I wrote "Fire Elf" when my girls were eight and ten. It's definitely a kids' story for a kiddo audience. However, almost a year had passed before I sat down to work on "Priest of Loki," and by that time my girls had grown quite a lot. They'd seen the movie The Avengers and begun developing wholly different interests in terms of entertainment. I even taught them to play Dungeons and Dragons, using the playtest version of the new 5th Edition ruleset. For this reason, the next phase of this story reads quite differently from that first part. It's aimed at the same audience, but the audience itself was changing even as I started writing the story.
I tried to change with them. You'll have to judge for yourself how successful I was.
The Adventures of Sneax & Elaina Emboo
Part 3: The Priest of Loki
“Great swordsmen speak of swordsmanship; great captains of the arts of war. But these are mere tools for the wise man. The one who sets the terms of conflict serves his interests long before swords are crossed. Truly I tell you, there are more ways to victory than just the Way of the Sword.”
- Pontius Auraelius, Sayings from the Wisdom of Loki
It was early autumn in Wanderhaven, and a stiff breeze blew in off the water. That didn’t stop the throngs of people who crowded Docks Ward. Carousing sailors vied with merchants hawking their wares. Nobles came looking for adventure alongside mule drivers who wanted only to make their way through the press of the crowded streets. An entire fleet of sailing ships lay tied at the city’s wharf, giving rise to a forest of masts, flapping pennants, and sails tied to crosstrees. These swayed gently to the rhythms of Great Island Bay, oblivious to the men and women whose lives gave purpose to the capital of the Kingdom of the Western Isles.
Several blocks further inland, a three-foot sprite girl argued with her best friend. It was an event that both were beginning to find familiar.
“This’ll just take a minute,” Sneax said. “Nothing to worry about. Just gotta have a chat with my pal Jaxon. You’ll see.”
“Uh huh,” Elaina replied. “Look, I don’t care if it takes all day. As long as it doesn’t go down like last time, I’ll be happy.”
“That one wasn’t my fault!” Sneax cried. “Those guys wouldn’t listen to reason.”
“You barely gave them a chance,” Elaina replied.
Sneax stopped in the street and put her hands on her hips. Elaina tried, but she just didn’t get it. She’d been born tall and beautiful, and she was a wizard—an apprentice wizard, anyway—and she came from a nice family that lived in a nice house over on the decidedly nice side of town. Her father was the head of a successful trading concern, and his only daughter had never wanted for a thing in her life. House Emboo had meat on its table every night of the week, and Elaina had been practicing magic with a private tutor named Alistair Marconi for years and years.
By contrast, Sneax was inhumanly short, and until recently, she’d been homeless. She was a wee one—what some would call a sprite—and even on her tiptoes, she barely topped three-feet-six. An undersized urchin living on the margins in Wanderhaven’s Docks Ward, she’d held the lowest possible spot in the city’s social pyramid. As a street-kid, Sneax had been prey to every two-bit hustler and would-be ganglord that Wanderhaven’s toughest district had to offer. But that was over and done with now that she worked for the infamous Draks, a fire elf smuggler and sometimes pirate from somewhere near the Southern Continent. Old Draks had given Sneax an apartment and a shiny new sword, and Sneax had no intention of going back to what her life had been—a mix of starvation and near-constant fear. Between what Draks had taught her of swordplay and the fire elf’s fearsome reputation on the docks, Sneax didn’t have to take crap off of anyone anymore, and she didn’t intend to. The world could either take her seriously or suffer the consequences.
“What?” Elaina said. “You know it’s true.”
“Those losers owed me money.”
“They owed Draks money.”
“Same difference. You buy from a fire elf, you better be ready to pay. Everybody knows that. Besides, it’s not like anybody died.”
“You cut off Weston’s ear!” Elaina exclaimed.
“He’s got one left. Besides, he should’a known better than to cross Draks. Everybody knows better than to cross Draks. You ask me, Weston outta thank the gods on Mount Olympus it was me that came to collect instead of Old Draks himself.”
Sneax turned on her heel and stared walking away.
Elaina shook her head but followed. “Just promise me that you’ll at least give them a chance to talk this time.”
“It’s not the talkin’ they need to worry about, Elaina,” Sneax replied. “What they need to do is pay what they owe.”
“You know what I mean, Sneax.”
“Sure,” Sneax said. “I’ll be a model of moderation and diplomacy, I promise.”
The turned a corner off of High Street and came at last to a tunnel-like alley on the outer edge of Docks Ward where it ran into the bluff overlooking the wharf. The townhouse towards which they were headed stood some fifty feet down on the left, and from the alley’s mouth, Sneax could see that the place was a wreck. Shutters hung at odd angles across the building’s front, hanging from either the upper or the lower hinge but rarely both. The brick steps were a cracked horror that Sneax wouldn’t have wanted to try in the dark, and as she was looking up at the house, she couldn’t help but think that the whole thing was leaning ever-so-slightly over to one side.
None of that mattered, though.
Jaxon, the leader of the wererat’s guild, had ordered three casks of elven brandy from someplace in Frankonia, and he’d taken possession nearly a week ago. He hadn’t bothered to pay the invoice that came with the shipment, however, and that meant that he owed money. Old Draks was not understanding about that sort of thing.
Sneax didn’t particularly like going into all these rundown hovels looking for the-gods-alone-knew-what, but the horror of living on the streets was a nightmare from which she’d only just awakened. She had no intention of giving up what little she’d gotten, and if that meant collecting from some loser in a rundown shack, then that’s what it meant. Sneax would do what she had to do and more. Anything was better than going back out onto the streets.
She strode up the steps as boldly as she could, pulled her dagger, and used its handle to rap on the townhouse’s front door. The door was a wooden affair, and it had once been painted red, but between years of neglect and the corroding effects of the salt in the seaside air, the paint was now little more than flecks and memory. Sneax’s dagger struck like a hammer, and the sound echoed down the alley.
“Open up, Jaxon!” Sneax cried, “I know you can hear me!”
“Goddess Athena, Sneax,” Elaina muttered. “What happened to moderation and diplomacy?”
Before Sneax could answer, the door cracked open. A twitchy little man with a long nose, sharp features, and a wispy mustache stuck out his head. He seemed to sniff the air before looking down.
“What do you want, little girl?”
Sneax’s dagger was already in her hand. She set its edge pointedly against the man’s belly. “I just said I’m here to see Jaxon. Now get outta the way, so I can go see him.”
“Hey! You can’t just—”
But by then Sneax had already pushed her way into the townhouse and was looking around. The place was dark and cramped. Pieces of old, broken furniture littered the first floor entryway seemingly at random. The floors were warped and uneven, and the air smelled of sour milk and stale bread. Elaina muttered a word under her breath, and the tip of her wand began to glow, lighting the room with pure eldritch light. The doorman cried out and fell back, and across the room there was a skittering of feet. Sneax whipped around, but she couldn’t tell who or what Elaina’s light had just scared off.
“Great goddess, Sneax,” Elaina said, “you take me to the nicest places.”
“Tell me about it,” Sneax replied. She looked down at the little man, now huddled in fear at the sight of Elaina’s wand. “Where’s your boss?”
The man pointed to a set of rickety steps, and Sneax almost sighed aloud. “Wonderful.”
The problem with the wererats’ guild was that it wasn’t a guild at all. Lycanthropy is a disease, a curse, that turns men—or apprentice mages and wee ones—into skittering, pathetic creatures with no control of their physical forms. Like their more dangerous cousins, werewolves, wererats spend their lives dominated by their monstrous transformations, over time becoming more and more like the creatures whose base animal essence has infected them. Wererats tend to live in sequestered hovels, clumped like a colony of rodents, and like rodents, they live off the scraps dropped at the fringes of society. Jaxon wasn’t so much the leader of a guild as he was simply the alpha-rat of Wanderhaven’s particular pack, and as Sneax began climbing the stairs to the upper levels, she couldn’t help wondering how many more of his kind might be living in this particular den. She and Elaina might well have to move fast to avoid becoming wererats themselves.
Sneax was about to tell Elaina to be careful when she heard her friend mutter the arcane nonsense to a spell. Elaina’s robes flashed with power.
Sneax lifted an eyebrow.
“What?” Elaina asked. “It’s a protection spell. They’re sure as Hades not gonna turn me into a wererat.”
“Don’t suppose you got another one of those…?”
“Sorry. It only works on the caster. Besides, crashing in here was your idea.”
“Wonderful,” Sneax replied.
She started back up the stairs, suddenly in a hurry to get out of there. The top floor of the townhouse was dark, even under the light of Elaina’s wand, which seemed to throw more shadows than it created useful light. There were several doors along the narrow hallway at the top of the stairs, and Sneax wasn’t sure which way to go.
“We’re in here, Sneakatara.” A door swung open off to Sneax’s left, leading into a dimly lit room.
“I take it that you know why I’m here, Jaxon,” Sneax said.
She stepped through the door as boldly as she could. The room was an office all done up in red. There were thick red curtains, worn red carpeting, and a single red-shaded oil lamp providing what passed for illumination. Jaxon sat behind an ancient desk carved from oak. It had once been glorious but was now sun-bleached and covered with water stains. Despite that, the office as a whole was unquestionably the nicest room in the townhouse.
Like the man at the front door, Jaxon was long-faced and beak nosed. But where the other man had been thin and wiry, Jaxon was thick, with a decided paunch. The sharpness of his face was emphasized by the way he kept his hair—slicked back and oiled with some kind of grease—and his clothes were old-looking but serviceable. He wore a faded red leather vest over an off-white linen shirt, and on his chest, Sneax could see a silver medallion with a great garnet set into its center. This was his badge of office, she supposed. At the base of Jaxon’s desk, Sneax saw a rat the size of a terrier. It was curled up and dozing—at least, she thought it was dozing until it looked at her and hissed.
Jaxon stared at Sneax with eyes that were an ugly, unremitting black. His voice was a hiss. “You’ve come,” he said, “because you seem to think that I’m going to let you walk out of here with my money.”
Sneax had faced half-orcs and fire elves, but meeting a wererat in its own den intimidated her in a way that nothing before ever had. She had to force herself to stand her ground. “You think this was my idea?” she said. Her hand drifted down and came to rest meaningfully on the hilt of her short sword. “You owe Draks money, Jaxon. I can’t believe you were stupid enough to think you could cross him.”
“He isn’t here,” Jaxon replied, “And you, my dear, are not nearly as scary.”
Behind her, Sneax heard another skittering sound, followed by the clomp of many pairs of booted feet heading up the stairs.
“Uh… Sneax?” Elaina said. She sounded alarmed.
Damnation, Sneax thought. She tried not to let it show on her face. “You sure this is the way you wanna play it, rat?”
“Quite,” Jaxon replied.
He stood and reached for the rapier sheathed at his hip. Before his fingers could touch the hilt, Sneax threw her dagger. The blade took Jaxon through the forearm and sent blood spurting towards the ceiling. Jaxon cried out and fell back, but by then his dog-sized rat was on its feet. It pounced, but Sneax was ready. Her sword slashed up and out, throwing the rat back and drawing a red line of blood straight across its snout. The thing skittered away, and Sneax looked up to find Jaxon staring at her with hate in his eyes. Behind her, Elaina began chanting the words to a spell. Sneax dared not take her eyes off of Jaxon, but she could imagine the hallway outside filling with the foul members of the wererat’s guild.
Elaina loosed her spell with a word of power, and thunder blasted back towards the stairs, shaking the townhouse to its very foundation. Pieces of plaster fell from the ceiling, and Sneax had to shake her head to clear the ringing in her ears.
“What’s your plan here, Sneax?” Elaina asked. Her voice sounded tight and afraid. “I can’t hold them off forever. Another shot like that, and this whole place is liable to come down.”
“I’m gonna stick the pointy end of my sword into that wererat’s guts,” Sneax replied. “I just need you to buy me a little time.”
“Fine,” Elaina said. “But hurry. My spell only startled them. It’s starting to get crowded out there.”
Elaina started chanting again, but Sneax ignored her. Jaxon was coming around the desk, one hand on the hilt of Sneax’s dagger. He yanked it free and dropped it, a snarl on his lips. It wasn’t a human sound. His face had begun elongating, his fingers stretching forth like claws.
He was changing into his rat form!
“Little fool,” he snarled. “Your steel can’t hurt me.”
It was true. The wound on Jaxon’s forearm was already closing.
“Then I guess it’s a good thing I brought a silver short sword!” Sneax smiled grimly and held the blade out before her. “You like it? It was a gift. Old Draks gave it to me for just this sort of occasion.”
“It gains you nothing!” Jaxon replied. “I’ll rip you limb from—”
Elaina’s spell cut him off with an electric sizzle and a whoosh of flame. Suddenly it felt like half the building was on fire. Out in the hallway, wererats screamed, and despite herself, Sneax turned and looked, her breath catching in her throat. Their only means of escape had just become a death trap of fire and smoke! Sneax whirled back around, but by then she had two hundred pounds of fur-covered wererat flying right for her face.
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