Prologue: A Mug Too Far
The mug sailed across the main common room of the Spiked Eel, droplets of amber beer spinning out from its neck like a bizarre, anarchic spiders web. Petey idly sipped his own mug of lager, dreamily watching the projectile in slow motion as it sailed past the enraged visage of Two-Boar, on and on over the straining, bulging arms of Walkyn and Kragyn as they ignored the degenerating situation in the common room and focused on their test of mettle, before finally impacting on the far wall, sending shards of ceramic and a wash of suds over the cowering heap that was Thonius. A string of snickering and guffaws echoed across the room.
“You were warned last time, Thonius, that my patience only extends so far” hissed Matrell as he stalked across the room, following the haphazard trajectory of spilled beer and pulling a wicked looking cleaver out of his belt.
“Aye, that’s it!” hollered Shiv, lolling drunkenly in his chair near the crackling fireplace. “Gut the little bastard!”
“Now, now , my dear fellows” wheezed Thonius, attempting to ingratiate his not inconsiderable bulk behind a roughly hewn table, wiping beer off his lanky scalp. “I’m sure this is nothing but a terrible misunderstanding of gross, diabolical proportions, inflamed by the petty rumors of a few-”
“Using MY name at the Three Shields to loan a bar tab, will you? Explain how that qualifies as a misunderstanding, you gutter rat”
“Ah, well, you see, my dear Matrell, a man of my grandiose stature and reputation normally needs no such subterfuge, but circumstances and times like these-”
“Enough talk” snarled Matrell, a sneer marring his scarred features. “Let’s see if your innards are as gutless as your actions.”
Petey drained the last dregs of beer from his cup, considering the somewhat amusing situation before him and weighing the pros and cons of intervening. Another beer first, he thought as lethargy overtook his limbs. After all, Thonius was in dire need of learning this particular lesson, and the enraged Matrell, now holding the blubbering rogue up by his frayed shirt collar, seemed like just the man to administer it. The common room was now fixated on the spectacle, with Two Boar pulling a cudgel out from under the bar, muttering oaths, and Shiv laughing maniacally.
“That’s it, Marty, stick him!” cackled Shiv “And then turn out his pockets for the rest of us, lets get the ale flowing har har har !”
“You’ve had more than enough, friend” growled Two-Boar as he stalked past him, a bristly arm extending itself and sending Shiv careening off the chair, onto the ground, where he continued to laugh hysterically. “And you, Matrell, no blood on the floor. Not after last time.”
“Try and stop me, old man.” As an afterthought, Matrell reached down and plucked Thonius’ purse from his belt. “But you can use this to cover the…cleaning”
A thin squeal issued from Thonius’ mouth as Martell held the cleaver under his nose, and Two Boar shrugged and backed off, apparently satisfied. Petey sighed, his hands straying down to the dagger sheathed at his belt as Kragyn and Walkyn ended their arm wrestling prematurely and stood, hands straying to weapons. Perhaps a small modicum of intervention was required after all.
“Friends! Sancsters! Fellow paragons of Annahearth!” shrieked Thonius, his jowls quivering. “Is there no one here to protect your friend, to stand for my health? To help the helpless, to salvage whatever honor remains in thieves?”
Kragyn stood, hands balling into fists as a wry smile spread across his visage. “You have no honor, Thonius. But a friend, aye, that I can stand for.”
“Step back, wilder scum, before I slit your gullet as well.”
“Now that, Staghead, was a bad move.” rumbled Walkyn, a razor magically appearing in his rugged fist. The tension in the room immediately ratcheted up a notch, the fireplace sending flickering shadows across silenced smiles, hands straying to weapons and the barmaids quietly removing themselves from the common area. Thonius’ squeal abruptly turned into a shriek as the cleaver continued its upward movement, drawing a thin line of blood from the bridge of his nostrils, blood mixing with the tears and mucus dribbling down his whimpering visage. Kragyn and Walkyn strode across the room, weapons raised in their fists, while various sanct and gang factions aligned themselves in opposition to their rivals, raised voices and unsheathed blades proliferating all the while.
“Steal money from me, eh? Tell outlandish stories and humiliate me, eh?” grinned Matrell, callously throwing Thonius against the wall, where he slid down to the bottom, blubbering. “Let’s see about collecting that debt-”
The hubbub and commotion in the room ceased, like a candle snuffed by an errant gust of wind. All eyes turned towards the shadowy alcove located at the back of the room from which the voice had originated. A pipe bowl briefly flared, the smoldering coals illuminating eyes like carved orbs of obsidian, a rugged face covered with swirling, mercurial sancster tattoos and a shaved scalp, an open, tattooed eyes resplendent on its crown. Petey immediately pulled his hand away from the dagger’s hilt as if scalded, noticing that most people around the room had done the same. A bar fight was one thing, messing with this particular, fabled individual was another.
“Be-beg your pardon, mesir” stuttered Two-Boar, backtracking away and dry washing his hands nervously. “Nothing out of control, the lads were just acting up and, w-well, you know…”
Matrell glanced contemptuously towards the speaker, hand still with upraised cleaver over Thonius. “Not your business, Brother Paseno. Back off.”
Petey gulped. Most people with common sense, that was. This was about to get very ugly.
Sinuously, shadows detaching themselves like oily wraiths from his stocky frame, Paseno rose to his feet, utter silence overtaking the bar room floor as previously warring factions and figures wisely backed away. His short, broad figure was adorned with tattoos of rivers, castles and eyes, all seeming to writhe and twist sibilantly over his skin. A broken nose and scarred mouth twitched into a semblance of a smile, while his midnight eyes never left Matrell’s.
“That, my fellow Chaplain, was not a request, nor was it a suggestion.” intoned Paseno, his words sliding sibilantly and with silent menace, the promise of barely constrained violence arcing from his tongue. “Drop him. Now.”
Matrell seemed to hesitate, weighing his odds. Petey, and the whole of the spellbound audience, held their collective breath. There were sancsters to treat as equals, sancsters to respect, and then there were sancsters like Paseno; living legends whom one did not fuck with.
“Have it your way, brother” grunted Matrell, after a long pause. “Not worth my time anyway.” He strode to the bar, pouring himself a pint of ale from an abandoned pitcher, the cleaver and its promise of blood back on his notched leather belt. Petey exhaled. Walkyn, striding past him back to his own recently abandoned ale, winked at him, his blade disappearing as quickly as it had appeared.
“The nnnnn-nerve! The utt-tter gall!” indignantly squealed Thonius, as Kragyn hoisted himself up, roughly brushing dust his tunic. “Two-Boar, I must protest! The quality of yonder fine, upstanding establishment, nay, the perfidious villainy that has overtaken it! I say, my dear fellow-”
“Thonius. Shut. Up.”
" Ye-es, Paseno. Sorry Paseno."
“I think, Chaplain, that we, I, deserve some entertainment for the upset your, debt collections, has caused, yes?”
“Yes, Paseno. Of course Paseno.”
“Story!” howled Shiv, still drunkenly sprawled where Two-Boar had pushed him “The masses demand a tale!”
“Aye!” shouted others, Kragyn and Walkyn among them as they pulled chairs over to Petey’s table. The door opened, sending a gust of cold wind into the room, along with two additional, and familiar figures. Martin, impassive in his carved, wooden facemask, and Ayla, shushing and cradling the bodies of two small rats in her outstretched palms. As they strode towards him, Petey grinned, and signaled to a nearby barmaid for their regular order: a glass of water, and a precise measurement of two ounces, fire-whiskey. Thonius ambled by on his way to the space cleared in the center of the common room, grumbling and with a pint in each hand. Martin tilted his head a fraction towards him.
“Thonius. Greetings. The normal evenings upsets, I see?”
“Silence, you peddler of fire and cheap parlor tricks.”
“We are in concordance, it seems. And what ballad of legend and fable will you be spinning for us today?”
Reaching his place in the center, all eyes turning towards him, an oily grin reasserted itself Thonius’ smiling jowls, and an air of confidence ensconced itself into his jaunty steps. “Why, Martin my dear fellow, the best kind! One about my own, dashing exploits!”
“Ah. A fictional reciting, then” sniped Martin, prompting a chorus of snickering from Kragyn and Walkyn. Petey smiled. As fantastical as they were, Thonius’ stories did have a natural flair and grandeur. This was something sadly missing from the storyteller himself, he thought laughingly. At the bar, Matrell scowled into his cup as the room fell silent, all eyes trained on the gaudy, recently fate dodging figure of Thonius, finally in his element and strutting like a rooster in front of the assembled mass of scum and villainy.
“Friends! Sancsters! Rogues!” squalled Thonius, one hand gesticulating wildly while the other combed the recently ruffled strands of hair back over his scalp. “The sudden brush with danger that you have witnessed tonight is nothing, nay, a tiny speck of the cornucopia of experience and terror that I have conquered in my lifetime! And today, oh ye lucky peasants and hucksters, these experiences shall have the breath of life sent gusting into them!”
“For I, Thonius the mighty, have fought dragons, burning bears and other forms of evil!” A muffled snort sounded from Walkyn, while Kragyn rolled his eyes.
“And I, Thonius of the silken charm and princely looks, have seduced maiden and queens beyond number!” At this, two of the bar maids swooned slightly, hands grasping the bar to steady themselves, while Two-Boar narrowed his eyes menacingly.
“And I, Thonius of the nimble feet and dexterous mind, have amassed riches and splendors beyond peer!” Martin shook his head despairingly, draining the fire-whiskey through a slit in his mask and signalling for another.
“Aye, but if that’s so, you windbag, whadya’ need to pilfer Matrell’s coin for?” bellowed Shiv, prompting a chorus of jeering, and a further darkening of Matrell’s already apoplectic features.
“Silence, oh you hive of flotsam and jetsam, you sinners and saints, you glittering jewels of Annahearth!” thundered Thonius, one of his hands now draining a pilfered pint while the other swept his tattered cloak around him, sending shadows careening around the room, striking the spellbound audience like literary comets. “Gather around, now, and let me tell you a tale from yonder humble teller of tale’s origins. For I, you see, was not always the resplendent figure that you see before you, even a jester of fate such as myself has his origins.”
“Get on with it, Thonius.” intoned Paseno, draining his wine and snapping his fingers for another.
“Of course, oh dread raven of death and justice intertwined. Gather around friends, for the tale I tell you now takes us hurtling back through the deluge of time, to these same bitter streets, not 12 years ago, to myself and the company of two, fine friends, and our quest to liberate the treasures of a forbidding, Glorium fortress, impregnable and dour. Gather around…”