The Old Church
Wanderhaven has been a port city for a long, long time. In the days when single-masted longships plied the ocean's trade routes without ever leaving sight of shore, the rocky headlands and natural cove on the eastern edge of the Bregaen Sea were a natural landmark for sailors looking to gauge their progress or to find shelter from a storm. In time, the place became a common meeting point for seaborne merchants looking to trade goods, and a small community grew to support those for whom this once rocky and inhospitable spot now represented a port and perhaps a bit of comfort and safety amidst the ever-present dangers of the sea. On the bluff overlooking the new port town, sailors went to pay homage to the gods they held in highest esteem—Poseidon, the patron god of the sea, and Hades, the god of fate and death. Over the next century, a great and mighty temple grew, and in time, Poseidon was adopted as the patron god of not just the sea but of Wanderhaven itself.
But all things change. This is as true for sea travel as it is for the fickle faiths of men. The following centuries saw the invention of new tools and new kinds of navigation. Men built first larger ships with heavier hulls and then smaller, nimbler ships with more masts and ever more ingenious designs. In time, two- and three-masted caravels sliced through the water, carving new paths and opening new ports far from Wanderhaven, a place that once seemed so remote but was now home itself to a great multitude of people—with more coming every day. As men tamed the seas, they became seduced by their own brilliance and wisdom. The old faiths and fears were replaced, Poseidon and Hades eclipsed in the hearts of Wanderhavenites by Apollo, the sun god, and Athena, the goddess of wisdom, whose portfolio inspired the change that was the only constant in this city by the sea.
Eventually, the Old Church above the town fell into disuse and disrepair, all but forgotten by the teaming masses of the city far below.
“This place gives me the creeps,” Elaina said.
Her foot slipped on the path up the cliff-side, and she nearly went down, but Sneax was watching closely, even in the dark, and she was able to steady her friend before Elaina fell.
“Don't be an old maid,” Sneax said. “You wanted adventure. This is an adventure.”
Truth be told, though, Sneax was more than a little worried. However, she knew better than to show that to the already nervous Elaina.
“This is not an adventure,” Elaina replied. “This is insanity. It's as black as pitch out here, and we're rock climbing. Sneax, there's a reason why this place is called the 'old' church. It's so far out of town that no one comes up here anymore.”
Despite herself, Sneax smiled at that. “No one but smugglers and thieves,” she said. “The darkness hides their evil deeds.”
At that point, Sneax reached the top of the cliff. She turned to help her friend and breathed a silent sigh of relief.
“I'm serious!” Elaina said. Her voice echoed in the darkness. “Russitan Lassiter could slit our throats out here, and we’d be a week before anyone found the bodies. And if that's not enough, the caves around here are supposed to lead to goblin-tunnels and worse!” When Elaina was finally up and standing next to Sneax, Sneax could see the fear in her friend's eyes even in the light of the barely-risen half-moon. “This is a bad idea, Sneax. We shouldn't be here.”
“And we wouldn't be. Not if there was any choice.”
For a moment, Sneax felt bad for bringing Elaina into this, but in her heart of hearts, she was also grateful for her friend's presence. Truth was, Sneax wasn't sure if she could have faced Lassiter alone in a place like this. A girl like Sneax didn't have many friends, but Elaina had been there for her before—and would be again if Sneax had anything to say about it.
“Come on,” Sneax said. “The Old Church is just a little ways up from here.”
Compared to the climb up the cliff, the rest of the trip was easy. Ordinarily, an apprentice mage like Elaina might've summoned magic to light the way, but it went without saying that Lassiter had picked the Old Church as his meeting place because he didn't want his business attracting attention. So Sneax led the way from the cliff, holding Elaina's hand to keep her from stumbling—or from making too much noise. Soon enough the rocky path up from the cliff gave way to larger stones—stones too large to have come from nature. In the dark, the ruins of the Old Church sprang up all around them.
At night, the place felt like a graveyard for giants. Massive time-weathered boulders grew out of the ground like broken tombstones, the detritus of centuries of worship and neglect. Sneax knew from prior visits that the roof that had once been atop the main sanctuary had long since caved in, but where in daylight it looked like little more than a collapsed stone pile, under the light of the low half-moon, the place became a mausoleum for things better forgotten. Though they were on level ground now, the footing was still tricky, and Sneax jumped when, behind her, Elaina went down in a rush of rustling skirts and outstretched hands.
Sneax's knife was out before she realized that her friend had merely stumbled. She started to put the knife back, but then a great shadow loomed up before her.
Laughter sounded in the darkness. “You better put that thing away before you hurt yourself, little girl.”
It was Lassiter. Behind him a half-dozen man-shaped shadows appeared out in the gloom. Sneax didn't know whether to be relieved or even more frightened.
“Whats'a'matter, Sneax,” Lassiter jibed, “You look terrified. What, you too scared to come here by yourself? Relax. This job'll be easy.”
From a pocket, he pulled a small dimly glowing green stone. Then he turned and motioned to a couple of his men, and they stumbled forward, carrying what looked to be a heavy crate. They dropped the crate with a thump, and Lassiter leaned over, holding the stone close by the crate. Its magic didn't produce much light, but in the darkness, not much was needed.
DISTILLED TIGER ESSENSE—HANDLE WITH CARE
“You know what this is?” Lassiter asked.
“I do,” Elaina answered. She sounded braver than Sneax felt, and her voice held a hint of challenge in it. “Where'd you get it?”
Lassiter leered, and in the darkness it was terrifying. “I could tell you, girl. But then I'd have to kill you.”
“Why?” Sneax asked, suddenly even more afraid than she'd been before. “What's that stuff do?”
“It has medicinal properties,” Elaina replied. “And a few, uh, more unsavory applications. You can use it as a poison. But the monks at Blackwinter use it to help treat wounds. That's how I know about it.”
“What it does ain't my concern,” Lassiter said, “and it ain't yours, neither. All's you need to know is that I got a buyer for this here merchandise, and we don't need to be disturbed while the deal goes down. So you two get up there in them rocks and act all sneaky like—“ he poked Sneax in the chest, “—and if anybody shows up, you sling up some kind'a warning or somethin', and if you can, you lead 'em off, so’s they don’t disturb us.”
“That sounds easy enough,” Sneax said. “What's the catch?”
Lassiter snarled and grabbed Sneax by the ear again. “Catch is, you better not screw this up, girl, or I cut off your ear just like we talked about. Now none of your sass. Come on, I want you to meet the buyer. Then you can get up in them rocks and do like I told you.” Lassiter turned to his bully boys. “You lot stay here and protect the crate. Don’t bring it over ‘til I whistle for it.”
Sneax swallowed hard, but she followed, and Elaina followed her. Lassiter led them back into the gloom of the main ruins, through a virtual maze of fallen stone plinths and assorted bits of rubble. Sneax was usually good with directions, but with the darkness this time, she quickly lost her way, and soon she wasn’t even sure which way was back towards town.
“You lost yet?” Lassiter asked.
“No,” Sneax lied. “’Course not.”
It didn’t sound too convincing, even to Sneax, and Lassiter chuckled. “Good. Now when we get up here, you two be real polite-like. Old Draks, he ain’t the friendliest sort. Don’t tolerate no lip the way I do. You two just keep your traps shut and let me do all the talkin’, hear me?”
Sneax nodded, but the gesture was lost in the darkness. Beside her, though, Elaina spoke up. “If all we are is look-outs, why do we even need to meet this guy, Russ? I notice you didn’t bring the rest of your bullyboys.”
Lassiter whirled, and in the darkness his blade flashed. “Curiosity killed the cat, little mageling. Now I thought I told you to shut your trap. You goin’ do it, or do I need to cut you some to get your attention?”
Elaina’s eyes got big, and she took a step back. Her mouth closed with an audible pop.
“That’s better,” Lassiter said. He smiled again, and his dagger disappeared.
Sneax let herself breath.
“Now, as to that, when you meet old Draks, maybe you’ll understand. I just want the man to know it’s all on the up-and-up, right? I figure, I better get all the players out where he can see ‘em, that way we don’t have a misunderstandin’ later. You know what I’m sayin’?” Lassiter turned and started walking again. “Well, you will when you meet the man. You’ll see.”
On that, at least, Lassiter proved to be correct.
He led them out of the ruins and up to the edge of the cliffs on the opposite side of the Old Church from the town. The night was still dark, but the moon had risen higher in the sky, and now that they were out away from the maze of ruins, Sneax could see a little more and begin to get her bearings. Directly below her, the cliffs fell away into an infinity of inky blackness, but beyond that, she could see moonlight reflecting off the water of the Bregaen Sea. Out in the distance, Wanderhaven’s lighthouse was lit, warning of the rocks that marked the southern edge of the city’s harbor.
A breeze blew in off the water, and for the first time in what seemed like a long time, Sneax began to think that they might survive. Beside her, Lassiter looked around. But whatever it was that he was looking for, Sneax could tell that he hadn’t seen it.
“Yo Draks! You out there?”
A cool, almost melodic voice sounded in the darkness. “I am here, Russitan Lassiter.”
Sneax whipped around, but there was nothing to see. Then a figure emerged, and she could only stare in horror. “Holy Apollo, God of Morning...” she muttered. “Russ, that’s a fire elf!”
It was. He was lithe and pale and smoothly graceful, and now that he’d allowed himself to be seen, his long red hair and finely woven clothes fairly sparkled in the darkness. A wide-brimmed slouch hat with gold piping obscured the elf's face, but in any event, Sneax eyes were drawn to his hands—long fingered hands that rested coolly on the hilts of a pair of twinned longswords. They hung dangerously from a low-slung belt around the elf's waist.
Even in the darkness, Sneax could tell that the belt’s buckle was made of solid gold.
“I take it that these are your bodyguards?” Draks said, nodding at Sneax and Elaina. “Shall I call mine?
Draks didn’t wait for an answer. “You know, you surprise me, Russitan. I would have figured you for the kind of man who liked to keep a few hulking street brutes around. But these are exquisite. It's just... they look so young.”
“Th-they’re only the lookouts, Draks,” Lassiter replied. But he sounded rattled, and somehow Sneax found herself even more unnerved than she was before. “Just so’s you can see that we’re all on the up-and-up.”
“Even so,” Draks replied. He trailed a finger across the hilt of one of his longswords. “Surely we are not in any danger here?”
“Nah,” Lassiter said, “There ain't nothin' to worry about.” He tried to look nonchalant when he said it, but he couldn’t quite pull it off. Then he turned and looked at Sneax. “Well, go on you two. Get to scoutin’.”
Sneax was only too happy to comply.
She led Elaina back into the ruins, but somehow, in light of their confrontation with Lassiter—and then with the fire elf, Draks—the Old Church didn't seem nearly as spooky as it had only a few minutes earlier. Where before the darkness had held mysteries that Sneax had been afraid to explore, now it was comforting. It hid her and Elaina from the very real dangers that she now knew were out there—dangers like that fire elf and his twin swords. Moreover, compared to the climb up the cliff from town, climbing up the side of the fallen roof of the Old Church was easy. Soon enough, the girls found a good lookout spot and started settling in.
A few minutes passed without comment during which Sneax was pretty sure that Elaina was happy just to be alive. Pretty soon, however, Sneax could feel Elaina's eyes on her.
“What?” she asked.
“You gonna tell me the deal here, or do I have to wait until Old Draks over there cuts out our hearts so he can serve us up the Fire God before I find out what’s going on?”
Sneax sighed. She did not want to get into this.
“Well?” Elaina asked.
Sneax couldn't meet her friend's eyes. “I owe Russ money—again. I owe him, like, a lot of money. This job was in lieu of payment.”
“I figured it was something like that,” Elaina said. She shook her head, and even in the darkness, Sneax could see that her friend was disappointed. “Sneax, you know you shouldn't be involved with a guy like Russitan Lassiter. I mean, look at the kind of things he gets you into.”
“I know,” Sneax said. She felt sick.
“Well. I guess it's too late now. How much do you owe him, anyway?”
“A lot,” Sneax said. “Believe me, I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't have to.” She could barely bring herself to admit the amount. “It's... it's five silvers.”
“Five silvers!” Elaina exclaimed. “Five?!”
Sneax nodded glumly. “And if I didn’t do this thing to knock it down a little, next week it would’a been a gold.”
“Goddess Athena, Sneax!” Elaina said. “We're doing all this because you owe five silvers! I have eight in my bag back at the Master Marconi's laboratory, and you know I would have given them to you. I mean... Five? Why didn't you just ask me?”
“Keep your voice down, alright?” Sneax said. “Gods! I don’t wanna take your money, Elaina. That’s the last thing I want. You don't know what it's like on the streets. I’ve got to learn to make it on my own.”
“But see, you aren’t alone, Sneax. I’m right here with you.”
“I know. And if I’d a’known it was gonna be like this—“
“Save it,” Elaina replied. “Besides, if I hadn’t come with you tonight, I’d have missed meeting that fire elf. Do you know how rare they are? So as far as I'm concerned, it was worth it just for that. But Sneax, you can’t be living like this. Someday you’re gonna get yourself—“
Sneax didn’t hear the rest because she clapped her hand over Elaina’s mouth. “Be quiet! Do you see that?!”