The city of Spindle, like any city Baldric found to his liking, was never shy resources to celebrate a successful expedition into an ancient tomb. Food, drink, music, and all the carnal pleasures a patron could desire was present, with no expense spared by Baldric. As far as he was concerned, it was a drop in the bucket compared to what he and Amon had gained in Galgara’s tomb. The celebration was not without apprehension, mainly voiced by Amon. His concern was understandable.
Amon would have preferred to keep a low profile after escaping Galgara’s tomb and the The Great Rift that had spawned from it. By his estimation, he had two major bounties on his head: one from his former Thieves Guild and one by the The Benefactor. The latter of the two had his head priced at one thousand gold coins while Baldric’s was priced at two thousand. At first Amon considered it an insult that his bounty was overshadowed by Baldric’s. However, as he sat watching Baldric from a corner of the inn’s dining room they were using for the party, he understood the difference in bounty. Baldric did his best work in plain view and Amon his in the dark. By extension, he understood the wisdom in Baldric’s insistance on the party.
Baldric was more than just a bard; his was a name that was shouted in enthusiastic respect or whispered in cautious enmity. The tales that followed him grew taller each passing month Amon spent around him, yet none were not without their basis in fact. All that attention was the price of doing business and being a friend of one so renowned. Such fame did lend itself to many a con they pulled together on countless nobles, barons, churches, and more. Those who stood to challenge Baldric came to regret their actions. Others, were not so lucky.
Simply put, Amon learned through the mistakes of others what it meant to underestimate Baldric. He saw confidence and intelligence where others mistakenly recognized hubris and insanity. And as the alcohol flowed, and tongues loosened, he saw Baldric’s grand scheme.
News, local and otherwise, was discussed at length by many of the party’s patrons. Between the superstition and the drunken babble, Baldric was listening for more than just gossip. Through the guests, he and Amon were able to learn of the bounty on their heads, a terror stalking the outskirts of the city, the mounting tensions between the dominant Mekanikai and the Children of the Light, and the state of the Mekanikai civil war. Perhaps most importantly, they learned that the Benefactor already had people searching for them in Spindle. Better yet, they now knew where to find the Benefactor’s people.
Baldric dismissed a patron from his table and motioned for Amon to take his place. A sip of wine was savored before Amon gave Baldric his ear, “So?”
“So?” Baldric mimicked. He turned to one of the two beauties on his flanks, “You see what I mean, ladies? Lizardfolk, like Amon here, need to learn to take some joy in their lives. No banter, always just straight to business. Or is that the thief in you, Amon? I can never tell.”
“More the survivalist. Somewhat important considering there’s a price on our heads,” Amon grumbled, eyes surveying the crowd, “Learn anything regarding that?”
Baldric, resigned himself to Amon’s incessant brooding, and gave him a red-faced grin, “I did. Our dear Benefactor’s men are in town, looking for us. According to a friend, he has eyes everywhere. The usual.”
Baldric’s tone was smug.
“Probably among the crowd here, considering who the talk of the town is,” Amon sighed as he sipped more wine, “I can only keep my eyes on so many people.”
“The Benefactor’s men would not dare try anything here,” Baldric laughed, “Look around: the tavern is full of soldiers, refugees, and travelers of all sorts. Their drinks are on the Great Baldric’s coin. We’re safe for the night. Besides, I was just informed who pulls the strings for the Benefactor in Spindle, and where he’s staying.”
“How many at his command?” Amon’s hand remained close to his dagger, still unconvinced there would be no attempts on their lives that night.
“None we need worry ourselves with if our meeting goes well,” Knowing Baldric, Amon anticipated he would want to meet the Benefactor’s men head on. A foolish move if it was just the two of them. As fate would have it, they now had a group of five in their party, evening the odds of any fight. On their way to Spindle, Baldric and Amon had happened upon some old acquaintances of theirs.
First, they encountered Eliza; High Cleric of the Mekanikai in Spindle. She met on them way back from a diplomatic mission. She first met Amon when he assisted Spindle in the civil war against the neighboring city of Spocket. The black market was invaluable to Spindle’s war effort. Next was Dresdan, a monster slayer of sorts. He hired Amon on occasion to do odd jobs that helped tangentially with slaying one monster or another. Despite the noble cause Dresdan claimed to champion, his actions betrayed a darker, and more blood thirsty side to him. Crazy as Dresdan seemed, he was not the first crazy client Amon had ever taken on. Next was Corvin, a necromancer and city undertaker who knew incriminating details about Amon and was a friend of Baldric’s. Their working relationship was lukewarm, to say the least. If not for Baldric’s insistence, Amon and Corvin would never work together. Baldric’s connection to these people was another series of tall tales rooted in humble misadventure.
“I still think a low profile-”
“Have I ever steered you wrong?” Baldric received a glare from Amon, “Hey, we’re still alive and in one piece, aren’t we?”
Baldic slid Amon another goblet of wine after his other dried up, sealing the deal and hopefully encouraging Amon to relax for a bit.
“Alright, fine,” Amon accepted the goblet of wine and left Baldric to his adoring fans. If Baldric was convinced they were safe for the night, then Amon took it as an opportunity to attend to some affairs of his own. While the Benefactor’s bounty was something Baldric and he would have to deal with together, the other bounty on his head was something he could handle on his own. Amon melted into the crowd.
Elsewhere in the tavern, Dresdan, Eliza, and Corvin took to discussing the talk around the entire city. The murders occurring on the outskirts of the city had only compounded the already tense living conditions of Spindle, according to Eliza. Between the war, the refugees, the children of the light setting up shop and quickly expanding, the murders happening on the edge of town made Spindle a city ready to descend into a panicked frenzy if some of the tension was not eased.
“Trolls on the edge of town maybe?” Corvin suggested. He had yet to see many of the bodies fresh from the attacks. He merely provided last rites and other requests as they were presented to him during funeral services.
Dresdan thought not, “No, the attacks have a certain calculation to them. Bestial, primal… Something beyond that of a troll. Trolls would have left a bigger mess, from what I heard about the bodies.”
“Intimidation from Sprocket?” Corvin asked.
“They’d make sure we knew it was them… it isn’t,” Eliza answered.
“Amon’s criminal vermin?” Corvin suggested. His tone carried disdain for the thief and his kind, “Wouldn’t be the first time thieves dabbled in murder.”
“Then explain why no valuables were taken from any of them,” Dresdan silenced Corvin’s suggestion, keen on hearing how Corvin’s logic would make his theory fit the evidence. No reply came.
“Perhaps we could look into it,” Eliza suggested, “The city would benefit from some answers. The war has everyone’s morale down, the last battle cost us more than it should have. Ending the murders would help.”
It was true that Spindle was currently favored to lose the war. It was more than just the most recent loss that caused Spindle to lose ground in the war. Sprocket’s governing Mekanikai sect was more organized, had a more efficient and effective military, and a definitive leader of their cause. Spindle, on the other hand, lacked that same organization. What it lacked in military strength and leadership it made up for in technological and magical innovation. Plus, the black market would only deal with Spindle. Technology was limited, however, and magic in the world was famously unpredictable. While the black market gave advantages to Spindle that a Sprocket could not anticipate, they were too few in variety and number to turn the tide of war. There was too much room for error with these three pillars to Spindle’s war effort.
“We’ll start tomorrow. Maybe Baldric and Amon can help also,” Dresdan declared. He looked over at Baldric and noticed one of the ladies seemed to have misplaced her shirt and was pouring a glass of wine into Baldric’s mouth, “Or at least Amon.”
Baldric met up with Amon outside the inn, the Mason’s Manor where the Benefactor’s shot-caller was staying. It was on an unassuming street parallel to the town center. All the merchants and stalls were taking in their first customers for the day, the city guards were currently rotating shifts, and the previous night’s guests at the Mason’s Manor were departing.
“Exhausting evening?” Amon quipped; when he went to retrieve Baldric that morning, he found his companion resting comfortably between the two women he had hugging his flanks the previous night, clothes strewn across the room, and not a single drop of wine remaining in the room.
“Quite the opposite,” Baldric answered. Amon filled the blanks in with wine, women, and whimsical sonnets, “Yourself?”
“While you were having fun, I took some time to scout the Benefactor’s man,” Amon explained their mark, a man by the name of Leo, was alone for the moment and did not have any protection staying with him at the inn, “Could be a trap for us.”
“Were you seen?”
“Give me some credit,” Amon glared, “If we’re going to have a sit-down with the man, best we do so now.”
The inn itself was non-descript: a tavern area with rooms in the back, and stairs leading to more on the second floor. There were a few patrons eating breakfast, but only one sitting alone. The lone patron sat and kept his head on a swivel while he ate. When his eyes rested upon Baldric and Amon as they entered, he quickly looked away. Baldric caught this and knew it was Leo. Without skipping a beat, Baldric sat down across from the Benefactor’s man. Amon circled the tavern area to assess the other patrons, seeing if they might rise to Leo’s defense if the meeting went horribly.
“I know who you are, Leo. I assume you know who I am,” Baldric began, “I was hoping we could discuss the recent developments concerning our mutual benefactor.”
Leo leaned back, “I have no idea what you are talking about.”
Baldric motioned over toward Amon, “You see my friend over there? He’s been watching you. If he had it his way, he’d have slit your throat in your sleep or here while you ate for no other reason than to send a message to the Benefactor. I thought there might be a way that we all could walk away from this.”
Baldric paused, smiling wryly, “If you’d prefer to not finish breakfast…”
“Yes, I understand,” Leo answered hastily, “Say what you want to say.”
“Excellent,” Baldric folded his hands and leaned in toward Leo, “I want to make it perfectly clear to the Benefactor that my associate and I are not to blame for what happened in the tomb or the great rift.”
“The necromancer who hired you at the behest of the benefactor is dead, the artifact is lost, and you two are conveniently alive celebrating your newfound riches,” Leo responded, drumming his fingers on the table, “How do you think that looks? From where the Benefactor stands, it looks as if you two, the forest dweller, and the other two hirelings conspired to swindle him after killing the necromancer at his command. That rift is proof enough that some conflict transpired in that tomb.”
“Let me clear that up then,” Baldric relaxed in his chair, unfazed by the veiled threat, “We were hired to get Malus to the artifact safely; we did that. Our reward was whatever else was left after the artifact, which we claimed. You can tell the benefactor that the fault lies with Malus when he took the artifact for himself and incurred the wrath of two members of our party. Why did those three come into conflict? Malus was foolish enough to hire Rhondalis followers who were seeking the same artifact. And no, they did not hide who they worshipped. Had Malus not been so blinded by his lust for power, he might have foreseen their conflict of interest. The blame is entirely on the benefactor for trusting such a sensitive job, and dangerous artifact, to one so incompetent.
“I consider my and my associate’s role in this fiasco as having held up to our end of the bargain. Since the blame is on your side, I suggest that the Benefactor kindly remove the bounties from our heads and not pursue this matter further. I believe that would be best for all of us.”
Leo pondered Baldric’s words for a few moments, “You two going unpunished for not delivering the artifact looks like a debt going unpaid. If the Benefactor lets you two go, that shows weakness. Weakness that others may take as a sign that defying the Benefactor is now a viable option. People need to know that he is not to be defied.”
“That’s his problem, not ours. The people responsible for what happened are all dead,” Baldric answered, “The Benefactor needs to consider how things look now that people are hearing from me what happened in that tomb.”
“I do not follow. Word has already spread of what went on,” Leo was perplexed. What could this bard and this thief possibly say to their advantage?
“Amon, Nils, and myself are the only living witnesses to what happened,” Baldric explained, “I am the Great Baldric. People want to know what happened in that tomb. Who better than someone who was there that they respect to enlighten them? They will believe me too, not just because of my reputation, I travel with another who was there too. He can confirm what happened there. Some of the riches we took from that tomb only further our reliability.
“Let me make it clear how this will look if the Benefactor continues to pursue this. We held up our end of the deal. Enough people now believe that, thanks to our little celebration; they’ll tell their friends and families, who will tell their friends and families. If the Benefactor continues to pursue this, it will look like he is double-crossing us. And if word of that gets out, no one will work with him again. We all walk, we all win.”
“Well, I hope the Benefactor sees things your way.”
“See to it that he does,” Baldric and Amon promptly left the inn to meet up with the rest of their party.
“You think they’ll let us walk?” Amon asked, his hands close to his weapons.
“The Benefactor should be wise enough to see there is nothing to be gained by fighting us. I just hope his followers are smart enough to pass the message along,” Baldric answered.
“And if he isn’t and they aren’t,” Amon asked, perpetually the skeptic bordering pessimist.
“Then we see to it his cost for doing business outweighs the bounty on our heads,” Baldric answered, “In the mean time, let’s go find us a murderer.”
In spite of Baldric’s confidence, Amon could not shake the feeling he had right now: the feeling he got whenever a job went wrong. He felt eyes upon him and danger close. On one hand, that feeling was not hard to come by in the middle of a war zone. On the other hand, three thousand coins mixed with wartime greed and desperation was an easy calculation for many.
Spindle’s Halls of the Dead were a testament to the ingenuity of the Mekanikai. They served the purpose of preparing the dead, funeral services, and last rites. While burning bodies was not an uncommon practice in the world, the Mekanikai’s methods and reasons for doing so were utilitarian. Where other cultures had vast crypts the Mekanikai saw the need for only a furnace. A combination of magic and mechanics allowed the Mekanikai to use the essence of the dead for many purposes, supplemental energy being the most widely known use. This common practice, however, did mean investigating the recent slough of murders usually meant a lack of fresh bodies to examine. It did not bode well for the dead to wait longer than necessary for their final rites.
Corvin was in luck, good or bad depending on one’s perspective. With the frequency of attacks increasing, freshly dead were in more of an abundance. As he examined the bodies himself, he periodically deferred to the hall’s priest, Hycorax, for his opinion on what might have killed these people. The most obvious solution was to raise some of the dead and question them directly. Obvious as it was, it was dangerous for many reasons. Necromancy, as Corvin learned during the infancy of his powers, was a magic that often came with risks. Bridging the gap between life and death often slowly withered those arrogant enough to believe they were beyond the push and pull of life and death. It was an arrogance that Death harshly humbled.
Beyond the most immediate dangers to a necromancer, there were the dangers that came from the rest of the world. Corvin became familiar with these dangers, too, not long after he had begun to discover his latent abilities. Exile, banishment, and prejudice were the usual responses to his necromancy. Once he had been a follower of Rhondalis, but when he began to hear the voices of the dead everything changed. When he sought counsel from his fellow monks, he was rebuffed and forsaken by the Children of the Light. He had gone from brother to abomination. Such was the harshness of Rhondalis’ children.
“They say anything?” Eliza asked Corvin. He was not sure if her question was sarcastic boredom or genuine interest in his perceptions. He tolerated her presence and was somewhat grateful. Without her influence as High Cleric, he would not have been granted an audience with the victims. While he did on occasion perform last rites and undertakings for the city, he never was involved with investigating these murders. The Mekanikai city states were notorious for their distrust of outsiders to their religion. Eliza’s presence while Corvin attended to the dead smoothed over most qualms.
“Only that their deaths were horrifically agonizing, and perhaps shockingly brief,” Corvin answered. There were lacerations and bite marks. Whatever did this had claws, was big, and was very strong. A few of the dead had broken bones; they were lucky. Other were torn to pieces, “Before I do anything else, I would like to hear what Dresdan found during his research. If I am permitted, and successful, we may only have time to ask one question of the dead directly. I want to know as much as possible before I risk a raising.”
“I’ll trust your judgment, then,” Eliza’s face hardened, uncertain what she was to make of this. She shot Corvin a smile, hoping he knew she meant what she said.
While Eliza did not condone of necromancy, she did not condemn it either. Corvin had aided her in the past with his abilities. Unlike most necromancers she had heard of or ran afoul of, Corvin did not have the same lust for power that they did. She could see the good in him; a desire to use his gifts to help others and, in a strange way, show a deeper reverence for the dead. One argument she leveled when she would be criticized for keeping Corvin as company was that Spindle was an entire city that harnessed the dead, albeit differently. Such debate was the source of much friction between her and her kinsmen, as evidenced by Hycorax’s hesitation to allow Corvin access to the murder victims.
Dresdan arrived at the hall promptly, followed by Baldric. Dresdan had, so far, spent his morning visiting a few sites where the murders occurred and conducting research in the city library. At the murder sites he gained insight into how the killer worked. He found claw marks matching the ones on some of the bodies, on some of the trees leading to and from the murder sites. Additionally, each time he tried to track where the killer went after each kill, he found himself heading back toward the city center. Even stranger, the footprints changed from a creature’s to a human’s part-way back to the city from the kill site.
“If I had to guess at this point, I would say some wolf-like creature. Too big to be an actual wolf though,” Dresdan had deduced upon seeing the bitemarks. His line of work made him very familiar with a wide variety of monsters’ features.
“I’ll raise one of the bodies,” Corvin turned his attention to one of the more intact bodies and began muttering his incantations.
There was a shift in the air, a rustle in the dust, and slight dread that caused the hairs of the living in the hall to stand on end. The dead woman Corvin attended to began glowing and began to shake. The her joints and bones popped and cracked as awoke from what was to be her final slumber. When the dead woman finally opened her eyes, she was immediately disoriented, and no doubt confused from straddling the line between life and death.
Without delay, Corvin pressed her for information, “Describe to me what did this to you.”
The dead woman’s voice was faint, wheezing, “It was giant… Taller than any man I ever saw… claws… fur… and… by Cyris, those eyes… terrible, blood red eyes…”
The dead woman returned to death soon after. Her words quickly descended into mindless babble and nonsense. Corvin exchanged looks with everyone and said what everyone was thinking, “Werewolf…”
“We ought to raise another body,” Baldric suggested. Before anyone could act on that suggestion, Amon burst through the hall’s entrance, nearly knocking Dresdan over. He was panting, his hands close to his weapons.
“Amon! I was wondering where you slipped away. Where did-” Baldric began to inquire, only to be cut off by Amon.
“No time, we’ve got company,” Amon began to explain why he was disheveled, but what happened next promptly explained what his words could not. Six heavily armed men, mercenaries, entered the hall, followed by Leo.
“The Benefactor wants the lizard and the Ironblood. Dead or alive,” Leo declared, “Anyone gets in your way, kill them.”
Baldric called from the back of the hall, “Are you really going to try this here? Look around you.”
Leo and the mercs took in their surroundings and immediately understood they misjudged where they were going to fight this group of adventurers. Corvin had already begun to raise the corpses in this part of the hall. Leo was undeterred, “Cut them all down!”
The mercs advanced and engaged each of the adventurers. Baldric hung back from the fight and began strumming on his mandolin. The instruments strings were set ablaze and the battle began.
Two of the mercenaries charged straight for Baldric and Eliza. While the first engaged Eliza, Baldric began walking toward Leo, unfazed by the spear-wielding mercenary charging him. Just before he was struck, Baldric ducked and slammed his mandolin into the mercenary’s ankle, toppling him over in a heap of shock and puzzlement. All of this occurred without Baldric missing a beat or note on his beloved mandolin. The merc regained his footing but was perplexed by what he saw next. Baldric made no attempt to hasten his stride, nor did he choose to acknowledge the mercenary who had just accosted him. The mercenary lunged at Baldric again, this time claiming a little flesh through Baldric’s armor. To the merc’s astonishment, Baldric did not even wince. As far as he could tell, he was less than an annoyance to Baldric, if that. It was uncanny and, above all else, eerie.
The merc proceeded to taunt Baldric. No response. He attempted to lunge at Baldric again. His spear merely passed through Baldric’s armor and grazed his side, likely only leaving a new hole in Baldric’s tunic. Still, Baldric did not acknowledge the merc. Puzzled and humbled, this merc threw down his spear and sat against the wall. It was only then he understood he was trying to kill what simply could not be killed: a legend.
The rest of the group was not so lucky as to have a reputation, nor hubris, to pull off similar antics.
Eliza had taken a spear to her abdomen, but it was hardly a grievous wound. Before the merc engaging her could follow up, she cast a spell, disorienting him long enough for her to knock him unconscious.
Amon made his move immediately upon being charged. He threw one of his smoke pellets into the eyes of the merc charging him. The merc missed Amon with his spear. Amon returned the favor in kind by sidestepping the merc and slitting his throat.
Dresdan managed to fire off one bolt from his crossbow, but only managed to nail one of the merc’s shoulders. That merc in turn forced Dresdan into a melee. Amon attempted to assist by throwing one of his daggers at the merc. That dagger, unfortunately ended up in Dresdan’s hand. Dresdan had been in worse spots.
Corvin’s undead minions overwhelmed one merc from the beginning. He promptly resurrected the merc Amon had just killed and sent them all to assist Dresdan. Before the slayer risked prolonging his fight with the mercs, he kicked one into the undead minions descending upon him.
By now, Baldric was closing in on Leo and the remaining two mercs. Leo, recognizing the futility of the situation, fled pursued by Dresdan and Amon. The two mercs who were still prepared to fight turned their attention to Baldric who stood, ever stoic.
“No more blood need be shed,” Baldric finished the last few notes of the ballad before slinging his mandolin around his shoulder, “Your employer will soon be in our hands and you will be out of a job. I imagine you won’t see payment for this little mishap either. However, come work for me and I can promise you all the gold, women, and drink you could possibly need for the rest of your lives. As you have seen, my reputation precedes me.”
The remaining mercs, minus the one having an existential crisis, merely exchanged a glance before agreeing to Baldric’s rather loose terms.
Not too long after, Amon and Dresdan dragged Leo by rope back into the hall and brought him before the furnace. Leo called to the remaining mercs to help him, but the did not stir. He was alone now.
It was safe to say that Leo had made this move by his own agency, therefore had not delivered Baldric’s terms to the Benefactor. Since Leo was unwilling to deliver the terms, a stronger message was needed. Amon proceeded to hold Leo close to the furnace and heat up one of his daggers. Baldric grabbed a chair and sat down next to Leo.
“That was a very impolite thing you just did, Leo,” Baldric sighed, “And after the generous terms I laid out for you to deliver to the Benefactor, I would have hoped you would have seen the wisdom in us all walking away.”
Amon began to edge the red hot knife toward Leo’s face.
Baldric shook his head regretfully, “Maybe with a daily reminder you will not make the same mistake twice. Unless…”
Baldric motioned for Amon to back off the knife, “…Unless you answer mine and Amon’s questions. Do so, and we can avoid this unpleasantness.”
Leo looked between Baldric, Amon, and the hot knife, “What do you want to know?”