“Stop it! Let me go! You’re hurting me. We are just kids, please let us go!”
Celeste struggled against the brute of a man pulling her along by her wrist.
“Dain! Courtney! What’s going on?”
Dain stoically proceeded ahead looking defeated however Celeste could see his muscles bunched waiting for an opportunity, Courtney’s eyes darted around looking at everything at once his mind working furiously. Catherine let out a yowl as she struggled and scratched her captor. The brute let out a hiss of pain and gave her a solid thumb to the stomach. As Catherine fell limp he said to the other thug
“She will make for a good show.”
Soon they reached the end of the corridor and unceremoniously were flung into an arena. Above them, at the edge of the pit clansman hooted and jeered and behind could be seen some people in fine clothing wearing masks to conceal their identities. Even from here Celeste could see the fine quality of clothing marked them as wealthy merchants and nobles.
Chained to the wall of the pit was an old man, laughing maniacally and gibbering nonsense.
“We’re in the pit.” Courtney whispered, his hands starting to shake.
Behind them a clang as the bars slammed close. A bolt is fired from crowd to splinter into the wall next to the old man.
Courtney turns to the group, “They want us to kill each other before their shots kill the old man.”
Celeste looks at the frail old man, bony wrists shackled to the wall, his voice seems to change becoming something more than just ravings. Dain spots a club in the corner of the room and dashes to it, he throws the club at the crowd, falling short.
“You liver spotted cowards, come down and face me!”
The crowd laughs and money exchanges hands.
Courtney rushes to a club also and unbelievably he slams his club into the old man’s face. The crowd falls silent and an ugly murmur starts up. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Cat rushes to Courtney, grappling him.
“What are you doing!?!” She yells at him.
“We are going to die anyway, might as well ruin their fun!”
The old man hasn’t stop chanting, his face stares ahead, head still turned. As Celeste listens the world seems to expand and fall away, she senses a presence of… something else, something ancient, something dangerous.
Sudden screams snap her from the trance, the wall around the old man begins to writhe and tentacles sprout forth and attack the crowd. Smaller tentacles slid from the wall and fall into the arena, slowly crawling towards the children. Cat jumps off of Courtney and dashes to one of the corners where a club lies, she wields it in front of her, her eyes darting from side to side. Dain dodges a tentacle close to him and rushes for a club in the opposite corner. As he does so the old man’s eyes follow him, his head remaining perfectly still facial features sliding unnaturally around to keep Dain in view. Suddenly Dain lets out a yell and clutches his head. Celeste darts between the writhing tentacles to get to him and clutches his shoulders.
“Dain! Dain! Listen to me, follow my voice! Come back Dain!”
Dain lashes out unknowingly, striking Celeste knocking her down. He gazes for a moment at her bloodied face.
From the other side of the pit Courtney notices that one of the bars has transformed into a writhing tentacle, small sharp teeth searching for prey. He rushes over and gives it a solid thwack.
“Guys! Come on, we can get out through here once this thing is dead!”
Dain looks sheepishly at Celeste, not really understanding what just happens and runs to smash tentacle. As he does so he lets out another yell as his mind is barraged with voices, images, of other things not of this reality. Cat darts over to the tentacle and bashes it with her club. As Dain and Courtney hit the tentacle Celeste looks at the final remaining club, almost hidden behind a writhing mass of tentacles, their sharp wicked looking teeth searching for flesh. She turns her attention to the tentacle which used to be the bar to the door. She notices a thinner weaker spot, she rushes forward and grapples the tentacle.“Cat! Hit it there!”
With a mighty blow for a ten year old Catherine smashes her club and the tentacle breaks apart, leaving a metal bar in Celeste’s hands. The children rush through the opening, Celeste bringing up the rear with the bar and holding back the tentacles writhing. The old man on the wall no longer resembles human, his body twisted and distorted, his mutated flesh moving independently.
Courtney looks around the corner and sees a guard at the top of the stairs, he is looking at the commotion coming from the viewing area. Courtney beckons the others to follow. Celeste lets go of the bar and they dash across the corridor. The guard begins to turn and Courtney throws his club above the guards head making it clatter unseen. Using this opportunity they narrowly avoid detention and make it to a sewer grate. As they vanish down into the darkness the guard rounds the corner and sees the kids escaping. He lets out a shout which turns into a scream as the tentacles from the arena swarm over him.
Dain and Courtney lead Catherine and Celeste through the dark sewers and the four children escape to freedom.
Four years later, above the ruined city which is their home. It is an endless urban landscape of vast interconnected buildings of weathered stone and marble – soaring towers, vast arches and towering monuments. They stand on the outskirts of the realm of relative safety of the Stern and the urban wilds, Courtney, Dain, and Cat stare out over the horizon, The Rock of Entropy barely visible in the distance, other floating islands connected by huge chains floating above. Ever since that episode four years ago they have stayed close, their shared experience bringing them closer together as much as it his changed them.
“Is this the place?” Dain asks Courtney.
“Yeah this is it, I don’t know how they managed to grab Celeste though.”
Above the city in one of the unused water channels they stare at the open building. From the shadows emerge Jed, Ox and two of Jed’s goons. Jed is holding a knife to Celeste’s throat.
“Let her go Jed! This won’t end well for you.” Courtney calls out.
“You want your woman back pretty boy? Give me the cane!” Jed responds, Ox cracks his knuckles with a malicious glint in his eye.
“You don’t want to do this. You do not know the powers under my control.”
Courtney’s presence seems to become malicious and shadows swirl around him. Jed’s two goons look unsettled.
“Ha! Parlour tricks, just smoke and mirrors! Give me the cane!”
Celeste stares at Cat. Cat looks startled for a moment then whispers to Courtney.
“They have Alora.”
Courtney considers this for a moment.
“So that’s how they got Celeste.”
He calls to Jed, “When did you fall so low that you had to resort to kidnapping children Jed? Even I thought you were better than that.”
Jed falters, letting the knife rest.
“What? How?” he stammers.
Taking advantage of his lapse Celeste silently lowers herself over the ledge behind her and drops to the floor below where Alora is huddled, crying in the corner. Celeste lets out a gasp as she lands and hers her ankle give a crack. Biting back the pain she directs Alora over to her.
“Alora, come here, we are going to get you back home.”
Alora rushes over, panicked and concerned.
Meanwhile back upstairs Courtney holds out the cane above the precipice.
“You want this Jed? Then come and get it.”
Ox reaches for the cane.
“Ah, ah, ah! For your master Ox, not for scum like you.” Courtney pulls back the cane.
Taking advantage of the distraction Cat shifts into a rat and jumps onto Dain. Dain suddenly appears in the thick of the gang. The two goons gasp and Jed steps back as Cat rat jumps at him. Ox falls to his knees as waves of pleasure overwhelm him, Courtney’s eyes focused on him. Cat hears a voice in her head, I have the girl safe however there are clickers coming from a nest.
“Screw this I am out of here!”
One of Jed’s goons panics and rushes past Dain, leaps over the edge and flees along the canal.
“Where’s the girl?” Shouts Jed’s other goon “Argh! Clickers!” he yells as one skitters along the rubble and snaps at his calf.
Seeing that he is losing control of the situation Jed kicks Ox, “Snap out of it!”
Ox blinks groggily and glares at Courtney. “You! This is your fault!”
He hefts a large piece of rubble with murderous intent. Suddenly Dain barrels into him knocking Ox from his feet.
Meanwhile Alora assists Celeste to the stairs. Suddenly one of the clickers rushes towards them. Celeste is in no condition to fight and considers for a moment about pushing the child in front of the clicker. She quickly discards that idea.
“Ignore it, I’ll keep us safe.”
With a moments concentration she copies the image of Alora and leaves it behind to distract the clicker.
“Tell no one ok sweetie, our little secret.” Celeste winks at Alora.
The clicker leaps through the image, over and over, as its instinct takes hold. The image giggles and laughs, flouncing around as the clicker futilely tries to attack. Alora’s nods, her eyes wide.
They make it to the top of the stairs and see Cat shift to her human form.
“Look its Auntie Cat, She’ll protect you. I’m just going to sit here for a bit.”
Celeste turns her full attention to the Alora illusion, making it skip away over to the wall. The clicker continues to attack, not realising that the image isn’t real.
Meanwhile Jed’s other goon has had enough. He flees from the clickers and leaps across the precipice.
“Jed! We have to get out of here! The Girl! She’s gone man! Man, where’s the girl?”
Jed lashes out at a nearby clicker. He curses under his breathe.
“Dammit! How did it all go so wrong?”
He dashes past Dain and he to leaps across the precipice to the canal. He turns back panting to see Ox stand up and let out a roar. Smashing a clicker he too leaps across the precipice. However he doesn’t quite make it.
Hugging the ledge Ox sees Courtney walk over to him and stand looking down at him. Ox scrabbles for purchase, starting to slip. Courtney considers Ox.
“It would be so easy…”
He lets out a sigh and holds out his cane for Ox to grab. Courtney pulls Ox up and over the edge to safety. Ox scrambles over to Jed and glares darkly at Courtney.
Meanwhile Dain and Cat finish off the clickers and seeing that their meal has left they remainder of the swarm retreat to search for easier prey.
“Hey guys, can you give me a hand, I think my ankle may be broken.” Celeste’s face is white with pain.
As Jed’s gang retreats along the canal Courtney is approached by an old man who had been watching from the shadows.
“Interesting group you have there. It seems as though you are all have some very unique talents.”
Courtney eyes the man suspiciously, “And you are?”
The old man holds out his hand.
“Call me Hubert. I represent the Wardens and I am looking to recruit some people with very special talents. If you join us we can offer you safety, and we can help you hone your particular talents.”
The rest of the group joins Courtney and Hubert.
“Hey guys, this guy is offering us to join the Wardens and help develop our skills.”
Hubert looks at Celeste. “I know what the others are capable of, but what about you young lady?”
Celeste considers what to tell him. She knows that unsanctioned use of magic is strictly forbidden by the Churches and those caught are declared malefactors and killed. She looks at her friends, eagerness in their eyes at the opportunity to find out what they are truly capable of. If she is accepted by the Wardens then she will be presented with a modicum of safety as well as the opportunity of learning more herself and being able to practice her skills without the risk of discovery. However if she judges wrong then it would be her life and that of her friends. She looks at Hubert.
“We are here today to sentence this Witch to death! They have been found practicing unsanctioned magic against the will of the gods. Let this be an example to all the filth that hide in the shadows practicing their wicked ways.”
“No! I am innocent! I haven’t done anything wrong!”
With that the Templar’s axe flashes down misses its mark and cleaves through its victims jaw. The witch gurgles as once more the axe swings and puts the unfortunate soul out of its misery.
“Looks like it’s a bad time to be a witch hey?”
Felix says as he eyes the group, his gaze lingers on Celeste for an extra second.
“Come to the pub, we have matters to discuss.”
Dain’s eyes light up “As long as it’s over a hefty pint you have my ear!”
Celeste glances back at the decapitated man. As she turns she notices the Templar staring at their group from across the plaza. Does he know?
It has been four years since they have been inducted into the Wardens. Their group now specialises in unique missions. Celeste with her noble raising interacts on behalf of the Wardens with their contacts in the nobility of the Rock. Courtney, or Lord Ashenglow as he is want to call himself, the quick witted talker manipulating the commoners and clan contacts. Catherine, or Cat to her friends, with her shifting abilities specialising in scouting and infiltration. And Dain, the muscle, with the strength of two men and the thick skin of a dwarf he is able to give twice back the punishment that he receives, and yet behind this solid exterior lies an intelligence though slightly mad.
“Ok guys, here’s the thing,” Felix states, “There is this dust manufacturer. Now normally as you know the clan wouldn’t have a problem with this, it’s not our decision how people choose to spend their time. As long as we get our cut it’s all good. However, she has been holding out on us and recently she’s skipped out on our territory and gone over to the Black Blades. We want you to deal with her. Stop her operation and get back our gold.”
“It sounds pretty simple, why us?” Enquires Courtney.
“Well here’s the thing. She’s a witch. In fact Ashenglow we believe that she has talents similar to yourself. Not something that the average grunt would be able to handle, but you guys are anything but average.” He winks at Cat.
“Why should we do this? What’s in it for us?” Asks Celeste.
“Well I can help increase your standing in the guild, get you a few extra perks that normally wouldn’t be available.”
Dain slams back a pint as Celeste and Courtney ferret out all the details that they can from Felix. He calls to the serving girl, “Wench, more mead!”
Soon Celeste turns to Dain and Catherine, “Well guys, what you think? Ash is keen to accept.”
“You need some skulls cracking I’m your dwarf!” Dain proudly states, one of his eyes twitches as if seeing something on his periphery.
“If it’s true then this woman must be stopped. Selling dust to children is reprehensible!” Catherine exclaims.
“Okay it looks like we are in Felix.”
As the glooming approaches the group make their way past the street, taking in the environment. They enter an abandoned building at the end of the street.
“Cat, you’re up.”
Catherine nods at Courtney. She disappears into the shadows and a moment later is in front of the building across the street from their mark. She starts to climb but isn’t able to find a purchase on the ruined building and silently slides back down after only climbing five feet. She frowns and flexes her fingers, her skin and nails change in texture to become a set of climbing claws. Effortlessly and silently she scales the walls and settles into an abandoned floor.
As she watches the door she takes note of those coming and going. A young man, what seems to be a merchant or noble couple, and another young man. She relays this information to Celeste when she contacts her telepathically.
Okay Catherine, I think it is time for stage two.
Checking to make sure the coast is clear Cat climbs down and shifts into a small rat. She sits in the shadow of the window sill and soon another man comes by. He knocks on the door, three, pause, two, pause three. The hatch in the door slides open and a hallow voice asks“Yeah?”
The man responds “I’m here for dust.”
The door opens and the man goes in. A few minutes pass and the door opens again, the main leaving. Cat returns to the group, as she shifts back and relays the information the group formulates their plan.
Courtney knocks on the door, Cat hidden in his pocket and Dain by his side. Celeste is hidden around the corner waiting.
“Yeah?” the hollow voice asks.
“I am after some dust,” states Courtney.
The door opens. Celeste hears many whispers in her mind as Dain’s mind connects with hers. We’re in, come on.
Grimacing with distaste from the chaotic feel of Dain’s mind Celeste enters the building after them. There are two men inside, on their knees under Courtney’s thrall. Cat in rat form disappears behind the curtain at the back of the shop behind the counter. Dain is silently checking through a door beneath the stairs.
It’s the lab, I see at least one person and heard at least one more. Rat Cat pokes her head through the curtain and looks at Celeste. As Celeste connects her mind Cat thinks It’s an office, papers are around and there is a door leading to another room, most likely a lab by the smell. No one is in here.
The group hears a noise from the top of the stairs.
“Guys? Everything ok down there?”
Celeste quickly studies the guy by the door and summons an illusion of him which walks into view and gives a thumbs up to the guy at the top of the stairs before leaning back against the wall. The door at the top of the stairs closes.
Celeste looks at one of the guys and studies him. He has been ensorcelled for a long time. With such long term domination his will has been eroded, he will never be the man he once was.
Courtney looks at Dain and Celeste, they connect their minds to his. The thrall is about to wear off, Celeste help me with this one and Dain you deal with the other.
Dain goes over to the guy behind the counter and places his meaty hand around his throat, strangling off his air supply. Meanwhile Courtney holds a blade to the other guy and indicates Celeste should do the same. As Celeste hesitates the man blinks and starts to come to. Courtney slams his blade home and Celeste quickly does the same. He falls with a thud. Celeste looks at her bloody hands. This is going to ruin my manicure she thinks to herself.
The door opens again and the voice calls out “Guys? What was that sound?”
Celeste makes the illusion of the guy she and Courtney just killed give a nonchalant wave. Footsteps sound and a pair of boots can be seen at the top of the stairs.
Courtney goes over to the illusion and says, “It’s all good my fine fellow. I’m just purchasing some dust from my fine new friend Dave here.”
“That’s not Dave…”
The man takes another step forwards and sees the body of Peter lying by the door in a pool of blood.
Seeing the jig was up Courtney brings himself to his full height and with a mighty presence of mind commands “You will leave here and never come back!”
Tears of what seem to be gratitude appear in the man’s eyes as he is broken free of whatever had been holding his mind captive. He rushes out the door and disappears down the street. Celeste notes in that he was fairly attractive, in fact all three had been. It was clear that Erzette was abusing her powers for her own pleasure.
Courtney looks at Cat and she scampers up the stairs to scout. Quickly shifting from human to rat she investigates the first two rooms. The first is a simple bedroom, empty. The second has bunk beds with three sleeping figures. One of them starts awake at the sound of the door opening.
“Gary? Is that you?” he mumbles as he approaches the door.
Thinking quickly Cat dashes inside.
“Rat!” he yells, “Wake up guys. Rat!”
From downstairs the commotion can be heard. Courtney, Dain and Celeste rush up to protect their friend. As they are about to burst into the room a side door opens and Erzette is standing there.
“What’s all this noise?”
Courtney slams his mind into hers. “Darling it’s me! I have come back for you after all these years!”
Erzette stammers and is off balance, “What? I.. who? Do I know you?”
“My darling, you wound me to the quick, after our whirlwind romance I could not get you out of my mind. Afterwards I had to hide away to protect you from my enemies but our love for one another knows no bounds and I have at last returned to you my love.”
Erzette’s eyes start to glaze over, “But who are you?”
“I know I have had to change my appearance but surely you can still feel the passion which we have for one another deep inside. Search your heart my love, you know it to be true.”
Erzette’s glassy eyes look Courtney “Samuel? Is that you? Yes, yes it is you! My love how could I forget? What are you doing here?”
“It is ok my sweet, I would forgive you a thousand times over just to be in your presence once more. However do me a favor my love and call of your men, they do seem to be a bit rowdy.”
She nods and calls out “Stop! Stop!”
Meanwhile the three men have rat Cat trapped upon one of the bunk beds. “That’s it guys, it’s got nowhere to go now.”
She leaps off of the bed, transforming mid-air, to slam down on one of the guys as a large bear. Celeste sees the predicament that her friend is in and sends a gout of flame into the room, seeing a couch she goes to relax upon it while watching the events play out.
As the flames weave around Courtney, Erzette blinks and steps back.
“What is going on?” She clutches her head in her hands. “You! You’re not Samuel! Who are you?”
Suddenly Dain appears besides her. Startled she throws her power at his mind, dazing him. She turns to be met by Courtney’s rapier.
“Call them off Erzette.”
A bolt flies past Courtney splintering into the wall. Cat struggles beneath the weight of the three men. Celeste sighs, stands up and walks forward. Joining thumbs and fore fingers she lets loose another gout of flame, weaving around Courtney once more. A roar of pain and the smell of burnt hair fills the room. As Erzette flails back and shouts her surrender Celeste lounges back on the couch.
“So what do you want?” Erzette glares at Courtney. “Who sent you?”
“We heard what you were doing and we are here to shut you down. Give us the money you owe to the Wardens and we will let you go.”
“Do you even know who you are working for? They aren’t any better than me, or the Black Blades or any of the clans. You take what you want and you only look out for yourself. That’s the kind of world we live in, if you believe otherwise then you are dead!”
“And you think you are better? You enslaved these men, you tore away their identities! You have made them into mindless slaves, husks of what they once were!”
“And? They are better off now! You see Gabe there? You know what his life was before me? He worked the streets and ate crusts from the gutter. He was abused and used! And Paul, do you have any idea how he was when I found him lying in a bloody heap in an alley way, clothes torn to shreds? And dear sweet Peter, so young, so innocent. At least here they have shelter, food, and pleasure! I may not be a saint but I am damn well better than out there!”
“You stole their wills, their very selves!” Sputters Celeste, “You tore away what made them, them! Fine they may have had little chance out there but at least it was their chance, their choice. You never even gave them that.”
The room is silent for a moment. Catherine gets up and walks down the stairs, a smashing of glass can be heard.
“Damn. Cat! I wanted to study that!” Celeste rushes after Catherine.
“I heard you’s sold dust to kids.” Dain hefts his hammer, “S’not right that aint.”
Erzette turns to Dain, eyes wide “I would never do that! Who told you that? Was it the Wardens? Filthy lies all of it!”
Dain just stares at her.
“You must believe me I would never sell to children, it is barbaric.” He stares a moment later before giving a slow nod.
Courtney looks at Dain, so gullible. He focus back to Erzette.
“Look sweetie, this is how its going to go. You give us the money, we smash up your operation and we let you live. Sounds like a pretty good deal.”
Erzette thinks for a moment. “You know, it doesn’t have to be this way, tell you what how would you like to embark on a partnership? I’ll give you three quarters of the gold, you give two thirds of that to the Wardens and say you’ve done the job. I’ll move away and set up a new business and split the take with you. You need to stop your friends from destroying my supply in the cellar though, otherwise it’s going to take longer to turn a profit.”
Courtney considers the offer. “Ok, but strictly no selling to kids. If you do that we will kill you.”
She nods and spits in her hand and holds it out for Courtney to shake.
“Done. Here let me get the gold.”
With that she climbs on the bed and reaches into a hidden compartment. She pulls out a lock box and removing a hair needle she carefully opens it.
“Best security around.” She announces as she lifts out a small colorful snake.
She hands the box over to Courtney. “Now keep up your end and do try to stop your friends from destroying too much.”
Courtney enters the lab downstairs to a scene of mini chaos. Broken glass, dust and overturned furniture. He sees Catherine sulking in the corner and Celeste carefully studying the remaining implements. “What did you learn Celeste?”
She doesn’t even look at him, fascinated by the equipment. “Well, I think I could replicate the setup with a bit of experimentation, it is really quite fascinating. I think it could even have wider uses than just dust manufacture. Oh, speaking of which Cat remind me later I want to perform an experiment using your animal forms and hallucinogens. It should be quite fascinating. In fact I have a theory that…”
Cat looks grateful as Courtney interrupts, “I mean what’s the best way to destroy this? What’s the most flammable thing here?”
“Oh? That? That’s the fine dust of course, very flammable in its finished stage, of course you would need to use a decent amount, too small and it wouldn’t be able to burn long or hot enough to ignite anything at all. If you will excuse me I need to make some notes.”
Celeste whips out a parchment and scribbles furiously as she leaves the room, muttering under her breathe. Courtney looks at Cat.
“Well best to get on with it then.”
Courtney starts piling dust in the center of the room.
“Not like that Ash, it will be better in small piles in several spots in the room. And we have to do the basement too.”
Despite Courtney’s veiled protestations Cat does a very thorough job of setting dust around.“Celeste can we have a bit of flame?” Cat calls through the open door.
Without even looking up from her notes Celeste lobs a fire dart into several of the small piles.
Celeste just nods and walks out of the now burning building.
As the group makes their way back to their safety Courtney pulls back Dain.
“Not a word about the deal, Celeste won’t care but you know how Cat can get. Our little secret ok?”
Courtney winks. Dain stares at Courtney and then nods.
“Ok guys, let’s take a break for a couple days then get back to Felix. I think we have all earned a break.”
“Yes, that sounds like a good idea.” Agrees Celeste. “Cat if you would I would like to run a couple of experiments on, I mean, by you.”
Cat looks at Celeste, she thinks it may be a good time to be scarce for the next couple of days.