by F. Wesley Schneider
Chapter One: Holding an Edge
Night's the only time I risk the streets. Dingy streetlamps are far easier to avoid than the sun—not that the ways I frequent ever have streetlamps.
My face isn't a welcome one here. Too many have seen it too recently and too often. Everyone has their bad memories, their reasonable hatreds, and many of those injustices look like me. I'd started out hoping that maybe I could change that, but a year of stinking alleys, tear-soaked streets, and steel rusted by blood made me doubt.
Those with coin have ways to solve their problems; in the light of day, with the new law, with a few words in the right ears. Those without… they've got the real problems, the messy ones no one cares enough to handle. The ones there's never a law for. Copper and bruised flesh buys a far less reliable brand of justice, and everything gets muddy down on the old city's streets. Those who live there know it so well it's not worth explaining. Those who don't will never understand.
I'm no expert. I wasn't born to those flophouses, sweaty basements, and alley shanties. I didn't ask to come, either—but I guess no one does. The difference between me and most of the players in that rehearsal for Hell was that when I arrived, whoever threw me there thought they finished me. They might have scarred my body, stolen my respect, and broken everything I was going to be, but I came through. I wasn't some sword straight from the fire, but sometimes even dross holds an edge.
Someone like the Varisian girl couldn't afford a sword. That's why she followed the rumors no guardsman would ever gamble on and found me. She said her brothers had been murdered. She knew by who but not why. That seemed convenient, but her people lied as easily as they spoke. The city watch would have dismissed her for that reason alone. For a moment I was tempted to do the same, but tears had dug twin graves in that soft face—a face that would never be as pretty as it was before. So I named my price.
She tried to bargain. I stopped her before she embarrassed us both. She went ahead anyway, and I was the only one embarrassed. She took my silence for disgust—an easy mistake; it's difficult to read expressions through steel—and forked over some bauble of hemp and cracked beads that wouldn't buy me a meal. I stayed quiet, and her desperation urged her further, but she had nothing left but words, the promise of future promises. It would have to do—favors seemed in short supply these days anyway.
I waited until well after midnight, until an hour when anyone with honest business was long since abed, before heading into the street. Even then I kept to the alleys. I didn't care if the drunks and alley rats saw me—their kind only survived because they'd learned to keep their mouths shut. No one would believe them anyway. Most didn't even believe their own senses, dismissing my steps as too soundless on the crumbling cobbles, doubting the metal glimpsed beneath my close-drawn cloak, disbelieving my face as a nightmare conjured by booze more poison than liquor.
It didn't take long for the streets to give way to boards, and then from boards to muck. I hated the docks, not just because of rust and my obvious wariness of water, but for the constant noise. It compounded a disadvantage. Much of the world was muffled thanks to my helm, and the constant rasp of water over trash beaches and the clunking of moored boats didn't help. But her directions had been specific.
If the Caterwaul had seen better days, no one ever visited to reminisce. I'd never spent a day of my life on a boat, so I couldn't say why such a capable-looking fishing trawler had been abandoned in the first place, but it surely wasn't leaving port again. Mold draped what rigging had survived, moss collected upon much of the wood, and though the masts still stood, the sails had disappeared as surely as the ship's crew. What remained of a vandalized figurehead, ruggedly carved as a mangy cat, stared inland, yowling for its absentee captain's return.
Light flickered through the ship's bowed timbers, and a burst of nasty guffaws preceded a long string of repetitive curses, verifying rumors that the Caterwaul had a new crew.
Supposedly a gambler called Quil ran a nightly game of cheaters' dice in the wreck's hold. This particular game was widely known in Old Dock's shadier watering holes as having relatively square dice and life-changing stakes. But those who sat and listened to the stories long enough eventually heard them repeated, and always from the same loudmouths—publicizers doubtlessly on Quil's payroll. No doubt a game played out here nightly, but it wasn't just this Mr. Quil gambling.
With the tide low, the Caterwaul leaned against the dilapidated dock, its hull sunk deep into the rancid muck. The noise and light drifted up from below the pier, as though the game were taking place right in the surf. Good. I wasn't eager to try and creep across the ship's deck, guessing at which rotted timber might give me away. Slipping across the muddy boardwalk, I dropped onto the dark of the beach below.
The forgotten temple of some imaginary goddess of sea-junk sprang up around me. Pilings marched in almost even rows parallel to the shore, their crusty coverings of muck and barnacles suggesting elaborate religious reliefs. Piles of discarded crates, small wrecked boats, and other unidentifiable heaps became the inhuman artistry of this weird sanctuary, while the heavy scents of wood rot and sewage made do as incense. Fortunately, the local congregation didn't seem to be terribly devout.
Ahead, the hold of the Caterwaul gaped open, the terminal gash explaining the end of its days at sea. Within, five figures surrounded a crate making do as a table, dice and the coins of fresh bets scattered beneath a lantern wobbling overhead. None looked like sailors.
Despite the unlikelihood that anyone within could see me, I stuck to the deepest recesses of the under-docks. It wouldn't look like it to most, but this was a classic Sczarni trap. In this trick, you make yourself the bait, setting up in the open so the guards, or thieves, or whoever you've pissed off this week think they've got the drop on you. That way most don't even bother to look for the cutthroat hidden away in the dark. I'd fallen for it once before and almost got knifed. Lesson learned, I waited now, letting my eyes adjust, searching through the motion of the flickering shadows and lazy roll of the shallow surf.
I counted time in the rolls of dice. Two complete games passed as I stared into the dark, until finally a lean, excitable fellow won a significant pot. A wave of shouts, curses, and banged bottles rose and ebbed, rattling the lantern above and upsetting the shadows leaning away from the broken ship. One shadow craned its neck from behind an algae-draped stanchion, light flickering for an instant across the quarrel set in its crossbow.
Just one guard. Mr. Quil shouldn't be so frugal with his security.
Quil should have brought more than a crossbow.
My response came faster than thought, and my armor immediately rebelled at the twitch of that old reflex. Three escapee syllables whispered within my helm, turning harsh inside my metal mask. Intonations that once came as easily as a child's prayer tripped over my lips, becoming jumbled upon hearing themselves spoken by an unfamiliar voice. They sounded like lost faith.
I choked back the rest of what I would have once called magic, but it was only for the sake of stealth. If there had still been power in those noises, I would have felt some twinge, some hint of it building like steam in a kettle. Instead, all I felt was rust, biting leather, and my own tired muscles. The words—or the memory of what they should have been—made me feel weak, and I shoved them back into the scabbed over recesses of my mind, down with all the other wounds of what I used to be. I hadn't chosen them, but I had other, more direct solutions now.
Suddenly eager to move, I slipped between the pilings, darkness masking my steel and the waves drowning the sound of my steps. His attention more on the game than his watch, the guard's first hint of my presence came as I snapped upon him like the jaws of a hunter's trap. My free arm locked around his chest and arms as my mailed hand dug into his face, slamming his head back against my pauldron. Hair muffled the clang of his skull striking metal, his body tensing for an instant before going limp. I let him drop into the muck. If he woke up, he'd have a nasty knot to nurse. If.
Gliding up to the hull, I slunk close to the hole that served as the entrance to the makeshift gambling den. Again I waited for a distraction, and this time it didn't take long. Cheating was actually part of cheaters' dice, so you couldn't really call an opponent a cheater and have it mean anything. But at a game usually played with bare knives upon the table, part of the challenge was knowing how far you could push your opponents' tolerance. Someone had just gone too far.
The dice clattered. Shouts rose without the accompanying laughter. A fist pounded the table, and a stool skidded across the floor. More shouts and thuds.
I drew my sword and stepped into the light.
My entrance was the flood that stopped the house fire. Suddenly no one was seated. A beast of a man was already grabbing for a whip-thin braggart wearing the melting traces of a gloating smile—I don't think either of them even saw me as brutal intention drove them toward the hold's shadowed stern. But others did. Doing a double-take as he looked past the brawlers, a formerly bored man with hair the greasy gray of pigeon feathers jolted to his feet, cursing and sweeping dice and coins into the pockets of a once-fine violet vest. A pair of less swift players—wet old stevedores, their leathery faces incapable of showing surprise—rose slowly amid the confusion. Over the clatter of silver, the coin collector pointed at me and shouted to the brawlers. Had a twenty-foot-long sea snake just washed into the room, he couldn't have looked more startled. I singled him out as Mr. Quil.
I went directly for him. As I strode in, the coinless dockworkers clambered out, the hurried slaps of their steps soon receding in the muddy surf. Pointing my blade at Quil's throat, only a stride away, I made my intention clear.
To his credit, he didn't flinch, instead yanking up a crossbow from behind the crate-table. Although loaded, it was little more than a toy. Still, he fired, and the miniature bolt struck me solidly in the chest. Had I been some thug in scavenged rags, I'd be retching up my lifeblood.
I wasn't. The bolt ricocheted away harmlessly, and a kick shattered the crate between us. The crossbow in Quil's hands followed suit a half-moment later, my blade swiping it from his hands and crushing it against the ship's sweating timbers. Quil pressed himself against those same moist boards, unsuccessfully trying to find some crevice wide enough to squeeze through and escape.
Something struck the small of my back. It shattered, and a man's high-pitched scream rang out. I twisted away from the impact. Harsh words came to my lips, both curses and something more. I bit them back.
The smaller of the two thugs, his face already blossoming where it had caught three or four of the larger man's punches, was stumbling back away from me. In one shaking hand he barely balanced the handle of a rusty chef's knife, the shattered slivers of blade running deep between his fingers and into the meat of a lacerated palm. He tripped backward, whimpering, and bolted out through the broken hull.
Unfortunately, he had been the big fellow's only distraction. Shuffling from the rear of the ship, the apelike goon had to duck to keep his head from scraping the deck above. He paused as he reentered the ring of lantern light, obviously not sure what to make of me. Quil shrieked at the brute.
"She's one of the mad queen's guards, you dolt! A Gray Maiden!"
I winced at the old name. Something in my head, something I still couldn't banish, swelled with pride even as my teeth clenched and a spark of rage flared deep in my guts.
"Take her down!" Quil continued. "When you're done with her, we'll turn what's left over to the guard for a prize!"
The bewilderment on the brute's thick features peeled back in a lecherous smile, his eyes tracing the curves of my armor. A lewd chuckle croaked from over-plump lips.
There's little I wouldn't do for another day back in the life I had before my abduction. Before my armor. Before the queen. But occasionally a situation arises where I loathe my condition perhaps less than I should.
If the brute could see the smirk locked behind my visor, he might have rethought his intentions. But he couldn't, and didn't.
He rushed in, his hairy, broad-knuckled hands outstretched. My sword wheeled, a ribbon of silver, and a hand slapped a curved wall far from where anyone stood.
The breathy bellow that followed filled the hold. The big man's face flushed, and the stump of his hand shoved across his chest into the cloth of his armpit, the yellow stains there swiftly overwhelmed by another shade. Too enraged to realize how lucky he'd been, the giant channeled his wrath into a howl and charged, his remaining hand reaching as if he hoped to crush my neck in a singlehanded grip. By the time his momentum carried him to the spot where I'd been standing, the light was already fading from his eyes, his prodigious belly split like a wet sack. What followed sounded like a fisherman slopping his haul onto the planks, but I had already turned. With a jerk, I again leveled my sword at Quil, blood whipping from the blade to spray the wall and his face with a line of sharp crimson. He flinched, and I grabbed him by his neck, pulling him close to the featureless plane of steel that was my face.
He gazed into the hollows of my helm. Whether he could see my eyes locked away beneath the mask or just the stifling darkness, he didn't find what he was desperately hoping for—some sign of mercy. Of humanity.
All he could do was whimper.
Coming Next Week: A Gray Maiden's take on interrogation in Chapter Two of F. Wesley Schneider's "Shattered Steel."
F. Wesley Schneider is the Editor-in-Chief of Paizo Publishing and co-creator of the Pathfinder campaign setting. He is the award-winning author of numerous RPG adventures and sourcebooks, including Rule of Fear, Book of the Damned Vol. 1: Princes of Darkness, Seven Days to the Grave, and Endless Night, as well as the Pathfinder's Journal Guilty Blood.
Illustration by Ashley Walters