"Two brothers. Sczarni." My words took on the hollow, metallic ring of my sealed visor. "Their blood is on your hands."
The gambler's eyes bulged like a panicked animal's, his gaze torn between my sword point and the copper-scented mess spreading about my feet. "What?! No! I'm just a dicer," he stammered—a total coward, and doubtlessly a liar. Obnoxiously, his voice had also gone up an octave. "We roll a friendly game here. Dice—just dice. The weapons are just for protection, you never know who—"
He screamed like a farm lass thrown from her horse, a surprised shriek followed by a stream of blubbering. Good the guards never patrolled these docks, as to someone above the noise surely sounded like something far worse than a thief getting what he deserved. I brought my sword level once more, Quil's cheek reddened from the slap, but was no more bloodied than by a bad shave.
"You killed them."
"No!" he whimpered.
My blade crossed his other cheek, releasing new reserves of pathetic noise. He dropped to the ground.
"Please!" he bawled. My blade rose. "No! The Calavetti brothers. You mean the Calavettis. I know why they're dead, but I didn't kill them!" The words spilled out almost faster than I could follow. When the sharp steel didn't fall, the gambler ventured a glimpse at me between his upraised arms.
"They came to my game a week ago—less than that. They lost. But that happens—that's the game—and they knew the risks when they got into it." His shielding arms, slowly lowered. A twitch of my still-wet blade was all it took to jerk them back to position.
"All their coin, every copper, and more—they lost it all, but they didn't know how to quit. There was some jewelry, a necklace, the hat off one of their heads. They got in that deep, and lost."
"You cheated them."
"It's cheater's dice!" he squawked. Another steel twitch, and he cowered. "No! No special way. No gimmicks, no rigging, no finger waggling. They knew the game—probably thought they had it all worked out—and they lost bad. We threw them out once they started getting... impolite. But they came back."
He paused, waiting for me to urge him on. His discomfort in the resulting silence did that for him soon enough.
"The bastards jumped us as we were headed back into town. They wanted their money and everything else back. Scum like them's why I hire protection and keep it well paid." He flashed mangled teeth, momentarily forgetting I wasn't some taproom floozy. When I remained silent, he quickly came back to the moment. "But before we'd even seen those two Sczarni saddle boys one of my men was fishing a bolt out of his side. I sure wasn't polite about it, but I gave them their coin back. Then they got greedy and took the rest—the entire night's haul." He'd gotten his dander up. "I told them that wasn't going to be the end of it, and it sure as hell wasn't!"
"You and your men tracked them down." I still hadn't heard anything leading me to reconsider my condemnation.
"No," he said, sounding almost offended. "There's people for that kind of work."
"Hired killers. Assassins." But of course I knew that nearly anyone in the old city would cut a man's throat for contemptibly low prices.
"Nah. There's a man who's been lurking around here the last few weeks—a nasty sort. Unpredictable, but thorough."
"You paid him to kill the Calavettis." It wasn't a question.
"Why pay when he does the work for free? I just had one of my boys find him, explain what happened, give him the name of the sty they spend most of their nights in, and he tracked them down himself. Those two were dead the next morning." He nodded purposefully, gloating over the revenge he'd had another take for him. "But I still don't have my money back! You can see I'm kind of like the victim in all this."
"What's this killer's name?"
"Damned if I know," he said. He was getting some of his spirit back. I let it pass for the moment. "He's some crazy who's shacked up on the Slug's Trail."
"You're still the reason they're dead."
"They robbed me! That much silver was worth plenty more than the lives of two Sczarni sleazes."
"Your crooked game lures in the desperate. Your accomplices spread lies and prey upon the hopes of the poor. You bully and rob those who come. You kill any who try to take back what you steal. You are a cheater, a thief, a murderer, and a coward."
"What!? I don't force anyone to come here!" His excuses sounded like a piglet's squeals as he scooted back against and up the curved wall, trying to regain his feet. "And it's not my fault if they don't have the money to play. I'm no murderer!"
It wasn't as clean as that. The dead men's sister hadn't muddied her brothers' memories with unflattering truths. And Quil hadn't murdered them with his own hand. His confession had even pointed me toward someone who might be even more dangerous. But being a lesser evil didn't make him innocent.
My steel flashed again. This time Quil didn't whimper.
The back alleys and forgotten streets of the old city wound together into a singularly wretched urban quagmire. At times I found myself wading waist-deep through piles of trash, the wreckage of broken lives, and the filth mountains of rodent despots. At others I had to retrace my steps entirely to avoid a collapsed building or a gang's territorial barrier. Fortunately, the prisoners of this labyrinth didn't bother me—those who even roused at my passing knew well enough to squeeze their eyes back closed and hastily forget. But some things were bolder, and knew or cared less about my armor's infamous reputation. More than once a hail of loose shakes clattered onto the cobbles behind me as something skidded upon the rooftops. I never saw more than a dash of shadows or the reflection of the moon off oily eyes, but I knew that more than men preyed upon those lost among these streets. In the old city, garbage collected in the gutters along both streets and shingles.
Despite the debris and denizens of the slums, I soon reached my destination. The Slug's Trail was little more than a blind alley leading to the walled-in courtyard of a half-collapsed insula. It took its name from both its short length and the years of discarded oils and cooking greases that coated its walls, thrown from the rear stoop of a long-emptied fish fry. Flies congregated here in droning plagues, and the squirming things they spawned weren't slugs. But despite the swarms of shit-eaters, this had also become a kind of wretched safe house for the most pitiable street dwellers. No gang or roof crawler cared to contest the flies for their home, and the high walls of the surrounding buildings sheltered against much of the wind and weather. The alley was filthy, infested, and disgusting, but still preferable to many of the hunting grounds where gangs of self-proclaimed slumlords insisted upon rents paid in either silver or skin.
Tonight, though, the Slug's Trail was something other than a glimpse of urban Hell. It was empty.
Narrow and largely uncluttered, its shadows shallow, the alley's rough stone formed an unobstructed channel to a sagging entryway, the inner yard beyond visible in ghostly shades as moonlight filtered through the night's pooling mist. Barely noticeable in the dark, a narrow, uneven window watched from just above that opening, a single lazy eye lolling over the ugly alley.
It wasn't difficult to recognize this for what it was—not just a dirty cul-de-sac, but a killing ground. Anyone attempting to enter the insula would have to pass beneath that window and whoever might be lurking amid the shadows within. I considered that I might be paranoid, but if I was hunting a killer, I preferred not to give my quarry any undue opportunity.
Somewhere over the buildings and across the nearby docks, a ship's bell rang out the meager hour. By the time its echo had faded I'd found another of the insula's exterior walls and, using slanting bricks as handholds, climbed through the window into a second-story apartment. There were few who could move as I did in full armor—but then, few had their armor specially fitted to their body's every angle, the skin they were born with overridden by steel. I could hardly call it a blessing, but I am the creature I am, and tonight steel moved as soundlessly as silk.
The apartments within obviously hadn't been rented for years, but also hadn't wanted for residents in that time. Broken glass, shattered furniture, and other garbage littered the floor, while layers of crass graffiti and outdated gang symbols covered what remained of cheap plaster walls. The rats had been at the place as well. I didn't see them, but their smell was thick in the air. Time and violence had thoroughly devastated the interior, reducing the multiple apartments into a broken hall, cornering at right angles around the central courtyard and divided only by the low remnants of walls and splintering supports.
Slipping through the wreckage as stealthily as the irritable floorboards allowed, I reached a corner and looked down another row of rooms. Here would be the one with the window overlooking the Slug's Trail. There was more, though. By weather, shoddy construction, or more deliberate violence, much of the inner wall had fallen away, calving in great pieces into the courtyard below.
A figure in black, his form concealed by shadow, knelt at the window, his head resting upon the sill. I jerked back into the dark, not eager to lose my advantage if he looked over his shoulder. It seemed my caution had proved warranted. If I'd come down the alley, the hiss of a crossbow bolt would likely have been the last thing I heard.
A momentary gap in the night's clouds threw a weak wave of moonlight over the figure. At first I thought he was much bigger than a man, his shoulders impossibly broad, but a glint of steel suggested that heavy spaulders had inflated my impression. The shoulder guards weren't out of place, either, as plates weighty enough to bring the unaccustomed to their knees girded all but his head.
This was something I hadn't expected. I thought for sure that Quil had lied to me, or gotten lucky by finding some thug with actual skill, but here was something else—someone either trained to wear that armor or suffering the worst kind of madness. Of his features, I could see little, the outline of a head shaved nearly bald being the only hint of a man beneath the steel plates. If he was armed, I couldn't tell, the night and his dark steel conspiring to make him a shadow only slightly more lustrous than the rest crowding the wreckage.
At first I thought he was waiting—perhaps even for me. Could he be a guard, and this some elaborate trap? But as I waited and watched from the darkness, I began to see his head nod almost imperceptibly, slowly, with even breaths. He was asleep. This didn't seem careless, though, with his vantage over the best approach and armor still fastened. He seemed more like a soldier in hostile territory, as ready as he could be while still at rest. Or it was a ruse.
Either way, I moved cautiously as I slipped around the corner, picking through the ruin to come upon him from behind. During my nearly silent approach he hadn't moved. That changed quickly as I clamped one hand around his neck, digging my thumb into a tender point, my other lifting his chin with the cold length of my dagger.
"Who are you?" I demanded, the rasp echoing hollowly within my locked helm.
I could feel him jar to wakefulness and tense with surprise, but that passed in an instant—not a good sign. He'd been trained to control his shock, his instinct to go rigid. Without a word he reversed his balance, throwing his weight against my chest.
My own training countermanded my curiosity, and my blade slid across his throat. But instead of being gripped by the slight resistance of separating skin, the dagger screeched across a gorget hidden in the dark, doing nothing to slow the armored figure's rearward charge. I suddenly became aware of the crumbled inner wall behind me, my legs kicking backward to keep me upright, heels skidding on glass and garbage. The remains of a plaster window frame caught me in the small of my back, and I reflexively released my grip, lashing out for any handhold in reach. I snagged a piece of wooden beam, only to have it crumble like a chunk of clay.
A vision of clouds made ghostly by moonlight blurred through my vision as I toppled backward through the air.
Coming Next Week: Two of the most notorious knightly orders in Golarion go toe-to-toe in the final chapter 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