Chapter 1 – A Gathering

The town, she’d observed, smelled decidedly human. Even as she glanced about, gathering in the people milling about in the dusk of the marketplace as she followed her charge, she could smell the humanity of the place. There was a sense of rushing, anticipation, and fear of the darkness in the scent which, she had found, was unique to human cities. It was a kind of tell-tale that marked the passage of their lives and, in a way, how they observed the world. Even as she and her companion moved forward, they did not remove themselves from that scent. Most of them kept their eyes on the ground, glancing up only to take in to account those around them. A few even noticed she and her companion – which caused their eyes to widen.

Given her elven nature, and the half-orc she was guarding, Alista wasn’t entirely sure that there was a way to avoid standing out, but she did wish that they’d stop staring after a few moments. She was fairly certain that most of the glances were for her – half-orcs were far more common in human lands than elves. On the other hand, Vicor’s immense stature and presence were difficult to ignore.

She considered that notion as they continued down the street in the general direction of the noble gathering. Vicor was meant to be an impressive person – his status as the sole heir to House Traven meant that he would inherit the half-orc lands of his father upon the elder’s death. Yet, she knew, it was a responsibility that Vicor did not want. He was still young, as half-orcs went, and desired nothing more than an opportunity to see the world on his own. The pressing responsibilities of his nobility chaffed against his youth and he was often away from his lands. Those thoughts distracted her enough that she almost missed the half-orc sorting through a pile of garbage.

It took Alista a moment to recognize what she was seeing as a half-orc, such were the layers of detritus upon the being. She and Vicor paused for a moment, staring in wonder at the sheer number of collected accutraments present on the other half-orc. It took the other half-orc turning to peer at them with curious eyes for Alista to recognize that, somewhere beneath the layers of discarded clothing, dirt, and insects, there was a female. Had she not lived among half-orcs for the last twenty years, she probably would not have been able to tell the femininity of the trash heap from the slight sloping in the brow and understated curvature of the teeth she could see. She and Vicor gave the female a wide berth.

“I was not aware that the streets of Torklad had become so dangerous, milord,” Alista commented as they passed the trash half-orc.

“Nor I,” he responded, his voice deeply resonating and a sharp contrast to Alista’s higher trill.

“Hello!” the other half-orc cried out, recognizing that someone was speaking close enough that she could be heard and join in. The filthy half-orc raised her arm in a friendly wave toward the pairing.

“Let us just keep walking, milord.” Alista whispered quietly, picking up her step. Vicor followed suit as they quickly passed the moving trash heap that cried out, again, “Hello!” the waving became slightly more frantic. The half-orc appeared to have assumed they had missed her friendly wave and was trying harder. That merely served to further distance the pair from the strange woman.

They picked up their pace then. Alista wondered, briefly, if the woman had been driven somehow to madness due to her circumstances. Her legs moved faster as she considered the possibility that the half-orc might be dangerous – she had heard of such things cropping up in half-orc bloodlines; a madness that claimed any around them.

And then, to Alista’s chagrin, the heap began to follow the pair. Up and down the streets, even as they attempted to evade her, the half-orc heap was able to follow. It did not matter their pace, nor did it matter their route- somehow, the half-orc had locked on to herself and her charge like a bloodhound on the hunt. For a moment, and a moment only, she considered drawing her weapon from the sheath at her waist and turning on the creature. The cries of ‘hello’, however, did not seem dangerous or threatening. More than likely, she thought, the poor peasant is looking for a handout or something more to add to her collection.

They continued on, then, in the direction of the gathering. The human Princess, Serena, had called the gathering. Alista knew that Vicor was not all that fond of the gatherings, yet, his duty demanded it of him.

This whole idea is a fool’s errand anyhow, she thought as the pair rounded a corner, Vicor is trying to escape these responsibilities and now, he’s going to a gathering of the damn nobles? For not the first time since they had set out from the lands of Count Traven, Alista marveled at the conflicting nature of her lord. Vicor ostensibly refused the responsibility of his house and his station, yet, at the same time, had responded to the invitation to a gathering of the local young nobles with enthusiasm. It must, she decided, be a very confusing place within the young half-orc’s head.

They continued on, ignoring the half-orc trash heap combination as they made their way to the secret gathering. As they made their way to the final street, a semi-familiar face called out from the direction of the setting sun, “Ho there, House Traven!”

She glanced at Vicor for aide in remembering which of the human nobles this was. The dark whisper reached her pointed ears quickly, “Deacon, of House Carlyle. He’s one of the higher ranking nobles. I don’t recognize the half-orc in with the robes, however.” He sniffed, vaguely.

Alista’s eyes drew to the coming pair. The human, she decided, was of decidedly medium standing with a slash of midnight hair on his brow. She recognized a small, single shot pistol resting on his hip in a quality holster as well as a blade on the other. His gait was self-assured, almost arrogant, she thought as she watched him approach. He was, she decided, certain of his place in the world and that of those around him.

The female, however, was a mystery. She walked as if a board had stiffened her spine and her clothing was conservative in the extreme. What Alista had, at first, perceived to be robes were, in fact, a peculiar kind of jacket, marked with the sigil of the Goddess Pharasma. Her eyes were keen and very much aware. For a moment, Alista was reminded of the vision of a great hawk peering down for its next meal – the eyes of a predator that did not concern itself with the needs of its prey. She carefully avoided those piercing eyes as she took her place behind her master.

“Deacon Carlyle, correct?” Vicor was nothing if not of few words.

“Indeed,” the human replied, “And my companion, Marigold Blackgale of the Inquisitors of Pharasma,” he paused for a moment and peered at the half-orc, ‘Vicor, of House Traven and…”

“Alista, my bodyguard,” Vicor spoke, gesturing for the elf to stop attempting to hide behind his large frame, “And companion for my entire life.”

“I was not aware that House Traven welcomed elves,” Blackgale spoke, “A most peculiar case if one is to be responsible for caring for such an important charge.”

“It is not a responsibility I take lightly,” Alista replied, fingering her sword, “Nor one that I am particularly flawed at.”

There was a moment of tension as the two glared at each other. Alista could tell that Blackgale was more than capable of holding her own and was used to authority – not unlike herself. In the service of House Traven, she had, on occasion, been forced to wear a similar mask of authority.

It was Deacon who finally broke the tension, “And who is your charming companion there?” he asked, indicating the odd half-orc.

“Hi!” she exclaimed, “My name is Choc. What’s yours?” the trash covered half-orc sprang forward and offered one filthy hand to the human noble. Deacon was just able to dodge her at the last moment.

“I am Deacon of House Carlyle,” he replied, “Do you have any more to your name?”

“I’m Choc. Just Choc,”  she replied, not the least bit disturbed that her new friend had moved a few paces away from her, “I was following the elf-lady and him.” She offered by way of explanation.

“I see,” Carlyle commented, “And wherever did you come by your…unique aroma?”

“Oh…you mean I smell. That’s not my fault,” Choc’s voice dropped in to a conspiratorial whisper, “People hardly ever throw away soap.”

The group considered that for a long second and then began to laugh. It was Deacon that recovered first, “I suppose that is, friend Choc,” he smiled. Alista could see that the smile was a practiced one – something usable by the man whenever he needed to persuade, “And why follow these two?”

“How often do you see an elf in a human city?” Choc queried.

Alista’s hand tightened as she slide the blade a few inches out of its leather scabbard, “If you have a problem with myself or my people, I will be happy to end your concerns,” she spoke calmly, as one who has heard the same complaint over and over again might.

Choc looked at the elf, confusion in her eyes, “Problem? I can’t think of a problem.”

The sword slid back down, “As you wish.” Alista let the matter drop. It wasn’t like the peculiarly dressed half-orc was going to be allowed in to the company of nobles anyhow, “We had an appointment, I believe, milord?”

“You received an invitation to the countesses’ celebration, as well?” Deacon queried, looking at Vicor.

The half-orc nodded, “Yes.”

“Excellent. Perhaps we should journey together, then?” Carlyle gestured for Vicor to take the lead.

The addition of Carlyle and Blackgale gave Alista a moment’s hesitation – nobility was a draw for trouble and this added to that. However, the reputation of the Inquisitors made for a formidable aura of menace – something Alista herself was less capable of. A pair of Half-Orcs was more than enough to make most thieves reconsider their intended target, and Vicor himself was particularly intimidating as he towered over Carlyle and herself. She made a quick reevaluation and fell back slightly, letting Vicor lead and assuming her protective stance from the middle of the group. A glance back told her, instantly, that Choc was also trailing along – though not really attempting to hide herself any more.

The group had traveled no more than a hundred yards when another human approached them, head throne back and eyes searching. Unlike Carlyle, this one was wearing common clothing. He approached the group and, Alista noted, immediately sought out Carlyle’s eye and ear. He introduced himself merely as ‘Greg.’

There was something to the human that made Alista immediately uncomfortable. He was, for one thing, far to coincidental in his arrival. Choc showed all of the signs of living on the streets and being some form of beggar, but this man’s clothes were in good repair and he appeared well fed. As he spoke with Carlyle, Alista’s mind began to burn. Such a coincidence was unlikely, which meant that the man had somehow heard about the secret party – or had been tracking one of the two nobles in their grouping somehow. If he had been following Vicor, that would mean that she, herself, had made some kind of mistake. If they have been following Deacon, that meant that his self-assurances were somehow linked more to arrogance than to intelligence. If the many had been following some kind of order, then that meant that there were people outside the circle of nobles that were invited that knew of the party which meant only one thing.

Greg represented trouble.

Perhaps it was the twenty years of being Vicor’s guardian, the effect of the human city on her mind, or just the sudden influx of new people, but the man set her nerves on end. In her experience, humans did not simply walk up to groups of nobles without wanting something in return. His arrival meant that there was something more to the human than he seemed prepared to admit.

As a servant of Calistria, Alista knew that secrets could mean a great deal of trouble.

Carlyle decided that the human, however, was to be trusted. Alista could not imagine why he would come to such a conclusion, having only just met the man on the street, but there was little she could do about it. Once a noble extended such an invitation, it was beyond her power to rescind it. She resolved, then, to watch the human for when his trouble inevitably surfaced.

It did not take long.

A young man was waiting outside of the building where the secret meeting was to take place. As they approached, Alista could tell that the young man was nervous. When he noticed the group coming forward, clearly intent on entering the building he was standing outside of, his face began to flush, “C-can I help you, sirs?” he looked first at Deacon, then to Vicor.

“We’ve come for the gathering. I have my papers,” Deacon rummaged around in his coat for a few moments before producing a set of papers that looked very similar to the ones Alista had seen Vicor receive a week prior.

The man shook his head, “I’m afraid you have the wrong location, nobles…all.” The man moved to block the door, “This building is in the middle of…renovations. There is nothing here that would interest individuals like yourselves.”

“If that were the case,” Marigold moved forward, shoving the man to the side, “then you would have nothing to guard.”

“You can’t go in there!” the man exclaimed, turning as if to prevent the huge half-orc woman from entering.

Alista, personally, would like to see the man try and stop any of them. Choc, Vicor, and Marigold were all a head taller than he was, while Deacon and she were armed with blades. Greg did not appear to have any kind of weapon, but slid in through the gap that Marigold had left quickly and without invitation. Despite the man’s protests, he did not move to a weapon, nor to retreat as the rest of the companions entered the building.

Within was a scene of chaos. The room within was filled with tables overturned and bits and pieces smashed about. There were several doorways that Alista could see through on the walls opposite – all of which seemed to share similar features to the room they had entered. All around there were signs of a struggle. Alista could count no less than a dozen different footprints scattered about in varying sizes of boot or shoe. More disturbingly, however, were footprints of a four toed creature, “There were goblins here,” she announced.

“About time you caught up with the rest of us, elf,” Marigold shouted back, inspecting a tear between two planks of the wooden floor, “Some of us had already determined that.”

Alista spun on her heel, preparing to speak when Deacon held up his hand in a signal for silence, “Friend Marigold, I assume you’ve discovered something more?“

The half-orc grunted, pulling up one of the planks with a mighty tear and presenting it for the human noble and elven swordsman to examine, “What do you see?”

Alista peered at the board. She could see several marks on it that were inconsistent with the tearing that Marigold had just executed – they were too clean and splintered, “It’s broken…but not in the right way for what you just did.”

The half-orc sniffed and then peered at Deacon, “And you, human?”

“The board is old – probably more than fifteen years, judging by the color and stain. The floor beneath is hardpacked, so it’s likely in need of replacement. Shoddy construction work on the joint and inferior nails,” he paused, “Also, it appears to have been cut…recently.”

Marigold slammed the board on the ground, stepping on it so that it cracked and splintered, “Not cut. An axe hit it. In the middle of a combat, I would say. No significant marking and no blood means that there was no contact. That means the Goblins were after prisoners. Given this was supposed to be a noble gathering, I can’t imagine that there would be much resistance.”

“There’s no sign of any more Goblins in the immediate area,” Greg entered from a doorway leading to the north, “Or any sign of the guests of the party. I’m going to check outside and see if there is anything trying to get back to the party. The rest of you should probably check out the kitchen.” And with that he swept passed the ineffective guard and out the door.

The group moved through the door Greg had entered from. The kitchen, as he had indicated, was a true mess. A large hole, perhaps twenty-feet in diameter, had been burrowed in to the area. Alista watched as Deacon knelt next to the hole, examining it carefully while counting in the air before him, “It’s a hole, Deacon.” She commented as the man was ticking off mental calculations. Marigold had moved away from the noble and the hole and was looking in to what appeared to be storage areas with Choc.

Deacon shook his head, “More than a hole. This wasn’t natural.” He gestured to the gaping wound in the floor.

Alista nodded, unsure if the noble was being serious or not, “Most kitchens don’t come with a hole in the middle of them. It makes it hard to prepare food when you have to leap from side to side.”

Deacon waved the comment off as if irritated, “Not what I meant. This is more than Goblins are known for. It’s unnatural for them to use tools…or such a sophisticated method of entry. They tend to smash and grab travelers, not sink warehouses. This is..very odd, even for them.”

“I found something!” Choc exclaimed, pulling herself out of a cupboard. Flour covered her face and her front, but her smile showed through, “Look at this, look at this!” she held up a scrap of paper.

“Well done,” Deacon took the scrap, laying it before both Alista and Vicor as Choc smiled in the background, happy to have done something helpful. Before them lay a peculiar symbol – a pointed triangle and a few lines beneath scratched next to an illegible signature, “Is this something either of you is familiar with?”

Vicor shook his head, “Nothing I’ve seen. Alista?”

She shook her head as well, “Nothing I’ve noticed before, no. It could be an arcane mark of some kind, meant to be a warning. Or the symbol of a guild not of the area.”

“Is it elvish?” Deacon queried.

She again shook her head, “No. Definitely not. The script is too direct…and bungled. It has to be human. Is it any of the languages you recognize, Vicor?”

The half-orc peered harshly at the scrap, “No. None of them. It looks like a symbol of some kind rather than a word, but that doesn’t mean anything to me.” He passed the scrap back to his guardian who tucked it in to a pouch, “but it must mean something.”

“It does mean something,” Marigold called from where she stood at the back of the room. Alista could see a door, still intact, was shut behind her, “It means you shouldn’t hire whoever matches that symbol.”

Alista stepped in Marigold’s direction, motioning for Vicor to follow, “What do you mean?” she asked, approaching the half-orc.

“Because,” she pulled open the door and a blonde form tumbled out, cringing, “They missed someone.”

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