Book reviews, art, gaming, Objectivism and thoughts on other topics as they occur.

Nov 28, 2007

Cold Blood: Session 5

By the time they reached the Butcher’s Block, Haden had already disposed of his recently acquired belongings, passing out good-sized portions of coin to each of his companions with an ironic flourish. He tossed a dagger in the air and caught it by the blade, offering it to Talan. “I thought you might have a use for this,” he explained.

“It is a fine dagger,” Talan said, accepting it and sheathing it on his belt next to his existing dagger.

The Block was packed with people, Derioch only barely visible in the corner with her usual posse. Sheen shoved her way through the crowd to deposit the heavy drunk on a chair.

“What in Pandemonium’s name happened to you lot?”

Haden opened his mouth to speak but Sheen cut in hastily with: “We found your killer.”

“Really? You scragged him?”

“He’s dead, if that’s what you mean,” Sheen responded.

“Actually, I meant ‘caught’, but scribing him in the dead book is even better. This him? He don’t look like a blooded killer,” Derioch said, examining the apparent corpse.

Haden shot Sheen a dirty look. “Let’s get a private room or something,” he said, nearly shouting to be heard over the noise of the crowd.

Sheen shrugged. “I suppose. We’ve probably started a new conspiracy theory just by showing up here. Someone else can carry this guy, though, I don’t think my back will take any more.”

Derioch gestured for one of her bashers to shoulder the burden and they began working their way toward the exit. “You didn’t leave a mark on him,” Derioch said thoughtfully. “Serves ‘im right, getting a taste of his own medicine!”

“Oh, this isn’t the killer,” Haden said. “This would have been the latest victim. He’s not dead, although he looks like it. We left the killer for the Collectors, too much trouble to bring him along.”

Derioch frowned and yelled something to another of her cronies, who forced his way out the door and vanished into the darkness. Haden stepped into the clear space left by the basher.

“If you would excuse me for a moment,” he said, and hurried off into the crowd. He found the owner of the Butcher’s Block, a massive, scarred ogre. “I beg your pardon, my good ogre, but I was hoping I could ask you a few questions,” Haden said, flipping the creature a gold coin.

“I be never too busy for a bit o’ gab. Whatcha need?”

“A . . . ah . . . friend of mine recently died, and I believe he was keeping some things here. Could I collect his personal effects?”

“I be sorry to ‘ear that. What be ‘is name?”

Haden made a little moue of embarrassment. “Well, he liked to call himself the Shadowknave. Conceited, I know, but what can you do?”

“Half-elf berk, black armor? Yeah, I knows ‘im.” Trunfeld Three-teeth rooted around in the unspeakable depths of his apron for a while, coming up with a crude key. “Here ye go.”

“Thank you,” Haden said. His search of the room proved fruitless, however. It had been inhabited, clearly, but not really lived in. Whatever belongings the men had, they’d taken with them. Grumbling, Haden hurried to catch up with his companions.

Sheen glared after Haden’s retreating back. “Typical. Let’s get out of here.” They crowded out through the door and gasped a bit in the cooler and calmer air of the street. Instead of stopping, Derioch led the way to the Gatehouse, an ugly gray structure studded with ranks of narrow barred windows. The entrance hall was abandoned, but it seemed full of the miserable rantings of the Gatehouse inhabitants, vaguely audible even through thick stone walls.

“So,” Derioch announced. “This fellow isn’t dead?”

“He’s under a spell that simulates death,” Joris explained.

“There’s a good chance that all of them were under such a spell.”

“Find Bendon,” Derioch ordered without looking around, and yet another of her men hurried away.

“Who is Bendon?” Sheen asked.

Derioch rubbed her temples with her fingertips as though fighting off headache. “Bleaker wizard. Might be able to dispel this . . . enchantment.” She paused, then exploded: “Who would do something like this?! Hells, WHY would anyone do something like this?”

“Is this the first time anyone has wondered whether the victims were actually dead?” Talan asked.

“Well, sure. They looked plenty dead, and we figured those piking Dusties would piking check!”

“How long does the spell normally last, Joris?” Sheen asked.

“Not more than a couple of hours.” Haden sauntered in, smiling innocently. Joris blinked at him. “Did you find anything?”

“Sadly, very little. Our friends did have a room at the Butcher’s Block, but there didnt’ seem to be anything to find.”

“Toranna told us most unclaimed bodies are incinerated,” Talan said. “Most barmies are probably not claimed.”

“Bubbers neither,” Derioch said.

“It’s a novel method of feeding the fire, I grant you,” Haden said, his voice amused.

“That is disgusting,” Sheen said angrily. Haden simply grinned. Derioch’s minion returned, followed by a sleepy-looking tiefling with coal-black eyes and pointed ears.

“Evening,” the tiefling said, yawning a bit. Then he perked up, his ears pricking. “Heya, Haden!”

“Hello to you, Bendon. I see you still have all your pieces attached, well done.”

“Hey, any luck with that . . . er . . . thing we talked about?” Bendon asked excitedly.

“In a sense. Not good luck, mind you,” Haden said smoothly. “But let’s talk about that a bit later, hmm?”

“Right,” Derioch said. “I didn’t get you out of bed so you could chat with old friends.”

“What ‘thing’?” Sheen demanded of Haden quietly behind Derioch’s back. Haden shooed her away.

Bendon looked at Derioch, ignoring Sheen. “Oh? What did you want, then?”

Derioch began explaining as Sheen reached out and grabbed the front of Haden’s tastefully black shirt, hauling down with surprising strength until his face was only a few inches away from hers. “What is this ‘thing’?” All eyes in the room swiveled towards her.

“Relax,” Haden said quietly. “It’s nothing to concern yourself with.”

“You know, I think she’s beginning to like him,” Talan murmured to Joris. Joris tried and failed to stifle a laugh.

“If it’s ‘nothing’, then you can explain it,” Sheen hissed.

Haden smiled disarmingly. “Let’s just say I had some interest in finding Eliath as well, all right? But it doesn’t matter now, so let’s move on.” He patted Sheen on the cheek and tweaked her nose. She recoiled, releasing her grip on his shirt. “We have more important matters to discuss right now,” Haden finished.

“You’d better not hold out on us any more,” Sheen snapped.

“Of course not, of course not.”

Bendon fixed a stony glare on Haden.

“Don’t be like that, friend, would you argue with her? I think not. Now then, Derioch, you were saying?”

“This berk’s under some sort of spell that makes him look dead,” Derioch said, recovering her momentum.

“Let me try dispelling it,” Bendon said, and began waving his hands and chanting. The corpse drew a ragged breath, coughed, and promptly rolled over and went to sleep.

“It’s an improvement over dead, I suppose,” Haden joked after a moment of silence.

Bendon shrugged. “He won’t be the first one to sleep it off in the Gatehouse.” The door banged open as another one of Derioch’s men rejoined them, relating quietly to his boss how he’d found Mourner Tom collecting the bodies in the alley. A smile crossed Derioch’s face, and for once, the effect wasn’t completely horrifying.

“Thanks, cutters.”

“Our pleasure,” Haden replied.

“But what if there was more than one killer?” Bendon asked.

“Then we’d have more deaders, you berk,” Derioch informed him pointedly.

“Well, I’m not sure that ‘killer’ is the right term,” Talan said.

“He’s a killer as much as a poisoner. He knew what would happen to them,” Sheen said decisively.

“The question is why,” Talan said.

“That’s what we’ll find out tomorrow. I don’t think we’ve done so badly for one day,” Sheen replied.

Bendon shrugged, yawning, and started back down the hall. Derioch surveyed the group. “It is awfully late. You’re welcome to make your kip here if you like. Though I wouldn’t blame you if you turn me down.”

“We should probably go back to Chirper’s,” Sheen said. “We might lose our rooms if we don’t show.”

“Yeah, thanks for the offer, but I agree with Sheen on this one,” Talan affirmed.

“Chirper’s?” Haden asked. “That’s a decent establishment. Have room for one more?”

Sheen raised an eyebrow. “Don’t you have your own, um, kip?”

“I like to keep my options open,” Haden answered.

“Sure, come with us,” Talan said. “Maybe you can tell us more about your association with Bendon.”

“I know Derioch said she’s seen you together before,” Joris said. Derioch nodded.

“We can talk about it over some wine, what do you say, Haden?” Talan said. Haden started to glare at the half elf, then caught himself and turned it into a pleasant smile. The smile looked a bit strained.

“Of course,” Haden said in a strangled voice. Sheen’s expression was amused.

They took a cab back to Chirper’s, a narrow cart-like conveyance drawn by a creature that resembled a horse except for the tentacles protruding from its shoulders. Joris fell asleep, his head bouncing as the cart jolted over cobbles. Sheen had to prod him vigorously to wake him when they arrived at the inn. When they entered a bariaur in a waistcoat held up his hand to forestall them.

“I’m dreadfully sorry, but I’ve had to reassign you all to one room.” Sheen blinked and Talan scowled. “Visiting dignitaries from Oerth have crowded us terribly. We’ll arrange a complimentary dinner for your trouble.”

“What’s an Oerth?” Sheen asked suspiciously.

“One of the Prime worlds. Practically next door to yours, as you measure such things.”

Sheen chewed her lip for a moment. “Fine. One room it is. I’m too tired to care.”

The bariuar smiled. “Thank you for understanding. It should just be for the one night.”

“One night,” Talan said decisively. “That’s it.”

“Yes, sir.”

Sheen trudged up the stairs, assisting Joris, who was nearly asleep on his feet. Haden grinned at Talan as they followed. “This should be interesting.”

Joris flung himself down on a bed and went instantly to sleep, not even bothering to take off his armor. He didn’t seem to notice the scale mail pinching him. Sheen racked her weapons in the room, which was small but had four beds, at least. She turned her back, trying to ignore the men, as she began pulling her chainmail shirt off over her head. Like all good armor, it fit her body quite closely and was difficult to get into and out of, involving a great deal of undignified wriggling. Haden leaned against the wall.

“Do you need some help?”

Sheen turned around awkwardly, her arms stuck straight up and the chainmail over the bridge of her nose. Haden gave her an exaggerated leer and winked. “Are you in urgent need of making a sword part of your personal anatomy?”

“I was just offering,” Haden said, holding up his hands in a pacifying gesture.

“I thought not,” Sheen replied and resumed her struggles, finally hanging the shirt over the headboard. Then she climbed into the bed and pulled the covers over her head with a muffled: “Ass.”

“Let’s get that wine,” Talan said. “I could probably talk the bariaur into bringing us some.”

Haden shook his head. “Let’s go down to the common room instead.”

“Sounds good to me. Sheen, you want to come?”

“No!” Sheen announced, still muffled. Talan laughed.

“Looks like it’s just you and me, Haden.”

“Just us gentlemen,” Haden said, grinning. He wound up and smacked Sheen on the butt, then ducked out the door, laughing. Sheen’s angry screech followed them down the stairs.

“I’m not sure how long there’s going to be an ‘us’,” Talan said, shaking his head.

“Oh, come now, Talan, she’s not as fierce as she appears. Besides, she could stand to loosen up a bit.”

“True, but your antics will just wind her up tighter.”

Haden secured a table in the crowded common room through sheer force of personality and ordered a bottle of wine. He glanced around the room and suddenly blinked at the lights, his expression becoming almost pained for a moment. Then he caught the waiter just as the halfling was leaving and engaged in a long whispered conversation. Then Haden sat back, relaxing in the chair.

“So what was it you wanted to know about me?” he asked Talan.

“Why do you care whether Sheen loosens up, for one?”

“Because it amuses me. And, really, I have no other reason to do anything at all. So, I might as well enjoy myself.”

“That’s interesting,” Talan said, “Because you said the same thing when we first met, and now it turns out you had some ulterior interest in Eliath after all.”

Haden waved dismissively. “Oh. That. Bendon heard that Eliath might know the location of some treasure, so he was, shall we say, most interested in discovering the veracity of this rumor. He asked me to look into it because I’m a bit more free to move around. You see? Nothing sinister at all.”

The halfling reappeared and placed a bottle of wine and two glasses on the table, followed by a small saucer of powder, an alcohol burner, and a silver spoon. Haden lit the burner and spooned up the powder, holding it over the flame until it melted into a milky white fluid. Then he cupped his hand over the spoon and inhaled deeply of the thick vapor. Very slowly, his posture became more relaxed and he flopped loosely backwards into the chair, sighing in pleasure. His pupils dilated and his expression slackened.

Talan drew the cork from the bottle and filled the wine glasses, not really sure what to make of Haden’s behavior. Haden tossed down the glass of wine in one swallow, poured another, and slammed it back as well.

“Better,” he said, his voice already beginning to slur. Talan sipped his wine slowly.

“Are you doing okay? Anything else you’d like to order?” the half-elf asked, mystified.

“Maybe later.”

“So how do you know Bendon?”

“Oh, he’sh jusht a friend. I have lotsh of friendsh.”

“Apparently. Any others we might encounter or want to know about?”

Haden shrugged, the motion exaggerated. “Moshtly Bleakersh and Shenshates. Nobody important.” He polished off another glass and gestured for the waiter to bring another bottle. “People with too much time on their handsh, you know.”

“And what do you think of my friends and me? Are we keeping you amused?”

“Oh, you guysh are great.” Haden leaned forward conspiratorially. “I think those other people jusht like my money, you know? They’ve got no ushe for me when I’m not entertaining. They look down on me ‘caushe I’m a freak, you know.”

“Um, I’m not sure I do know.”

Haden laughed, too loudly. “Thash right, you’re Clu-Clulessh. You don’t know . . . nothin’.”

“We do appreciate your help and knowledge of the area. That’s why I like talking to you,” Talan said. “So, you see, you’re right that we’re not like your other friends.” The halfling waiter appeared with another bottle and Haden promptly filled his glass again. “Maybe you should slow down a little. Want some food?”

“No,” Haden said, enunciating the word very clearly. “I don’ wanna take the edge off. No food.”

“Maybe I should take you upstairs. We can take a couple of bottles with us,” Talan said. “We could make a lot of noise and wake Sheen up, maybe.”

Haden smiled blearily. “No thanksh, you’re not that cute.” Talan choked, laughing.

“Well, you’re not my type, either, but I’d like to make sure you make it to a bed, anyway.”

“Nah. Beshidesh, I was jus’ about to elushi . . .illummm . . . tell you shtuff. You gotsh to learn your way ‘round fasht here, otherwishe you get KILLED.”

“Killed? What, like the barmies?”


“Killed by whom, exactly? Anyone you know?”

“Nah, there’sh jusht lotsh of people here, from all shortsh of planesh. Take my mother for inshtance. And I mean that, I don’t wan’ her no more. You can have her. She’sh a half fiend. She’ll kill you ash shoon ash look at you, sho you have to be careful.”

“And your father?”

“Nah, my father’sh nice, but hish mind wandersh. Kind of like mine right now, wander, wander, wander. Ha ha. He’sh half celeshtial, that’sh why I’m so funny-lookin’.” Haden wavered for a moment in the seat, then abruptly fell over onto the floor, spilling the remains of his glass of wine. The staff converged instantly to clean up the mess.

“Thersh gum stuck under thish table,” Haden muttered. “Talan, could you help me get up pleashe? My legsh don’t sheem to be working.”

Talan shook his head, disgusted, then bent down and hauled Haden to his feet. “Look, you can stay down here if you want, but I’m going back to the room. If you come quietly, I’ll help you.”

Haden threw his arms around Talan. “You’re my besht friend EVER. Yeah, let’sh go. To the room!”

With a great deal of effort and stumbling, Talan hauled the drunken Haden up the stairs, doing his best to ignore the frequent exclamations of “you’re my besht friend” and “what a nice guy”. Talan dumped him face down on an empty bed, where Haden promptly began snoring.

“Good grief,” Talan grumbled. His next memory was of a loud knock at the door and the sound of Sheen scrambling across the floor to answer it.

“Yes? Who is it?”

“It’s Thea!”

Sheen opened the door. “Oh, hello, Thea! I was about to go looking for you!” The young cleric was gasping for breath, like she ran all the way. “Are you all right?” Thea burst into the room and threw herself down on Sheen’s bed.

“Did you find Eliath?”

“Well, in a sense. From what we could determine, he’s . . . deceased.” Sheen said awkwardly.

“What?” Thea asked, her brow furrowing in perplexity. “Then what’s he doing in the Lower Ward?”

“What?!” Sheen yelled. “Why, that lying witch!” Haden rolled over and groaned.

“Gods, woman, not so loud! What kind of time do you call this anyway!” he bellowed. “Ow.” He flopped out of the bed and staggered across the room, holding his head between his hands as though he feared it might split apart.

Thea said, watching Haden with a curious expression on her face. “One of the other Sensates said that he saw him at the Black Sail last night.”

“Oh, good, so he’s not dead. On the plus side, we found out who was killing people in the Hive. So it wasn’t entirely wasted effort.”

“Hi, I’m Thea!” Thea chirped at Haden, ignoring Sheen.

“Not now, woman,” Haden growled.

“He’s had a rough night, Thea, you might want to give him some space,” Talan said, sitting up.

“Ow,” Haden remarked again. He leaned over the basin on the night table and poured the pitcher of water over his head.

“Sorry,” Thea said.

“How well do you trust this Sensate?” Talan asked. “How close of a look did they get?”

“Well, I doubt Tavis had any reason to lie, but all he had to go on was the description we have. He said it was pretty dark, but he seemed real sure it was Eliath. But he said Eliath was wearing Doomguard colors.”

“Doomguard?” Talan asked. Haden combed back his wet hair carefully and sat down gingerly on the bed.

“They believe that entropy is the natural state of the universe,” Thea explained.

“And they enlist crazy people?” Sheen asked.

“Well, I think they’re all a bit barmy, but not your street-raving barmy.”

“This just gets stranger and stranger,” Sheen said. “We’ll look into it. Maybe this is all connected somehow. Thank you for coming by to tell us.”

“Sure. There’s an outbreak of Abyssal pox I have to go deal with, but I’ll catch up later.”

“Anything more you’d like to ask, Talan?”

“Not at this time, anyway,” he said. “How about you, Haden? Any questions for Thea about Eliath?” Haden just groaned in response.

Sheen stood and opened the door for Thea. “We’ll see you tomorrow, probably.”

Thea waved at Haden. “It was nice meeting you!” she said and departed. Joris sat up, blinking.

“Was that Thea?”

“Yeah,” Talan said. “You just missed her.”

With the door firmly closed behind the cleric, Sheen rounded on Haden. “What the hell is wrong with you?! I’ve never been so embarrassed . . . what did you DO last night?!” Haden cringed, shrinking away from her wrath. Getting no response, Sheen turned to Talan. “What were you thinking, letting him get like this?!” Joris shrank away from her as well, pulling the blanket up to his chin.

“Oh, go easy on him, he had a lot to drink and some other stuff, too. I was hoping he’d be a little more forthcoming if he relaxed,” Talan said.

“That’s right,” Haden said. “It’s his fault. I have no self control.”

“Did that actually work?” Sheen asked.

“Well, not as well as I’d hoped. Little did I realize that he drinks like a fish.”

“Oh, well, like that’s surprising, considering he’s CLEARLY a dissolute bum!” Sheen spat.

“Hey,” Haden protested weakly. “I resemble that remark.”

“Now, hold on a moment . . .” Joris began tentatively.

“What, you have something to say?! Well, spit it out!” Joris stammered and shrank back again.

“Don’t mind her, Joris, you know how she is. What did you want to say?”

Sheen sat down on her bed and pulled her legs up, pressing her face against her knees and wrapping her arms around her head. Joris stared at her, then very carefully got out of bed.

“Er, Sheen? Are you okay?” Talan asked, dumbfounded. He realized after a moment that she was crying and trying to hide it.

“I’m FINE.”

Joris started to reach out towards her, then stopped, looking at Talan helplessly. The half-elf cleared his throat. “Come on, you know we think nothing but the best of you.” Haden heaved himself to his feet and offered her his handkerchief tentatively.

“I’m sorry,” he said, sounding very humble.

“Bright Lady, I’d be dead twice over if it weren’t for you,” Joris said quietly.

Sheen raised her head a bit and looked at the handkerchief for a while. Then, sighing, she took it and scrubbed at her face. “No, it’s not . . . I’m all right. I’m all right. I’m sorry.”

“Do you, um, want a hug or something?” Joris asked. Sheen managed a watery chuckle and wrapped an arm around his waist. He patted her back awkwardly.

“I’m sorry, I feel like a . . . a sack, that’s had more and more things forced into it until . . . boom,” she explained.

“I really am sorry,” Haden said. Sheen waggled a finger at him.

“Don’t do it again.”

“I’ll try to behave,” Haden said. He grinned a bit, lopsidedly. “Well, mostly.”

“Maybe we can all take some time off when this business is done,” Joris said.

“I don’t really want time off. I want to work . . . real work. It’d be nice to stand at a forge again. Oh, let’s get some breakfast and decide what to do next.”

The wait staff brought them breakfast in their room: fresh grapes, fruitbread, lime jam and sheep’s milk with vanilla. While they ate, Sheen ventured, “We have those kids keeping an eye on Toranna. Let’s go check out the Lower Ward and see if we can find this Eliath look-alike.”

“Sounds good to me,” Talan said agreeably. They packed up and went looking for the Black Sail. The Lower Ward proved to be less squalid than the Hive, but it was dark and grim, the buildings covered with soot. Great furnaces and foundries belched smoke around the clock. Sheen looked around like a child on a vacation.

“Isn’t it lovely?” She said rhetorically.

“Beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder,” Joris said, shaking his head. He watched as Sheen pressed her face to a dirty window, looking into a shop.

“Ooo,” she breathed.

“Would you like to go in?” Talan asked, pulling her away from the window and wiping soot off her nose.

“I don’t want to slow us down . . .”

“Oh, go on,” Talan said, smiling indulgently. Sheen darted into the shop and began examining the intricate clockworks on shelves and display stands. One of the devices suddenly squeaked and leaped off the shelf, she caught it awkwardly. A voice behind her chuckled and she looked up to see the proprietor, a tall, dark man wearing a pristine apron over a very correct suit.

“I’m sorry it . . . jumped.”

“You startled it,” he said, taking it out of her hands. It cheeped in protest.

“It’s alive?”

“In a sense. It’s from Mechanus, a gift from a modron. I’m going to study it and learn more about how they build their mechanisms.”

“You won’t hurt it?”

“No, no, of course not. I know better than that.”

“Humans don’t always have a lot of respect for mechanisms,” Sheen said irritably.

“You’re lecturing me on humanity?”

“Sorry. I was trained by dwarves, their attitudes rubbed off a bit.”

“Really? Are you a smith?”

“Some, I guess.”

The man chuckled. “Well, I just might have a proposition for you . . .” Haden rapped sharply on the window and waved for Sheen to hurry up.

“I have to go,” she said regretfully, reaching out to pet the little mechanical creature. It chirped and rubbed against her hand.

“Well, come back when you can, and we’ll talk,” the man said. Sheen hurried out the door. The little creature made a questioning noise. “Oh, she’ll be back, don’t worry.”

“The Black Sail is over here,” Talan said, pointing. Sheen nodded and followed him rapidly. The common room was dimly lit, with several curtained alcoves. A few sullen crafters clustered around open tables in the center of the room.

“Table for ya?” asked a bored-looking female tiefling with brown scaly skin.

“Actually, we’re here looking for someone,” Haden said. She looked him up and down.

“Well, ya found someone.” Talan smiled into his hand as Haden winked and grinned appreciatively.

“Someone in particular, I fear, although it doesn’t seem so important now. However, have you seen any Doomguard hanging about the place? One with brown skin and white hair, his name is Eliath.”

“Kinda squinty?”

Haden looked delighted, snapping his fingers. “Yes, that’s him!”

“Laying it on a little thick, aren’t we?” Sheen muttered.

“Could be worse,” Talan said.

“Hey, if it works . . .” Joris said.

“He’s over in the corner with some Sinkers, there,” the waitress said, pointing at some closed curtains. Haden palmed a gold into her palm while he kissed the back of her hand.

“You’re a wonder. Let’s go chat with him, shall we?”

“All right, but you look me up when you’re done, ‘kay?”

Haden winked again. “I’m sure I can find some time for such a lovely lady.”

“As I said,” Joris muttered. Sheen laughed and began making her way towards the indicated corner. The curtains blocked her view, but when she was within a few feet a hand emerged from inside and pushed the cloth aside. Five men in Doomguard colors sat at the table. One of them was, indeed, white-haired and squinty.

“Somethin’ we can help you with?” asked one.

“Are you Eliath, by any chance?” Sheen asked.

“Why, yes, I’m Eliath,” the white-haired man said. “Eliath Morard.”

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