over his head and nearly jumped as a wave crashed against the stone walls. “I think I’ve done something terrible. Depths, I may have signed my own death warrant.”

“Just tell me—”

“It was a sell, like any other. Except this time, it was something from the Below.”

“The Below?”

“Beneath the temple. It goes on and on—straight into the Rund and perhaps even deeper. We have a story about how this temple is connected to another world, the world of Rundos, beyond the riverbed. There are passages and tunnels as intricate as an anthill and rooms filled with old relics and artifacts. We go down to catalog what we can, but we haven’t even explored a quarter of what’s down there.”

Kancey let out a long breath and rubbed his face. Kancey was a mover. He knew how to get things from one point to another without anyone else knowing about it, a feat made easier by his proximity to the docks and his Rundian robes.

“And you found something in the Below?”

“A severed piece of statue made of dark green stone, not quite like jade. I don’t even know what part of the statue it could have been—some sort of appendage, maybe. Looked like something that could bring some tarrsims our way.”

“Our?”

“Delo, a fellow monk, knew about it. I showed it to him, and he found a buyer in Ittun. He’s always been good at selling things to faraway places.”

“So, this isn’t the first time you’ve sold something from the Rundians?”

Kancey shrugged. “I arranged the transport. We received the first half of the payment before we sent it away, which is typical, but then the second half never showed up. We thought the buyer was scamming us, but then Delo turned up floating in the river, bloated and gray and—” Kancey shivered. “I haven’t left the temple since.”

“Shit.” Arn ran a hand over his beard. “Who would want you dead for selling a piece of statue?”

“I don’t know. We figured it’d be easy. Who would care about a piece of odd-colored stone? Sell to someone with too much money and be done with it. Quick. Easy.”

“Could the Rundians have caught on to what you were doing?”

“Even if they did, they wouldn’t execute us slyly. There would be a ritual, a trial, a procession. The Rundians are nothing if not traditional.”

Arn tapped his staff against the stone floor. “Could Delo have pissed someone off? Maybe it has nothing to do with the statue.”

“We kept our heads under the current, and that’s how we both liked it.”

“Okay, okay. Tell me about the statue piece.”

“Like I said, it looked like an appendage or maybe the end of a horn. But from the way it twisted, it was probably a tendril in the image of Rundos. It was covered in small glyphs.”

“Do you know what they said?”

“I’ve seen them before on other artifacts, but I didn’t bother trying to read them. Sell it, forget about it, remember?”

Arn pinched the bridge of his nose. “You’re not giving me much to go on.”

Kancey wrung his hands. “We might be able to find another piece of the statue, in the Below.”

“Show me.”

“Not now. Come back tomorrow night, and stay near the back door. If the Rundians find out I’m letting you into the Below, we’ll both go to the depths.”

Kancey led them back through the hall, up the stairs, into the fountain chamber, and out the door. The monk spared Arn an anxious glance before closing the temple door in their faces.

“Should we be worried?” Rohqim asked.

Arn scanned the piers. A dock worker averted his gaze.

“Better to expect the worst.”

They had just left the docks when a messenger boy in a tattered tunic jogged toward them, his sandals slapping against the cracked street tiles.

“Are you Arn and Rohqim?”

“Yes.”

“Lodee wants to see you.”

 

****

 

Lodee slammed a fist into her palm so hard it sent a small plume of pale dust into the air.

“This is the second night in a row,” she said. “They’ve taken from the storehouses too many times now and when I find them—”

Rohqim placed a hand on Lodee’s shoulder, and she buried the end of her sentence. Arn was glad they had come as soon as Lodee’s message reached them.

Like all Akui, Lodee was tall and muscular, her features chiseled into her stone flesh as though by an expert artisan. All Akui were hairless, but that didn’t detract from their beauty. Each seemed to be the representation of a human in its prime.

“What did they steal?” Arn asked.

“Bronze ingots, four crates worth.” She looked to her storehouses. There were four on a small plot of land, each filled with the goods of minor merchants and tradesmen. Lodee owned the storehouses, and it was her job to keep the stored goods safe. “These thieves are going to ruin my business.”

Stealing from an Akui was bold. A few crates of bronze could net a decent amount of tarrsims, but enough to warrant the wrath of Lodee? Arn shook his head. “Did you see them? Any standout features?”

“No. I wasn’t here both times it happened. The first time they stole it from the back of a wagon as Yora was transporting it, and last night they snuck into the storehouse and stole the crates right out from under us.” Lodee hesitated, her fists clenched. “They slit Adel’s throat.”

Arn closed his eyes and gripped the seastone beads at his wrist. He hadn’t known Adel well, but he offered the man a moment of silence anyway.

He turned to Yora, a young laborer in her mid-twenties with powerful limbs and a bushel of dark curly hair tied at the back. “Do you remember anything about them?”

Yora looked to Lodee, who nodded, then back to Arn. “They were all men, three or four. They just...shoved me off the wagon and rode it away with the oxen and all.” She avoided Lodee’s eyes.

“It’s not your fault,” Lodee said. “I only have a handful of laborers, but I still should have made sure there was more than one person on that wagon. It’s been happening to others. There seems to be an increase in thievery, especially for bronze.”

Arn stroked his beard. “Two nights in a row?”

Lodee nodded. “You think they’ll try for a third?”

“Maybe, and if they do we’ll be here waiting.”

Lodee smiled. “I was hoping you’d say that.”

 

****

 

Arn leaned against the back of the storehouse, cloak back, tunic partially unlaced. Lodee and Rohqim hid among the other buildings. Arn looked up at the night sky, enjoying the cool air wafting over him. So many storms had come and gone, and now he cherished the calm.

Arn was a channeler, capable of conducting the Nvir through bone objects. The staff was the channeler’s most efficient tool, the length and taper allowing for precision control. If he channeled too much or for too long, the Nvir would consume him. Even now he could feel it screaming to be let free.

The stars calmed him. Their glimmer reminded him of a gentler version of the Nvir. The Nvir was violent, frothing and angry as it constantly tried to burst through his barriers and burn him from the inside. It seemed to hunger for all things in the mortal world. But the stars, the stars looked so much like it if it were calm. He wondered if the Nvir itself lived behind one of those stars, a distant being giving light to the sky, desperately trying to find a home, driven mad with loneliness.

There was a glint in an alleyway—perhaps a bronze blade. Three more winked into existence as men approached the plot of land. Arn closed his eyes and reached out to the Nvir. Heat filled his bones and a pulsing ferocity sang in his veins. When he opened his eyes they were pupilless, clouded with steaming white mist.

The thieves crept toward the nearest storehouse and began worrying the lock. There were hushed whispers as two stood guard. They held daggers and stone mallets.

The storehouse door’s lock gave way. Before they could enter, Lodee burst forward. She hefted two men as though they were dolls and hurled them into a wall. Red dust plumed into the air as clay bricks shattered.

Arn charged toward the fray, drawing his one-handed sword.

One of the thieves swung a heavy stone mallet, and a small white chip flew from Lodee’s chin. Her fist collided against the man’s skull with a sickening crack. He fell to the ground, convulsed, and stilled.

The last standing thief turned and ran. Arn channeled the Nvir and a beam of white-hot light arced from the tip of his staff. It seared through the man’s calf, sending him tumbling to the ground. Rohqim dragged the injured thief back to the storehouse. Lodee hefted the fallen man from where he had shattered the clay bricks.   

“One of them got away,” Lodee said.

“That’s all right,” said Rohqim, dropping the writhing thief before them. “We only needed one.”

Arn jabbed the point of his staff at the thief’s head. “Talk.”

The thief spat at Arn’s feet. Lodee used one of her massive hands to grip the thief’s face and squeeze. The man kicked and flailed, but couldn’t break free.

“Who are you selling to?” Arn lowered his staff to the man’s chest. When he didn’t answer, Arn let a trickle of the Nvir channel through the whalebone. Sparks erupted from the end of the staff.

“The Dolas Sisters,” the thief wheezed. “Please, don’t kill me.”

“Why do they want so much bronze?”

The man shook his head—or tried to. “I don’t know. They just said they’d pay for metal. Less for tin and copper, more for bronze.”

“Do you know what they’re doing with it?”

He tried to shake his head again. “We were just trying to get some coin, and the Dolas Sisters were paying. It seemed like they couldn’t get enough of the stuff.”

There wasn’t much else they could pry from the man. Lodee shoved him toward the street. He didn’t look back as he hobbled away.

Arn leaned on his staff. “They must have a buyer who needs a lot of bronze. The question is why?”

Rohqim’s brow furrowed. “Sounds like the beginnings of an armament.”

“You think one of the mercenary lords is trying to expand?”

“Maybe.”

Arn mulled this over. “It could be a foreign lord trying to arm himself with the Tarr’s own supplies.”

“Has that happened before?” Lodee asked.

“Oh, yes. They use a proxy to purchase or steal goods from their enemies and use it for their own armies. It depends how much is being stolen. I think it’s more likely a small band is trying to assert itself.”

“So what’s next?”

“Rohqim and I will go and speak with the Dolas Sisters.”

“I’m coming with you.”

Arn shook his head. “The Dolas Sisters know us. They don’t know you. It’s better if we go alone.”

“I want my goods back.”

“And we’ll get them for you.”

 

****

 

In the Plexus, streets were paved with stone and bronze. The gardens looked nourished, the homes loomed large, and the Watch remained vigilant. Intricate storefronts and eateries lined the streets, and the smallest homes were four stories tall. The High Chair, the fortress where the governor resided, occupied the center of the area. Rohqim’s and Arn’s frayed tunics and copper belt buckles were particularly conspicuous, even in the dark.

Rohqim and Arn ducked the patrolling watchmen as they made their way through the Plexus. The Dolas Sisters’ home was six stories of stone at the center of a paved courtyard. A bronze fence surrounded the entirety of their property. A few guards—mercenaries—milled around the fence, patrolling halfheartedly. Property that large usually had more guards, but precious little scared the Dolas Sisters.

They slunk along the fence to the back of the house until they reached a small door. Arn waited for the patrol to pass. As the mercenaries turned the corner, Arn drew a heavy key from his satchel and unlocked the door.

“She still hasn’t changed the lock,” Rohqim said.

“Old habits and all that.”

“Habits or false hopes?”

Arn passed through the door, Rohqim close behind. They hid in the shadows of a pillared balcony while Arn fumbled with a window. It slid open, and he climbed in past the silken drapes. Rohqim thudded behind him.

“We can only do this so many times,” Rohqim whispered.

“I think this is the last time,” answered a deep voice.

The room filled with light as Alesa walked in, brandishing a bronze lantern. Alesa was tall and burly, braided hair graying at the temples. She wore a mail tunic. Tucked into her belt was a sickle, as well as a sword with rams’ heads carved into the cross guard.

“Alesa, how are you?”

The youngest sister scowled. “About at my limit with you.”

“We have questions for you and Sisipa.”

“I think you should leave.”

“Don’t be so cruel.” The familiar voice was light, but sharp—a knife with a serrated edge. Sisipa emerged from the doorway wearing a slender dress, an ivory staff grasped in one hand. Her hair was a cloud of dark, tightly coiled curls with the slightest hint of auburn. Anyone who didn’t know better would have thought she was in her twenties, but channelers lived longer lives than most.

Sisipa sat in a cushioned chair, crossed her legs, and kept one hand on her staff. “Although, I do remember telling you last time that I was going to change the lock on that gate.”

“It must be my luck that you haven’t done it yet.”

“What do you want?” Alesa asked.

“Please, Alesa.” Sisipa waved a hand to calm her sister. “No need to be so harsh.”

“Questions,” Arn repeated.

“So it’s business then? That’s unfortunate.”

“We’re investigating thieves.”

“Don’t know anything about thieves,” Alesa said.

“A group has been harassing Lodee and her laborers.”

“Unfortunate,” Sisipa offered.

“One of them spun a tale about an uptick in metal buying. Apparently someone is hungry for ingots.”

“Peculiar.”

“Your name came up.”

“Many people know us.”

“I’d hoped you could tell me who the buyer is.”

“Why is that?”

“Lodee would like her wares back.”

“I don’t think you want to know, and I don’t think your friend is going to see those goods again.”

“I’m still going to try.”

“Is she paying you?”

Arn hesitated.

“You’re a terrible mercenary, Arn. Sorry, ‘investigative privateer.’ How could I forget?” Sisipa stifled a laugh. “You need to have a heart of stone or no one will ever pay you.”

“I’ve done a lot for you, Sisipa. A name shouldn’t be so hard to come by.”

“Trust me when I say you don’t want to know.”

“There isn’t much that can surprise me.”

“The Horned Scarab.”

Depths.

Sisipa laughed at Arn’s expression. “They have been ravenous for bronze, tin, copper, and other materials of a similar nature.”

“A similar nature?”

“A warlike nature.”

“Korgund’s mercy…”

“I said you didn’t want to know.”

“And who’s buying as the Scarab’s proxy?”

“I can’t be sure.” Sisipa shrugged. “But I’m given to believe that those sort of clandestine things occur in Northtown.” Sisipa rose from her chair and left the room as though there weren’t two intruders in her home.

Alesa escorted them to the outer gate and slammed the door behind them.

Arn knew that Sisipa had no love for Orfur—no one did. But the Scarabs’ power was a fearful thing. What in the depths was Orfur planning?

The walk home was long and silent. Arn collapsed into his bed and dreamed of rushing water.

 

The Horned Scarab

Ghorad-Gha, once magnificent city of clay and bronze, crumbles. Those prosperous few burden the shoulders of the downtrodden. In a city of forgotten glory, the lawless thrive. 

A monk turns up dead, and Arn is determined to find out why. Along with his stone skinned companion, Rohqim, they'll be dragged deep into Ghorad-Gha's underbelly, where the Horned Scarab reigns. 

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